Sunday, June 16, 2013

Vancouver Island, BC

After spending a lot of money and drinking too much in lovely Vancouver, my wife and I decided to head over to Vancouver Island for four nights of camping and wholesome nature-type activities.  The general plan starting out was to spend two nights near the Pacific Rim Park and Long Beach, and then head back around the island to the southern part to spend two more nights in the Juan De Fuca Park.  After getting some good advice from a man who overheard us discussing ferry plans at The Keg on Granville Island (where we were attempting to manage hangovers with more beer (#12?)) we drove to Horseshoe Bay instead of Tsawwassen.  We did not have reservations, so we were put in the standby line and missed the 3:10 ferry.  We thought we’d have to wait for the 5:30, which was the next scheduled departure, but luckily there was an unpublished departure that left soon after and we didn’t have to wait too long.  I’m not sure if our schedule was inaccurate or if they just run extra ferries whenever demand is high.  Maybe someone in the know can comment.  Anyway, the ferry ride was quick and scenic.  On a side note, I was surprised to see the long line of people waiting to eat at the cafeteria on board while the boat was still in the harbor.  Before the “restaurant” even opened its doors, there were at least 40 people waiting to eat.  Waiting to eat overpriced mediocre (I know it’s mediocre because I was one of these imbeciles on our next ferry) cafeteria food.  It was like they were looking forward to it.  Are these the same people who get hotdogs at movie theaters?  We disembarked in Nanaimo and got our first taste of Vancouver Island as we drove north.  I was expecting a wilderness, but instead found several miles of strip malls and chain stores.  Not a complaint, just an observation.  We decided to look for a campground instead of driving all the way across the island.  Our first stop was Rathtrevor Beach Provincial Park about 45 minutes north of Nanaimo.  Unfortunately, the campground was full, but we did drive around to get an idea of what the facilities offered.  This is a big, family-friendly park with beach access.  Certainly not a wilderness experience, but everyone seemed to be enjoying themselves and the nice weather.  We had the option of staying in the overflow area, which we checked out and decided against.  The next closest park was the Englishman River Falls Park, which was exactly what we were looking for.  There was plenty of camping available, despite the busy season.  The campground was well maintained and set in a grove of old-growth trees.  Very peaceful.  I also liked the fact that they came around in a truck selling beer, I mean firewood.  At this point I would like to start the discussion about toilets in Canadian provincial parks.  Canada, you can do better.  This park was not remote at all.  There is no reason not to have a proper bathroom facility, especially if you’re charging twice what I would pay to camp in an American park.  Offering free squirts of Purel isn’t fooling anyone.  I’m sorry Canada, but in this battle of friendly neighbors, you lose.   In the morning we took the short walk from our campsite to the upper and lower falls.  Very beautiful.  Also, it is possible to swim in the river below the second falls. 

Onward across the island.  The drive to the western side of Vancouver Island was spectacular.  We had clear skies the whole day.  Beautiful mountains, trees, lakes and rivers.  Don’t hurry, as the scenery along the drive is as nice, if not better, than what you will find on the western shore. As slackers with no reservations, we quickly realized our camping options would be very limited.  The campground at Long Beach was full and we had to drive north through the park to Tofino, where there are a couple of privately run campgrounds.  Our first option was Crystal Cove RV park, which would have been nice if by crystal cove they meant  “sparkling body of water”, not “airstrip”.  Really, all they had to offer were RV spots in a gravel parking lot.  Next, we tried Bella Pacifica campground, a huge facility with some very nice campsites and some horrible ones.  Online reviews of this spot were not glowing, but we were out of options.  Unfortunately they only had one spot available and it was hardly big enough to fit our car, and it was right next to a pretty disgusting bathroom area.  Disappointment set in.  It was hard to believe that here on Vancouver Island, we couldn’t find a place to sleep that was even remotely scenic or natural.  Of course, this was our own fault for not planning better or choosing more remote parts of the island to visit.  But Long Beach was recommended to us as a must-see location.  We drove back south through the park again, to Surf Junction, a private campground just south of the split in the direction of Ucluelet.  Not an ideal location to stay, as it was far from the water, but we just needed a place to pitch a tent.  They had one site remaining and a person on the phone trying to reserve it, so the pressure was on to either take it or not.  If I was scouting film locations for a horror movie, I would have snatched it up in a second.  Dark scary forest, creepy storage shed, dead rat, I’m in!  E will love it.  I paid my thirty-seven dollars and was given a short lecture about rules and regulations, which included a warning about bears (fine), cougars (um, okay I don’t believe you), and wolves.  Wait, wolves? Wolves!  In a campground?  I couldn’t decide whether to tell E about this or not.  On a certain level it cracked me up.  Wolves!  It just sounded so extreme.  So ridiculously Canadian.  On the other hand, it might just scare the shit out of her.  I told her.  But I didn’t tell her about the dead rat until we were back in the states.  On a positive note, the staff in the lobby was very friendly, the bathroom and shower facilities were immaculate, and somehow always vacant.  Was it the two-dollar shower charge that kept everyone away?  There was also a nice hot tub, but we didn’t use it.  I also didn’t mind the raspberries growing everywhere.  That afternoon we walked from the campground to the Willowbrae Trail, which forks off to the beach at Half Moon Bay. The hike is about a mile each direction, the last bit taking you down a very nice staircase to the beach. The beach was in such a dense fog we couldn’t even see the ocean thirty feet away. Behind us, the towering redwoods appeared and disappeared in the mist. Such a beautiful and eerie spectacle. And nobody else around. Despite this beautiful hike, we were generally not blown away by this part of the island. Given the whole range of places to visit, I would say skip this area, at least during the high season.

