Travelling to “the end of the pavement.”

The “end of the pavement” is a wild 26-mile stretch of rainforest on the west coast of Vancouver Island,  anchored by Ucluelet on Barkley Sound on one end and Tofino on Clayoquot Sound on the other.  The main body of water is the open Pacific Ocean which  creates changeable, tempestuous weather.  In our four days there, we experienced sun, fog, drizzle, rain, heat and cold – sometimes all in one day.

Cautionary signs warn of unsupervised beaches, rogue waves, treacherous rip tides and dangerous swimming conditions.

It’s hard to imagine the danger when the waves roll in softly and the surface is like glass.

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Clouds add drama, and the ocean looks a little less enticing for a swim.

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Waves have kicked up a bit but these are still a pale shadow of what is to come a couple of months from now. From November to February tourists flock to the coast to watch huge gales blowing in from the Pacific. This stroke of marketing genius called “Storm Watch” has enticed full houses with reduced rates, gumboots and slickers and cozy fireplaces to return to after a chilly and drenching experience.

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The “end of the pavement” used to be “the end of the dirt road” – a twisty dirt and gravel  nail-biter of a logging road  that would take two-and-a-half to three hours to drive from Port Alberni through the mountains to the Pacific Ocean. The remoteness attracted early pioneers, misfits, hermits and hippies. Rough-and tumble camps were set up right on the beach and rumour has it a young Margaret Sinclair (Justin Trudeau’s mother, and pre-Pierre) might have been one of the early  beach campers. My own parents were among the intrepid tourists who braved that road, although they did not partake of the beach camp lifestyle.

By 1972, the road was paved and tourists began to arrive in numbers to visit the newly-opened Pacific Rim National Park Reserve. This shiny new road and the National Park helped to seal the fate of the beach camping and some of that local colour was lost.

The beaches and old-growth forest remain unchanged and that is still the main draw. We camped at Green Point Campground in the National Park and since we only booked in early June, we considered ourselves lucky to nab the last walk-in site. This campground is absolutely gorgeous, offering a delicious mix of large, private treed sites with the conveniences of plug-ins and hot showers.  Sites are booked early, or as one woman noted, “it’s worse than trying to get concert tickets.”

Our site was one of 20 walk-ins – cars are left in the parking lot and wheelbarrows are available to lug your stuff to your site, about a two-minute walk in the woods. It worked out just fine, but now we know for the next time to plan a little further in advance.
This was our site – our tent tucked in between two huge  stumps. We fell asleep listening to the ocean waves crashing on shore below us.

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This area is home to a large population of bears, cougars and wolves. Just a few days ago a pack of wolves killed a local resident’s dog – a good reminder that we’re not hanging out in a city park.

Rules in the campground are strict – they ask for a “bare” campground – tent, camp chairs and lantern are the only things to be left unattended. Those choosing to ignore the rules are kicked out, so you can imagine our chagrin when we returned to our campsite to find a note letting us know our plastic water jug was a no-no.

The Park staffer was very understanding when I apologized. She told us they pride themselves on not having lost a bear (to being necessarily put down after becoming habituated and dangerous) in 18 years. She hauled out the evidence of what might happen when you leave out attractants.

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Surfing is huge here and the beaches are long, so at least from our vantage point, there appeared to be room for everyone to take turns catching a wave, without the aggression that can mar some surfing areas.

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They start ’em young here – this little girl was learning the basics from her dad, while her mother recorded the event from shore.

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A group of surfers arriving, with a little boy doing what little boys do really well – running around with a stick.

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Hiking is another huge attraction, with numerous trails to choose from. Our favourite is the Wild Pacific Trail, near Ucluelet. It can be walked in chunks or as a whole – about 8 km. in total – and much of it runs right along the ocean.

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Every bend on the path brings another viewpoint that is slightly different.

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The lighthouse.

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A gnarly tree with unusual local fauna.

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The Rainforest walks are located between Tofino and Ucluelet – 1-km. boardwalk loops on either side of the highway that feature old-growth trees, nurse trees, bogs and moss-draped branches. This is forest bathing in the truest sense of the word – we came out feeling disoriented and over-oxygenated.

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The requisite tall-tree photo

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We loved this part of the path – constructed from a fallen log.

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Grice Bay was described to us as being a “hidden gem” – accessible by a scenic 10-minute drive from the highway to a sheltered tidal cove. It was a calm and peaceful switch from the spectacle of the Pacific, and we intended to have our picnic there but discovered piles of broken beer and liquor bottles littering the area, as well as an unpalatable smell. It may well be a local party hangout. The Park is so pristine and well-cared-for that this was unexpected and jarring.

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We spent a bit of time in both towns, primarily to pick up a few groceries, access wifi or treat ourselves to a dinner out.

Tofino is the better-known of the two towns and has more amenities in the way of shops, restaurants and adventure tourism. The setting is lovely and compact, but the strains of tourism are starting to show – this is a destination that feels at capacity.  We lived in Banff for two years and the crush of tourists clogging the streets, taking up every available parking spot and filling every restaurant seat grew very tiresome. I imagine Tofino locals must feel the same way after a while.

This woman, apparently unimpressed with the popularity of Tofino, has posted a warning sign to anyone who might consider blocking her driveway or trespassing on her property.

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You can’t argue with the setting; hopefully the town can keep a bit of a leash on development, and not spoil the very elements that make this area so appealing.

