On a desert island in the Salish Sea

September 02, 2023 – Did you ever want to spend a week on a desert island? Surrounded by nothing except the sights and sounds of untamed nature in all its glory? Well, you can, right here in our own “back yard.” It’s a scant couple of hours away from Qualicum Beach, but it’s a world apart.

Photo – Deborah Freeman

This small island is where nature goes to get away from it all.

Two intrepid local women recently spent a week there. Mother Nature didn’t disappoint, but it wasn’t always sunshine and roses… a moment of midnight terror and a couple of existential stand-offs punctuated the bucolic experience.

The island, smack dab in the middle of the Salish Sea, is half an hour by boat from the nearest civilization. That alone would be reason enough to tempt the world-weary traveller looking to reflect on life. But, there’s more.  

Photo – Deborah Freeman

Located in southwest British Columbia between Vancouver Island and the mainland, the island is situated at the point where tides flowing from the north and south ends of Vancouver Island meet, increasing the biological richness of the surrounding waters and providing food for seabirds and marine mammals.

The 35-hectare (86-acre) island contains many rare plant and animal species. Home to the largest seabird colony in the Salish Sea, the island is recognized internationally as an IBA (Important Bird Area).

The semi-arid island, tucked in the rain shadow of the mountains of Vancouver Island, has a unique and fragile ecosystem. Historically, the island has had an average yearly rainfall of less than 75 cm (30 in). That’s about half of the rainfall of the nearest communities on Vancouver Island such as Campbell River. It’s home to a species of cactus and some of the largest garter snakes in BC.

The island lies within the territories of the Coast Salish and Kwakwaka’wakw First Nations for whom it was, and remains, a traditional gathering site. They harvested eggs from the bird colony and camas bulbs from the meadows and, at one time, established fish weirs in one of the island’s bays, some of which can still be seen at low tide.

Mitlenatch Island Nature Park was established by the province of B.C. in 1961, and its “primary role is to protect a unique island ecosystem and its special natural features.”  

According to the BC Environment ministry, the secondary role of the park is to “provide opportunities for nature study and appreciation. During the summer months, volunteer hosts provide information and education to day visitors on appropriate behaviour on the island.”

It’s a trip

“Judy wakes me up in the middle of the night and says, ‘There’s a mouse staring right at me!’” laughs Deb Freeman as she and Judy Kemp recount their recent adventure. “The cabin is built on the side of a rock wall,” explains Judy, looking a bit chagrined, “and the mouse was running back and forth on the rock wall.”

Mitlenatch Island has fascinated Judy Kemp for years, ever since a friend described having visited the island with her family.

The public is restricted to visiting the park only on day-use basis, but research scientists and park stewards are permitted to overnight on the island. Small teams of volunteer stewards, park hosts, are permitted to spend a week on Mitlenatch Island from late spring through summer.

Park volunteers are organized under the auspices of the BC government and run by a non-profit group, the Mitlenatch Island Stewardship Team (MIST).

In 2022, Judy was thrilled when she was invited by MIST to be part of a park steward volunteer team that spring, in April. She invited Deborah Freeman, her friend and a noted wildlife and nature photographer, to join her.

They got a little more than they bargained for.

Judy with Pat, another member of the Mitlenatch Island Nature Park volunteer park stewards. Photo – Deborah Freeman

MIST arranges for a water taxi in Campbell River to take each team of volunteer park stewards to Mitlenatch Island. It’s about a 30-minute boat ride. Deb says that there’s lots of boat traffic in that area of the Salish Sea, along eastern Vancouver Island near the northern Gulf Islands.

The water taxi is “pretty cautious because it’s a difficult island to access tide-wise and storm-wise,” says Judy. “They won’t travel if it’s stormy, and the tide has to be high.”

Access to the island is by boat only but, says BC Environment, there are no docking facilities on Mitlenatch Island. This requires boaters “to anchor in the temporary calm-weather anchorages of Northwest Bay and Camp Bay.”

