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Vancouver Island: Canada's Wild West Coast

Original Article by Sarah Barrell for National Geographic Traveller UK | 

Travel to Vancouver Island, sitting pretty off British Col[u]mbia, and embrace the cold — surf, storm-watch and have miles of forest-backed Pacific coastline all to yourself

The goats that reside on the old country market’s roof have retreated for the winter. The grassy pitch that provides their summer home has turned to scrub, and the shop’s sign — featuring an antlered creature gazing over the guttering — rattles about in the wind. I’ve no idea where they’ve gone (the Caribbean?). Still, there’s something so joyously, determinedly Vancouver Island about Coombs village’s goaty gimmick that I can’t resist calling in.

“Goats! On a roof! How charming,” you can almost hear shoppers think as they amble about the aisles, popping organic produce in their ‘goat tote’ (a shopping basket, to the less poetically inclined). Of course, it’s not a gimmick — or, rather, not entirely. Like many things on this island outpost of Vancouver, the animals’ lofty corral has a green-living ethic at its core — grass roofs give great insulation and goats act as sustainable mowers — plus, a good measure of anarchic hippy spirit, which seems to say: ‘We’ve done this because others don’t’.

Vancouver Island — or Victoria Island, if you want to annoy locals by using the misnomer often applied by Americans — is separated from mainland British Columbia by just 14 miles of water at the narrowest crossing. Yet it feels a place of retreat. There’s no bridge (although each time the ferry fares go up, so too do the calls for one to be built) and although sea crossings only take a couple of hours, many of Vancouver Island’s more remote points are only accessible by floatplane. I travel out by ferry from the mainland’s Horseshoe Bay, where the sudden emergence of the sun after days of rain sees laser-sharp light bounce off boats in the harbour and the snow-shrouded mountains glare white off the water.

From the deck of the ferry, the world appears polished. Hand shielding eyes, even in sunglasses, I watch Vancouver’s pop-up cityscape recede slowly into the distance; a ribbon of cloud hanging over Downtown’s modest crop of skyscrapers like the trail from a smoke stack. In the midst of trying to capture this on camera, I’m interrupted by a group of Inuit boys, visiting from Canada’s Arctic north; a pack of exuberant teens who insinuate themselves into my photos. I offer to email them the results. “Keep them,” one says, beaming with benevolence. “Don’t forget us!”

The ferry docks within dashing distance of Victoria, British Columbia’s capital, and the closest thing the island has to anything approaching ‘urban’. It may be the premier tourist spot in the Pacific Northwest (so trumpet local tourist pamphlets) but I’m in no mood for its brand of Little Britain Victoriana. I haven’t travelled some 5,000 miles to see its bagpipe players or the St Paul’s-style domes of its waterside Parliament Buildings — grand as they may be. It’s the cathedral-like groves of the island’s gigantic Douglas firs I’m clamouring for.

It may be the largest island on North America’s west coast, yet Vancouver Island is long and narrow, so the drive into its woody, mountainous interior takes no time at all. Beyond the goat-less roof at Coombs, houses and strip malls give way to a damp palette of browns and fern-greens, stables, barns and will-o’-the-wisp clouds, hanging low in the trees. So far, these are mostly pines, maples and workaday Canadian firs, but then Highway 4 suddenly darkens and a dense stand of green Douglas fir rises above the road.

This rare remnant of an ancient Douglas fir forest straddling the highway is a roadside attraction that merits putting the brakes on. Before European colonisation, logging and devastating fires, the island was thick with these mossy giants and towering red cedars. Endangered tracts of forest, the focus of perennial environmental campaigning, are also still found in patches along the coast but, for the most part, these trees are a rarity. The oldest firs and cedars remaining here have taken 800 years to grow upwards of 250ft. Nineteenth-century European settlers named this place Cathedral Grove, and it really is a strangely transcendent place.

Whether it’s the sudden damp and drop in temperature or the unexpected mass of mossy green enclosing the motorway, I’m not sure; but there’s a meditative hush among the few people I meet along the grove’s muddy paths. The spongy trunks of the fallen crisscross the ground. Their upturned moss-draped stumps, nudging 30ft in circumference, stand like the vast doors of gothic castles, with notches, knots and recesses large enough to climb into. But I don’t. One wrong move and I’ll surely be in the grip of a dragon’s jaws. Or worse, a peeved Parks Canada official.