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Ucluelet seems to have a bit more of a local flavour – it has a good range of accommodations and tourist attractions, but is geared more to daily life.

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In both towns and along the beach strip, accommodations are pricey. The crown jewel of this area is The Wickaninnish Inn, described as possessing “rustic elegance on nature’s edge.” Their spa has been voted by Travel & Leisure readers as being “the #1 Spa Worldwide.” This strikes me as being incredible – surely there is a spa in Bali or the Maldives or Mustique that competes? Spa prices are available upon discreet inquiry, but rooms during Summer Season run from $560 to $1800.

We mustered as much attitude as we could, decked out as we were in our campground finery, and walked through the lobby to the beach below. Nicely appointed, but not intimidatingly beautiful.

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This is a particularly blessed part of British Columbia, and is our fourth trip out to the coast. Every time we come we always say the same thing, ” we should come here more often.”

This will be our last posting until the end of October. In the meantime, we will be housesitting, doing some family visits, and planning for our next big adventure.

We’ve bought a trailer, and are planning a seven-month trip through the Pacific Northwest and southwestern United States as well as two months in Baja.

Thanks for following us this summer and see you again in a couple of months.

 

Entering the Primordial Forest

Primordial: “existing at or from the beginning of time” (Oxford Dictionary).

Although our friends have assured us that this forest may have sprung up a little more recently, it is easy to imagine we are walking (unsteadily) in the footsteps of our prehistoric ancestors.

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We have just spent four glorious days with our friends Dave and Nancy at their hidden-in-the-woods cabin about a half-hour boat ride up the Sechelt Inlet.

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If you’re running from the law, you need go no further: no-one is going to bother you up here.  And the 20-odd families who have cabins here want to keep it that way. Not that  any of them have criminal intent. They are an eclectic, interesting group of people who share a love of pristine nature, but still enjoy happy hour with their neighbours. They borrow tools, swap stories and look out for one another. But the remoteness and the absolute quiet is the draw.

Dave and Nancy bought their place more than a decade ago and come here every chance they get.  They have invited us to visit a number of times, but until very recently (when they bought a boat), it was a long and difficult a journey to get here from Nanaimo ( car, ferry, car, ferry, car, water taxi). We are so happy we finally made it; now we know what they’re talking about.

This strip of cleared land along Sechelt Inlet is home to a small number of cabin-owners, a quarry and a fishing camp. Everything else belongs to the bears, the lynx, the owls, and the seals. High mountains covered with thick forest fold down to meet the water. A few hardy humans have carved out small spaces for themselves out of this wilderness – you have to be here to understand what “off-grid” means. Wifi and cell service does not exist.

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Until just a few weeks ago, Dave and Nancy depended upon a generator, propane and batteries for power. And then, with a little help from family and friends, voila…

…solar panels that generate the equivalent of 30 amp. service.  This allows Dave and Nancy to bake a cake, read by electric lights, and enjoy a hot shower.  Lanterns, flashlights and candles are still in use, for atmosphere and old time’s sake, and the only source of heat is a wood stove. That picturesque building in front is a room with a view – a pretty loo, minus the Eaton catalogue. (there is also a regular bathroom with flush toilet in the cabin.) Just to the left of the solar panels (out of sight in this photo) is a roomy bathhouse with plenty of hot water.

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To step back for just a moment, we met Nancy and Dave many years ago at Vancouver Island University in Nanaimo, where we worked together.

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This summer we were finally able to coordinate a visit. They timed their errand day in Sechelt with our arrival and we headed up the inlet on their boat for a scenic 30-minute ride.

The inlet view has been hampered by smoke, as has much of B.C. this summer. Normally those mountains are sharply defined and brilliant in colour.

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It is a breathtaking passage, with cool, clear water that goes several hundred feet deep and layer upon layer of mountain ranges.

We pulled in and dropped anchor here. There are no docks – locals bring their boats as close as possible to shore, then drop their supplies on the rocks, drive the boat back out to drop anchor and row back to shore on a small rowboat. This is not the easy way to “get away from it all”, but so worth the effort.

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Supplies are then brought up from the water’s edge on a dirt road to the cabin by ATV and trailer. Everything that comes in has to go out ( garbage, recyclables, laundry). This is no country for the disorganized.

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Dave and Nancy put their tasks on hold while we were there, but there is much to do to amuse yourself – hiking, swimming, paddling. Stephen went in for a heroic 8:00 a.m. swim every morning, and was the first one out to the raft each afternoon. Swimming is bracing but as the old saying goes – “once you’re in…” Cool, clean enough to drink (almost), clean enough to see bottom, and so alive. Nothing like an ocean immersion.

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We went out on our second day to check the prawn trap and we were in luck – thirteen prawns! Four hours later, we enjoyed a succulent appetizer – about the freshest spot prawns we have ever eaten.

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The forest is so rich and overgrown and magical that a simple walk becomes a whimsical adventure. One of the cabin-owner’s daughters, Emily, spent her childhood summers here, and with the help of her mother, Lynn created an Enchanted Forest. Painted rocks lie at the base of many trees along the path.

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Signs point the  way to “The Point”.

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We met Emily’s parents at an early evening get-together.  Emily’s mum Lynn, on the left, and another cabin-owner, Suzanne, on the right.

