Snowshoeing on Vancouver Island
|Snowshoeing - Forbidden Plateau, Vancouver Island|
Once upon a time snowshoes were completely utilitarian devices—the wood-and-rawhide footwear that snow-country people relied upon to get around in winter. In the 21st century they have evolved into the high-tech gear of a graceful and engaging outdoor sport that brings snowshoers into the wonders of winter in a uniquely serene fashion.
Speed, vertical drop, mechanical assistance, motors, noise, crowds, groomed paths: none of these mainstays of other winter sports are present in snowshoeing, and that’s among the activity’s strongest appeals to adherents, many of whom strap on shoes for extensive forays into the wilderness. But one need not be a snowshoe fanatic to sample the delights of this activity, particularly on Vancouver Island, where a happy combination of terrain, geography and weather make this one of the best places for showshoeing anywhere. Sensational scenery, heaps of snow, quiet subalpine forests and ready access to untrammelled wilderness: the Island is prime ground for this simple sport.
Oddly enough, one of the best snowshoe destinations is called the “Forbidden” Plateau, though there’s nothing forbidden about it except an oddity of pioneer nomenclature. A high saddle abutting the alpine fastness of Strathcona Provincial Park, the plateau adjoins Mount Washington Resort, the Island’s major winter sports destination. Here, snowshoers can depart a lovely, warm Nordic lodge for a network of trails leading into beautiful woods on largely level ground.
It’s hard to exaggerate the rewards of a snowshoe trek into these snowy woods. Consisting largely of gently sloping terrain at around 1100 meters elevation, pocked with open meadows, small lakes and tarns, the area’s terrain is covered with mid-elevation firs and hemlocks whose winter garb consists of capes of ivory snow. Nearby, Mount Brooks shoulders its way skyward; farther away, Mount Albert Edward is the nearest of the Island’s many snowy pinnacles along the central island range, and one may occasionally catch glimpses of other glistening peaks in the central Island range, westward in the middle of Strathcona Park.
But the real glories of a snowshoe experience lie closer at hand. The measured pace of progress through the snow enables participants to hear the scurry of squirrels along tree branches, the rustle and chatters of jays or the soft shuffle of snow melting off branches in the afternoon sun. The extensive trail network offers wide boulevards across the plateau—you’ll share these with Nordic skiers skating or gliding by—narrower little trails that wind into the woods, innumerable short-cuts and pass-throughs from which you can admire the artistry with which nature sculpts fantastical shapes on forms as simple as trees. Quiet is the underlying factor that enables appreciation of such delicate facets of the winter woods—snowmobiles are prohibited in Strathcona Park, making it one of the first such preserves in North America.
Equipment rentals, trail maps, advice and guidance are available at Mount Washington Resort’s Raven Lodge, which borders the trailhead and offers snowshoe adventurers hot food and drink before and after a trek. This is no backwoods rustic lodge, though—gourmet Island cuisine is available at the restaurant, which serves the entire Mount Washington Alpine Resort.
Though the Forbidden Plateau is the Island’s best-known snowshoe locale, it’s certainly not the only one. A more remote, secluded, uncrowded and yet accessible alternative is Mount Cain Alpine Park, the small, community-run ski area near Schoen Lake Provincial Park on the North Island. Tucked into the toes of towering, snowy peaks, Cain receives what fans fervently believe is the best snow on the Island. Open only weekends and holidays, the resort offers snowshoe rentals and a modest network of snowbound roads to traverse—or, of course, acres of snowy woods. Despite its North Island location, Mount Cain is not far off Highway 19, and thus within a day-trip drive of Campbell River.
While Mount Cain and Mount Washington Alpine Resort are the two key snowshoe destinations on the Island, places where ample snow greets adventurers November through April, there are innumerable other lovely spots for a trek in the snowy woods… when snow falls. A 2-hour passage beneath the towering old-growth trees at McMillan Provincial Park, for instance, takes on a whole new atmosphere after a snowfall. Imagine the spirited silence on the trail down to San Josef Bay at Cape Scott Park with a foot of snow on the ground; or a hike out on the headland at Hornby Island’s Helliwell Provincial Park, passing by centuries-old Douglas-firs.
Aside from ample snow and the necessary gear—food, water, bad weather gear, emergency supplies and of course snowshoes—caution and common sense are necessary ingredients for snowshoeing. Always take accurate maps and let someone know where you are and when you’ll return. And, whether lowland or higher-elevation, the Island’s unpredictable weather means rain-gear is essential; hypothermia is the greatest danger outdoors.
Substantial lowland snow is relatively rare, and often melts soon, so the chance for a winter excursion in the lowlands is an exotic opportunity. But our two Island mountain resorts are among the world’s best for reliable, deep snowfall. Skiing and boarding draw the most interest by far—but strapping on the modern versions of humanity’s oldest snow gear offers an utterly different and sublime window into winter. Whether such a walk transforms winter—or winter transforms such a walk—is a metaphysical question eminently worth answering.
For more on Winter Activiites in the Vancouver Island Region, check out the video at the bottom of the newsletter!
The Comox Valley, Vancouver Island
|Sailing in the Waters off Comox Valley|
Few places enjoy a location as appealing as the Comox Valley. Set between the foothills of the Vancouver Island Range and the north end of the Strait of Georgia, this half-pastoral, half-urban area faces south into the sun and basks in the protective shelter of mountains west, north and east. With memorable vistas on every side, a balmy climate, ample resources such as water and urban amenities, and easy travel access, the twin cities of Comox and Courtenay have become retirement and recreation capitals—supplementing a long history as centres for Island agriculture, and a more recent history as destinations for active travellers.
Here, within less than an hour’s drive, is one of the finest all-around ski resorts in Canada, Mount Washington, which among its many distinctions often claims the annual title for greatest snowfall in North America.
