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Vancouver Island in November and December? That’s going to be pretty wet, they said. It will rain a lot, they said. Well, they weren’t wrong. It started off with a bang our first night, too. After a long, white-knuckled drive from the Okanagan Valley where we struggled through not one, but two, whiteout blizzards, we disembarked from the ferry in Nanaimo to “extreme wind warnings”. A few hours later we were happily ensconced in our Courtenay AirBnB (our latest 1-month home) gazing out at the snow flying and the trees bending. Then, suddenly, there was this loud crash that sounded a lot like thunder. But that couldn’t be right, obviously. I mean, it was snowing. Those two things just don’t go together. Like beer and ice cream, or Laynni and sock drawers. But it happened. And kept happening. Yes, she was quite a storm. The final aftermath the next day included a 6-hour power outage, roads littered with shattered branches and puddles everywhere (they do get snow around here but it doesn’t last long). And, just when I started to wonder if this was a normal occurrence in these parts, I got it on good authority (i.e. a couple guys I was golfing with) that it was just as shocking for them. Whew.
Since that inauspicious start, things have been much more predictable. Mostly cloudy, some light rain every second day or so and every week at least one heavier rain and one day with a bit of sun. Manageable, and never too cold (usually around freezing at night, maybe 5-10 during the day). Well, there you have it, the north Vancouver Island weather report. Glad I could save you a much quicker Google search. Our place is really nice little AirBnB just outside Courtenay on the way to Royston, only a couple blocks from the famous (locally) Royston Seaside Trail, a nice option to have nearby. Very helpful hosts (they mailed us the Chromecast we left behindk and refused any money for it) and a perfect place to base yourself for exploring the area.
As for activities:
C’mon, don’t pretend you’re surprised. We’re nothing if not predictable. At least when it comes to hiking everywhere we go and fighting while we pack. While this area isn’t particularly well-known for its amazing hiking, we found a lot of really great trails. It has been fascinating spending time in 3 such different areas. Canmore had the big climbs and spectacular mountain scenery, the Okanagan was all about smaller climbs through dry pines with nice lake views, and now Vancouver Island offers endless waterfalls and damp, moody walks through old-growth rainforest, and eerie shore walks through the stumps of long dead trees on Comox Lake. Thick, bushy canopies blocking out the sun (on those rare occasions when it isn’t completely cloudy), huge, ancient Douglas firs extending high above and messy tangles of undergrowth coated in a furry carpet of moss. Atmospheric, to say the least. The trails are generally pretty muddy but also mostly flat. You don’t get a lot of expansive views but there is almost always a waterfall or two waiting at the end.
We’ve done our best to check out the best trails in the area and will soon put together an entire list with details and photos but there were a few that stood out enough for special mention:
Cliff Trail on Hornby Island
It took two separate (although very short) vehicle ferries to reach this little gem of an island with a massive, square hill sticking up dead centre. The hike climbed up to the ridge and then followed right along the edge all the way around to the connecting Outer Ridge Trail, giving us amazing views of Denman Island and the mainland, with its surprisingly long Strathcona mountain range just inland culminating in snow-covered Mount Washington. Plus, we did this hike on one of our few truly sunny days. We also did a short hike on Denman that ended with views of an island with a lighthouse on it and mountains in the background.
Allen Lake in Cumberland Forest
Just a 10-minute drive from where we were staying, next to the cool, cutesie little town of Cumberland (separate post on this to come as well), you find Cumberland Forest, a terrific maze of dozens of hiking/mountain biking trails up and down small hills and surprisingly varied terrain. There are practically infinite options for combining short trails into longer hikes and we were quite pleased with our second one, a loose combination of the Black Hole to the Crafty Butcher to the Double Pumper, back to the Crafty Butcher, then the Teapot, That Dam Trail and, finally, back down on Orange Peels. We had already done Mama Bear and the Buggered Pig on a previous hike. Ok, fine, I admit, I have totally been swayed by the names into giving these hikes more credit than they deserve. But, c’mon, the Buggered Pig? They had me at “buggered”. Nonetheless, it was our “other” sunny day, and the views over serene Allen Lake were amazing. The downside was the sign on the trail warning us to watch out for “tiny toads crossing”. That got us all worked up, then we didn’t see a single one, big or tiny. Disappointing.
Lake Helen Mackenzie and Battleship Lake at Mount Washington
Although we tried to plan this hike next to Mount Washington ski hill for another sunny day it ended up a far cry from that. Even though it was relatively clear down at sea level (actually, mostly cloudy with small patches of blue sky that appeared mysteriously and without warning like grease stains my sweatshirt – “Vancouver Island clear”), as we climbed up to Mount Washington at around 1,000 metres the wet puddles changed to snow drifts and the clouds became almost a thick mist. The entire trail meandered through areas of several feet of snow but the trail was groomed and packed for (and by) snowshoers and cross-country skiers so our crampons actually worked quite well. Partially frozen Lake Helen Mackenzie yielded some great reflections and at Battleship Lake some birds ate seeds out of Laynni’s hand. Seeds which we found on the ground, leading to the question, why weren’t they eating them when we got there?
