Pacific Rim, Canada’s true West Coast

 

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Parksville BC

You would think that we, on Salt Spring Island, live on Canada’s west coast.

But the true west coast along the open ocean, is one more ferry ride and about a 3 hours drive away.
Cutting across the mountainous heart of Vancouver Island, Highway 4 winds through Port Alberni to the Pacific coast. On this particular trip, we spent one night in Qualicum Beach on Vancouver Island’s east coast. We roamed the wide sandy beach, picking up a sand dollar here and a polished rock there. We sipped tea on the gorgeous patio of The Beach Club Resort right on the beach in Parksville. And we had a beautiful AirBnB booked in Qualicum Beach. The very private cottage was in the heart of town, allowing us to walk to shops and restaurants.
IMG_0554The next morning we made the mandatory stop in Coombs. This tiny town has only a few services but made a huge tourist attraction out of a former farm stand. Some 30 years ago it was a farm stand with local pumpkins and apples in the fall. Now it is a huge supermarket/deli with lots of shopping options. Stores have sprouted up around it, selling icecream and t-shirts. 
But the reason for all this is likely the goats on the roof. Yes, you read that right. The old farm stand and now the beautiful supermarket, sports a grass sod roof on which various goats roam and graze at will. This is enough of an attraction that hordes of tourists stop and take pictures. It’s a fun and interesting stop. And after gazing at grazing goats, you can pick up a tye-dyed t-shirt or a giant lawn ornament next door.
IMG_5609The next stop is even more popular and also more natural. Cathedral Grove, also named McMillan Provincial Park, is an awe inspiring place. Huge towering trees block out the sun, filter the rain and support an intriguing eco system. Some of the trees are 800 years old and 75 meters tall, making you feel like a tiny dwarf. Fallen trees support new ones. I doubt that there is much wildlife left since every car and motorhome stops here, but it is gorgeous and definitely worth the loop walk through the grove. I just hope that BC Parks will spend the money and effort to provide a safer way to park. The tiny parking area along the road is not nearly enough and cars parked along the shoulders, with people crossing the road at will, is an accident waiting to happen.
Port Alberni is a large town with many services and lots of camping, hiking and fishing nearby.
We continued on, past the picturesque Sprout Lake to the junction where you turn south to reach Ucluelet or north to reach Tofino. 
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Tofino used to be my favourite of the two isolated towns – with a cozy coffeeshop and a relaxed hippy atmosphere. Now Ucluelet feels more like a nice small town while Tofino is overrun with people and sky high prices. We couldn’t find affordable accommodations even when booking two months ahead. So this time we ended up staying in Ucluelet.
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It used to be a bit run down fishermen’s village. Through the inevitable evolution along BC’s gorgeous coastline, Ucluelet has morfed into a friendly town of a few permanent residents and a surging summer population. We found a lovely cabin, complete with fireplace and jetted tub, in the woods and near the coast. Both towns have a nice Coop Supermarket with fresh produce and lots of choices. Since we had a kitchen we made our own meals but had to find a coffeeshop to get wifi.
Unfortunately we had two days of rain, out of our three days on the coast. But a walk in the rain forest does feel more authentic when the trees are dripping…
IMG_0562Pacific Rim National Park stretches between the two towns and beyond (including the Broken Islands group). One of Canada’s most splendid coast lines is protected in this national park. Several long beaches offer a great place for a brisk walk, watching foamy waves and mist, scenic rocks and outcrops dotting the shore.
Equally impressive are the short rain coast walks. Here a sturdy wooden walk way allows visitors a glimpse of a unique ecosystem. Ancient logs serve as nurseries for new growth. Giant skunk cabbage leaves and tiny unfurling ferns live side by side, thriving on the more than 3 meters of rain that falls here annually.
Immense cedars and spruce form a green canopy that filters the sunlight, if there is any. IMG_5651
Another must-stop is the Kw’istis Visitor Centre with an interpretive display of both natural and First Nations histories. We even watched spouting whales from the upstairs room. Be sure to ask the front desk staff for one of the movies listed. This is a great way to learn more about this beautiful area – one of Canada’s most scenic natural places.
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Exploring Haida Gwaii

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Our zodiak adventure ended with whale sightings on Hecate Strait. After returning to Sandspit, I did readings in the local elementary school, hosted by Haida Gwaii Literacy. I find it so impressive that people in this remote, northern location have opted to sponsor Syrian refugees. Haida Gwaii is one of the most peaceful locations in earth. I can’t begin to imagine how the Syrians feel to be here. I met a lovely young couple, both of them working hard on learning English and holding jobs. In Queen Charlotte City I met a gracious family with young children, one of whom lost her leg in a bombing. It is heartwarming to see how the community has adopted “their” family. Friends drive the children to ballgames, the parents to English lessons, they bake cakes and help with shopping. The Syrian family may have left behind relatives, but they gained many new aunts and uncles in Haida Gwaii.

