Temptations in every direction
We're taking five days to meander up the island's east coast, from Victoria to the town of Campbell River, along Trans-Canada Highway 1 and Highway 19A ― a one-way roll of 165 miles, or an average of 33 miles per day. This is almost too fast a pace. We keep getting seduced into side trips ― little waterfalls, big gorges, offbeat towns, entire islands. You could spend a month and barely get your feet wet, figuratively.
Ten miles north of Victoria, Goldstream Provincial Park is famous for its fall salmon run, of which spectators have close-up views from a riverside path. We're ahead of the salmon season, so we take the short hike to the park's Niagara Falls, which looks nothing like its celebrated namesake but is still spectacular. Twin forks of water converge and plunge into a black basalt bowl, whereupon the water abruptly vanishes into a subterranean stream. We detour to the village of Cowichan Bay, whose waterfront business district provides unexpected surprises: a small museum dedicated to the craft of wooden-boat building (tellingly, a placard on one boat notes that its owner worked on it for 40 years), a superb bakery, and the best ice cream I've ever had. Though agriculture occupies only a tiny eastern sliver of the mountainous island, the international slow-food movement has a strong foothold ― which translates into delectable grazing for us travelers.
Duncan calls itself the "city of totems," an idea developed in 1985 by the city of Duncan and the Cowichan tribes. We take a free walking tour with Crysta Bouchard, a young First Nations artist whose late uncle carved several of the town's 30-plus totem poles. Eagles and bears are helpful spirits, she explains, but the macabre image of Dzonoqua is a darker story: The giant cannibal woman is said to stalk the forest looking for lost children, whom she will stuff into her bag of snakes.
"I was told the story when I was young," Bouchard says. "It kept me out of the forest, that's for sure."