Vancouver Island Vanlife

Hello friends and family!

Greetings from Vancouver Island, where we’ve been kicking around for a few weeks. We’ve been surprised by how much there is to see and do here; I think we were both picturing Prince Edward Island or Manitoulin Island (and no, we never consulted a map before we came here). Vancouver Island is actually massive! I’m of the mind that it should be its own province.

Unfortunately, misfortunes have marred a few of our recent adventures – but there’s always a silver lining. There has to be, because when you’re living in a tiny vehicle with your partner 24/7, bad moods can turn rancid really quickly. So we always have to try and see the good in a situation. For example, we took a turn too quickly and a big bottle of olive oil spilled out of a cabinet all over the wood floor. After a lot of cursing, we realized that rubbing the oil into the wood actually made our floors look like brand new. And then smoke from forest fires made the outdoors nearly untenable, with air quality that was literally off the charts bad. Fortunately, all the hiking where we were in the Pacific Rim National Park consists of 1 or 2 km loop trails that can be done even when breathing the air feels like smoking a pack of cigarettes. Not to mention that sitting on a wet beach hunting for crabs and shells requires almost no cardiovascular activity. Another misfortune was that the smoke and rainy weather blocked the sun from reaching our solar panels, leaving us in a dark age, unable to turn on any lights for fear of draining our battery to dangerous lows. I guess the silver lining here was that we got a lot of good sleep in, because when it gets dark at 8 pm and you’re stuck reading by flashlight, you fall asleep pretty quickly.

A smoky day in surf country

Since I last wrote, we took leave of the mainland and ferried over to Victoria. The demographics of the island really do live up to the stereotype: old, white, and originating in colder areas of Canada. Oh, and wealthy! Nowhere in Canada is the generational wealth gap illustrated as well as in Victoria, where retirees live in multi-million dollar beachfront mansions and there appears to be a yacht club along the shoreline every few hundred metres, while in city parks hundreds of tent and tarp-dwelling people have cropped up. 

Nonetheless, we should all be rushing to live in Victoria. While we were there it was sunny, moderately warm, and sea-scented. It’s green and lush and patio season is eight months long. To appeal to all the – I’m trying to say this politely – “mature” visitors, the region is full of attractions that are a bit outside of Eric and my interests, like coal-barons’ castles and elaborate gardens and high tea. (Wait, let me amend that with one exception: Eric did spend an hour jawing about old warplanes with the 90 year old volunteers at the BC Aviation Museum). Instead, we explored Chinatown and the quay and the hipper areas of the city, where people are experimenting in cool modes of living that seem rather foreign to Torontonians, with communal living, small-scale farming, DIY culture and laid back “island vibes” running rampant. We also did some nice hiking north of the city, scaling a small mountain and tiptoeing across an unused rail trestle that spans a canyon several hundred feet deep. I was in heaven. Imagine the seafood I could eat! Imagine the snow-free winters and the small-town vibe! Imagine the boring government job I could support myself with!

All my yearning stopped cold as soon as those wildfires in Washington, Oregon and California started wafting their smoke north, and I understood that the proximity to the US northwest was both a blessing and a curse. A choking, apocalyptic miasma descended on the Island as soon as we left Victoria. We spent over a week in smoke, throats burning, always thirsty. We got sick to death of it. You can’t deny the destruction of climate change when this is happening every year and is getting worse every year and is affecting larger and larger swathes of the continent every year. In a few decades, will there be long-term impacts on the health of those who breathe this smoke every year? Will there be any towns left after they are consumed, one-by-one, by the insatiable fire?

Spooky, smoky nights

From Victoria we travelled to Sooke, where we slept in the parking lot of a spit reaching like a long, crooked finger into the ocean. We did a hike along the coast, smoke be damned, and were lucky to see a whale surfacing and spraying out amidst the fishing boats. From there we looped through Port Renfrew, home of the biggest trees in Canada. This includes Big Lonely Doug, a massive Douglas fir that stands alone in a clear cut. We didn’t end up visiting due to the condition of the road, because we had just met a couple who had had their minivan’s entrails torn out by sharp rocks on the logging road. We did end up visiting the Avatar Grove, where Canada’s gnarliest tree stands. There’s a long and proud tradition of logging here, but the tension between industry and environment is evident. One town we visited, located below a mountain with scars of clearcuts, had signs on every property: clearcuts = flooding, save our homes, no more landslides.

Still battling smoke, we headed to the laid-back surf-country of Ucluelet and Tofino, stopping off to watch the salmon run in Port Alberni, where hundreds of huge cobo salmon massed cheek-to-cheek and threw themselves at a waterfall. A desperate hope that the coast would generate winds to blow the smoke away went unfulfilled. The grey of the oceans blended with the grey of the skies, and we could barely make out the black bobbing dots of surfers through the haze. We spent a bit of time in the twin towns, marvelling at the sheer number of tourists: every campground was booked solid, every coffee shop had a 40-minute line down the sidewalk, and every teensy pullout along the forest road we slept on was jammed with vans, cars, and motorhomes. Everywhere we go, the corollary to a density of vanlifers is a disgusting mess of toilet paper and trash in natural areas. I think if more municipalities had parking lots with washrooms and trash cans and picnic tables and permissive attitudes to short-term overnight stays, they may avoid much of the poo mounds and burnt garbage that ring many cities out here.

Leaving the west coast, we headed to Gold River to visit an old friend of mine, who works in the forestry industry over there. Gold River is becoming a ghost town as the forestry industry suffers; they only got cell service 6 months ago, the grocery store closed down years ago and there’s only one restaurant. Two liquor stores, though, which makes sense because the only things to do are play beer-league hockey and ride dirt bikes in the bush. The real gem is Strathcona Provincial Park, which lies between Gold River and Campbell River. We did a great hike yesterday, up a ridge overlooking the turquoise tailing ponds of an open-pit mine operation, and visited some waterfalls. There were no other people around. It was divine. I don’t know why the interior of the Island isn’t as popular as other big parks like Jasper or Banff; it has the mountains, lakes, waterfalls and old forests, and none of the visitors.

Strathcona Park

Now we’re just in Nanaimo watching football and aiming to find some deep-fried Nanaimo bars (for my American readers, you’ll have to google “Nanaimo bar”). The smoke has cleared, and we’re finally getting enough sun to charge our phones and turn the lights on. We aren’t sure where we’re going now, but perhaps the Okanagan valley? I don’t know! We may chance the border soon, and flee to warmer climes; the bite of morning and evenings grows ever colder.

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