Photo above by TJ Watt
We come upon a newborn fawn wobbling forth on his first grazing experience. She’s never seen a bicycle, but mother deer is nearby to help. We spend a day with a celebrity, who provides a first-class show-and-tell on ancient trees. We rumble over historic trestles and locate hidden trails, including one to a post-apocalyptic powerhouse. Looking for a route with varied landscapes, stops, and views? The Pacific Marine Circle, a coast to coast loop around southern Vancouver Island, provides a full-circle experience. This twisty route is popular with motorcycle drivers, but cyclists can do it, too.
A great day for raptors
Birds of prey are circling in the air above the farmer who is turning his hay. Fluffing up the hay flushes out field mice, creating a feast for eagles, hawks, and vultures, says Doug, who grew up in a farming community. Are these soaring raptors are a sign that the Toronto Raptors will win the NBA championship tonight, June 13?
The twenty-pump Co-op gas station is action central when we arrive in Mill Bay via the Brentwood Bay ferry. We reminisce about cars, then set out to explore. Mill Bay is a commuter town, according to Wikipedia, and we see evidence of that: a full park-and-ride and neighbourhoods with mansions.
Bamberton Provincial Park boasts a fir-and-arbutus forest and a long sandy beach with views across the inlet. Farms and ranches line the road to Mill Bay Nature Park, which has lightly-trafficked walking trails and beach access. Our friendly host at Rosebank Oceanfront Cottages is a cyclist, and he points out several worthy day-loops through Cobble Hill, but those must be filed for another trip. Before the big basketball game there’s just time for a pub dinner at Mill Bay Marina, with a spectacular view of Mount Baker.
Bumpety-bump: the Cowichan Valley Trail
No navigation required today, as our friend David C has researched the route between Mill Bay and the Cowichan Valley Trail. David recommends Shawnigan House Coffee and Chocolate, so of course we stop to hang out with the locals at this village hub.
The Cowichan Valley Trail utilizes abandoned rail lines and includes several restored trestle bridges, some offering magnificent views of the rivers they cross. The curved Kinsol Trestle is the star attraction, but the whole 50-km multi-use path is picturesque. In 2015 we covered this trail as a day trip with hybrid non-electric bicycles. (see link) The pedalling is much easier with our e-bikes, but we feel the rocks and bumps more, probably because we have the extra weight of panniers.
It’s a sunny Saturday, and beach parties are underway in the town of Lake Cowichan, at the east end of 32-km long Cowichan Lake, Vancouver Island’s second largest lake. Cathy walks over to the RCMP car to provide assurance that the empty liquor bottle on the picnic table is not ours. “We didn’t think it,” says the officer, “you look much too active to be involved in that.” How kind of him not to mention that we also look much too old; the party people are the ages of our grandchildren.
Beaver Lake Resort is our base for two nights. The resort and campground have a deserted feel, but our Cedar Cabin is well-equipped and has a comfortable wrap-around porch. A 3.5-km hiking trail circumnavigates the lake, providing an opportunity to compare the logging practices of beavers and humans. We ride to the little community of Mesachie Lake, where a softball tournament is taking place. Doug has always liked this quaint village, with its neat rows of houses, tree-lined roads, and mountain backdrop.
A Father’s Day gift
We wake up to clear skies on Father’s Day, the day of our 64-km ride from Lake Cowichan to Port Renfrew. Rainfall is common in Port Renfrew, even in the driest months, so we feel blessed to receive a dry, sunny day as a Father’s Day gift. Yes, the road is hilly and twisty and has no shoulder, but the surface condition is excellent, and traffic is light and kind. We count 54 motor vehicles passing us in 6.5 hours (that’s one every seven minutes); we lose count of the one-lane bridges.
Doug starts a traffic jam at Fairy Lake. Cars pull over, thinking Doug’s camera is pointed at a bear, a moose, or other instagrammable animal. It’s just the often-photographed bonsai tree on a stump, but down the road we do see big mammals: Roosevelt elk grazing in a field.
Tofino twenty years ago: that’s how we’ve heard Port Renfrew described. Having lived in Tofino forty years ago, we do see some similarities (occasional power outages, store shelves that empty long before the weekly supply truck arrives). Long a logging town, Port Renfrew is re-inventing itself as the Tall Tree Capital of Canada, a destination for old-growth forest tourism, hiking, and sport-fishing. The town is spread out along the highway, and we are glad to have our bicycles to get around.
At the general store we meet a group of cycle-tourists refreshing their Kraft Dinner supply. These young folks are doing the Pacific Marine Circle clockwise in three days, camping. We are spending eleven days for the same route, counter-clockwise. In Port Renfrew we stay three nights in a stylish wharfside studio, next to a pleasant pub; age has its privileges.
Of course we ride down to Botanical Beach, where the tide pools are a must-see. The upland trails are spectacular, too, with their windswept, swooping trees. With wind whipping up and fog rolling in, we hurry home to our wharfside patio and its propane fire pit.
