Monday, August 17, 2015

Across Vancouver Island, BC - The Road Trip

It's not always easy to leave my home base, especially in the spring and summer time. In part that is because I'm so busy, in part it's because living on an island means going anywhere takes more time and planning, and in part it's because I love where I live so much it takes something pretty special to make me want to leave. I wanted to get off the island and do something different and in short order I planned a trip to BC, So this trip was something a little bit special, and when I say “planned” I mean simply that I decided to go on a trip, I arrived on the island with essentially no idea where I was going or what I was going to do, and didn't even have a good map until I had already driven half way up the island! What followed was six wonderful days of travel and fun through Vancouver Island, and a wonderful little break from an already wonderful life at home in the San Juan’s.

Vancouver Island is an area that is very near to my home, both where I grew up in Seattle and where I live now in the San Juan Islands, but one I have not spent much time exploring. As a young Boy Scout, I did a week long trip where we canoed up Great Central Lake and then hiked to Della Falls, and another trip where we kayaked for a week in Desolation Sound. Both were absolutely amazing trips, but I'd never managed to get back since then. With those memories in mind, I knew I wanted to return and “go for a wander” and a road trip seemed like the perfect opportunity to do just that.

Getting to Vancouver Island for us could hardly have been easier. In the morning I got to the ferry dock in Friday Harbor on San Jaun Island, got in line and showed my passport.

Once the formalities were out of the way (sigh, I remember the days when you didn't even need a passport to get into Canada...) I drove onto the Washington State Ferry and my journey officially began!

Fun chair arrangements on the ferry. No one sat here, haha. 

Having lived in the San Juan Islands for nearly two years at this point and being a regular ferry rider, I love the scenery but to be honest most of the time I just sit in my car or read during the time between islands. Not this time. I'd never taken the Friday Harbor to Sidney route before, and although nothing was far from home, it all looked different: the islands, the views, the angles on otherwise familiar places. It was a blast to see from the boat and I enjoyed every minute of it.

Although it is a Washington State Ferry, as you pass a buoy in the water marking the US/Canada boarder (yah, things up here are still pretty laid back), the ferry lowers the American flag and raises a Canadian flag, which I find pretty cool and a nice gesture of friendship to our neighbor to the north.

I made a point of doing essentially no research and/or planning for this trip, so I was fairly unsure what to expect. All I had planned on was getting off the ferry and driving quickly to the north end where I would spend most of my time. After a few quick stops for food and supplies I still needed, I got on Highway 1 (which later turns into Highway 19) and drove northwest. Due to my intentional lack of research, I hadn't quite realized just how true it was that there was only one main road on the island, the highway up the east coast (cue the South Park clip “There is only one road in Canada!”). I'd just assumed the original map I was looking at was simply not detailed enough to show the other roads or something! That one road was awfully boring for the most part to be honest, and I kept waiting for the amazing scenery I'd been expecting to see...

It wasn't until we had driven up literally half the island when I stopped in Campbell River (a place I hear referenced frequently when I listen to CBC out of Vancouver) that I even bought a map of Vancouver Island and began to formulate a plan!

It was still early in the day, so I kept driving all the way past Sayward where I filled the gas tank and beyond. The map I'd purchased showed various official and un-official camp sites, many out dirt roads, and I figured I would give one of them a shot that was supposed to be somewhere along Eve River. I turned off the main highway, which at this point was just a two-lane road through the forest and decided where it would take me. For a while, I was the only thing on the gravel track through the trees but it turned out the 'Active Hauling” sign wasn't a lie and I came across a lot of logging trucks along the way.

The logging companies seem to do an awfully good job of road building and maintaining, better than I'm used to seeing in the States by a wide margin, and as I crossed one particularly high bridge I decided to jump out and take a look around. I first caught a glimpse of it through the trees as I stood on the bridge, but after crashing through a bit of forest, I came upon a fairly clear view of what was an exceptionally beautiful waterfall. It was probably 60 feet high as it fell into a large pool below, and I couldn't help but wish I had my tree tools so I could prune some branches out of the way to open up a little pocket view!

So most people think I drive a big van. Sure, it's a full-size Ford Econoline, and compared to most personal vehicles on the road I suppose it is rather large. If you go to the extremes, it seems tiny compared to the semi-trucks that crises-cross the roads of America. But those are weak and tiny compared to the off-road logging trucks I encountered for the first time on this trip. These trucks to me are a thing of beauty. Pure power, toughness and utility, made to haul tremendous loads over challenging terrain, day in and day out. The 12 year old boy in me was giggling as I imagined what it was like to drive such a machine, and the 29 year old boy in me was wondering about the specs of the engine, transmission and tires.

