British Columbia's island of discovery

Northern Vancouver Island is untouched and feels like the edge of the world

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  • Alert Bay is one of the best places on the B.C. coast to learn about Kwakwaka’wakw First Nations culture and history. (And the nearby Alert Bay Ecological Park has nature trails through forests and marsh.)

    Alert Bay

    Marina Dodis

    Click to Enlarge

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.

 

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