On Highway 19 heading north to Cape Scott Provincial Park, at Vancouver Island’s northern tip, it’s astounding to see the jagged peaks of the Vancouver Island Mountain Ranges. The mountains are a sub-range of the Insular Mountains that extend to the Haida Gwaii and their dominating presence makes this drive north feel like nowhere else on the Island.
The spike-topped cedars lining the road look like dark giant toothpicks – in silhouette, they appear to have survived a forest fire. But it was the devastating winds of Hurricane Freda in 1962 that took out huge tracts of old-growth forest in the area. Much of what is seen now along the highway is second growth.
Fortunately for adventure-seekers, Vancouver Island North remains one of the world’s best examples of pristine temperate rainforest. Canada’s biggest coniferous trees – Sitka spruce, yellow cedar, hemlock, pine and Douglas fir – have thrived for centuries and are now ancient old-growth behemoths. Wildlife is just as abundant, with forests and intertidal zones rife with black bears, wolves, cougars, bald eagles, sea otters and Canada’s largest population of Roosevelt elk, with males weighing up to 450 kg (1,000 lbs).
Adventure from undersea to mountaintop
Just outside Port Hardy – home to 3,800 of the region’s entire population of 12,000 – it’s clear that the boundaries between wilderness and civilization are blurred. In the warmer months, there are so many black bears feasting on sweet grass along the highway that locals call the road “bear alley.” Most visitors have come here for the outdoor adventure experiences – and boy, do they have their pick.
When the late Jacques Cousteau named the waters of BC and Vancouver Island among the best temperate water diving destinations in the world – scuba divers took note. Hunt Rock, Five Fathom Rock and the 230-foot sheer descent of the Browning Wall are known as extraordinary cold-water dive sites. Shore divers favour the sheltered waters of God’s Pocket Marine Provincial Park.
The white sand beaches at Raft Cove Provincial Park are rapidly gaining fame as a top Vancouver Island surf spot. While the facilities at Raft Cove are minimal, in Port Hardy, surfers can book lessons, rent boards and arrange surf excursions. And Port Hardy is only one of the adventure gateway communities of the North. Port McNeill, Port Alice, Telegraph Cove and Winter Harbour all earn bragging rights as departure points for saltwater fishing charters, guided multi-day kayak trips, whale-watching excursions, grizzly bear viewing expeditions and exploratory hikes to the wild caves and sink holes of the famous Quatsino Formation limestone deposits.
But with the recent completion of the new North Coast Trail, a 43.1 km addition to the Cape Scott Trail, hikers are flocking to the Port Hardy area to add another challenge to their life’s list of outdoor experiences. Shuttles take hikers to and from Port Hardy to various Cape Scott trailheads from May through September.
Hardy hikers head for northern trails and beaches
Dave Trebett, owner of North Island Daytrippers and a member of the North Coast Trail Society, is one of six who took part in the inaugural hike of the North Coast Trail extension. It took them five days. “We’ve met people who’ve done it in three,” he says, but he doesn’t recommend it. “Take five or six days and really get to see and enjoy everything.” It’s a challenging hike of 14.2 km along the Cape Scott Trail to Nissan Bight, then another one kilometer along the beach to connect to the head of the North Coast Trail.
Trebett notes there are camping facilities along the way, including raised tent platforms, pit toilets and clear creek drinking water. Hikers can also choose to extend their journey with a seven-km hike from sandy Nels Bight to the picturesque Cape Scott Lightstation, at the far northwestern tip of the Island.
As for wildlife, expect to see deer, elk, Canada geese, black bears and otters. Trebett advises that although hikers may not see shy cougars or wolves, they’re probably watching. “I always hike with a walking stick,” he adds.
There are more than 30 km of nearly uninhabited sand beaches in Cape Scott Provincial Park. At Hansen Lagoon, a few scant remnants remain of a deserted village where a group of homesteading Danes built cottages and dairy farms in the 1890s. They departed in the 1930s after WW1; since then, the moist climate of the rainforest has eroded the old homes. Hikers can still see interpretive signs, though, that tell their history.
San Josef Bay is one of Cape Scott’s most phenomenal beaches and Trebett leads regular day hikes to popular “San Jo,” picking up guests from their hotels and B&Bs in Port Hardy and Port McNeill. The trip includes optional stops at Ronning’s Garden outside Holberg and at the Scarlett Ibis pub for a whistle-whetter after the day’s hike. At San Josef Bay, visitors can explore mysterious sea caves 12 m (40 ft) deep and marvel at the spiraling, tree-topped sea stacks that Trebett says are “probably the most photographed rocks on the Island.”
Trebett also takes visitors to popular beaches on the west coast, like Grant Bay and Brooks Peninsula. He sees potential for the north as an all-season destination. His next gamut is to begin offering winter storm-watching hikes to rugged, wild and wind-swept Hecht Beach.
There’s more winter potential, too, in a side-trip to Mount Cain ski resort, west of the village of Woss. It’s only open on weekends, so is known for its weekday snow accumulations of deep powder that many call Vancouver Island’s best. Add to that no line-ups, 18 trails and a local staff of friendly, pretention-free volunteers and Mount Cain is just another reason to get adventurous and head north on Vancouver Island.