A blond raccoon, a pink porta potty, blue owls, black berries, a grey mouse (in our clawfoot bathtub), yellow sunflowers, multi-hued birdhouses — colourful sights in captivating coastal communities. We cycle the east coast of the Island from Victoria to Campbell River, with side trips to the quirky, independent islands along the way. In eighteen days we explore the shores of nine islands, take eighteen ferry rides, and cover 850 kilometres (528 miles), self-propelled.
“We should visit Gabriola Island”, suggests Doug, as we contemplate our next cycle tour. The scope grows (this is normal), and soon the journey involves a ride up Vancouver Island (the Island) to Campbell River, with side trips to the islands of Salt Spring, Thetis, Gabriola, Newcastle, Denman, Hornby, Quadra, and the Bretons.
Plan A was a two-week, one-way bike ride, taking the Vancouver Island Connector bus home from Campbell River. In May, the rules change, such that unboxed bikes are no longer permitted on the bus. Riding home adds four days, but it seems easier than dealing with bike-boxing and greener than renting a U-haul truck.
People you meet
Ron and Sandy welcome us to their home away from home, a campsite at We Wai Kai Campground on Quadra Island. They guide us along the oceanside hiking trails at Rebecca Spit, a narrow hook of land with stunning views on both sides. Thanks for sharing this magical place!
Laurel assembles a vibrant group of movers and shakers from Campbell River and elsewhere. After a two-hour paddle in the estuary, ten of us sit down to a gourmet pizza dinner, served family-style in Laurel’s River Room. Community animation, therapeutic yoga, and farm-to-table restaurants are discussed; we feel honoured to be included in this sparkling group experience. Doug wins the river clean-up prize, a bar of Denman Island chocolate, for collecting the most interesting garbage during the estuary paddle (his haul: a rotting family pack of pork chops). Paddle and Pizza is just one of the creative tours offered by Laurel’s company, Island Joy Rides.
Ferries and trails lead to conversations. We meet a grandmother seeking respite from her smelly car, which contains her grandchildren’s caged pet rat. A chatty gentleman, whose motorcycle is huge and heavy, tells us he’d need to call a tow truck if his bike ever tipped over. A friendly dog-walking couple tell us they retired to Campbell River because it’s affordable – and there are family doctors available! A kind woman flags us down near Nanaimo to give us a bag of yellow plums from her plum-full tree.
Salt Spring is a great way to ease into island time and to test our new BC Ferries Experience Cards, which waive the $2 per bicycle charge. The passenger fee is also waived for BC seniors who travel Monday through Thursday, with or without the Experience Card. Savings can be spent on fresh goat cheese or snacks from Salt Spring’s farm stands.
Thetis Island “has no official sights”, according to our guidebook, but we find a lot to admire: two out-and-back roads with delightful green trees, lush ferns, and two fifteen per cent hills. There are two marinas for a cool drink before and after tackling those fifteen per cent hills.
You have probably heard of British Columbia’s spirit bears, but Newcastle Island has its own animal attraction: blond raccoons. The park ranger tells us that six of the island’s one hundred raccoons are blond, a colour caused by a double-recessive gene. Doug gets a little lost while looking for a lake (which turns out to be a swamp), but he finds one of the blond raccoons sauntering along the beach.
It was winter and we had a car the last time we visited Gabriola Island. This trip we spend four days on Gabriola, enough time to be recognized by the grocery cashiers and to re-visit nearly every road and park on the island. A mountain biker wannabe, Doug goes off on his own at the 707 Community Park. One hour later he pops out of the bushes with a smile on his face and a tangle of twigs in his bike chain.
Denman Island hasn’t changed much since the 1970s (when we lived in nearby Courtenay), but we have. Fifty years ago we saw Denman as an unassuming speed bump en route to the action on Hornby, its sister island. Now we get it: Denman is intentionally low-key. For a taste of this rural island, cycle the short Northwest Road to Pickles Road Loop outlined in Crouch’s Cycling the Islands: A guide to scenic routes on the San Juan and Gulf Islands. A great little adventure: some gravel, a navigation challenge or two, and no cars.
