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Travelogue - 06/13/04                                                                                                                               Links to all Travelogue pages


Vancouver Island

Vancouver Island straddles the 50th parallel close off the coast of  British Columbia, just north of Washington's San Juan Islands and to the south of Southeast Alaska. It measures about 250 miles long by maybe 75 miles across in the middle and has some respectable mountains. The largest of these, Mount Arrowsmith, towers nearly 6,000 feet above the Pacific Ocean. 

Vancouver Island's forests are home to an abundance of wildlife, including bears - mostly black, a few brown or grizzly, I'm told - and mountain lions (a.k.a. cougars). Gray Whales and Orcas migrate along the west coast and bald eagles patrol the skies. Unfortunately, lying so close to the huge city of Vancouver across the channel, the island also supports a substantial human population, much more than I had expected. In fact, the southeast coast is entirely and utterly given over to urban and suburban sprawl of the most tedious kind, and development is only likely to increase as Vancouver Island prepares to host the 2010 Winter Olympics.

This place is a paradox. On the one hand, it boasts some stunning natural beauty - forest-clad and snow-capped mountains, wild streams and waterfalls, crystalline lakes and miles of virgin, driftwood-strewn beaches - all stuff I love. On the other hand, lumber companies have raped, pillaged and plundered the forests here for a century and a half and, incredibly, they're still getting away with it. The magnificent old-growth forests that once covered this island, and indeed all of northwestern North America, have long since been razed. A few tiny pockets survive in provincial parks, but the cursed lumbermen, whose selfishness and greed apparently know no limit, are doing their best to eradicate even those negligible remnants. Judging by the way the people and government here have let these criminals run rampant for so long I don't hold out much hope for those last few big trees. 

What a travesty! All over Vancouver Island the scars of this holocaust glare. Clear-cut slopes appear everywhere as gaping wounds in the landscape. Entire mountain ranges are just now sprouting third-growth saplings that rise hopefully from where once thrived seemingly endless forests of a biodiversity, majesty and mystery that you and I will never get to experience. 

"Oh," the lumber companies assure us, "the forest regenerates itself. It's a Renewable Resource. It'll grow back." Sure it will - in about 800 years. Or it would, except those sons of bitches won't leave it alone for even 50 before they're in there cutting it all down again, selling the lumber to the Japanese and stuffing their pockets while we, the rightful heirs to those forests, are left with nothing but paper towels and toilet tissue on sale at Wal-Mart. 

I am not one to rally to causes or wave banners in protest, but in my opinion the most desperate and violent tree-spiking activists are way too soft on those damned lumber barons. I would very much like to see every lumber company's board of directors hung from the tallest remaining trees, by the neck until dead, and half of their vast, stolen wealth used to re-train their employees and teach them how to grow, nurture and protect our forests instead of destroying them. Turn them all into forest rangers! The other half of the loot could go towards reforesting some of the land they have wasted. 

But we're still going to have to wait 800 years for the Northwest forests to fully recover, and that's only if we get started right away. So c'mon, everybody, grab a noose and a lumber baron!

What is it that moves some men to have such total disregard for our planet and the life on it? What makes them think it's OK to do what they do - to cut down all the millennium-old forests in the world just for the money they can get for the wood? What sort of parents would raise children like that? And what mindless minions would go to work for lumber companies, day after day, and pretend it's a decent way to earn a living? I mean, I understand a person has to earn a living and maybe support a family, but for heaven's sake there are other ways to do it that are productive rather than destructive, or at least neutral. It's not just the lumber CEO's that are guilty of these horrendous crimes against the planet, but every single person that helps them do what they do.

The worst offenders, the ones I hold most responsible for this disaster by their consistent acts of omission, are the governments, both American and Canadian. Our elected leaders are guilty of a breech of public trust so gross, so long-lasting and of such an enormous magnitude that it staggers the imagination. Not one of them in 200 years stopped the slaughter of our old growth forests, or even slowed it to any appreciable extent as far as I know. Not one friggin', baby-kissing politician!

Maybe when all is said and done, it's all of us who let this happen. Our parents generation and theirs before them did little or nothing about it, and we're not doing much better. A few long-haired protesters are bucking a system so wealthy, so powerful and so politically and economically entrenched that it makes David vs. Goliath seem like even odds. I had no idea of the scope of the destruction out here until I saw it for myself. Not just Vancouver Island. Everyplace trees grow, or once grew. How pathetic. Shame on all of us for doing it, for letting it happen, and for allowing it to continue. But most of all, God damn the lumber barons.

