Into the Wild (1)
When we talk about the wild west of Canada, I didn’t think about Vancouver Island right away, where many tourists have found their way before us. That thought is now a thing of the past since I explored the island for WideOyster Magazine with a 4×4 truck camper over remote forest roads into unknown bays and wild campsites.
‘Caution give way to logging trucks’ warns the bright yellow sign next to the dirt road that disappears into the forest in front of us. The adventure is about to begin! It’s mid-September and this afternoon we drove off the ferry in Langdale north of Vancouver. The weather is exactly what the Sunshine Coast is known for…. Rain. Armed with a heavy Ford pickup truck with camper unit on top, groceries for a few days, firewood and bear spray we go ‘off the beaten track’.
It all started with a phone call from Canada specialist Roderick Aalbers of GoCanada. I wanted something new, something different then what other people do on this reasonably touristy Vancouver Island. Roderick had the golden tip: “Rent a 4×4 camper and drive out into the wilderness over Forest Service Roads to remote gems of campsites. You hardly run into any tourists at all.”
And so we do. Before leaving, I purchased the latest copy of the Canadian Bible for the great outdoors: the Backroad Mapbook. In it you will find all the roads, campsites, fishing spots and hiking trails. And now, around dinner time, after half an hour of driving, we’re in a dream spot on Klein Lake, where at that moment the sun just breaks through the clouds. The view over the mirror like lake, where the vapor rises from the wooded slopes, is magical. Merel dives into the kitchen while I get the fire going. The next morning we take the ferry north to kayak in Lund.
Copeland Islands MP
Water smooth as a mirror
13 years ago, John Hermsen, a Dutch firefighter from Arnhem, and his wife changed course in life and emigrated to Powell River in British Columbia. The official reason was to join the fire department, but actually ‘the great outdoors’ had been beckoning ever since their first visit to Canada. And for that, the wild coastline near Lund the the place to be. He took a kayak guiding course and today he takes us for a paddle tour at Copeland Islands marine park. I’m jump into a double kayak with Merel. After a short introduction,we paddle out of the marina, with the sun warming our backs.
Soon we glide silently through the mirror like water, where tall and knotty pines rise up between the grey rocks
The green seawater is smooth and at a nice pace we paddle past beautiful wooden houses built on the rocks. When the last houses disappear from view, we glide into the marine park. Knotty pines rise up between the grey rocks. I take in deep breath of the clean air. Merel suddenly points out: “Look over there!”, she shouts. “All those orange and purple starfish. That’s so beautiful.” I was just taking in the view of green-yellow reindeer moss hanging over the rocks like a soft blanket. We are overwhelmed by the untouched nature. This is what we came to Canada for: to go off the beaten track. It’s like we’re discovering it ourselves.
John explains that the first habitation of this area took place 15,000 years ago and points to a traditional indian fish trap In a natural bowl between the rocks, stones are placed so that fish get into the trap at low tide. “Indians is not a word we use here in Canada. Here they are called First Nations, the first inhabitants of Canada.” explains John.
Underwater, sea lions are powerful hunters, but on land they are blubbering in their heavy bodies
In the distance, a rock protrudes from the sea. As we get closer, the smell of rotten fish becomes stronger. The rock is the ‘hang out’ of groups of sea lions and seals, which hunt fish in the surrounding waters. Underwater, sea lions are powerful hunters, but on land they are blubbering in their heavy bodies. Their sound is indescribable. “They’re burping” laughs Merel, “Like they’ve been at the beans for three weeks and the’re constipated.” I couldn’t have described it any better. Behind the kayak we hear blows: the seals have come to take a look at the intruders of their territory and I count about 8 round heads in the water. We say goodbye to our new friends and set course for Lund where the camper and a hot shower are already waiting for us on the picturesque little campsite. Tomorrow we’ll take the ferry to Comox. Vancouver Island here we come!
“Be prepared for it, today we’re getting wet.” These are the words of Jos Krynen, after a briefing on the speedboat we’re about to get on. Jos owns Eagle Eye Adventures, located in the marina of Campbell River. The town is also called ‘whale watching capital of the world’. The wind is dead calm in port and the sun is graciously warm after 3 days of rain. Together with 14 others, I put on a survival suit and put my camera equipment in a drybag. When we sail out into open water, I feel what he meant. There’s a strong 7 Bofor ‘breeze’ up. Large white caps and breaking waves soon blow horizontally over the boat, as we cross open water. Jos takes as much lee as possible, in this archipelago of the Discovery Islands. We are on our way to the Toba inlet, a fjord that cuts deep into the mainland of British Columbia. There are no roads leading there and the only way to get there is a two-hour boat trip. Due to the absence of people and the presence of hundreds of salmon, this is the place where Grizzly bears meet for the annual salmon migration. Everyone knows them, the impressive images of bears fishing in the river rapids. This is the Mecca for the photographer and wildlife spotter and I can’t wait to see the bears.
