A familiar, long chittering call seems to be guiding us up the Courtenay River as we paddle into the gentle current. Looking up, we watch with delight as a kingfisher skips through the air—and on closer glance, we spy the tiny anchovy in its beak, glistening like a strand of silver. The bird alights on a low branch in a tall cottonwood bestriding the riverbank, and we lose sight of it.
It’s a calm, balmy summer day on Vancouver Island, and we’re making use of one of the Island’s most prevalent resources, recreationally and physically—water. Obviously, as an island, we are surrounded by it. In this case the Pacific Ocean braces our western shore, and the Salish Sea our eastern. The former brings us rain and mountain snow that fill our lakes and rivers, and a morning canoe journey on one of the latter is just one of an infinite variety of water activities found here.
This one is deceptively simple: Rent a canoe (the craft used by Canada’s peoples for centuries) at the Courtenay Marina and start paddling upstream. The river runs gently beneath the keel; the clean, greenish waters sparkle in the light; eagles, geese and gulls play the skies above. Though we’re in the middle of a city, it seems a far cry from urban. A short jaunt up a side channel leads to a savory seafood lunch at a much-loved local pub, and back downriver we go, skimming along in the current like kids in a raft.
This half-day excursion amply represents the delights of Island water adventures, but it is literally just the tip of a large and varied iceberg. It’s hard to think of a water sport not available here. And every single one takes place in appealing settings outdoors.
- Surfing: The long, even beaches of the West Coast near Tofino and Ucluelet are famous for incoming swells that offer reliable riding year-round. When Tofino first established its identity as a surf capital it struck many as strange—Canada, really? Yes, indeed. Today the parking lot at Long Beach, in Pacific Rim National Park Reserve, is filled with surf wagons and bystanders almost any day of the year; especially in winter, when the North Pacific swells grow and wet suits make cold season surfing comfortable. Even if you don’t ride, watching is vicarious fun.Many surf shops in Ukee and Tuff City offer gear and guidance for beginners and experts, and the area has become a center for teaching women to surf, with several groups devoted to that branch of the sport.
- Boarding: Many other types of boards skim the surface of the Island’s waters. Nitinat Lake, on the West Coast near Bamfield (and near the ancient spruce groves of Carmanah-Walbran Provincial Park), is one of the premier sailboarding and kite-surfing spots in North America, with reliable winds provided by afternoon thermals that pour into the lake valley from the ocean. Boarders also head to Buttle Lake, in Strathcona Provincial Park, and Nimpkish Lake on the north end of the Island.Water-skiing is an old-fashioned board sport, but plenty of fun. Try it on Cowichan Lake, or Shawnigan Lake near Victoria.Then there is perhaps the simplest board sport of all, skimboarding. All it takes is a simple shaped piece of plywood, really (though you can find fancier skimboards), and a flat beach at low tide. Perfect for Parksville and its famous, vast stretch of sand, in other words. This only takes a couple inches of water, but it’s just as much fun as if it were much more.
- Kayaking: Adventurers pile into these craft for days-long treks into the Broken Group Island, in Pacific Rim National Park near Ucluelet, a famous and beautiful wilderness of small islands, white sand beaches and peaceful seclusion. It’s for wilderness experts, though. Guided kayak tours in Johnstone Strait, near Telegraph Cove, provide a marvelously peaceful way to watch the channel’s resident orcas, who ply these waters in summer.One need not be guided, or even know much about paddling, to enjoy a kayak excursion in Victoria’s Inner Harbour. Heading up the city’s Gorge waterway, past small parks and peaceful neighborhoods, provides a different perspective on British Columbia’s capital; and invariably brings sightings of eagles, harbour seals and innumerable water birds.
- Swimming: No, this isn’t Hawai’i. So why is the beach at Tribune Bay on Hornby Island nicknamed “Little Hawai’i”? Because its long comma of south-facing white sand gets so warm in the summer sun, and its waters are so shallow, that it provides safe and comfortable saltwater swimming in July and August. A similar setting (though not quite so warm) is available at beautiful San Josef Bay, in Cape Scott Provincial Park, on the far northern tip of the Island.Numerous lakes provide fresh water swimming that ranges from “refreshing” to just plain warm and lovely. Cowichan, Shawnigan, Woss, Schoen and others are favorite spots on the main Island; and two lakes on Salt Spring Island offer wonderfully balmy swimming in summer, St. Mary’s Lake and Cusheon Lake, both with lakeside resorts.And one of the most famous swimming holes on the Island is a series of deep pools on the Sooke River, in the foothills near the little village of the same name west of Victoria. Sooke Potholes provide splendid spots to bask in the sun on huge rock formations, plunge in the clean mountain-born water, and climb back out for more sunbathing.