Hornby Island is the birthplace of mountain biking, a ferry worker tells us en route from Gravelly Bay to Shingle Spit. A google search does not support that fact but never mind: Hornby has a young vibe and is clearly a destination for mountain bikers of all ages and abilities. Ford Cove Trail is rated “beginner, easy ride”, and we manage, although Cathy needs to lift and push her bike in a few places. Hornby also boasts a very fine, very popular hike: the six-kilometre loop at Helliwell Provincial Park.
It’s easy to meet people on Quadra Island. Linger outside the grocery store in Heriot Bay. Locals and visitors will stop to chat. We answer questions about our e-bikes and receive advice on hiking trails. Sam, our guide on the Quadra Island Classic kayak tour, is a laid-back local, but he’s on a quest to show off marine wildlife. Humpback whales evade our little group, but we see lots of eagles, cormorants, harbour seals, jellyfish, and inter-tidal life. Our paddling route includes Rebecca Spit, the cluster of Breton Island, Open Bay, Hyacinthe Bay, Heriot Bay, and Drew Harbour – a 17-km paddle, according to Doug’s smartphone.
The Tour de France 2019 coincides with our cycling journey, so comparisons are inevitable.
Tour racers stop for crashes and mechanicals, but they eat their gels and drink twenty-two bottles of water while pedalling. We suffer no flat tires, but we stop – often – for blackberry bushes, ice cream shops, and bakeries.
Just-ripe wild blackberries line our route. To complement the blackberries, here are some of our favourite shop-stops: Cedric’s Coffee House in Crofton (great soft ice cream, only sold until 3 pm “because the machine is temperamental”), Jaquie’s Wild Fruit & Ice Cream at Gravelly Bay (rhubarb ice cream – yum; in business for 43 years), and Just Like Mom’s bakery in Union Bay (“a balanced diet is a cookie in each hand”).
The Tour de France has Sprints and Climbs. We have Pleasant and Torture.
Pleasant includes the multi-use paths, where motor vehicles are not allowed: the Cowichan Valley Trail (a new section connects Saltair to Chemainus and Ladysmith), the E&N Trail in Nanaimo, Royston Seaside Trail, the Courtenay Riverway, and in Campbell River the Rotary Seawalk, Beaver Lodge Forest Lands, ERT Trail, and Jubilee Parkway (when linked, these will become the 25-km Greenways Loop).
Also in the Pleasant category are the safe and scenic off-highway road routes, often signed as bike routes. Stewart-Beddis Roads on Salt Spring, Parksville-Qualicum Beach Links, and Headquarters-Merville-Howard Roads north of Courtenay are examples. Off-shore islands are almost always Pleasant, too; vehicle traffic is generally light and kind, unless a ferry has just unloaded.
Torture? Three highway sections in particular: the Nanoose Bay stretch of Highway 19 (six km in the death zone; yes, there’s a shoulder, but it’s littered with gravel, muffler clamps, and oil pan parts), Lighthouse Country (Highway 19A from Union Bay to Qualicum Beach, particularly the south-going side, where the shoulder is in poor condition), and Highway 19A between Merville and the “Welcome to Campbell River” sign (especially during rush hour).
The first two of these Torture sections could be avoided by converting the abandoned E&N rail bed to a non-motorized multi-use trail from Victoria to Courtenay. Dream big!
The actual biking
Cycle touring, especially at our slow speed, is sensual experience. We smell every wild flower and every oyster processing plant. We see every pot hole in the road and every squirrel that runs across. We hear the rumble of trucks as wells as the high-pitched peeps of bald eagles and black oyster catchers. Cycle touring isn’t always comfortable (one day it actually rained!), but it sure allows you to appreciate the small things and to see the world in a very personal way.
Are you tiring of cycling stories? Coming up: a canoe journey on the Rideau Canal.