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.

    Photo: Corel

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 'talk 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.

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.
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."

Unfortunately, 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.

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