Go west

The road renames itself as it heads west, becoming the Pacific Rim Highway. At Port Alberni, the water begins. This salmon-fishing town sits slap in the middle of the island but west of here, perforated by hundreds of watery inlets, the land starts to lose its battle with the ocean. I follow a sharply winding road through a river-veined landscape, passing salmon smokeries set around chains of little lakes. At ‘the hump’ (the highway’s highest point, at almost 5,000ft), suddenly there’s snow: horizontal snow coming thick and fast at the windscreen; snow on the ground piling up between the trees flanking the road. After the rain of the Vancouver mainland, this is somehow utterly mesmerising. I pull over to watch clouds of white stuff blowing in excitable gusts around the car.

I’m also secretly hoping to spot a bear, all the while knowing that although the island is home to a healthy population of the black variety, spotting one is unlikely in a lay-by, although not unheard of. In warmer months, bears can surprise motorists, appearing roadside to snack on berries and sweet grasses, or chasing salmon through the hatcheries during the autumn spawning run. Modest in size as it is, Vancouver Island has a wild and diverse climate, a microcosm of British Columbia itself: influenced by mountains and ocean; mild along the south coast, extreme inland and to the north. Its many ecosystems support an impressive tally of wildlife, among them cougar, mink, wolf and the colossal Roosevelt elk, a species unique to the north west.

“After Port Alberini, there’s nothing but lakes, mountains and trees,” says Charles McDiarmid, owner of the Wickaninnish Inn. This coastal hotel, set on a westerly spit of land near the surf town of Tofino, is where you end up when the Pacific Coast Highway runs out. “That drive from Alberini is constantly rated one of North America’s best,” Charles continues. “But until the ’70s, when the Pacific Rim National Park Reserve was created and a paved road was put in, the only way to get out here was on rough logging tracks. And before that, in the ’50s, it was by boat.”

This sense of isolation is still, today, what brings visitors out to ‘The Wick’, an inn whose 20ft lobby windows perfectly frame miles of sandy beach, national parkland and the vast blue-green waters of the Pacific. Set a straight course due west from here and the next stop is Japan. With such a grand, elemental stage, the hotel — one of Relais & Châteaux’ prized properties — has made a name for itself worldwide as a winter storm-watching destination. Not bad for something that started as a beach cabin. Back in the ’70s, Charles’ father, the local community doctor, began work on a family house here — later an inn. A keen conservationist, his campaigning led to the creation of the National Park Reserve and, ironically, the closure of his creation.

After travelling the world working in the hotel industry, Charles returned to his beachy birthplace in the ’90s to rebuild The Wick. The lavish wooden lodge that now crowns Chesterman Beach, just outside the reserve, is an elegant realisation of his father’s rustic vision — all soaring wooden beams, dramatic picture windows and pieces of oversized driftwood furniture. Much of the latter was created in one of the inn’s original buildings, the Carving Shed, which still stands on the sands. The hotel is covered with art created by the former owner of this little clapboard hut, one Henry Nola, a ’60s drifter and beachcomber artist who, along with a ragtag retinue of draft dodgers, clothing-optional hippies and surf freaks, was attracted to Tofino’s Wild West isolation.

Dropouts or not, many of these ’60s settlers stood their ground in the face of encroaching logging, which was laying waste to much of the island’s old-growth forest. Charles guides me on a tour of ‘downtown’ Tofino, an almost blink-and-you’ll-miss-it experience, taking in a string of surf shops (apparently heaving in the summer months), a teeny hospital, a helipad and a handful of quayside shops. “That’s the Common Loaf Bakery,” he says, pointing at a red and yellow clapboard house. “Where the common loafers hang out. It was the site of a celebrated 10-year-long protest against logging.” In the case of Tofino, the loafers triumphed, although question marks still hang over some of the last remaining pockets of the west coast’s temperate rainforest.