Arriving at the island, “There’s a dinghy that has to get out to the water taxi,” says Judy. “You have to get all the gear that you brought for the week into the dinghy, and then haul it up onto the rocks where there is a little cabin.” The camp site consists of an old two-room cabin and a Quonset-style tent structure.

Inside, “there’s propane, a camp stove and a little fridge,” says Judy. MIST arranges for set-up and take-down crews to prepare the camp site for each new team of park hosts. The cabin has a tiny bedroom with a big bed, grandly-named The Honeymoon Suite, and The Office, which features a cosy wood stove, something that proved handy on their first trip to Mitlenatch in 2022. “All the equipment for The Office is all set up,” she says, including a megaphone.

Working for the wilderness

Mitlenatch Island Nature Park is a 155-hectare park (36 ha upland and 119 ha foreshore) that contains many rare plant and animal species. Judy says, “It’s a privilege to go to a place like Mitlenatch.”

MIST volunteers “help maintain the integrity of the island.” Their role extends beyond hosting day-use visitors. These volunteer stewards are also “citizen scientists,” observing conditions and gathering data for the many studies being conducted on and around Mitlenatch Island by environmental scientists.

Predominant nesting bird species include glaucous-winged gulls (more than 3,000 pairs), pelagic cormorants, double-crested cormorants, pigeon guillemots, northwestern crows, black oystercatchers and rhinoceros auklets.

According to BC Environment, the island also serves as an important moulting site for post-breeding harlequin ducks and as foraging habitat during the summer for as many as 300 marbled murrelets, a nationally threatened species. Over 160 species of birds have been recorded on Mitlenatch Island.

In addition to being renowned as a nesting site, the island’s special features also include concentrations of seals and sea lions on the rocky reefs, and an “outstanding flowering meadow with rare plants.”

Park stewards monitor park use and visitor conduct, sometimes having to use a bullhorn to warn boaters or day-visitors of the rules and regulations.

[The] “seabird colonies and their breeding sites are vulnerable to adjacent activities (boating and commercial and sports fishing), overflights, human disturbance, and domesticated animals.”

Visitors must not remove anything from Mitlenatch Island Nature Park (e.g., flowers, bones, feathers, shells, stones…).

Mitlenatch Island Nature Park boundaries and protection extend 300m beyond the shoreline. Photo – Deborah Freeman

The only access is by boat, permitted at two bays. No boats are to land along the rocky shorelines on either side of both Camp Bay and Northwest Bay or at any point around the island. Oystercatchers and pigeon guillemots nest just above the high tideline. Boaters should enter into the middle of either bay to minimize wildlife disturbance and are responsible for their own boat and passengers. No domesticated animals are permitted on the island or foreshore. Dogs in particular can quickly create panic in a colony.

This is where the bullhorn comes in handy.

In July 2023, on their second stint as park hosts on Mitlenatch Island Nature Park, Deb says, “We noticed two boats in Cabin Bay take their dogs off the boats a bit of a distance from us. They let them have their poo and then get back on [their boats].”

“Often, people coming from afar have no idea of the sensitivity of the island,” says Judy. “The concern is that there is really crucial nesting habitat on either side of that bay and Parks BC is trying to keep any boat traffic away from all the nesting sites.” Deb agrees, and says this applies to anywhere along the Pacific Flyway route. “It’s a long migration, and these birds are starving. It’s not cool to let dogs go through nesting sites.”

This seal has just given birth. The silvery-white coloured pup can be seen just behind and to the left of its mother. At right, crows feast on the afterbirth left on the rocks.
Photo – Deborah Freeman

The park protects all sedentary marine life, including abalones, oysters, scallops and sea cucumbers in a 300 metre-wide band of foreshore, where collecting is not permitted. The area is a northern abalone reserve, “harvesting has been prohibited since the early 1970s,” according to BC Environment. It also protects numerous haulouts for harbour seals and northern and California sea lions, as well as provides habitat for river otters.

