Looking down from an aircraft to a house and treed island below

Sightseeing on the Discovery Island Mail Run

According to Luke, the pilot, there are usually sightseers on board when CorilAir delivers the mail in the Discovery Islands.

A man from Campbell River and his sister-in-law from Ontario were on the plane when it picked me up at Cortes Bay, on Wednesday, March 23rd. Neither of them had made the trip before, and they were busy taking pictures throughout the trip. So was I. Everything looks much different when you are sitting hundreds of feet up in the air!

The mail run goes from Campbell River to Refuge Cove, Surge Narrows and Big Bay on Mondays, Wednesdays and Fridays. Blind Channel is added the last two days. Additional stops, like the one at Cortes Bay, are made to pick up and drop off passengers. Chart adapted from Google Maps by Roy L Hales
Government wharf at Cortes Bay – Roy L Hales photo
Our plane approaching the dock at Cortes Bay – Roy L Hales photo

I also took a recorder along and have an excellent recording of the plane’s engine, but abandoned the attempt to conduct any interviews after listening to the thunderous roar that a slight breeze can make.

That was in Refuge Cove, where the only person we saw was a local resident named Dave. He said that the general store, café and all the shops are closed during the winter months. The odd boat will fill up at the fuel dock once or twice a month. 

Arriving at Refuge Cove, on West Redonda Island – Roy L Hales photo
Dock at Refuge Cove – Roy L Hales photo
The Refuge Cove General Store is closed until tourist season – Photo by Roy L Hales
One of my fellow passengers looking out over the dock – Photo by Roy L Hales

This will change when the tourist season begins. 

There are about a dozen year-round residents, but in the warmer months the population swells to about 20 families with hundreds of boaters stopping by every day.  

“Everything goes crazy in the summer,” said Dave, who regaled us with tales of long line-ups and impatient customers.

We donned our face masks and climbed back into the ‘de Havilland Beaver’ for the flight to Read Island. Squirrel Cove, the Klahoose village and ‘Secret Cove’ spread out below us. There was a sailboat anchored in Von Donop Inlet and a dock-like floating aquaculture bed near the mouth.

The Klahoose village at Squirrel Cove, Cortes Island – Roy L Hales photo
A peek into Secret Cove, inside Squirrel Cove on Cortes Island – Roy L Hales photo
Looking out over Quartz Bay (bottom) and Carrington Lagoon (top) as we leave Cortes Island – Roy L Hales photo
Is this a floating seaweed platform? – Roy L Hales photo

Crossing over Sutil Channel, we observed our first clearcuts on Read Island and neighbouring Quadra.

The scenery throughout this area is still spectacular. 

Flying over a partially logged area, and a meadow, on Read Island
Post Mistress coming to the plane at Surge Narrows – Roy L Hales photo
My fellow passengers, the mail and Postmistress on Read Island – Roy L Hales photo
Looking up from the dock to buildings in the shadows – Roy L Hales photo

The postmistress met us at the dock in Surge Narrows, on Read Island. According to Canadian Stamp News, this floating post office also serves 

Maurelle, Sonora and Rendezvous Islands. In addition to the post office, the postmaster sells artwork, t-shirts and has two shelves of used books that are free for the taking. 

There are about 65 full time residents on Read island and the postmistress said there are around 50% more people during the summer. 

As there is no local store, bulk grocery purchases are made at Save On Food in Campbell River every two weeks and delivered by water taxi.

We flew north over the Octopus Islands and through the ‘Hole in the Wall” that separates Sonora and Maurelle Islands. 

