Book excerpt: Cycling the Islands

John Crouch is an athlete and writer who has published three successful guidebooks: Bike Victoria, Walk Victoria and Hike Victoria, along with a memoir, Six Highways to Home: A Cycling Journey from Whitehorse to Victoria. Crouch’s physical and athletic pursuits embrace several disciplines. As a hiker and climber he has summited Mount Rainier, Mount Whitney, Mount Baker and Vancouver Island’s highest peak, the Golden Hinde. As an athlete, he has competed in 16 marathons and countless shorter races. His accomplishments include winning the World Endurance Duathlon Championship in the 60-plus age category in Holland in 2001 and coming second in the 2007 event in Richmond, Virginia. The following excerpt from John’s most recent book, Cycling the Islands: A Guide to Scenic Routes on the San Juan and Gulf Islands, provides some the history behind both sets of islands.

The Islands

The string of islands cradled in the southern waters of the Salish Sea off the coast of British Columbia and Washington state form one of the West Coast’s most beautiful and appealing archipelagos. But the vagaries of politics and history divided this homogeneous island cluster into two separate groups — the American San Juan Islands and the Canadian Gulf Islands — a story we’ll get to.

article continues below

The San Juans comprise four main islands, the largest of which is Orcas Island. San Juan is the next in size, with Lopez Island third. Shaw Island is by far the smallest of the group.

The Gulf Islands are the bigger of the two groups, consisting of eight islands. Like the San Juans, the group is known for those islands that are serviced by a ferry system. The largest of the Gulf Islands is Salt Spring Island. Gabriola Island, though less than half Salt Spring’s size, is the second largest. Galiano Island is third with the remaining five — Pender, Saturna, Mayne, Denman and Hornby (the latter two the most northerly of this group) — being of similar but smaller size.

But how come two sets of islands? Here’s how it happened.

Back in 1859 it was a silly matter of a pig being in the wrong place that plunged the ownership of the San Juan Islands into doubt — were they British (Canada was but a colony then) or part of the United States? The story goes that in the summer of that year, an American settler on San Juan Island shot dead a boar belonging to a Brit because the beast had invaded his garden. This incident was the final straw in a simmering territorial dispute between the British and the Americans. Both had troops on the island and both claimed sovereignty over it.

Although the garden standoff ended peacefully, it took 13 years (1859-72) before an arbiter, Kaiser Wilhelm I of Germany, settled affairs by deciding that San Juan and its surrounding islands were indeed part of the United States of America.

This fact of geopolitics — and the rather tortuous zigzag boundary line that now delineates the Canada-U.S. border, slicing through this large group of islands — does not detract from the islands’ allure and attraction for anyone who sets eyes on them. The islands’ craggy shorelines, protective bays, rising headlands and interior heights and valleys, and their mild, Mediterranean-type climate, are all strong enticements for us to go, with our bikes, and discover, explore and savour a landscape and a way of life that are the envy of many an urbanite.

Not that the islands don’t have settlements. They do. “Rural enclaves” is how one islander described them. But for the most part, the islands are lightly populated. The largest settlement is Friday Harbor on San Juan Island. It has a compact town centre and its own coffee-bean-roasting company and brew pub. So, too, does Salt Spring Island’s Ganges, the largest community on the Gulf Islands. In fact, all the islands are peopled with enterprising folk who have optimized their artisanal skills and predilections to make each island an interesting and stimulating artistic and cultural environment.

As Edward Abbey, one of America’s most respected naturalists, wrote in Desert Solitaire: “A man on foot, on horseback or on a bicycle will see more, enjoy more in one mile than the motorized tourist can in a hundred miles.” And that’s just one reason to explore the bucolic, peaceful and extraordinary variety of places and people that define the islands.

 The San Juan Islands 

The Pacific Northwest has been home to indigenous peoples for millennia. The Coast Salish First Nations used the San Juan Islands as a base from which to fish and harvest shellfish; they held gatherings on them and generally enjoyed themselves there. They knew a good place when they saw it, and their impeccable judgment continues to show us “moderns” where the beautiful places are today. In fact, the islands are often listed as being some of America’s most desirable places to live.

Early white settlement of the islands didn’t begin until the 1850s, when a trickle of British trappers and shepherds landed. Others were disillusioned American prospectors returning from B.C.’s Cariboo and Fraser Canyon gold rushes. These folks arrived in the midst of the enmity between the British and the Americans over ownership of the islands.