“You are a celebrity,” says the gentleman hiker, when he spots our tour guide at Avatar Grove. In the big tree world, TJ Watt has celebrity status, indeed. For more than a decade TJ has been hunting ancient trees, advocating to save them, and helping make them more accessible to visitors by constructing safe trails and offering Big Tree Tours. TJ is also a professional photographer, whose work is featured in magazines, tourism brochures, and news stories. Can you spot his photos in this story (hint: they are the ones with Doug in them)?
Photos by TJ Watt
Did you know that trees talk to each other and share resources right under our feet, using a fungal network nicknamed the Wood Wide Web? This is just one of many facts we learn on TJ’s all-day tour to Avatar Grove (dubbed the Cathedral Grove of Port Renfrew), San Juan Spruce, Red Creek Fir, Fairy Lake, and a secret location, where some bushwhacking is involved.
Wow, this day is so remarkable, it’s hard to find words to match. Big trees are accessed via rough gravel roads, and we are glad to be driven in TJ’s right-hand drive 4×4 Mitsubishi rather than on our bikes. Above all, we are energized by this young man’s passion for precious old-growth trees, and we thank you, TJ, for the day.
Getting to Point No Point
It’s about time we visited Point no Point Resort. Everyone we know has stayed in one of these twenty-five classy cabins, usually to celebrate a wedding anniversary or other significant event. The Resort is roughly half way between Port Renfrew and Sooke, so we splurge on it as a two-night stop-over. Two Resort guests clap us in as we arrive; they had passed us on the road and were impressed.
We aren’t hot tub people, and for environmental reasons we try to limit wood-burning fires to three situations: preventing/treating hypothermia, deterring blackflies or mosquitos, and satisfying a grandchild’s need to roast marshmallows. But here we are: sitting in our two-person hot tub on our private deck 100 feet above the ocean, admiring the dramatic view and crashing surf. On the second day Doug lights a fire and burns two pieces of wood. More true to character, we skip the spa treatments and the classy on-site restaurant; we have left-over hot dogs, which we cook in our cabin’s well-appointed kitchen.
En route to Point no Point are several stops: two waterfalls, a creek bed, the Cold Shoulder Café (with numerous signs proclaiming “no washrooms – don’t ask”), and the surfing beach at Jordan River. Doug’s favourite attraction? The abandoned Jordan River Power Station. The remains of this powerhouse are hollow and eerie, the kind of place a graffiti artist would love.
The danger zone
The day starts well, with a ride to Sheringham Point Lighthouse and Shirley Delicious Café. Then, for the first time, we feel our lives are in danger, and that fear is with us for 20 km, until we turn onto a side street in Sooke. This stretch of Highway 14 is in terrible condition, and the steady stream of drivers show little regard for speed limit signs or the concept “share the road.” Such a contrast to our experience on other legs of this journey, where drivers were extremely kind.
Just east of Sooke we divert to safety – the Galloping Goose Trail. This trail will take us home, but first, we take an extra day to cycle to Leechtown, a ghost town, and back. We braked – hard and fast – for a mother bear with two cubs the last time we cycled to Leechtown. Guess what? The mother bear is there in the same spot today, with new two cubs.
Arbutus Cove B&B Guesthouse, at kilometre 37 on the Galloping Goose Trail, is perfectly situated for cyclists riding to or from Victoria or Swartz Bay. A spacious deck overlooks the peaceful waterfront, and rooms are spacious and comfortable. Our host Kathy prepares beautiful breakfasts, and Doug enjoys studying the dumbwaiter that delivers the trays.
If you go
Direction. The Pacific Marine Circle can be cycled in either direction. Going counter-clockwise (the way we went), the uphill sections seem more gradual, and the ocean is on our side. If you choose to take the Sooke Hills Wilderness/Malahat Connector trail rather than the Mill Bay ferry, going clockwise would be better; be prepared to push your loaded bike on some steep sections.
Distance. The Pacific Marine Circle road route is about 260 km and can be driven by a car in one day. Three to four days is the usual time for cyclists. We covered 392 km, because of side trips and because we opted for rail trails and secondary roads, where possible.
Battery. We brought one spare battery, because Cathy was worried about running out of charge in a remote area with lots of hills. We swapped the spare in for practice, but we could have managed without it. Having a spare battery did increase our comfort level; we weren’t shy about using Turbo, the highest level of assist, on the steep sections.
Bring cash. Outages happen in Port Renfrew, in which case credit/debit machines will not operate.
Try Otter Point Road. When heading east from Shirley to Sooke, next time we will try Otter Point Road. Otter Point has blind curves, but it can’t be as dangerous as West Coast Road (Highway 14), can it?
From go-go to slow-go
Have you noticed that our trips are getting shorter and closer to home? Is it because we are concerned about carbon emissions? Yes, in part. Since becoming car-free, we continue to look for ways to reduce our ecological footprint, and cutting back on international flights is a logical step.
Photo by TJ Watt
Another factor: we are entering a new phase of retirement. Phase one is all about travelling far away and fast. We see the Terracotta Warriors, the Pompeii ruins, a Tasmanian devil, a Komodo dragon. We kayak in Cuba and walk across Wales. Now, after seventeen years of retirement, exotic destinations seem less urgent. Our e-bikes contribute to this change, by helping us to re-visit nearby places and to see them in a different way.