Ripple Rock at Campbell River
Up north of Campbell River, this scenic hike had more hills than most in the area. Not one big hill, like around Kelowna or Canmore, just a whole lot of little hills that eventually add up. It was a pretty muddy hike but the views were amazing (we timed it for what turned out to be our last sunny day in the area). The trail eventually led up to a high viewpoint (high for a coastal hike, i.e. about 90m above sea level) that looked out over the entire area. Another calm little bay along the trail was both a pleasant place to hang out and also featured a frolicking seal. At least we think he was frolicking, it was either that or he was drowning. Wouldn’t that suck, to be born a seal that sucks at swimming? He was probably frolicking.
I ended up golfing more than expected, and on some pretty impressive courses. Storey Creek, up near Campbell River, was the best. A beautiful Les Furber course carved out of the trees with no houses, just a lot of blind doglegs and tricky creeks. Luckily I was joined up with several members who were happy to guide me through (another one of whom was originally from Saskatoon, as usual).
Morningstar, in Parksville, was also very nice, and I had a really enjoyable round with 3 local brothers. Even shot a decent round. Wet, though, far too wet for my allegedly waterproof shoes.
The third and final course I played was Glacier Greens in Comox right next to the airport, a semi-private Air Force course that allows civilians like me to play in the off-season (despite the wide range of different aircraft constantly coming and going nearby). Another very wet course, highlighted by my first playing partner’s rubber boots (which he claims were literally the first things he bought after moving here from Edmonton). A voluntarily childless married retiree who travels extensively for long parts of each year, has a weird sense of humour and a somewhat off-putting manner. Golfing in rubber boots. It was like gazing uncomfortably into my future.
I then played Glacier Greens a second time with Lyle (Laynni’s dad) when they came up from Victoria for a quick visit before starting their long road journey back home. We reluctantly started in the rain but were happy to have the rain stop by #3, leaving us to enjoy the course with no one in front or behind, and only those dastardly creeks to cause us problems. The creeks and, of course, basically every tree on the left side of the course for Lyle. We then saw a pair of bald eagles in a tree on 15. Kind of neat, although their surprisingly awful, screechy cries made them seem a lot less dignified than they appear on those official documents and dollar bills and such.
Elk and Deer Falls, near Campbell River, were very impressive (and even topped our list of 9 best Vancouver Island waterfalls). Especially the part where you can walk right out to the edge on slippery wet rocks if you like. It may not be wise to allow it, but I appreciate that they trust us to do the right thing.
Along with the Cliff Trail, Hornby Island was a fascinating, weird little place full of eccentric log houses, signs for art galleries in the middle of nowhere and even a wrong turn that led to a dead-end with what appeared to be a small community of hippie squatters. At least there was a grown man wearing a tiger onesie so, you know, we made an assumption. Then we got the hell out of there.
We drove down to Ladysmith one day to meet up with Laynni’s parents, choosing it as roughly the midpoint between us, and because it was supposedly a cute little place. Sure enough, fairly cute, plus there was a place selling meat pies. Even more interesting was nearby Christie Falls, which involved a hilly hike but had the payoff of multiple large waterfalls and an ideal “stand just about under the waterfall, but not quite, for a cool photo”-spot. Nice.
When they were in Courtenay, Nadine and Laynni went to a local spa for an afternoon of pools and, you know, spa stuff, followed by a tour of the extravagant display of Christmas lights in the garden. Some say “festive”, some say “gaudy”, everyone agrees on “bright”.
Even though this isn’t really the time for socializing, we did manage to briefly and responsibly catch up with Ken and Bonnie Hunter. After we rather randomly chose Courtenay without realizing that it was the very city they had moved to a few years back, well, it just seemed like too much of a coincidence to be ignored. Plus, while travelling we so rarely get the chance the bond with other people over Mike’s surliness, and almost never find anyone interested in Liam’s budding teen moustache, so it was a win all around.
I was hoping to get in a day or two of skiing up at Mount Washington but missed my window. The hill opened the weekend before we left but I waited a few days and, unfortunately, the new snow didn’t stick around that long and they were soon down to one chairlift and 3 runs, which didn’t seem worth it. I guess that little experiment (it’s been about 25 years) will have to wait until the new year. I suppose that will give me time to make sure all my health insurance is in order.
I did manage to get in one morning of mountain biking (right at the end) on the amazing trail network in Cumberland, mixing in Spanker, Bronco’s Perseverance (oh, really bumpy and exhausting, now I get it), Mama Bear and the Crafty Butcher again (a much different proposition at speed). As always, the rocky, rooty climbs nearly killed me, and my rear brake suddenly became inconveniently hit-or-miss on my way down one of the trickiest hills (ominously called 2 Flat Tires), but I lived to tell the tale (and eventually stopped). Anyway, got muddy, got tired, probably should have got around to doing it earlier and more often. Next time.
We had to get a bit of work done on our CRV (Already! After just 18 years!), with some odds and ends needing to be dealt with, but only one of which I would classify as even mildly interesting. That would be the three dead mice they found curled up under our air filter. “Each in a different state of decay”, they added in a suspicious tone, as if to suggest that maybe there was something more sinister behind the whole thing, like maybe I was secretly prowling around at night in a black outfit murdering mice and carefully hiding them in the air filter to cover my tracks. One at a time, of course, so as not to arouse suspicion among the general mouse populace. “No comment”, I said.
Courtenay is a nice, mild place with pleasant walking trails along the ocean, loads of cannabis shops and more tree service entrepreneurs than you can shake a dangerously compromised branch at.
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