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Now would be the time to tell you our “small-world” story. When we were travelling through South East Asia two winters ago, we met a lovely couple, Doug and Suzanne, in Laos.  Stephen and I were sitting in the lobby trying to capture the spotty wifi, when Suzanne burst into the room and exclaimed,”You speak English!” Apparently, it had been a while since they had met other English-speaking tourists, and this was the ice-breaker.
They are also travelling extensively, without a real home base (although Vancouver is where they touch down, and their cabin is home for a couple of months a year).

During the course of “getting-to-know-you” stories, we discovered that we were all friends with Nancy and Dave. We knew sooner or later we would see them again and luckily for us, this year they were up for the month of August.

Interestingly, they are planning a similar trip as we are this winter (Baja and the southwestern U.S.), so we will undoubtedly cross paths again soon.

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Among the many endeavours Nancy and Dave have taken on over the years, they were one of the first to run a kayaking business out of Thunder Bay on Lake Superior. They are accomplished paddlers in white water and excellent teachers for the novices as well.

Nancy and I went out one morning on a tandem kayak, and since I had only paddled three or four times before, Nancy went over the basics with me, (dip the paddle on the right, push with the left), snapped a photo and we were off.

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One perfect outing on glassy water, and I am hooked! What a joyful experience it is to glide along on quiet water and feel a part of the surroundings.

We headed out to the island and then paddled around it for our return trip.

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Just beyond the island is Skookumchuck Rapids, known among the locals as “Skook”. It is an incredible force of nature that attracts extreme surfers, as twice daily when the tide changes and the water flow reverses, it creates a massive system of waves and whirlpools with water level differences up to nine feet in height. We didn’t venture to Skook on this trip, but I’ve added this link  to give you an idea of what some people’s sons do for fun.

Locals travel the Skook to get to the town of Egmont on the other side of the inlet, but only during the slack between tides.

We stuck close to the island and pulled in to see the sea life clinging to rocks – starfish, sea urchins, anemones, crabs, sea lettuce, kelp beds.

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We cleared the top of the island and as we were making our way back, we startled a family of seals, who made a noisy dive into the water and surfaced again several metres away from us. We slowly crept along, hoping a seal would pop his shiny head up beside the kayak, but they stayed far away.

A couple of minutes later, the same thing happened – a family of seals leapt off the rocks into the water, but with far different intent. They had a pup with them and two or three of the adults kept a very close eye on us. When we lingered to watch them, they circled in and actually escorted us out of their area. No argument from us – we paddled away and they followed for quite a distance.

We pulled in closer to shore to watch a huge flock of sea birds, and as we approached, they also took off.

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Some final images of this little piece of heaven.

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Forest bathing.

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Sun setting over Doug and Suzanne’s deck.

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Sun setting over Dave and Nancy’s lower deck.

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A wonderful way to begin to wrap up summer – seeing old friends, re-acquainting with new friends and discovering yet another magnificent part of this province.

Camping: the good, the bad and the ugly

Camping can be a crapshoot. Our ideal experience involves shady treed sites, quiet neighbours, a campfire and perhaps a babbling brook. Our less-than-ideal involves all-night parties, little or no privacy, and a cast of characters that we would never otherwise meet (and that’s good thing.)

We’re happy to say that 90% of our camping experiences meet the former description – the latter is a reminder than camping is just another version of real life.

In the past seven days, we have travelled from Fernie to Manning Park, with Christina Lake as our first stop.

We’ve wanted to check out this lake for a long time –  friends have raved about the great swimming and mountain-wrapped views.

There was a hint of smoke in the air from the many forest fires that have burned all summer in the U.S. and Canada. This was the clearest day we had and the water was cool and refreshing.

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We booked into a private campground on the south end of the lake, just a block from a small beach and right around the corner from a burger/hot dog/soft-serve ice-cream stand that looks as though it’s been in business for decades.

Christina Lake has that kind of atmosphere – a summer favourite that hasn’t been gussied up yet – the tiniest bit tacky and filled with people who have been coming here for years. It’s homey and family-oriented. The kids get to play without too much adult supervision.

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The very next day, the smoke was back:

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Our campsite was fine, but for two days we were entertained by the shenanigans of the campers two sites over. The owner had already warned us about them – they had been turfed out of another campground and were “on notice.”

The main perpetrator (she of the tight clothing and bleached hair) swanned about in a shirt that boasted, “KINKY AS F–K” (we tended to believe her).  Her hapless male partner did little but smoke and sulk and at one point walked right through our campsite with a pillow and blanket, enroute to a vacant site, saying “She’s making too much noise.”  They had two young girls (quiet) and three small dogs (yappy) who barked and barked until the woman yelled out “SHUT-UP”, which would quieten them for exactly 30 seconds until the next go-round. On Day 3, they abruptly left and the rest of our stay was perfectly peaceful.

Christina Lake is not far from Grand Forks – a town that suffered terrible damage this spring from flooding. We drove in one day for something to do and discovered a surprisingly pretty town; parts of which are still recovering and likely will for years. These posters were on many storefronts that are closed and under renovation.

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We had an excellent lunch at a place called The Board Room; packed with customers since so many restaurants have yet to open. Fantastic sandwiches, great coffee, watermelon-scented ice water – a welcome change from camp food. The mood among the locals seemed to be quite upbeat – Grand Forks is a small community where everyone rallies to help out.

We also went to the Saturday market, but since it was threatening thunderstorms, there were not many people there. We did stop to talk to a couple who transplanted from Vancouver last year, bought a farm in Grand Forks and are valiantly making a go of it. It’s been a good move for them – they love the area and are obviously doing something right.