Once that was settled, the islands became calmer — but only just. Because of the islands’ strategic location, slap between the shores of Washington state and British Columbia, they became useful to smugglers and rum-runners as places to conduct their illicit trades. Despite this “bad blood,” the majority of settlers were honest, hardworking farmers, fishers and tradespeople.

But how to explain why three of the islands have Spanish names? Well, the region’s early European explorers were predominantly British and Spanish. Both nations were colonizers and extraordinarily curious about the Pacific Coast, especially the waters of Puget Sound and the southern coast of British Columbia. Spanish explorer Francisco de Eliza, after charting the islands in the late 1700s, named both the group of islands and San Juan Island itself after his boss, the viceroy of Mexico, Juan Vicente de Güemes Padilla Horcasitas y Aguayo, the second count of Revillagigedo, affectionately known as “San Juan.”

One of Eliza’s officers — Gonzales López de Haro — was the first to clap eyes on the islands. He was honoured by having his name given to Lopez Island and to the body of water now known as Haro Strait.

Orcas Island’s name is derived not from that magnificent creature the orca whale but from an abbreviated form of the viceroy of Mexico’s name, Horcasitas.

The fourth and smallest of the group, Shaw Island, was named, unromantically, after an American naval officer.

British explorers did leave their mark in the region. The name Strait of Georgia was given by Capt. George Vancouver for the British monarch King George III. Vancouver Island was named after George Vancouver.

The Gulf Islands

The naming of the Gulf Islands was a mistake — a misnomer. In 1792, when Vancouver was exploring the southern reaches of Vancouver Island, he thought he was sailing in a body of water that had no exit, a dead end. He described it by the usual nautical term, a gulf. He was wrong. He was, in fact, navigating a strait — a stretch of water connecting two larger bodies of water such as a sea or ocean. But the islands’ name has stuck, their physical beauty and appeal reducing the name to a convenience.

For thousands of years, the islands have been home to the indigenous peoples of the region. They are known as the Coast Salish First Nations and the most prolific residue of their occupation is middens — shell piles that surrounded their summer camps. (Today, the Tsawout First Nation has reserve land near Fulford Harbour.)

The Gulf Islands’ modern history, while not as militaristic as the San Juans’, is just as colourful. About the time the San Juans were being infiltrated by American and British troops, the southern Gulf Islands were experiencing their own influx of outsiders. The great gold rushes of the Cariboo and Fraser Canyon were at their height in the mid-1800s, and the Gulf Islands, situated as they are between Vancouver Island and the Fraser River, were a staging area for prospectors and hangers-on as they prepared to head north. Miners Bay on Mayne Island is a name from that era. The island built a jailhouse to cope with the occasional mayhem that the miners caused.

In the late 1850s, Salt Spring Island became a haven for black Americans escaping racism. Australian, English, Hawaiian, Irish, Japanese, Portuguese, Scandinavian and Scottish immigrants also made their way to the islands in the latter part of the 19th century, and vestiges of their homesteads and orchards are found almost everywhere. The 1960s saw many American men escaping to the islands to avoid the draft during the Vietnam War.

Spanish explorers of the area left their mark in the names they gave to islands, bays and bodies of water — just as in the San Juans. Galiano Island is named after the late-18th-century Spanish naval officer Dionisio Alcalá Galiano, as is the island’s north-end marine park, Dionisio Point Provincial Park. Saturna Island is named after the Spanish vessel Santa Saturnina, captained, in 1791, by José María Narváez. His name is given to the island’s lovely south-end bay. The Spanish word for seagull — gaviota — is thought to be at the root of Gabriola Island’s name. The island’s Malaspina Galleries and Descanso Bay also show its Spanish connections.

The more familiar British names of other islands come from naval officers of Royal Navy survey ships plying the area in the mid-1800s. Pender Island was named for Daniel Pender, a hydrographic surveyor on HMS Plumper. That vessel’s captain, George Richards, named Mayne Island for his lieutenant, Richard Charles Mayne. Captain Richards also named Denman Island after another of his colleagues, Rear Admiral Joseph Denman.

Hornby has a more complicated naming. The Spanish pipped the British in naming the island by over half a century. In 1791 the Spanish called the island Isla de Lerena. But in 1850 the British usurped the island’s Spanish name, renaming it Hornby Island after one of its own explorers, Rear Admiral Phipps Hornby.

From Cycling the Islands: A Guide to Scenic Routes on the San Juan and Gulf Islands © John Crouch, 2016, Rocky Mountain Books.

Read Related Topics

© Copyright Times Colonist

Most Popular