With a permanent population of 4000, Gabriola Island is the third most populous island on the coast of British Columbia. And while Gabriola Island has been on the beaten track of intrepid Spanish explorers since the late-18th Century, it does not get as much tourist traffic as many of the other islands in Georgia Strait. Gabriola is no less fascinating and a quick burn around the island by bicycle can even be undertaken as a day trip from Vancouver. While Gabriola Island may be a bit large for some people, at 29 km, a circle tour of the island on foot is not out of the question over a long weekend.

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The less ambitious can tap into local knowledge through Gabriola Island Taxi [250-247-0049 Hours: 6am - 2am], getting a lift and the lowdown at the same time. This rural island is perfect cycling territory however, and as such, the description below has been optimized for cyclists.

From downtown Vancouver pedal west along Georgia Street, through Stanley Park, across the Lion's Gate Bridge and follow the picturesque Lower Levels route along Marine Drive to Horseshoe Bay. [Non-peddlers should refer to Appendix: Getting to Horseshoe Bay.] Hop the ferry to Nanaimo and, after disembarking at Departure Bay, follow the noxious fumes out of the ferry terminal to Stewart Avenue. You should notice Sealand Public Market immediately on your left. From the foreshore here follow the seawall to the Gabriola Island ferry dock just beyond the Bastion, a historic Hudson's Bay Company fort and prominent landmark in downtown Nanaimo. Foot passengers can follow the same pleasant urban walkway or grab a cab at the ferry terminal and cover the same distance in 10 to 15 minutes for $10 or so. The Nanaimo Seaporter is a shuttle service that connects Nanaimo's four ferry terminals: Departure Bay, Newcastle Island, Gabriola Island and Duke Point. Though a good idea deserving our patronage, the service is a bit undependable at present.

The rocks at Gabriola's United Church site come alive in the afternoon sun. Many of the petroglyphs are nearly invisible at other times of day. Step lightly and stay on the grass.

Though the ferry schedule to Gabriola Island seems to change frequently, and some might say mysteriously, the service is generally good, running hourly from approximately 6 in the morning to 11 at night. For the most up-to-date schedule click: Nanaimo Harbour to Gabriola Island. The ferry typically covers the 7 km crossing in 20 to 25 minutes. As with many of the smaller ferries on the west coast, the fare you pay includes the return voyage.

Island Time

Once on terra firma again climb the hill, taking the first left you come to. If planning to camp you'll find waterfront tent sites less than a kilometre along Taylor Bay Road. Operated by Nanaimo and District Credit Union, Gabriola Island Camping is well-maintained and conveniently-located. The foreshore here alone can provide many hours of exploration at low tide. Photo enthusiasts especially will appreciate the endless opportunities provided by Gabriola's unique sandstone formations.

Visitors can also pitch a tent at Page's Resort Marina on the opposite end of the island. These latter campsites have been established for the benefit of mariners and are not so conveniently-situated for landlubbers.

Since you probably arrived at midday or later confine your explorations to the northern tip of the island on the first day. After losing your load at the campsite continue along Taylor Bay Road a further kilometre or so until you come to Malaspina Drive at the foot of which you'll find the renowned Malaspina Galleries. These wind and wave-sculpted sandstone formations even caught the eye of Spanish explorers Galiano and Valdes in 1792. Commander Galiano's sketch of these geological features was found in an old trunk in the Museum of Madrid 100 years after he drew it.

Mode of Expression

No need to decry the latter-day pictographs, graffiti that has been slopped all over these natural wonders. Instead consider it an inadvertent statement: nature's best juxtaposed with humanity's worst: yin & wanker; beauty & the Butthead; Bambi meets Godzilla perhaps. Since erosion is proceeding rapidly by geological standards, most of the paint has been sandblasted away leaving an embossed effect. The Galleries are a favourite hang out of local youths who while away the summer months baking in the reflected sunlight inside the Galleries and diving off the top into the deep waters below. Their carefree lifestyle should be the envy of every city slicker who visits the island.

From Malaspina Galleries the beach will take amblers on to Gabriola Sands Provincial Park during all but the highest tides while cyclists should stick with the road. A short distance past Malaspina Drive, Taylor Bay Road ends in a dirt track. The main road abruptly changes name and direction leading another half kilometre to a small shopping mall where the essentials, wine and cheese, can be obtained. In addition to grocery and liquor stores the Twin Beaches Shopping Centre is home to a deli, second hand store, hair salon and auto dealership.

Son of a Beach

Across the road you'll find the entrance to Gabriola Sands Provincial Park. Locally known as Twin Beaches, this popular picnic area occupies a narrow spit with sandy beaches on either side. Leave bikes behind to explore the foreshore beyond the park where more of Gabriola's famous sandstone formations will be found. By road follow DeCourcy Road to Tinson Point and look for dedicated beach access routes between the cottages.