- Fishing: Salmon are the symbol of the North Pacific, with good reason—these amazing fish are beautiful, bountiful, great for eating and fantastic for sportfishing. Anglers can catch salmon June through October in the near-shore waters and major rivers of our Island, with guides and charter boats aiding visitors in their quest. Comox, Campbell River, Ports McNeill and Hardy, and Port Alberni and Tofino, are major departure points for salmon fishing. While king salmon, which can reach past 50 pounds, are the best-known and most-sought, silver and sockeye salmon also provide plenty of sport.But salmon are not the only fish found here. Halibut, rockfish, lingcod and other saltwater species can all be caught—some just for fun, catch-and-release—and trout inhabit lakes and the upper reaches of our rivers and streams. Can there be a finer fishing experience than casting a fly into a wilderness lake toward a surface-feeding rainbow trout on a late August afternoon? Well, perhaps bringing a beautiful, strong silver salmon to the side of the boat in a quiet bay among the Discovery Islands, near Campbell River, with eagles nearby and snowcapped mountains in the distance.In the fall and winter, steelhead, an ocean-going race of rainbow trout, lure hardy anglers to Island rivers for a sport that’s almost mythical in its arcane challenges. It’s not for dilettantes—the weather’s rugged and the fish are smart—but its rewards are deep.
- Snorkeling: Yes, snorkeling. But isn’t this just for tropical climes where you can bask in the warm waters, floating above colorful reef fish?Though our climate is among the mildest in Canada—consider the palm trees that dot Island gardens—we won’t claim to be tropical. You can, however, don wetsuits and snorkeling gear and float the Campbell River in August and September to experience the salmon spawning runs. We’ll match the colour and magnificence of this underwater spectacle against any on earth. Sockeye salmon, in particular, are known for their vivid green and crimson coloration; other types of anadromous fish sport shimmering hues when they return to fresh water, as well.The life cycle snorkelers are witnessing is among the greatest of natural wonders. Born in these clean, amber-running autumn waters, the salmon spend four years at sea growing in the vast, food-rich North Pacific, then find their way back to this exact spot to lay eggs on gravel beds (called redds). The acrobatic underwater courtship of the fish presents a memorable dance performance, and the life history of these amazing fish is both heartening and irreplaceable—this is what brings this immense resource to our shores each year.In a way, salmon snorkeling epitomizes the wonder of water recreation on Vancouver Island. It takes place in a beautiful setting, the gently rolling amber waters of the Campbell River, lined with tall cottonwood trees. It relies on elements intrinsic to our land, clean water and salmon. It’s certainly not an activity you can find many other places. And the annual renewal of the salmon cycle reminds us that we live in a place whose natural wonders deserve both appreciation and care.
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Though we tend to think of it as a new arrival, human civilization has flourished along the North Pacific Coast for millennia. First peoples arrived on our shores from Asia thousands of years ago, and they discovered the same welcoming environment we all treasure today—deep forests, benign climate, ample food and natural resources.
They thus enjoyed such a relatively prosperous lifestyle that these peoples established rich cultures whose creative expressions and traditional lifestyles endure today. Cedar and salmon were the foundations of First Nations life then, and remain so now in both a spiritual and practical sense. Visitors can easily sample both these facets of aboriginal life in and near Vancouver Island today, as our area’s First Peoples are delighted to show how their ancient traditions hold strong in the 21st century.
You can, for example, learn to paddle a hand-carved cedar dugout canoe with Nuu-chah-nulth guides in Tofino. Departing right from the town’s harbour, T’ashii Paddle School’s tours head over to nearby Meares Island to visit the ancient rainforests here, including the famous “Hanging Garden” cedar that became the symbol of the movement to preserve these trees a quarter-century ago.
On the inland side of the Island, Port McNeill’s Sea Wolf Adventures offers tours that expose guests to the area’s grizzly bears, orcas, eagles and other creatures—as well as the enduring stories and songs that explain the Kwakwaka’wakw people’s reverence for the wild companions with whom they have shared this land for thousands of years. Guide Mike Willie is an accomplished storyteller and naturalist, and an intent student of Kwakwaka’wakw history and tradition.
He can tell you, among other things, why the art and artifacts on display at the U’mista Cultural Centre in Alert Bay are so precious. First of all, they represent the pinnacle of one of the world’s most powerful art forms, Northwest Coast formline design. And the ceremonial masks, bentwood boxes and totems on display at U’mista also represent an amazing homecoming: Stolen from their people almost a century ago, they were repatriated 20 years ago so they could be with the peoples and spirits they represent.
Similarly marvelous items are on display at Nuyumbalees, the interpretive center on Quadra Island just across from Campbell River. Here, too, the masks, boxes and other artifacts on display were returned home to be with the people to whom they mean so much. They’re beautiful and meaningful in a way few works of art achieve.
Quadra Island is also home to a First Nations-owned lodge, Tsa-kwa-luten, whose impressive post-and-beam architecture reflects the ancient longhouses found along these shores. The same is true of the new Kwa’lilas Hotel in Port Hardy, a luxury lodging in which each of the 85 rooms holds locally made indigenous art.
Many Island galleries display pieces by modern masters of indigenous art forms—masks, boxes, paintings, glass pieces and more whose shapes and designs incorporate ancient traditions, but adapt them to modern styles and each artist’s 21st century vision. Eagle Aerie Gallery in Tofino and Alcheringa Gallery in Victoria are two of the best. As well, locally made art can be bought at U’mista and Nuyumbalees, and at gift shops in Kwa’lilas and Tsa-kwa-luten.
All these attractions make it possible for visitors to experience the civilizations that have made their home here for so long—and to take home remembrances, in the form of memories, pictures and works of art. Like the native cultures here on our Island, all those will endure long after you return home.
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