Unearth the rich history that nature has reclaimed at Newcastle Island
For years, we’ve heard about British Columbia’s Newcastle Island from fellow boaters. But our float plan always took us in other directions. Even when Arlene and I visited Nanaimo for provisions on our annual migration north, we never seemed to have the time to visit nearby Newcastle.
It’s just another provincial park, we rationalized. We were seeking wilderness, wildlife and seclusion. But last year on our way back from our trip north, we decided to spend the remainder of the day at the 830-acre island to see for ourselves what all the hype was about. We were very impressed.
The entire island is a provincial park and is only accessible by private vessel or small foot ferry from nearby Nanaimo during the summer months.
After a sloppy early morning crossing of the Strait of Georgia, we tucked into Departure Bay at the north end of the island to get out of the weather and followed Newcastle Island Passage south, keeping the Shaft Point buoy to port, then favoring the east side of the channel at the Oregon Rock markers, to the park’s only moorage area in Mark Bay.
When Dioisio Galiano, commanding a Spanish fleet, first saw the island in 1792, it served as a seasonal settlement (September to April) for the Snenymos First Nation people, part of the Coast Salish Group.
After a local First Nation native known as Coal Tyee showed Hudson’s Bay Co. explorers a shiny black mineral that was common here, Newcastle and the surrounding area became the center of coal mining activity. British settlers arrived and named the island after the famous coal town in northern England, and mining for coal on the island began in 1853.
The island also hosted a support industry at the time. A dogfish factory made fish oil for miners’ lamps until coal mining activity ceased in 1903.
High-quality sandstone was discovered during coal mining operations, and quarrying operations were conducted from 1869 to 1932.
The island was purchased and developed as a resort in the early 1930s by Canadian Pacific Railroad, as a destination for steamer excursions from Vancouver. During the popular day trips, as many as 1,500 people would arrive at the resort, crowding its tea house and beaches. A pavilion, with a specially constructed “floating” floor, attracted crowds of avid dancers. For folks who wanted to stay longer, two ships tied to the dock served as hotels. World War II curtailed the tourism business, making the island quiet again.
In 1955, the city of Nanaimo purchased the island but couldn’t afford to develop it, so it was turned over to the province in 1961, on the condition that it would remain a park. Today, nature has almost hidden the fact that Newcastle Island was the center of industry in the early 1900s, but a careful eye reveals the island’s historical gems.
The year-round park offers 1,500 feet of first-come, first-served guest moorage, washrooms and showers but no water or power on the docks. Anchorage is prohibited in Mark Bay, to protect the sensitive ecology of the seabed, but there are 43 moorage buoys available. The anchor can be set south of the buoy field in 25 feet of water over a good-holding bottom. There are 18 campsites scattered about the southern end of island with water nearby, for boaters without sleeping facilities on board.
Once Easy Goin’ was secured to a mooring buoy, it was time to launch the dinghy and go explore what the island had to offer. With more than 13½ miles of well-maintained trails circling the island and crisscrossing the park, there was plenty to see. At various points along the trails, maps and plaques identify natural and historical points of interest.
Curiously, while the docks and immediate area were filled with visitors on a Canadian holiday weekend, the woodland trails seemed to be deserted. During our four-hour walk, we encountered only two other individuals.
The western trail leads hikers past an old quarry, where artifacts and photo displays show how huge rounds used to grind wood in early pulp mills were quarried here. Giant pulpstones were cut from sandstone. The three-ton pieces were cut with a cylindrical saw, then loosened from the ground with a small explosion. Then they were hoisted to a lathe for a finishing cut. The finish stones were shipped to pulp mills across Canada.
Farther north, near Midden Bay, it was a challenge to find the remains of an old sandstone quarry that is now covered by moss and forest growth. High-quality stone from this site was used to build the San Francisco Mint.
The trail turns inland near Shaft Point, and it’s possible to scramble along a lower path to reach a gentle beach fronting Departure Bay. Once the site of a First Nation village, this also was the location of a Japanese community before World War II.
The north end of the island rises steeply from the shore and provides fine views out over the Strait of Georgia, especially at Giovando Lookout.
On the island’s eastern shore is Kanaka Bay, named after Peter Kakua, a native Hawaiian, probably brought over as a laborer by the Hudson’s Bay Co. Along the bay’s north shore is a forest of Madrona trees with red bark lit up by the sun.
At Kanaka Bay, when the tide floods on a hot afternoon, the waist-deep water warms for swimming. The rock-and-sand bottom, dry at low tide, is heated by the sun and turns the water warm as the tide comes in.
From the shoreline trail, several trails lead inland through the forested interior of evergreens, alders, maples, oaks and moss-covered forest floor toward beautiful Mallard Lake. The lake was originally manmade, to supply water to the mine shafts below. Today, however, it looks very natural, playing host to muskrats, beavers and different species of fish. A bald eagle perched in a dead snag, and the forest was reflected in the pond’s mirror-like surface.
The island is teeming with wildlife, and we were lucky enough to encounter rare albino raccoons, rabbits, otters and deer.
Back at the dock area, the old Pavilion houses an interpretive center and a café that serves a menu of fast food and beverages — and generous servings of ice cream in a cup or on a sugar cone, which were very refreshing after our trek around the island. Surrounding the Pavilion are playground equipment, volleyball courts, horseshoe pits and an over-sized checkerboard.
Dinghy to Dinner
For dinner, it was back in the dinghy to motor over to nearby Protection Island and Canada’s first floating pub, the Dingy Dock Pub. In addition to draft beers and other beverages, the pub serves a wide selection of seafood, hamburgers, fish and chips, stir-fry, salads and pizzas. In summer, live entertainment is featured on Friday and Saturday evenings.
Back on Easy Goin’, the sun set behind the mountain backbone of Vancouver Island, turning the sky brilliant shades of red. Sitting on the back deck in the warm evening air, we toasted Newcastle Island and committed to return, as the lights of Nanaimo twinkled across the darkening hills.