Passing by Wyatts Bay on Quadra Island (patches in the hills are clearcuts) – Roy L Hales photo
Looking up towards the Okisollo Channel as we fly into ‘Hole in the Wall.’ The gray/brown streaks on Quadra (left) and Sonora Islands (ahead) are clear cuts – Photo by Roy L Hales
Fly by the resort on Sonora Island – Roy L Hales photo
Sonora Island – Roy L Hales photo

One of the headlines on the Sonora Island Resort’s homepage is ‘the ultimate in Wilderness Luxury.” There are blocks of vacant condos, houses and recreation facilities that could easily have been transported from Whistler. We circled around this ‘village’ to where the 68’ foot long charter vessel Columbia III (with 6 staterooms) lay at anchor. 

Across the waters, Big Bay on Stuart Island is another example of the degree to which the local economy depends on tourism. According to the postmistress, there are a dozen full time residents, but the population grows to a thousand during the warmer months. Of that dozen that live on Stuart year round, she and her husband run the store and the rest are caretakers. CorilAir brought a shipment of swag for the summer. Aside from that, she said most of her stock currently consists of liqueur!

Arriving at Stuart Island – Roy L Hales photo
Postmistress loading the swag at Stuart Island, our new passenger stands in front of the airplane – Roy L Hales photo
Looking towards Phillips Arms – Photo by Roy L Hales
Looking down Nodales Channel, with Sonora Island on the far side and East Thurlow Island in the bottom right – Roy L Hales photo

We picked up another passenger at Big Bay. He was a French landscaper who had just finished his ten day work shift and was about to start his ten days off. A camper was waiting in Campbell River. He likes to fish and mostly explores northern Vancouver Island during his days off, but has some friends in Vancouver and occasionally visits Victoria. 

Our last official stop was Blind Channel on West Thurlow Island, where the Richter family has owned and operated a resort since 1970. Their website boasts ‘delicious food, creative artwork, and outstanding customer service.’ 

Luke (Our pilot) unloading the mail at Blind Channel. East Thurlow Island is in the background – Roy L Hales photo
Reuben Buerge and Jenefer Smalley from Wild Waterways Adventures on Quadra Island – Roy L Hales photo
Looking across from Blind Channel to East Thurlow Island. Two of CorilAir’s passengers are with Luke (centre). The patch on the right side of the hillside is young trees growing up where there was a clearcut – Roy L Hales photo
The bottles in this wall, at the Blind Channel Store, ‘sing’ when the wind hits them – Roy L Hales photo

A zodiac from Wild Waterways Adventures was tied up to the dock. One of the guides, Jenefer Smalley, subsequently told me that they saw 15 ‘Biggs’ (mammal eating Orcas) as they were passing Marina Island on the way home. (She also said they pick customers up on Cortes Island.)

Tourism has been one of the three economic pillars of the Discovery Islands, but there were reminders of the other two pillars on the flight back to Campbell River. Clearcuts became a commonplace. Many sites had a fringe of trees close to the water to help conceal the logged off areas from passing boats, but not from aircraft passing overhead. The BC Salmon Farmers Association recently informed Cortes Currents that there were no longer any active Fish farms in the Discovery Islands, so the two we flew over must have been dormant. 

I believe this is the Johnstone Strait off East Thurlow Island – Roy L Hales photo
The fringe of trees at the bottom of this clearcut on East Thurlow Island masks it from the approaching boat, but not from passing aircraft – Roy L Hales photo
One of the two decommissioned fish farms we passed over off Sonora Island in the Okisollo Channel (Quadra Island is on the other side) – Roy L Hales photo

I had a visual demonstration of how differently things can look from the air, when we returned to Cortes Island. I really haven’t explored Carrington Bay, but I must have driven Cortes Bay Road at least a hundred times. Just as I was wondering which island we were passing over, the plane banked and some familiar landmarks came into view. 

Flying over Coulter Bay as we return to Cortes Island – Roy L Hales photo
Coming back to Cortes Bay – Roy L Hales photo

Thus, a little over two and a half hours after setting out, we returned to Cortes Bay. That’s where I got out. Everyone else flew on the CorilAir’s base in Campbell River. 

Top photo credit: Looking down at Bird Cove on Read Island – Photo by Roy L Hales

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