Vancouver Island: Nanaimo to Ucluelet

photo: Englishman River Falls disappearing down a deep and narrow crevasse.

Englishman River Falls disappearing down a deep and very narrow crevasse.

I've lied to you. Not intentionally, I believed it when I wrote it ... but it's not true that all trails in BC are muddy. I really should avoid such sweeping statements, but they're so much fun ...

Breakfast was coffee and a surprisingly good Rice Krispy square at Perkins Coffee Company. I read the Vancouver Sun (no relation to the Toronto Sun, happily), where I discovered that Jian Ghomeshi's trial is making news even here.

When Mon Petit Choux (best reviewed bakery in town) opened, I bought a Nanaimo bar to take with me. You kind of have to, right? I've never liked Nanaimo bars - too sweet, not a lot of flavour. But when they're done right, as this one was ... that was really good.

Nanaimo suffers from the same fungal growth problem Toronto has condos on the shore. At least they've controlled it enough to keep a public access walkway all along the waterfront.

The weather has been amazingly good: up until the evening of the 12th, the worst I ever saw was a drizzle so mild I didn't bother to mention it (for about half an hour while I was at Botanical Beach). Last night there was fairly heavy rain in the late evening, which was just fine with me. And today I encountered a couple bouts of light rain ... both while I was driving in the car. Very courteous. Sunshine has been a rare occurrence, but it's been great. And the mosquitoes ... I've been bitten by something about once a day, but bugs haven't been a problem at all, and I have as yet to successfully identify a mosquito at all. My assumption was they'd absolutely love a temperate rain forest - go figure.

I had a very busy day. The first stop of the day was Englishman River Provincial Park. Short, very well groomed (gravelled) trails, to the upper and lower falls. The upper falls ... wow. Just gorgeous. A steel and concrete bridge gives you a superb view of the falls, just turn around for a superb view looking down the river gorge. A short walk (not a "hike," not on those trails) through the woods takes you to the lower falls, which are a bit of a let-down by comparison, although still quite pretty. Amusingly, a massive boulder (about the size of a car) has wedged itself just in front of the lower falls, blocking our view of the water almost entirely.

Next was Coombs, to visit the (in)famous "Goats on the Roof" market. Sadly, the goats aren't actually there at this time of year, although the grass and flowers on the roof are doing just fine. Under the shaggy roof is quite a large market full of upscale tourist tat and upscale dried/canned/bottled/wrapped foods. It was a lot of fun: I came away with a bag of Worcestershire and Sundried Tomato potato chips and a couple of Maple Smoked Salmon nuggets.

There's a Native arts store right next door. He has no argillite pieces at the moment, but he did have a story of a commissioned piece which, if his hand-waving is accurate, was roughly three feet by three feet by one foot ... and about $100,000. Argillite isn't cheap (of course neither is artwork, but there's a reason most of the pieces are so small).

On the way from Coombs to Port Alberni I stopped at Cathedral Grove in MacMillan Provincial Park. I can't help comparing the experience to Muir Woods north of San Francisco with the Sequoias - tallest trees in the world. Quite similar, but Cathedral Grove has the main road right through the middle of it, and the paths never get out of earshot of the road. Trucks passing kind of take you out of the moment. But the trees are huge, and the scenery lovely.

I was warned to gas up at Port Alberni, which I did. The road to Ucluelet/Tofino is well paved, but incredibly twisty (even more so than the Port Renfrew road) and takes a couple hours. It's also gorgeous. There aren't a lot of places to stop, but I took the opportunity when I could to take photos. Like the area around Goldstream, the centre of the island has a lot of hills that want to be mountains ... but some of these are arguably succeeding, with snow still on their peaks in mid-May (it was about 12C down where I was). A wonderful drive.

Ucluelet (pronounced "You-Clue-Let") and Tofino occupy opposite ends of a sort of T-shaped peninsula, the centre of which is given over in large part to the long and narrow Pacific Rim Park. I've been assured by every source (Do-Ming's friend Bill, my BC-raised co-worker Sandra, my guidebooks, the tourist information centres) that Ucluelet is the working class fisherman's village, and Tofino is the new-agey/hippy hangout. There's enough art, crystal, good coffee and even a juice store around Ucluelet that I'm becoming seriously afraid to see Tofino. I'm just saying ...

Speaking of attitudes and inclinations ... small town B.C. is absolutely crawling with used bookstores. Crawling, I tell you. Okay, there wasn't one in Port Renfrew (or maybe I didn't notice), but Ucluelet is keeping the average up by having two, I visited one in Nanaimo, and there was quite a large one in Coombs (which barely registers on the map). It's ... it's wonderful. My friends and I have talked a lot about the death of used bookstores around Toronto: they've been gone so long I forgot how much I missed them. I've bought two books so far, but I'm behaving - after all, I still have to fly back.

The helpful people at the Pacific Rim Park Information Centre managed to identify my weird plant. Walking on Newcastle Island I got a picture of a thing that looks like a narrow albino pine cone sticking out of the ground. Apparently it's a "Vancouver Groundcone." Picture below.

I checked into my room at the Pacific Rim Motel: it's on a much quieter road than the Harbour Light Motel last night, and the windows face the back rather than the front. Big difference. It's a large and rather nice room, and I'll be staying a second night as I have a bunch of hikes to attend to - and, as mentioned, I'm a bit nervous about Tofino. :-)

After check-in, I drove out of town a bit and did four or five kilometres of the Wild Pacific trail - it's not part of the park and is in fact maintained by Ucluelet, but it came recommended by the people at the information centre. Tough to call if it's a "hike" or a "walk" - I'm leaning to "hike" because, while the trail is incredibly smoothly groomed gravel throughout, it's up-and-down hills all the way along the shore line, and it's taxing and uneven. Also gorgeous (the point of the exercise): in the "Ancient Cedars" loop, they did actually have two or three trees that could give Cathedral Grove a run for its money: two metre diameter monsters that stopped me in my tracks. And the views out over the shore ... great stuff. I have a lot left of that trail. Oddly, it's pretty much the longest on the entire peninsula: most of the ones in the park are under 3 km return. But a number of them sound beautiful. And I was pleased to find they have a bog walk (freshwater) - as I've found out in the last few years, I really like wetlands ... so long as there aren't many mosquitoes!

Dinner was at Offshore, a seafood place. I had the "Full Crab Dinner" (Dungeness Crab, a splurge for the trip) which was very good. The large Caesar Salad that came with it was more than decoration: it was delicious. I also had a rather nice Phillips Hop Circle IPA: I should drink more IPAs, so long as I can avoid the ones that are deliberately over-hopped (that's a "thing" now, and I don't like it much). Regular IPAs can be quite nice.

I'm finishing out the evening as I write with a Cannery Brewing Blackberry Porter, which I would say delivers remarkably well on the promise of the name: the fruit is present but not overwhelming and it doesn't taste artificial (a common problem with fruit beers, sometimes even when they use real fruit), and it also does taste like a porter ... and yet - perhaps because I like sweet and I want a fruit-flavoured beer to be sweet - it's not entirely working for me. Definitely interesting though.

A Vancouver Groundcone, aka Boschniakia hookeri, looks like a bleached pine cone sticking out of the ground.