From various vantage points around Bellingham, it’s tough to distinguish the profile of Vancouver Island from the San Juans and Canada’s Gulf Islands. On a map, though, it’s clear that this island is of a different scale altogether.
In The Sea Runners, Ivan Doig describes Vancouver Island as “a plump oyster shell, blunt at each end and nicked rough all along its west with inlets and sounds and bays. An expansive and stubborn mound of shore, fashioned right for its role: largest island of the western coast of North America.” Although we’ve spent a fair bit of time in Victoria, the provincial capital located on the southeastern part of the island, we had yet to explore the island itself. And there it lay, beckoning us ever farther north and west.
Last March, we took a ferry from Tsawwassen to Nanaimo/Duke Point, then drove over the spine of the island to Tofino and Ucluelet. Although we’d initially hoped to camp, we decided that the combination of unpredictable weather and unknown territory might prove too much and left our gear at home. True to Adventure Buddy form, we didn’t plan much ahead of time, so we were lucky to snag a room at The Cabins ahead of the spring break tourists heading in from the mainland. The suite had a living room with a balcony overlooking a forested cove, along with a kitchen and a washer and dryer, of which we took full advantage to wash the dirty dog blankets (the staff helpfully provided us with extra towels, too).
March is when grey whales migrate from Mexico to Alaska, and the communities of Tofino and Ucluelet celebrate the changing seasons with the Pacific Rim Whale Festival. There are numerous whale watching tours in the area, but we also spotted multiple whales just off the shore on various coastal hikes.
We spent a fair bit of time on the Wild Pacific Trail, which offers a closer look at the rugged coastline that defines the west coast of the island. Although it’s definitely a popular day hike, we had rainy weather and long stretches of solitude perfect for contemplating the ever-restless and ill-named Pacific. The product of one man’s determination, the trail is still under construction, with hopes to connect eventually to trails in Pacific Rim National Park. Built on land owned by timber companies, the trail also points to other options for land use in an economic era perhaps less defined by timber and resource extraction.
Tofino is justifiably known for surfing, but with dogs in tow we opted for beach walks. (Note: If you’re traveling with dogs, we found the area to be very dog friendly, but do use common sense. Wildlife–such as coastal wolves and bears–means you should keep your dogs close. Many beaches in BC are off-limits to dogs to protect migrating shorebirds, whose journeys are stressful enough with being chased down by off-leash dogs while they’re trying to rest. So, yeah, don’t be a jerk.)
Many of the area’s trails include sections with boardwalks over the wettest, densest parts of the forest understory. One of our favorite spots was Halfmoon Bay, accessed by a steep set of boardwalk stairs down into what felt like another world.
We had a lovely lunch at the Schooner Restaurant in Tofino and splurged at Norwoods in Ucluelet. The rest of the time, we bought provisions locally, including fish from Trilogy Fish Company and kelp stout from the Tofino Brewing Company, and enjoyed meals on the balcony in our room. The aquarium in Ucluelet was an unexpected favorite; though small in size, it was put together very well and complemented all the beach walking we’d done.
I don’t know that my introverted little heart could handle the high season of summer, but March’s moody weather and slower pace suited us perfectly. We had a few days of glorious sunshine, with enough wind and rain to remind us that this is in fact a rain forest exposed to the North Pacific. All in all, it was a slightly less, ahem, rustic take on our usual fare of clear cut touring and unofficial campsites along forest service roads.