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Written by Eric Lucas

Swimming at Sooke Potholes

Swimming at Sooke Potholes / Credit: Angela H. Bailey -


The village of Sooke is both 45 minutes and most of a century from Victoria. With tidy homes along quiet streets, overlooking a peaceful harbour from the surrounding hills, adjoining a pastoral landscape of farmsteads and woodlots, it takes little imagination to place it in the south of England somewhere.

But then you look up to the south and notice the snowcapped pinnacles of the Olympic Mountains across the Strait of Juan de Fuca. And the British Isles boast no conifers like the towering cedars and Douglas-firs that still reach for the sky on this temperate coast of Vancouver Island. In fact, pastoral as it seems now, forest products were the first enterprise that brought settlers here in the Island's early days as a British colony, and logging roads still thread the mountain foothills north of the town. The town's forestry past is on exhibit at the Sooke Region Museum, which also serves as a visitor centre. Before loggers arrived, Coast Salish peoples thrived in this area for thousands of years; their story, too, is told at the museum.

Nor is it all that much a hamlet, actually, with almost 10,000 residents, a thriving arts community and a world-famous culinary and lodging destination, Sooke Harbour House. The old railroad grade that once brought logs down from the hills and supplies back has been turned into a popular recreation trail, named after the old rail line, the Galloping Goose. "The Goose" reaches all the way into downtown Victoria, and many residents and visitors delight in overnighting in Sooke as part of a bike trip along the trail.

Even the village's most modern pursuits hark back to old times, with a meadery among the newest attractions. The Sooke Potholes, splendid bathing pools in the Sooke River, draw crowds on warm summer days, and have done for centuries; and East Sooke Regional Park's 3500 acres preserve one of the last large parcels of undisturbed coastal rainforest in the Island's southern section. The trails that wind their way here through ancient firs and spruces are as peaceful as they must have been more than a century ago—fitting the community perfectly.

Harbour seals, orcas, passing gray and humpback whales, eagles, sea lions and more provide constant delight for those who stroll the beaches in the area. They are very simple pastimes, beachcombing and sea-gazing, but perfect for the occasion in this beautifully simple place.



Storm Watching

Written by Eric Lucas

Waves near Ucluelet

Waves near Ucluelet

Five thousand miles of geophysical energy lie behind the Pacific storms that crash onto Vancouver Island's west coast in winter, and it's an impressive exhibition of nature. Once upon a time, it was witnessed by a small number of admirers—the towns on our Western shore are relatively few and modest in size, and while crowds flock to the coast in summer, winter was the quiet season.

Today, storm watching is a key attribute of winter travel on our Island, and it's a very special natural attraction.

At first the appeal seems rather grandiose. Powerful swells buffet the rocky headlands of the West Coast, sending geysers of spray high into the air. Far out on the long, sandy beaches, massive breakers rise high and, as they curl over into emerald tubes, the wind catches the foam at the top of the waves and flings it into the air. The ceaseless energy of the waves insists itself onto the shore, composing a symphony of rushing noise that ebbs and wanes, up and down, hundreds of feet.

At the top of the beach, in a strong storm, drift logs may wash back and forth in the currents. Those who brave a walk in the salty spray may see, in the small coves and channels between the stone, drift logs stampeding into the rock. And in the near-shore old-growth spruce woods, the treetops lean inland and branches thrash the air, while creaks and groans evince the spots where trunks and limbs rub together or a crack in the wood foretells an eventual downfall.

It's a superlative exhibition of the climate that the Pacific Ocean brings our way, and since human beings are inclined to measure things, superlatives attend our storm season: A Canadian Coast Guard buoy off Cape Scott once measured the largest wave ever recorded, 132 feet. And a weather station at Henderson Lake, near Ucluelet, recorded more than 366 inches of rain in 1997.

But these imposing, massive facets of winter storms belie the much smaller, more intriguing aspects of the weather that reaches our coast from November through March. Perhaps, after watching huge waves assail rocky bulwarks, and gargantuan trees sway like ribbons, one can seek the more modest pleasures of a West Coast winter storm:

* The wind-driven ocean foam that reaches the high side of the beach can be seen scurrying along at the inland edge of wave wash, tiny "boats" of bubbles along the sand.

* How do all those spruce cones reach the ground? Squirrels bring down many, but perhaps one will thunk to the mossy forest floor as you walk beneath the forest canopy in the storm.

* Though the rain on shore may be moderate, inside the woods drier spots remain beneath the densest spruce and only a steady drip around the edges brings the water down to ground.

* Turn away from the ocean and discover the way the winds have sheared the spruce fringe to form an angled hedge, as if landscape workers have been busy with clippers.