Just past that beautiful truck was the coast and the Johnstone Straight. The way the logging operation here was setup was that the trees were felled in the hills inland, loaded onto these trucks, brought to this particular spot where the Eve River flows into the Straight, unloaded and put into the water, then pulled in large log-booms to the sawmill, wherever that was. I am currently building a cabin and I know a great deal of lumber is exported from Canada to the US. I like to imagine that some of the trees I saw on trucks here in Canada might have been turned into lumber and made their way onto store shelves in America and into my cabin.

Now I'd been told by my friend Brendan just how much logging goes on here on Vancouver Island so I was prepared to some extent, but what I experienced was far beyond my wildest expectations. Let me first say I'm certainly not against logging, hell, I cut trees for a living myself (on a slightly different scale) and am building a home out of wood as I write this. A properly managed forest is a sustainable and renewable resource, so I'm not making a negative judgment when I say this, but I was amazed at how much logging there is on Vancouver Island. It seemed like all the land I saw was owned by timber companies, every tiny town had a dealer for log trucks, feller-bunchers and other logging equipment, every road off the main highway was a logging road, every piece of forest I saw was the re-growth of a clear-cut, every other vehicle I saw was part of the industry, and every vehicle, once I got off the paved roads was part of the logging industry. Really, it seems like the entirety of Vancouver Island is a managed forest for the timber industry and there is nothing wild left. Honestly, that was a surprise to me.

According to my map, the campsite I had been looking for was essentially a dirt parking lot next to where the logs were being dumped into the water. It was mostly empty except for a few pickup trucks and trailers, but was far from inviting. Instead, what I decided to do was just pick a random dirt/gravel logging road that went into the hills and hope for the best. After a few winding switch-backs and always choosing the smaller and more overgrown of the road choices, I came upon a section of road that was totally covered in grass, so tight I could hardly fit through it, and had fallen limbs across it that indicated it hadn’t been driven on in months at least.

After deciding that it was obviously a safe place to camp, and that I wouldn't be woken up at 2am by a logging truck trying to get by, I simply stopped in the middle of the road, pulled out my bins, cooler, tables, chairs, stove, and setup camp. If you look in the back of the van, you can see the platform and the bed I used on the trip. Amazingly I was able to fit the entire double-bed and bed platform from my cabin into the van, which allowed for a ton of storage underneath it as well. I grew up hiking and sleeping in tents, and while I love it, I have to say having a real bed you don’t need to set up and take down every night sure is nice! That night I sat around a small fire imagining what lay ahead in the coming days.

A lazy morning, a light drizzle and some classic camp food: pancakes, eggs, bacon and coffee.

The drizzle continued for most of the day and my only “plan” if you could call it that, was to continue heading north. I stopped in the small town of Port McNeill where I got coffee and compared the BC Ferry to our own (the dock was far nicer, and the boats seem more route specific and diverse), then kept going up “the only road.” In no hurry, I stopped in Port Hardy, the end of the paved roads, which seemed like a far more interesting place although all I did there was stop at a diner to eat and play on a swing-set. Strangely it had a backpackers lodge, something I didn't really understand due to it's seemingly inconvenient location, but it was advertising diving, kayak trips and other activities which are all nice. With my belly and gas tank full, I left the paved road in favor of gravel and headed in the direction of Cape Scott, the farthest north part of Vancouver Island.

Along the gravel road, which was in very good condition I might add (the logging companies seem to do very regular maintenance), I came across this strange shoe-covered tree. Admittedly I'd been driving pretty fast, so I had to slow down and stop well past the tree, waiting for my dust cloud to clear before being able to back up and check it out. It had all types of footwear, from old loggers boots to brand new flip flops, and even a prosthetic leg! I don't know the story of it, but it was a fun little thing to come across unexpectedly.

The road out to Cape Scott winds through forests, both recently logged and regrowing, and a few tiny little logging outposts (you can't really call them towns). The oldest sign I saw indicated that one area we drove through was replanted way back in 1945, so it's clear that the area, or rather as far as I can tell the entirety of Vancouver Island, is one giant managed forest for timber and has been for many decades.

I had wanted to go out to the very northwestern tip of the island and reach the coast which would mean an overnight hike, but the skies were still gray and dripping, so I wimped out. Although I had all the appropriate gear to make it happen, to be honest the rain put a damper on my enthusiasm and really, that big bed in the van was awfully comfortable!

