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Volunteering on Denman Island only became part of our plans at the last minute because of our bad experience at Osoyoos. It is funny how the unplanned parts of your travels, and in life in general, can sometimes turn out to be the most satisfying.
After arriving by ferry from Vancouver to Nanaimo on Vancouver Island, we hitched up to Buckley Bay where the ferry departs to Denman.
We were lucky and got a ride straight away with a friendly ex-con with two little dogs who barked at us like mad when we first got in but were snuggled up next to me on a mattress in the back by the time we arrived in Buckley Bay. It started to rain while we were in the car so we had a wet crossing to the island.
Denman Island is only a ten minute ferry trip from Buckley Bay. Our Host, David, picked us up from the wharf with his two friendly Border collies, Tippy and Skipper. David’s house is perched on a hill overlooking a marsh from the back of the house, and over the sea and Hornby Island from the front.
He describes his house, which he built himself in the 1970’s, as Hippy Gothic and I think that description suits it perfectly. The house is made of recycled wood and has a lot of big windows, there is even an indoor greenhouse which is also where the shower is.
It took me a couple of days to get used to but I ended up loving my open showers amongst the plants. We were given a cosy private room on the ground floor and spent our first evening listening to the sound of the heavy rain pounding on the roof.
David’s dogs, Tippy and Skipper, are such lovely creatures. Border collies always seem to have such a loving nature and these two were no exception. Skipper is Tippy’s son and is crossed with a Himalayan Sheep dog.
They both have such different personalities. Tippy is so lovable and craves attention, constantly nuzzling up to you and wanting to be petted. He loves playing catch with any sticks or balls he can find.
Skipper is more of a loner and is not the least bit interested in fetching a stick, he still loves a good pat though.
When we took them down to the beach, Skipper was captivated by watching the tiny fish and crabs in the tide pools. He would stand with his paws in the water, perfectly still, just staring. I wouldn’t call myself a dog person, I have always preferred cats, but these two may have just changed that.
Our work with David was varied and we were only required to work 4 hours a day so it left us with plenty of free time. David has 2 ½ acres that includes a veggie patch, apple trees, walnut trees, raspberry bushes and a hen house.
My daily jobs included collecting eggs and picking up the walnuts. Trav did a lot of work sanding, plastering and painting the cabin that David built to rent out. I did some painting and managed to get paint EVERYWHERE including on my glasses and on my face and neck. We picked apples and I dug up potatoes and picked kale, raspberries and lettuce.
I did a lot of gardening between the frequent rain showers. I learnt how to prune roses and grapevines and pulled out a lot of weeds. We also cleaned David’s house from top to bottom. I have found that I actually enjoy cleaning but didn’t like the close encounters with numerous spiders whilst destroying their webs.
Denman Island is not as well known by tourists as nearby Hornby Island with its white sand beach, which is reached by ferry from Gravelly Bay on Denman. A lot of tourists that set foot on Denman only do so to drive straight over to catch the ferry to Hornby, seeing very little of this incredible island.
I do want to visit Hornby one day but we decided to focus all of our free time on exploring Denman this time around as we didn’t want to short-change it.
Every island has its own vibe and I wanted to find out what makes Denman unique. I came to appreciate the kindness of the locals and the simple, satisfying lives that they live on this small, forested island.
Like a lot of the other BC islands, Denman had a wave of new residents arrive in the 1970s including a lot of Vietnam War draft dodgers from the States.
There was also a big back to the land revolution going on with people picking up plots super cheap on the islands where they could build their homes, raise a family and live self-sustainable lives.
This movement is gaining momentum again now but unfortunately any current back-to-landers that want to move out to the islands have to pay a hefty price for a piece of paradise, unlike their predecessors of the 1970s.
Minke and raccoons are a big problem to the small farmers on the island and the issue is a sore point, splitting the islanders into two factions with very different ideas on how to solve the problem.
David shot a couple of raccoons while we were there which he didn’t enjoy doing but he didn’t see another way to effectively stop them from eating his walnuts, apples, and even digging up his carrots.
We also went over to his neighbour’s place to dispose of a minke that she trapped after it killed one of her chickens. Apparently Minke are quite vicious and will go on a killing frenzy, killing a whole coop of chickens if they manage to get in. It won’t even eat them, it just goes crazy with the taste of blood and will kill until there are none left.
I am an animal lover but I try to be practical and see other people’s point of view. Unfortunately there is no easy way to solve the problem with these animals and I can completely understand where David is coming from.
It was upsetting to see the dead animals but he killed them quickly and painlessly and although I didn’t like it, I think he did what he felt needed to be done.
Another pest on the island is the deer. They were absolutely everywhere, wandering through the forest and treating the roads as their own private thoroughfares. The fawns were very cute but the little buggers eat everyone’s flowers and vegetable gardens so they aren’t people’s favourite animals.
Denman Island, like most of the Gulf Islands I imagine, has a small tightknit community and there were a few community events on while we were there.
