In the last trip update, I mentioned our long weekend in Tofino on Vancouver Island. Once the western end of the TransCanada Highway, this fishing village just north of the Pacific Rim National Park Reserve is a jewel that attracts thousands of visitors every year. In very few places on the planet can you enjoy so much unspoiled nature, but still find a good meal and a comfortable bed at night.
On Friday the 29th of July, I brought back a rental car from Burnaby, east of Vancouver. We set out for Nanaimo on Vancouver Island. It was the first day of the long weekend for British Columbia Day (1 August). A favourable forecast had us in good spirits. We expected a long wait at the ferry landing in Horseshoe Bay, and we were not disappointed. Three ferries to Nanaimo sailed while we waited. We ate our picnic lunch, and Cheryl took a walk into town and came back with some refreshments. We landed in Nanaimo about 1730, and set out for the other side of the Island.
Cheryl spent her early childhood in Port Alberni, halfway between Nanaimo and Tofino. It was the heyday of the logging history of Vancouver Island, with jobs open for everyone, from lumberjacks to chemical engineers. Tofino then was an isolated community inhabited by the Tla-o-qui-aht First Nation, whose 1200 members still live in and around the town. In 1959, the MacMillan Bloedel lumber company (aka “Mac-Blo”) finished an unpaved logging road to Tofino. It was open to the public only on weekends, but soon surfers and hippies seeking the perfect wave or perfect solitude made their way to the pristine beaches and the temperate rain forest on the Pacific Coast. In 1972, the road (BC 4) was paved and designated the last piece of the TransCanada Highway (TCH). More people arrived, but in the 1970s and 1980s, Tofino was still a secret known only to a few gurus outside the First Nations who lived there.
In 1993, Mac-Blo started clearcutting Mears Island, with its majestic old-growth forests across the Clayoquot Sound from Tofino. The ensuing protests resulted in the largest act of civil disobedience in Canadian history, when 850 people were arrested for blocking logging operations. The brouhaha forced Mac-Blo to embrace sustainable foresting, and put Tofino on the world map. In 1999, Weyerhauser bought Mac-Blo and logging dropped to its current levels. It is still a major industry in British Columbia, but the forestry is very different. The pulp and lumber mills are producing more than ever, thanks to technological advancements. Unfortunately for many, that requires fewer mills and workers.
As we wound our way up the ridge to the MacMillan Provincial Park (donated land from Mac-Blo, of course), Cheryl recounted her visits to Tofino with her father and later as a young adult, when Tofino had only one motel, and you had to bring in all your own food for the stay. We stopped to admire the old trees in Cathedral Grove, then continued driving to Tofino. The road narrowed and became uneven, a reminder of the rough logging road beneath (the foundation layer of fallen trees must be decomposing beneath the broken asphalt). Kennedy Lake to our right gave me my first sight of the kinds of unspoiled vistas that awaited me. The forests were tall, and ran all the way to the deep blue waters. When BC 4 ended, we turned north through the National Park and drove through tall, dark forest on either side of a gently rolling two-lane in excellent condition. A separated share-use path ran along the entire length of the coast road. We checked into the Hostels International (HI) Hostel at the end of town three hours to drive to Tofino. I slept soundly on the firm mattress of my bed at the hostel.
The next day, we booked a seven-hour excursion with Remote Passages. We chose a sturdy aluminum boat with an enclosed cabin rather than the open Zodiac rubber raft favoured by the more adventurous. A strong chop made for exciting water sports when heading into the wind on the open water. While the inlets and backwaters did not feature white water, at least they were more comfortable in the stiff westerly wind. Our coxswain/skipper/guide, Fraser, spends his “winter vacation” time (December-March) surfing in a wet suit, and his feel for the waves served us well, as he caught the crest of incoming swells, and used their power to give us a smooth ride downwind.
Boat-surfing aside, this was probably the most educational experience I have had outdoors in a long time. In a seven-hour voyage among the islands, we saw bald eagles nesting in the trees, black bears fishing at the water’s edge, and sea otters napping and bathing in an open inlet,
A special treat (and the distinguishing feature of the all-day cruise) was the hot spring in the Maquinna Marine Provincial Park. Fraser left us at the entrance to the Park, across from the First Nations village of Hot Spring Cove. We hiked on a boardwalk through old-growth forest some 2 km to a place where a hot spring spills into the sea. It fills the hollows in the rocky coast with warm water. We changed into swimsuits and lounged in the natural spa for an hour or so, chatting with our fellow tourists and letting the “waters” ease all the aches from our bodies. I have not felt so good since the last time I had a sauna. By 1730, we were back in the boat and headed for open water again.
Fraser put his surfing skills to good use as we ran broadside to the waves in search of whales before returning to Tofino. Fraser said that gray whales scavenge for food in the shallows. We were rewarded with a sighting off Vargas Island Provincial Park in the bay that opens to the Pacific. A gray whale cow and her calf circled our aluminum boat for a half an hour. We spotted other spouts and occasional backs, but the mother and child gave us a personal show.
We returned to the hostel in time to shower and change for dinner at the Wickaninnish Inn, a five-star hotel with a top restaurant rating, on Chesterman Beach. In the spirit of not spoiling the beauty of the place, the resort is built of untreated cedar, and blends invisibly into the forest by the beach.
On Sunday, we took the rental car for a drive through the Pacific Rim Natural Reserve, part of the National Parks. We hiked through an old-growth forest, and walked along the hard packed sand on Long Beach. Coombs Beach was officially closed, because they were working on the parking lot, but the path was in good condition, so we went down to see that beautiful beach. All along the coast, I was impressed by the natural beauty of these beaches. Without additional truckloads or mechanical grooming, they boast near perfect sand. The driftwood has been left to pile up at the high-water mark, and each tide brings a wealth of interesting creatures to the beach. I saw sea kelp of all sizes, and noted how the shellfish feed the gulls, terns and otters, leaving nothing but open shells on the hard-packed sand.
After we returned, we had dinner at the Wolf in the Fog restaurant in Tofino. This new addition to the gastronomic assets of Vancouver Island has already won several awards, and the food was up to par.
Monday, we drove to Ucluelet, 33 km south of Tofino, to the lighthouse at the end of the road. A pleasant village, it has seen the same growth as Tofino, though the local economy depends on fishing more than Tofino’s. The local First Nations gave their name to the place. We stopped at the Cedar House Gallery, which featured native Indian art. I thought that the collection rivalled anything that I had seen in the great museums in Ottawa, Gatineau, and Montréal. Afterward, we made our way back to the ferry at Nainamo. We only had to wait two hours, and caught the second ferry to Horseshoe Bay.