The small, picturesque fishing village of Sointula, a Finnish word meaning harmony, began as a Utopian colony in the early 1900s, when a playwright named Matti Kurikka led disgruntled Finnish coal miners from Nanaimo out of their pits and into the northern wilderness.
Fishermen, farmers and loggers, their dream was to lead independent, self-sufficient lives in harmony with nature. The struggle was long and hard, the pitfalls and setbacks were many, and the colony faced increasing financial difficulties.
In January 1903 a tragic fire at the community hall claimed the lives of eleven people, and their plight worsened when the community became divided over Kurikka’s philosophy and leadership. Financial problems finally forced the colony into liquidation in 1904, with the land being returned to the government in return for a loan to repay the colony’s creditors.
Utopia may have floundered, despite the dedication and hard work, but the Finns remain. The Finnish language is still spoken today, saunas are common, and the phone book is full of Finnish names. A second wave of independence-seekers arrived in the 1960s, dedicated to preserving Sointula’s peaceful atmosphere.
Fishing is the mainstay of the economy of Sointula, but tourism is rapidly gaining importance, as travellers seek out the clean air, clear waters, and the outdoor fishing, whale watching and scuba diving opportunities offered on Malcolm Island.
The ferry trip to Sointula in the cold, clear waters of Queen Charlotte Sound, is a voyage into the past. Stroll around the community to see the sights – capture the unique essence, before taking the return ferry to Port McNeill.
Location: Sointula is on Malcolm Island, located off the northeast shore of Vancouver Island, and linked by a 25-minute ferry ride from Port McNeill.
First stop off the ferry is the old 1909 Sointula Co-op Store, the heart of island life that is still run by the island community, the longest continuously running co-op in Canada. Check the store’s community notice board for announcements and their calendar of local events.
Visit the Sointula Museum, and the displays of pioneer artifacts, including the town’s original switchboard, old photographs, and the antique coffee grinder responsible for the strong aroma of freshly ground coffee that wafted through the co-op store in the 1930s.
A ‘must see’ in Sointula is Bere Point Beach, a known killer whale rubbing beach. Orcas frequent select beaches in the area to rub themselves on the gravel and pebble shoreline.
Bere Point Regional Park is a favourite getaway for islanders, and the only public campground on Malcolm Island. Located 5 km from Sointula on the island’s north shore, the park has a beautiful beach and 8 beach-access campsites at Bere Point Campsite, with outhouses, firewood, a boat launch, and a day-use picnic area. A short trail from Bere Point leads to the Beautiful Bay Trail, which winds along a ridge for 2.5 miles (4 kms) through a stunning rainforest with occasional glimpses of the sea below.
To the northeast of Sointula across the Labouchere Passage is the Broughton Archipelago Marine Provincial Park, a wilderness area consisting of a maze of several small islands, numerous islets and adjacent foreshore at the southern extremity of Queen Charlotte Strait, off the west coast of Gilford Island. The islands in the marine park are undeveloped and are largely undiscovered. Facilities are limited to a day-use recreation. The numerous remote, solitary islands incorporated in the park provide unlimited and unique fishing and swimming opportunities, and are fabulous for exploring by kayak.
Fishing: Blackfish Sound east of Cormorant Island is productive for salmon fishing, offering feeder chinooks throughout the year. The first migratory chinooks appear in late May through to August, followed by the sockeye (June to August), pinks (July to August), coho in mid July, northern coho in September and chum salmon from late August through to October. Winter chinook end off the year by passing through toward the end of December. Halibut fishing commences in April to June, and continues through the summer to September – open water depths of 200 to 400 feet are most productive. Concentrate on Richards Channel, Ripple Passage and Bolivar Passage. Halibut around the 100 lb mark are brought in regularly, with monsters of over 200 lbs caught occasionally.
Arts & Crafts: Look for unique island crafts, including exquisitely soft sea-green rugs, made from fishnet! The Hole in the Wall Art Gallery is also worth browsing through.
Outdoor Adventures: Whale watching, sportfishing, cycling, kayaking and sightseeing tours are recommened activities – equipment rentals and guides are available.
Cycling: Cyclists will enjoy the quiet ride along Kaleva Road, which hugs the island’s southern shoreline as it winds through rural pastures and weathered cottages. Stop for a stroll along the beach, explore Mitchell Bay, an idyllic enclave at the southern end of Malcolm Island, or break out the kayak and explore the shoreline waters.
Hiking: Hikers won’t want to miss the annual 25-kilometre Harmony Hike, held in June.
Birdwatching: Twitchers can birdwatch at Rough Bay, where the tidal flats are a popular stopping point for shorebirds.
Accommodation: If you succumb to the Island’s charm and decide to stay longer, there are a number of bed and breakfasts, cottages, and guesthouses scattered throughout Sointula and Mitchell Bay. For those with tents or RV’s, there are private campgrounds as well as the small public site at Bere Point.
Island Hopping: Travelling between the Southern Gulf Islands and Northern Gulf Islands can be accomplished in small hops. Each of these islands is a world unto itself, each with its own history, culture and colourful characters – each island deserves at least a day or two for exploring.