These islands, part of the chain of 6,000 islands that shelter the British Columbia coastline between Washington and Alaska, lie beyond the quick-access range of Vancouver and Victoria. Located between Campbell River and the mainland of British Columbia, the Discovery Islands dot the intricate waterways in some of the most spectacular scenery in the world.
Visitors will find that the farther north in the Strait of Georgia they explore, the fewer fellow travellers they’ll encounter. The wonderful silence that envelops these islands is characteristic of the ambience in remote central coast locales. It wasn’t always this way. In the heyday of fishing and logging camps, the population on the more isolated islands was surprisingly higher than it is today. Evidence of this can be seen in abandoned cabins, ancient villages, and overgrown logging roads.
Explore by car, kayak, mountain bike, or on foot. Find a location that appeals to you, and within this microcosm, experience the wonder and magic that pervades life here.
The main islands in the Discovery Islands group are Quadra Island, Cortes Island and the Outer Islands, the largest of which include East and West Thurlow Islands, Sonora Island, Stuart Island, Maurelle Island, Read Island, Raza Island, East and West Redonda Island, and the Rendezvous Islands. Visitors from around the world are attracted to the Discovery Islands for their scenic beauty and recreational opportunities.
The Outer Islands and the intricate waterways that weave between them are home to resourceful and hardy people. Fish farms, fishing kayak lodges, homesteaders and logging camps are dotted throughout the Outer Islands. The scenery in these islands is arguably some of the most impressive on the BC coast. The Outer Islands are still on the frontier, caught between the luxury of paved roads and reliable telephone service and one of the last great wilderness areas of the world.
Location: The Discovery Islands are located between Campbell River on Vancouver Island and the mainland of British Columbia. Campbell River is the departure point for ferry access to Quadra Island (10-minute trip to Quathiaski Cove on the east coast) and Cortes Islands. Travellers to Cortes Island must drive from Quathiaski Cove across Quadra Island to Heriot Bay on the west coast. There they catch another BC Ferry for the 45-minute journey to Whaletown Bay on Cortes Island. Both ferries transport vehicles.
The fleet of BC Ferries that services the Discovery Islands is not as large nor are the sailings as frequent as that serving the Northern Gulf Islands and Southern Gulf Islands. The moment you step onto a ferry heading for the islands, the pace relaxes and the smiles break out.
The only access to the Outer Islands is by private transportation; water taxis, kayaks, boats and floatplanes. Those with their own boats can launch on Quadra and Cortes Islands, and also at Lund on the Sunshine Coast.
Quadra Island is a 10-minute ferry ride from Campbell River, separated from Vancouver Island by Discovery Passage, and from Cortes Island by Sutil Channel. Resident artists and craftspeople make the island a fine place to sleuth around for pottery and other wares. The Nuyumbalees Cultural Center (formerly Kwagiulth Museum and Cultural Center) contains an outstanding collection of authentic artifacts.
After going to the effort to reach Cortes Island, with its placid lakes, beaches rich in shellfish, and rugged gorges, your reward is finding a campsite on the southwestern corner at Smelt Bay Provincial Park, a heavenly setting on this picturesque island.
The Rendezvous Islands are located in Calm Channel off the northeast end of Read Island in the Discovery Island chain of islands. The Rendezvous Island group comprises North Rendezvous Island, Middle Rendezvous Island, and Rendezvous Island South.
Camping and Parks: After going to the effort to reach Cortes Island, your reward is finding a provincial campsite on the southwestern corner at Smelt Bay Provincial Park, a heavenly setting on this picturesque island. Follow the island road 13 miles (21 km) from the ferry dock to the park, which is near Mansons Landing Provincial Park. Smelts are a green-and-silver, sardine-sized fish that frequents these waters in huge numbers and attracts salmon. Not difficult to net, they make a tasty meal.
Cortes Island is also blessed with a sublime picnic and fishing location at Mansons Landing Provincial Park. If they aren’t biting in the saltchuk (‘chuk’ is a Native word for water) just turn your attention to the fish in Hague Lake, a freshwater lake located within the park, a rarity in the Marine Provincial park system. A wide, sandy beach beckons to those who just wish to spread a blanket beside a driftwood backrest and dig into the cooler.
You’ll get to tour Quadra Island on the way to your picnic in Rebecca Spit Marine Provincial Park. The park lies on the east side of the island at sheltered Drew Harbour, almost 6 miles (9 km) from the ferry landing. There are more picnic tables here than on any other island, and a prettier sandy beach than almost anywhere else on Quadra. Anglers launch from the ramp here, and it’s a good place to pick up word on the health of fish stocks.
Canoeing & Kayaking: Nowhere else on the coast of British Columbia is there a more dramatic backdrop for an extended kayaking adventure. Paddlers from around the world are drawn by the easy access, sheltered waters and stunning scenery of the Discovery archipelago. The waterways between the islands were carved to incredible depths by glaciers during the last ice age.
Canoeing & Kayaking around Vancouver Island, Gulf Islands & Discovery Islands.
Octopus Islands Provincial Park off the northwest shore of Quadra Island is both remote and accessible at the same time. Nestled among the maze of islands through which the waters of Johnstone Strait funnel into the Strait of Georgia, the Octopus Islands are most easily reached from Heriot Bay on Quadra Island. This is one of two good places to launch, along with Village Bay farther north. Tidal currents around Quadra Island are notorious for their strength, particularly at Surge Narrows on the east and Seymour Narrows on the west.
