British Columbia's island of discovery

Northern Vancouver Island is untouched and feels like the edge of the world
Lawrence W. Cheek

On Vancouver Island, the road dribbles to an end in a gravelly dirt parking lot 350 miles northwest of the prim and dainty city of Victoria, the island destination most visitors know.

A trail disappears into the rain-forest gloom, where a sign helpfully posted by BC Parks warns: be aware this is a wilderness park and be prepared to handle emergencies unassisted.

Well, what would you expect? The end of the road is seldom accompanied by teeming civilization, which is the essence of its seduction. But it's also a truism that the end of the road usually turns out to be a disappointment.

Not on Vancouver Island.

There aren't many temperature-friendly and easily accessible places left in North America that offer as much as northern Vancouver Island does: a shortage of pavement and people, a profusion of serrated mountain peaks, remote lakes, pristine seacoasts, and ubiquitous (but harmless) black bears. Sure, you can find these things in other places ― Antarctica, Nova Scotia, remote parts of South America. But not without braving temperature extremes and traveling long, long distances. Getting to northern Vancouver Island involves only a flight or ferry ride to Victoria and a three-hour drive north to Campbell River. It's a major payoff for relatively minimal effort ― especially in May, when the remoter parts of North America are still under ice.

 

 

Where the road ends, adventure begins

I've been dreaming of this place ever since I heard about it from a gallery owner in Campbell River, the halfway town on Vancouver Island's lone north-south highway. "The North Island is a whole different world, and it's incredible," she told me. "More bears than people."

That different world takes shape almost immediately outside Campbell River. The highway shrivels to two lanes, with the forest closing in on its sides, and the mountains elbow deeper into the clouds.

To accent the isolation, my wife and I are visiting a few weeks before summer. We'll have no trouble scoring campsites, lodging, or dinner at any of the handful of restaurants beyond Campbell River.

Tipped off by a local source, we stop at the Ripple Rock Trail ― marked only by a hiker pictograph on a road sign ― and hike 2.5 miles to the crown of a rocky bluff high over Seymour Narrows.

Twice each day the entire Pacific tries to squirt itself through this half-mile-wide nozzle, generating currents of up to 16 knots with terrifying tide rips and whirlpools. From our safe perch up with the eagles, the water appears awesomely beautiful, a great sapphire sea-river in an almighty hurry. It's a perfect introduction to the humbling authority of nature on the North Island.

Home base tonight is a campsite at Schoen Lake, a blue crescent lapping at the skirts of what could be the Alps in half-scale. After a ravioli dinner from the camp stove, we paddle up the 3-mile-long lake. It rains ― you come prepared to the North Island ― but then the sun emerges for one last gasp, igniting a rainbow that clamps onto the side of a mountain like a great glowing claw.

The next day we edge back into civilization at Telegraph Cove, a bayside village established in 1912 as a one-person telegraph station. Later it phased into a salmon saltery whose workers built a picturesque huddle of houses on a boardwalk lofted over the beach on stilts. It's now a resort, the homes renovated for guests and the boardwalk cheered with flower boxes. There's a restaurant perched on a pier, the Killer Whale Café and Old Saltery Pub, featuring alder-smoked barbecued salmon. But Telegraph Cove's prime attraction is as a departure point for salmon fishing and whale-watching tours ― and for bear encounters.

There are no grizzlies on Vancouver Island ― the tourism literature repeatedly stresses this point ― but Telegraph Cove boat tours take the quick hop across Johnstone Strait to the British Columbia mainland to watch grizzlies emerging from hibernation from mid-May through August. Late May to mid-June is the mating season, the tour operators promise, with lots of "interesting interaction."

The island's black bears are interesting enough that a grizzly tour seems superfluous. Port Hardy naturalist Larry Woodall tells me the North Island enjoys one of North America's highest densities of black bears. The reasons, he says, include the profusion of elderberries, blackberries, huckleberries, and salmonberries. Thanks to the abundant produce section, he says, bears and people coexist with little friction. "Bears travel through our communities every day," he says. "It doesn't alarm us. People on the mainland, they're dialing 911 every time they see a bear."

We see four bears in five days, and it doesn't alarm us, either. We're in our car. They're shambling along the roadside, sniffing at wildflowers, seemingly oblivious to the occasional passing car. When we pull off the road to stare at one, he stares back with curiosity and, it seems to me, a hint of annoyance. Most Vancouver Island humans never bother to inspect the bears.

 

 

From the small town of Port McNeill we take a ferry to Alert Bay to visit the U'mista Cultural Centre of the indigenous Kwakwaka'wakw people. The museum dramatically documents the Canadian government's infamous efforts to suppress the potlatch, a native dance and gift-giving ceremony. The masks are stunning ― enormous ravens, eagles, bears, wolves, and supernatural creatures ― and equally staggering is the story of how the government labored to crush a tradition it didn't understand.

The loveliest, loneliest beach

Port Hardy, the town at the end of the highway, has a marina with as many serious fishing trawlers as pleasure boats, and a four-block downtown with a happily low boutique quotient. There are plenty of hotel rooms and B&Bs, but tourists haven't swarmed here in numbers that would transform the forthright character of the place. Other than the native art galleries, there aren't a lot of touristy activities in town, but this is the place to stock up for the ultimate Vancouver Island destination: the end of the road. In fact, you can drive north of Port Hardy on a graded gravel road to Cape Scott, the provincial park that wraps around the northwestern tip of the island. There are no roads into the park, however, which is where BC Parks' warning comes into play. You can take the 3-mile round-trip hike to San Josef Bay or the 29-mile round-trip trek to the beach at Nel's Bight and then walk 2.5 miles to view Cape Scott Lighthouse (or make several intermediate expeditions), but the caveat applies to all: be prepared, because you're on your own.

We opt for the very easy San Josef Bay Trail, and in less than an hour burst out of the darkly glistening rain forest onto the loveliest beach I've seen in North America. Also the loneliest. There are a few leftover human footprints, and an unmistakable bear track, but no vertebrate life in sight. I build a cairn with blue mussel shells to mark the way back, and we amble a half-mile up the beach to a skyline of sea stacks stranded by low tide. Wild roses, columbine, salal, and stunted cedars wind-sculpted into bonsai purity erupt from their tops. To the west, the bay opens its arms to silvery Pacific infinity. As it turns out, you just need to go a little beyond the end of the road.