4-day road trip: Vancouver Island, BC

MatadorU student Ryan Dorn finds killer whales and a big-ass hockey stick on this itinerary out of Seattle.
Saturday
    “What’s there to do on this island as we head north?” I ask Sarah, our waitress, who’s been overly friendly since we arrived.
    “Well, there’s a race track in Courtney, and minigolf, and the hockey stick. Did you see the huge hockey stick across the street?” I pause, wondering if I’ve heard her correctly.
    “A hockey stick?”
    “Yeah. There’s a huge hockey stick across the street. It’s awesome.”

Sarah isn’t lying. Duncan, a village on Vancouver Island, British Columbia, is home to the world’s largest hockey stick. Weighing in at 61,000 pounds, it’s 205 feet of Douglas Fir reinforced with steel.

The hockey stick is nice to look at for a moment, but as I sit in the parking lot staring at it I think –

    If this is as good as it gets on Vancouver Island, I’m screwed.

Photo: Author

The trip is my idea. My wife, Pamela, and I honeymooned on the island, spending most of our time in the provincial capital of Victoria. I loved our stay but knew someday I’d like to return and explore the north part of the island, where I’d heard people are scarce and roads stretch for miles with few towns in between.

When Pamela’s cousin, Cara, told us she wanted to road trip for vacation somewhere close to Seattle I suggested Vancouver Island. I hyped both of them up on grand tales of adventure where we wouldn’t have an itinerary, just “explore the open road.” Pamela’s a sucker for this kind of thing, and I threw in the possibility of bear or whale sightings to lure Cara.

My convincing worked and here I am, staring at a huge hockey stick.

We leave Duncan and drive north on the Island Highway for our first night in Nanaimo. We’ve read about a couple interesting things to do here but decide to leave early the next morning and get out of the “big” city. At 80,000 people, it’s a destination we’re willing to skip so we can explore smaller towns and villages.

However, the city does give us inspiration to spend the rest of the trip looking for the perfect Nanaimo bar.

Sunday

The next morning I’m frustrated by a traffic jam on the highway outside Parksville.

We eventually learn it’s due to a sand sculpting competition. Not just any sand sculpting competition, but a qualifying event for the World Championship of Sand Sculpting. This year, 82,000 people viewed the eighteen sculptures over the course of the month-long exhibition. We are three of them.

Photo: Author

My skepticism morphs into amazement once we enter the viewing area. The detail and complexity that’s accomplished with over ten tons of sand is incredible. “Jungle Jazz,” is a crowd favorite, featuring a giraffe playing a cello while sitting on the back of an elephant. Hippopotamuses dance around a monkey playing a bongo drum on the bank of a “river.”

Next, we drive 45min northwest, away from the coast, to Horne Lake Caves Provincial Park. The park is made up of a lake and seven caves, three of which are hikeable. (Note: No camping in the park proper, but private campgrounds operate in the immediate area.)

We choose to enter the Main (450ft long) and Lower Main (132ft long) Caves — the two which don’t require a guide. You don’t need to sign a waiver or listen to a safety briefing either, a lack of liability concern I’m not used to encountering in the US.

Crossing the simple suspension bridge, we head into the woods in anticipation of finding the first hole in the rock. What we come across isn’t so much a hole as a long, skinny gash that I struggle to fit through.

Headlamps click on to reveal a tan limestone path bending and dipping into complete darkness. We move further in. Water cascades out of holes in the wall to create pools and small rivers. A 10ft ladder made of 2x4s assists us to a higher path. We venture in nearly 300ft before the passage narrows and it’s too small to crawl through.

When we return to the parking lot the office is closed and park officials are nowhere to be found.

Photo: Author

That night we stay at the Oyster Bay Resort outside Campbell River. The small chalets sit across the road from a rocky beach overlooking the Georgia Strait.

We sit on our deck and watch the sun go down, casting a purple glow over mainland BC, where the mountains seem to rise out of the water.

Monday

By the time we roll into Port McNeill the following afternoon, the Dalewood Inn has the only vacancies in town. We quickly find out why it’s the last to fill up. Despite looking clean, the room is perfumed with mold, cigarettes (even though there’s no smoking), and…B.O., I suspect.