From Twin Beaches Shopping Centre the main drag continues on to Berry Point over a road of the same name. The expansive beach at Orlebar Point, as Berry Point is officially gazetted, is the perfect place for picking, of all things, blackberries. Picnicking and exploring tidal pools are popular pursuits as well. Later in the day snuggle into a sandstone chair to catch the sunset. Wine and cheese, anyone?

Watering Holes

On the way back to your campsite you may be tempted to stop in at the nearby Surf Lodge pub. Closer to camp, burgers and brew can also be had at the White Hart Pub overlooking the ferry landing at Descano Bay. Those staying at Page's Marine Resort will want to quench their thirst at the Bitter End Pub at Silva Bay Resort. Arrive early to get a patio seat. Those who have been camping on the island a bit too long will be edified to know that Silva Bay Resort has pay showers in addition to fine ale. Though Page's and Silva Bay Resort are adjacent to each other as the crow flies getting there follows quite a roundabout route as the road goes.

Though many have been beguiled by the notion that "Gabriola" is derived from the Spanish gaviota for "seagull," the actual etymology may be somewhat less fitting. According to Captain John T. Walbran, BC's foremost authority on coastal place names, Gabriola is simply a corruption of a Spanish surname. In 1791 Jose Maria Narvaez labelled the eastern end of the island Punta de Gaviola or Gaviola Point. Through usage over the ensuing centuries the name came to include the whole island.

Rock Carvings

Gabriola is sometimes also called "Petroglyph Island" for the simple reason that it is one of just four important concentrations of petroglyphs in British Columbia. Quadra Island, Prince Rupert Harbour and a collection of sites on the mid-Fraser River share that distinction. To date nearly 80 petroglyphs have been uncovered on the island, many quite recently. As the island develops the past is steadily being uncovered. No doubt many more of these rock carvings lay hidden under a patina of moss.

While some of the petroglyphs may have been carved during post-European times, others are thought to date back some 2000 years or more. Though petroglyphs tend to depict a pantheon of mythical beings, a cross between the temporal and imaginative realms, little is known of their purpose, use and significance. While some have suggested that they are simply prehistoric graffiti most archaeologists agree this ancient art form expresses something far deeper than "Joe loves Sue," or "Grad 99."

To take in Gabriola's petroglyphs stop first at the local museum. While there are no actual petroglyphs here there are plenty of reproductions which, unlike the real thing, can be explored in tactile fashion. To make a quick and easy wall-hanging place a square of artist's canvas over the casting and rub it with conté, graphite or even chalk. When finished spray the rubbing with fixative and mount it on something stiff like plywood or particle-board.

Making T-Shirts

Though many of the petroglyphs are quite large some are the perfect size to fit on a T-shirt. Using a product like Pentel's FabricFun™ Pastel Dye Sticks, available at art shops, first make a rubbing with the waxy crayons, pressing hard to push the dye deep into the fabric. The dye must be set with a hot iron before washing or wearing your creation.

To get to the museum follow South Road away from the ferry dock past the Agricultural Hall where, incidentally, a colourful Farmers' Market is held every Saturday [10 AM to 2 PM] from May through September. The museum will be found just a few pedal pumps further on.

South Road continues eastward through a quiet forest landscape, passing a golf course before it begins descending a steep, 18% grade to sea level once again. Be sure to keep your speed under control on the downhill section as a sharp S-bend at the bottom could spell disaster for a runaway bike. As the road levels out you'll find Brickyard Beach off to the right. Red brick fragments attest to the brick-making operation that thrived here from 1895 until the end of World War II. The flat lowlands provide access to a number of other beaches as well. At Stokes Road, cut past the Pioneer Cemetery to reach the tidal flats along False Narrows. Each spring seals, sea lions and eagles congregate here in the narrow passage between Gabriola Island and adjacent Mudge Island. A healthy population of resident great blue herons can usually be seen foraging at the waters edge year-round. The Community Hall just beyond Stokes Road is site of the salmon barbecue held every August.

A further 2 km down South Road behind the United Church at Price Road you'll find a large collection of petroglyphs. The short trail to the site is well-marked though the ancient rock carvings themselves are not easily discernible. Avoid walking on any of the sandstone outcroppings here as nearly every surface has been incised with shamanistic doodles. Thus far 56 petroglyphs have been identified at the United Church site which was once likely an important religious place for a radically different denomination.

