God's Country, Your Backyard
Vancouver Island is just a short ferry ride away. It only feels like you've died and gone to heaven.
By Kevin Brooker
All bark, and bight: old-growth cedar on the Big Tree Trail
Freshly launched in our sea kayaks, we're slicing into the steady offshore currents along the west coast of Vancouver Island, the mostly wilderness landmass across the Strait of Georgia from Canada's far left shore. Ahead, through parting mist and gusts teeming with cormorants and whimbrels, we see sheer, volcanic walls topped by a shaggy ancient forest that stares down upon the cold wrath of the North Pacific. Between the black-green of the forest and the gray-green of the water there seems to be a palpable tension, as if the two represent opposing armies. It's the kind of wild intensity you'd expect to find in the vast isolation of Alaska's shore. But here? A Seattleite, after all, can get to the island in three lattes and one gorgeous ferry crossing. Who knew the edge of the world was this easy to reach?
But that's Vancouver Island--so far out, yet so close to town. Three hundred miles long and about 50 miles wide, the island has a glacier-capped granite spine that rises more than 7,200 feet above the sea and divides the tempestuous, sparsely populated rainforests of the west coast from the settled groves of the east. On its hypercrenulated periphery there are smaller islands and islets by the thousands, and everywhere dark water throbs with ten-foot tides, fanning blooms of yellow branching coral, starfish, and anemones.
If the ferry ride from the mainland tells you anything, it's that this evergreen archipelago is spectacular when surveyed from an offshore vantage. Indeed, it's a sea kayaker's dream, where you can put in virtually anywhere. On the protected Inside Passage, in the northern section of the Strait of Georgia, you'll find white-sand coves where the water temperature nudges into the seventies by mid-July. From June through October you may even find yourself paddling alongside a pod of cruising orcas. Farther south, the leeward Gulf Islands are dotted with obscure ashrams, impossibly cute B&Bs, and the occasional monster cottage of a Hollywood superstar. (Robin Williams sleeps here.)
On Vancouver Island's rugged windward side, the muscular Pacific can slap you good. But thanks to the islet-studded fjords radiating from a series of west-coast sounds, even a novice kayaker can dial up rough water or smooth, tuning a wilderness experience to any desired intensity. Of these sounds, Clayoquot, roughly halfway up the western shore, is perhaps the most beguiling. Starkly beautiful yet deeply scarred by rapacious logging over the years, Clayoquot is a microcosm of the larger struggle for the future of the island's natural wonders. It's here that some of Canada's most highly publicized timber battles have been waged. And it's here, strangely, that you feel most overpowered by nature, by the silence of a kayak plying the churning sea.
Doug Wright is keeping things mellow for now. The 25-year-old British Columbia native, my guide, seems to be lost in thought as we glide away from the dock at the sportsman's village of Tofino. Our blades dip in unison and soon we fall into relaxed conversation. "I can't believe there are people who come here and never get on the water," says Wright, as we sweep lazily past a bald eagle preening himself on a sandbar 30 feet away. "It's where all the action is." When he's not helping paddlers discover the intricacies of Clayoquot Sound, Wright, a guide for Tofino Sea Kayaking for the past four seasons, longboards at one of several surf breaks on the far side of the Tofino peninsula or at Long Beach, in nearby Pacific Rim National Park.
Along this coast, he tells me, paddling technique develops naturally while your mind is busy drinking in the scenery. "It's kind of like school," he adds. "But the subjects are tide, swell, the season, the weather, forest ecology, marine life, birds. There's native history, timber politics. And the more you learn, the more you need to learn."
As we near the village of Opitsaht, on Meares Island, I get the feeling that my own lesson is unfolding. With a population of about 200, Opitsaht is known by its inhabitants as the Tla-o-qui-aht First Nation. Five of the 14 tribes in the Nuu-chah-nulth ("All Along the Mountains") alliance are scattered up and down the shore of Clayoquot, their ancient homeland. Split-level frame homes have replaced the cedar longhouses of long ago, and aluminum boats are the vessels of choice for harvesting salmon and shellfish. But for the tribes of the Nuu-chah-nulth alliance, no other aspect of modernization has had a more dramatic impact than the lightning-rod issue of logging the Clayoquot area.
After decades of conflict, longtime adversaries are now rather strange bedfellows. Last year the Nuu-chah-nulth entered into a joint venture with former nemesis MacMillan Bloedel, Canada's largest forest-products company, to log tracts around Clayoquot. The Nuu-chah-nulth has a 51 percent stake in the newly formed company, called Iisaak Forest Resources. Some environmental groups approve of the deal because its goals are to concentrate on second-growth cutting, sustain biodiversity, and respect traditional Indian values regarding the use of the land. Despite its promise, some locals aren't yet convinced.
Sergio Paone, former director of Friends of Clayoquot Sound, a Tofino-based environmental group that opposes the Iisaak joint venture, argues that the progressive-sounding plan is far from a clean break with Clayoquot's old-growth clear-cutting past. "It's an old strategy, called Ôtalk and log,'" says Paone. "While everyone sits around praising the beautiful forest, the same old shoddy activities are taking place out of sight."