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On the way back to our campground, we saw a bunch of cars lined up on the highway, which usually means one thing: wildlife viewing. Lucky us –  a small herd of big-horned sheep.

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As we got closer, we realized there was a territorial spat going on – two males facing off, presumably for the rights to the females, who kept their backs turned to the posturing.
We watched for a long while but aside from a couple of fake charges, nothing much was happening.

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Leaving Christina Lake, we had another weird experience. Stephen was driving and out of nowhere, a car zoomed up behind him and aggressively tailgated. At the first opportunity, the driver sped past us,  honked his horn, and flipped us the bird; his face ugly and contorted.  We were gobsmacked by this unprovoked display of road rage and hugely gratified to see him pulled over a few kilometres down the road.

We drove on for four hours through tremendously smoky conditions, but by the time we arrived in Manning Park, the air quality was much better.

I’ve given you the bad and the ugly sides of camping – Manning Park was nothing but good. This was our campsite:

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We walked about 10 yards from our site to the creek. We fell asleep at night to the sounds of rushing water and rustling trees and woke up to really cool temps – about nine degrees. This is mountain camping – even in August.

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We met an interesting couple from Moncton in the site next to us – they were on their honeymoon, riding across Canada on His and Hers Kawasakis.  We wondered if they kept in formation as they rode.

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She is a PhD student who had been in Bali to study the phenomenon of the high rate of  deafness in the small community of Bengkala. Due to a geographically-centric recessive gene, 40-50 people in a population of 3,000 have been deaf since birth. The amazing thing about it is that rather than treat these folks as “other”, everyone in the village learns to sign so that everyone can communicate. This is a story for our troubled times.

Manning Park is huge – over 83,000 hectares and the main attraction is the vast number of hiking trails that range from a half-hour stroll to a six-day backcountry hike. The wildlife is another big deal – during our three and a half days here, we saw a number of animals up close.

Mum was very watchful as we approached and as we continued to slowly walk toward them, they made their elegant way into the forest. Just like that…they were gone.

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We came across a couple of bucks, who seemed far less worried about us and bounded up the slope in their own good time.

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In many areas of the park, especially around Lightning Lake, we saw an impressive system of tunnels, and every once in a while, up would pop a Columbian ground squirrel. They have no fear of people at all – as soon as this little guy saw me taking his photo, he started scampering toward me.  I’m not proud to admit it,  but I screamed and ran. I had an unpleasant image of those sharp little nails climbing up my leg.

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Hiking in Manning Park this time of year is glorious – no bugs, comfortable temperatures and over 20 trails to choose from. Since neither of us were inclined to choose from trails that were 16 km. (one way), we chose a couple of 9 km. hikes – just enough grade and distance to give us a bit of a workout.

On our first hike out, the park ranger alerted us to a mother bear and cubs that had been sighted the day before – alas, no such luck for us. Still, the scenery more than made up for it.

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We thought we might see bears on this open area – maybe Stephen’s “Hey bear” calls and my shrill whistling scared them off.

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This hike promised three waterfalls, but we saw just two. After months of hot, dry weather, neither of them were terribly exciting. It’s funny how people will walk miles if they think they might see a waterfall, and almost invariably they are a trickle, not a roar.

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Another hike we took was a 9-km. loop around Lightning Lake – the central lake in Manning Park that is a magnet for canoes, kayaks and swimmers.

We followed this path to the end of the lake and onto the other side, to pick up the trail.

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The water was like a millpond that day; we almost had the trail to ourselves.

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A bridge at the halfway point.

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Another small bridge in the woods.

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We loved Manning Park – there is so much to do there and the campgrounds (there are four) feel like the wilderness. It was the perfect way to end our camping adventures for now. We would highly recommend this park to anyone, but be sure to camp. Manning Park Lodge (the only accommodation in the park) has seen better days.

We stopped in Hope on our way to Vancouver and I would like to leave you with this photo. I don’t know why, but the sight of dogs sitting in the driver’s seat always makes me laugh.

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We will be out of cell service and wifi range for a bit – see you again in about a week.

 

“God is great, beer is good, people are crazy”

The first time we heard these catchy lyrics was at the Legion in Fort St. John. Chicken dinner, $4 beer, 50/50 tickets and a meat draw. All this and karaoke, and in this neck of the woods music is solidly in the country camp.  People are Crazy by Billy Currington was the highlight of the night – sung with raspy emotion by a rangy, plaid-clad gentleman. It pretty much sums up the way of the road up here – God-fearing, beer-drinking characters who thrive in this slightly wild northern town.

We’re on Week One of our camping trip in northern B.C. and Alberta, with our first stop in Fort St. John to visit our son Dan, who has been living and working here for the past seven years. Here we are, happily re-united.

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Before I tell you more about Fort St. John, I want to share a few photos of our drive up from Horseshoe Bay, near Vancouver. We camped for three nights along the way, and enjoyed watching how the landscape changed the further north we went.

Our first night we camped in Nairns Falls, just south of Pemberton. We’re in bear country now and the hand-written “Bear in Area” signs are a responsible warning and a reminder to be aware of our surroundings. We hiked along for three kilometres on a beautiful groomed path high above the river without seeing anything bigger than a dog on a leash.

I promise I will keep selfie shots to a minimum, especially since we don’t seem to have the knack of shooting without reflection .

