Vancouver Island may be best known for the English-tea inspired capital city of Victoria and its infamous Butchart Gardens, but the lesser known northern half of the island is attracting an increasing number of nature lovers and urban adventurers. From its multitude of quiet lakes, historic villages and rugged coastal wilderness, Vancouver Island has more to offer than many visitors ever see.
The north island is much less explored, less inhabited, and therefore, wilder than the south. You will find an endless supply of adventure hikes and wildlife viewing opportunities, as well as expeditions for the most serious adventurer.
Unless you come by float plane, you will most likely begin your journey by arriving on Vancouver Island in Victoria or Nanaimo by plane or ferry. Take the #19 island highway north to Campbell River, approximately in the middle of the island. The drive will take 3.5 hours from Victoria and 1.5 hours from Nanaimo. If you have a lot of time on your hands and have never been to the island before, take the #19A old island highway north from Nanaimo, and follow the beach route where you will find a series of quaint fishing villages, family run restaurants and beaches. Don’t forget to stop and buy some fresh seafood on the docks. Once you are north of Campbell River, the number of people on the trails, the beaches and even the logging roads drops off considerably.
Campbell River is a vibrant coastal community known as the “Salmon Capital of the World”. It is internationally famous for both its ocean and fresh water fishing. In addition to the river for which the city was named, countless lakes surround the area. Twelve of the lakes are connected by portage trails, making the 47-kilometre canoe route known as the Sayward Forest Canoe Route. Allow three to four days to complete the route. There are numerous Forest Service Recreation sites that provide camping facilities along the way.
Two point five hours north of Campbell River is Port McNeil, where you can stock up on supplies and head to the ferry terminal for the 25-minute trip to Malcolm Island and the “utopian” village of Sointula. The village was settled in 1901 by a group of Finnish pioneers set on creating their paradise. They established a socialist commune with a foundry, blacksmith, sawmill and a brickyard and named it Sointula, a Finnish word meaning harmony. However, harmony was never achieved. The community struggled and suffered many setbacks, including a tragic fire at the community hall in 1903 that killed eleven people. While the commune ultimately failed, the area is still inhabited by farmers, fisherman and artists and the village still contains many of the original buildings and has certainly retained its peaceful atmosphere.
Try the Bere Point campsite on the eastern side of the island where the campsites are situated only steps from the beach. If you are there at the right time of year, you can watch the orcas at the “rubbing beach” where the killer whales rub their bodies against the pebbles and sand on the ocean floor. This is one of the few whale rubbing grounds on the island. Check out this link for more information.
Don’t’ forget to stop at Telegraph Cove, a tiny town which was originally the northern terminus of a telegraph line than ran from tree to tree along the island’s east cost. It then became home to a chum salmon saltery and small sawmill. Today, you can stay in the homes originally occupied by employees of the saltery. The town is built on stilts and sits above the water on pilings connected by boardwalks. It is one of the last boardwalk communities on Vancouver Island. Go to the Whale Interpretive Centre which contains the skeleton of a fin whale, the second largest animal species to ever have lived, as well as skeletons of many other marine mammals. This particular fin whale was hit by the Celebrity cruise ship Galaxy which arrived in the port of Vancouver in 1999, the whale draped across its bow.
If you’re really adventurous, take one of the grizzly tours to Knight Inlet, only accessible by boat or plane between May and October. See the grizzly bears feeding on salmon, as well as brown bears, bald eagles and more.
To top off your adventure, visit the summit of the island with a journey to Cape Scott, a rugged coastal rainforest that is a naturalist’s paradise. Drive north for approximately two hours past Port Hardy to Holberg, the gateway to Cape Scott. On the way, keep your eye out for the shoe tree, where weary hikers place their well worn boots upon completion of the arduous hike to the lighthouse – after which the park was named.
Once you have made it this far, you must go all the way to the “end of the road” at Winter Harbour, only another 40 minutes from Holberg. The village of Winter Harbour got its name in the 1800’s after becoming known as a safe haven for traveling mariners trying to escape a storm. With a population of only 20, this remote community is a great place to try charter fishing for some of the best salmon and halibut in the world. As the slogan at The Outpost states, “The Fish are Big Here”. Go to The Outpost to buy everything “from bolts to bananas”. The well stocked store will have all your necessary supplies, including fishing tackle, groceries and liquor, and you can arrange your charter there too.
Back at the Cape Scott Park, take the trail to San Joseph Bay for some truly breathtaking scenery. Only 2.5 kilometres one way, this easy trail takes you through an old growth forest, with Sitka Spruce more than three meters in diameter; it will lead you to a spectacular beach fronted by sea stacks and sea caves.
Visitors to Cape Scott should be well prepared for adverse conditions at any time of year. In addition to torrential rain, the coastal areas of the park experience extreme wind conditions. But don’t let this put you off, the visual and emotional rewards are well worth the trip. Even on a short hike, make sure you carry warm clothes, food and preferably a tent.
For the more adventurous
Take the Cape Scott Lighthouse Trail for an arduous hike to the very northwestern tip of the island, 27 kilometres from the parking lot. The trail follows an old telegraph line to the lighthouse. Along the way, you can still see remnants of nineteenth century Danish settlements. This trail is not for the faint of heart; rumored to be more difficult than the infamous West Coast Trail. Make sure you check in with the host before you embark for an update on the safety of the trails, and carry tide tables, as some trails are not accessible at high tide.