On the next leg of our exploration of Vancouver Island, in British Columbia, in the summer of 2012, we are still enjoying spectacular weather, sunny skies and warm, gentle breezes. We’ve been staying on Salt Spring Island with an old friend of Diane’s and now we are off to see my own absolutely oldest friend, Mike. He and I grew up together in Wimbledon, England, his mum and mine were at girls’ boarding school together, and even though much of our adult lives have been spent far apart, we stay in touch and see each other when we can. I’m very much looking forward to our reunion.
The ferry crossing from Vesuvius Bay to Crofton is benign. We sail through a Sunday yacht race, most of the boats becalmed, and the mountains of Vancouver Island beckon. Judging by the size of the lumber mill, adjacent to the harbour, Crofton is a booming island lumber town.
Less than ten minutes drive north of the ferry dock is the small town of Chemainus, home of massive murals. We stop for a walk-about and lunch. We pick up a guide and follow the map to see the decorated walls, created as a draw for visitors when their mill, the town’s main employer, closed in the early eighties.
Painted between 1984 and today, 42 murals tell the history of the town, the lumberjacks and mills, the sailing vessels and steam trains, and some of the interesting people who lived here. Some of them are spectacular, all are interesting, and on the edge of the parking lot is a new tribute to Emily Carr, with reproductions of a couple of her island scenes.
Just an hour’s drive up the Trans-Canada Highway Number 1, we are on the outskirts of Parksville, where Mike lives. The town itself boasts a huge sandy beach, and when the tide is out it seems to stretch for a mile towards the mainland. We’re a few days early for the annual international sand castle building contest. No longer a logging town, this is now a substantial retirement community. It has a big tourism component and some excellent restaurants. There’s a fisherman’s pub in French Creek, where the river runs into the ocean at a little fishing harbour. The seafood packing plant sells to the public, and their product is really, really fresh.
We pull up at Mike’s house in time for tea, and are warmly welcomed by my old friend and his wife. After a nice home-cooked supper, we stroll round the neighbourhood and walk on the beach, which is stony here. Mike picks up an oyster shell embedded in a pebble, a trinket I keep on my desk today. Off the beach, seals romp in the water, very cute for the tourists but the bane of the commercial fishermen.
The following day, we visit Coombs, home of the Old Country Market which features live goats on the grassy roof. The tourists, including us, look and point and heed the no feeding signs. Inside, the store are all sorts of everything, fresh food, imports from India and more chachkas than you can ever imagine. Behind the store and a street full of other odd shops, where you can buy more tourist stuff, there’s an Italian restaurant. It is substantial and busy, so a reservation is recommended. We hold out for a table on the patio, and it’s worth the wait, as the inside is noisy and very full of children. The food was good, simple Italian fare.
Mike and I spend an evening reminiscing and looking at old photos of us as kids, and I’m sure the ladies were bored silly, but we had a lot of catching up to do, as the last time I’d been on the west coast, they had been sick with flu and too ill to see me. Each time we meet, much less often now that he no longer lives in Toronto, we just pick up where we’d left off before. Such are strong, lifetime friendships.
The drive over the mountains in the middle of Vancouver Island is spectacular, three and a half hours of very winding roads, which we share with slow campers and large aggressive trucks loaded with logs. There are rewards on the way, and the first is Cathedral Grove.
You can’t miss this treasure trove of untouched giant Douglas Fir and Western Red Cedar. It’s located on each side of the highway, and part of the larger MacMillan Provincial Park. MacMillan, a lumber baron, donated the land and the intact old-growth trees in 1944. One can only assume he felt guilty for raping the rest of the landscape, something which his successors continue to do to this day. One has to wonder if all they can see is the profit from the lumber and not the natural beauty they are destroying. All over BC the clear-cutting is a ferocious blight on the landscape. Having been somewhat involved in printing with paper made from ethically harvested wood under the Forest Stewardship Council banner, I know careful lumber cutters can pick out selected trees and leave enough forest standing to support the flora and fauna.
I last passed through Cathedral Grove shortly after a ruinous windstorm had knocked down several of these giants. That was back in the late 90s. It looked as though a war had been staged in the park and one could not imagine it ever recovering.
Now we see how resilient nature is. The fallen trees have actually opened up the canopy and allowed for new growth. As the giant logs start to rot, they support all sorts of wildlife: from insects, to small rodents and opportunistic plants. The parks people have left everything as it was, but have re-established the trails through the grove by cutting paths right through the middle of some of the fallen giants. We start to count the tree rings for ourselves, to guess their age, but give up after a couple of hundred rings. We’ll leave the ring survey to the experts. The oldest trees in the park may be 800 years old. Douglas Firs are the tallest in the world, and one can believe it here, looking, up, up, up and still further up, to the top. The cedars are the oldest, and one on the island is reputed to be 1,636 years old. It’s location is secret. Secret too from the loggers, I hope.
We spend a few contemplative minutes watching the fish and the birds at a little river that runs briskly through the park and into Georgia Strait on the east coast of the island.
As we continue our drive, we keep an eye out for evidence of more logging, but the helicopters are buzzing, and I believe they have decided to leave the forest that’s in view of the highway alone, and concentrate with heli-logging on the inaccessible back side of the mountains, for we see no more clear cutting.
Port Alberni is another industrial town, founded by logging and mining interests. The inlet is deep and navigable and leads out into the Pacific, right across the island to its west coast. It’s the longest inlet in BC. Extraordinary that we have visited two stretches of water, less than half an hour apart, which drain into opposite sides of the island.
When the pulp mill closed 20 years ago, it started a long road to recovery for wild salmon. Recent Sockeye salmon runs have been the largest in recorded history. Chinook and Coho have been merely good, but there’s enough to create a vibrant sport fishing industry from June through September. Television’s World Fishing Network awarded the port the Ultimate Fishing Town accolade in 2010. I caught a fish once, and that was enough, as it was an 11 foot six inch mako shark off the Canary Islands and I’ve never felt the need to do better, so the access to pristine fishing doesn’t interest me. But I appreciate the fact that lakes and streams are returning to their pre-industrial state.
Leaving Port Alberni, we rise up through the mountains, which in July still have snow on their peaks. It’s an exciting drive, with few places to stop. There are some perilous moments overtaking the caravans of campers, who seem to enjoy driving like a train of camels roped together. On one occasion I pass nine trailers, before I’m past the jam. No logging trucks coming that time, but there are very few straight stretches of road. The rental car doesn’t have much guts either and we long for our Jaguar XK’s eight cylinders and ability to accelerate from 0 to 100 kph in six seconds.
Once over the crest, we descend easily, down to the second landscape reward, Kennedy Lake, the largest lake on the island. We have driven non-stop, so a respite is in order. Yards off the road is a little cove and a boat ramp. We watch a fisherman launch his boat backwards down the ramp. I always wonder if they ever slip and end up launching the car too.
The view along the lake is sublime, with the snow-topped mountain peaks in the background, and a tiny zephyr of a breeze, just enough to take away the unusual heat of the day. We ignore another couple, myriad tattoos showing up on their Canadian winter pale flesh, as they catch some rays. Actually, they’re doing more than sunbathe on their blanket, but we pretend not to notice.
We’ve brought iced water and fresh fruit for snacks and have not stopped for lunch, although we did take a break at Tim Hortons in Port Alberni. So we set out our repast and the food tastes even better in the clear fresh air.
We’re nearly at our destination in Tofino, but we’ll leave the arrival to my next story.
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