The Coast Salish First Nation, the first people to live there, gave the place its name. They called it Quamichan (or Kw’amutsun). It means “warm place”, and compared to the rest of Canada it undoubtedly is. Today it is known as Cowichan. There is a lake, a town, and a river. The river flows through a valley connecting it to a bay, and all of them are known as Cowichan. And all of it is on Vancouver Island off Canada’s west coast. Vancouver Island, by the way, generally has the best climate in Canada, warmest, least rain, least snow, and most sunny days (just on the off chance that you’re thinking of moving there).
Even though the lake, the valley, the river, and the bay are all named Cowichan (as are the sweaters the area is known for) the main town is named Duncan. It is near the bay though not right on it. We have a dear friend who lives close to Duncan and we’ve been to visit every summer for the past three years. And each time we go we find more places to explore.
One of the first hikes we did was through Stoney Hill Regional Park. There’s a 3.5 kilometre loop trail that winds through forests of tall strong trees draped with green moss dripping down like an old man’s beard.
And huge boulders covered in mosses and lichens and undergrowth. And fallen rotting nursling trees. Until eventually we climb high enough and come out to the arbutus trees on the ridge, and views of Saltspring Island
and the blue infinity of Sansum Narrows
Another day, another hike, this time up Cobble Hill, some tough hiking over rough trails, and tracks leading everywhere so kinda getting lost, but not really, and so worth it for the climb, the sweaty energising enlivening workout to get to the top, celebrating self, and mountain, and especially the views.
Back down to earth, a visit to the year-round Saturday morning Duncan Farmers Market
immersing ourselves in great food and great music, with a myriad of local arts, crafts, and produce for sale. It’s an enticing buffet of hand-made goods and locally produced food and wine.
It’s village gathering time and everyone comes as much to connect and socialise as to buy.
Duncan, a town of just 5000, but serving a population of over 80,000 in the greater valley area, is sandwiched equidistant between two cities with ferry terminals to the mainland. Fifty kilometres north is Nanaimo, fifty kilometres south is Victoria. Both are pretty laidback as far as cities go, but Duncan and the Cowichan Valley, and really much of Vancouver Island, moves at an even slower, more relaxed pace.
Duncan is a sleepy, pretty town with tree-lined streets, over-flowing flower baskets, great cafes, and Canada’s largest collection of outdoor totem poles. The town is surrounded by golf courses, wineries, and of course, hiking trails, and over the course of three summers we explore quite a few of them.
At night, at least once on each visit so it has become a ritual now, we go to the Cowichan Bay Pub for dinner on the long patio overlooking the harbour,
and eat crab cakes and halibut burgers and yam fries and other deliciousness while we watch the sun set over the boat houses, float homes, docks, and sailboats
until darkness falls
and we head home with hearts and bellies full.
Charming Genoa Bay, picture-postcard perfect and snuggled in a tiny inlet in the northern part of Cowichan Bay, is just as pretty, and the food just as good.
There’s a story here. When the Keidaisch brothers assumed ownership of the abandoned marina they also took on outstanding debts and a bank that was about to foreclose on the property. They knew nothing about boats or marinas and the first tool they bought was a bolt-cutter so that they could get in. Talk about jumping in at the deep end. Now the marina is thriving and much loved by both the boating community and land visitors alike.
Inland from the bay we do another hike through the woods at Sandy Pool Regional Park where everyone in our group swims in the river, yes the Cowichan River, except Don and me. The first time we visit it’s pre my hip surgery and I can’t walk much, but I do manage the slightly-more-than-one-kilometre trail through the forest of mosses and ferns and lichens and tall straight trees,
and great swathes of oceanspray hanging from the ironwoods.
On one of our trips to Duncan we go south for a day to visit friends in Sidney and find a host of golden Black-eyed Susan beloved by bees everywhere,
and on another trip we go north for a day to visit friends in Comox, and laze for a few hours at Nymph Falls Nature Park.
In this green-and-blue land we seem to step out of time, our days filled with nature, exercise, good food, good company, and the deep sleep that comes from days spent breathing in sunshine and fresh air. It’s one of the most beautiful places in the world.
Happy holidays everyone. See you next year!
All words and images by Alison Louise Armstrong unless otherwise noted
© Alison Louise Armstrong and Adventures in Wonderland – a pilgrimage of the heart, 2010-2019.