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24 October 2019
It is bigger than Belgium, much bigger than Crete, about the same size as Taiwan, and nearly as big as Sri Lanka. Surprisingly it’s quite a bit smaller than Tasmania, which looks tiny because it’s dwarfed by the Australian mainland. Vancouver Island however, sixty kilometres (37 mi) off the coast of Canada, is still pretty substantial. At 460 kilometres (286 mi) long, and 100 kilometres (62 mi) wide it’s the largest island on the west coast of North America. Its sparse population is only 870,000. More than half live in the cities of Victoria and Nanaimo. The rest is pretty much empty.

The west coast of Vancouver Island faces the open Pacific Ocean. It’s a wild uninhabited land with a couple of very small communities each tucked safely in at the end of a long inlet. The island has a ridge of mountains down the middle making any trip from the east coast to the west challenging. If you want to get all the way to the west coast where the Pacific comes crashing against the shore there are only three ways by land. One way is the Pacific Rim Highway from Parksville to world-famous Ucluelet and Tofino, a tortuous road that winds over the spine of the Vancouver Island Mountains. A second way is to drive up the west coast from the city of Victoria at the south end of the island on the West Coast Road as far as Port Renfrew.

Last October on a fine fall day in a world that’s all soft blue-grey sea and distant blue land we travelled by ferry

from Vancouver, zigzagging over the water for 1.5 hours through the Southern Gulf Islands to Nanaimo, and then drove south to Duncan. We have a friend who lives in Duncan and together we took the third way to the west coast: we crossed the mountains on Pacific Marine Road from Duncan to Lake Cowichan to Port Renfrew. It’s a twisty winding former logging road with a backdrop of mountains threading its way through tall whispering trees and careening rivers and waterfalls.

Close to Port Renfrew we stopped Pacheedaht Beach, a gravelly two kilometres long and protected from wide open ocean swells. The quiet beach is littered with logs, and driftwood, and the bright leaves of autumn.

We walk and explore and rest under the thin fall sun and pale sky.

I’m busy photographing

Photo by S. Haarbrucker


and completely miss the little mink that calmly walks up the beach past Don and Surati. It’s that kind of place.

Photo by S. Haarbrucker

Photo by S. Haarbrucker

I’m into details: the foliage of the Douglas-fir,

the still dew-damp grasses at the edge of the beach,

and the way driftwood and sand and barnacles are nature as art.

After a time we returned to the car and drove further down the road to the trailhead of the multi-day Juan de Fuca Trail, and hiked into Botanical Beach. It’s a three or four kilometre shady loop trail through a forest persistent enough to withstand the wild west coast weather,

and hiding such beauties as lace lichen,

draped all over the trees like shaggy wizard hair,

and about which my friend Lynn at Bluebrightly has this to say:
Being with this lichen, I perceive a ghostly grace. I hear water splash in the distance, feel cool air on my face. I sense movement, a persistent swaying back and forth across space and time. There is attachment too, in the twirling strands suspended from branches and twigs. If I tug lightly, I sense the rightness of the attachment; the lichen knows its place and resists removal.

Further on I’m stopped by an entire high-rise community of mushrooms on a tree,

and the bright presence of Amanita.

Amanita is both toxic and hallucinogenic. Way back at the dawn of time it is believed that during the long, dark, cold northern winter, maybe around the time of the shortest day, the Shamans of Siberia dried them and delivered these little red and white gifts through the openings in the roofs of the homes of the snowbound villagers. Perhaps after indulging they hallucinated flying reindeer. Who knows? It seems as good an explanation as any for the origin of our rather bizarre and puzzling Christmas traditions.

The forest comes right to the edge of the rocky shore

and then at last we were on the beach.

The beach is a rock shelf,

full of tide pools teeming with marine life. But it was the bullwhip kelp that got my attention. The kelp is a different kind of forest that survives beneath the ocean’s roiling waters until it breaks away and is washed up onto the shore. In the summer it grows up to ten inches per day and can reach a length of 120 feet, and these underwater groves provide sanctuary for all kinds of small marine animals. Also it’s edible, and appears as an ingredient in many products, being used especially to thicken ice cream, salad dressings, hand lotion, and household paints. Who knew?

The kelp was everywhere, strewn along the beach at the high-tide level, snarled around old tree roots and scrambled piles of smooth driftwood, tangled in great mounds like a marine version of medusa’s hair.

Walking further onto the beach and into the weather we look across the water to the Olympic Peninsula in Washington State.

There’s a road and a hiking trail that make for easy access to the beach, and the land in the distance gives some protection from the open ocean. But still, this is a wild lonely place where the inexorable ocean rules,

always moving in, and then out, and in again, accompanied at times by giant storms and frequently by wind. Even the rocks eventually succumb to the relentless influence of the sea.

Back out through the quiet forest a blue jay greeted us on arrival at the car.

We stopped at Tomi’s Home Style Cooking in Port Renfrew for coffee and a much-needed hot snack, and on the way back to Duncan we stopped at the delightfully and aptly named Fairy Lake where a fearless little tree grows from a partially submerged nurse log.

It was a fine day out exploring a tiny part the southern end of this wild and rugged island of quintessential west coast wilderness.

Next post: swinging over to Japan – a dragon festival at Kyoto’s Kiyomizudera Temple.

All words and images by Alison Louise Armstrong unless otherwise noted
© Alison Louise Armstrong and Adventures in Wonderland – a pilgrimage of the heart, 2010-2020.