Probably other carvings lurk just below the thin covering of grass and moss but no doubt you will agree that they are best left as they are once you witness the tourists stomping across these sacred images. Or as an archeologist acquaintance once said perhaps they should all be covered with a layer of plastic and several tons of concrete until the human race can grow up enough to fully appreciate their significance. Like many other such sites in British Columbia you'll even find fresh graffiti scratched into the rocks here. Is there a genetic impulse to be a dork? The best time to visit the United Church site is in the early evening when the tourists are busy chomping mushroom burgers and the sun is low. As the shadows lengthen the hitherto invisible carvings spring to life filling the forest with echoes of a distant time. Price Road itself leads to another secluded beach. From Price turn right onto Island View Drive then take a left on Grilse Road, veering right again when you reach Spring Beach Drive and continuing until you reach the beach parking area.

Yet another beach will be found less than a kilometre beyond the chapel. Turn right at Cooper Road and take an immediate left on Gray Road at the foot of which you'll find a pleasant beach on the shores of Degnen Bay. This is one of the best spots to launch kayaks and small boats.

South Road begins to climb once again but the side excursions have not quite finished. Pause a moment as well to sample the blackberries that grow in abundance along both sides of the road. Look for baby lambs frolicking at Gray's Farm in the spring. Degnen Bay Road leads to a government wharf and pay phone. The petroglyph of a dolphin-like creature carved into a sandstone shelf at the head of Degnen Bay is a must-see but is best accessed via Martin Road across from Gossip Corner. The skeletal representation encased by the creature's outline is thought by some to signify death or passage beyond this world to another. The solitary image can only be viewed when the tide is very low. One of the early residents of Gabriola Island, Frank Degnen, reportedly deepened the outline in a misguided attempt to enhance the glyph.

Twenty hectare Drumbeg Provincial Park is also well worth a visit. Follow Coast Road then Stalker Road for nearly two kilometres before reaching Drumbeg Bay at the southeast corner of the island. The foreshore is comprised of a couple small gravel beaches dominated by low sandstone bluffs topped with garry oak. The park overlooks a sweeping bay studded with low rocks where sea lions sometimes congregate. As the extensive midden here suggests Drumbeg Bay was once an important seasonal encampment of the Coast Salish. On one occasion here we had the good fortune to witness close at hand a river otter grooming itself by rubbing face and body over a patch of freshly exposed seaweed.

At low tide it is possible to follow the beach as far north as the mouth of Silva Bay though cliffs prevent access to the marinas beyond. Once back on South Road, continue climbing past a pastoral sheep farm until you reach a quaint log church. Both Catholic and Anglican parishes have sought solace for the soul at the chapel since 1912. Across the road at Silva Bay Marina they are serving up sin in the form of frosty mugs of draft and better than average pub food. The truly devilish may want to bypass the holy Eucharist and head straight for the yam chips.

At Silva Bay the road switches gears with up becoming down. South Road becomes North Road, a generally straight route that leads down through "the tunnel," lengthy sections of forest that arch over the road. Watch for deer along the road, particularly in the early morning or early evening or after a shower. Barrett Road is the turn off to 12 hectare Sandwell Provincial Park. The road drops steeply at an 18% grade through many twists and turns. Be prepared to make a left at Bluewater Road then an immediate left onto Bond Street at the bottom of which you'll take another left onto The Strand which leads directly to the park itself.

From the parking lot a short, 650 metre forest footpath leads to the beach. Just before reaching the flat shoreline note the giant boulder garden. Evidence of an ancient midden left behind by the island's original inhabitants can also be seen. Facilities are minimal at Sandwell Beach, just outhouses and a couple picnic tables. Birding enthusiasts may spot something of interest in the marsh just behind the beach. The beach itself is a delightful dark sand arc which is often deserted or nearly so. Sandwell Park, which was created in 1988, looks out across Lock Bay towards the Entrance Island Lighthouse and beyond to the mainland. The beach is home to three more petroglyphs. Two will be found above the high tide mark on a large boulder with a concave top. The carvings of simplistic faces may be obscured by driftwood logs piled up during winter storms. The third petroglyph will be found nearby and may have post-European origins. The excessive depth of the carvings suggests that a metal tool may have been used while the content, a hunter chasing down a deer, is unusual in coastal British Columbia suggesting an era of greater communication or even a European hand at work.

The End

Skunk Cabbage

Skunk Cabbage

Though not in themselves palatable, skunk cabbage leaves had a zillion uses around the aboriginal kitchen. The unusually large leaves were ideal for lining and covering containers, lining steam pits, making fruit leather and sun drying seafood. Bears are known to bung themselves up by ingesting copious quantities of mud just prior to settling in for that long winter nap. Come springtime they seek out the laxative properties of skunk cabbage to -- stand back -- flush the system.

Illustration by Manami Kimura