Rethinking the Island Part II: Port Renfrew and other mysteries 

click to flip through (5) PHOTO BY LESLIE ANTHONY - THE WALL at Mystic Beach, Juan de Fuca Provincial Park.
  • Photo by Leslie Anthony
  • THE WALL at Mystic Beach, Juan de Fuca Provincial Park.

It's raining in the rainforest. Not unusual, perhaps, except that drought has plagued Southern Vancouver Island for months. Hard against the angry Pacific, the second-growth forest through which we track seems a veritable desert, with what little green exists here now throbbing like neon. Dry as it is, I still manage to wrestle up a western red-backed salamander for the group to ogle. It's hard to tell if Toni Chalk — owner/operator of Rain Forest Tours and guide on this hike to Mystic Beach — is impressed or merely feigning interest, having surely seen it all before.

Mystic lies in Juan de Fuca Provincial Park and marks one terminus of the eponymous marine trail linking beaches like China, Sombrio, and Botanical. A 45-minute boot through forest, over a suspension bridge, and down to the sea, Mystic features a white-sand beach, walkthrough rock arch, and waterfall. On the final descent we pass enormous Sitka spruce and red cedar, hints of the towering forest that once occupied this entire coast. The colourful tents of campers are backed by a dun bluff whose layers testify to this strand's Pleistocene history — light sandstones from when it was beach (low sea level; high glaciation); dark conglomerates from when it was underwater (regular sea level; low glaciation). Rain picks up on the way back, and though we pick up the pace we're soaked and shivering by the time we reach the car. It's stark contrast to the previous day spent in sunny Sooke to the south — a town I'd avoided since sitting through a salmon banquet in a community hall choked by the blue-smoke of chainsaws fired up by organizers' ill-conceived lumberjack entertainment. I'd been determined to give the place another chance during my tour of the Victoria area.

We'd begun our Sooke morning with "Seaweed Lady" Diane Bernard, whose family's generational ties to the algae span both Canadian coasts. Diane started Outer Coast Seaweeds in 2001 with an intention to change seaweed's image as an intertidal nuisance, at which she has succeeded spectacularly. Her low-tide tour educated us on the species, their nutritional benefits, and use in high-quality spa products. Then it was lunch at Mom's café; a blue-rinse favourite known for 1950s atmosphere, celebrated chowder and enormous pies. To shake off the comfort-food cobwebs, a few opted for zip-lining while the rest of us rented electric bikes from waterside Rush Adventures and hit the Galloping Goose Trail — a rail-bed conversion running from Victoria through Sooke to gold-rush-abandoned Leechtown. Testing the e-bike's worth on a 15-km round trip to Sooke Potholes, I was an immediate convert as we shot through shadowed forest and open hillsides lined with Gary Oak. The day's highlight was a much-anticipated dinner at Sooke Harbour House — a romantic boutique hotel with overlooks to the Strait of Juan de Fuca and Washington's Olympic Mountains. The award-winning, globally known restaurant held our thrall for its local seafood specialties, on-site garden produce, and daily menu changes. Some of the most sublime food I'd ever tasted came expertly paired with fabulous B.C. wines — including Vancouver Island vintages. Who knew?

But that was yesterday and today, well, it's still raining in Port Renfrew as we quickly down a boxed lunch snagged from the quirky Shirley Delicious (a must-stop for coffee and guaranteed entertainment from the energetic staff) before heading back out with Toni to visit Avatar Grove, one of Canada's natural forest wonders. To get the low-down, we join photographer, grove discoverer and Ancient Forest Alliance cofounder, TJ Watt, who leads us into the grove's upper and lower aspects from a gravel logging road. Here, Watt — a bona-fide big-tree guide — explains the boardwalks and steps built to secure the walk for visitors and protect trees' roots. Although easy to truck in lumber from a nearby mill, it's still serious work for volunteers to schlep boards and gravel up and down these steep mountainsides. But worth it, as here stand hundreds of ancient hemlock and cedar of 400 years and older, the stark difference in understory with the barren second-growth of our earlier hike apparent in surfaces bursting with moss, fungi, salal, and huckleberry. Whistler's old-growth patches are cool, but Avatar Grove is genuine wow.

Back in Renfrew, we discover Tofino's poorer cousin has upped its accommodation game, with styles from luxury cottage to eco-resort, vacation rental to yurt. Our choice, Wild Renfrew, comprises beautiful wooden chalets with gorgeous oceanfront views hugging Snuggery Cove pier, where a weekly ship once delivered goods to Port Renfrew until it was connected to Victoria by road in the 1950s. And bonus — at the pier's foot is the Renfrew Pub, a homey place with nautical charm, large, tasty meals and adventurous spirt(s) — particular if you're into the Island's burgeoning craft brew scene. Visitors swarm the door while locals, some of whom appear to have occupied the same stool for years, line the bar — it's Cheers with a west-coast vibe. And, dare I say it, a good place to park when it rains.

Next week: Rethinking the Island Part III: Cowichan is more than a sweater.

Leslie Anthony is a Whistler-based author, editor, biologist and bon vivant who has never met a mountain he didn't like.



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