I did readings and presentations in lovely schools and libraries all along the coast from Charlotte in the south to Masset in the north. I walked into one school to find that the power was out in the entire village. “Yeah, that happens often,” the principal said with a shrug, “probably an eagle that flew into a power line.”

In another village I asked directions to a house. “Turn right after about three pole lengths,” was the answer.

Charlotte has a great Visitors Centre with information and maps. The Haida Gwaii tourist guide has a lot of useful information. Too bad shops and restaurants are not really geared at visitors: the information centre, the coffee shop and most other places are closed on Sunday. The whales, however, don’t go by at the calendar. They circled and spouted along the shore every day.

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One of the most impressive places to visit is Skidegate’s Museum and Intepretive Centre. This massive wooden longhouse, has a museum that houses ancient totems and other carvings, paintings, photos, costumes, woven hats and tools. The place gives you a great glimpse into Haida history and culture. I highly recommend visiting here before exploring the island: http://haidagwaiimuseum.ca

Skidegate has a First Nation’s village with beautiful longhouses and totem poles along the water front. A long house is a traditional house – often a community centre – that has massive ceiling beams and square posts on each corner. The Unity Pole of Skidegate was just recently erected. Driving north, the tiny village of Tlell has several art studios and a great bookstore. We spotted sandhill cranes in a field nearby and walked on pebbly beaches, including Balance Rock where we looked for crabs while eagles watched us.IMG_5407

Port Clements is a logging and fishing village with a great library. We hiked the Golden Spruce trail. If you ever go here, be sure to first read the book The Golden Spruce by John Vaillant.

Finally we reached the northern town of Masset. It is small but full of colourful characters and history. I was surprised to find market tables full of produce and bakings in the middle of town. Traditional Mennonites live on homesteads nearby and bring their garden produce, cakes and breads into town to sell. The library in Masset is a gorgeous old log cabin. I enjoyed doing a presentation surrounded by honey coloured logs lines with books. Be sure to pop into the Secret Garden behind the RCMP office, where you can sit on a sold wooden bench among flowers and blossoms.

IMG_5517From Masset it is only about 2 KM to the First Nations town of Old Massett. Again, longhouses and totem poles indicate that you are now in a traditional village. I stayed in the spacious Haida Lodge, which looks like a small bungalow from the street but turned out to be much larger with spacious rooms. The very kind lady who made our breakfast, told us that her husband is a carver. How lucky we were to be invited into the carving shed. Here we watched in awe as two men carved a 60’ cedar. They each had a tiny chisel and carefully worked along the pencil lines, making figures appear. 10’ of the pole will go into the ground, and many tonnes of rock will be used to keep it firmly in place. We were told that it will take 400 people to raise the massive pole. Besides several poles, there were also longboats in the shed. Their traditional paintings in red and black make for an awesome sight. We felt very privileged to see this ancient art in progress. IMG_5496

From Masset we drove to the end of the road. First we passed an icon: an old, painted hippy school bus in the bush, famous for the cinnamon buns that are baked and served here. Next, we strolled along agate beach, of course picking up several agates.

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Then came Tow Hill – an important spot in Haida culture. We climbed the hill to admire the view of the open West Coast sand beaches and learned more Haida legends. The view here is of Rose Spit, where the first Haida people originated. I found it fascinating to learn that a clan can own a story or a song. Stories and songs can be given to another clan, and then the original clan that gave it away can no longer sing the song or tell the story. IMG_5525

We walked on North Beach and saw the outline of Alaska’s most southern islands across the water. Haida Gwaii is a fascinating place. I was lucky to have almost no rain. It can be cold and windy. But it’s people and their culture make this a heart warming place, of gracious hosts and intriguing tales.

IMG_5547On my last night, I was honoured to be poet laureate during a fundraiser evening for Haida Gwaii Literacy. The dinner included herring roe and rice with seaweed, as well as three different kinds of salmon. What a thrill to share the stage in the gorgeous longhouse with a traditional Haida storyteller who spoke in Haida, and with award winning musicians. As I left the islands to come home, I got hugs in the airport from newly made friends. Haida Gwaii is a very special place and, some day, I hope to have the opportunity to return to this magical land.

For more info, check out:

http://www.gohaidagwaii.ca

http://www.moresbyexplorers.com

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