Black bears forage along the highway without paying any heed to passersby.
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.