Strange and wonderful things can happen when you are caught trespassing on Salt Spring Island in the Canadian province of British Columbia.
The largest of the Southern Gulf Islands, off the coast of Vancouver Island, Salt Spring has always been a place where people have gone to hide. Native Canadians (“First Nations” people) embraced its obscure namesake springs before the arrival of the British East India Company and “Banana Joe” Clement, who planted palm trees in the Mediterranean sub-climate. Slaves fleeing indenture found refuge here in the 1850s, as did American draft dodgers in the 1960s.
In recent decades, Salt Spring has become an oasis for artists and craftspeople, along with farmers who want their plots small and simple. In fact, there are more than 1,100 privately owned businesses on this island of fewer than 11,000 full-time residents. “We’ve kept a lot of hippie culture alive,” said Janet Clouston, executive director of Salt Spring Island Tourism, noting that hitchhiking and ride sharing are encouraged.
Some of the island’s residents are painters and sculptors and writers, or musicians such as Raffi and wildlife artists like Robert Bateman. Others are ceramists, jewelers, woodworkers, soap makers, fiber artists, shoemakers and shipwrights. There are goatherds and vegetable farmers, cheese and sausage makers, beer and wine producers, orchardists and olive pressers. The seasonal Saturday market (April through October) is grand indeed.
Many of these artisans welcome visitors to their farms and studios, if not as walk-ins, then by appointment. Natan deBridge produces handmade, custom-fitted sandals — “simple, elegant and super-comfortable,” he said — of 3,000-year-old Ethiopian design. Sean Goddard shows off sculpted insects. Julie MacKinnon displays handmade porcelains. Like many Saltspring inhabitants, Tara Huth brought her family to the island for a slower pace of life than her home in Toronto. She now designs flowing comfortable clothes sewn in Thailand and sold at the Om Grown clothing store in Ganges village.
Diana Dean’s studio
Barb and I were near the north end of the 70-square-mile island, having paid a visit to the Blue Horse Folk Art Gallery, when we made a slight detour. Blue Horse had been wonderful: We were shown around by Anna Gustafson, a raku ceramist who has owned the gallery since 1999 who now paints encaustic (beeswax) multi-panel canvases combining words and pictures. The gallery is filled with paintings and whimsical animal sculptures from partner Paul Burke. We were ready for more.
“Paul’s mom lives just next door,” Anna had said. We didn’t know that “mom” is Diana Dean, one of Canada’s most highly acclaimed painters.
We ascended a steep, graveled driveway, then parked and wandered briefly across grounds left to grow wild, remarking on curious sculptures and carvings. Then the door to a humble abode was suddenly thrown open and a pony-tailed man of my generation invited us to step in. He didn’t seem at all upset when we showed up, unannounced, at their doorstep.
Stephen Glanville, a musician and Dean’s business partner, welcomed us to the modest and cluttered home. (I’ve never met a brilliant artist whose home wasn’t somewhat chaotic.) He took us into the studio where the 75-year-old Diana was hard at work on another canvas.
I was stunned at the body of work that surrounded her. The woman never slows down. Dozens of colorful oversized paintings, pastels and oils, glimpses of more than a half-century of work, stood against walls around her. “Oh, that’s nothing,” Glanville said. He led me into an adjoining storeroom that held hundreds more.
Dean’s paintings, many of them large enough to cover a full wall, are mainly expressionistic landscapes and portraits, frequently with a strong symbolic element. Her choice of colors, always vivid, has become even more brilliant in recent years.
“My search is to find the essence of my inner vision, to be with it as I paint, to be totally open and connected,” said Diana, who in 2016 was inducted into the Royal Canadian Academy of Arts, an honor reserved for the country’s finest artists.
Around the island
The Southern Gulf Islands comprise an archipelago of heavily wooded keys that extend just north and west of Washington state’s San Juan Islands. Salt Spring is the easiest to reach: It is a half-hour ferry ride from Swartz Bay (near Victoria) to Fulford Harbour, at the south end of the island. (Ferries from two other island locations connect to other Gulf Islands and the British Columbia mainland.)
Fulford is a tiny village with a café and grocery, a bakery-bookstore, and a couple of art studios (check out fiber art by Siballa at The Wardrobe). Nearby is the historic St. Paul’s Roman Catholic Church; shell necklaces on late 19th-century graves recall an early Hawaiian population.
The only real town on the island is Ganges, named for a British ship that anchored here in the 1850s. Eight miles from Fulford, it has a shopping center, galleries and several excellent restaurants. We enjoyed Auntie Pesto’s Café, for moderately priced seafood and Italian cuisine with a good wine list, and Moby’s Pub, for great atmosphere and surprisingly gourmet comfort fare.
Lodging options include Hastings House, a small but luxurious Relais & Chateau resort and spa on 22 acres. I also like Hedgerow House: With solar energy, water catchment, electric-car charging and a yoga studio, it truly captures the spirit of a town that operates on volunteer energy without any sort of civic government.
Our choice of The Cottages on Salt Spring Island suited us perfectly. The 50 vacation rentals opened in June 2017 beside tiny Bullock Lake, barely a mile from Ganges. With bedrooms in a loft and a basement, it was perfect for a family group.
Best of all was the kitchen. We delighted in buying food from various farm stands, inevitably leaving money in a box according to an island-wide “honor system.” We found veggies at the North End Farm, pork sausage at a stand on Furness Road, eggs (including duck eggs and quail eggs) at several locations. The liquor store in Ganges village introduced us to “The Great Red” blend from the Okanagan winery of hockey icon Wayne Gretzky.
Our favorite stop was Salt Spring Island Cheese at Weston Creek Farm, a short drive from Fulford. Not only did we meet the goats whose cream has been the basis for hand-made chèvres and fetas for more than two decades; we met the cheesemakers themselves and purchased jams and other condiments in a small but well-stocked store. In summer months we might have eaten at the cafe.
The oldest operating farm in British Columbia is the Ruckle Farm, at the southeast corner of Salt Spring Island. Its historic structures, which welcome visitors, are an integral part of Ruckle Provincial Park. We enjoyed hiking along the shoreline, around rocky headlands and tiny coves. Inter-island ferries cruised past but missed the Orca whale pod that had passed through the day before.
From the 1,900-foot summit of Mount Maxwell, the panoramic view was mind-boggling. From atop a sheer palisade, we looked westerly into fiord-like inlets piercing the shore of Vancouver Island. The hills were incredibly green, the water impossibly blue. A steep, rutted, 4-mile dirt road into Mount Maxwell Provincial Park may have been better suited for an off-road vehicle than a passenger car, but in dry weather, we took it slow and made it easily. The park was expanded in 2001 to conserve Burgoyne Bay at its foot; a strenuous trail connects the two.
Below the south flank of Mount Maxwell, Garry Oaks Estate Winery has a 10-acre vineyard that dates from the 1880s. Nearby is Salt Spring Island Ales, which uses locally grown hops to produce a half-dozen beers: a light amber, a honeyed lager, a bitter, an IPA, a dry porter (my favorite) and a weighty (8.4% alcohol) crème brûlée vanilla stout.