A Place of Rainbows

Island of Rainbows
Island of Rainbows

The name Sointula, the Malcolm Island community of utopian origin off northern Vancouver Island, translates as ‘Place of Harmony’ – but it might equally be called ‘Place of Rainbows’. A frequency of rainbows of course means an abundance of rain, of which Malcolm Island receives over 150 cm annually – but the south facing shore of the island also captures the evening sun to create rainbows, as the clouds clear over Port McNeill opposite, across Broughton Strait.

The hyper-maritime climate is also indicated by the abundance of hemlock, spruce & cedar – Douglas Fir which grows in a drier climate is rare on Malcolm Island. Dense stands of second growth forest alternate with wet pockets of marsh, swamp and bog in the island’s interior.

Moody Forest
Moody Forest

A gravel road runs the entire 24 km length of the island from the Pulteney Point Lighthouse on the west end to Donegal Head at the east. At Pulteney Point, Malcolm Island is at its closest point to Vancouver Island, and bears have been known to swim across from the Cluxewe River estuary north of Port McNeill. The north shore of Malcolm Island faces Queen Charlotte Strait, home of dolphins, humpback whales, and orca which use the beaches for rubbing.

First logged by Finnish settlers in the early 1900’s for homesteads around Sointula, the majority of the island was logged in later decades and continues to be logged today. Gravel roads provide access to high points of the island with views of the Coast Mountains, though the rapid growth of re-planted trees will soon obscure the view.
Two nature trails established within the last dozen years offer contrasting experiences of the island. The Beautiful Bay Trail, 5 km (one way) from Bere Point on the north shore, has been cut through a dense salal forest and downed trees from a windstorm that occurred just a couple of years after the trail was built. In calmer weather, sea birds including scoters, grebes, loons, harlequin, cormorant, pigeon guillemot, bufflehead, and red-breasted merganser should be common, as well as shorebirds such as dunlin and western sandpiper. A viewing stand near the start of the trail was constructed to offer views of orca off the rubbing beach.

Hemlock Varnish Shelf (Ganoderma tsugae)
Hemlock Varnish Shelf (Ganoderma tsugae) grows out of old stumps.

The 3.2 km (one-way) Mateoja Heritage Trail in the island’s interior passes through dense second growth hemlock, alternating with bogs with acid-loving plants and bizarre candelabra snags, which look like nature’s totems. Bald eagles perch on the snags and woodpeckers can be heard among the dead trees. Areas of mistletoe infestation have created small clearings in the woods. The trail passes the site of an old homestead, ponds and a marsh on the way to Big Lake – the local swimming hole, but not actually the biggest lake on the island!

Birding at Big Lake
Birding at Big Lake on Malcolm Island.

Among the colourful houses and weathered boat sheds of the town of Sointula itself, other birds are common around the quiet streets: Eurasian collared dove, rufous & Anna’s hummingbirds, savannah, fox, song, white-crowned, golden-crowned and house sparrows, house finches, and red crossbills. Ten years ago, a small but enthusiastic group of birders on Malcolm Island started an annual spring bird count at the end of April in the memory of Doug Innes, a teacher who retired to the Comox Valley and pursued research on the red-throated loon and Townsend’s warbler, both frequent on Malcolm Island. Several years ago a Lapland longspur, rare to the island, was seen on the count, and gleefully disputed by visiting birders from Port McNeill and the Comox Valley.

A ‘rainbow’ of birds seems to arrive the same weekend as the bird count: violet-green swallows join orange-crowned, yellow-rumped, black-throated gray, and Townsend’s warblers; as spring arrives on Malcolm Island.

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About the Contributor:

Krista Kaptein is an intermittent hiker, naturalist, writer, & photographer based in the Comox Valley, Vancouver Island, British Columbia. More of her interests can be found on her blog.