“We hear that a lot,” says the Visitor Centre person, when we admit this is our first visit to the north end of Vancouver Island, although we’ve lived on the Island for nearly fifty years. Week one we explore four friendly communities and tackle nine hikes of varying difficulty. A six-day kayak expedition to the Broughton Archipelago comes next, and there we see more wildlife and fewer people than expected. Relaxed eco-adventures, just a day’s travel from our home in Victoria.
Don’t call me whale
“Did you see any wildlife?” is the first question we are asked when we return from an outdoor adventure. Yes! Wild things roam on Vancouver Island North, and during our two-week visit we see black bears, orcas, whales (humpback and Minke), porpoises (Dall’s and harbour), Pacific white-sided dolphins, Steller sea lions, harbour seals, mink, bald eagles, herons, guillemots, squirrels, sea stars. . .
We learn, too. Here are some facts that should improve our trivia scores:
- Killer whales are not whales, they are dolphins. Call them orcas, please.
- Baleen whales have four fingers inside their front flippers, while fish-eating whales have five.
- Sea lions can run faster than a human (up to 20 km per hour) on land because they have front-facing feet. Seals are slow and clumsy, dragging their feet behind them.
- The Dall’s porpoise is the fastest swimmer in the cetacean family, clocking up to 55 km per hour.
Marble River Trail parallels the Marble River, working its way 4.2 km (one-way) through what the information sign describes as a “well-spaced, visually-pleasing forest.” This is second-growth, but not due to logging; a series of hurricane-force winds and wildfires levelled the forest during the years 1902-1906. After Bear Falls, about two-thirds of the way down the trail, windfall and other debris necessitate some under-and-over hiking, but soon we arrive at Emerald Pools, a popular fly-fishing spot that is the end of the trail. Access to this half-day hike is via the Port Alice road known as the 30/30/30 Roller Coaster (to reach Port Alice, travel 30 km on Highway 30, sometimes doing 30 km per hour).
Along the outer side of Malcolm Island, Beautiful Bay Trail is a spongy forest trail that offers views over the ocean to the snow-capped coastal mountains. The main draw, however, is the chance to view orcas from the platform at Bere Point, where orcas come to perform their mysterious rubbing ritual on the pebble beach below. Local volunteers predict the orcas’ arrival time, and sure enough, fourteen orcas cavort for twenty minutes on the afternoon we are there. Beautiful Bay Trail was formerly five kilometres long (one-way), but an enormous storm in 2001 toppled dozens of old-growth trees, so travel beyond Puoli Valley Canyon, the half-way point, is no longer recommended.
Alert Bay has 16 km of hiking trails. Within the Ecological Park, trails are well-marked, and a boardwalk crosses the swamp fed by an underground spring. The naked, moss-draped trees provide perfect perches for eagles and ravens.
Trails are less clearly defined beyond the Ecological Park, and people actually get lost, sometimes leading to 911 calls for assistance. As we attempt to hike the perimeter trail, we aren’t always sure which path to follow, but we remember the Visitor Centre’s advice: don’t panic, the entire island is less than 4.9 km long and only 800 metres wide. After bushwhacking through a long, prickly patch of blackberries, we hear voices and emerge from the bush to find a group of carvers creating a totem pole.
“Welcome back,” says Wesley, when he hears that we hiked the Blinkhorn Trail, which begins at Telegraph Cove. This is a serious hike, and not because we encounter a mother bear and her two cubs curled together and snoozing in a tree. The bears are easily avoided (they are still snoozing on our way back), but not so the other obstacles on this rugged rainforest hike (13 km, return). The track crosses slippery log bridges, climbs and descends over rope-assisted sections and through debris and beds of moss to a viewpoint overlooking Johnstone Straight and then on to the Blinkhorn Peninsula. For the young and nimble, this is a half-day hike. Cautious, older hikers should allow five-six hours.
The kayaking crowd
The boat ramp adjacent to North Island Kayak is crowded at 8:30 am, as five or six large groups prepare to launch from Telegraph Cove into Johnstone Strait, the narrow body of water that is home to the world’s largest number of resident orcas. We meet our two guides and six fellow adventurers, and our six-day Broughton Archipelago Sea Kayaking Expedition begins.
Johnstone Strait is a busy shipping lane, used by fishing boats, whale-watching tours, touring yachts, and cruise ships. The possibility of paddling among the orcas attracts sea kayakers from around the world, and our guides Wesley and Gareth mention that securing a campsite can sometimes be an issue, in addition to the challenge of dodging the powered boats. Somehow, all the kayak groups disperse, and we find lovely campsites each night, sharing with another group on only one night. We are also lucky with the weather: sunshine, fog, mist – but no rain!
