Peace and isolation in the heart of downtown

From the edge of Maffeo Sutton Park, looking past the Nanaimo Yacht Club marina, the low forested island of Saysutshun (Newcastle Island Marine) Park is a familiar part of the Nanaimo harbour view.

But as Phil Clark, who with his wife, Nadine Rigsby, are the full-time caretakers of the island, says, “We’re a first-class 363-hectare provincial park, hidden in plain sight.”

Phil, Nadine and their children are the only year-round residents of the island. Even though they are just a seven-minute ferry ride from the wharf at Maffeo Sutton, it can seem a lot further if they run out of milk during a winter storm. Yet every year, the island welcomes over 30,000 people by ferry and almost as many come to the island’s marina in their own boats.

In their work for the Snuneymuxw First Nation, which now manages the island, Phil and Nadine carry the responsibility of stewarding a place that has long had deep cultural and spiritual meaning for their people. At the same time, they are proud to offer facilities and activities with broad appeal. As Clark says, “In many places, it’s not possible to do what’s right environmentally and culturally while still offering a high-quality tourism experience to people from Nanaimo and around the world. We are a rare exception.”

Beyond the campsites, marina, bike and kayak rentals, they and their 30 or so seasonal staff are also knowledge keepers on behalf of the Snuneymux. “Visitors are curious, and sharing some of the stories that have been here for thousands and thousands of years is an honour. And it’s our own small part of truth and reconciliation,” Rigsby says.

The peace and isolation of the island have long attracted people. In Rigsby’s family tradition, “Saysutshun meant healing and rejuvenation. If someone were in grief, they would be sent here to walk around the island to fix their heart and shed their tears. They go home a lot more whole – there’s something about this land that does that.”

But she also points out that in other families, Saysutshun was a training ground for canoe pullers, who would come here to run and get in shape before beginning a long ocean journey. To this day, whether you want to paddle a kayak or hike and sit in solitude on a remote beach, you will be in harmony with the spirit of the place.

For the Snuneymuxw, Saysutshun’s tourism operations are also a wonderful opportunity for life training and job skills for their youth. “It’s a really popular place to work,” Rigsby says. “Kids can start by scooping ice cream at the concession stand and go on to being a front-of-house restaurant manager.” Some have worked summers as soon as they were old enough and kept returning until they finished university.

The Snuneymuxw have invested a lot in upgrading the facilities on the island, and more improvements are in the works. Says Clark, “We’d like to put a longhouse on a site overlooking the gap between Protection and Newcastle Islands – like the original one. We’d also like an amphitheatre for outdoor presentations. And we’re hoping to increase the number of campsites and possibly add bunkhouses.”

For people who like even more comfort, he suggests a stay at the Courtyard by Marriott in downtown Nanaimo, which was built in partnership with the Snuneymuxw: “Spend the day on the island, then catch the last ferry back to the hotel and head for the hot tub!”

Even as Nanaimo grows, Saysutshun will continue to offer a place of sanctuary and retreat in an unspoiled natural setting. “The habitat is healthy, and nature is strong here – eagles, owls, ravens, bats in the evening. I feel even the bees are bigger here,” Rigsby says. But she also wants to remind people that it never feels crowded, even during the height of the tourist season. “We could have a thousand people here, but unless you’re at the concession stand, you might see four.”

Whether you’re looking for a quick way to slow your pace or want to learn more about the people who have always called this place home, the answer is in plain sight. Saysutshun is close at hand and always ready to welcome you. For more information, including how to get there and where to stay, visit

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