Bear essentials on Vancouver Island

by will_condliffe

Dolphins, killer whales, sea lions, orcas and grizzly bears... you'll bump into more than friendly humans on an exhilarating road trip across the epic natural beauty of Vancouver Island

Standing face to face with a bear is a thrill is like no other.

OK, so there may have been a river between us. But diving back into my car and speeding off  certainly appealled. After all, what if he was fed up with the taste of salmon and fancied a nice, juicy piece of man steak instead?

Glimpsing a big animal in the wild is an electrifying bit of luck. It hits you like a bolt of lighting. So, a quivering wreck but glued to the spot, I stared, mesmerised by his presence. And how could I leave without proof of my encounter?

I frantically fumbled with my camera, wasting half of the film, before finally capturing evidence of my sighting. And I was just in the nick of time. Moments later, he lumbered gracefully back into the darkness of the forest.

Thankfully this was not my only privileged brush with wildlife on Vancouver Island in British Columbia. Just halfway into the 40-mile ferry crossing from Horseshoe Bay on the Canadian mainland, all rushed to starboard as one hawk-eyed youngster yelped, “Whale!” He was not crying wolf. A huge monochrome tail arched up from the deep, fanned the surrounding water with one giant swish and disappeared once more. It was brief, but breathtaking.

Once on land, bald eagles soared above, filling the skies with their enormous wingspans. Racoons raided bird tables, whisking away nuts in their swag bags. And humming birds provided delightful entertainment - whizzing back and forth, offering a unique display of aerobatic excellence. I also spotted snakes and sea lions but luckily only heard tales about the prowling of the cougars.

But then it’s not surprising so many creatures reside here. Van Isle is a place of epic natural beauty.

A helter-skelter road took me on a journey through the island’s mountainous interior. On my right a river twisted along – mellow for moments, mad for the most part. To my left a dense forest of ancient Douglas fir trees stood to attention, their tops tickling the clouds. Water and wilderness set to a backdrop of snow-capped peaks.

This was no minor back road. This was the main highway, and other than the odd logging truck I had it virtually to myself.

Mother Nature looked magnificent. And with my windows rolled down, she talked the talk too. The wind squealed  through the trees. A cascade of water made a constant crash. Things, went bump in the forest

I was all alone, deep inside this big beautiful island. But the solitude was seductive.

Some time later, I emerged from the last tunnel of evergreens and followed the white noise of the surf to Long Beach – an exhilarating eight-mile stretch of rough and rugged Pacific coastline. Huge waves roared in, decorating the white, sandy shore with giant bits of driftwood, as a handful of surfers battled bravely against the surging ocean.

And nestled among this breathtaking wilderness is the picture-perfect town of Tofino.

I took a stroll through its fun and funky streets, diving in and out of numerous quaint and quirky boutiques, craft shops, art galleries and adventure stores. It’s a colourful spot, full of character, not to mention characters; most notably its resident artists, environmental activists, old-time loggers, fishermen and surf bums.

Indeed an interesting afternoon can be spent rubbing shoulders with this eclectic mix at one of the many bustling coffee shops.

They all have warmth, a story to tell and a laid-back approach to life that is reflected in the peaceful ambience of the place.

But they do not lack passion when it comes to talking about the island.

“You have to see that…. and you must go there…and have you done that?” rattled one retired fisherman, barely pausing for breath and perhaps rehearsing his interview technique for a job on the Vancouver Island tourist board.

He is not alone. Everyone speaks with an obvious enthusiasm about their home, so proud are they of what it has to offer.

And justifiably so, because it offers so much.

If you are not lucky enough to spot them yourself, then there are bear and whale-watching trips. You can cycle on mossy boardwalk trails, kayak with killer whales, relax in hot springs, hike through rain forests, surf, sail or fish for salmon.

Speaking of salmon, the taste was one that I could not get enough of. A taste fully deserving of its title of, ‘Vancouver Island’s signature dish.’ No wonder my grizzly friend had no interest in devouring me.

Indeed most menus use fresh ingredients and locally found products, from Tofino on the north-west coast to Victoria at the island’s southern-most tip. And the capital was where I was to head next.

It took me a while to get there, mind. No sooner was I back behind the wheel I was reflexively hitting the brakes. This time it was a black bear cub, playfully bounding around at the side of the road.

I’d miss these thrilling meetings with wild creatures.