An hour or so after leaving the dock, we pull out at Blinkhorn Peninsula to stretch our legs. Orcas are approaching, so we sit on our rocky perch to watch the show. Here they come: a parade of a dozen or more resident orcas, one humpback whale (being chased by the orcas), and Dall’s porpoises. After the marine mammal performance, we manage two big crossings, ending at one of North Island Kayak’s base camps on Swanson Island. It’s yummy barbecued salmon for dinner, and we hear whales breathing in the night.
An awesome archipelago
On day two we head into Broughton Archipelago Park, British Columbia’s largest marine park, with dozens of undeveloped islands offering beaches, coves, kelp waterways, and white midden beaches to explore. We see a solitary Minke whale, stop at the White Cliff Islets (named for their white rocks), then make camp on Owl Island.
Day three brings more orcas, humpbacks, porpoises, and fog. Insect Island, where we stay for two nights, has a rope-assist climb into camp but no noticeable insects. Next day we circumnavigate Eden Island, passing a haul-out of about thirty Steller sea lions. The male-in-charge is loud and huge; it is believed that the Steller’s long-ago land ancestor is the Grizzly Bear.
Day five we glide through an alley of sea stars and witness a dolphin show en route to a cluster of wilderness islands called the Burdwood Group. Wesley and Gareth bring out the hydrophone so we can hear the Pacific white-sided dolphins communicating. Our final night is spent on Raleigh Island, which boasts a kayak-friendly clamshell beach. After making camp we paddle to Deep Sea Bluff, which we slap to celebrate that we have now paddled from Vancouver Island to the mainland of British Columbia.
Day six we admire the fog as we paddle to Proctor Bay, our take-out point. We visit Billy’s Museum of local fishing, logging, and trapping artifacts, and we listen to Billy’s stories. At 2 pm our water taxi arrives and whisks us through dense fog on our 45-minute ride back to Telegraph Cove.
Thanks are owed to our illustrious guides Wesley and Gareth and our fellow kayakers Gilles and Anna, Ron and Charlene, and Brian and Linda. Each one contributed to make this a safe, enjoyable, and informative 92-km paddling trip.
Camping and communities
Port McNeill is proud to be a tree farming community, gateway to the nearby islands and waterways, and home of the world’s largest Sitka Spruce burl. Broughton Strait Campground is where we pitch our tent. School House Creek Trail connects the campground to Port McNeill’s pleasant seawall and busy harbour front.
A 25-minute ferry ride brings us to the village of Sointula on Malcolm Island. Finnish settlers tried to build a utopian community here more than a century ago. Their ambitious plans derailed, but the spirit of cooperation and sharing remains: visitors can borrow free bikes from the Resource Centre. Six kilometres along a gravel road from town is quirky Bere Point campground, which has 12-foot salal, 29 unique campsites, and an eclectic mix of camping units and people waiting for whales. Reservations are recommended. Bring drinking water, as potable water is not available at the campground.
BC Ferries doesn’t charge extra for whale watching, and the captain slows so that we can observe orcas on our 35-minute ferry ride to Alert Bay. On the sheltered coast of the compact but hilly Cormorant Island, Alert Bay is an authentic fishing village, with colourful heritage buildings and a waterfront boardwalk. The acclaimed U’mista Cultural Centre and the island’s totem poles are must-see attractions; the Visitor Centre has maps and pamphlets. Alert Bay Campground, adjacent to the Ecological Park, offers full facilities (including coin-op showers) at reasonable rates.
Telegraph Cove, a tiny and picturesque waterfront village, was once the northern end of the telegraph line, from which morse code messages were sent. During its history, Telegraph Cove has been a one-man telegraph shack and the site of a lumber mill, a salmon saltery, and a sawmill operated by the Royal Canadian Air Force during World War II. Telegraph Cove remains a hamlet of boardwalks and restored wooden buildings built on pilings, but in summer the little bay bustles with whale watchers, fishermen, boaters, campers, and kayakers. We stay in Cabin 13, part of the former Air Force Mess Hall; this is our only roofed accommodation of this trip.
Cape Scott – not
This North Island adventure all started with our brave idea to backpack the 23.6 km (one-way) Cape Scott Trail. After all, just last Fall we did fourteen portages – one of which was 2.3 kilometres – on a canoe trip in Algonquin Park. Surely age seventy-seven is not too old to embark on one’s first backpacking trip? Reality check: Our tent weighs ten pounds seven ounces (almost five kilograms). We don’t have proper multi-day backpacks or the strength to carry them all day. Better stick with that for which we are equipped: wilderness paddling trips and day-hiking. Backpacking is off the bucket list; it’s all part of ageing gracefully.
We rented a Ford Fiesta for this trip, having sold our car in January. For an economy car, it had a lot of gadgets (backup camera, navigation system, satellite radio) to entertain our driver. How does it feel behind the wheel, after six months of travel on foot, bicycle, and public bus? He says: I still like driving, but it’s just driving. She says: I still like car-camping, but a car is neither necessary nor sufficient for adventure. No tears were shed when the rental car was returned.