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Kayaking to DeCourcy Island
On an unseasonably warm & sunny November day, Rachel & Scott paddled their new sea kayaks to DeCourcy Island, 6-kilometer offshore Vancouver Island. DeCourcy Island is home to Pirates Cove Marine Park and has a rich history, including buried treasure! (DeCourcy Island maps, photos and tales "Brother Twelve", Canada's notorious cult leader)
Blue Heron Park to Pirate's Cove Marine Park, on DeCourcy Island
After two years of living in Yellow Point, we finally bit the bullet and bought two ocean-touring kayaks. They are both used kayaks, obtained from a 2008 rental fleet sale at local outfitter (Alberni Outpost). They're both bomb-proof, made of tough, durable roto-molded plastic. We haven't acquired all the accompanying gear (we still need spray-skirts, for example), but were eager to plunk them in the water for a test paddle.
A week ago, the stars and planets aligned, so we took a 12-kilometer round-trip paddle from Yellow Point (putting in at Blue Heron Park), paddling 6 kilometers across the Stuart Channel, to explore Pirate's Cove Marine Park, on DeCourcy Island. Alex was in day-care and kindergarten for the day. Rachel was scheduled to attend a B.C. Nurses Union meeting, but it was canceled at the last minute. Even the weather cooperated; after four days of rain, the skies cleared and it was a sunny, unseasonably warm November day. Wow! We just had to get out of the house before the November rain and drizzle returned.
It took us a while to get organized, tossing Rachel's blue Necky "Elaho HV" Necky "Elaho HV" Kayak Rachel's Necky "Elaho HV" kayak. The "HV" means "High Volume". Necky added 3 inches to the length and width of the cockpit of a regular "Elaho", making entering and exiting easier. This roto-molded plastic touring kayak is made by Necky (in Washington State). It offers outstanding turn response, good leaning & solid edging. It's narrower than most touring boats, which lowers its initial stability, but increases handling and performance. (Necky no longer manufactures the Elaho line). The Elaho HV is 17-feet long, 22.5-inches wide, weighs 63 pounds and can carry 325 pounds. The metal rudder is standard. kayak and Scott's mango Current Designs "Storm" Current Designs "Storm" Kayak Scott's Current Designs "Storm" kayak. The "Storm" is a lively, rugged & affordable touring kayak. It's designed to handle tremendous abuse. Built by Current Designs, the Storm is a roto-molded polyethylene kayak. The model underwent a major design fine-tuning in 2004 and sports a new hatch system & rudder controls. The deck fittings are recessed and have full perimeter deck lines. It's a very stable and rugged performing touring kayak. The Storm is 17-feet long, 24-inches wide, weighs 63 pounds and can carry up to 400 pounds. Click the link for the Current Designs website & more about the Storm kayak. kayak onto the roof rack of the Honda Accord. We packed a lunch and drove three or four kilometers, from our house, along Yellow Point Road, to Blue Heron Park, where we dunked the boats in the water and began our paddle over to DeCourcy Island and Pirates Cove Marine Park.
To find out more about DeCourcy Island, our kayak trip and Pirates Cove Park (with maps) .... carry on ...
Let the Kayak Adventuring (Finally) Begin!
As a family, we've taken numerous walks down to the beach at Roberts Memorial Park (it's a small B.C. Provincial park, not far from our home, which has an 800-meter trail through the woods that heads to the water). We call it "the dirty beach", since after a rainstorm, the track to the beach is often quite muddy. (This is opposed to the "clean beach", which is what we call Blue Heron Park, since there's no muddy track involved to get down to the water).
Once at the beach, either at Robert's Memorial Park or Blue Heron Park, one can get an appreciation for the fact that there is quite a number of islands, several kilometers across the water. Fishing boats, sailboats, motor boats and other water craft are often plying the straight in between. Because it's a protected waterway, the waves are fairly gentle and we've often thought "how cool" it would be to have ocean-going kayaks and explore these islands and coves.
Looking at maps of the area, we quickly realized there are a number of Marine Parks, some of which have campgrounds, on many of these islands.
"It would be really fun as a family vacation, to kayak amongst these offshore islands, camping and traveling for several days," said Rachel, shortly after we moved in.
"Yeah, it would!" I agreed.
