Vancouver Island

December 5, 2006
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The wedding in Seattle was on a Sunday, but the party had started on saturday afternoon, and by eight o’clock Monday morning, when I boarded the ferry for Vancouver Island, I had the sort of headache that causes sailors to invent mythical stories about the vindictiveness of the sea. Gray, drizzly clouds had clamped a lid on Puget Sound, and the water everywhere was laced with whitecaps. Collapsing into my seat, I heard the soppy splash of waves against our hull. The ferry, freed from its pier, began rocking gently and then not so gently, tilting at such a perilous angle that the marine landscape bobbed up and down like a boxer ducking punches. For a moment or two I thought about grabbing my gear and leaping back toward land, but the engines finally kicked in, and the ferry seemed to right itself.

We moved smoothly out of the harbor, slowly gathering speed until we were traveling through an inlet that offered us some classic views of the Pacific Northwest. Gulls sailed over deep green firs and spruces veiled in an atmospheric blend of mist and fog. Past Whidbey Island we went, and past Port Townsend, and into the open water of the Strait of Juan de Fuca. On our port side I could see the massive, thickly timbered peaks of the Olympic Mountains, bluish black against the slate-colored ocean.

After a while I tested my sea legs by taking a spin on the passenger deck. Through the haze the largest island in the North American Pacific was visible in the distance. Vancouver Island is about 280 miles long, and its topography is so rugged that it has never been densely populated, except around Victoria, the provincial capital. A mountain range divides the island into two distinct regions – an eastern plain that is sheltered and has a relatively mild climate, and a more weatherbeaten, rain-soaked west coast, where a handful of communities sustain themselves by practicing the traditional island industries of logging and fishing.


The west coast was my destination. I was hoping to do some hiking and exploring in and around Pacific Rim National Park near the towns of Ucluelet and Tofino. As an added attraction, there would be a chance to observe the annual migration of gray whales from their calving grounds in Baja California to their summer home in the arctic seas. And though it was only April, I’d brought along a fly rod, knowing that I wouldn’t be able to resist temptation if I happened on a likely looking trout stream.

When we reached Victoria, I hired a bearded cabbie in a turban to give me a tour of downtown before dropping me at a car rental office. We rode through an extremely clean city that was as prim and self-consciously pretty as an English seaside town. Victoria became a crown colony in 1849, and its British heritage is still eminently apparent, but it feels bland and neutral, lacking in character. Although modern condos are going up near the water, most of the city’s architecture harks back to the 19th century, especially the stone Parliament buildings and The Empress, a fantastic dowager of a hotel done in such brash colonial style that it employs some Indian waiters apparently schooled by Rudyard Kipling to serve drinks in its Bengal Lounge.

Tea parlors. Pubs. Shops selling Harris tweeds. There was even a Marks & Spencer department store that featured the same goods you might find at a London branch: pork pies, tinned peas, and the unfashionable cardigan sweaters that retired majors like to wear while reading accounts of military battles by the fireside. The British influence, faux and otherwise, was so absolute that I wondered if Victoria had an identity of its own, one that was purely Canadian.


So, while picking up my car, I put the question to the clerk, whose name might have been Desmond or Derek or Basil. He’d been reading about the Stanley Cup play-offs in a newspaper, hockey being the arena in which Canada’s ordinarily repressed violence gets acted out.

“Oh, I wouldn’t know about that now, would I, sir?” he said, as though he’d been asked to expound on Hegelian logic. Tossing me the keys to a dusty Grand Am, he showed me the route to the west coast on the map. It was nearly 200 miles away, so I chose to spend my first night in the logging town of Port Alberni.

I could smell Port Alberni before I could see it. It has three mills that turn out lumber, specialty cedar, plywood, and pulp, and they scent the air with a pungent, chemical odor. On Alberni Inlet, where the landscape resembled Norwegian fjords, some lumber freighters and fishing boats were docked. The inlet and nearby Barkley Sound are famous for producing Chinook salmon, yielding about 20 percent of British Columbia’s total sport catch, and every summer some anglers hook a few really huge ones – tyees that are the whales of the salmonid family, tipping the scales at more than 30 pounds.


Tired from my day on the road, I settled into the dining room at my motel and had a surprisingly good meal of thinly sliced smoked salmon and a Caesar salad. Three local men were nursing pints of beer in a little alcove bar decorated with Reader’s Digest Condensed Books, and though they spoke in the hushed, almost sedated tones that are common on the island, I was able to listen in.

They were grumbling about the town of Tofino – about its pricey restaurants and its expensive waterfront homes, about the tourists, the developers, and the hippies. They made it sound like an unlikely combination of Puerto Vallarta and Gomorrah, and I began having wildly improbable fantasies about hammocks, daiquiris, and the beautiful Tofino maidens who’d be strolling the sandy beaches at twilight in their Canadian-style sarongs.

