Off The Beaten Path: Cabbage And Tumbo Islands, British Columbia

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We all want to cruise off the beaten path at least some of the time. Getting off that path, away from marinas and other trappings of civilization, requires a boat that is pretty self-contained. Fluke, our Krogen 42, is one of those boats. My wife Linda and I are fortunate to have spent a month or more aboard her each of the past ten summers. The wide-body layout with pilothouse, saloon, and two staterooms allows plenty of space for us. The covered back deck allows us to have lunch in the shade. On those "rare" rainy days we can go out, see how hard it is coming down, and not get wet. If you see a Krogen 42 with two yellow kayaks on top, it is probably us.

Two summers ago when we were looking for remote anchorages on the chart that covers the Gulf Islands National Park Reserve, we saw Cabbage and Tumbo Islands at the east end of British Columbia's Saturna Island. These islands are truly out of the way but close to home at the same time.

Traveling to Cabbage and Tumbo from our home port of Seattle, our first Canadian stop was Bedwell Harbour. We checked in with Canadian customs by phone an hour prior to our ETA using our Nexus passes. Nexus passes are similar to "trusted traveler" cards available through in-person interviews with U.S. and Canadian customs officers. They are good for five years for transit of our northern border. Sometimes a phone call is all that is necessary and other times a stop at a port of entry is required. This trip we were told to go to the harbor and look for uniformed officers as we cruised past the customs dock. Not seeing officials on the dock meant we could continue on our way to Tumbo and Cabbage Island.

From Bedwell we had to double back around the south end of Saturna Island. Looking at the route on our chart plotter (a Mac running Nobeltec), we noticed an area off East Point, Saturna Island, called Boiling Reef. As we passed Boiling Reef, the tidal current was at its greatest and a large volume of water was going from Georgia Strait out to the Pacific via the Strait of Juan de Fuca. The water near the point looked as if it was really boiling. To calculate a time when the water is almost calm, cruisers can consult the Canadian Tidal Current Atlas published by the Canadian Hydrographic Service. Our Nobeltec tides and currents data on the plotter also gave an excellent picture of what to expect when the current is strong and what time the boiling will die down to a simmer. Because the current was not running in a confined channel, we saw no reason to delay. We stayed off East Point a bit, suffered a few jerks and jogs, and pressed on.

We came around the end of Saturna and headed up Tumbo Channel. The turn back into the anchorage is made farther west of the last rock showing. The chart (# 3441 or chart book 3313) shows a long thin line of reefs in the same direction as the rocks and many of the islands that are found in the Gulf and San Juan Islands (more about long thin islands later). After giving the submerged rocks a wide berth, we entered Reef Harbour, the anchorage between Cabbage and Tumbo Islands.

Once in the harbor, we saw the first of eight or ten park mooring buoys. We spotted a vacant buoy, circled once to check the depth, and hooked on by running two lines through to ring on top. We use two lines as a matter of course just in case the wind picks up and one line parts in the night. Wind can come through the harbor, but protection from the waves on Georgia Strait is good.

There are nice sandy beaches for shore access and a pleasant walk around Cabbage Island. The island is partially wooded and in addition to the madrona, fir, and cedar trees typical of this area, you may also come across the less common Garry oak (also known as white oak). The oak trees are fenced off and protected in hopes of having these trees regain a foothold here.

Where the woods end on the northeast shore is an unusual rocky area that looks as though it was made by dumping many truckloads of very course aggregate concrete and river rock. It is sandstone like many of the rest of the Gulf Islands and northern San Juans. The unusual sandstone formations make these islands long and thin. They are part of a geological phenomenon called the Nanaimo Formation, a terrane (an area of related rocks) that extends from Nanaimo through the Gulf Islands southeast to Sucia Island in the northern San Juans and possibly as far as Bellingham's Chuckanut Bay. This formation is the result of a thrust fault and accounts for the long, thin shape of the islands in the chain.

Toward the closed end of Reef Harbour and around to the south is Tumbo Island, a recent addition to the Canadian National Park Reserve. Access to the Tumbo side is a bit tricky. If you dinghy down toward the south end, you find shallow water fairly quickly. On some tides you may reach the beach, but last time we tried, it was too shallow. The other way to gain a foothold on Tumbo is found back closer to the mooring buoys. There is a large park sign visible from the water that marks the start of a trail that goes along Tumbo Island and ends at the head of the bay. It is a sort of steep climb up the rock but it is possible if you are careful. Visitors are requested to stay on the trail because of the fragile nature of the reserve.

When we walked along the forested trail, we were surprised to see the bones of a very large animal lying off to one side. We had read some of the history of Cabbage and Tumbo in our favorite Waggoner Cruising Guide. The guide mentioned that in the 1920s and 1930s one of the previous enterprises on the island was a fox farm. The foxes were raised commercially for fur on Tumbo. Horses were raised on Cabbage Island, brought across the little bay at low tide, and (gulp) made into fox food. The bones we saw seemed to bear this out. This was just one of the businesses attempted here.

On our way to the far end, we passed an old coal mine shaft and a pretty marsh. Coal proved to be too deep to make mining profitable. A couple of rowboats high and dry with trees growing in them made an interesting scene. We passed a long pier and a gate to the property of the family who donated the island to the park system. They have the right to live there as long as they want. We were given to believe that as long as there was no one at the house we could stroll through the property. The setting for the old residence was beautiful and remote.

The long walk generated an appetite. We returned to our boat and fired up the barbecue. I had noticed that the boat on the next buoy seemed closer than when we arrived earlier that day. All the other boats were spaced equally. With the tide out and the wind changed, we were right on top of each other (as the photo shows). The tide going out effectively increased the scope on the mooring buoy chain, allowing the boat to swing wide and drift too close to us. Possibly the other buoy had been dragged at some time by a heavy boat in a strong wind. Not liking the unpredictable closeness, the other boat moved off to another buoy. This took care of our worries and we settled in to watch the sun go down over Saturna, just to the west of the open end of Reef Harbour. The wind was calm and the night was very peaceful, though we lay very close to the open water of Georgia Strait.

Speaking of wind, weather is an extra-important consideration when planning a visit to this area. Unlike most Gulf Island routes, to reach this destination, you have to expose your vessel and crew to potentially rough and unsheltered waters on the Georgia Strait. Also, once you arrive, you could get stuck for a few days if a typical three-day blow starts before you can get back "inside." Paying attention to the forecasts for the strait can avoid this dilemma.

From Cabbage and Tumbo Islands, a boat can head north up the wide open straits and transit Active Pass to continue a Canadian cruise or head back southeast to the San Juan Islands. Regardless of which direction is taken, more adventure is waiting.