We've kept this idea in the back of our heads, but between Alex, work, the fire hall, website design, projects around the house and the cabin - there was always something else that demanded our time. Not having a place to store 17-foot kayaks was an impediment (still is, though we've just left them out in the elements for now), as was the cost to acquire them. Finally, this year, we caught the end-of-season rental fleet sale at Alberni Outpost. Over several visits to their outdoor adventure store along the waterfront in Nanaimo, we test paddled a number of boats, eventually settling on the Elaho HV for Rachel and the Storm for Scott.
Our 5-year-old daughter, Alex, is too young for a boat of her own, so we'll need to purchase a tandem kayak, if she's going to be included in our kayaking adventures. Once we've acquired that, we'll then be 90% of the way toward our first kayak travel adventure! We're hoping this summer might be our first foray into multi-day kayak trips!
Today, however, our aim was to test our boats and do a little exploring.
Pirates Cove Park & DeCourcy Island
With the kayaks loaded on the car, we drove to Blue Heron Park, close to the tip of Yellow Point and Yellow Point Lodge. The park has only a small parking lot, a pit toilet, a couple of picnic tables and benches, but it's an excellent put-in spot for kayaks. The walk to the beach is very short (you can count your paces, since the distance is measured in feet). The beach is shallow and relatively protected. It's not a sand beach, as much is underlain by a hard, sandstone shelf. It's only at low tide that one can walk beyond the rock, to a gently sloping beach made of sand and shells.
On this fine, bright and warm Monday afternoon - gotta love Island life, eh? Most Canadians can't kayak in mid-November - there were only a couple of people in the park. A young couple were sitting together on a bench and another elderly couple arrived by car, just as we were carrying the kayaks down to the water's edge.
We walked our kayaks out into the water a bit, then awkwardly lowered ourselves into our cockpits. (We're both pretty new to kayaking, so entering and exiting the kayaks gracefully isn't an art we've perfected yet!) Once in the water and our foot pegs adjusted, we consulted our Coastal Waters Recreation map "Gulf Islands". We made an 'on-the-spot' decision to paddle to DeCourcy Island and check out the camping spot at Pirates Cove Provincial Park.
DeCourcy Island is about 300 acres in size and is mostly forested, with the exception of a cleared, private farm on the northwest corner. Like many of the other Gulf Islands, DeCourcy has a unique mix of plants - some of which are coastal and others that are more often associated with the dry interior of British Columbia. Rocky Mountain Juniper, satin flower Satin-Flower (Sisyrinchium douglasii) Part of the Iris family, Satin-flower is also called Douglas' blue-eyed-grass, grass-widows or purple-eyed-grass. A hillside covered with satin-flowers, dancing in a light breeze, is a floral delight of early spring. These pink-to-purple flowers have a satiny sheen that sparkles in the sunlight, which is why it's often called 'satin-flower'. Satin-flower is one of the earliest of spring flowers, commonly blooming as early as February, along with other early bloomers: spring-gold and blue-eyed Mary. The distribution of this showy flower, on Vancouver Island, is limited to the very southern tip of the island, including many of the Gulf Islands. and Poison Oak are all species that thrive in the dry interior, but are rare along the much wetter coast. These plants can all be found on DeCourcy Island. On the east side of the island, look for stands of Pipsissewa Pipsissewa (Chimaphila umbellata) A member of the Wintergreen family, Pipsissewa is also called Prince's Pine. This dwarf evergreen shrub, grows to a height of to about 35 centimeters. It's leaves are 3-7 cm long, are narrowly oblong, bright-green, shiny and sharply toothed. The flowers are whitish pink to rose colored, are faintly perfumed, grow in nodding clusters of 3-15 individual buds. Pipsissewa is a rare coastal species tht is more common to the interior. It's scientific name is Chimaphila umbellata. Chimaphila comes from Greek cheima (winter) and philos (loving) and refers to this plants evergreen habit. The other common name "Prince's Pine", may refer to it's appearance - a miniature pine tree fitting for a Prince. First Nations people added its leaves to baths as a liniment for sore muscles. They were also brewed to make a tea for those suffering from colds or the flu. , some of the best examples of this plant in all of the Gulf Islands. DeCourcy Island also has several stands of the very rare Garry Oak.