To camp that night I did what had become the usual: look for logging roads that seemed temporarily abandoned. I found a promising road into the hills above, but rather than drive into unknown right away, I got out and walked to scout it out first. As I walked up the steep road, I looked to my left and just about 20 feet ahead of me was a black bear in the treeline!  Before I could really react, it ran off through the trees with some pretty amazing speed and agility. Given the fresh piles of bear poop on the road, it was obviously not used by vehicles, but was a bear highway for sure.

Any road this overgrown was obviously not being used for active logging and thus was a good sign for finding a place to camp undisturbed.

That evening I sat around the fire reading and roasting marshmallows, but it wasn't a particularly interesting place to camp and I couldn't see anything since I was just tucked into an overgrown roadbed, so feeling a bit uninspired I called it an early night.

I still hadn't managed to find a spot along the coast to see the Pacific Ocean, so in my efforts to make that happen I drove towards Winter Harbor. After quite some time on more gravel logging roads, I had to turn back due to a road washout and didn't see anything at all of interest. The previous day however I'd read on a sign something about a blue whale jaw bone in the town of Coal Harbor, and that seemed as good a reason as any to go to the tiny town of Coal Harbor and see what I could find.

As it turned out, Coal Harbor was actually a pretty interesting little place. At the dock I ended up stopping to chat with a few young guys who were taking a float plane out to a logging camp and I noticed their supplies consisted mostly of a few big Husquvarna chainsaws and cheap beer. I also thought to myself if I lived in this town myself, I'd probably be out there logging right beside them. And even though I expected it, I was consistently impressed by how friendly and helpful everyone was.

The town used to be a coal mine, a whaling station, and an Air-force base, so it has some interesting history. Inside the old hanger (which has admittedly seen better days) is a small but very interesting and well stocked museum of local history, put together by a local man. It contained all kinds of interesting artifacts, from harpoon guns to plane engines, chainsaws to old fire trucks. I have to say, I was impressed.

Inside the old Airforce hanger, which was full of old airplane parts, tractors, logging supplies and other fun things was where the whale jaw bones were kept. They used to be outside, but we were told cars had crashed into it once or twice, so it was put inside for it's own safety. Seeing a jaw bone this big was pretty amazing, and gives you a whole new perspective on just how big some whales really are.

Although it was tiny and without a whole lot do so really, I left Coal Harbor feeling like I'd found a little gem. Next I headed towards the town of Port Alice, I think with the only reason being that it was a near by town that actually had a paved road going to it.

On the way however, as I drove across a bridge I saw a great looking waterfall below and turned off the road to check it out. It turned out to be the Marble River campsite, and after wandering through the area for a few minutes I decided to go swimming. The water was hardly what you could call warm, nor could the weather be described as sunny, but it was a wonderful and refreshing little dip.

After drying off, I explored the river back towards the bridge where I had first seen it. Marble River, or at least this section, was lovely. The way the water had carved channels through the stone was really amazing and scrambling around boulders and jumping across streams is something I really enjoy doing!

The town of Port Alice seemed like an interesting little town, nestled between the Neroutsos Inlet and the hills behind. Although much bigger than Coal Harbor, it only had one main road between the water and the hills, with as grocery store, police station, hotel and a handful of other shops, but it was very small. The informational signs told us it was basically a company town, with the pulp-mill providing most of the areas employment, and I later found that the mill was going to be shutting down for a year or two at least and it seemed like the town was already beginning to fade away as a result...

As usual I didn't have a plan, but the map showed some gravel roads that went towards the coast and because I had still not seen it, nor had I really “gotten away” into the woods like I had hoped for, I started driving and hoped for the best. A friendly local saw me and stopped his truck in the middle of the road to chat. He gave some recommendations on where to go and what conditions were like, so with that in mind I drove on excited about what lay ahead.

Rounding the south end of the inlet takes you past the mill and the large log boom waiting to be processed. As usual, I was in logging territory and the sides of the roads had all kinds of cool old equipment which I always enjoy looking at and trying to figure out how it once worked.

I didn't exactly have an early start on the journey at this point, and as I climbed up and over the 'mountains' heading west it began to get dark and rainy, I was using gas at a slightly alarming rate and had no idea how much farther I had to go. I debated how much farther to push on, and although the roads in some ways were well marked, in other ways it was a confusing maze and I was really wishing I had a GPS at that moment. I wasn't totally sure it was a great idea, but I certainly wanted to keep going and I did.

Once I returned to a lower elevation the weather improved again, the roads were for the most part in great condition and I continued to see the same kind of huge logging equipment I had been seeing the whole trip. The roads had signs with distances on them, but I wasn't totally sure where I was going still, nor where I could find the water. As I drove, I saw another black bear and a few deer as well as crossed many nice little streams.

