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Tofino & Ucluelet

Written by Eric Lucas

Ucluelet lighthouse

Amphritrite Lighthouse after sunset along the Wild Pacific Trail in Ucluelet.
Credit: Boomer Jerritt / Tourism Vancouver Island


Two lovely towns hugging safe shores along the Pacific, with hearty pasts rooted in fishing and forestry, peaceful harbours and countless scenic headlands, inviting beaches, colourful residents and marvelous things to see and do-two such small cities would seem brothers in arms.

But Tofino and Ucluelet, the twin anchors at each end of the West Coast's Long Beach Peninsula, have long declared their distinctive differences. And there has been some divergence over the years: Tofino, the northernmost of the two, developed a strong counterculture side a quarter-century ago following a summer of controversy over logging plans in Clayoquot Sound northeast of town. Meanwhile, Ukee kept chugging away as a hamlet devoted to fishing and small-scale timber production-while Tuff City turned into a centre for visitors with glorious lodges, gourmet restaurants and international fame, there were no large-scale lodgings at the south end of the peninsula. Certainly not major luxury hotels.

But there are some meaningful similarities, too. Each town has a sheltered and active harbour. Each has a dynamic and thriving First Nations community now taking an active part in local business. Each town has benefited greatly from the ambitions and determination of a visionary who changed his community. Charles McDiarmid built Tofino's first luxury hotel atop a headland and declared he would attract visitors in the winter to experience the Pacific storms that lash the coast; the Wickaninnish is now known worldwide and has been joined by other deluxe inns such as Long Beach Lodge and the Pacific Sands villas. Detractors considered McDiarmid crazy, not foresightful; now the Wick, as it's known, is a popular destination year-round.

Meanwhile, down in Ucluelet, Jim Martin arrived from Colorado in 1979 and set about raising oysters in the rich back waters of Clayoquot Sound. When he left the shellfish industry, he set about creating a recreation path that would circle his adopted hometown-a heady idea that involved piecing together dozens of disparate parcels and easements along the town's highly convoluted coastline. Today, the Wild Pacific Trail is one of the West Coast's major attractions, almost 10km of byway that winds through mossy spruce fringe, atop wave-tossed cliffs, past gravelly coves, massive ancient spruces and picturesque lighthouses. Barely over 10 years old, it's become one of the top attractions in British Columbia.

And now Ukee has joined Tuff City with its own major luxury resort, Black Rock, a destination inn whose setting on a headland makes it a popular spot for winter storm watching. And while top-notch West Coast cuisine can be found in each town, each also has a famous, home-grown comfort food vendor for fish & chips (Tofino's Big Daddy's) and hot dogs (Ucluelet's Ukee Dogs).

In between the two is Pacific Rim National Park, one of Canada's most popular destinations, with a famous seemingly endless curve of shore (Long Beach); the country's best-known surfing destination; and ancient cedar and spruce trees to admire just behind the beach.

So what's different between the two towns today? Ucluelet has an aquarium; Tofino a botanical garden. Tofino has more beaches; Ucluelet more headlands. Tofino: more people, 1876. Ucluelet: more precipitation (132 inches).

The entire peninsula shares the Pacific Rim Whale Festival each March, and the grey whales that pass by each year have never demonstrated any favoritism between the two towns. Best that visitors adopt the same philosophy, too.




Written by Eric Lucas

Grizzly and cub

A Grizzly Bear and her cub voraciously eat the Sedge grass at low tide, rich in protein, before the Salmon arrive, at Glendale in Knight Inlet.
Credit: Boomer Jerritt / Tourism Vancouver Island

What could be more beautiful, and impressive, than a bald eagle wheeling across the end of a sparkling emerald cove-its white head vivid against the deep green of the shoreline spruce trees-while it scouts for fish?

Well, how about a whale breaching in a calm Inside Passage channel between two gloriously remote islands? Let's up the ante: It's a small group of humpbacks, on their way south for the winter, and they've stopped for bubble-net "fishing" along a tide line where a school of herring is gathered. Their presence is first evidenced by a ring of bubble erupting on the water's surface, a sight that seems mysterious until one whale bursts up through the middle of the ring, mouth open, straining the water to seize the fish.

But what about a black bear, its fur shining in the autumn sun, poised above a small cascade in a coastal river, fishing for salmon? We can up the ante, here, too: there are three bears along a gravel bar on this river, and two young males, their bellies stuffed with fish, get bored and tumble through the shallows in a mock battle over the still-fishing female nearby.

All these sights and many more, are possible on Vancouver Island. Although we have roughly three-quarters of a million residents, and our cities are cosmopolitan centres of urban life, our Island remains largely wilderness and is the home of uncounted hundreds of thousands of animals, birds and fish. Among these are some of the most-sought outdoor recreation sights, such as our whales, bears and wolves. Orcas ply our channels and sounds, humpbacks, grey and other whales the waters on the west side of the Island. Black bears are found from one end to the other and grey wolves prowl woods and fields in more remote areas.

Topping them all, perhaps, is one of North America's most reclusive and mythic animals the mountain lion. The cougar, the panther of our Serengeti, number in the thousands on Vancouver Island, which has one of the greatest concentrations of cougars in the world. While rarely seen, they're actually so common that one got trapped in the Fairmont Empress Hotel's parking garage years ago, in the middle of Victoria, leading a local author to turn the incident into a well-known children's book.