David plays Volleyball every Thursday night with a ragtag bunch of locals of different ages. He persuaded us to go along and play with him on our first week. I was apprehensive as I am not exactly an avid sportswoman and I was always scared of playing volleyball when I was younger because I have very fragile wrists that hurt easily.
Trav on the other hand was the Captain of his School Volleyball team in High School so he was excited to play again. I gave it a go and everyone was really patient with me but I can’t say I really enjoyed. I hurt my wrist every time I had to serve and I got hit in the face with the ball. I stayed home the following week.
There is a woman on the island who hosts small concerts at her house. Christa Couture, a folk singer from Courtenay on Vancouver Island, was playing while we were on the island and we went along with David.
It was only $10 and she was so talented and such a lovely lady. There were only another four people there other than us and they had to leave to catch a ferry half way through so we basically got a private show.
As well as being a fantastic singer, Christa also played piano and guitar during her performance. Her songs were melancholic and beautiful. She certainly has been through a lot in her life including losing two babies as well as her leg to bone cancer when she was 13. We felt incredibly lucky to have seen this inspirational lady perform, essentially just for us.
We attended David’s friend Tim’s housewarming one windy and rainy day. Tim is a lovely man originally from Winnipeg that decided in his 40’s that he wasn’t happy with his life and decided to up sticks and go woofing in various places around BC.
He fell in love with Denman and moved there four years ago. He is a big believer in living off the grid and had a small wooden cottage built for himself with an outdoor bath tub, outhouse and a wood fire stove.
The only electricity he uses is a lamp that is hooked up to a car battery that is recharged by solar panels. He is still working on his labour of love and he plans to add an outdoor kitchen to also put the bath tub in for winter.
It already looked great with lots of beautiful wooden panels creating a light, open space and making it seem larger than it is.
I really admire his passion for wanting to preserve the environment and I want to try making a concerted effort to live a more eco-friendly lifestyle in the future. The wind was howling outside but we were cosy and warm, eating the amazing pot luck offerings bought by guests and sipping on homemade flower petal tea.
Every Saturday, Denman Island has a Farmers Market in the Old School Centre with a handful of stalls. We went down there the three Saturdays that we were on the island, not so much for the market but for the free store.
The free store is basically a second-hand store with used clothes, shoes, and appliances. What made it special was that everything in there was free (the name probably already gave that little surprise away).
I didn’t have much warm clothing so I picked up a jersey dress and two cardigans. I was pretty happy with my loot because the weather got cold very fast once we arrived on the island (and rainy.. boy did it rain).
The Recycling Centre and Bottle Depot for the island are also located at the Old School Centre. Everyone brings their recyclable goods down on a Saturday to get bottle deposits refunded at the Bottle Depot and to take any recycling to the Recycling Centre.
There were always so many people sorting out their recycling and going through the items that had been set aside for reuse, such as bottles for home brewers, magazines/books and other interesting knick knacks that someone might want.
On one of our sunny days off, David dropped us at the north end of island where there is a forest walk to a sandy spit, the very northern point of the island. At low tide you can walk out to a small island, Sandy (aka Tree) Island, which is a Provincial Park and is made up of sand dunes and a small forest.
We walked cliff side through the forest and out onto the thin, sandy spit. There were a lot of sea birds just off shore and the wind whipped us so that despite the sun, we felt cold.
The tide was still too high when we got there so we sat on the beach and ate our lunch before exploring the coastline on a walk around the rocky shore of the North West of the island.
When we came back, the waters had parted and a long stretch of muddy sand stretched out before us all the way to Sandy Island. It took us about 20 minutes to walk over there and our shoes got a bit wet and muddy.
The island has a magical feel to it. There was no sign of civilisation which made it feel untamed and wild. We didn’t get to explore properly as we had to meet David who was picking us back up at 5.30pm, but we did walk through the long grasses and low bushes of the sandy peninsular.
There was no one else around and the sound of the crickets chirping was almost deafening.
We sat on the beach for a while enjoying the cricket symphony before starting back over the perilous wet sands to Denman. It occurred to us that we were on an island, off an island, off a larger island (Vancouver Island) off the mainland. No wonder we didn’t see any other people. It isn’t the most accessible.
Another park that we visited during our stay was at the Southern tip of the island, Boyle Point Provincial Park. I ended up hiking there a couple of times, firstly with Trav then with the other Helper that arrived in our second week, Kerstin, a lovely lady from Germany.
At the southern tip of the island there is a view over a tiny craggy island, Chrome Island, which has a photogenic red and white lighthouse and station nestled into its rocky terrain.
Fillongley Park, located on the East coast of the island, is known for containing some of the largest remaining stands of Douglas Firs and Cedars in the region. Some of the trees are simply enormous, both in height and width.
David took us there for a walk with the dogs through the old growth forest to the meadow where the original owner, George Beadnell, had his homestead before selling the land for $1 to the Provincial Government in 1953. The only sign that someone once lived there is an overgrown stone fountain and Mr Beadnell’s grave.