After two hours of what was slightly stressful gravel road driving, I arrived at what I was searching for, WATER! My map wasn't detailed enough to show any of this, and the signs were confusing or non-existent, but I think we were at a place called Side Bay. I pulled the van off the road and down into a stunning beachfront camp site, unpacked a few things and set off to explore this wonderful little place I had arrived at.

The beach was very long, beautiful and most importantly, totally empty of people! There were a number of built-up unofficial camp sites but it was obviously a place that didn't get a lot of use and was not well known. Under the wonderful, soft evening light I explored the beach and looked at the rocks and trees and creatures I  found along the way. It was a wonderful little place I had stumbled upon.

Inside my van: a room with a view.

That night I  stayed up late into the night sitting around a small fire, watching the stars. It was pretty much perfect.

A little later, and it was quite late at this point, I was ready to go to sleep and I saw an extremely bright light in the distance and behind the hills. At first it just didn't click what it could be. It seemed way to big and bright to be natural, but there weren't any cities near by that could do that either. After a minute I realized, duh, it WAS the rising moon, but it still seemed so big and bright it was hard to comprehend. Naturally I had to get out of bed, grab my tripod and camera, and try to capture it while watching it come over the horizon. The moon-rise put on a spectacular show, and while my little camera couldn't quite capture it accurately (mostly that the sky wasn't quite this light), it is at least a reminder of what it looked like and a way to at least try and explain it to all of you reading.

In the morning I woke surprisingly early due to an early sunrise and a van full of windows, but I had decided to spend a second night here because it was obviously such a nice spot, and therefore had all day to just relax and take it all in. First and foremost however, was a large breakfast!

It was nearly noon by the time I got out of camp to explore the beach and one of the first things I went to check out was the bridge near us. I can't say I've ever seen one built the same way, big I-beams, concrete decking, then huge spruce logs and gravel!

Walking down the beach I found I obviously wasn't alone, but there were no recent signs of people, only animal tracks to let me know.

Wildlife was something I was really hoping to see on this trip and while I must say I was a bit underwhelmed in that aspect (the close encounter with the bear was the highlight and a good one however) my eyes were always open for interesting creatures. As I walked down the beach I spotted this juvenile bald eagle sitting in a snag along the beach, no doubt looking for a meal.

Eventually I found an interesting place to stop my wanderings and sit down to relax. That said, before I could relax, I had to climb on everything nearby.

As I sat looking out at the water, I noticed some splashing just off the rocks I'd been climbing on and saw a sea otter who was hunting in the waves. I excitedly grabbed my camera and between incoming waves climbed up the rocks and had a chance to observe it for a minute or two from a close perch on the rocks above before it spotted me and gave itself a bit more distance from the shore. In the distance far off shore, I could actually see a whole raft of otters bobbing around the water together. Although it looked like specs in the distance, it was never the less fun to see.

Not a bad place to spend an afternoon.

A jellyfish laying out on the beach. (I threw it back in the water)

After a lovely afternoon of relaxing and a quick dip on the ocean. I began walking back to the camp site, and as we did so, we picked up a bag full of plastic bottles along the way, by far the most common litter. I even found many, many fishing line floats and other items that had come all the way from Japan, a few of which I saved and brought home.

The ocean really is a different world... 

But I wasn't ready to call it a day yet, so I left the beach behind and decided to wander up the road beyond where I had made camp. It really didn't take me anywhere other than through more logged forest, and I never managed to get a clear view out towards the water, but it was still a good excuse to stretch the legs. After all, it had been a pretty lazy trip up to this point, mostly sitting and driving, so a little walking wasn't a bad idea.

Back at camp for the evening and cooking dinner.

The next morning, now this is what I call camp breakfast! I'd been attempting a huge pancake-bacon-onion-egg sandwich, but lacking a bib and still valuing my dignity somewhat I decided to just use a fork. It was still just as delicious. 

Around noon I  had finally packed up camp and headed back towards Port Alice, because the next morning we had a ferry to catch all the way on the other end of Vancouver Island to get home to the San Juans.

The previous day I'd realized I had a slow leak in one tire, but had a full size spare and a pump as well so I wasn't worried. I filled it before we left and didn't think much more about it until.... I heard the unmistakable sound of a tire going flat and felt it in the steering wheel. I pulled to the side of the road and got out right in time to watch the wheel go totally flat and the van lay down on the rim. Great. To make matters worse, it wasn't even the tire with the leak, it was a new hole in another tire and obviously a bad one! I pulled out the jack and spare tire to make the change which went fine, but I was still hours from a town and paved roads, driving with NO spare now and another tire with a slow leak.