The next day i took off for the west coast onHighway 4, which was completed in 1971. Before then Ucluelet and Tofino were truly isolated, and to get to them by land you had to negotiate rutted dirt or gravel logging roads, while simultaneously dodging the many speeding trucks that appeared to be bent on your destruction.


As I skirted the edge of Sproat Lake and climbed into the Mackenzie Range, the sun peeked out between flocky clouds, and for the first time I felt that I was seeing the Vancouver Island of postcards. The lake sparkled, birds flitted through the forest, and brilliantly crystalline creeks flowed over pebbled creek beds. Toward Sutton Pass summit the clouds closed over the sun, and a light snow began falling, clinging to the branches of trees and dusting the fronds of delicate adder’s tongue ferns.

The trip would have been perfect, in fact, if it hadn’t been for all the ugly, stump-ridden clear-cuts marring the woods. The timber industry has always been the boss on Vancouver Island, but in the past few years there’s been a serious backlash against its most destructive practices, such as clear-cutting.

This year, for instance, a German TV documentary, Decaying Paradise, embarrassed the government of British Columbia by comparing the loss of its forests to the more publicized destruction in Brazil. But logging is so deeply entwined in the island’s economy and its history that unraveling it presents a problem – one that pits blue-collar families like those in Port Alberni against people whose incomes aren’t dependent on timber harvesting.

The highway came to a dead end near the ocean, and I turned onto a road that led south to Ucluelet. Surrounded by logged-over hills, Ucluelet was originally a Nuu-chah-nulth Indian fishing village. Fishing is still central to the town’s welfare, but its most prominent asset is the Canadian Princess Resort, a fairly new hotel complex built around a docked ocean liner. For about $70 a night you can stay in the captain’s suite on the Canadian Princess, but it was already reserved when I checked in, so I had to put aside my thoughts of sipping brandy from a flat-bottomed ship’s decanter and playing cribbage with the purser. Instead, I bunked at the hotel proper where, after a hearty clam chowder, I spent the evening reading about the whales I was going to pursue in the morning.

Dawn in Ucluelet broke calm and rosy. At nine o’clock I was standing at the hotel’s dock among hordes of French-speaking schoolchildren and several groups of elderly folks, ready to board the Nootka Princess for a whale-watching trip. The Nootka was a sharp little vessel rigged out for salmon fishing, but the whales were bringing in some real money on the coast, and it wouldn’t have shocked me to see a bathtub equipped with an outboard motor pressed into service. As we pulled away from the resort, our skipper, Captain Mike, announced over the PA system that we were bound for Barkley Sound, where hundreds of ships had gone down over the years, buried beneath the swells.

“¿Graveyard of the Pacific,'”Captain Mike said cheerfully, and several passengers reached for their Dramamine.

While we chugged through a harbor channel lined with canneries and a few turn-of-the-century houses on stilts, I chatted with Carol, our first mate, who’d hitchhiked to B.C. from Niagara Falls and had stayed on in Ucluelet, earning a living by working on fishing boats. The love of the sea was strong in her, and she’d just bought her own dinghy for 500 bucks to use for summer excursions to some of the hundred or so Broken Group Islands in Barkley Sound. Her last boyfriend had been a fisherman, Carol said, and she’d spent ten months with him fishing from Vancouver to Port Hardy.

“We caught a lot of dogfish,” she told me. “Have you ever smelled one of those?” She made a face suggesting that I wouldn’t enjoy the aroma. “Ten months on a 24-foot boat bringing in the dogfish – it tends to ruin a romance.”

When we were out of the channel we ran hard, bouncing over the blue-green waters of the sound, and then came to rest at a spot where some gray whales had been sighted earlier in the week. It’s amazing that gray whales are still around, since they’ve been hunted to the brink of extinction more than once. It wasn’t until 1946, in fact, as they were about to vanish from the earth, that they were classified as an endangered species. Grays are prolific breeders, though, and they soon grew in number and lost their endangered status. Nobody is certain how many of them migrate along the coast every spring, although some experts put the estimate as high as 20,000. The whales pause to feed on the way, dining on bottom-dwelling crustaceans at a tremendous rate. The point of the gorging is to add some new blubber, from six to twelve inches’ worth, to get them through the winter months.

In a few minutes we saw our first whale sounding about 30 yards away, off the starboard rail. It looked more black than gray, and its hide was covered with barnacles. A mature gray whale like this one weighs between 20 and 40 tons. Even so, it moved with unexpected grace.

