Find your spirit of adventure on Vancouver Island's east coast

Soundlessly, my kayak glides into the satin water of Fanny Bay, a boot-shaped hideout from the Strait of Georgia currents between Vancouver Island and the British Columbia mainland. It’s a perfect morning, the air and water so calm it’s as if the day has not yet drawn a breath. Fog droops into the draws in the Beaufort Range to the west. A bald eagle stares from a tree near the water’s edge. A troupe of harbor seals, curious but wary, shadows my boat, diving for cover if I stop paddling and stare too intently at them.

This is the Vancouver Island that U.S. tourists neglect, inexplicably: quiet, slow-paced, occasionally quirky but seldom self-conscious ― no Olde England affectations once you pass Victoria’s city limits ― and intimately connected to nature. You don’t need a kayak (though it helps), but an adventurous spirit is essential. 

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.” 

Bring your adrenaline ― and your appetite

South of Nanaimo, we peel off Highway 1 to the Bungy Zone Adrenaline Centre, where elastic junkies pay about $80 to leap 143 feet into the Nanaimo River Gorge. Spectators, among which I happily count myself, get in free. This enterprise helps dissolve my image of Canada as our gentler, saner neighbor ― especially when manager Sascha Schrader tells me that to celebrate Valentine’s Day in 2004, 268 people took the plunge ― in the nude! Why? “Because it’s cheap.” The chilly Valentine special is just $8.

Nanaimo, the island’s next-largest city after Victoria, offers real downtown shopping, not a clump of twee boutiques. I scoop up a minor treasure at Fascinating Rhythm, a new- and used- CD, video, and DVD shop: Gordon Lightfoot’s greatest hits, for just $8. Dinner at Glow World Cuisine, Nanaimo’s primo restaurant, costs a bit more ― our check is $53 without wine, still a bargain. The restaurant is fetchingly housed in the city’s 1893 fire hall, and on the night we’re there, jazz singer Dinah D is accompanying herself, improbably but successfully, on her acoustic bass, which she calls Countess Basie. The food is eclectic and terrific, centering on local ingredients such as wild mushrooms and free-range ducks from the Cowichan Valley.

“There’s a culinary mini revolution going on,” maître d’ Mark Watchin tells me. “A lot of people are moving to the island from places like Toronto and Vancouver, and they have different expectations. Some of them are starting hobby farms, and we’re getting wonderful ingredients.”

Too briefly, we tour Milner Gardens & Woodland’s rhododendron grove of 500 specimens on an old seaside estate. The grounds are alive with the arias of chestnut-backed chickadees and the percussive raps of pileated woodpeckers. We visit the Courtenay & District Museum and Palaeontology Centre to ponder the elasmosaur fossil, a 39-foot aquatic reptile with flippers the size of guitars, now swimming in midair over the museum’s atrium. We also hear rumors of a wonderful waterfall, Stotan Falls, on the Puntledge River where the sea monster was unearthed in 1988, and track it down. We plod to the middle of the river and sit on a limestone ledge, surrounded by a counterpoint of cascades.

In Campbell River we spend a couple of hours meandering the Rotary Sea Walk, admiring sophisticated driftwood sculptures. We hop the ferry to Quadra Island ― a 10-minute journey that we’d happily make in our kayaks, except that the afternoon crossing current in Seymour Narrows will hit 15 knots, in which we’d be bugs in a Maytag.

Back in Campbell River, we’ve reached the northern terminus of our expedition. But it looks more like a gateway. A gallery manager urges me to continue on to the north island ― “It’s a whole different world: more bears than people, and it’s incredible.” Strathcona Provincial Park’s towering peaks and lonely lakes lie an hour west. And just outside town is yet another cataract, Elk Falls. Pressed for time, we snatch a tantalizing glimpse from the lower parking lot, but the trek to the falls has to wait.

Next trip, we’ll leave that appalling mainland phrase ― “pressed for time” ― at the ferry terminal.

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