OK, I had to get that off my chest. I'll get back to the travelogue now. (I can just hear my wisecracking brother in law, Ron Owens, saying, "So, Tor, what do you really think of the logging industry?")

I began my exploration of Vancouver Island in Victoria, the island's main city and the provincial capital of British Columbia. Rising early Sunday morning, I drove into that fair city before most people were out and about (that's pronounced "ewt 'n abewt, ehy?" if you're Canadian). I found Victoria to be an exceptionally beautiful little metropolis and I spent most of a whole day looking around it.

I'm glad I chose a Sunday to do that. The parking restrictions were less stringent downtown and, of course, the weekday commuter and commercial traffic was absent. Sunday's strike me as the best day to meet any city for the first time.

After driving around Victoria for a while sightseeing from the RV, I found a double parking space right in the heart of things with a view of the harbor. Had I not been there so early in the day I never could have done that; by mid-morning all of the downtown street parking was filled. I had my "townhouse" in the center of the city's tourist district for the day, which turned out to be handy.

I launched my mountain bike to go exploring and almost immediately broke the chain peddling hard up a steep hillside by the waterfront. I had broken this chain in Mount Baker National Forest, too, and had repaired it myself. Obviously, the whole chain needed to be replaced, not just patched. I found a bike shop not far away that was open Sundays and talked to them about giving the bike a complete tune-up. It had been on my To Do list for some weeks, to have a pro go over this old bike of mine stem to stern, and this seemed like the right time. I already knew it was overdue for new cables, brake pads and more. I expect I'll soon be peddling into some remote forests up towards Alaska and even though I ride with an emergency repair kit, I really don't want the bike breaking out there. 

The guy in this Victoria bike shop seemed competent and he was willing to get it all done by that afternoon. So I left the bike, walked back to the RV, and launched my second bicycle, a thin-tired roadster I brought along for no real reason except that I like it and nobody bought it at my yard sale back in Barrington. When I first got this 10-speed, four or five years ago, I bought special handlebars and brake handles for it that allow me to sit upright when I ride rather than hunching over the original racing-style handlebars it came with. I ride to look around, not to go fast. It's a nice bike, perfect for paved city streets, and I was glad to have it that day in Victoria.

I cruised the waterfront, admired the boats in the harbor, the imposing government buildings, the modern museum, the street performers. I rode out into some residential areas. They were pleasant, clean, serene on a Sunday morning. The weather was not so great at first, overcast and drizzling on & off, but later the sky cleared and by afternoon it was a brilliant, sunny day.  I pedaled through the small Chinatown district, the first one in North America and once the center for opium manufacturing for the entire continent. I found a lively street market in progress, with booths selling local crafts (but, alas, no opium). There I chatted with the locals and learned more about where to go and what to see on Vancouver Island, and I generally passed a fine day in Victoria, VI, BC. 

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At 3:00 pm I returned for my beautifully reconditioned mountain bike, tried it around the block, loaded it onto the van's stern rack and drove out of the city. Soon I was rolling up the southwest coast of the island. I finished the day in a Provincial Park campground simply because I did not see one single un-gated dirt road that looked like it might lead to a nice spot in the woods or along the shore. This was the first hint that the island's roads are, in fact, very carefully regulated, limiting people's access to the most beautiful areas. In fact, most of Vancouver Island's land is inaccessible except on foot. Or by logging truck, I suppose.

As I drove out towards the end of the southwest coastal road the next morning, I picked up a hitchhiker. Jim had grown up on Vancouver Island's east coast, had lived "off island" and even abroad for many years, and was just now returning to the island for a visit. He had never seen the end-of-the-road hamlet that was our mutual destination and, as he and I hit it off, we decided to explore it together. We soon reached Port Renfrew and checked out the main docks, which were just now being rebuilt after having been wrecked by winter storms. We cruised through the nearby Indian reservation, and finally took the last bit of gravel road out to a Provincial Park and went hiking.

