By Alexandria Stuart
Nanaimo was in the middle of a heat wave as my boyfriend Sean and I set out on our “nearcation” to northern Vancouver Island, A/C on high. The familiar landscape of coastal British Columbia flew by: Moss-draped forests alternated with scabs of clear-cut, blanketed in pink fireweed as the land tried to heal itself. It was the same scenery I’d been looking at my whole life.
A “nearcation” is a variation on the “staycation”; we would travel farther north on the Island than I’d ever travelled before. For Sean, however, it would be a return. Our ultimate destination was Alert Bay, a village on tiny Cormorant Island (between Vancouver Island and the mainland), where he was born. He’d left as an infant and never been back, and he was drawn to the place of his birth. It also happened to be home to “The World’s Tallest Totem Pole.”
Our route would include several of “The World’s Largest,” which was a thrill because we’re fans of the kitschy tourist experience. And we had some other suspicions about what we we’d find. The resource-based economy of the North Island has been giving way to tourism in recent years. Online, the tourism sites are sprinkled with words like “spectacular” and “majestic,” and the photographs feature smiling faces with ruddy-complexions welcoming you, and your money, into their hometowns. We wondered if the settlements we found would be as happy as the ones in the pictures.
Soon, the radio gave way to static.
“It’s amazing how much we take it for granted, isn’t it?” I said.
“What?” said Sean, woken from the reverie of the road, and thinking about what lay ahead of us.
“BC’s landscape. Up and down the coast, forests, clear-cuts . . . it’s really all the same.”
“I know. We really shouldn’t be bored by this drive. I mean, tourists come from all over the world to see the coast and the inside passage.” It felt sacrilegious to downplay the majesty of the wilderness.
As we ascended into a mountain pass, clouds appeared, became thicker, and blocked out the sun. Languishing in the passenger seat, I felt like a child, wondering, “Are we there yet?”
When Sean had called ahead to make a reservation at the campground, the man on the other end of the line had laughed. Pulling into the Wildwoods Campground in Port Hardy, 390 km. north of Nanaimo, we saw why. Only a handful of other campers were scattered through the forest. Some were well-established long-term residents, others were overnighters waiting for Saturday’s 15-hour ferry ride up the coast to Prince Rupert. Clouds hung low and the air under the canopy of trees was cooled by sea mist from the nearby tidal flats. The mature woods, though beautiful and teeming with wildlife, felt dark and heavy.
An eagle flew overhead, so low that we could hear the air pass through its wings. After unloading our gear, the chill closed in and we fled in search of dinner. The biggest, blackest ravens I’ve ever seen lined the gravel road, like sentinels, on our way out.
The largest community on Northern Vancouver Island, Port Hardy is known as an outdoor adventure destination for fishing, scuba diving, and hiking. The population, mostly loggers, miners, and fishermen, is about 4,000, yet on a Friday night it felt desolate. The road into town was lined with overturned trashcans, homes with peeling paint, and lawns littered with mildew-stained plastic lawn furniture. Many of the better-kept houses sported “For Sale” signs. The mood was thick and heavy, like a fog had rolled in, though the air was perfectly clear.
What a dump, I thought.
Zoom out and click the dots!
Skipping the pubs, of which there were many, we settled on Toudai Sushi, a Japanese restaurant with a view of Hardy Bay through floor-to-ceiling windows. We also had an unobstructed view of an RCMP officer across the street pulling a preteen First Nations boy from behind some bushes and carefully guiding him, stumbling, through the park and into the back of a police cruiser.
Next morning, the search for sunshine and lighter air propelled us out of the campground early. We had several stops to make before reaching Alert Bay, where we would spend the night. Sean was noticeably quiet on the subject, preferring to focus on the destinations immediately ahead of us. I didn’t force the conversation.
In Coal Harbour, a former whaling station inland from Holberg Inlet, we hoped to find breakfast and “The World’s Largest Blue Whale Jawbone.”
“This is a little nicer,” I said, my mood brightening during the 20-minute drive along Coal Harbour Road. The forest was less marred by clear-cuts, more dense than the ones we’d traversed on our previous day’s drive. Steller’s Jays the colour of sapphire flitted in and out of the trees along the way. Houses emerged on the outskirts of town; rundown yards were filled with burn piles and stained children’s toys, and were overtaken by blackberry bushes. Past another stand of forest, the homes had fresh paint, manicured lawns and, again, many “For Sale” signs. The road ended without warning, and we found ourselves at a wharf. A sign on a nearby bulletin board pointed towards a museum, which was nowhere to be found. Nor was there any sign of “The World’s Largest Blue Whale Jawbone” (and in such a small town, there weren’t a lot of places to hide it). The café and general store were closed. No breakfast. No coffee. Dejected, we left.
Travelling south and inland again, we were welcomed by the Village of Port Alice (population 800). Sunshine peeked through parting clouds, and a tidy row of modest but well-kept homes lined the waterfront. At the Quatsino Chalet & Coffee Shop, a toddler, presumably belonging to the owners, ran amok in the nearly deserted restaurant, stopping to visit a table of locals who were drinking coffee by the window. One of the women took the child into her lap and they played with cutlery together.
Backtracking about an hour, south on the Island Highway, we came to Port McNeill, a town of 2,600, many of whom rely on logging and fishing for their livelihoods. The landscape was a familiar one: Some kept and many unkempt properties and what appeared to be a lot of busy real estate agents. Old cars rusted in driveways, and flowers withered in planters buried in the overgrown yards.
“What a dump,” I said, aloud this time. Sean just nodded slowly.
Port McNeill is, however, home to “The World’s Largest Burl.” A knotty tree growth six-metres tall and six-metres in diameter, it was excised from a giant 350-year old Sitka Spruce felled near Holberg in 2005. We found it under an open-air shelter at the side of a parking lot in the middle of town. I wondered if the locals even gave it a second thought as they pulled up, spilled out of their vehicles, muffin-tops and beer bellies heaving, and lumbered to the adjacent field for a baseball tournament. Beside us a minivan of players sat with the side door open, working on a cooler filled with Lucky Lager. It was noon.
“Do you want me to take your picture with it?” Sean asked, circling the burl.
“No,” I sighed. I took a picture of him instead.
Port McNeill is the gateway to two small island destinations – Malcolm Island and Cormorant Island – reached via a small ferry. We went first to the former, only 25 minutes away.