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Coastal Charms: Exploring Malcolm Island's Rich History and Natural Beauty

Updated: Sep 29, 2023

Welcome back to my Summer Van Life Road Trip series. If you're just joining me, make sure to catch up on my previous posts to follow my journey from the very beginning. Today, I'm taking you to a remote gem off the northeastern coast of Vancouver Island - Malcolm Island.


I thought three days for my visit to Marshall Island located at the north end of British Columbia's Johnstone Strait would be plenty. It's a small island, I reasoned. I could see the whole island in a day and enjoy plenty of gazing at the water (and hopefully spot some orcas) in that time. I was wrong. I stayed a week and only saw sights on half the island. I could have easily spent longer. Each hike, viewpoint, beach and swimming area deserves its day. It takes several days for the fascinating history of the little town of Sointula to steep into a visitor's heart. The majority of visitors to Marshall Island return and most of those return annually. I will be one of those who return.

Getting to Malcolm Island

Malcolm Island is a part of the Northern Gulf Islands in British Columbia, Canada. Its location in the Vancouver Island North region grants it a sense of seclusion while remaining easily accessible. It is one of the more northern islands of the Broughton Archipelago's 200+ island group. This off-the-beaten-path destination promises a blend of history, nature, and community spirit that is unlike any other.

The only vehicle access to Malcolm Island is from the town of Port McNeill on Vancouver Island. Visitors can fly into Port Hardy and then use the Island Link bus to Port McNeill. It is more likely that visitors will have a vehicle and will use the island highway to get to Port McNeill. Malcolm Island is also popular with the boating community and has a good-sized marina with all the services right on the edge of town.


My journey to Malcolm Island was a decision made on a whim, thanks to a delightful encounter with a young woman at Port McNeill's Tourist Information Office. With just 45 minutes to spare before the ferry's departure, she painted a vivid picture of Malcolm Island's allure, prompting me to seize the opportunity. The official 2023 ferry routes and schedules can be found here, making trip planning a breeze for those better organized than me. The cost for my adventure was $38.50 for a return trip, a steal for the experiences that awaited me.

As I drove onto the open-decked ferry, the sun was shining brilliantly on a clear day, casting a warm glow on the calm waters. The 25-minute journey was a feast for the senses, as the gentle sea breeze in my hair and the sun on my skin as we crossed the Johnstone Strait. But it was the view that stole the show. Most people stayed in their vehicles for the crossing but I urge you to get out and climb off the vehicle deck and enjoy the journey in either the open or the sheltered seating areas up top.


Malcolm Island's History

Long before the town of Sointula was built, First Nations tribes lived in, foraged, and hunted on Malcolm Island, as well as other nearby Islands. The Kwakwaka’wakw people are one group of tribes that once inhabited the region.

At its height, the tribes had 28 communities in the area, each of which spoke one of 4 dialects of the Kwakwaka’wakw (pronunciation here) language. Evidence exists of the Kwakwaka’wakw people settling the region as long as 8,000 years ago. Descendents of these tribes still live in the region today.


I discovered that Malcolm Island's settler history is intricately woven with Finnish heritage. The island community was established in 1901 by Finnish immigrants who were drawn to its remote beauty and the promise of a new beginning. Sointula, meaning "Place of Harmony," aptly encapsulates the ideals these settlers held close to their hearts.

The history of the Kalevan Kansa community on Malcolm Island is a fascinating tale of idealism, determination, and resilience. The community's roots trace back to the early 1900s when a group of Finnish immigrants, inspired by socialist and utopian ideals, sought to create a cooperative and egalitarian society in the Canadian wilderness.

Founded in 1901 by a charismatic leader named Matti Kurikka, the community aimed to establish a self-sufficient and collectively run settlement. The Canadian government granted the community the full island. They named their community "Kalevan Kansa," which translates to "People of Kaleva," a reference to the Finnish national epic, the Kalevala. The settlers believed in sharing resources, labour, and responsibilities, striving to create a society where everyone had an equal say and opportunity.

Despite facing numerous challenges, including unfamiliar terrain, harsh weather, and the demands of rural living, the Kalevan Kansa community managed to build a thriving existence. They established cooperative ventures including a general store, a sawmill, and even a cooperative newspaper. The community's dedication to communal living was reflected in their businesses and daily interactions. At its height, the community reached more than 2,000 people.