It's possible for Island visitors to see any of these charismatic creatures while out hiking, biking, sailing, camping, fishing or just exploring. Wildlife sightings are a virtual certainty if you avail yourself of one of the many tours that depart our cities, usually by boat, into remote areas-check local visitor bureaus in Victoria, Nanaimo, Campbell River, Port Hardy and Tofino or Ucluelet to make arrangements for such expeditions. Taking advantage of guiding expertise is a matchless way to both see and, most important, learn. It's one thing to gawk at humpback whales bubble feeding; it's a much more worthwhile experience to gain an understanding of how they cooperate and communicate to perform such a feat, and to appreciate the wondrous life cycle that takes whales thousands of miles south each autumn for winter calf-bearing in warm subtropical waters, then thousands of miles back north each spring for summers feeding the North Pacific's rich waters.

If you want to be sure you see what biologists call charismatic megafauna, guided wildlife watching is the most effective approach: tour operators know where animals are likely to be, because they know their life cycles. Guides can explain how important skunk cabbage is to bears in spring; the pack structure that governs wolf society; the reason eagles favor old cottonwoods or Douglas firs for their nests. Why are cougars so common? Because our forests are the haunts of their favorite prey, elk and deer. Every day, in the quiet woods of the Island, the fierce natural circle of predator-prey life plays out in the Island's vast canvas, and lucky explorers may be able to witness some small portion of it.

But we'd like to suggest a second, less deliberate but equally enjoyable approach: think small. There is so much more to see besides big animals and birds.

Not far from the centre of Victoria, for example, along the Lochside Trail recreation path, is Swan Lake Christmas Hill Nature Preserve, a delightful expanse of oak prairie with a natural lake in the middle. Not only is one sometimes able to see the large, graceful trumpeter swans for which the lake is named, a few quiet moments at the edge of the woods will likely reveal Anna's hummingbirds buzzing about. These year-round residents, among the North Pacific's most beautiful birds, sport gemlike sheens of green and vermilion when sunlight strikes their feathers just so; and the musical chittering they make at rest on tree branches is an almost hypnotically calming sound.

On the beaches of the West Coast's Pacific Rim National Park Reserve, waves pound nearby headlands, eagles soar above and massive ancient spruces guard the shoreline. But the careful observer may scan the sand for the finely laid tracks of river otters, and peer up the tiny estuaries formed by coastal streams to spy these practitioners of nature's ballet. And is that a pink salmon ghosting its way up a riffle to spawn?

Salmon are the subjects of one of our Island's most unusual outdoor pursuits, river snorkeling during spawning season. Salmon in breeding finery of red and green throng to Campbell River to head up to their spawning grounds every year in August and September; adventurers don wet suits and snorkels and drift downstream above the fish, gaining a close vantage on one of nature's most wondrous spectacles, conveyed through the clear prism of autumn's amber waters. The sight is both visually spectacular and spectacularly meaningful-especially in this drought-stricken year, as the salmon strive to finish the loop of their ancient life circle.

Strolling the stone-ringed tidepools of Botanical Beach, near Port Renfrew, it's best to get down on your knees to admire the delicate green and lacelike ivory colors of anemones and nudibranchs-clear hues that only nature can create.

At Newcastle Island Provincial Park, in Nanaimo Harbour, the birdhouses along the island's dock are the summer homes of purple martins, the swift insect-hunters which are the largest swallows. Their iridescent blue feathers flash in the sun, metaphorically signifying the beauty of this species recovery from near-extinction in British Columbia here near the northern limit of their range. Just a few decades ago there were less than 10 breeding pairs in the province; today dozens return each summer to Newcastle.

Every forest and field, bay and beach on the Island offers opportunities for such sightings. Stop for a picnic lunch at a mid-Island beach and you might have a curious mink scamper by, pausing to peer up at you. In the subalpine forests of Strathcona Provincial Park, an endangered native red squirrel may chirp at you from a spruce to object your intrusion, its tail flagging the alarm. Strolling the cliffs of Hornby Island's Helliwell Provincial Park, you may see the massive shapes of Steller sea lions at an offshore haulout, their barking a stentorian chorus of commotion.

Whether deliberate or happenstance, all wildlife excursions carry an inherent code that lends integrity and value to the experience:

• We're the visitors-act like guests.

• Investigation is fine-take out your binoculars for a closer look-but intrusion is not. Don't try to sneak up next to the bear for a selfie: It's dangerous and wrong.

• Your sugar-laden granola bar is even more unhealthful for a mink than it is for you. Feeding wildlife is dangerous, illegal and wrong.

• Don't leave anything. Not even a tissue.

• They're wild animals, not playthings. No petting, riding, chasing, roping or anything other than quiet watching.

• Learn the safety precautions for watching large animals such as bears-how to remain inconspicuous, how to recognize potential attack, what to do if the animal poses a threat. The right steps vary by species, and guidance from professionals is most helpful when venturing into bear territory.

All these experiences bear one thing in common, a serendipitous element that makes the occasion more memorable than any deliberate wildlife expedition. You've gone out hiking, biking, paddling or beachcombing; the objective was an activity, not a sighting. But isn't that true exploration, heading out with no certain agenda to satisfy?

Vancouver Island is a haven for explorers, and for wild animals. We're proud to say both still coexist here, marvelously and memorably.


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