The bow of our boat lifts sharply out of the water when the outboard motors hit full speed. All around us, empty buckets and nets slide back toward the captain and his wife. She has wisely stood behind the wheel with her husband, where they are partially shielded from the sub-zero wind.
Behind them in the predawn, Quadra Island blurs into a thumbprint, then vanishes into the dark. I stand for another couple seconds , then quickly crouch over to conserve body heat.
My group – including three oyster farmers – is racing to catch the tail end of low tide so we can harvest beach oysters on West Redonda Island. It’s part of the Discovery Island group, sandwiched between Central Vancouver Island and mainland British Columbia.
It’s hard to describe exactly what it feels like to head out on the ocean in the middle of winter in a motorized, 30-foot-long sardine can, but here goes. We have no lights and the water is as black as the sky. Despite three layers of clothing and gear, it’s so cold with the windchill and sea spray that as I might as well be naked.
An hour later, sunlight begins to layer in a gradual rainbow over mainland British Columbia. Islands of all sizes finally take shape below the massive peaks of the Coast Mountain range. The place names here read like a treasure map from a children’s adventure novel: Discovery Passage, Calm Channel, Face Mountain, Desolation Sound.
At the harvesting area , the tide is coming in quickly. Half of the rocky shore is already underwater and it feels like liquid is seeping from everywhere. Still, a staggering amount of oysters litter the shore. The farmers waste no time getting to work. The staccato sound of shells dropping into buckets echoes in the small bay.
Steve Pocock, our captain, waves me over. He kneels with a small rake, pushes a few oysters out of the way and starts carefully turning over the sand. In just a few seconds, his free hand fills with a half-dozen Manila clams, a non-native species introduced to British Columbia in the 1930s.
“The Discovery Passage is fed by glacial run off from the Toba and the Bute [inlets],” Pocock tells me. The collision of fresh and salt water is the reason why the ocean here is so full of sea life.
He selects a couple of cocktail-sized oysters from the ground and pulls out a knife. After a quick pry and cleaning, we clank our half-shells together and swallow. They taste briny. Pocock opens two more of a different variety, which taste sugary sweet.
The contrast is interesting, and it’s clear that, overall, beach oysters have a much stronger flavour than their farmed counterparts. It is more intense, more briny. Almost, as Pocock says, “more seeweed-y.” But it’s their warmth that’s so surprising. In restaurants, I’ve only had raw oysters on ice, and I realize now that the temperature has always bugged me. Eating oysters fresh from the shoreline is an entirely different experience. My immediate reaction is: “I’m awake now.”
On our way back to Quadra Island, we stop to admire waterfalls in Teakerne Arm. This is where the freshwater from Cassel Lake empties over a cliff into the ocean. With all the coves and bays throughout the Discovery Islands, this one would be easy to miss without a local guide.
In the winter, the Discovery Islands are as remote as they sound. A tugboat hauling two massive shipping containers is the only human activity we’ve seen all day. In the warmer months though, the area is a popular adventure destination for kayakers, scuba divers, sport fishers and recreational boats.
Still, at this time of year, on a sunny day, you can spot otters, starfish, sea urchin and massive sunflower seastars along the shorelines . Don’t forget to scan the treetops for eagles, either.
Like most things in British Columbia, everything here feels larger than life – the mountains, the forest and the wildlife. When we spot a young stag swimming the channel between two islands, the sight is so tourism-board common that it’s almost cliché. Still, I clap foolishly and shout out an embarrassing, “Oh yeah!”
No one else on the boat seems to notice though – perhaps a testament to just how beautiful the Discovery Islands actually are.
IF YOU GO
Reach the Discovery Islands year round by car and ferry from Vancouver and Victoria. Quadra Island and Cortes Island, the two most developed islands in the Discovery Island chain, have ferry service from Campbell River. (Floatplanes connect from Vancouver and Victoria to Campbell River.) Other islands are accessible by float plane or boat charter.
Where to Eat Oysters: On Quadra Island, you can buy direct at Sawmill Bay Shellfish. 877-512-2724; 250-285-2724; sawmillbay.ca
Where to Stay: Heriot Bay Inn In winter, this is the gathering place for Quadra Island residents and visitors alike. It’s proximity to Rebecca Spit provincial park, a popular beachcombing spot, plus decent pub fare make it a good place to stay. Rates start at $138 a night. 888-605-4545; heriotbayinn.com