BY PAUL GREY
Rounding Gallows Point in my kayak with my friend Lyle Wilkinson, I was sure I could hear voices saying, “Look at the ship, mommy. It’s on fire. Can we go look?” A lady with two children approached the burning ship, which had just been beached. Not much had happened on Protection Island lately and this was exciting. The S.S. Oscar had attempted to round the point, but a winter gale had forced them back the day before. The steamer, loaded with 1910 cases of powder in its hold and 1800 kegs of black powder on deck, was a virtual bomb. The next morning, the captain cast off into a wall of heavy snow. Suddenly, they discovered a fire burning in the bunker coal and it couldn’t be extinguished. The crew abandoned ship, but in their haste lost their lifeboat. Desperate to get his men off, the ship was driven onto shore. Escaping from the fire, a crew member grabbed the women and her children, just reaching safety before the explosion destroyed the boat and the Protection Island pithead and coalmine wharves. In Nanaimo, a rush of air swept through the town blowing out windows, stampeding horses and buggies, and scaring the wits out of the town people. Explosions usually meant death at a local mine. There were no deaths that day on January 15, 1913.
Kayaking around Protection and Newcastle Islands is a veritable trip into history. Armed with Bill Merilee’s book Newcastle Island: A Place of Discovery or one of the local historical accounts its amazing what one can discover while enjoying a scenic paddle in the immediate Nanaimo area. Traveling from Gallows Point to Mark Bay on Newcastle Island Provincial Park, I remember reading an account of coal miners hundreds of feet under the channel telling the time by the synchronicity of a ship`s schedule and the particular rhythm or reverberation of the same ship`s propeller.
There are several places to land along the park`s southern shoreline for further historical tours. Behind the caretaker`s cabin is the quarry area. This is a great place to explore with children. Eight thousand tons of sandstone blocks were first removed from the site for the construction of the San Francisco Mint Building. It`s hard to believe it was sold for 3 dollars a ton! A small trail takes you past some pulp stones and up a small hill to a pile of blocks.
On a second trip around Newcastle Island I launched again from the Brechin boat ramp and crossed to Shaft Point and entered Departure Bay. Along the island`s shoreline from Shaft Point to Tyne Point is Saltery Beach. In the late 1880`s salteries were established by the Japanese. They controlled a good part of the salmon and herring industry. The Japanese success was not welcome by many people in Nanaimo. Suspiciously, a 1912 fire destroyed four salteries. If you beachcomb you might find some remnants of this period of time. People have been combing this beach for decades and found a number of interesting items.
Paddling around Newcastle Island is a good half-day trip. Along the Salish Sea Newcastle Island shoreline, you might see Giovando Lookout on top of Nares Point or you might explore Kanaka Bay on a higher tide. In 1868, Peter Kakua committed a multiple homicide, murdering his wife, her parents and his child. He was captured at Kanaka Bay and brought back by canoe. He did manage to escape overboard into the cold December waters, but was re-captured by being beat with a paddle over the head. I didn`t see any fugitives in the water, today, but I kept a tight grip on my paddle shaft just in case. From the bay you can kayak back to Nanaimo Harbour through the narrow channel between Newcastle and Protection Islands. You need at least a two-foot tide or you`ll be carrying your boat.
If you are traveling by car or bicycle the Newcastle Island ferry leaves Maffeo Sutton Park dock, located in downtown Nanaimo, 9am-9pm during the summer. Kayaks can be rented on Newcastle Island (small booth at the foot of the dock) or at the Brechin boat ramp near the Departure Bay ferry terminal from the Nanaimo Adventure Center (Toll Free: 1-866-765-2925). There are a number of descriptive signs in the provincial park about the quarry and island trails. The park also sports a concession stand open most of the day.
Volunteers are still needed to help prepare for the arrival of the Visitor Reception Centre, expected to arrive mid September. Please contact wharfinger Mark Mercer at 250-245-1146.