Spent 10 days in the Pacific Northwest in August 2012, traipsing around Vancouver Island with family. Blessed and blissed with fantastic weather and more natural beauty in a week than anyone has a right to. Old growth forests and craggy cliffs, a wild sea full of salmon, sea lions, humpback whales, otters. Sea kayaking, touring through the Broken Group islands, hiking some of the most amazing trails I’ve ever witnessed. One peak experience after another.
Vancouver Island may be an island, but it’s a big island – it was ambitious of us even to try and circle its lower half in a week. And distances are longer than you think, with one-lane roads being the norm, as well as frequent closures for maintenance, accidents, etc. If we had it to do over, we’d probably cut a couple cities out of the itinerary and stay put more. But we did get a great “Whitman’s sampler” overview of what the island has to offer.
Once again frustrated by the quality of smartphone photos in forest conditions, but managed to salvage a hundred or so keepers. This is the last time I’ll do a major trip with just an iPhone for a camera. The convenience is tops, but Apple just can’t seem to solve the forest/greenery problem.
Flew to Seattle, rented a car and headed north. On the way up the coast, stumbled on a trout hatchery a few miles off the road, where we watched millions of “fry” and teenage trout swarming and squirming in vast tanks. Ultimately they get lifted in giant buckets by helicopter, which stock them in local lakes.
Later found a salmon hatchery as well, with a similar system. Got to watch as adult salmon who had just died after spawning were scanned for the presence of electronic chips in their heads (the chips let the fisheries track the salmon movement over their lifetimes).
At Port Angeles, caught a ferry to Victoria and just ambled around in this great city – so clean, tasteful and well-put-together. Immediately realized we needed to give Victoria an extra day – two wouldn’t be enough.
I had visited Buchart Gardens a decade ago, on a motorcycle tour with relatives, but it had been cold and grey at the time – the gardens are transformed completely in great weather. 100 years of constant evolution, and they’re now one of the wonders of the world (or should be). Acre after acre of botanical wonder, but very difficult to photograph. Like a great sunset, its scope evades the lens, and photos just don’t translate.
Had hoped to revisit the castle in which I had worn a full suit of armor and been knighted as a young boy, but couldn’t track it down. Instead visited Hatley Castle and its gardens, which is really more of a “castle-like mansion” than it is a real castle. Lovely regardless.
Enjoyed some transcendent fish tacos at Red Fish Blue Fish in Victoria, then headed out for some geocaching in Beacon Hill Park, where Miles and I found our 500th cache and stumbled into an amazing cliff/beach walk at sunset, beach plastered with the driftwood remnants of giant pines and cedars that had been tossed smooth in the ocean for years.
Despite great weather, spent most of an entire day indoors at the Royal BC Museum of Natural History. If you have the chance, do not miss this museum and its wonderful dioramas. The reconstructed mastodon was a highlight, as was the re-creation of mid-1800s Victoria during the logging and goldrush eras. Appreciated that history was not whitewashed – a miserable time for so many souls who had come to seek fortune.
Later, off to visit the potholes of the Sooke River, where the creek bed drops suddenly into deep caverns, making for perfect swimming and jumping ponds. Miles and I worked up the courage to do some leaps of our own, and even got to watch one brave soul pull off a perfect, arching backflip from the highest plateau – heart-stopping to watch!
Poor lighting conditions here, but that falling green/red blob is me; Miles is at lower left in orange.
Headed North toward Nanaimo, stopping along the way at Goldstream Park, where you can watch salmon return to their hatching grounds if you visit during the right time of year (we didn’t). A mile or so in, a huge, spindly waterfall descends into Fern Gully. Miles spent some time swimming in the pool at the base, and I planted a geocaching travel bug (Angry Yoda), whose mission is to travel the world for a couple of years before returning to one of our home caches.
At Nanaimo, swam in the surprisingly warm waters of the bay with Miles, where he learned to dive for oysters (which were just sitting on the ocean floor in 5-10 feet of water). We didn’t eat them since it’s the wrong month and we were worried about absorbed toxins on account of proximity to a ferry dock. Snacked on wild blackberries instead, and wiled away the afternoon skipping oyster shells off the surface of the bay.
Looked like an artist (or a group of them) had spent a day building cairns along the Nanaimo jetty waterfront.
Big push across the island on the windy Highway 4a to Tofino, which is pretty much the only major surf spot on the island. Organic grocery stores, ceramics, boogie board rentals… felt like we’d landed in the Santa Cruz of the North.
Started with a perfect sandy beach day at Tonquin Park – a secluded cove with beautiful rock inlets and more of those tree-sized driftwood logs tossed like toothpicks everywhere. Miles built a fortress of wood, kelp and pieces of broken guitar while I started my vacation reading.
Stayed at the Inn at Tough City (“Tough City” is Tofino’s nickname) – a funky converted home with a built-in sushi restaurant. Best lodging of the trip. Ate sushi outdoors on a deck overlooking Clayoquot Sound, watching clouds engulf nearby islands.
