Get Some Island Time: Quadra Island and Cortes Island, British Columbia, Canada

How time flies. Almost 20 years past, I spent numerous days bike touring on Quadra Island and Cortes Island, located east of Campbell River on Vancouver Island. I returned on my loaded touring bike for 3 days and 2 nights in January this year. I wanted to explore a little further, to see how things might have changed, to camp again at Smelt Bay Provincial Park, and to test some fond memories of the islands.

The photo above is of Quathiaski Cove Harbour on the west coast of Quadra Island, where the BC ferry from Campbell River docks after a short 3-kilometre, 10-minute ride – you can just see the ferry dock on the left. Ferries depart almost hourly for most of the day. Just up from the picturesque harbour are some shops and a fine coffee shop.

Get Some Island Time: Quadra Island and Cortes Island, British Columbia, Canada

Route map, Quadra and Cortes Ride. Not a long-distance ride (~40 kms per day), but enough island scenery and sharp little hills to make things memorable.

It was a short bike ride across Quadra Island to Heriot Bay, where one catches the ferry to more distant Whaletown on west Cortes Island (12km, 40 minutes), but I wanted to see more of Quadra, so I ventured north on a side trip, looping 40km to Granite Bay and on to Main Lake Provincial Park. There was enough climbing up and down to really get my attention.

I passed signs for a number of hiking trailheads – I must return! – and camped on my first night at a recreation site located on the shores of Main Lake. As it was winter, there was no one about, and it really was beautiful. The provincial park also has 7 wilderness campsites on Main Lake that are only accessible by boat.

Get Some Island Time: Quadra Island and Cortes Island, British Columbia, Canada

My campsite at dusk on a misty night along Main Lake, NE Quadra Island.

Quadra Island was named after an 18th-century Spanish navigator. The island is about 300 square kilometres, with a population of fewer than 3,000 people. There are lots of popular beaches, lakes and parks, as well as artisans, upscale resorts and lodges, and many residents who commute to Campbell River. Cortes Island is smaller, about 130 square kilometres, with a population of over 1,000. Forestry, fishing and mining have featured in the history of both Quadra and Cortes, but coarse soils do not favour farming on the islands.

There are a number of First Nations peoples on the islands, such as the Southern Kwakiutl of Cape Mudge Reserve on south Quadra Island, who are part of the broader Kwakwaka’wakw grouping.

Get Some Island Time: Quadra Island and Cortes Island, British Columbia, Canada

I’m sure there’s a story here. From a stump along the road to Granite Bay, north Quadra.

From Whaletown on Cortes, I headed across the island to Squirrel Cove, then south past the village of Manson’s Landing to Smelt Bay Provincial Park at the southern tip of the island. I noticed that car drivers on Cortes almost always waved at me. An old timer I shared coffee with at Squirrel Cove told me that Quadra had been the same way until just a decade ago. Attributing the change to the influence of money flowing in, he was considering pulling up stakes and heading farther out into the more remote Discovery Islands.

Smelt Bay Provincial Park did not disappoint; a fine elongated park situated along a great walking beach facing out on the Strait of Georgia. Cormorants stalk the tides and sea lions glide past in the early evening. The recently-upgraded campground offers 24 very nice campsites that are set up and back from the shoreline.

Get Some Island Time: Quadra Island and Cortes Island, British Columbia, Canada

Approaching Smelt Bay Provincial Park. Well worth the return visit.

So, what were my impressions? Well, I definitely got the vibe of island time, and a more rustic lifestyle and location. The outing somewhat turned into a trip of unintentional little indulgences, as I stopped repeatedly for coffee and snacks as I managed my time between ferry connections. One does gain a sense on the islands of getting well away from the rush and bustle of the city, and I really liked the charming way that most motorists on Cortes waved at visitors.

Both of my campgrounds were great, at Main Lake and Smelt Bay. I’ve already made plans to return with a gang of friends for another visit to Smelt Bay in June. This is a road trip that is recommended for everyone, whether a cyclist or vehicle traveller.

By Gregg Strong
Backroads Bike Touring, Vancouver, BC

Credit: All photos by Gregg Strong
Top Featured Photo: Quathiaski Cove Harbour, west Quadra Island, on a beautiful winter day.