Other favoured kayaking spots in the islands are Hoskyn and Okisollo Channels, North Rendezvous Island, Von Donop Inlet, and the Penn Islands. The Discovery Islands lie in the rain shadow of the mountain range that forms the backbone of Vancouver Island, ensuring fog-free, and dry kayaking during summer. Paddlers will share the waters with friendly seals, porpoises, and Minke whales.
Paddlers should avoid Seymour Narrows completely and only transit Surge narrows at slack tide. In addition, you should be well versed in the reading of tidal and current charts to safely explore the fascinating waters around tightly packed Quadra, Cotes, Maurelle, Read, and Sonora Islands.
An alternative to saltwater paddling around Quadra is a small chain of freshwater lakes in the interior of the island that are perfectly suited to canoeing. In summer, the water in the lakes warms up as levels drop. You may well find that you’ll have to haul your canoe through a narrow channel connecting Village Bay Lake and Mine Lake. You can bypass this section by launching directly into Mine Lake and heading for the prettiest part of the route that leads from Mine to Main Lake, the largest of the lakes in this chain.
Sandy beaches on small islands and in cozy bays are delightfully welcoming spots to land and pass a sunny day, with hardly any other paddlers with which to share this slice of paradise. If you land on the northeast side of Main Lake, you’ll find not only a sandy beach but also a short walking trail that follows an old logging road to Yeatman Bay, north of Surge Narrows on Quadra’s coastline. To reach the launch site, take West Road north from the ferry landing at Quathiaski Bay to Heriot Bay. Keep heading north on first Hyacinths Bay Road and then Village Bay Road. Launch at the bridge in Village Bay or continue another 1.5 miles (2.5 km) farther north along Surge Narrows Road to Miners Bay.
Heriot Bay (Quadra Island) and Whaletown (Cortes Island) are popular launching points for paddling not only the Discovery Islands, but also Desolation Sound and the inlets along the coast of the British Columbia mainland.
Wildlife Viewing: Journey by boat to Mitlenatch Island Nature Provincial Park, you’ll find a bird-watching and wildflower paradise 8 miles (13 km) northeast of Saratoga Beach. Mitlenatch is home to the largest seabird colony on the Strait of Georgia, principally 3,000 pairs of glaucous-winged gulls. Other nesting species include pelagic cormorants, pigeon guillemots, and black oystercatchers. Specially designed trails for wildlife viewing lead across the middle of the island between Northwest and Camp Bays to an observation blind. This area is characterized by open meadows carpeted with wildflowers from April through August. Access is restricted to other parts of the island where rocky uplands are forested with trembling aspen, a species more frequently seen in the BC Interior. Their presence, along with prickly pear cactus, are a result of the semi-arid conditions here in the rain shadow cast by the Vancouver Island Mountains.
Fishing: The wealth of the salmon fishery in Discovery Passage between Campbell River and Quadra Island is so legendary that a special ritual has grown up around it over the past century. Called tyee fishing, this method has stringent requirements, but success buys instant membership in the exclusive Tyee Club of BC. Tyee is the appellation given a chinook (king) salmon when its weight exceeds 30 pounds (13.5 kg). Anglers must abide by regulations that stipulate a minimum catch weight of 30 pounds, hooked with an artificial single-hook lure fastened to a maximum 20-pound (9-kg) test line. Oh, and you have to be in a rowboat. (Considering the size of an average tyee, make sure it’s a big rowboat.) The official weigh-in station is at the Tyee Club House beside the boat launch on Tyee Spit, east of Hwy 19 on Spit Road in Campbell River.
Campbell River boasts four or more marinas serving the area, and is the best jump off point for fishing the waters around the Discovery Islands. There are dozens of fishing charter operators in Campbell River. The trick is finding the right one for your style, whether it be boat trolling, bank casting, or drift fishing.
The waters around Quadra Island have yielded some of the largest salmon ever caught on BC’s west coast. Although much of the activity is centred in nearby Campbell River on Vancouver Island, there’s plenty of action around Quadra, particularly at Quathiaski Cove, where the ferry linking Quadra and Campbell River docks. Boaters must be extremely cautious in the waters of Discovery Passage. Anglers congregate in the waters off Cape Mudge, Copper Bluffs, April Point, and at the entrance to Quathiaski Cove around Grouse Island. Good fishing is also found in the protected waters around Rebecca Spit Marine Provincial Park, where a popular public boat ramp is located.
Inland on Quadra, cutthroat trout are numerous in the freshwater regions of Village Bay, Mine Lake, and Main Lake. For more information on fishing on Quadra Island and Discovery Passage, contact one of the fishing resorts located on Quadra Island.
Diving: Scuba diving in Discovery Passage can only be attempted during slack tide. The current flows at speeds of up to 16 knots through the Seymour Narrows, the narrowest section of Discovery Passage. The currents are phenomenally rich in nutrients and oxygen, and sustain an awesome array of marine life. Many different species of fish, colourful invertebrates, and the elusive giant pacific octopus reside in these nutrient-rich waters.
There’s no wreck like an old wreck. That’s what the 366-foot former navy destroyer HMCS Columbia is fast becoming. She was scuttled by the Artificial Reef Society near Maud Island in Discovery Passage, just north of Campbell River on the west coast of Quadra Island. Divers should check with the Underwater Archeological Society of BC, or dive shops and marinas in Campbell River, for more details.
The small island of Steep, close to Gowlland Island in Discovery Passage, is rated as one of the best dives in the world. The northern tip of Steep Island is best dived at the end of an ebbing tide, for a fabulous dive amongst a profusion of colour, anemones, sponges, wolf eels, corals, lingcod, tiger rockfish and octopuses.