Miles made friends with a tired old German Shepherd named King, and with a zesty old hippy named Crazy Roy, who bowled him over with a speech about how cool young guys like him were the only hope for cool old guys like him. Miles: “I met a real live hippy and he was great!”
Later drove to the peak of Radar Hill, where you can still find the leftovers of Canada’s involvement in the Cold War – this was a radar station for detection of incoming missiles – one of many along “the Pinetree Line” separating U.S. / Canada, now only foundations.
Experienced a sunset too good to be true and impossible to photograph, looking down over the incredible terrain. It dawned on me that the Pacific Northwest is like a mashup of the High Sierras and the Kauai coastline. The variety of visual textures is relentless.
After learning from a distance that my work life was about to be turned upside down (much for the better), trekked down to Remote Passages for a 4-hour sea kayak journey to Meares Island. After a brief intro to sea kayaking for the uninitiated (this was my first time paddling with a skirt and rudders), put boats in the water and headed out. Miles was a trooper with a solid stroke, and we got there in one piece.
Our guides were amazing, with seemingly limitless knowledge of local lore, the history of protest over logging and mining rights, edible/medicinal vegetation, etc.
Several miles of handcrafted wooden boardwalk form the “Big Tree Trail” around and through Meares Island, all to keep the forest floor undisturbed. Found a great little geocache hidden under the wooden planks. Absolutely perfect weather. Could have paddled and hiked all day.
Later, off to Tofino’s sister city Ucluelet as the perfect weather finally came to end. Dinner on the Float Boat as fog rolled in over the marina.
Can’t recommend this tour highly enough. Deep knowledge of the sea and the islands, and our guides had an incredible eye for spotting eagles in remote trees and black bears on the shores. Very comfortable 53′ yacht with plenty of places to keep warm. Bottomless coffee, excellent salmon lunch served at anchor in the middle of the island group.
In the space of five hours, witnessed black bears, bald eagles, sea lions and seals, and four humpback whales, including a mother and her calf. Unfortunately the weather had turned on us at this point, but thankfully it was just overcast grey, not foggy (so visibility was still very good). Craggy coastlines endless in variety and fascination. High point of journey.
Though we did get very close to much of the wildlife, viewing was still all about binoculars – one can only get a boat so close to shore. Since you can’t really hold a camera up to a binocular lens, my photos from the day once again don’t tell the full story.
Later, family hike on the Wild Pacific trail at the tip of Ucluelet – one of the most amazing trails I’ve ever experienced. Just a 2.5 km loop, but truly unique. This is shipwreck country – as you travel around the island, you’ll find shipwreck markers everywhere – the combination of thick fog and insanely craggy coastlines make the entire island a ship graveyard (heard there was some amazing wreck diving to be experienced but I wasn’t able to squeeze it in). One of the geocaches we found on this trail was dedicated to the memory of shipwrecked sailors.
Wild Pacific was also one of the best maintained trails I’ve ever seen – well groomed, lookouts at all the right spots, super clear trail markers with full color satellite maps. California State Park trails could learn a lot by studying Canada’s (if only our state park system weren’t desperately underfunded).
Make this trail a bucketlist goal!
Long drive back to Sidney to catch our ferry back to the U.S., but took our time along the way, stopping at Cathedral Grove to marvel at more old-growth wonder, then to Little Qualicum Falls, another river/falls section peppered with natural potholes perfect for swimming and jumping.
Getting ready for some quality skinny-dipping, got caught butt-nekkid by a hiking family and suited up after all. Miles and I swam, and he perfected his cannonball.
Detoured off the main highway to Kinsol Trestle – one of the world’s largest wooden trestles. Built for steam trains during the logging heyday, it was recently refurbished (at great expense) for the benefit of hikers, bikers and equestrians, and forms a critical link in the Trans Canada Trail, which spans the country.
Spent final day and a half with extended family in Seattle, finally off the hook for the relentless planning and driving (thanks so much Kubeses!). Had an amazing tour of the Chittenden Locks, watching boats being raised and lowered between Lake Washington and Puget Sound.
To prevent the locks from interrupting the travel of salmon back to their original spawning grounds, a huge fish ladder was constructed alongside, with a glass viewing station underwater so you can watch the struggle of life and death as fish fight their way against the mighty current (current so strong it seems impossible that any creature could swim against it, but they do!) Even saw one salmon with four bear scratch marks along its side – this fish had apparently cheated death at some point on its journey. We called her “Bear Claw” and cheered her on.
Afterwards, enjoyed the best sandwich of my life (not kidding) at El Paseo in Seattle – Cuban pulled pork with aioli and carmelized onions on baguette – sloppy and triumphant, followed by treats at one of the world’s great chocolatiers – Theo in Seattle.
A brilliant trip, start to finish. Can’t believe we waited this long to experience Vancouver Island as a family. Don’t hesitate – just go!