Without food between the bears
The mountains around Toba Inlet are shrouded in fog patches. Sometimes the sun breaks through and plays a shadow game with the landscape. The wind has dropped and here and there large white waterfalls drop from great hights of the rocks into the water next to the boat. We dock at the territory of the Klahoose First Nation and are welcomed by Jerry Francis our bear guide. “Check your bags and make sure you don’t bring any food, choclate bars or sweets on this tour. A bear can smell that miles away and will want to eat it. That’s not much fun if that bag’s on your back.”
We’re just standing on the viewing platform next to the river when I hear the sound of breaking twigs in the woods. It’s getting closer and then a big nose sticks out of the scrub at the place where we just walked. I guess that’s why we’re on a platform. The bear emerges, doesn’t even bother to look at us. Instead he goes straight to the river. Sniffing along the beach, he walks by. It’s all going so fast, I barely have the time to ready my camera. He stops and stares into the water. Then he takes a jump and dives on top of an unfortunate salmon. Triumphantly, he comes up with a flapping salmon in his mouth and disappears back into the woods.
The whole action lasted maybe a minute and the bear is gone as quickly as he showed up. My heart’s pounding in my throat. Did I get the pictures? Are they in focus? I quickly scan my camera and get a euphoric feeling. Got it! The first images are in the box and that only after a few minutes. My day is good already. It stays quiet for a while and we move to a platform where another bear is searching the river for salmon carcasses.
“Why is it so quiet?” I ask Jerry. “On television I always saw many bears fishing at the same time.” Jerry looks at me: “We notice that the salmon migration is decreasing. They come back to these spawning grounds where they were born to lay eggs after a haul of thousands of kilometres. Unfortunately, their habitat is increasingly threatened by forestry and water pollution of the rivers and by overfishing.” The salmon migration is of the utmost importance to the bears, who fatten themselves with protein-rich salmon in the period from mid-September to mid-October before digging for their hibernation.
“I fear the grizzlies and the salmon will perish just as much as our rich culture. If nothing changes, it will all disappear”
Jerry sighs: “The Klahoose Nation were the first residents of this area that stretches from Toba Inlet to the state of Washington in the US. We lived off fishing in these coastal areas. In the 19th century, immigrants and their agents came and put our people in 10 Indian reserves, which lost us the possibility to fish and hunt. Today, only 75 tribesmen permanently live on Cortes Island and about 300 outside the First Nation areas. I fear the grizzlies and the salmon will perish just as much as our rich culture. We have to change something, or it will all disappear. ” We say goodbye to Jerry and the 4 bears we were fortunate to spot. It’s wildlife spotting, and that also needs an element of luck in the mix.
Historic mail flight
Below us in the dark blue waters we see the Discovery Islands. The wind of the bear tour yesterday is still blowing and the small plane is regularly thrown into the deep by an invisible hand. When I look back, I see Merel looking slightly green. “It’s a bumpy ride, today.” Pilot Doug Kilian sends his DHC-2 Beaver between the islands. I’m in the front seat, and the engine sounds like an old Harley Davidson. The sound of an era that should have ended a long time ago, if it wasn’t a fact that the Beaver today is still the backbone of the Canadian wilderness. “This plane is older than me!”, the pilot shouts over the intercom. “Between 1947 and 1967, 1600 Beavers were built and we are still the lifeline between the remote settlements and the civilized world.” I’m looking at the instruments on the dashboard. Different gages indicate height, speed and oil pressure. ‘DeHavilland’ is stencilled in 1950s type, Into the curves of the aluminium dashboard. Doug is dressed in a pilot jacket and dito sunglasses and flies with one hand at the battered steering wheel. The iPad with the navigation is the only thing in the cockpit that reminds us that we actually live in the 21st century.
“This is really cool!” merel shouts from the back seat. We fly along with the Corilair mail run to Blind Channel, with stops in Surge Narrows and Big Bay. A few times a week, float planes depart from Campbell River and Gold River to deliver mail, packages and people to the remote villages and settlements around Vancouver Island. If there’s room, they’ll take tourists.
Donna Keeling runs the floating post office of Surge Narrows, which serves five islands. “It is a close-knit community here and a trip to the post office is also a social call because there is no café here. I love talking to people.” Doug and Donna have a short chat as I shoot the pictures.