The next day we retraced our steps back across the island, driving east, then south, then west, then north, until we ended up at the Juan de Fuca Park, which is not far from Ucluelet as the crow flies. Stopped in the town of Sooke for lunch and supplies. Ate at the Stovepile Grill, which was excellent. Our waitress provided another example of a trend we observed throughout our 15 day trip through British Columbia. Many young Canadian woman seem to style themselves as 1950’s housewives. It’s not clear if this is a hip contemporary ironic fashion, or just an authentic look that reflects the enduring, unchanging local culture. Doesn’t matter. She was nice as hell. Then we went to the grocery store and I stepped in a huge pile of dogshit right at the front door. I was wearing flip flops. It nearly ruined my whole day. We drove on to our destination: the Juan de Fuca Provincial Park Campground. I breathed a huge sigh of relief when I drove around the campground, noting the beautiful old growth redwoods, the wealth of available campsites, and the spectacular beach and grassy parkland. Finally! This was what we’d expected to find on Vancouver Island. We picked a big isolated site close, but not too close, to the bathroom, unpacked, set up camp, drank a beer, and walked down to the beach. More of the beautiful foggy coastline, with occasional views across the sound to Washington. The next morning we drove north to the Sombrio Beach trailhead and took a nice hike through the trees down to the beach. There, we found a rope swing and a waterfall and many campers who were hiking the Marine Trail. Highly recommended hike. Afterwards we drove to the end of the road, to Port Renfrew. We had lunch a beer at the Port Renfrew Hotel. They have a great deck where you can sit and watch the limited action in the marina. Exactly what I’d imagined an end of the road fishing village would look like. Lots of birds and big trees and steel gray water. Cool historical artifacts and photos inside the hotel and restaurant. Back to the campground for dinner and a fire and a pleasant night’s sleep. And then…

There are scary things that can wake you up in your tent, especially when campground hosts have planted certain seeds in your mind, (wolves? Surely not wolves), when campground postings warn of black bears and (yikes) brown bears and  cougars and dog-snatching eagles. But there are horrors beyond horrors out there, unexpected terrors you never thought you’d experience. Things you always assumed just happened to other people…It began at dawn. I heard the sound outside and knew immediately what it was. I had theorized at length about its existence, speculated about the appalling realities of our universe that necessitated its presence here, at this moment, where our fates were set to collide.  My wife slept on and I did not wake her. I let her enjoy the last few moments of peace until she awoke and my living nightmare would become her own...It started as a deep rumble in the ground. Then I heard the garble of a distant radio. Then, the shrill beeps of the backing-up alarm. What would it look like, I wondered. A long hose, surely, connected to a pump. And a tank. A large tank for holding…oh God! Why? Why must we be so gross? I heard the hinge on the bathroom door squeak open. Then silence, excruciating silence. And then, as I dreaded it would, the pump started up, a loud whirring building to a squealing crescendo. My wife woke up. What is it, she asked? Is it aliens? Go back to sleep, I told her. Someday this will all be over. It took five minutes for the smell to reach us. Thirty seconds later we were in our car driving, driving without a destination. Just to be away from it. Away from a smell so profoundly disgusting, so immeasurably nauseating, that it took twenty minutes and twenty miles for my wife to stop compulsively mouth breathing. The irony, of course, is that I have certain personal…obligations…we’ll call them, whenever I wake up. We eventually snuck back to our campsite, like Bruce Willis in Pulp Fiction going back for his dad’s watch. We grabbed what we needed. The truck was gone but the smell remained. Somehow. It was in the trees, in the foggy mists. I could see the rooftop of the epicenter twenty feet away. I curse my luck. Then we drove to the Parkinson Creek trailhead. But the day was ruined. The stench would work its way into everything. The drive to the trailhead was calamitous for our 2WD CRV, but we soldiered on because there was nothing left to do in this part of the island and we’d paid for another night in our cesspool. There was only one other car at the trailhead, a maintenance vehicle. A park employee was weed-whacking the parking lot, which seemed like a great use of tax dollars. At least we would have the trail to ourselves, and, presumably, the beach as well. We set off. Much of Vancouver Island has been logged, even areas “protected” by the park. In most cases, the logged areas have reforested, and while they don’t resemble the true old growth forests seen across the sound in Olympic National Park, they are still very nice. Mostly. But something went very wrong in the deforestation/reforestation process along the Parkinson Creek Trail. Apparently, when the redwoods were taken down, smaller trees and shrubs flourished. Then the redwoods returned, stole the light (as the Rush song said they would) and the smaller plants died. This is probably not an uncommon process, but in most cases, the dead plants then decompose. On this trail, however, the dead plants remain as red ghosts haunting what is surely the strangest stretch of forest I’ve ever been through. No green plants, no insects, birds, or animals of any sort. No sounds. No wind. No smell. No view and no depth perception. We hurried along, nervously, until the dead forest ended and we were on a bluff overlooking the ocean. We clambered down onto a bizarre lava flow of a beach, which was full of little tide pools. We explored for a long time, the only people around. Then we came upon an enormous pile of very fresh bear excrement. I’ve had this unsettling experience before. I thought about the walk back through the dead forest now coupled with the knowledge that there was a bear in the area. But the return hike was uneventful. I took a video of the dead forest but it didn’t capture the haunting feeling as I hoped it would. We suffered through a smelly night, woke up the next day and ferried it back to America.

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