It disappeared almost as quickly as it had appeared. Then there was a period of hushed waiting before we heard a loud noise that reminded me of somebody trumpeting on a conch shell (though magnified many times), and a spout of vapor shot into the sky. Again the whale surfaced, this time accompanied by its mate. It was lovely to see the pair of them cavorting, and marvelous to think how comfortable they were in the vastness of the ocean.

All morning we kept seeing whales, some up close and some at a distance. They would surface, then dive, then surface again, caught up in a process that had some poetry in it. You couldn’t watch them without feeling a profound admiration for the species, along with an amazement that they had managed to survive so much depredation. When we returned to the resort at noon, sunburned and with eyes stung by the ocean glare, I felt as if I’d been witnessing fragments of a primal dance that had previously been hidden from me – a dance whose very existence was a kind of gift.

Tofino turned out not to be gomorrah, or evenPuerto Vallarta. Instead, it was a picturesque village located where the Esowista Peninsula stretches into Clayoquot Sound. Against a backdrop of snowcapped mountains, many islands were floating in the blue, all of them dominated by Meares Island and Lone Cone peak. I found no developers and no beautiful maidens in sarongs, but I did bump into some hippies gathered outside a natural food store, where the staff had the blissfully arrogant attitude of the organically correct. The village also had a surf shop, a T-shirt shop, and a place called the LA Grocery, where you could buy Zig-Zag cigarette papers and neon-colored fanny packs. From the evidence at hand, it seemed that Tofino was enduring the initial stirrings of trendiness.

But that wasn’t the primary reason why its neighbors in Port Alberni and Ucluelet frowned on it. In the past decade or so Tofino has become a symbol of Vancouver Island’s anti-logging movement. In 1984 a coalition of environmentalists,Clayoquot and Ahousat Indians, and some local citizens blocked loggers from a multinational corporation from clear-cutting on Meares Island. The town’s resistance to most timber harvesting has continued in the courts since then.

Because multinationals don’t have an impressive record when it comes to resource management, Tofino residents worry that they’ll foul the town’s watershed, damage its salmon fishery, and destroy some of the last temperate rainforest belts on the planet. Not incidentally, the spectacle of clear-cut mountains might also drive away the tourists who travel to the Esowista Peninsula because it’s still pristine.

Tourism has been an increasingly important source of income for Tofino since Pacific Rim National Park opened. The huge park, which includes the Broken Group Islands and the West Coast Trail, has everything from a golf course to an abandoned gold mine. Except in the summer high season, it’s remarkably uncrowded, still wild enough to provide habitat for game birds, deer, black bears, cougars, and mountain lions.

I visited the park a few times and did most of my hiking around Long Beach, where the white sand is hard-packed and you can walk for miles along the ocean. The beachcombing was excellent, with driftwood, shells, and Japanese glass fishing floats washing up. Kite-fliers were out, and so were kids tossing Frisbees to their dogs. There are trails in the park that wind through rain forests and swampy bogs, and when I strolled them alone, with no one else in sight, I got a little unnerved at a rustling in the underbrush. It seemed preposterous that I’d encounter a bear at the beach, and yet in town I’d heard a tale of a surfer who’d bumped into one on his way to his van and had to scurry up a cedar tree.

Most evenings in Tofino I stopped for a glass or two of Okanagan Spring Pale Ale at the Blue Heron Pub. It’s a friendly spot, where fishermen off the boats come in for a drink, and you can usually order some extremely fresh Dungeness crab that’s cracked and served cold with mayonnaise. One night I had a talk with the bartender, Greg, who’d recently graduated from the University of Manitoba and lived on a nearby island, Wickaninnish, that his family owned. Greg was an avid angler, and he claimed that he could push away from Wickaninnish in a rowboat, drop a jig into the water, and almost instantly hook a salmon, letting it pull him around for 30 minutes or so before he landed it.

Sharon Palm lives on her own personal island, too, although Strawberry is much smaller than Wickaninnish. She operates a water taxi – a skiff with a 55-horsepower Evinrude motor – and I had hired her to take me to Meares Island, where I’d heard there’s a terrific hiking trail. Sharon came to Tofino during the early 1970s, when the town was a counterculture haven. Now she has a husband and five children and makes her home in an old wooden ferry that’s been reconditioned and is up on blocks. Her taxi business has given her an intimate acquaintance with Clayoquot Sound, and she offered me a running commentary, pointing out Morpheus Island, where Tofino’s dead used to be buried (her family helps clear the blackberry brambles from the cemetery once a year) and Stockham Island, where the sick were tended. Stubbs Island, site of the first Clayoquot trading post, was farther away, just a speck on the horizon.