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The next day we drove through the magnificent Duffey Lakes Road, a twisty, scenic route much beloved by motorcyclists. It requires full attention to navigate the hairpin turns, and after a couple of hours, we welcomed the chance to stop by this lake for a breather.

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Another viewpoint as we headed north.

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This year, everything is green and lush – the season so far has been cool-ish and punctuated with plenty of rainy days. This time last year, wildfires were wreaking havoc in much of B.C. and the damage is still evident.

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Finally, about an hour outside of Fort St. John, we are in the heart of the Peace River Valley.

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The setting around Fort St. John is stunning – the Peace River cuts through thick forest, high hills and fields of canola against a backdrop of the ever-changing big northern sky.

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Just a short drive out of town and the vistas open up. The light is different, the air is cleaner, the sky is bigger – there is a defining look.

This could just as easily be northern Minnesota or Manitoba. A northern lake, built a little more for fishing than swimming.

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Fields of canola – one of our favourite Fort St. John scenes.

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Fort St. John is not as pretty – a utilitarian northern working town set on a grid (100th St. bisects 100th Ave.), with basic shopping and streets of modest homes whose driveways are filled with big boy toys. This is a typical neighbourhood in oil and gas country.

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What Fort St. John lacks in style, it makes up for in heart. Billed as “The Energetic City“, this is a very young town, populated with young families. Huge modern recreational facilities – hockey arena, curling rink, swimming pool and library provide residents with a reason to stay beyond the oil patch paycheques.

Those paycheques attract a somewhat transient crowd, but the city is also well-defined by those born and bred here. Trendy coffee shops, artisan pizza and vintage clothing stores are finding a healthy market among the Mark’s Work Wearhouse and Quiznos customers.

And now, on to the elephant in the room, the highly controversial Site C dam project. When we first began driving up here seven years ago to visit Dan, the project was on hold, and “NO SITE C” signs were everywhere. It seemed inconceivable that a great swath of the Peace River Valley would be flooded out, after the expropriation of generations-old farmlands in some of the richest agricultural land in the province.

In 2017, construction began, and in spite of huge protests and much governmental to-ing and fro-ing, the project is indeed a go. It is due to be completed in 2024, for untold billions of dollars and untold environmental damage.

While much of the site is strictly off-limits, there is a viewpoint for the public to watch the progress.  This is part of what it looks like after a year. The dam will be built roughly in this spot, with the reservoir behind it.

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While ultimately the dam will generate the least amount of greenhouse gas emissions than any other form of energy (with coal being the worst and solar being the second best), the controversy lies with the construction.

Our son Dan works on the Site C project.  He pointed out the dozens and dozens of diesel-emitting trucks that are on the site, and what their cumulative effect on the environment might be by the time this project is completed. The expropriation of prime farmland is another factor that is impossible to gloss over.

In the north, where oil and gas extraction (and its attendant environmental concerns) are a mainstay of the economy, attitudes are different than they are in the south. People here are not cavalier or uneducated; they are pragmatic. That same attitude prevails for Site C and the final economic, environmental and personal outcome will take years to be realized.

Back to our visit with Dan. We live so far from each other and only have a chance to visit two or three times a year, so we pack a lot in.  We are in a beautiful campground just outside of town, and we’ve spent a lot of time here in the evenings, going for hikes, tossing a frisbee, and sitting around a campfire.  Amazingly, the bugs have not been too bad – we’re hoping that is a trend.

On a hike near Dan’s home.

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And… a little mishap. Being on the road is no different than being at home, as far as mishaps go. You can break a tooth ( I did that several years ago in Halifax), or you can break a car window.  We had our truck parked outside Dan’s place, and as we were leaving to go out, the old gent who mows the lawn for Dan’s landlady was in the backyard, and wondered if we were the owners of the red truck. Well, yes, we were. He thought perhaps his mower had caught a rock and flung it up on our truck. He had noticed “a bit of glass”.

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Shock and disbelief turned to action (where to find a glass place on Saturday at 4:00 pm?), turned to our new reality. The land of Dodge Rams and F350s does not carry glass for our dainty Nissan, so our new window is being shipped from Edmonton and our departure has been delayed by two days. The bill for a new window is less than our deductible, but not more than we can afford, and so it goes. What to do but be philosophical about it?

Our next stop is Fort Nelson for one night and Liard Hot Springs for three nights. So far the only wildlife we have seen is a fox, and we are hoping that route further north will live up to its reputation as being the Serengeti of the North.

Wifi in campgrounds will be non-existent, and possibly spotty elsewhere, so we hope to see you all again in about a week.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Gabriola: So you want to move to a Gulf Island?

The first time we drove off the ferry from Nanaimo to Gabriola, we had just driven across the country from Halifax to B.C.  It was 2005, and after decades of living in cities, we were ready to try rural life “lite.” We felt like we had landed in paradise – albeit a paradise lodged firmly in 1973. Gumboots, tie-dye and 20-year-old cars – where had we found ourselves?

We bought this house in part for the view across the street to the ocean – it was incredibly romantic to see the ferries going by every couple of hours. It took a while before we stopped yelling out, “there’s one!“, as though we had just sighted a rare bird.

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In the early days, we still thought fondly of the ferry. Stephen taught at Vancouver Island University in Nanaimo, and he liked to say he took two ocean crossings a day to get to work. Our ferry terminal:

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…and the lineup:

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During the winter there are at least six crossings that are overloads, so to be assured of a place, you pack a book and arrive 45 minutes ahead of schedule. In the summer, when the tourists arrive and home building crews are in full force, almost every ferry is an overload. If you use the ferry frequently, this situation can make you cranky, resigned, philosophical, or ultimately, it can be a tipping point.

