The sun shone brightly, as the lightest touch of wind swayed the treetops of Buckley Bay. Crossing Baynes Sound, it dawned on me that this was a morning borne of dreams. The distant barking of sea lions echoed from the shore, several herons fished silently in the shallows, and almost inevitably, an eagle swooped overhead. It was then that I noticed the leaves of trees had just begun to turn those bright colours of autumn. We were riding the cable ferry to Denman Island, a place that, up until that moment, had only lived in my imagination.
The plan was to camp at Fillongley Provincial Park, then spend a couple of days discovering what the island had to offer. I had speculated that midweek in October might just be the quintessential time for a visit, avoiding summer vacation crowds. Fillongley only has space for about a dozen campers, and finding yourself a spot in primetime is by most accounts quite challenging. To note, other accommodation is limited to a handful of bed and breakfast locations, and there are no private campgrounds on Denman Island.
Denman Island, for the uninitiated, lies just off the east coast of British Columbia’s Vancouver Island, which is on Canada’s west coast. It was named by Captain Richards of the British Navy in 1864 for Rear Admiral Joseph Denman, who commanded the Pacific station from 1864 to 1866. The island, by its indigenous name, is known as Sea-dai-aich, and is part of the traditional territory of the K’ómoks First Nation .
In the late 1800s, it was a largely undisturbed oasis of towering rainforest and deserted beaches. Today? Well, the island has changed since then, but much of what made it so alluring to early visitors still remains. The permanent population is now just over a thousand people, more in summer, and there are adequate amenities to support both the community and the needs of tourism. The pace of life on Denman is more measured during the fall season, when much of the community revolves around the simpler things. If you want to experience that flavour, just strike up a conversation, hang out at the general store, or drop in on one of the quality small businesses. On the other hand, you really can’t go wrong simply wandering the beaches and parks!
The land that comprises Fillongley Provincial Park was donated to the province of British Columbia in 1954 by George D. Beadnell, an Englishman who settled on Denman Island in the late nineteenth century. Not only is the park noted for its old growth forest, but he also planted numerous imported tree species and wildflowers that make the park a highly unique destination. Few signs of Beadnell’s old homestead still remain, but there is a site dedicated to his memory.
As it happened, the campsite was nearly deserted on the two nights we were there, making our stay very peaceful. The trails nearby were spectacular, with tall stands of old growth forest just waiting to be scouted. I’d been told that the park contained Douglas firs as old as five centuries, and the forest certainly did not disappoint. My son and I spent quite some time exploring the ancient trees and keeping the local Downy Woodpeckers company.
There is, of course, that expansive beach to walk that overlooks the Lambert Channel. Late afternoon hours were spent exploring the beach, which we seemed to have entirely to ourselves. We enjoyed seeing the Coast Mountains, Texada Island, and nearby Hornby Island across the Salish Sea.
We saw quite a variety of marine life during our stay, if not the whales we had hoped for. California Sea Lions, Steller Sea Lions and Harbour Seals were frequent visitors. Bird life, too, was very abundant, with Bald Eagles, Canada Geese, Pacific Loons, Surf Scoters, and Buffleheads in attendance, just to name a few. In spring, Fillongley Beach is usually alive with a very vibrant herring run, which draws hundreds of Sea Lions to its bounty, not to mention pods of Orcas!
It didn’t take me very long to figure out that the east side of Denman Island is well known for its sunrises, which suited me just fine because I always seem to wake early on camping trips. There’s something unsullied about the outset of new days, always giving you that chance for new beginnings.
After breakfast, we drove down to Boyle Point Provincial Park so that we could hike the trail, which gives you a view of Chrome Island Lighthouse, sitting just off the southwest end of Denman Island in Baynes Sound.
The forest was alive with the calls of birds as we made our way to the point. Douglas Firs and Western Hemlocks are the standouts of this forest, as well as some very secret locations within the many cliffs of the island’s southernmost reaches. I managed also to find several massive Arbutus trees, always attractive with their peeling reddish brown and yellow bark, twisting trunks, and bright green leaves.
Boyle Point is strictly a day use park where camping is not permitted, but it would be easy to spend an entire day there. Should you walk directly to the lighthouse viewpoint, don’t forget to check out the loop trail to Eagle Rock Viewpoint on your way back!
Having tasted the south end of Denman Island, it was time to head north. Along the way, we stopped in at Ima’s Kitchen to pick up a loaf of very fresh whole wheat sourdough bread, which I savoured for the next two days! Eventually, we arrived at Morning Beach Park, where I decided to hike down to the beach while everyone else had lunch.
I’d heard that if you were fortunate enough to reach the north point of Denman Island , that it was possible to walk out to Jáji7em and Kw’ulh Marine Park (aka Sandy Island Marine Park), as long as the tide is low. The park includes several small islets and Sandy Island, which locals also refer to as Tree Island. As I’d not checked the tide charts, I wasn’t able to reach the islands, but the joys of walking the beach left a lasting impression on me.
Since I did not meet a single soul on this hike, it seemed as though I was alone in the world, free to take in the nuances of a truly special place. The sandy bluffs, ancient trees, and the towering peaks of the Coast Mountains to the east all added to the experience. Reluctantly, I retraced my footprints in the sand and climbed the stairs up to the bluffs again. Rejoining my family, we all hiked some of the trails above the bluffs, and then I convinced everyone to visit the beach.
The second night at Fillongley proved as inspiring as the first. Eagles constantly chattered from the treetops as the day faded toward sunset. The croaks of Pacific Tree Frogs were a constant source of amusement, though try as I might I wasn’t able to locate one of the elusive creatures. Meanwhile, ever raucous Canada Geese were continually landing and departing until the last light finally disappeared. A starry night beside the campfire completed a most enthralling day.
For the second day in a row, I woke early, heading to the beach for sunrise. It was one of the more extraordinary mornings I have taken in since moving to Vancouver Island. The sun rose dramatically over Hornby Island, while a glance to the southwest revealed the shadow of Mt Arrowsmith in all its glory. Meanwhile, the Coast Mountains glittered, far across the Salish Sea. I was glad to have donned gloves and a warm jacket, as the October winds added a wintry bite to the morning air!
Returning to camp for a much needed cup of coffee and breakfast was next on the agenda, and after that, a stroll on Fillongley’s Homestead Trail. I had to know what history awaited me there, and at the very least, I wanted to pay my respects to George Beadnell. To leave such a fine piece of land he had nurtured so well for the enjoyment of others was a fine and gentlemanly gesture, and one which I will always appreciate. In keeping with tradition, the land was sold to British Columbia for the princely sum of one dollar, on the condition it would be made a provincial park.
After briefly wandering, I happened upon the sign that commemorates the park’s dedication. Nearby, as well, is the benefactor’s final resting place. I have to think he’d be more than happy with the location.
We took our time breaking camp while mulling over what time was ideal to catch the ferry back to Buckley Bay. We were reluctant to leave Denman Island and our campsite, but it was nice to know that it would always be less than two hours from where we live. Heartening too, was the thought that a man of Beadnell’s vintage chose to be a conservationist in an era where such things were often met with disdain or indifference. It might be part of why Denman Island retains its charms to this day, but whatever the reason, I’m certain we’ll return. George Beadnell had seen to that sixty five years ago!
If you’re interested in the wildlife and the ongoing efforts to preserve of nature and land on Denman Island, more information can be found at the Denman Conservancy Association