Travel Story 

The best of Thetis Island

Clam Bay Bed and Breakfast

The folks on Thetis Island are justifiably proud of their volunteer fire department. After all the men and women standing-by on 911 are their friends and neighbours – part of a close knit community of around 350 people where almost everyone knows everyone else. And certainly everyone knows Donna Kaiser who runs her legendary catering service from her B&B on Clam Bay. So when a fire was reported on Clam Bay Road the crew immediately knew it would be "a catered affair". They were right. By the time the burning shed had been doused Donna had fresh coffee and muffins waiting for them on the back of the fire truck.

That was last winter. Donna chuckles as she tells the story and pours me an early morning coffee.

"We're a pretty self reliant bunch here on Thetis," she says, "even the coffee beans are fresh roasted right here on the island every week."

With only 350 permanent residents Thetis is one of the least populated of the Gulf Islands and yet it is one of the most accessible. The regular ferry from Chemainus takes a little more than half an hour to reach Preedy Harbour on Thetis. Except for a couple of marinas the island has very little commercial development, no public parks, limited overnight accommodations – and that's exactly the way the locals would like it to stay.

Betty and I "discovered" the Clam Bay Cottage B&B, Donna's place, in 1998 and have come back as often as possible ever since. Located on the southeast corner of Thetis Island, at the very end of Clam Bay road, the main house and adjacent cottage face the ocean on a point of land surrounded by arbutus trees and gardens. The view across Trincomali Channel, past Reid Island to the cliffs of Galiano is classic Gulf Islands – the sort of scenery that can lure you into the outdoor hammock, or one of the comfortable lawn chairs for an hour or a day of just relaxing, watching the boats go by, and feeling the tensions of city life ebb away with the tide.

Indeed many of Donna's guests come here to simply veg-out and recharge their batteries. The two tastefully furnished rooms in the main building, the Arbutus Room, and the Louise Room, where Betty and I are staying, each have armchairs, great views, and a selection of good books. And both have easy access to the common living room with its picture window, fireplace and extensive library. The nearby cottage, where daughter Barbara and family are settled in, is completely self-contained with two bedrooms, kitchen and spacious living room with fireplace. For the less sedentary among us, Clam Bay B&B is also an ideal base for exploring the central Gulf Islands by kayak.

By the time Barb and Bob and my two sleepy grandchildren, Tara and Bryce, emerged from the cottage Donna had breakfast set up on the front deck. While digging into hot blueberry pancakes, bacon, and fresh fruit we tried to agree on a plan. With only two days to kayak there were way too many choices. Tide was wrong for going through Porlier Pass to Galiano. Saltspring was a possibility as were Tent or Reid islands. In the end we settled on a trip to Wallace Island and a circumnavigation of Thetis for day-two.

Getting down to the water from the Clam Bay B&B is a minor challenge. Boats have to be carried from the front lawn, down a few broad stairs to the beach, but for two people its a cinch. And patches of fine gravel, between ribs of sandstone projecting out into the ocean, provide easy launching pads.

In less than half an hour the six of us were underway. Skirting Penelakut Spit on the south side of Clam Bay we turned into Houstoun Passage and headed south past the privately owned Secretary Islands. Gliding silently past wave-sculptured offshore rocks we try not to alarm families of basking seals and flocks of cormorants. At Chivers Point, on the northern tip of Wallace, we cross over to the east side and half a kilometre later slip into the sheltered lagoon of Cabin Bay for lunch on a rocky knoll overlooking Trincomli Channel. Except for a small portion of land around Princess Cove, Wallace Island is a publicly owned marine park with campsites and a network of trails. But there was no camping on this trip – our last one of the paddling season. Instead we pampered ourselves by cruising back to Clam Bay for a hot shower, a cool drink, and a great meal in Donna's cottage.

For guests like ourselves Clam Bay B&B is the ultimate place to relax and wind down but behind the scenes its the incredibly hard work of Donna that makes it all happen. She is one of those super achieving people who seem to accomplish the impossible without ever appearing to be busy. Always smiling, never in a flap, she not only owns and runs the B&B – by herself – she also runs Catering by Donna, which offers everything from traditional English afternoon tea on the lawn to sit-down gourmet dinners for 50 or more on the deck. Her clientele ranges from wedding parties and family reunions to corporate retreats and think tanks.

Donna grew up in the land-locked town of McBride but once she discovered the Coast there was no looking back. She moved to Thetis Island 26 years ago, raised her four children in a house not far from her present home. When she found herself alone in 1992 she acquired the Clam Bay property, convinced a reluctant bank manager to back her, planted gardens, refurbished the old original buildings, and in 1995 the Clam Bay B&B was launched. Since then she has made friends with people from around the world – guests, like ourselves, who keep coming back and stay in touch between visits.

The tide was out on day-two when we started our trip around the island. Leaving the western end of Clam Bay and entering the channel between Thetis and Kuper Islands the water was just deep enough to float our kayaks. Jets of water squirt from clams buried in the muddy banks where tangled clusters of purple starfish wait for the incoming tide.

Like Siamese twins joined at the hip, Thesis and Kuper Islands were once connected by mud flats that dried at low tide. In 1905 work was begun on a controversial channel that would provide a short-cut for boats traveling between Porlier Pass and Vancouver Island. The original specifications called for a low-tide depth of six feet but they were never met. The channel still dries at low tide, but the unfinished ditch is still there – a physical barrier not only between two islands, but also between two cultures with strikingly different histories.

Before the first Europeans arrived Kuper Island was a major Coast Salish settlement with many longhouses and a thriving native economy. But subsequent disputes with early white settlers over land tenure led to a series of conflicts that culminated in 1863 when the British gunboat "Forward" attacked the native village on Kuper Island. The natives responded with musket fire. People were killed on both sides and the colonial government responded by launching the largest military operation in British Columbia history. Outgunned and racked by introduced disease the Salish people, their land alienated and their jurisdiction eroded, were forced to capitulate. In 1890 the notorious Kuper Island residential school was opened by the Catholic Church and generations of Coast Salish children on Kuper Island suffered loss of culture, language and family. Today Kuper Island is a private First Nations Reserve. The 185 members of the Penelakut Band who live there are still healing from their dark historical legacy and visits to the island are by invitation only.

Thetis Island, on the other side of the ditch, was first settled in 1874 by British pioneers who rushed in to buy cheap government land. Unable to cope with the harsh conditions the island was virtually abandoned until a second wave of settlers arrived in the late 1890s. Today Thetis Island is entirely privately owned, mostly rural residences, and many of the folks who live here are direct descendants of the British pioneers who settled Thetis around the turn of the century.

Including a long lunch stop where the kids terrorized starfish and fed cracked mussels to hungry kelp crabs, it took us about five hours to paddle around Thetis. Back at Donna's it was time to pack up our kayaks for another season. But with so many places still waiting to be explored we'll definitely be back next spring – and maybe even drop in for a bit of R&R this winter.

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