‘Lucky to be here’
A trip to picturesque Vancouver Island offers visitors natural beauty, wildlife and history
The grizzly bear makes a splash as she plunges into the Orford River on the west coast of British Columbia, and quickly surfaces with a salmon in her mouth for one of her cubs, who then chomps it down. Another cub meanders playfully along a log. And then they all saunter along the river’s edge.
It may sound like the script of a National Geographic show, but it’s just another day in Bute Inlet.
“We’re guests in their area,” says William Hackett, the Indigenous guide who escorts my group of 12 people along the peninsula to see some of the bears as they bulk up on protein-rich salmon before hibernating for the winter. “We’re lucky to be here.”
Lucky indeed. And this is just the beginning of my trip to see where the first European set foot on the west coast of the country.
There are 52 different grizzlies in this area, where the Homalco band traditionally gathered berries and salmon in the 1800s. These days, about 18 Indigenous people live here part-time. Most of the Homalco band now live on their reserve in Vancouver Island’s third-largest city, Campbell River, which has a population of 35,000.
“We moved with the seasons,” Hackett says. And from midAugust to the end of September, it’s the busiest time of the year to see the grizzlies, who are just changing their diets from berries to fish, as the salmon start their annual migration upstream to spawn.
I’ve taken a two-hour boat ride with Campbell River Whale Watching, an adventure tour group, to see the bears in their natural habitat. And it’s something I won’t forget.
Not only do we see 19 bears, but we also stopped the boat en route to watch 45-foot humpback whales playing around Discovery Passage. Plus, we saw bald eagles flying above us, and the occasional sea lion.
Jack Springer, a former teacher and one of the three co-owners of Campbell River Whale Watching, says you can see more wildlife here now than 15 or 20 years ago.
Herring are attracting more Pacific white-sided dolphins and humpback whales. Roosevelt elk were introduced to the area. And an Orford River hatchery, run by the Homalco Band, has helped ensure there’s plenty of salmon for the bears.
Incidentally, the new provincial NDP government recently introduced a ban against trophyhunting grizzlies in the Great Bear Rainforest ( just north of the viewing areas), which will come into effect at the end of November. There hasn’t been any grizzly hunting on the Homalco reserve since the early 1990s, Springer says.
The knowledgeable guides clearly have an appreciation for the land and the animals. And nature seems to be rewarding them.
I started by visiting the former home of Roderick Haig-Brown, a pioneering conservationist who moved here in 1936 and died in 1976. The godson of Lord Baden Powell (the founder of the Boy Scouts), Haig-Brown was born in Sussex, just outside London, England. He was an avid fly fisher, a magistrate, and the author of 25 books. And he’s renowned in these parts for being an early environmentalist and a longtime salmon steward.
The home, now a bed-and-breakfast and heritage site, sits on two acres of land, next to the Campbell River, which has been known as the salmon capital of the world for more than a century.
It’s famous for the giant Chinook salmon (which can grow to more than five feet and weigh up to 110 pounds), but is also home to pink, chum, coho, steelhead and some sockeye.
I bundled up in two wetsuits to get up close and personal with thousands of salmon as they started their upstream migration back to the area to spawn, after travelling at sea for up to seven years.
“The flatter you lie, the better you fly,” Jamie Turko, the owner-operator of Campbell River’s Destiny River Adventures, told my group of four before we plunged into the 14 C river.
The river swiftly moved me along a four-kilometre stretch — occasionally swivelling me sideways and backward (and briefly through rapids) — to the mouth of the ocean.
There were a lot of fish though they just swam on by seemingly without a care in the world.
Despite their numbers, they evaded me later when I joined the famous Tyee Club to go fishing. Recreational fishing has been popular in the river since at least the late 1800s, when Europeans came to fish. (You can learn about the history of central and northern Vancouver Island at the excellent Museum at Campbell River.)
The Tyee Club began in 1924 and they fish in the Tyee Pool — where only rowboats and rods without bait are allowed. To become a club member, you need to singlehandedly catch a salmon there that weighs at least 30 pounds (13.6 kilograms).
After some instruction and a couple of hours on the water, I caught nothing but seaweed — but that’s not to say others weren’t more fortunate. There were a lot of “fish on” that evening and one person — Rob Nugent — became a new member of the club, which counts John Wayne, Bob Hope and the former king of Siam (now Thailand) among its rank.
From Campbell River, I drove west to Strathcona Park Lodge & Outdoor Education Centre, which is near the entrance to the biggest provincial park on the island. The 250 hectares of wilderness is made up of staggering mountains, lakes and old growth forest.
The lodge, which is run off the grid, was founded in 1959 by high school teachers Myrna and Jim Boulding (friends of Haig Brown).
Today, their son, Jamie Boulding, and his wife, Christine Clark, run it. Both used to row on Canada’s national team.
The lodge has attracted everyone from the men’s Olympic rowing team to the women’s rugby team, as well as numerous school programs and tourists.
This is definitely a place to unwind and get back to nature (there’s no TV and hardly any connectivity).
Hiking through the old growth forest, I passed Douglas fir and cedar trees, mossy paths and dried up river beds to see Lupin Falls. And paddling across a calm Buttle Lake in the afternoon, I passed only two other canoes.
The lodge makes it easy to get canoes, kayaks and even to go ziplining or rock climbing in the area. And whether you’re flying through the treetops or walking along the water’s edge, the landscape is pristine and stunning.
From there, I had a scenic drive to Gold River, on the island’s west coast, to board the MV Uchuck III. The former Second World War mine sweeper is now the westernmost coastal freighter in Canada.
Get West Adventures runs the ship as a working boat carrying cargo and people to logging camps, fish farms and settlements. The two-and-a-half hour boat ride down Muchalaht Inlet and into Nootka Sound to Friendly Cove passes beautiful islands, sea otters and eagles.
Arriving in Nootka, I find an island with a handful of buildings — a lighthouse, a house, a church and some shacks — and a population of four. (Two of them, elders Ray and Terry Williams, are the only Mowachaht people remaining there. Indigenous people have had a presence here for an estimated 4,000 years, but their numbers have dwindled since the late 1960s.)
Still, this is the outpost where Britain’s Capt. James Cook, the first known European to set foot on the Western coast of what is now Canada, landed in March 1778. Prior to that, Pope Alexander VI had declared the largely uncharted Pacific Northwest from Alaska to Mexico as part of New Spain in 1493.
In the 18th century, Indigenous peoples, Spanish, French, Russians and British were all in this area. Many of them were trading goods and looking for a route they thought would lead them to the Atlantic Ocean.
Elsewhere, the American, French and Industrial revolutions were underway and ushering in a new era. But according to records, it’s thought that the Spanish and British had friendly relations here at the time. And the Spanish relinquished the land here to Britain’s Capt. George Vancouver in 1795.
Friendly Cove has a hill with a vast ocean view, a stony beach and a fallen totem pole, once painted by Emily Carr. It’s natural, peaceful and still feels like a frontier of sorts — even in Canada’s sesquicentennial year.
The writer was a guest of Tourism Vancouver Island. The organization did not review this article.
At the end of summer, grizzlies begin gorging on salmon to prepare for winter.
Passengers onboard the MV Uchuck III scan the water and sky looking for whales, sea lions and bald eagles.
The late pioneering conservationist Roderick Haig-Brown lived in Campbell River, B.C.
There are great views from the lighthouse on Nootka Island, B.C.