Cara sets about looking for bedbugs with a flashlight. She’s done this every night, and it’s a little unnerving because I don’t know what we’ll do if she finds them. It’s not like there’s anywhere else in town to sleep. Thankfully, we’re in the clear.

Twenty minutes away, the village of Telegraph Cove is full of people relaxing in the sun, setting up their boats, and renting kayaks. Grabbing a croissant salmon turnover, we weave our way across a high dock through red, green, and blue cabins to Stubbs Island Whale Watching.

Photo: Author

On a lower dock, an old man in dark green waders places a large salmon on a long metal table. He goes to work slicing the fish and sends its guts and a stream of blood down a tube attached to the back of the table. When finished, he holds it up for his buddies to see, smiling.

With Captain Wayne at the wheel, we board Lukwa, our 60ft aluminum boat, and head into Johnstone Strait in search of orca whales. Within minutes of leaving the cove, the distant water is “crawling.” As we get closer, Captain Wayne announces the movement is hundreds of Pacific White-sided Dolphins.

Farther into the Queen Charlotte Straight we spot nine orca dorsal fins. As they approach our boat they become playful, shooting water out their blowholes, which sparkles in the backlight of the sun before misting away.

Photo: Author

An older couple in matching khaki hats and jackets stands on the bow of the boat holding hands, watching the whales move rhythmically up and down as they venture into deeper water. The whales sing, bob their heads out of water, and dive under our boat.

We’re completely in awe as the captain steers us back to the cove.

Tuesday

The next morning we’re in Coal Harbour to meet up with Air Cab Seaplanes. We arrive to what feels like a ghost town. A dozen fishing boats sit idle by the dock. More than a hundred old cars fill the parking lot but no people.

There are two buildings with no signs. The first is empty, so we move to the second and find Devin, Darren (our pilot), and Joel (the owner). Devin shows us a 20ft blue whale jaw from the 1960s, when this area was the last whaling station in British Columbia.

We check out at a map of where they fly and he says, “We’ve taken more tourist flights than normal lately. I think I’ve done four this year.” He looks proud. Pamela looks worried.

Photo: Author

Darren looks like a pilot. He’s six foot with a strong upper body, a five o’clock shadow, and hair that’s just perfect with aviator glasses and headphones. He begins by flying us west through Quatsino Sound and then banks north. The northernmost tip of Vancouver Island has no roads or towns, its coastline a mix of rugged dark rock and little beaches with inlets and bays devoid of any sign of human life.

Darren dips and dives the plane wherever we point to get a closer look at the land. Flying back to the mainland a mere 10ft off Holberg Inlet, he yanks on the yoke to climb higher. Pamela squeals with joy.

After the floatplane, we head to Mugz Coffee and Tea House in Port McNeill for a Rolo candy ice cream cone and caffeine before starting our journey back to the port town of Sidney and the ferry back to Seattle.

We stop in Ladysmith on the way, a town of just under 8,000. It’s also got Old Town Bakery, one of the best in the region. We arrive to a packed house with six women working the counter passing out cakes, cookies…and finally, Nanaimo bars.

Photo: Author

Practicalities
  • The ferry from Anacortes (78 miles north of Seattle) to Sidney, BC, currently leaves once a day at 8:30am. Be there an hour early. Price varies depending on vehicle and # of people. A vehicle under fourteen feet with one adult passenger is $59.40 one-way.
  • Gas is about $1.30 a liter on the Island.
  • Hotels typically range from $70 to $200 a night. B&Bs are common (and worth it), but expect to pay a little more.
  • There are several bear watching tours that take you by zodiac to mainland BC on all-day trips for around $300.
  • Whale watching and kayaking average $80 for three hours.
  • Floatplanes are expensive. Air Cab out of Coal Harbour charges $420-575 an hour, depending on how many people are in your party.
  • There are plenty of free (or really inexpensive) things to do on the island, like the Horne Lake Caves, hiking (try Strathcona Provincial Park and Cape Scott Provincial Park), and wine tasting (try Averill Creek and Coastal Black).

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  • http://runningthroughthisworld.com Jenna Vandenberg

    I need to get out of Seattle! Good tips for exploring the Great White North.