Things are certainly quieter nowadays than they were in August 1993, when years of protest reached a climax with a huge logging-road blockade. More than 800 activists were arrested. Ultimately, the government established a scientific panel to study how Clayoquot could be logged without being destroyed. The new spirit of cooperation eventually led to the Iisaak deal.
Today, the legacy of past timber practices—bare mountain slopes, erosion, landslides—can still be glimpsed by observant kayakers. But when Doug Wright and I make shore on Meares Island, near the Big Tree Trail, we're entering a gorgeous remnant that reminds us of what can be saved and someday restored. We hike through the tangle of salal and sword ferns in one of the last great old-growth stands of temperate rainforest in the hemisphere. Soon, we're under a western red cedar called the Hanging Gardens, believed to be 1,500 years old. Wright points out that if a tree like this were to fall to the chainsaw it would be worth the price of a small house.
Back on the water, we beat a line toward Vargas Island, whose flat profile emerges through layers of fog. Vargas is covered with a blanket of ancient cedar, hemlock, and spruce. Wright steers us alongside Vargas toward a headland marked by gnarled shore pines and, a little farther, the explosions of foam on black rock that announce the open ocean. Struggling with the triple forces of tide, wind chop, and rolling swell, I make increasingly ragged strokes, remembering my guide's blithe warning about rogue waves that can wall up and slam you onto the shoal.
The ($16?!) Vargas Island Inn
Before that happens we come about, heading back to the quieter end of the island and the snug harbor of the Vargas Island Inn and Hostel. Owner Neil Buckle greets us on the gravel beach and helps us carry our boats onto the lawn of the quasi-Tudor manse he and his wife, Marilyn, built on land homesteaded by his grandparents. We settle in the kitchen with the Buckles as Larry, the handyman, comes in with a bucket of Dungeness crabs fresh from the trap. By seven, we've cracked the last of the crab claws. By eight, we've basked in the sauna, plunged into the cove off the gravel beach, and are dead between the sheets.
Doing Hot Springs Cove
Our main goal the next day is to reach Hot Springs Cove, about 20 miles away at the northern reach of Clayoquot Sound, where simmering natural hot springs spill into Pacific waves. The trip involves a grueling paddle against the current, so I'm a little relieved when Neil suggests we first hike to Medallion Beach, where rumor has it a giant redwood log has washed up. He wants to track the beast down and haul it back to the diesel-powered sawmill in one of his outbuildings. A boggy, overgrown, corduroy path brings us to the beach about an hour later. We pore over the debris deposited by the powerhouse tides, looking for Japanese glass-ball fishing floats that still wash up here, but find nothing more than driftwood logs and a Taiwanese butane cylinder. Then Neil discovers the redwood drift log, a profoundly weathered, ten-foot-long, four-foot-thick chunk of a thing.
"Impossible!" I blurt out. The nearest redwoods grow a thousand miles south of here, and currents along the west coast run from north to south.
"Well," Neil says with a shrug, "I don't think anyone dumped it here. And there is a current that comes up in the fall..." He digs his pocketknife into the mysterious, talismanic castaway log. "You could sure make something nice out of this."
Gulf Islands crafts come-onUnfortunately, I don't have time to wait and see what Neil creates. I'm not one of Vancouver Island's 750,000 full-time residents; I have to make it to Hot Springs Cove and back and then resign myself to planning a return trip and finding new areas to explore, which shouldn't be hard. Within a few hours by car from Victoria there are a half-dozen whitewater rivers, a thousand known caves, and hundreds of lakes rife with salmon, steelhead, and trout. In Strathcona Provincial Park, you can hike to the summit of 7,210-foot Golden Hinde, and be rewarded with views of the Pacific to the west and the Strait of Georgia to the east. Feel like going off the map? Try the sprawling roadless wilderness of the island's northwestern corner. You won't have to worry about grizzlies, but you may encounter black bears, elk, and cougars. Mountain bikers can find superlative logging-road and singletrack routes just about anywhere, from the Pacific shore near Tofino to the rocky shoals of the Gulf Islands. Summer winds draw boardsailors to Nitinat and Nimpkish Lakes, and there's good diving among the scuttled Canadian navy destroyers that have been turned into artificial reefs in the Discovery Passage, halfway up Vancouver Island's eastern shore. Or you can just make sport out of walking the beaches and watching bald eagles head-butt one-ton Steller's sea lions for herring. In fact, that may be all I'll do on my next visit.
Calgary-based Kevin Brooker wrote about skiing the B.C. backcountry in the November issue.
PHOTOS: Rob Howard
West of West
How to navigate the island's wild, wild edges
Vancouver Island and its environs boast perhaps the mildest climate in Canada. That said, there's one big caveat if you're planning a trip: Cool-air masses over the Pacific regularly collide with warmer fronts developing over land. Which means—thud—rain. To prevent your plans from being scrubbed by a deluge, schedule a summertime visit; during July and August two out of three days are sunny.