However, disaster plagued the settlement. They struggled to make a life in the harsh wilderness, and supplies ran low. In 1903, a fire destroyed the community hall, claiming the lives of 11 people and destroying many vital supplies. The community held on for a few more years before folding in 1905. At this time, many of the members of the group moved away, and the land was given back to the government. The few settlers who did choose to stay were allowed to keep their land and the homes that they had built. They continued to build their community but adopted more individual ownership and progress.

image credit: CBC - Dreams of Sointula


Despite its ultimate decline, the legacy of the Kalevan Kansa community endures on Malcolm Island. The cooperative spirit and commitment to equality are still visible in the co-operatively run grocery and hardware stores. Many of the older buildings have a Finnish architectural influence. The street and business signs proudly display Finnish names and older residents can be heard speaking in Finnish. Residents and regular summer visitors work together on community events.


Sointula Museum/Library

The Sointula Museum/Library is the place to learn all about this island and was recommended by every local I spoke with. The enthusiastic museum staff told stories of the early years and proudly showed off the various artifacts. I was delighted by the scrapbooks and binders filled with hand-written memories and letters from the early pioneers and got quite lost reading for a while.

The artifacts and exhibits within the museum have been donated by current and former community members. Each piece tells a story, from the carefully preserved tools that had once shaped daily life to the photographs that captured moments of joy, struggle, and triumph.

Interactive displays added a layer of engagement to my visit. In the bottom floor exhibit about life next to the sea, the original town fog horn is on display. A young visitor was encouraged to crank it up and get a sound. The sheer noise it created delighted the lad but his parents were not nearly as tickled.

I was reminded of my earlier visit to the Doukhobour Discovery Center near Brilliant BC, another community that had sought to carve out utopian dreams. The Doukhobours, like the Kalevan Kansa community that founded Sointula, had faced challenges on their path to communal living. Government legislation and tragedy had destroyed their communities, showing that no matter the dedication of the participants, utopia seems impossible to achieve.

Modern Sointula

Today, there are fewer than 600 year-round residents. Many of these individuals are descendants of the original Finnish immigrants. The town's economy has had a diverse range of industries. Today, fishing, tourism, and local entrepreneurship characterize Sointula's identity.

Formerly flourishing smaller commercial fishing operations and logging operations have begun to decline. Now, many of the island’s settlers use Sointula as a vacation destination, retirement home, or work in the tourism-related businesses on the island.

Visitors can still experience some of the Finnish influence in Sointula. Look for Finnish words on signs as well as traditional architecture. You can even sample Finnish pastries at a few places in town. If you stay at Harmony Shores Campground, you can even indulge in a Finnish sauna.

Be aware that there is no bank and only one gas station on the island and plan accordingly. There is one ATM. The businesses will accept cards. The campground I chose took e-transfers. Cell service is good around town but decreases in quality and strength the further you are from residential areas.


Local Businesses

Sointula's charm extends to its local businesses, each one adding a distinct flavour to the town's character. As a coffee enthusiast, Coho Joe Café became my haven, offering not just great coffee but also delicious fish tacos that were the perfect remedy for a traveller's appetite. The café's prime location overlooking the ferry terminal on the main street added to its allure, providing a front-row seat to the ebb and flow of island life. The lively atmosphere, coupled with the friendly interactions among regulars, made it a quintessential local hangout.

The Upper Crust Bakery lured me in with a sign saying "light lunches". The owner, a local volunteer firefighter, welcomed me with open arms. Although the sandwich choices were limited due to my late afternoon arrival, the genuine conversation I shared with the owner added a personal touch to my experience. This bakery was the host for the weekend's community pancake breakfast.

A stroll through the Wild Lil’ Gift Shop introduced me to the artistic talent of Anissa Reed. Her unique designs, prominently featuring a fish skeleton that spells out "wild," were seen everywhere on the island. It was evident that Reed's creations had become a part of the island's identity, with her designs adorning the clothing and jewellery of both locals and visitors.

The Malcolm Island Food Company, a family-run market, caught my attention with its tempting aromas wafting from behind its closed doors mid-week. This fabulous shop is only open Friday to Tuesday and I needed to be patient and return later. When they opened, business was steady and almost every customer left weighted down with large bags filled with incredible fresh and frozen prepared foods.

While in line I chatted with a woman who was loading up with freezer meals to stock her home freezer with favourites to enjoy over the winter until their return next year Unfortunately, I don't have a freezer in the van and could not treat myself. Nevertheless, I couldn't resist indulging in a delectable pastry, a small but satisfying taste of what the market had to offer.

The heart of Sointula beats at the Sointula Cooperative Grocery Store, the gathering spot for locals and visitors alike. This historic establishment, founded in 1909, stands as the oldest cooperative in British Columbia. Beyond groceries, it houses an eclectic range of items, from camping gear to household essentials. The village bulletin board on the exterior of the building serves as a hub of information and is a fascinating glimpse into the community.