To make matters worse, the maze of gravel roads were just as confusing as ever, and actually much worse now that I was stressed out about the tires. Man I wish I had a GPS at that moment... The slow leak was getting worse as well, and every 10 minutes or so I was getting out to put more air in it. Naturally I was now driving much slower now to be as kind to the tires as I could be, and was worried about time and fuel levels as well. I drove on and on, not seeing anyone and scared the tires would give out and leave me stranded. Naturally, there was no cellphone service either. Eventually it got to the point where we were actually lost, deep in the maze of roads and valleys. I kept driving in what I though twas the right way and I kept saying out loud “I think I remember this creek....” trying to convince myself I was heading the right way. It was rather stressful.

On the plus side, we saw some cute fawns, this one was so tiny it was about the size of a cat!

Eventually I came across one of those huge logging trucks I like so much and I waved down the driver to ask how to get back to town. What he told me that we had gone at least 20km in the wrong direction! That wasn't what I wanted to hear at that moment, but at least now I knew for sure where to go, and although I was still extremely worried about the shape of my tires, at least I knew I was heading in the right direction now. Seeing another black bear made this detour a little more enjoyable, but only barely. (har har)

More logging equipment on the road back to town.  

After more stressful driving, I finally made it back over the pass towards town and I knew even if I didn't make it any further, I would be able to find help. Luckily however I were able to get all the way back around the inlet and into town where I began asking anyone I could find about getting tires repaid. It was a Saturday afternoon in a very small town so options were limited (well, there were exactly two choices, one was closed), but eventually I found someone who had me follow them into a small neighborhood where there was a man who fixed tires out of his home. I was extremely grateful to find this guy, and although I have to admit I forgot his name, both him and his wife were friendly and welcoming, happy to help out a traveler in need when their work day was already supposed to have been over. One tire was fixable, but the other was such a big hole it was trashed. So I didn't have a spare, but at least we had 4 that held air again.

Once I had paid for the tire repair, I returned to the only gas station in town where I put $117 in the tank. The gas station was only an hour away from closing for the night as well when I got there, had I missed it I would have been stuck in town for the night and probably missed our boat back to the states! Tired but needing to keep pushing on, I got some burgers at the grocery store since both restaurants in town had closed down now that the pulp mill was going to be shutting its doors. I have to say, it was seriously one of the worst burgers I've had in years and even the fries were bad. To top it off, I got a 6-pack of beer from the BC Liquor Store (where all alcohol has to be purchased here) and I was curious to try the cheap beer I'd seen littering the roadsides, Lucky Lager, so that's what I picked. It was even worse than the burger was... oh well. All we could do now was keep driving.

I pushed on, driving south until 9pm when it began to get dark. At this point I had re-entered the populated part of the island and it wasn't so easy to find a good camp site anymore. What I did find was not great, but would work as a place to stop for a few hours. That night while I laid in bed I noticed something moving in the distance. It turned out to be two elk walking up the road towards me and I waited quietly hoping they would continue up the road and walk right past me. Instead they turned around, but it was still fun to see them briefly.

With an early start under my belt and a breakfast of Tim Hortons in my belly, I arrived back in Sidney where the ferry would take me back across the border and return me to the San Juans. It was another beautiful day to be on the water, and a lovely way to have my journey come to an end.

Back home in the Friday Harbor I got take-out Thai food and walked down to the marina to sit out and eat. As I watched the boats coming and going, I noticed a seal swimming around a boat and splashing in the water. I didn't know the story, but I later learned this was Popeye, a local one-eyed seal who has learned to get peoples attention at the docks by splashing at their boat and is occasionally rewarded with fish from the boaters. There is even a statue in town devoted to the seal, who is a bit of a local celebrity!

I wasn't sure what to expect from this trip. After all, I was I heading out to a place I knew almost nothing about and had no plan, That said, I don't need any qualifiers to say the trip was a complete success. I managed to do and see some wonderful things, met some nice people and enjoyed seeing a different place. I have to say Vancouver Island wasn't nearly as open or as wild as I was expecting or hoping for (well, not at all it seemed), even in the far north, but that didn't keep me from enjoying it at all. I quite like driving and put on 800+ miles on the trip, it was great to see the island end-to-end since it's a neighbor of us here in the San Juans and without a doubt the two nights I spent on the beach were the unquestionable highlight of the trip. 

Next post things get back to normal. Lots more farming (the garden is really coming along), baby owls on the property, plenty of tree climbing and best of all, the Shaw Island 4th of July celebration!