Russell Island is a crooked finger of land tucked into the eastern edge of Fulford Harbour, Salt Spring Island. You can only get there by boat—though a kayak or rowboat would do if you were near enough to begin with. It is one of several small plots and spits of land in the Gulf Islands comprising the Gulf Islands National Park Reserve. A narrow trail runs around the perimeter of the park, and at low tide you can walk the beaches on the western and northern sides of the park. They are covered with driftwood and sloping craggy volcanic rock or deeply piled thick white shell beaches, the remains of years of clam and oyster cultivation and harvesting by Coast Salish people.
You can anchor behind the island and watch the sun set beside Baynes Peak. The light shoots down Fulford Harbour and glows on the metal roof of the little house that still stands on Russell Island; indeed, the whole island turns golden and green, a glory of colour. The birds seem to sing particularly loudly here. At first we thought that was just a peculiar impression, but then we met an inflatable full of bird researchers from the University of Victoria. They were tracking these birds and recording their songs. They circumnavigated the island in their inflatable, wearing their Mustang suits and wielding a directional antenna and recording devices. There are no predators here, they told us—no raccoons or rats or cats. And indeed, we heard many birds rustling about in the underbrush when we walked around the island.
There is something magical about Russell Island. It’s not just the birds, or the fact that we’ve seen a rainbow arc over it, or that it’s a convenient stopping place when we have to be in Canoe Cove for a repair or a meeting early in the morning; it’s not because it’s fairly near a bakery in Fulford Harbour or quieter than Ganges Harbour (also on Salt Spring, and always overflowing with boats), or because usually you have cell phone reception there (not so in other island retreats); it’s not because it is surprisingly sheltered when westerly and southerly winds blow—though of course it is, also, all of these things. Still, after stopping many times behind Russell Island, and walking the perimeter trail, exploring the grounds around the little house and the marine railway one cove over, or the generating station back in the woods, we’ve decided that the reason we like Russell Island so much is because it is still inhabited by the spirit of Maria Mahoi.
The house that still stands there was her house. It is sheltered from the harshest winds and perfectly situated to catch light from both the rising and setting sun. Strawberry plants trail up the path to the house, and the place is still surrounded by flowering bushes and fruit trees, although the gypsy moths are making harsh work of many of the apple trees this year. A path runs from the back of the house up into the woods, where there is a little defunct generating station—and now, a bio-recovery operation superintended by Parks Canada. Another path runs down to the beach—and to, the next cove over, the rusting remains of a marine railway, with a car and winch and cable still intact, though probably stuck fast and not of much use.
Surprisingly for us–as East Coast residents, we were unprepared for this fact– since the 1880s Russell Island has been a Hawaiian homestead and outpost. (Hawaii?! But that’s so far away! Actually, it’s not—it was, once upon a time, a regular sailing route from this shore and one of the nearest places in the Pacific, once you’re out away from the continental coast.) William Humea, thought perhaps to be Maria Mahoi’s father, first cleared some of the land for planting and building. He was among 200 Hawaiians who had been brought by the Hudson Bay Company to Salt Spring and its environs to work. When the US annexed Hawaii, the Hawaiian immigrants didn’t want to return home—or so the Parks’ story goes—thus they stayed and built many of the primary institutions (their church, for example, still stands in Fulford Harbour) that governed southern island life early in the last century.
Because the island was homesteaded, wild descendents of strawberries carpet the lowlands, and English ivy strangles several small arbutus trees. But the clearings are also filled with blooms—apple and pear and lilac (purple and white and a white and purple variety), roses, morning glories, yellow broom. Bees buzz overhead, and the air is sweet and perfumed. Sedums crawl over the rocks, and one grassy clearing is filled with purple lilies, common camas, nodding in the breeze.
Coast Salish people also farmed the island—they built retaining walls in the water that became the architecture for very productive clam beds. The shallows all around the island, but especially on its sheltered northern side, are filled with crushed clam and oyster shells, glittering white sand shallows, testifying to generations of expert cultivation.
But the house and gardens and spirit of the place are clearly Maria Mahoi’s—part Hawaiian and part Coast Salish, fully familiar with a varied and generous island life. We were visited by a raven while on the island, and conversed with it for a long time. An avatar of Maria Mahoi? Perhaps. In any case, we’ve felt her warm welcome more than once, and remain grateful for the shelter and insight the traces of her life have offered us. In fact, secretly, we hope she’s shipped onboard with us. We’ll return her safely to Russell Island, we promise, once the season is over. In the meantime, we like the golden light, and lightness of spirit, she shares with us.