There has been much discussion about a bridge over the years; at times it has been extremely divisive. While bumper stickers with the message “Real Islands Don’t Have Bridges” would be news to those living in Manhattan or Montreal, fears that a bridge would harm the quality of life on Gabriola are considerable.  As well, B.C. Ferries have jacked rates to an almost unsustainable level, and bumper stickers that read ” Waterways Are Our Highways” have fallen on deaf ears. We regarded our ferry costs as a trade-off for having lower property taxes than other municipalities until that was no longer the case.

Still, watching two ferries pass by in the harbour (one the Gabriola Ferry and the other the Vancouver ferry) remains a stirring sight.

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We moved from Gabriola to travel extensively, without being tied to the responsibility of a property and to consider where our next home might be when we land again in a few years. We left behind a community of dear and wonderful friends, as well as a cast of characters that I could tell you all about, but then…I might not be allowed back.

Gabriola is home to the internationally-renowned centre for transformative learning, The Haven, where participants come to take courses, listen to noted speakers and stay for a few days. Gabriola is a safe place for those who need to heal – there are a number of folks who find refuge here, and for some, it has provided a transition and comfort.

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For those whose lives are more manageable, Gabriola is simply a community that welcomes everyone. It takes very little time to join in, make friends and find your niche and that is a big attraction. Whether you are rich or poor, single or a family, there is less of a class or status divide here than in other centres; everyone blends in. The day I found myself shopping at the Village, wearing a filthy gardening shirt and no makeup was the day I knew I had made the switch. I’ve hitchhiked many times on Gabriola, which for a woman in her 60s would be both hazardous and vaguely ridiculous elsewhere, but this is a help-your-neighbour kind of place. Sure, we’ve had break-ins, drunk and disorderlies, domestics, and even a murder, but mainly people here don’t lock their doors. If you get sick, have a fire, lose your cellphone or can’t find your cat, we’re all here to help.

There are so many things I want to tell you about Gabriola that there won’t be room for  photos and backstories about our friends. They have all found their way to Gabriola by interesting and varied means, with wildly different backgrounds and professions. Our friends are artists, graphic designers, writers, musicians, singers, professional chefs, educators, doctors, a former London police superintendent, a figure skater, sculptor, hairdresser, radio producer, radio personality, house builders, publishers, director of a tap dance school, journalists, Emmy-winning writer, retired Anglican minister, jewellery makers, gym owner, actors, potters, sailers and scientists.  I know I’m forgetting someone – there is such a wealth of talent and ability here.

After a nine-month absence, we’re back for a month to housesit and look after a shy, beautiful grey cat and these two little characters – (names withheld to protect their privacy). They have provided us with hours of entertainment and laughter and it will be very hard to hand them back to their owners.

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This time has been both wonderful and bittersweet. By moving away, we have removed ourselves from daily life on Gabriola and all the small routines and hobbies and activities that go with that. Our friends are still our friends, but incredibly, they have carried on without us. In a few days we will take the ferry over to Nanaimo for the last time and not be back here again until next spring.

From that perspective, I offer you my view of Gabriola through the eyes of a visitor. Pick a beautiful day, take an early ferry and drive over. This is some of what you will see.

The main shopping area on Gabriola is comprised of a number of businesses (grocery store, clothing store, gift shop, restaurant, liquor store, library, pharmacy, real estate office), housed in the original Folklife Pavilion from Vancouver’s Expo 86.

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Newer additions to the retail scene on the island were added over the past few years, to include a gym, hardware store, restaurant, coffee shop, outdoor store, architectural office, gift and specialty food store, health food store, jewellery store and tourism office.

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Gabriola is well-served with this state of the art medical clinic that was built entirely through island fundraising. It includes a helicopter pad and has provided much-needed emergency triage for residents as well as office space for additional doctors.

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The new firehall, just down the road from the medical clinic, is another point of pride among the locals. Gabriola has a robust and dedicated volunteer force.

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Gabriola is not that big – about the size of Manhattan. A main road runs around the periphery of the island, with several smaller roads leading to neighbourhoods. The year-round population is around 5000 souls; it grows by several thousand in the summer.

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Gabriola is known as “The Isle of the Arts”, with at least 200 artists of all stripes living here. The annual 3-day Thanksgiving Studio Tour attracts visitors from all over, as artists open their homes and studios to display their wares. It is a stellar event and just one of the many artistic festivals held here each year. The Theatre Festival, the Isle of the Arts Festival, Brickyard Beast, the Salmon Barbecue, Spirit Feast and countless musical performances, plays and movie nights are a staple of island entertainment. The Saturday market (May to October) has grown into a one-stop shop for island produce and crafts, as well as being a guaranteed gossip corner.

Gossip! Gabriola breeds independent thinkers and professional scolds and almost any issue can stir up a level of controversy normally reserved for seriously life-altering events. There is really no subject so innocuous that it can’t provoke dissent within a crowd of three.  So when a local artist suggested that it might be an idea to brighten up the landscape a bit by painting a few poles leading up from the ferry into the village, all hell broke loose.  “Tampering with nature!”  The project was eventually stopped in its tracks, but not before a handful of poles were transformed, including this pencil and notepad, at the NorthRd./South Road intersection.