The island features an excellent array of wildlife. Common marine animal include Harbor Seal (year-round), Steller's & California Sea Lions (late-Aug through mid-May), Harbor Porpoise, Orca, Gray & Humpback Whale (summer months). River otter, black-tailed deer and bald eagles make their home on the island. Bird watchers can spot Wilson's warblers, Pacific flycatchers, Black oystercatchers, White-crowned sparrows, Bald Eagles & Great Blue Herons, as well as other species.
The island was used by natives as far back as 3,000 years, as determined by several shell middens, which are scattered on the island. It's now named after Michael de Courcy, captain of the HMS Pylades, a survey ship that mapped these waters in the mid 1800's (1859-61). More recently, DeCourcy Island was home to the "Aquarian Foundation", a religious cult led by Brother Twelve, who convinced 8,000 followers to give up their worldly possessions and follow him to the island during the late 1920's and early 1930's. Then in the 1940's, it was owned by a Swiss brother and sister (Paul & Anna Wyff) who farmed the island with a number of other people. In 1965, the island was purchased by DeCourcy Island Estates and subdivided into about 160 lots. A park named "Pirates Cove Provincial Marine Park" was also established, on the southern tip of the island.
Today, DeCourcy Island has approximately 40 - mostly seasonal - residences. It's criss-crossed by a network of hiking trails and gravel roads. There is a barge unloading area and resident moorage, but the island isn't served by a public ferry - the only way to get there is by private boat.
Pirates Cove Marine Park is a popular destination for boaters exploring the Gulf Islands and for sea kayakers. The 75-acre park offers four kilometers of hiking trails, a solar toilet, water pump (boil or filter the water) and a camping/picnicking area. Pirates Cove offers sheltered anchorage for boaters, has two dinghy docks (one on either side of the cove) and ring bolts in onshore rocks for securing stern lines. The park is open year-round, but there are no services during the winter months. The campground includes 10 walk-in campsites with tent pads and is located just above the beach.
The paddle across Stuart Channel, roughly 6 kilometers, took us about an hour. The water was calm, sun shining and we had the wind (mostly) at our backs. We entered Ruxton Passage and Scott pulled up to the western shore of DeCourcy Island, but steep sandstone cliffs and a couple of shoreline homes dissuaded any landings. Instead, we paddled around the southern tip of DeCourcy Island and landed on the eastern shore, not far from the tip of the island.
We were now in shade, which was nice, as we were both warm from our paddling exertion. We awkwardly beached our whale-sized kayaks, pulled them out of the water and declared, "Lunch!"
We unzipped our paddling float vests, sat down and munched on a sandwich, apples and carrots. We had a good view of the north end of Ruxton Island and the western cliffs along Valdes Island. We saw only a couple of boats go by, while we were eating lunch and about the same number of Harbor Seals. A bald eagle soared overhead.
After lunch, Rachel was keen on taking a hike and exploring a bit, so we left the boats and joined a nearby trail, which we followed south, around the southern tip of the island. The island was moderately forested with a mix of hardwood and Fir. On the western side, we passed a number of Garry Oak trees and noted the forest floor was littered with oak leaves.
Soon, we came to a steep ladder, which descended to the Pirates Cove picnic area and campground. The place was devoid of people and we scouted around, finding an information sign, water pump and solar toilet. We noticed that camping was $5 a night, per person (in season).
Concerned for time, we explored only Pirates Cove Marine Park, following the Brother Twelve trail to the Dinghy Dock at the northern end of the park, then joining the Pylades Trail and returning to our kayaks. We didn't see any wildlife on our sojourn, but had a lovely walk, after being cramped in our boats and sitting during lunch.
We re-entered the water in our kayaks and began the paddle back to Blue Heron Park. The sun was still shining, though much of the sky overhead was filled with dark grey clouds. The wind was picking up and the water had a fair bit of chop, with whitecaps showing off in the distance.
We figured that because of the wind, the return trip would take a fair bit longer, but we were mildly surprised that it only took about 15 minutes more than our easterly crossing. At one point, we stopped our kayaks mid-paddle, taking a short rest. Very quickly, the wind cocked our boats parallel to the incoming waves and we began to lurch uncomfortably. Nervous about going over, we tried to put the nose of our kayaks into the oncoming waves and were amazed at how much effort and how sluggishly our kayaks responded. Maintaining momentum is loads easier than starting with a 90-degree turn!