Equally close is the colourful former mining town of Cumberland, which has refashioned itself into a centre for mountain biking. Historic buildings in Cumberland proper have been renovated into distinctive lodgings and cafes; while the area’s foothills forests are criss-crossed by a network of trails suitable for all skill levels on bikes.
Superb fishing lies equally close, in the Strait of Georgia or the snow-fed rivers that rush down from the central range mountains. Sailing and boating are key outdoor activities year-round; so are hiking, swimming and wildlife watching at nearby parks such as Strathcona Provincial Park, one of British Columbia’s biggest.
The area’s incredible wealth of recreation opportunity may best be illustrated by an outdoor duet available in April—spend the morning skiing at Mount Washington, and the afternoon playing golf at one of the area’s superb resorts, such as Crown Isle.
What truly sets Comox and Courtenay apart, though, is the full range of small-city amenities visitors can enjoy. Top-notch lodgings such Kingfisher Resort, with its famous Pacific Mist Hydropath, not only offer indulgent luxury, they are happy to arrange skiing, golfing, hiking, boating, biking or other outdoor activities for guests. A full slate of dining options heightens the appeal, with West Coast bistros specializing in Island-sourced food. The Courtenay & District Museum offers a concise look at the region’s history, from First Nations lifestyles to a famous 20th century fossil discovery nearby.
Best of all, the Comox Valley Airport provides daily scheduled direct service to Vancouver, Edmonton and Calgary—exceptional access for an area with just 65,000 residents. Many of those were once visitors, too: This is a place whose appeal lingers long.
Surfing in the Vancouver Island Region
|Surfing in Tofino, Vancouver Island|
Towering, ancient coniferous rainforest trees guard the beach that surfers consider one of the best in North America, a place where Pacific swells roll in consistently and evenly. Nearby, bald eagles soar, snowclad peaks scrape the sky, bears prowl the backwoods, salmon flash in mighty rivers and sea lions cruise the nearshore…. Perhaps bemused by all the people on long, fin-shaped boards deliberately trying to balance themselves atop racing waves.
There’s not a palm tree in sight. Bikinis are strictly on-shore adornments.
If you’re in the water, summer or winter, you’d best have on a good dry suit. This is Long Beach, near Tofino on the West Coast of Vancouver Island, a surf mecca of wide repute across the continent. Surely it’s Canada’s best-known surfing hangout, and for those surprised that a sport of tropical Pacific origin is a mainstay of life along a northern latitude shore, well, you don’t know how seriously dedicated surfers take their trade.
But you don’t have to. This is also one of the leading areas for beginners to learn the sport. That’s because the beach is easily reached (a walk of just a few paces from the parking lot), the “break,” as surfers call it, is even and reliable, and there’s plenty of room for all. After all, Long Beach is 16 kilometers, though most of this long arc of sand is uncrowded territory for beachcombers and drift logs, and the share of beach devoted to surfing is significantly less than that.
On top of everything is the fact that Tofino, just a few kilometers north of Pacific Rim National Park Reserve, the site of Long Beach, is a gloriously appealing visitor destination that offers travelers a wide array of features, from excellent hostel accommodations to world-class luxury lodging, economical bakeries to gourmet bistros. Both counterculture centre and world-class leisure destination, Tofino’s status as surf capital is epitomized by its three surf shops—all of which offer gear, rentals, lessons and guidance—and well-known surf schools. One of the latter is devoted solely to teaching women to surf, and was a pioneer in this branch of the sport.
There are a few other surf beaches on the island, largely west of Victoria in or near Juan de Fuca Provincial Park; and closer to Tofino at Chesterman beach, where guests at beachfront hotels can try out the sport along with locals. But Long Beach is the center of the action, drawing tourists and avid surfers from around the Island.
At Long Beach, while beginners paddle close to shore and serious riders head farther out for bigger swells, the scene on land hints at Malibu. Old-fashioned “woody” station wagons, boars strapped on top, cluster beside surf vans in the parking lot. Lads and lasses in dry suits shade their eyes against the westering sun to measure the incoming swells. As is always the case at surf beaches, there seems to be more watching than riding; but a good set of waves will spur a flurry of stand-ups that gets all the onshore spectators to straighten up and pay attention.
At more than 49 degrees latitude north, this isn’t the most northerly beach that draws surf zealots, who are partial to finding hitherto un-ridden waves in unlikely places that sometimes approach the Arctic Circle. The Tofino area is, however, probably the most northern capital of mainstream surfing, a place where serious riders mingle with beginners sampling the thrill of riding a Pacific curl just down the road from a full-fledged travel destination. Can you hang ten while watching an eagle soar overhead and checking behind you for the spout of a migrating grey whale? This is the place to find out.
For more information please visit www.vancouverislandoutdoor.com.
Ways to keep warm in the Vancouver Island Region during the Winter months.
For this edition of islandMOMENTS, we asked our Facebook Fans and Twitter followers what their FAVORITE ways to keep warm in the Vancouver Island Region during the Winter months.
Here are their Top Ten...
- Enjoy a spa day at one of the many fabulous spas on Vancouver Island
- Cuddle up by the fire with a book at one of the beautiful hotels and resorts
- Go storm watching from a cozy room with a fireplace in Tofino or Ucluelet
- Take a brisk walk through one of the many all season gardens and then enjoy some tea
- Go Skiing, snowboarding or snowshoeing on Mt Washington
- Take a dip in the Hot Springs Cove
- Go kayaking and follow that up with some hot cocoa by a campfire
- Take a hike on one of the great trails located throughout Vancouver Island
- Enjoy a warm beverage and some conversation with a friend at one of our various local coffee shops
- Go surfing on the west coast, it can be warmer in a wet suit while surfing than standing on the beach
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