Stars and Sand: Camping in the Broken Group Islands

With their awe-inspiring natural beauty, the Broken Group Islands (BGI), located in Barkley Sound on the west coast of Vancouver Island, have become a Mecca for paddlers from around the world.

Established as part of Canada’s Pacific Rim National Park, this cluster of more than 100 islands is famous for its vibrant and diverse marine life and paddling opportunities for all levels of paddlers.

The Broken Group is also rich in human history, inhabited for more than 5000 years by the Tseshaht First Nations people who once numbered almost 10,000 souls. Much more recent on the scene were coastal settlers who pioneered the rugged west coast, carving a tenuous living along these frequently storm-tossed shores.

Since being granted National Park status in 1973, efforts have been made to minimize human impact and to promote conservation, while affording opportunities for visitors to experience this magical archipelago. Parks Canada has designated seven campsites throughout the park, making it possible for kayakers to spend some quality time exploring these idyllic islands and immersing themselves in the kind of raw, unfettered beauty that is remembered for a lifetime.

The Tseshaht beach keepers, who have traditionally cared for these lands now work in partnership with Parks Canada to maintain the campsites, which today include such environmentally-innovative amenities as state-of-the-art composting toilets.

As a guide who has worked in the Broken Group for six years, I have explored every corner of the Broken Group. Here is an overview of the seven designated recreation sites and my observations about the unique pleasures (and yes, drawbacks) of each one.

Happy camping!

Hand Island

On the north corner of the BGI , Hand Island is a great place to camp if you are kayaking into the park from the Secret Beach kayak launch located in the Toquaht Bay area of Barkley sound, only a 2.5-hour paddle away. It also makes a perfect place to spend the night if you want to paddle out of the park the next morning, affording an opportunity to cross Loudoun Channel before the inevitable afternoon wind picks up.

A low tide offers a beautiful white sand and pebble beach, and you can explore the forest beneath a canopy of trees, perhaps discovering the remnants of an old family homestead. The only disadvantage to Hand Island is that it can become quite crowded, owing to its location as a stepping stone for kayaking in and out of the park.

Dodd Island

Located along the northwestern end of the park is a cozy place to camp if your good luck weather charm fails you and you need a place to hunker down for a few days. Dodd also makes a great base camp thanks to its central location that allows you to visit all corners of the park. With its large trees and open forest, this site offers lots of cover from the elements (and easy tarp set-ups) when the rain moves in. Its north beach is especially beautiful at dusk with its inspiring views out over Barkley Sound.

The only problems with Dodd are that it loses the afternoon sun early and the rocky beaches are not particularly conducive to swimming.

Photo by Kevin Bradshaw

Willis Island

Moving west from Dodd, approximately a 20-minute paddle away, Willis Island has a great sunset beach around the point if you want to make the most of a sunny day! With its big trees, Willis, like Dodd, is a great island to explore and also offers cover during rainy weather. Unfortunately, as big as the camping area on Willis is, there are many areas with uneven ground making that ideal tenting spot somewhat hard to find. It’s a good place for hammocks! In addition, much of the beach disappears at high tide.

Turret Island

Heading southwest from Willis Island across Thiepval Channel, Turret Island is a favorite spot, offering epic sunsets, grassy camp sites and a trail through big trees on its southern end, reached via a ten-minute paddle through a maze of stunning small islets. The grassy camping spots can become quite crowded and you’ll likely find yourself in close proximity to your neighbors. Not recommended for someone with Agoraphobia! Be sure to pull your kayak up at night as much of the beach disappears at high tide.

Gibraltar Island

Gibraltar Island is a great place to set up for the night if you wish to access the eastern part of the park. Wonders abound! Check out the face on Reeks Island (a mysterious  two meter-high rendering of a human face carved in the rock), the Jacques-Jarvis Lagoon or the sea caves and rock channels on the outside of both Gibraltar and Dempster Island.  Gibraltar also sees a lot of visitors due to its proximity to Sechart Lodge and it is popular with beginner paddlers who rent kayaks at the lodge. This proximity makes it an excellent ingress/egress point to the Broken Group. Beware the chipmunks of Gibraltar – they are famous for pilfering camp food!

Photo by Kevin Bradshaw

Gilbert Island

Gilbert Island is the place to camp if you want to spend a day exploring the dynamic outer islands on the western side of the park. Located among the outer islands, it has a huge open forest and lots of tenting spots. Its position allows paddlers to explore the outer islands without having to worry about battling the infamous winds crossing Coaster Channel. It has a beautiful beach which gets lots of sun and serves as a choice swimming hole. The only problem with Gilbert is that the camping area is east-facing and loses the light early, a cue for mosquitoes that arrive in clouds at dusk.

Clarke Island  

In the west corner of the park, Clarke Island is the crown jewel of the Broken Group. With its white sandy beaches and amazing sunsets, Clarke offers up one of the most scenic camping spots in the entire BGI. The camping area offers a glimpse into the past – an inn (that doubled as a brothel!) once stood here. Today only the chimney and fire place remain to piqué your imagination.

There is a plethora of flat tenting spots, including the unique BGI camping experience of setting up your tent right in front of the fireplace. The snorkeling around Clark island is phenomenal in the huge lagoon west of the camping area where the waters are filled with bat stars and other marine life. The beauty of Clarke is both a blessing and a curse, as it draws paddlers like flame draws moths. Sometimes there are 60 people overnighting here. These crowds have also drawn a prodigious population of mice eager to share your evening meal.

Photo by Kevin Bradshaw

In all, if you were to ask me what my favorite camping spot in the entire Broken Group is, I would say, “all of them.” Having spent many seasons in these splendid islands, BGI has become my summer home and each spot has a special place in my heart.

If you find yourself here, dipping a paddle into the aquamarine waters, you’ll soon understand what I mean.

Phill Padgham is a guide with Hello Nature Adventure Tours in Ucluelet, BC


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