We went through some shallow water that barely covered a mud flat. At low tide, Sharon said, there were sometimes thousands of sandpipers feeding on the flat. As we got closer to Meares, she nodded toward a group of houses on the shore. This was Opitsaht, a Clayoquot settlement, where about 40 Indian families live. The island is a Clayoquot reserve, and there are shell middens scattered everywhere.

In the old days, Sharon told me, the tribe would have had two settlements, and the Indians would shuttle between them depending on the weather, fishing for salmon during the milder months and then moving to a quiet inlet for the winter, when hundred-mile-an-hour gales whip through the sound. Because Meares has such significance for the tribe, its members have been instrumental in the fight against logging, in spite of the much-needed profits it would bring them.

Sharon cut the throttle, and we drifted toward the island. It’s a substantial piece of property, bigger than Bermuda. The trail was something of a disappointment, though; too muddy from the recent rains to permit any decent hiking. Sharon was afraid that I’d slip and break a leg, but she let me get out for a while to wander around. I took a few steps on the trail, feeling ooze creep over my boots, and stood in a grotto formed by the towering trees, the sort of damply fecund forest that gives rise to stories about pipe-smoking gnomes and enigmatic caterpillars. There was a constant trickle of water, drip-drip-drip, and hazy light filtered through leaves and branches to flood the forest floor. It was a magical moment, very peaceful and restorative, and I left the trail reluctantly.

My final days on Vancouver Island were squandered in a search for some trout fishing. Again I drove over the Mackenzie Range, but instead of going to Port Alberni I pulled into Parksville, a resorty town on the east coast. Only in Canada, I suspect, will you find such time-warp towns, where an elaborate miniature golf course constitutes the main drawing card. There were advertisements posted everywhere for the first annual Brant Festival, which appeared to be a celebration of the countless brant geese passing through the Strait of Georgia on the way to their northern breeding grounds. Parksville was an utter symphony of flapping and honking. At my hotel I asked a young desk clerk, a transplant from Glasgow, to tell me more about the events thatwere scheduled.

“I’m not sure,” she said. “We’ve never had the festivalbefore.”

“You figure the geese know you’re celebrating their arrival?”

“It’s better than shooting them, I suppose.”

At a tackle shop I bought some flies in exchange for some fishing information. “Try the Englishman River,” the proprietor said. So I did. The river wasn’t far from Parksville, but it was low and clear and not producing any trout.

The other suggestion was to head toward Lake Cowichan, about an hour or so north of Victoria. I turned off the highway at the road leading to Cowichan and passed through yet another patch of logged-over land.

The spectacle of trashed forests was really beginning to depress me, andCowichan, too, was a lumber town and so was Honeymoon Bay, which, in my fantasies, I had imagined as a cluster of red-and-white cottages beneath some sheltering pines. I was about to quit and just drive to Victoria when I saw a sign for the Sahtlam Lodge and followed a dirt road. Then a miracle occurred.

The lodge was magnificent. It sat right at the edge of the Cowichan River, a stream that’s noted for salmon and steelhead trout. A newspaper tycoon had built the lodge as a private enclave many years ago, but now it belonged to a young couple, Val and David Hignell, who had refurbished it with antiques and Japanese prints. There were three rooms upstairs, each outfitted in a style that wasn’t the least bit precious. I booked one and set about an evening’s fishing.

David, a vaguely academic fellow with a neat moustache, was not an angler himself, but he recommended a particular riffle on the other side of the river.

“How do I get to it?” I asked, looking for a footbridge.

“Use the cart.”

The cart was a wooden crate suspended on a system of ropes and pulleys. I climbed into it, then released a latch and went zooming out over the Cowichan.

Abouthalfway across,thecart stopped, and I had to yank on the ropes to drag it to the opposite bank. The entire procedure caused an immense amount of adrenaline to race through me, especially during the time I was suspended dizzily above the raging water of the river. No doubt the whole tricky business affected my ability to fish, because I hooked and threw back only one little trout. Ever a gentleman, David afforded me an excuse – too early in the season – and, without the slightest shame, I accepted it.

Val does the cooking at the lodge, and she does it with panache. The dining room tables are on a porch overlooking the stream, and when David brought me the first course of curried soup and homemade bread, I popped the cork on a bottle of Pinot and made a silent toast to the river.

The main course was rabbit sautéed with garlic and vegetables, and it was sublime and also plentiful – so plentiful I had to skip the salad and dessert.

Around nine o’clock I retired to my room, opened the windows, and watched the last light fade outside. I couldn’t imagine a better way to end my trip. The pleasures of the lodge gave me an optimistic feeling. There was, I decided, no reason why Vancouver Island couldn’t address its environmental problems before it was too late. The gray whales had survived, after all, and it was still possible to hope that the island’s forest majesty would be accorded the same fate.


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