Cycle Touring and Hiking on the Southern Gulf Islands of British Columbia – COVID-19 Style!

2020! What a Year!

As usual, last Winter I was dreaming up a few plans for some multi day tours in the upcoming Spring and Summer of 2020. Well early in March of this year, COVID-19 put a sharp stop to those dreams! BC Parks camping in Provincial Parks was immediately off- limits as were many private campgrounds, motels. And other accommodation possibilities were not accepting visitors either. Even had I taken a (huge) risk and decided to bike tour, many stores were shuttered and the ones that were open were being quickly emptied by marauding hoarders! So as advised, best to stay home, stay safe and see what developed. We all know that the development was an exponential global spread of the virus, with many people suffering illnesses, hospitalisations and sadly, deaths.
I make no bones about it that I am extremely fortunate to live on Vancouver Island in the Province of British Columbia, where our excellent Provincial Health Officer, Dr. Bonnie Henry kept a tight lid on the virus outbreak here in BC. Even as other parts of Canada were recording high infection rates and deaths. The majority of BC infections were on the mainland and even there the numbers were lower than many other Provinces. Here on the Island, we were almost in a bubble with a very low number of infections. And that is why I stated that I am very fortunate!

Caveat: Unfortunately, what I wrote about above is not the case now in late November as BC is in its second wave of COVID with infections rising exponentially on the mainland. Vancouver Island is seeing somewhat higher rates of infections also, but nowhere near the numbers on the mainland!

During Spring, store closures and other business restrictions gradually eased. Additionally in May, there was encouragement from health authorities for the population to venture out and about for fresh air, exercise etc., but with a reminder to stay local and practice appropriate physical distancing, of course! And in mid-June, BC Parks campgrounds were allowed to accept campers once again.
Those who prefer to reserve a campsite found that the reservation system was overloaded and difficult to access due to the shear number of stir-crazy would be campers with cabin fever trying to find a piece of dirt somewhere to camp on! Outdoor stores were selling camping gear like hotcakes and RV dealers were having a field day!

As for me, I was still getting lots of miles in on the bike with local rides and some limited hiking. But yes, getting antsy about getting my camping gear and new touring bike out for a campout somewhere… anywhere! Well the health officer’s rules were that we were to travel to relatively local parks to limit the possible spread of COVID.
Well fortunately for me, my most local parks are on the spectacular Southern Gulf Islands of BC and accessible via a short ferry ride from here in Sidney, BC!
So this blog post is a collage of several short bike camping trips to the islands for two or three days, during which I hiked some of the available trails there.

Ferry Terminals and Campgrounds
Ferry Terminals and Campgrounds
Coast Guard Hovercraft

As soon as I could, about one week after camping restrictions lifted, I woke Basil up from his Winter hibernation (extra long this year due to COVID), packed the camping gear, food etc. onto the bike and rode the 5 km to the Swartz Bay ferry terminal for a trip to one of my favourite venues of Ruckle Park on Saltspring Island. The bike ride to Ruckle from the ferry dock in Fulford Harbour is a short 10 km ride; it may be a short ride but that short ride is lengthened by the numerous hilly sections. One of the longest hills stares you in the face immediately on arrival at Fulford! With camping gear and a couple of days worth of food loaded on the bike, it can be quite a grind in some areas.
But basically, all the Gulf Islands are hilly rides but you don’t get all that wonderful scenery without a bit of sweat equity!

Sunrise

In retrospect, I’m glad that I went at that time of the year, as the walk-in campsites at Ruckle were still readily available, later in the year would be a different story!
So I found a decent site, pitched my tent and relaxed with a beautiful ocean view to watch ferry and boat traffic cruising by.
The next day, I watched a beautiful sunrise after which was breakfast together with a couple of coffees, then it was time to set off on a hike along the trails at Ruckle Park. I was hoping to meet as few people as possible on the trails due to COVID physical distancing etc., and in fact I only met up with two hikers at the start of my hike.

Map of Trail System

The trails at Ruckle are varied in terrain and difficulty. Basically there are many easy sections and there are also many that require some extra attention for foot placement. If heights are not your “cup of tea” then the section from Bear Point to Coppermine Point should be avoided. Although not rising to a great height a short portion of that section is a very narrow rocky trail ascending very quickly with steep drop-offs.
The following photos are all taken along some of the extensive trial system there.

These next images represent some sections of the trails at Ruckle Park
that I hiked this year…

Adjacent to Ruckle Provincial Park is the working Ruckle Farm, where there are heritage buildings, farm animals and a delightful farm stand with a variety of edibles. I usually plan to route part of my hike through this area before arriving back at my campsite, maybe with a large cookie from the stand in my pack!

I visited Ruckle once again in August, and what a different scenario. I arrived mid-week, as usually it is quite busy in mid-Summer but more so on weekends. So a mid-week arrival usually allows for some empty campsites to choose from. About 3 km from the campground I saw a sign at the side of the road declaring. “Campground Full!” “Crap, ” I thought, but was still hopeful for perhaps a few sites having been vacated that morning. After travelling to Saltspring Island from Galiano Island (more about that later in this post) including a lengthy ferry trip to get there, I felt that it was still worth the effort to go and check it out before admitting defeat and heading home!
The park services building is just before the entrance to the park proper, so I stopped there and asked the young lady park operator if the campground really was full? She replied that in fact it was, BUT there was an overflow area for visitors who arrived by bicycle. OK great! Well the overflow area was a small hilly area of tramped down long grass, no picnic table and no view of anything, all for the same price as the regular sites! Not very appealing, to say the least. However it was late afternoon and I didn’t fancy riding anymore hills that day, so set up camp there for the night. Another couple of cyclists pulled in a little later and were as disgusted as I was. To add to our misery, a small group of loud teenage girls who had set up camp in an off-limits area were moved to our “cyclists only” area, goodbye to a peaceful evening. Basil was not amused to say the least!

In the morning, I broke camp and set off to catch the ferry back home, I couldn’t handle another night of rolling around in tent due to my hilly location and listening to endless jibber-jabber of teenage girls! The original plan was to go hiking again, but I was more than happy to depart the campground for the quiet roads of the island and the pleasant ferry ride home!

More COVID restrictions were lifted later in the Summer including the opening of schools in early September. Good news for me as I figured the campgrounds would be emptying somewhat and allow for one more trip to Saltspring. To add to my elation, camping fees are reduced by 50% for seniors after the September Labour Day holiday in BC, bonus! Sunny skies resulted in panniers being packed and off I cycled to catch the ferry to Saltspring once again.

What a difference when I arrived there this time. There were only about twenty sites occupied out of the seventy-eight available, in addition to a peaceful aura rather than the hustle and bustle of the previous visit when the campground was full. I found a great waterfront site and set up my socially distanced camp.

Very quiet in September

The next day I hiked some more of the trail system at Ruckle and met up with no one, very peaceful and safe! The next morning I returned home. A very pleasant experience unlike mid-Summer!

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