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Gulf Islands Camping: A Voyage of Discovery

Updated: Mar 9, 2023

It’s so near, but takes you so far. That’s the theme of exploration in Blue Jellyfish SUP’s three-day, two-night camping trip on the Salish Sea.

Our Journey

This summer’s trip to Portland Island, just a few kilometres off Sidney, BC, gently pushed some boundaries while passing on valuable lessons about navigating coastal waters and planning routes based on wind, weather, tides, currents and ferry crossings. The big takeaway in this Gulf Island camping trip was the magnificent marine world a few hours paddling away. It’s exciting to know that with SUP camping out of Canoe Cove Marina you are taking your first strokes on the Salish Sea Marine Trail.

The Experience

Blue Jellyfish SUP Adventures provides an introduction to Gulf Islands camping that can be simply joyful or, with that joy, offer a certification for Paddle Canada Coastal Touring Level I Skills. Trip leader, Pam Martin, is a certified Paddle Canada SUP Basic and Advanced Instructor as well as a Paddle Canada Coastal Touring Instructor.

The SUP adventure to Portland Island included two nights of self-supported camping. We piled our gear in EcoCruising’s water taxi at Canoe Cove and after a half-hour trip skipper Chris Taylor gently nosed the craft onto the glistening beach where we unloaded and picked tent sites on the large, partly treed Shell Beach Campground.

The biggest part of our load was water. Portland has no portable water, so we carried several large containers to cover three days. Luckily the campground was easy on the eyes and the shore was dazzlingly white from the water. It is separated by a short narrows from smaller Brachman Island with Salt Spring Island looming across Satellite Channel. There is a well-maintained pit toilet a short walk up the trail which traces Portland’s coast, several picnic tables and animal-proof lockers to store our food. It's a highly-social spot with hikers and kayakers stopping to picnic, chat and pass on tips for our circumnavigation, which happened sooner than expected.

Planning The Route

The group was eager to get on the water, but first Pam took everyone through a tutorial on route planning using tools to assess weather and winds, tides, currents and potential ferry traffic. The plan was for a shorter introductory paddle but the August day was flawless and turned into a clockwise island circling, with Pam checking for any indications that conditions could change.


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Portlands' History

Portland, also known as Margaret Island, is part of Gulf Islands National Park Reserve and has a Royal pedigree. It was given to Princess Margaret in 1958 during a Royal visit and the Princess gave it the British Columbia government in 1967, Canada’s Centennial year.

Portland was one of several Gulf Islands settled by Hawaiian immigrants who farmed and fished in the region. This was the product of Hawaiian men lured to North America’s west coast beginning in the late 1700s to work for the Hudson’s Bay Company. They began moving to places like Portland in the early 1850s and when the Canada-U.S. border was settled in the late 1850s many more moved north to enjoy English citizenship. They established some of the eight abandoned orchards which were studied by Parks Canada archaeologists and cultural workers in order to gain a glimpse into the lives of early settlers in the region.

Another piece of island history, a colourful retired British Army officer tried to establish a horse racing industry on the island.General Frank (One Arm) Sutton bought the island in the late 1920s with a small fortune won betting on Chinese horse racing. He set up a thoroughbred breeding operation that unfortunately failed but occasionally even today hikers will blunder on a grown over stretch of the racetrack he had built.

Nature Tells Their Stories

From the water, the group saw shell-midden beaches, evidence of First Nations’ settlements. The fruit trees, rose bushes and other garden plants visitors may see speak of the Hawaiian immigrants who farmed there. The resident bald eagles, mink and otters kept to themselves as we skirted cliffs draped with arbutus trees and poked our SUP noses into small coves.

A Look Into Each Day

As always, Pam stressed safety, knowledge and navigation, and the rugged coast provided a brilliant backdrop for learning and exploring. It was an excellent first lesson to begin the process of having participants confidently and safely setting off on their own paddling adventures in the future.

Day #1

The first night was a leisurely dinner at picnic tables and then a long and glorious

sunset over Salt Spring Island with a well-earned sleep to follow.

Day #2

The second day presented more ideal conditions except for the draining heat, which provoked weather warnings. So we slathered on the sunscreen, donned the proper headwear and loaded up with water. This circumnavigation, counter-

clockwise this time, was another visual smorgasbord with the cool water mitigating the searing temperature. We passed Princess Bay, which has a boat anchorage and campground with 12 sites, and spent plenty of time sitting, legs dangling in the water, before a snack break and scouting of Arbutus Point campground. The rugged, six-campsite location is heavily treed and has several lovely vantage points over the water. Best of all was the new toilet building, an upgrade from the pit variety!

The group was blessed with another brilliant sunset and drained by the scorching paddle and sensory overload. In the evening we crashed in our tents as soon as the sun dropped over Salt Spring.

Day #3

The most challenging day as we would load our boards up and negotiate the front-heavy SUPs back to Canoe Cove. This meant paddling against a developing wind and dealing with ferry traffic on another blistering day.Meticulous planner Pam ran the group through the variables at play this day, then conducted a clinic on lashing up to 60 pounds, (27.2 kilograms) of equipment and gear on the SUP noses. A cargo crisis was the last thing anyone wanted as we timed ferry crossings of Shute and Colburne Passages. Armed with a spool of stretchy bungee cord and carabiners, Pam demonstrated how to secure our sundry gear, then checked and corrected how we balanced and bound our stuff fast to the boards.

Our Travels Back to Civilization

Then we were off and it was goodbye Portland, how are ya Piers Island en route and hello Canoe Cove as the wind stiffened and Pam triple-checked ferry routes and timetables. We too “ferried,” gauging how the northwest wind was pushing us and compensating for it by aiming at a landmark on Piers well right of where we wanted to be, knowing how the wind would drive us to the left.

For newbies to inter island crossings across busy ferry routes with a big load up front, this was both an anxious and exciting voyage ratcheted up by the heat and harder work moving the boards. It was rewarding covering that 2.5-kilometre crossing and snuggling close to Piers before another 2.5-kilometre push across busy Colburne Passage, the route of all traffic into Swartz Bay ferry terminal. We idled and, with no one actually saying it, imagined a massive ferry like the 550-foot long Spirit of British Columbia bearing down on us. Luckily Pam had a clear understanding of routes and after final visuals we headed to Iroquois Passage at Goudge Island, bunched together so we’d be seen by any unexpected traffic.

It felt like a kind of breathless, exciting sprint, even on the laden-down boards, but was uneventful except for the searing sun. Still, it was nice to tuck around smaller islands and relax on the final approach to Canoe Cove.The entire experience drew great reviews.


”Checked something big off of my bucket list this summer. I had been wanting to do a multi-day SUP trip for a long time. Paddling out and around Portland Island with Pam and the Blue Jellyfish SUP Adventures crew was awesome!"

“I learned a ton about packing a board, paddling on the ocean with a fully loaded board, along with tides, currents, wind, weather, ferry schedules (and how big the ferry wake is), and even a few emergency recovery moves."

”I can’t recommend Pam and Blue Jellyfish highly enough.”

Planning for the future

We are busy reflecting on all of the adventures we have had and what's to come. As we push the limits every year, we begin to feel more comfortable going a little further away from our comfort zone. It is never too late to begin planning and putting everything in place for those adventures. If a multiday SUP trip something you have been wanting to try, we already have dates for the Gulf Islands Camping expedition in summer 2022. If you want dibs on the dates that work best for you - sign up here.

The SUP camping trip mentioned in this post is perfect for paddleboarders who want to explore coastal areas and enjoy multi-day overnight stays. You can learn more about this Gulf Island Coastal Camping Expedition here.

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