A father-daughter trip in search of "soft adventures" on a budget on Vancouver Island.
As clouds like soggy dishrags dripped on our windshield, the curving highway sidled up to madly rushing Kennedy River in the middle of Vancouver Island, revealing a stark scene of breathtaking beauty. So we pulled over.
My daughter and I jumped from our car and, hardly saying a word, followed each other’s leaps from rock to rock until we were at the edge of a boulder the size of a Volkswagen. We gazed down into frigid, thrashing water that could swallow up a person without so much as a burp.
It was like she had an epiphany, my 17-year-old daughter, fresh from high-school graduation.
“Someday,” she announced to me, matter-of-factly, “when I’m filming a fantasy epic that needs a wild outdoor setting for a massive battle scene, this is where I’ll come.”
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It’s such moments that make traveling with your kid entertaining.
And, oh, there was something else. She and I have this thing we do, whenever something is breathtaking — we blow all the breath out of our body with a violent “whoooo” sound, which is, of course, what “breathtaking” means.
So we stood at the edge of this roaring river, both going “whoooo,” “whoooo,” until we finally cracked up in laughter and climbed back to the car.
Soft adventure, small budget
We’ve traveled a bit of the world, taking annual father-daughter trips, and this was our last hurrah before she goes off to college. We spent a week in B.C. leapfrogging between Vancouver Island hostels, from Victoria to Nanaimo to Tofino.
Our travel theme: soft adventure on a squishy budget.
In Victoria, our little adventure was renting bikes and cycling through Beacon Hill Park and along the coastal drive, with eye-bugging views of the Strait of Juan de Fuca and the Olympics.
But it was “soft adventure,” so we took a biking break for a walk through Abkhazi Garden, “the garden that love built.” The Zen-like acre on a rocky hillside with native Garry oaks is the legacy of an exiled Georgian prince and his lady love, separated during WWII in far-flung prison camps, but who married after the war and lived out their lives in Victoria. A cafe serves lunch and afternoon tea, with outdoor tables.
“You have to try the scones; our chef is Cordon Bleu-trained,” the gift-shop clerk confided, a tip we didn’t regret.
Thrills in the forest
In Nanaimo, we spent a day among loony thrill-seekers at WildPlay Element Park, which offers bungy jumping, zip lines and a “treetop course,” sort of a combined extreme-fitness test and torture experience for the acrophobic.
We considered bungy jumping — where you take a high dive with a thick rubber-band thingy strapped to your ankles — from a footbridge into a rocky gorge formed by the Nanaimo River. Considered it for about two seconds, then said “No way!”
But here’s a guilty secret: It’s fun to watch other people risk their spinal integrity, and it doesn’t cost a cent.
And we learned it’s actually more frightening to bungy jump than to parachute from an airplane. So said 60-year-old Jeff Townsend of Victoria, who up till then had only sky-dived. We chatted with him before and after he plummeted headfirst off the 150-foot high bridge and boinged up and down like a human yo-yo (five boings!).
“This was a little scarier, I don’t know why!” he said afterward. “But it was good!” (That was the adrenaline speaking. That, and perhaps the need to justify the $100 Canadian he just paid to jump off a bridge.)
We weren’t complete wusses. Along with a family from Santa Barbara, Calif., we did the zip line, which involved trussing ourselves up in a harness and hanging from a wheeled bar that zipped along a wire stretched across the river gorge.
There was still a definite thrill, though the motion was more soaring-like-a-hawk than the yo-yo insanity. And the view of tall firs all around and kayakers on the green river below was more soul-soothing than pants-wetting.
For adventure lovers, Tofino is about surfing or kayaking. We don’t choose to encase ourselves in black neoprene and thrash around in the surf looking seal-like to any passing shark, so we kayaked.
Clayoquot Sound, off Tofino, is one of the nicer places in the world to do it.
This western edge of Vancouver Island feels like the ragged edge of the continent not only because it’s a long drive on a winding road from anywhere, but because the sounds and inlets are so crowded with little islands and big rocks. (The Broken Group Islands in nearby Barkley Sound look like someone took a giant sledgehammer and smashed a bigger island into a bunch of little ones, perhaps explaining the name.)
That makes these waters a nightmare for big boats, but a dream for nook-and-cranny-loving kayakers.
My daughter and I joined a guided four-hour outing with seven other visitors. On a blue-sky day — a lucky find on this soggy coast — our yellow paddle blades flashed like butterfly wings as we headed across Clayoquot Sound for Meares Island, famed for its towering forest that nature-lovers and the local First Nations tribe saved from clear-cutters 25 years ago.
“This is one of the finest old-growth rain forests on the coast,” guide Andy Murray told us as we pulled our boats ashore at an eelgrass flat dotted with sea asparagus (I tasted some; it doesn’t need salting).
He led us on a delightful walk through a forest “that hasn’t seen a major disturbance since the last ice age,” as he put it. On a narrow path edged by 6-foot-high salal, we ducked around and tunneled under a maze of giant nurse logs as Murray gave an informative talk about biodiversity, with a chorus of songbirds as backup.
We ended at the foot of a cedar so ancient and huge that a hemlock a foot in diameter growing from a crack in the cedar’s trunk looked like just another tree branch. Murray told of how the local tribes, including those who still live in a 3,000-year-old village on the other side of the island, used every bit of the cedar — the trunk for canoes, the bark for twine and weaving, and so on.
In that setting, the ancient cedar was, well, breathtaking to regard.
I caught my daughter’s eye.
“Whoooo,” I said under my breath.
Brian J. Cantwell: 206-748-5724 or email@example.com