Most winter visitors come to see the spectacle, of course, and a wide array of hospitality venues is ready to welcome these non-traditional travelers. Most famous is Tofino's Wickaninnish Inn, which was built by native son Charles McDiarmid with the express idea of creating an off-season destination. The Wick's firelit lobby overlooks a wave-tossed headland, and its restaurant has huge (and very strong) plate glass windows facing the storm.

Nearby, Long Beach Lodge is poised just back of the beach, with its large and airy lobby affording a vantage on the shore. And Pacific Sands Resort offers cozy, deluxe villas tucked into the woods at one corner of its inviting beach. From here, a trail leads to a promontory that divides the storm's energy into waves surging on either side.

In Ucluelet, Black Rock Resort bestrides a headland overlooking a small, gravelly cove where the waves march hastily up to the log-strewn high tide line. And the welcoming cabins of Wya Point Resort, tucked in beneath massive old-growth spruces, overlook head-high salal thickets through which trails lead to a private beach with innumerable skerries just offshore that greet incoming swells.

West of Victoria, Point-no-Point Resort offers an array of cabins, also tucked into the woods above the shoreline, some with hot tubs on the deck from which you can watch the storm as you soak. And while Sooke Harbour House's location up the hill shields it from the main thrust of the storms as they blast their way down the Strait of Juan de Fuca, a short walk out on Whiffen Spit brings you front and center to the weather.

All these lodgings provide much more than shelter from the storm. Once you bustle inside and shed boots, coats and rain gear, the fire's light and the warming savor of hot chocolate, hearty soup and sturdy walls heightens the whole experience. Fine wool throws, the clink of glassware in the restaurant, the amber tone of polished fir—these simple sensory pleasures all expand in the bowl of winter.

In fact, it's a grand time for some thought to the meaning of all this natural extravagance. These storms bring us the rains that grow our wonderful ancient forests and the snows that cloak our inland peaks. The massive fluted bases of old-growth Sitka spruce are decorative only to our eyes; to the forest, they are the bulwarks that hold strong in the gale. The endlessly fascinating angles and planes of our rock shores have been carved by storm. The very scent of the sea that colours our air, brought here by storms.

Even the ancient giants that come crashing down, a few each winter, are transformed into nurseries for young new trees.

When the storms pass, the sun glimmers through mist left behind, and the sand warms enough for a shirt-sleeve walk along the shore. Here's a massive new log flung against a rock. Here's a long whip of bull kelp, tangled into a tapestry. A winter wren sings from the salal. Foam bubbles hide behind stones. The coast rests, for a while.



Winter Fun

Written by Eric Lucas

Exploring Royal BC Museum

Exploring Royal BC Museum

Though it's true winter does not mean everyone spends every hour indoors on Vancouver Island, it does recommend more time inside our numerous attractions with roofs over their heads. We've got an excellent complement of museums, arts groups, fun centers and other venues for all to enjoy in the days of dark skies and rain.

First and foremost are three museums that focus on Island history and culture. The Royal BC Museum in Victoria is Canada's most popular single museum, and rightly so: The totems outside that greet visitors indicate what's within, quite simply one of the best collections of First Nations art and artifacts in the world. Here are exquisitely carved and figured masks, house posts and panels, bentwood boxes and other icons of this formidable art form, all on display in accessible and respectful fashion. A new exhibit helps visitors grasp the complexities of indigenous languages, and the post-contact history of the province is ably illustrated in other galleries. An IMAX Theatre thrills viewers with presentations from around the world.

Two aboriginal museums on neighbor islands also hold top collections of First Nations art. Nuyumbalees, on Quadra Island just opposite Campbell River, is easiest to reach via a 10-minute ferry ride; and benefits from a fine First Nations Lodge nearby, Tsa-Kwa-Luten. U'mista Cultural Centre, at Alert Bay, is more remote, but holds what may be the most important Kwakwaka'wakw mask collection anywhere--exquisite works repatriated back home after their illegal seizure in the early 20th century. Visiting either museum offers an excellent weekend journey.

Back in our capital, the Victoria Art Gallery is the best place in Canada to see the paintings of Emily Carr, our famous native daughter. Victoria's excellent Symphony offers a full slate of concerts throughout the winter, and the city's Belfry Theatre makes a point of including Canadian plays in its season. Up on the Saanich Peninsula, the Shaw Ocean Discovery Centre peers beneath the surface of the waters just offshore in its fine depiction of the Salish Sea. And the Courtenay & District Museum & Paleontology Centre focuses on the area's rich fossil finds, including the famous 1997 discovery of an Elasmosaur skeleton, first ever seen west of the Rockies.

Also earth-based are tours of Horne Lake Caves, where winter and summer are pretty much the same. And from the Empress in Victoria to Merridale Ciderworks in the Cowichan Valley and Ladysmith near Nanaimo, holiday light displays are soon to fire up and shimmer through the night. Maybe winter isn't so dark after all.


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