Marine regulations require boaters to stay 100 meters away from sea lions, a species that is sometimes the target of abuse and harm by boaters or fishers. “I’ve kayaked in Little Qualicum River out to the sea hundreds of times but, with one exception, have never had any issue with sea lions,” says Judy.

Cormorants nest on Mitlenatch Island’s basalt cliffs, bleaching the rocks with their guano. Photo – Deborah Freeman

The waters around Mitlenatch Island have also been declared a rockfish conservation area. According to Fisheries and Oceans Canada, “inshore rockfish, especially within the inland waters of Vancouver Island, are at low levels of abundance.”

The rockfish conservation area is surprisingly large, running about half way to Quadra Island, halfway to Hernando Island and halfway to Vancouver Island. There is no fishing whatsoever in the rockfish conservation area. That includes salmon fishing.

Mother Nature

Deb, the nature and wildlife photographer, was in her element.

“I’m sitting on the beach looking at the shore birds,” Deb says. She noticed a bunch of crows congregating at one spot. “So, I’m thinking, there’s something going on down there. I walk over with my camera and a seal is looking at me. She’s covered in blood. Then it hit me – she’s giving birth!”

Deb backed off but managed to get a few shots with the help of her telephoto lens. Later after the mother and pup left, she and Judy went to look at the afterbirth, the object of the crows’ attention. They were startled to see that the baby seal had been covered in fur at birth, a condition called lanugo. “It looked like [the fur of] a dog, like someone had brushed their dog,” she says.

Visitors can hike the trail up the hill from Northwest Bay for a rare treat, watching the glaucous-winged gull nesting colony through a blind. The birds are just a few yards away on the other side of the blind. The feeding frenzy is something to behold, as is the cacophony in the air.

“The gull will put its head down and the chick will go to the beak, which ‘twigs’ in the gull a reaction to regurgitate the food. She explains that the chicks aim for a red dot on the parent’s beak. It’s an amazing thing to see up close like that,” says Deb.

It’s also a horror show of sorts. Eagles would wheel across the nesting sites. Deb describes getting a shot of an eagle grabbing a chick, and the photo shows the chicks mouth open as the eagle carries it away. “It’s dramatic!” They also watched as river otters carried chicks away. “It’s all like a symphony,” says Deb “how it all works together.”

The day Judy and Deb arrived on Mitlenatch Island, they counted 16 chicks in one area. On the last day of their 2023 visit, “only 4 to 6 chicks were left,” says Judy.

But delightful moments stand out too. “There were oystercatcher chicks there and I’ve never seen them before,” says Deb. “I’ve seen lots of them mate around Nanoose but I’ve never seen their chicks. She has also never seen so many pigeon guillemots in her life, “a lot of them with chicks. They have red beaks and red feet, they’re kind of cute.”

A week on Mitlenatch Island “is like being parachuted into a nature paradise,” says Judy. But their inaugural trip in April 2022 was another trip altogether.

Nasty weather prevented the water taxi from being able to pick up the team of volunteer park stewards as scheduled. In addition to the stormy weather at the time, says Judy “there’s quite a bit of current there.”  

Fortunately, one team member had brought extra food. Very fortunate, because they were stranded on the island for three more days!

Sea lion and young pup. Photo – Deborah Freeman

Last year, Judy and Deb were staying in the tent. They had hoped to stay in the cabin but those accommodations were taken by other team members. However, the wood stove in The Office came in handy to cut the chill, says Judy.

This year they got the cabin… the Honeymoon Suite, complete with mouse running back and forth along the “feature” rock wall. Judy and Deb promptly abandoned their luxurious digs in favour of the tent for the duration of their stay.

Ahhhh, nature.

To make a donation or inquire about becoming a volunteer park steward, contact MIST, the Mitlenatch Island Stewardship Team (MIST).