Where to Stay on Malcolm Island

Malcolm Island offers a delightful array of accommodations, each catering to a variety of preferences and desires. Whether you're seeking the comforts of a charming bed and breakfast, the convenience of a hotel, or the allure of camping beneath the stars, this island paradise has something for everyone.


B&Bs, Inns, and Hotels

For those who relish the personal touch of local hosts, Malcolm Island boasts an assortment of charming bed and breakfasts, inviting you to experience island life from a local perspective. I noticed that Coho Joe's had B&B rooms, which would be convenient for getting a cup of excellent coffee and is located right along the main street close to the ferry terminal.

The 4-star Orca Lodge, basic 2-star Oceanfront Hotel, or the luxurious 5-star Sointula Lodge each have stunning views of the surrounding landscapes. The rustic cabins at Island Utopia Cabins looked popular.


Campgrounds

As a solo female traveller on a summer van life road trip, I opted for the enchanting allure of camping. Wanda, my trusty Sprinter van, gives me the freedom to get further from civilization while maintaining most of the comforts of home. Originally, I had planned to indulge in some free camping at Big Lake, but the absence of a cell connection prompted me to rethink my plans. Serendipitously, I discovered two exceptional campgrounds: Harmony Shores and Bere Point.


Bere Point Campground: Bere Point Campground, a regional campground, is where the whale rubbing beaches are found. Surrounded by lush landscapes and amazing views, this rustic campground had spacious sites with lots of privacy. Many of the campsites had been personalized by long-term campers. If (when) I get a Starlink system, this is where I will spend some time on a future visit.

A Review: Harmony Shores Campground

Recommended by some campers I met at Big Lake, Harmony Shores Campground turned out to be an excellent choice. Nestled along the coast, the campground offers a breathtaking view of the sea, just steps away from every campsite. The rustling of leaves and the soothing sound of waves became my lullaby, creating an atmosphere of pure serenity. The fact that there were goats and horses in the field next to me, deer that visited daily, and eagles soaring overhead were fabulous bonuses.

A very special treat was the gift of a whole salmon from a friend of the owner who had enjoyed a very successful fishing day. On my final night, campers were personally invited to enjoy an evening sauna. Harmony Shores Campground is, without hesitation, the best of all the campgrounds I visited on the entire 2023 Van Life Summer Road Trip Adventure.

Location 🏕️ 🏕️ 🏕️ 🏕️ 🏕️

The campground is located about 6 minutes from the ferry terminal fairly central on the west coast of the island. It is an easy drive to the gravel roads that lead to the trailheads and Big Lake. The main campground is located across the road from the beach, slightly elevated and has great peek-a-boo views of the water. They also have beach sites but those need to be reserved in advance. I was able to get a site without a reservation and was able to extend my stay by moving to a different site.

Amenities 🏕️ 🏕️ 🏕️ 🏕️ 🏕️

The campground has everything that a camper could want. The showers and bathrooms are free, hot, and clean (although later in the day there is more hot water). There are laundry facilities, freezers and fridges, a washing-up area, hook-ups, and a cheap beverage vending machine ($1 per can!) The wood-burning sauna is a delightful and unexpected amenity.

The family that runs the campground is exceptionally welcoming and will go out of their way to chat and visit with their campers as well as provide outstanding service.

Campsites 🏕️ 🏕️ 🏕️ 🏕️ 🏕

There are several choices for the type of campsites available and there should be one to suit everyone. With plenty of open space in the main campground, some sites are tucked into the shade while others are more open. The beach sites were outstanding and I will reserve ahead for my next visit... and there will be another visit.

Nearby Activities/Services 🏕️ 🏕️ 🏕️ 🏕️ 🏕️

The campground is well located. The island is quite small so nothing is more than a 30-minute drive. The town is likely too far for most people to want to walk but a bicycle is perfect and can be rented at the Sointula Lodge which is within walking distance of the campground. Unless you are an avid cyclist, you will want to drive to the trailheads as they are located along gravel roads at a higher elevation.

Noise Levels 🏕️ 🏕️ 🏕️ 🏕️ 🏕️

This was a quiet campground all day. That kind of peaceful natural setting is highly appealing to me, especially during this final half of my road trip. I'm spending more time at my campsite. One afternoon I recognized a beautiful symphony of sounds as melodies of birdsong, children's play, and camper conversations were harmonized by the wind through the trees, ornamented by the bleating of goats all supported by the constant percussion of the waves. The eaglets calling their parents for more food were the loudest sounds heard the entire week.