Into the water

These days, Tofino’s hippies have largely grown up and got salaries, or moved north to Canada’s more remote boreal towns. But some alternative lifestyle seekers can still be found living off-grid in float homes (not boats: literally floating cabins), anchored along Tofino’s dense web of watery inlets. Standing on the dock, Charles swoops his arm across the bay: “Clayoquot Sound UNESCO Biosphere Reserve. You can go for miles through those estuaries in a kayak, spotting whales, porpoises, bears — although some of the communities are landlocked. And that,” says Charles, pointing at a Cessna 180 floatplane bobbing in the water. “That is the taxi service of the north coast; the only way to get out to some of the really remote First Nations communities.”

It’s all too tantalising. The pioneering spirit and isolation of the backwaters has me itching to get in a kayak and explore — a popular summer pastime. But I don’t, because it’s bloody cold. What I do, perversely, is find myself going surfing. After all: this is Tofino, supposedly the surf capital of Canada, even in winter. The big swells that make storm watching so popular here mean excellent conditions for surfers. As long as you’ve got booties, mittens and a hood, that is. I gracelessly wriggle into all three in the back of Pacific Surf School’s van — parked up as a mobile changing room near Chesterman Beach — aided by my instructor, championship surfer Hannah Scott. This tiny blonde may be diminutive but, like many of the female surfers who seem to dominate the scene here in Tofino, she’s as tough as the 5mm of neoprene protecting us from the ocean’s chill (currently 7C). “The gear now is amazing,” says Hannah. “You can stay in the water for hours.” She’s right. I don’t feel a thing, despite spending more time under the surf than on it. I’m pretty incapable of managing my board or indeed bending my limbs, bound mummy-like in the wetsuit but it’s exhilarating to meet the rollers head on and get chucked about in their wake. Later, it’s my cheek muscles that ache the most, the result of two hours grinning like a loon.

I convince myself I’ve earned the fish tacos I eat standing up, fingers dripping with chipotle mayo, at food institution Wildside Grill. Tofino is famed for its taco trucks and seafood shacks but it does proper dining too. That night, I eat an excellent bouillabaisse, packed with local salmon, mussels and halibut, at lively Shelter Restaurant, warmed by crackling fires. I chat to Mike Jacobsen, restaurant manager, voluntary fireman and tsunami warden (people wear many hats in this small community). Dutifully checking his fireman’s beeper is on, he sits down to regale me with stories of winter storms and summer fires.

Then there’s the fallout from the Japanese tsunami, which sent an immense tide of flotsam across the Pacific. Among the debris was an entire Harley Davidson, which washed up on the west coast. “Harley managed to track down the owner in Japan and offered to restore and return it to him,” says Mike. “I think he preferred it to be kept as a memorial.” I don’t find much more than seaweed during several happy stints ambling along the beach but this, oddly, looks as if it could have washed up from the Asian topics: bulbous bull kelp and Jurassic ropes of seaweed that apparently grow up to half a metre a day.

I’m lost in these and other boggling botanical facts on a Long Beach Nature Tours coastal walk. Guide Jens Heyduck reveals the moss-covered secrets of the old-growth forest, the ins and outs of the intertidal zone — rich with rock pools — and the amazing ecology of ‘nurse logs’. These dead trees lie as if positioned by a primordial landscaper, dividing the forest like the walls of a formal garden. But look closer and they are huge ecosystems, supporting hanging gardens of moss and algae. And everything has a use, at least by the island’s First Nations communities, who dine off bark and seaweed, and build boats and ropes and formulate cold cures from red cedars.

I feel close to such natural riches, sitting at The Pointe Restaurant, back at The Wick that night. Above me, a great vaulted, hand-carved wooden ceiling; on my plate, scallops, oysters and shrimps plucked from Tofino’s straights and inlets. And surrounding us, the ocean, viewed through The Pointe’s elegant windows, curved 240 degrees around the dining room. Tonight, there are no storms to be seen and no passing whales. Yet I’m content to sit and watch the pounding Pacific spit spumes of whitewater
over the rocks, and the distant surfers turn to shiny, seal-like silhouettes as the sun sinks towards the horizon.

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