It was one of those baby boomer 'I-can-do-anything' moments that placed us driving north on the Island Highway 19 on Vancouver Island's east coast. In a surge of daring adventurism, I had signed my husband, Glenn, and myself to a six-day wilderness sea-kayaking tour of the Inside Passage - even though neither of us had ever kayaked. We were headed for the northeast town of Port McNeill, the tour's jump off point.
It is a 502 km. drive from Victoria to the highway's end at Port Hardy (home to the island's most northern golf course). Our destination Port McNeill was a bit closer, at 463 km. We expected to simply zoom along the highway (four-lane at times) to Port McNeill - one of those "got to get there fast"' drives - but how could we? There were so many interesting places to pull-over and visit along the way.
Just 4 km. south of Nanaimo (the island's second largest city), we stopped at the Petroglyph Provincial Park to look at 10,000 year-old rock carvings. We later came back to visit some of the city's gems including Morrell Nature Sanctuary, the Harbourfront Walkway (4.4 km.), historical buildings, Pipers Lagoon, and we walked some of the city's 58 km. of mulched trails along with 28 km. of the paved variety.
Moving on north, drivers are presented two routes to Campbell River. The faster yet scenic Island Highway 19 runs through the rolling farmlands of the Comox Valley, its urban centre, Courtenay, (did you know dinosaur bones were found here and that's why it is designated as the start of the Great Canadian Fossil Trail?), and alongside Qualicum Bay to Campbell River. Or, there's the Oceanside Route Highway19A, the island's most popular tourist drive, which starts at the neighbouring seaside villages of Parksville and Qualicum Beach. (We took one route up island, the other on return.)
We'd driven 264 km. by the time we reached Campbell River, the "Salmon Capital of the World." With a sandwich in hand, we did a quick stroll on the Discovery Fishing Pier, enjoying the great view of nearby Quadra Island. The city of 31,000 is the gateway to Strathcona Provincial Park and the island's highest peak, Golden Hinde.
Hours later, we arrived at Port McNeill along the shore of Broughton Strait, home to the world's largest burl (weighing 30 tons, from a Sitka Spruce)....but we would have to see it and the town later after our sea-kayaking adventure.
Next morning at the launch site on Alder Bay, our paddling group of eight novice urban adventurers and three professional guides (from Sea Kayak Adventures) slid our bare feet into slithery wet-suit booties (reminded me of men's zippered goulashes) and sloshed through the low-tide mud to load the kayaks. Provisions for eleven people to be completely self-sufficient for a week were packed in six kayaks.
For the first two hours, we paddled south along the shoreline of Vancouver Island, across Beaver Cove, passing the quirky village-on-stilts of Telegraph Cove, and through the Wastell Islands. We built confidence in our kayaking but we all knew our padding skills would soon be tested crossing the big moving waters of the Johnstone Strait. The time arrived after a shore lunch. We lined up the kayaks, side by side, and fixed our gaze across the strait to the Sunset Beach campsite on Hanson Island, two nautical miles away (almost 4 km.).
"Stay together as a group, paddle steady and focus on our beach landing site," our leader instructed. "The guides will be out front and on both outer edges. Everyone ready? Let's go."
I chewed gum vigorously as we pulled away from the comforting shore. No one spoke as paddles rhythmically dipped through water that reached depths over 440 metres (1443 feet). An hour later, we were across. We hauled the kayaks to higher ground (to secure them against the night's tide) and then set up our tents in the old growth forest behind the beach. As the guides prepared a gourmet dinner (salmon, tortellini, broccoli, salad, peach cobbler), we sipped wine, nibbled hors d'oeuvres, and toasted each other as true adventurers.
In the next six days, we paddled 3-5 hours a day and covered over 44 nautical miles (amazingly, I never tired). Every day was an adventure in spectacular surroundings. We kayaked across Blackfish Sound (a main route of whales); paddled alongside ancient Aboriginal rock pictographs marking burial sites; watched bald eagles, herons, porpoises and deer; and, tented on secluded forested islands.
We paddled to the famous abandoned Kwakiutl village of Mamalilaculla on Village Island, wandered among the fallen old totem poles and chatted with the island's famous cultural keeper and storyteller Tom Sewid.
Another day, we hiked 2.5 kilometers through a rainforest to Eagle Eye Lookout on West Cracroft Island. Located on a high ridge, it overlooks the world-renowned Robson Bight Ecological Reserve on Johnstone Strait, where Orcas arrive each summer to rub on gravel beaches at the mouth of the Tsitika River.
Did we encounter any Orca whales? Yes, on the return crossing of Johnstone Strait. At about the strait's midpoint, one of the guides sighted three large dorsal fins from male Orcas advancing towards us. Quickly, we rafted the kayaks together (to appear as one large object on the whales' sonar) and positioned ourselves to face the oncoming whales. Another guide lowered a hydrophone in the water to hear their vocalizations and solar clicks. We waited. Only 30 metres in front of us, the whales surfaced and dove beside us in perfect synchrony before continuing down the strait. Awesome!
Our last night was spent tenting amid beached logs on shores of B.C. Forest Service's Blinkhorn Peninsula (their boardwalk, wooden privy is the best wilderness outhouse I've ever seen). We looked a bit rough as we sat around the evening campfire and mused about our great adventure. In six days, the guides had honed us into modern-day explorers, and our spirits soared at the accomplishment.
The next day, we walked around Port McNeill (including visiting the big burl on the waterfront) before heading south for a leisurely drive back down the east coast. By the time we arrived in Victoria, it seemed like we had been on two great vacation trips - one sea-kayaking and one wonderful journey, exploring Vancouver Island's diverse east coast.
Elle Andra-Warner is an author, journalist and photographer based in Thunder Bay, Ontario.
Tourism Vancouver Island:
Whale Watching, Clayoquot Sound & Inter-tidal Fauna: ChrisCheadle.com
Kayak Johnstone Strait (3): George Fischer Photography
If you go
Tourism Vancouver Island: www.vancouverisland.travel
Tourism BC - Vancouver Island: www.hellobc.com/en-CA/RegionsCities/VancouverIsland.htm
Tourism BC - Nanaimo, Parksville, Campbell River, Comox Valley, Victoria:
Telegraph Cove: www.telegraphcoveresort.com
Tourism Campbell River & Region: www.campbellriver.travel
Comox Valley Tourism (Courtenay, Comox, Cumberland and Surrounding Communities):
Parksville and Qualicum Beach: Vancouver Island's Oceanside Region:
Port Hardy: www.PortHardy.Travel
Tourism Nanaimo: www.tourismnanaimo.com