Aesthetics 🏕️ 🏕️ 🏕️ 🏕️ 🏕️

I loved the pretty setting. I had something delightful to look at in every direction, including the washhouse and sauna buildings. I had many good chuckles watching the goats next to my van. I especially enjoyed sitting on the porch of the wash house to watch the sun fade over the water.

Malcolm Island Activities

Big Lake

Located in the central part of the island, Big Lake is a tranquil haven that invites visitors to unwind amidst nature's beauty. The black lake was smooth, the beach was soft, and the hot day was hot. I was struck by the unusual blackness of its waters and a bit hesitant to enter the waters but after chatting with some locals, I was soon swimming and splashing about, The black colour is because of tannins released from dead plants but is harmless and doesn't stain. While the lake's colour may be unconventional, its serenity is universal, making it a popular local swimming spot.

Bere Point

The whale-rubbing beaches on Malcolm Island are revered for the unique interaction between the resident gray whales and orcas and the coastal landscape. Here at Bere Point, these magnificent beings approach the shallower waters and deliberately rub their colossal bodies against the submerged rocks, engaging in what scientists believe to be a form of natural exfoliation and social interaction.

To get to Bere Point, you will walk the Beautiful Bay Trail at the end of the Bere Regional Park campground. The trail begins moving through a hedge-like section before entering into more open forest areas. Sometimes take a moment to find the trail where there is little undergrowth but a longer look along the trail will make the route obvious.

There are several viewing spots along the way and a giant spruce tree that I was told was over 600 years old.


I was told about a long set of stairs down (and, even worse, back up!) to the beach at the end of the trail but I couldn't find them. There are some good views at the top. The absolute best way to see the beach would be to kayak to the Point from the parking area and just imagine how epic it would be to have the orcas show up while you are in a kayak!

I didn't have a kayak to get to the prime viewing spot at the point, so I contented myself with sitting on the beach at the parking area to watch. (Another reminder that I need to purchase a kayak!) The whales wouldn't be quite as close but if they came to the area, I would see them.

While I was excited to witness the whale rubbing against the beach, the timing and conditions play crucial roles in the visibility of this spectacle. The best chances of spotting the whales engaged in this dance are during calm mornings when the sea's surface is smooth and serene. Windy days, on the other hand, can make it challenging to witness this phenomenon, as the waves can obscure the view and make it more difficult for the whales to approach the beaches.


To maximize your opportunity to witness the whale-rubbing beaches in action, keep an eye out for orcas close to these areas. Orcas often frequent the waters around the rubbing beaches. One way to spot whale activity is to watch where birds congregate on the water. The birds are attracted to the bits of fish they can grab from the water while whales are feeding.

For those who are truly dedicated to witnessing this unique behaviour, consider staying overnight at the Bere Point Regional Park campground. This strategic location not only offers stunning views of the ocean but also increases your chances of spotting the whales in the early morning hours when the sea is typically calmest. Book a whale-watching tour that will take you to the whales. While the tours can not guarantee that you'll see whales they have an excellent success rate as the various operators share information. You can feel comfortable enjoying your tour knowing that BC operators are strictly regulated for safety, conservation, and animal safety. In fact, most operators go well beyond what is required and are strong wildlife protection advocates.


Unfortunately, I wasn't lucky enough to witness the whale rubbing beaches' magic during my visit, but I remain hopeful for my next visit. There are no guarantees on spotting wildlife. Beasties just do not operate on a schedule and can not be trusted to show up for my planned photo opportunities.


Pulteney Lighthouse

Perched at the edge of Malcolm Island, the Pulteney Lighthouse stands as a sentinel of the coast, located on a point offering sweeping panoramic views of the surrounding waters. A visit to this historic landmark is an absolute must.

Visitors will walk in from the trailhead on Pulteney Road. The forest portion of the trail is fairly easy and quite short.

The second portion of the trail is along the rocky beach. It can be tricky to walk on the beach as your feet will roll on the loose rocks. Sturdy shoes and taking care when placing your feet will help. My method, gleaned from my life of BC coastal living, is to enjoy yourself like a child and hip-hop from log to log. Walk closer to the trees if you need a firmer surface.

The first sight of the lighthouse marks Pulteney Point. During my visit, I had an unexpected encounter with the lighthouse keeper, when I inadvertently wandered onto restricted Coast Guard property. Read the signs, people and stay on the beach!

She graciously forgave me and continued to chat and tell stories of her time at the lighthouse and allowed me to take a few photos in non-restricted areas.