There are some great tidepools around Denman’s coast with lots of sea anemones and bright purple starfish. We collected mussels and oysters off the rocks on one of our walks and I made Moules Marinieres while David barbecued the oysters. It was a great feeling, sourcing my own food, preparing it and making it into a delicious meal.
I also baked bread, made homemade apple sauce, baked apples and apple and raspberry muffins with produce I picked myself on the property. More so than ever, our stay has made me really want to have a vegetable garden and fruit trees when we get a house with a backyard. It is a great feeling to grow or forage for your own food.
Kaffe Klatsch is one of the only Cafes on the island, located in tiny Denman Village. We went there for a coffee on our first day with David and his daughter, then again after helping David’s friend Paul dig holes and plant trees on his property, he thanked us by buying us lunch.
Such a lovely little place where a lot of the locals hang out. Fantastic coffee, chai lattes and the homemade roasted tomato soup was to die for. It tasted even better because we worked hard for it.
One sunny day we took out the canoe on the marsh behind David’s property. It was so still and quiet. We paddled through the water lilies and saw otters frolicking in the water and a beaver swimming around with it’s head barely above water.
Such a peaceful and beautiful place to while away an afternoon.
When our two and a half weeks were up we were reluctant to leave. It had come to feel like home and we were very comfortable there with David and the dogs.
We took the ferry over to Buckley Bay with David and he drove us to Courtenay, further up Vancouver Island where he has his Photography course every Tuesday and where we were taking local buses up to Campbell River to ferry to Quadra Island.
David took us to a wonderful Bakery/Café/Chocolate Shop and treated us to coffee and chocolates. I had a fantastic White Chocolate and Pumpkin Spice latte. He dropped us off at the bus stop and we said our goodbyes.
The Courtenay Museum was right next door to the bus stop and there was an hour wait for the bus so we went in to check it out and get out of the cold.
It was really interesting and had great displays on the First Nations people from the area and also a lot of Palaeontology exhibits, including an entire skeleton of an Elasmosaur, the first recorded find in British Columbia. The gift shop had some beautiful First Nations Art.
It was a lovely ending to our enlightening stay on a friendly island where the local community is such a strong and positive force. We felt so welcome there and it only made me want to explore more of these pristine islands.
There is something very special about this part of the world and the people that inhabit it and we feel so privileged to have been a part of it, if only for a short time.
Plan Your Trip to Denman Island
Best Things to Do on Denman Island
Denman Island has lots of fun outdoor activities, to partake in during summer and fall:
- Go hiking in the Provincial Parks – Boyle and Fillongley
- Swim at Graham and Chickadee Lakes
- Have a beach day at Fillongley Provincial Park
- Explore the tiny town center and eat at the Bistro
- Go to the weekly Farmers Market on Saturday’s from May till October
- Walk over to Sandy/Tree Island to explore at low tide
- Collect shellfish off the rocks to cook up at your accommodations
- Check out the rock pools at low tide all along the coast
- Go kayaking along the coast or in one of the lakes
- Go fishing for salmon or trout
- See if there are any events on during your stay
- Admire cute Chrome Island from the viewpoint in Boyle Provincial Park
- Do a day trip to Hornby Island
Where to Stay on Denman Island
If you are traveling on a budget, your best bet is to stay at the excellent Denman Island Guesthouse and Hostel which has affordable private rooms and dorms, or camp at beautiful Fillongley Provincial Park. Book in advance if you can because there are only ten sites.
Or you do a help exchange/volunteering through Work Away, Help X, or WWOOF. This is a great way to experience life on the island by staying with a local like I did. You are expected to work for around 5-6 hours per day for 4-5 days per week, and you usually get room and board for this. It’s a great way to “live” on Denman for really cheap.
Denman Island also has a large number of excellent Airbnb options, my top picks are:
- Pet-friendly suite that sleeps two and is in the south of the island
- Modern Studio in the woods on the Northwest coast of the island
- The Fat Cat Inn with stunning mountain and ocean views by the village
- Oceanfront Cottage overlooking a secluded beach in the south of the island
How to Get to Denman Island
The fastest way to travel to Denman Island is to rent a car from the airport in Vancouver, catch the ferry from Horseshoe Bay to Nanaimo, then drive up to Buckley Bay and catch the ferry to Denman Island.
If you don’t have a car, you can catch a train to the city from the airport, then catch the bus to Horseshoe Bay. From there, catch a regular ferry to Nanaimo and then catch the Island Link bus (make sure to book online in advance) to Buckley Bay, and catch the ferry to Denman from there.
Once you are on Denman, the best way to get around if you don’t have a car is to hitch – it is very common here and it’s likely you won’t wait long for a ride.
The Best Travel Insurance for Your Trip
If you are traveling from outside of Canada, make sure you get travel and health insurance before your Denman Island trip, just to be on the safe side. Safety Wing is my go-to and they are cheap and easy to claim with.
Safety Wing also allows you to sign up when you are already traveling, unlike a lot of other travel insurance providers.
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