There’s a mystery that surrounds Mitlenatch Island – it sometimes seems to float above the surface of the water on certain days, just as in this photo of it I took from the east side of Quadra Island, and to appear both close and far at the same time. In fact the Kwakiutl name for it is: ‘looks close but seems to move away as you approach.’
Another strange thing about Mitlenatch is that it doesn’t look like any other of the Discovery Islands. Instead of being covered in forests of green, Mitlenatch is brown and gray, and virtually treeless. There is a reason for this – Mitlenatch sits in a rain shadow, and doesn’t get the benefit of the precipitation that falls about 30 kilometres west on Vancouver Island. In this unusual micro climate, flora not common to the area grow. Since the island doesn’t have a dock or place to tie up a boat, I didn’t think there was a way to step foot on Mitlenatch to see these rare plants, until I bumped into Mike Moore, who owns Misty Isles Adventures with his wife Samantha.
Moore offers day trips to Mitlenatch through the Cortes Island Museum, taking people there aboard his 42 foot sailboat, Misty Isles. I joined the tour on a beautiful June day, leaving from Cortes Bay on the south end of Cortes Island.
Lynne Jordan from the Cortes Museum brought the off island passengers from the Whaletown ferry down to Cortes Bay, so that they didn’t have to bring their own vehicles. Captain Mike met us at the dock, then ferried us over to Misty Isles on the zodiac. Once aboard, he gave his safety talk, including instructions on how to use the ‘head’ then asked for volunteers to help unfurl a sail, to take advantage of the pleasant breeze blowing that morning. As we cruised along at a comfortable six knots, he then pulled out the charts, and we all gathered round to learn about where we were, and where we were going.
After about an hour at sea, it was already time for lunch – an excellent meal of Samantha’s homemade hot pizza and a cool salad, made with mostly local ingredients, served by crew member Amy. By the time we had eaten, we were already drawing close to Mitlenatch. Because the requirement for tour operators is to have one guide for every six people, half the group went to shore with Amy for the land tour, and the rest of us circumnavigated Mitlenatch with Captain Mike.
This was a treat as Moore is a profoundly knowledgeable guide and naturalist as well as being very enthusiastic about his subject matter. I’d been around Mitlenatch before but the only birds I could identify were the gulls and cormorants.
Captain Mike pointed out all the seabirds in view that day and he can tell you just about anything you might want to know about the wildlife species that make Mitlenatch their home – why they are there, what they do and what they look like at different times of the year.
He also brought our attention to the different layers on the rock face that were covered with different vegetation, depending on what nourished them.
When we got back to the beach, it was our turn for the land portion of the tour. Amy took us along the designated pathways, identifying various plants along the way.
I was surprised to see so many berries – the natural BC blackberries, some of which were already ripe, as well as bushes of Saskatoon berries. We went up to the caretaker’s shelter and were fortunate that Peggy Sowden was on duty and happy to take us around. A veteran steward of Mitlenatch since her UBC Farm days in 1971, Peggy is a member of MIST (Mitlenatch Island Stewardship Team), a nonprofit organization formed in 2010 to protect the delicate ecosystem of this special island, that in 1961 was designated a BC Provincial Nature Park.
On the way back to Cortes, we dropped off some passengers at the Twin Islands and had the opportunity to see the lodge that once housed European royalty and was visited by Queen Elizabeth II and Prince Phillip. We also stopped at Captain Mike’s secret location to see the graceful Arctic Terns that he said were 3000 miles away from where they currently should be.
The Cortes Museum will be running other trips with Misty Isles Adventures to other destinations this year – check them out on their website here. Many thanks to fellow passenger and photographer extraordinaire Lynn Marttila for the excellent photos!