After loading a few crates, Doug pushes the Beaver off with a foot against the jetty, climbs quickly into the cockpit and starts the engine. In the air, he says, “Every community is different. In Surge Narrows people live mainly self-sufficient and off-grid. Big Bay is the place for the rich and famous, and Refuge Cove is owned by a commune. So my customers are very different.”
After 2 hours, we return towards Campbell River. “What a fantastic trip this is! You have the most beautiful job in the world,” Merel says. “Yes, if the sly is clear and it’s not crowded, this is indeed the most beautiful job.”, doug replies. “But if the pressure is on and the weather deteriorates, your fuel runs low and it gets dark, you think differently about that.”
“It’s a close-knit community and a trip to the post office is also a social call, there is no café here”
You have campsites and campsites on Vancouver Island. Some are gems, other campsites we know more like the RV parks from American movies. These are places full of old caravans in which seasonal workers live. Sometimes called ‘trailer trash’. Today we need power, water and sewer, so we’re looking for a nice campsite. The first campsite at the harbour, we pass. After searching for a while, looks like beautiful campsites don’t seem to exist here, so we stop at an RV Park. In the pouring rain I walk into the reception where the ‘hound of the Baskervilles’ lets me know up close that I have to be good. I hand $30 to the owner, who writes the access code for the showers from behind his desk. Merel is also impressed when she comes out of the bathroom: “Wow! It’s really like in the movie where someone is on the run and then quickly cuts her hair short and emerges like a peroxide blond from the bathroom.” But it’s only for 1 night and in the end we’ll even sleep there again this trip because it wasn’t that bad.
Little Bear Bay
End of the Road
We’re leaving Campbell River. It’s time for wild nature and Little Bear Bay sounds like a beautiful destination. We follow Highway 19 to the north and turn towards the bay after an hour. “Oh, my God! This is a very narrow road.”, Merel mutters when the car navigation sends us into the wilderness. We follow the tyre track up the mountain and I too start to suspect that this is not the way we planned to take. A look at the Mapbook confirms our suspicion. We’re on a smaller road, but it’s heading in the right direction. Silently praying that we will not encounter any oncoming traffic, we continue on through the forest. In some places the pine branches scrape along the side, in other places the whole hill is cut bare.
What an adventure is this ride and what a gem is the final destination! When we park the camper, Cruise ship, Noordam of the Holland America Line sails through the Johnstone Strait. We share the bay with Alan, a homeless pensionado, who has been here for 3 months. “Well, I have to survive on a small pension and if you can stand here for free all summer, why would you want to live in a house?” he laughs. Alan turns out to be our local expert and knows a waterfall not far from the campsite. Like a mountain goat, he take us over the steep slope in the forest and then we’re at the Little Bear Falls. Had Merel and I been alone here, we would have bathed together under the waterfall.
At the end of the afternoon I start a fire and put my marinated spareribs on the grill for some slow cooking. The sun slowly sinks towards the horizon and we are creeping ever closer to the campfire. Alan joins us for some ribs. It’s a great day for him too.
Humpback whales and Killer Whales
Telegraph Cove is a tourist hamlet consisting of a marina with a colourful collection of 1912 wooden cottages connected by scaffolding. Once this was the end point of the telegraph line that followed the entire coast of Vancouver Island. Nowadays it is the northern base for whale watching tours.
BCY0729, better known as Argonaut is just about the most observed humpback whale in the north
As soon as we sail from the marina into the Johnstone Strait it starts: “Blow!!!” calls the whale guide and points to the right. At a hundred meters I see just the distinctive ‘fountain’ that markes a whale when it surfaces after a deep dive. “It’s a humpback whale! If you take a picture of the tail, I’ll tell you which whale it is,” he continues. I’m looking through my telephoto lens and wait for the whale to dive again. And then it happens: the whale bends its back and with a smooth movement the tail comes out of the water. Water drips off and just before it goes under we look at the bottom of the tail. Black with white spots on the edge. The guide doesn’t have to look into his folder. “This is BCY0729, better known as Argonaut. He’s just about the most observed whale in the north.” Argonaut is in his element and has no problem with our presence at all. Together with four others, he regularly dives down for food.
After the humpback whales, it is time to look for killer whales. The skipper has heard on the radio about an orca sighting and sets course. On the rocks, two sea lions look at us passing by. In the next bay, the black sword of a male killer whale slices through the water with a dolphin next to him. Together they hunt the fishwhich swim in big bait balls. It’s going to be a nice shot: the orca and the dolphin together against a backdrop of the Rocky mountains. I can’t wish for a better ending of this trip.
Who wouldn’t want a whole bay for themselves?
Leave the other tourists far behind and enter a world of remote trails. With GoCanada’s 4×4 truck motorhomes, you’ll double the adventure. Have you informed by the Canada specialist from Naarden.