Yes, nothing says “nature” more strongly than a telephone pole.

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As you drive around the island, keep an eye out for cyclists, who will often be coming around a blind corner. You may also encounter someone on horseback.

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Or if you are hiking on one of the island’s many excellent trails, you could find yourself here. You’re not really “nowhere”, of course, but you do need to pay attention, as people have been known to take a wrong turn and end up on the other side of the island. If that happens to you – stick out your thumb and get a ride back to your car.

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There are too many deer on Gabriola. They have no natural predators and multiply like rabbits. Sometimes they meet an untimely end by losing a fight with a car and once a year a discreet cull takes place. We still want to protect the babies and signs like this one are common all over the island.

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The stunning natural environment is the reason most of us live or visit here. If you are  lucky, you will see whales. Yesterday, a number of us watched this big humpback having a grand time feeding – he was in the area for over an hour.

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We watched a fishing boat go by, and then another, and suddenly we clued in – a massive school of fish (salmon?) are currently in the area. That is Entrance Island in the background – an active lighthouse, complete with a colony of extremely noisy sea lions.

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The humpback obliged with enough fin and tail shots to keep us all happy.

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These folks had tripods set up and in addition to capturing the whale, they were snagging great shots of a sea lion swimming with a fish in his mouth and trying to fend off the aggressive attacks from three seagulls intent on stealing his catch. A bald eagle flew overhead at the same time and our Discovery Channel moment was complete.

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When we lived here, one of our favourite things to do was to cycle or walk from our house down to this area, called Orlebar Point. We would sit on this bench, watch for whales or dolphins, solve the problems of the world and head back home. Best therapy in the world.

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Equally beneficial and head-clearing were our swims at Clark Bay. There are many great places to swim on Gabriola, but we stuck with this one, as it is a sheltered cove that about five or six weeks of the year is not freezing.  I was always the water chicken in our group – the barometer for acceptable water temperature (“Ginny’s in, it must be warm.”)

We had an amazing experience a few years ago – we swam with a pod of orcas. There was a raft out toward the point, and as we were swimming toward it, we became aware of a commotion – a school of about 10 orcas were passing by, just past the point. A family on a sailboat were lucky enough to be right there, as the orcas surrounded their boat. We were lucky enough to be right in the same water as the whales, just metres away from them. It is an experience I will never forget. 

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A popular beach on the island is Twin Beaches  – one side facing toward Nanaimo; sandy and shallow for young families. The other side faced out to the ocean – perfect for longer swims and kayaks.

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The water around Gabriola is busy with marine traffic – ferries, tugboats, Seaspan container ships,cruise ships, kayaks, canoes, sailboats, motorboats, fishing boats, and this – a log boom being carefully guided to the sawmill in Nanaimo.

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There are a number of restaurants on the island, including the two waterfront restaurants that have helped to define Gabriola’s dining-out scene for years.  If you lived in the south end, you went to Silva Bay (although you won’t for a while – they just had a serious fire), and if you lived in the north end, you went to the Surf Lodge and Pub. The big draw for the Surf was the view – set back from the ocean, it was the place to have a burger and beer and watch the sunset.

The Surf Lodge has a long and storied history – at one time it was a full-service resort (complete with pool and waterskiing), and it has changed hands a number of times since then. Mainly, it works well – we have attended weddings, birthday parties, funerals, plays and musical events in the lodge and enjoyed many a night gabbing with friends at the pub.

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There is a challenging and scenic  9-hole golf course on Gabriola, with a dedicated group of golfers who have been keeping it alive for years. Sadly, as that group shrinks, there are fewer and fewer young people to take up the sport and its future remains uncertain.

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A story about Gabriola would not be complete without a mention of Mudge Island, which is situated between Gabriola and Vancouver Island.  About halfway down the island, there is a parking lot for Mudge Island residents and visitors. There are about 60 full-time residents whose only way on or off their island is to row their boats across the Narrows and its sprightly current to Gabriola. Everything is carried on and off the island by boat (including their garbage), which requires Mudge-kins to be highly organized and dedicated to this lifestyle.

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This is a long posting and I could make it even longer – there is so much to say about island life.  Gabriola has a big piece of our hearts. It is complex, maddening, limited, limitless, rich in scope; at times claustrophobic and at times absolutely elevating. We may follow in the footsteps of people who move away and then return, or we may find our next home in a place we don’t even yet know exists.

Until next time,  I’ll leave you with a final, iconic and much-photographed image – Entrance Island framed by an arbutus tree.

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We’re on our way to Nanaimo for a two-month housesit – I’ll pop back again in a while to tell you about that area. After that – off to India for a few months.

On the road again…

After a wonderful, whirlwind month visiting friends and family on Gabriola, Vancouver Island and Vancouver, our final destination was Kamloops to visit more family. This is a shot taken of the Kamloops valley; our last memory of  “home” before we hit the highway to drive east.

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Our original plan was to drive coast to coast to celebrate Canada’s 150th birthday. We wanted to visit as many National Parks as possible, since entrance fees are free this year (with a pass) in honour of that event and we have time on our side.

We drove across the country from Halifax twelve years ago, but that involved reluctantly leaving our youngest son behind, driving 8-10 hours a day for 5 days to meet the movers on the west coast (who were then two weeks late), anxiety over the unknowns of one new job (Stephen), and having to find a job (Ginny). We were moving to a small island of 4000 people after a lifetime of living in cities. Plus we were travelling with our cat, who remained annoyed the entire time. Our stress levels were through the roof and we remember very little of the landscape that blurred by our car window.