Getting There: Any number of U.S. carriers can whisk you to Sea-Tac airport. From there, Horizon Air (800-547-9308) and $107 get you to Victoria, British Columbia's capital and second-largest city. There's also one Washington State Ferry (206-464-6400) each day that runs from Anacortes, 70 miles north of Seattle, to Sidney, which lies about 17 miles north of Victoria on Vancouver Island's eastern shore. The trip costs $24 and takes about three hours. You can shave more than an hour off your travel time—and save $5—by driving across the border to Tsawwassen and then crossing to Sidney on BC Ferries (250-386-3431), which also handles all interisland hops.
Lodging: In Clayoquot Sound, avail yourself of the hospitality provided by the Buckles, Neil and Marilyn. Accommodations at their Vargas Island Inn and Hostel (250-725-3309) are just $16 per person for a double or a bunk room. Also in Clayoquot, just south of Tofino, there's the Middle Beach Lodge (doubles, $67–$134; 250-725-2900), a rustic oceanfront inn that lies on a wilderness headland. In Victoria, overnight digs range from French ch‰teau elegance at the Empress Hotel downtown (suites, $74–$419; 800-441-1414) to scenic campgrounds, the best of which is in Goldstream Provincial Park (250-391-2300), ten miles northwest of town. Tent sites cost $12, and there's easy access to swimming, fishing, and hiking.
Outfitters: Vancouver Island's coast is perhaps best explored by kayak. In Clayoquot, Tofino Sea Kayaking (800-863-4664) runs everything from short day trips ($27, including rentals) to six-day excursions with a stop at Hot Springs Cove ($564). Rentals for experienced paddlers who want to go the self-guided route are $24 per day. If you're setting off from Victoria, two top options are Ocean River Sports (800-909-4233) and Pacific Rim Paddling (250-384-6103). Ocean River's offerings include two-hour harbor tours ($37) and a three-day camping trip ($220) that begins at the company's Canoe Cove location in the Gulf Islands. Pacific Rim offers numerous west coast trips, including a six-day outing to Barkley Sound for $591. If you've seen enough at water level, check out Vancouver Island from a bird's-eye viewpoint. Air Dreams Hang Gliding School (250-385-2970) has introductory tandem flights from several locations north of Victoria for about $100.
Readings: A good source of kayaking information is www.WavelengthMagazine.com, a font of paddling know-how with a focus on British Columbia. The site covers topics such as kayaking cuisine, trip itineraries, and gear recommendations. You'll even find a bit of ocean poetry. Another way to bone up before visiting is to read Sea Kayaking Canada's West Coast, by John Ince and Hedi Köttner (Mountaineers Books, $14.95), among the most definitive books on the topic. For more on the West Coast Trail, check out Hiking on the Edge: The West Coast Trail and the Juan De Fuca Trail, by Ian Gill and David Nunuk (Raincoast Books, $18.50).—K.B.
Apparently the Big Guy Likes it Wet
The ever-soggy West Coast Trail isn't for everyone. You know who to thank for small favors.
If you plan to hike Vancouver Island's west coast trail, be prepared: merciless rains can turn the trail, a favorite among serious Canadian hikers, into a hell-slog. So pray to the weather gods before undertaking all or part of the route, because when the sun is shining, there's simply no better place to revel in wild scenes of kelpy northern ocean and tangled temperate rainforest.
The trail—cutting across 48 miles of rocky headlands, undeveloped beaches, and cedar and fir forests—runs from Port Renfrew in the south to Bamfield in the north (see map, page 106). Because the trail is part of the Pacific Rim National Park, access is tightly regulated: Just 52 people are allowed to hike it each day, 26 in each direction. Of those, six at each trailhead are permitted on a first-come, first-served basis; the other spots can be reserved as much as 90 days in advance. (For information and reservations, call the park at 250-726-7721 or 250-726-4212.) The West Coast Trail is open from May to September, but the best (i.e., driest) months are July and August. It'll cost you $17 to reserve a spot; the trail-use fee is an extra $47. Additionally, there are Indian-run ferries that take you across the Gordon River and the Nitinat Narrows for $8 each (tickets are refundable if you don't use them).
The trail is not for novices, but boasts man-made niceties to give hikers a fighting chance. Boardwalks, hand-operated cable cars, and 70 sets of ladders (sometimes treacherous due to a lack of maintenance) help get you through the more difficult parts, particularly along the southernmost stretch. Rewards are plentiful though: a quick dip into the heart-charging 50-degree surf, an unrushed meander through the old-growth forest of Carmanah Valley, the discovery of brightly patterned nudibranchs, sponges, and box crabs in pools left by ebbing tides.
If all that sounds good, but a round-trip along the trail doesn't, daily shuttles run by West Coast Trail Express (250-477-8700) make the return leg unnecessary. A bus ride to Victoria from Port Renfrew will set you back $20; from Bamfield, it's $34.—K.B.