Jim is what I would describe as a genuine character. Brazen but friendly, curious by nature, big & strong but easy going as long as you don't pick a fight with him. He had traveled and lived in more places than I could count, had held a score of job titles, and was one pretty smart man, if a bit rough-cut. He was also on a self-proclaimed bender and drank beer almost non-stop the first couple of days I knew him, and yet he never seemed the least bit intoxicated. After that he abruptly stopped drinking, having completed the spree to his satisfaction.


We hiked until late in the afternoon. Jim ended up staying aboard the RV that night, sleeping on the convertible dinette, which worked out well enough and kept him out of the rain. 

We camped on a beach in the Indian reservation, facing the Pacific Ocean through the bay's inlet and flanked by the ubiquitous new-growth forest. 

I eventually met a bunch of Jim's boyhood buddies when I dropped him off in his hometown, Parkville, on the central east coast of  Vancouver Island. They were a friendly gang, clearly pleased at the return of their prodigal pal.

I came across this double-decker bus bone yard along a rural road outside of Parkville. What cool RV's these would make! Of course, you couldn't take them very far - they wouldn't fit under most bridge underpasses - but they'd work as local live-aboards. I'd build the master bedroom in the "loft".

The central west coast of Vancouver Island was a mixed bag. It was scenic, occasionally awesome, but the roads severely (and, it seemed to me, intentionally) limited access to the land and sea. There were almost no places to pull over to even stop and look at the most beautiful views. Instead, the powers that be would post "No Stopping" signs precisely where everyone obviously would want to stop and look, such as alongside a waterfall or at a panoramic viewpoint. How weird, to purposefully prevent people from stopping to look at their own public lands by designing roadways without any desirable pullovers or access roads whatsoever. Most side roads that did lead into the forest were logging roads, gated to keep everyone else out. The few that were open were so torn up I feared my RV would rattle apart. I could not follow them for long. 

Along the west coast where everyone goes to see and enjoy the long, wild Pacific Ocean beaches, the BC Provincial Park Service has blocked off virtually all access and views except for a couple of designated paved lots where they charge $10 to park and look at the beach. I found it both shocking and offensive. It struck me that Canadians must be an extraordinarily passive people, especially where their government is concerned, to tolerate such poor planning of their public roads and such audacity from their elected officials and caretakers.

Nevertheless, I did manage to see some pretty sights in spite of the government's earnest attempts to prevent it. I stayed over one night in a quiet fishing village that is fast being overdeveloped into a yuppie vacation home community. For the moment,  downtown Ucluelet is still a quaint and quite place and I was able to spend the night unchallenged parked alongside a fisheries building right on the waterfront. Note my photograph of Main Street at rush hour.

I didn't mind so much being held up by road construction on the way to Tofino.

Vancouver Island's untamed west coast beaches face the open Pacific Ocean. 
They invigorate the spirit yet sooth the soul.


As is my habit, I sought ways around the authority's blockage of the off-road byways that lead into the woods. I was particularly proud of finding this site since there are so few of them here, alongside a clear stream that gurgled merrily under gray skies.


Heading back along the central island's east-west road, I stopped to hike up a small mountain. Halfway up the slope I found an abandoned railroad track, which I followed for a stretch. There I encountered this nutty bird. Apparently, I was passing close to it's nest hidden in some low shrubs alongside the tracks, and this brave wildfowl decided I needed to be headed off. In order to draw me away, it leaped around in front of me pretending to have a broken wing. The idea was that I, the predator, was supposed to be fooled into thinking this was easy prey and so follow it as if fluttered away from its nesting area. I played along and followed the hen. She was doing her maternal duty protecting her young, and I was curious how her little charade would play out. 

Well, once she decided she had drawn me far enough away from the nest, she abruptly stopped acting injured and flew off to the safety of a high pine bow. There she sat laughing at me with a loud clucking that echoed in the quiet woods. (Can somebody out there tell me what kind of bird this is? Is it a ptarmigan? If you know, let me know.)

I cruised farther up Vancouver Island's east coast. The suburban sprawl finally gave way to a more rural atmosphere in between the towns. By forsaking the highway in favor of a winding coastal road, I got a look at an older, gentler island with a lingering maritime heritage.


Well up Vancouver Island's east coast I finally loaded my RV onto the first of three ferries that would carry us back to mainland British Columbia. This first leg of my Canadian visit was gratifying, if not quite what I'd expected. Perhaps if I foster fewer expectations in the future I will experience fewer disappointments.

 Next Entry: 06/26/04


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