I was delighted to hear about the playful group of humpback whales spotted the previous day and regretted that I hadn't come before. The multiple sightings of dolphins and porpoises soothed me. Kinda.

Meander Through the Town and Along the Beach

No visit to Malcolm Island is complete without a stroll through the charming town of Sointula. As you walk along its single main street and explore its shops, you'll discover the island's unique character and the echoes of its Finnish heritage.

I enjoyed the artistic touches that could be seen in driftwood fences, various sculptures, and other fanciful touches.

Walking back along the beach gives another view of the town and its connection to fishing and logging. I spent a good amount of time just wandering and watching the purple martins feeding their young.

Salmon Days Celebration

Purely by chance, I arrived on Malcolm Island a few days before the post-pandemic return of the treasured annual "Salmon Days" festival held on the August BC Day long weekend. The locals were looking forward to the weekend activities which would start with a parade and include the local ball field being turned into a festival site with live bands, an artisan market, kids' games, a beer garden, and a dunk tank. The Saturday night dance and Salmon Bake were highly anticipated with tickets sold out for weeks. A triathlon is run on Sunday and appears to be a fun team event with costumes encouraged.

I missed the parade (it was only about 10 minutes long) but made my way to the festival field at the local baseball park. The locals were thoroughly enjoying themselves and it was clear that this was a valued gathering for the community. I have to admit there wasn't a lot to entertain me but I did have an excellent cheeseburger for only $10 and laughed at the action at the dunk tank.


Final Thoughts

Please consider this post not only an account of my adventure but also a heartfelt invitation to plan on your own. Vancouver Island North has much to offer. From the scenic wonders of the outdoors to the welcoming communities, this region is a treasure trove of exploration.

As you create your road trip itinerary through British Columbia, don't miss the opportunity to include Malcolm Island on your list of must-visit destinations. The tranquil serenity of Big Lake, the invigorating hike along the Beautiful Bay Trail, the sweeping vistas from the Pulteney Lighthouse, and the charm of the town of Sointula are just a glimpse of what awaits you... and maybe you'll even get to see the whales!

Whether you're a solo traveller like me, a couple seeking a romantic getaway, or a family in pursuit of new experiences, Vancouver Island North and Malcolm Island hold the promise of memories waiting to be created. Each turn in the road and each step on the trail holds the potential for adventure, connection, and awe-inspiring beauty.


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14 Comments


Guest
Nov 12, 2023

I hadn't heard of Malcolm Island before, so thanks for including a map. Love the Finnish influence in the area, especially the sauna! It's so great how this adventure came about for you. I think that's one of the best reasons to take a trip like you're doing: to be able to chat with people and learn new things and act on them, instead of following a plan. It's great to be in the moment!


- Melanie

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Guest
Oct 09, 2023

I love finding new places to explore and it sounds like Malcolm Island has plenty of them. The Sointula Museum sounds like almost an essential place to visit there so you really understand the area. I love interactive exhibits, it really brings the place to life. I'd love hiking in the woods, you got some amazing views!

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Guest
Oct 01, 2023

Ahhhh that's the beauty of van life. You are free to go and explore wherever your heart takes you. In this case, it led you to the wonderful Malcom Island. What a gem and you even got to see dolphins in the wild. I'm happy to read more about the Finnish heritage of the island and I'm not surprised they chose to settle here. Finns are very connected with nature and are introverted. They found the perfect place for settling in Canada. Let's see where Wanda will take you next.


Carolin | <a href="https://solotravelstory.com/">Solo Travel Story</a>

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As soon as I saw the name Sointula, I immediately thought it sounded Finnish - and I was right. Strange how groups of people from far away places settle in corners of the world and restart.

It's also inspiring to read how folk settle areas and flourished despite the hard life they endured - something we can take heed of today.

Another great and informative post on this part of Canada.

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Guest
Sep 29, 2023

I can relate to the feeling of thinking a number of days is enough for a location and it turns out you need much more time there! The history here has blown my mind as I had no idea of the Finnish connection in that part of the world. It does sound like a nice idea to create a cooperative and egalitarian society in the Canadian wilderness!! The Sointula Museum/Library would be fascinating I'm sure and perfect to learn more about the history. The nature impresses me a lot here also!


@faheyjamestravel

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Lyn (aka Jazz)
Lyn (aka Jazz)
Sep 29, 2023
Replying to

The nature and wildlife of the area is indisputable. I love that our BC history includes all sorts of interesting communities, societies, and individuals. I am fascinated by the quest of utopian cooperative during the pre-WWI years -- many represented in the provincial history.

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