Bay Trail, Sointula (Malcolm Island) | Photo: Kim Walker

Island Hopping on Northern Vancouver Island, BC: Port McNeill to Sointula

By Kimberly Walker

Island hopping is alive and well on Northern Vancouver Island. From Port McNeill – a quiet town where logging history runs deep – BC Ferries offers service to two geographically close but culturally diverse islands that are well worth exploring.

Sointula Harbour | Photo: Kim Walker

Port McNeill serves as an excellent launching point to explore nearby Malcolm and Cormorant Islands – perhaps better known as Sointula and Alert Bay. BC Ferries serves both islands and the Visitor Centre in Port McNeill can help you plan your trip in order to take advantage of the looping nature of the route and reduce your ferry costs. Two islands, one price! (Check out Port McNeill for accommodations in the area).

Port McNeill

Before you commence island hopping, start your journey in Port McNeill by making a visit to the local museum to get in touch with some of the history of the region. The museum’s collection has a clear focus – logging on the North Island – and has many interesting displays and artifacts. Since I have a degree in history and spent ten years working at a small town museum (and have been to a LOT of them!), I am always looking for the things that really make a museum unique. At the Port McNeill Museum, I particularly enjoyed the Women in Log Scaling exhibit, a combination of oral histories, photographs, newspaper articles, and letters that track the controversies from when women first became involved in the logging industry as scalers – people who measure the cut trees. The exhibit also does an excellent job of identifying and exploring the challenges and victories of women in the field right up to the present day.

Port McNeill Museum | Photo: Kim Walker

Another fascinating piece of the Port McNeill Museum is the video feature of “The Last Logging Railway in North America.” I enjoyed this exhibit because the former promotional video for the Canfor Englewood Logging Railway now survives as a testament to how times and technology have changed the logging industry. In 2017, after 100 years of use, the Englewood Railway ceased operations for good following a deadly derailment. Moving forward, only time will tell what becomes of the historic railway route. For now, you can visit the restored Steam Locomotive #113 in Woss, 45 minutes south of Port McNeill, and imagine what it would have been like to take a ride on this piece of BC history.

Steam Locomotive #113 | Photo: Kim Walker

When you are ready for something different, hop on one of BC Ferries regularly scheduled Northern Gulf Islands sailings headed for Malcolm Island.

Sointula

Malcolm Island is probably best known for its Finnish utopian society of the early 1900s: Sointula. Meaning “place of harmony” in Finnish, Sointula was established as an escape from life in the coalmines of Southern Vancouver Island. Today, Sointula maintains a laid back vibe and you can spend hours walking oceanside paths and browsing in art galleries and shops – including the original Sointula Co-operative Store, established in 1909.

Sointula Bicycle Program | Photo: Kim Walker

The heart of Malcolm Island is possible to visit as a day trip and without a vehicle. On a sunny day, make sure you pop in to the Sointula Resource Centre and take advantage of the island’s free community bicycle program. Cycling provides the perfect way to settle in to the laid back Malcolm Island lifestyle. Pack a picnic, cycle between art studios, and spend time beachcombing to get yourself fully adjusted to “island time.”

Next, head to the Sointula Museum to get a fascinating look at the Finnish history of the island. The museum is jam packed with displays including an ample archives and numerous living history exhibits that allow you to get a hands-on experience with history. One of my favourite displays was the collection of rugs made from worn out fishing nets. These beautiful and unique treasures highlight the artisan spirit of the island.

Beautiful Bay Trail | Photo: Kim Walker

For those looking for a longer getaway and to see more of Malcolm Island head to Bere Point Regional Park. Walk to the trailhead for the Beautiful Bay Trail for a lovely walk through the rainforest with now-and-then ocean views. Along the trail, stop at the raised viewing platform above a frequently used orca rubbing beach and you might get lucky and spot some whales in action. From here, you can either return or carry on down the trail, which meanders its way through the forest and over a series of boardwalks and bridges.

Another worthy destination on Malcolm Island is the Pulteney Point Lighthouse. Originally established as a lighthouse in 1905, the current lighthouse (built in 1943) stands at the junction of Queen Charlotte Strait, Broughton Strait, and Queen Charlotte Sound. The lighthouse and surrounding buildings were designated as a Parks Canada Heritage Lighthouse in 2015 and make for an extremely picturesque destination.

Pulteney Point Lighthouse | Photo: Kim Walker

To access the Pulteney Point Lighthouse, drive the gravel road down the spine of Malcolm Island until you reach the parking lot. Then, walk the trail through the forest before breaking out onto the beach and completing the remainder of the journey to the lighthouse by walking the shoreline. At the lighthouse, spend some time beachcombing and wildlife watching on the rocky point. There are several buildings at the site, a helipad, and, of course, the lighthouse, but there is not much in terms of site interpretation or things to “do.” This destination is beautiful and has a feeling of remoteness that is perfect for travellers who enjoy getting off the beaten track.

Malcolm Island has a fascinating history and is a perfect island getaway for outdoor enthusiasts, history buffs, and nature lovers. It is easily reached from Port McNeill and can be visited as part of an island-hopping itinerary when paired with a trip to Alert Bay – which we will explore further in a future blog. Stay tuned!

Interested in reading more on Northern Vancouver Island? Here are two more blogs with videos by Kimberly Walker. Explore Port Hardy & Coal Harbour; A Northern Vancouver Island, BC Road Trip – An Adventure to Remember

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Published: May 2, 2019

Kimberly Walker

About the Author

Kimberly is a Special Education, Elementary School teacher in Hope, BC. Previously having worked ten years at the Hope Visitor Centre & Museum promoting tourism in Hope and British Columbia, Kimberly worked on many local history projects in the museum as well as researching and writing articles for the local newspaper. Kimberly loves travelling with her husband Dale and their dog Alpine. In the fall of 2014, they spent the first 78 days of married life travelling and camping their way across Canada - just the two of them and the dog - travelling in a Hyundai Elantra! Kimberly loves various outdoor recreation types and exploring our beautiful province.

1 thought on “Island Hopping on Northern Vancouver Island, BC: Port McNeill to Sointula”

  1. Avatar Nancy Pakkala says:

    We have been to Sointula in 2004 with our truck camper to visit my husband’s relative Vern Aro who lives there. His GGF and my husbands’ were brothers. John was one of the original Finnish settlers in Sointula. I loved it there and would love to come back. Thanks for the nice article.

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