This time we have no pets, our sons are self-sufficient adults and we have allotted three-and-a-half months to see as much of the country as possible.

Our first reality check: we are about one month too early to visit the mountain parks.  Many of the upper trails are still snow-covered and the parking lots are closed to cars. It is quite cold at night for tent camping. There is SO much to see – we could easily devote three months just travelling through British Columbia and Alberta. We decided we will save those provinces for next summer and concentrate on all points east.

The road trip…  our three favourite words.   It is so exciting and energizing to watch the landscape unfold and the weather patterns shift. We left the rolling ranch country and desert landscape of Kamloops and soon were heading towards mountain peaks.

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Everything changes in the mountains. The air is clean and sweet, signs for wildlife start to appear and the creeks and rivers look cold and slightly unforgiving.

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We stopped at Craigellachie to see the site of The Last Spike – the joining of the east and west railway line, commemorated in this overwrought plaque:

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Just as we arrived, The Rocky Mountaineer pulled through, symbolically uniting east and west. We soon joined the hordes of photo-snapping German tourists, which felt like a good luck charm. If there are Germans we must be on holiday!

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Mountain roads are twisty, beautifully engineered and fun to drive. It’s never boring – every turn in the road brings a fresh adventure.
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We drove past a sign that said, “Road Closure from 2 pm to 5 pm” and thought it meant “single lane” or “slow going”. Imagine our surprise when we came to a complete halt at 3:00 pm and stayed put for another 2 hours. We were just 27 km. from our destination, Revelstoke. But, early in the trip and still in “go-with-the-flow” mode, we amused ourselves by going for walks, talking to other drivers and reading our books.  Soon enough, the work trucks started to file past us in the opposite direction and our wait was over.

We stayed in Revelstoke for two nights because we have fond memories of this town and wanted to revisit some of the trails we had hiked before.  In 2010, our son Alex Burr was one of 32 students chosen by the Parks Canada-sponsored “Canada’s Greatest Summer Job”, and spent that summer interviewing and taking videos in Revelstoke and Glacier National Park to celebrate the Park Canada’s 125th anniversary. We visited him for a few days in July, which meant the roads were clear to drive right up to the Meadows in the Sky Parkway (closed to us this time). We hiked and biked in town and drove out to other hiking spots, so this time around, we chose two areas we felt might be available. In fact, neither of them were officially open, (they open tomorrow), but we parked our car and with the tacit (you didn’t hear it from me) approval from one of the workers, we ventured in to the Skunk Cabbage Boardwalk Trail. I’m not sure if these jazzy red Adirondack (Muskoka?) chairs are part of this years celebrations, but they look shiny and new.

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The Skunk Cabbage Boardwalk Trail is delightful this time of year as the flowers are just coming out, so we were able to walk without being treated to their distinctive odiferous scent. The flowers attract bears and while there was evidence of recent visits we had no encounters. This area is also home to a huge number of migrating birds and we were serenaded all the way through.

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On to the Giant Cedars Boardwalk Trail, just a couple of kilometres down the road. We didn’t see any giant trees like we have seen in Cathedral Grove or the California Redwoods, but they were impressively large nonetheless, and we indulged in a half hour of “forest-bathing.”

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After lunch at the fabulous Modern Cafe back in Revelstoke, we drove to Begbie Falls for a 6-km. round-trip hike. The bridge over the Columbia River enroute to Begbie.

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This area is a hot spot for mountain biking as well as hiking and there were a number of challenging bike trails with ominous signs,” Extremely difficult. Use at your own risk.”

We were happy to plod along on the road, our (my) only concern the cougar or grizzly that might be lying in wait.

We walked out of the forest into a clearing to be treated to a view of the ski hills that are slowly shedding their snow cover.

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The path to the falls is steep but well-maintained and the view was worth the scramble down. The falls are much bigger than they look in this photo.

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The town of Revelstoke is just on the brink. It will never become Banff and the locals are anxious to keep it that way. They want to balance progress and economic prosperity with sustainable growth and retention of character. The older homes and civic buildings are beautifully maintained and the shops and cafes downtown have character and quality. We were here just before the season begins; these streets will soon be packed.

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As we travel across the country, we will camp, stay with friends and family and try to find affordable hotels/hostels that are not party-central. When we read about The Cube Hotel in Revelstoke we  thought we would give it a try. If only all hostels were like this one.

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This old warehouse was bought by owner Louis-Marc Simard and his partner and completed gutted.  Spotlessly clean and decorated with original art, the lobby and communal areas are inviting, comfortable and fully equipped. A full, delicious hot breakfast is included. Our room – comfy bed, sink and toilet in the room, immaculate showers down the hall, waffle-weave dressing gowns, flat-screen TV and decent reading lights. All this for $68 a night.

We could easily stay another day or two in Revelstoke. As I write this, I am listening to a train wind its way through town, the sound of the wheels on the tracks echoing through the valley. If I had to choose between living by the ocean or right in the mountains, it would be difficult.

We’re heading for Drumheller and the badlands tomorrow – we’ll be there for a few days of hiking and hoodoos. And camping – an activity I thought I had left behind.

My friend Nicola sent me this graffiti she snapped on a hike in Mexico. She thought we might relate.

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