As the wind howled past our ears, Rachel made some motions with her paddle and it took me a minute to realize what she was point at. Bobbing like a dead-head log, a Harbor Seal had its nose and face out of the water. Its eyes were closed and trance-like, it was facing the sunshine. At first, I wasn't sure if it was a log or a seal. I paddled closer, to have a better look and suddenly, the Seal realized I was close-by and dove underwater. It didn't notice me, I guess, because I was downwind and the wind was howling across the water. We later wondered what it was up to.
"I have no idea," said Scott, "as I don't have much experience with Seals in the mid-channel area!"
We had a difficult time seeing our destination, as the eastern shore was in shadow and the sun was low on the horizon and blinding us. As we determinedly paddled toward Vancouver Island, two sail boats passed by 100 yards or so in front of us. It was amazing how slowly they plied the water or ... I should say ... it was amazing how fast we seemed to be going.
Eventually, we made it back to Blue Heron Park, where we pulled out boats out of the water, loaded them back onto the car and headed home. Our afternoon kayak adventure had taken four hours ... an hour farting around with loading/unloading, 2 hours of paddling and an hour exploring DeCourcy Island. What a fun way to spend a sunny, warm mid-November day!
Arrr Matey - Are Ye Look'n fer Buried Treasure?
What island story - especially one with a park named "Pirates Cove" - would be complete without spooky tales that involved gold coins, slavery, black magic and a buried treasure?
DeCourcy Island is sure not to disappoint, as the stories around these parts suggest that a fortune in gold is still buried somewhere on the island.
Remember Brother Twelve and his Aquarian Foundation? Well, there's more to the tale than just a footnote in island ownership. Brother Twelve was perhaps Canada's most notorious cult leader. The sordid tale involves Brother Twelve, DeCourcy Island, torture, slavery, witchcraft, a sadistic Madame Z ... and ... a fortune in gold coins.
In 1927, Brother Twelve (born Edward Arthur Wilson in Birmingham, England on July 25th, 1878) created the Aquarian Foundation, dedicated to the occult and founding a new world order. Land south of Nanaimo (in the Cedar-by-the-Sea area) was purchased for the purpose of creating their self-sufficient, utopian village.
At its height, the Aquarian Foundation boasted over 2,000 members, many of whom donated their life savings. Many followers were from California and they included business men, lawyers, heiresses and adventurers. Many were quite wealthy and not at all the weak, dependent people often associated with cults.
Eventually, Brother Twelve lost his grip on the Foundation. Members took him to court and he was even arrested briefly. The trial fell apart when Brother Twelve (supposedly using "black magic") struck the opposing lawyer dumb, caused a key witness to vanish (never found) and other potential witnesses were throwing up in the washroom, unable to take the stand. Followers dwindled from hundreds to just a couple dozen.
Still, new adherents were signing on and money continued to flow into the Foundation. In 1929, Brother Twelve coerced one of his lady followers to purchase DeCourcy Island for him ... 700 acres for $10,000.
Brother Twelve formed a new colony called "City of Refuge," on nearby Valdes and DeCourcy Islands, where he and his disciples thought they could survive the coming Armageddon. Conditions eventually deteriorated, as Brother Twelve and his new, sadistic mistress, a woman known as "Madame Z," turned followers into slaves, subjecting them to the most appalling hardship and deprivation. They packing in food supplies, stockpiled guns and ammunition. They had night patrols and fired on wayward boats. Brother Twelve methodically turned every penny he could scrape together into $20 gold coins, which he sealed into Mason jars with paraffin wax and stashed away on both DeCourcy and Valdes Islands.
Brother Twelve's sadistic mistress, "Madame Z", continued to overwork the followers in the fields, often starving or imprisoning them - as a "test" of spiritual worthiness. The disciples eventually revolted. One man, imprisoned nude in a cellar on the northern end of Valdez Island, escaped and found a rowboat. He rowed to shore and reported circumstances to the British Columbia Provincial Police in Nanaimo. In a rage, Brother Twelve destroyed the City of Refuge, smashing many of its buildings, farm equipment and scuttling their flagship boat, the "Lady Royal".
Reportedly, Brother Twelve and Madame Z fled by tugboat, failing to appear in court to answer charges. Brother Twelve is alleged to have died in Neuchatel, Switzerland in 1934, but many believe he faked his own death. It is uncertain whether he left behind any (or all) of the buried gold coins.