Vancouver Island's Juan de Fuca Marine Trail shows visitors the wet and wild side of this British Columbia neighbor.
VANCOUVER ISLAND — “Huh?” The word slipped out of my mouth as the heavy backpack slipped off my shoulder. Both made a thud.
“The sailing was canceled due to weather. We tried to call you.”
Staring blankly at the Victoria Clipper attendant, I began frantically scanning my options, and realized I wouldn’t be getting off Vancouver Island that night.
I was returning from a hike on the Juan de Fuca Marine Trail, so the setback meant more than just rebooking a harbor hotel. Although Victoria, B.C.’s, tourism marketing trends heavily toward the Anglophile experience, south Vancouver Island is about so much more than afternoon tea rituals at the Fairmont Empress Hotel or wistful strolls through Butchart Gardens.
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It’s about moss-covered rocks. It’s about Sitka spruce standing sentinel on the edge of the Earth. It’s about sipping beverages out of canteen, thermos or flask by the fire. It’s about wool socks and gum boots, shipwrecks and logging trucks. It’s about rain.
It’s almost always about rain.
Get about an hour west of Victoria and the island starts to really turn wild. Two-lane Highway 14 twists its way along the hidden coves and cobblestone beaches of the Strait of Juan de Fuca all the way to the small town of Port Renfrew — call it “Renny,” if you want to blend in.
Unlike the mirroring Washington side of the strait, where private land ownership is the norm and beach hikers can stumble into a minor turf war with landowners around every headland from Port Townsend to Neah Bay, the Canadian side is full of wild provincial parks and public access.
In fact, Port Renfrew is the southern terminus for the popular West Coast Trail, a remote hiking route that runs 47 miles along the craggy coast to Bamfield, B.C. Originally used as a lifesaving route for shipwreck survivors in the early 1900s along the reef-filled stretch of water, the trail has become one of Canada’s most popular backpacking destinations, with a competitive reservation system and permit fees of more than $150.
Often overlooked in favor of the West Coast Trail, the Juan de Fuca Marine Trail is a far less expensive and equally beautiful option. There’s no reservation system or large fees but still plenty of whales, sketchy boulder fields and sweet solitude. The trail starts at the China Beach trailhead just west of the small logging town of Jordan River.
Rather than a full-fledged backpacking trip, our intrepid group of eight Canadians and one American (me) opted for a quick hike-in to Sombrio Beach — a beautiful beach set among a cathedral-like forest with waterfalls pouring out of cliffs into the ocean. Pitching our tents on the forest floor, we spent several days hiking around headlands, exploring the nearby reefs and tide pools and trying to stay warm in the cold temperatures and consistent rain.
Big roots and skunk cabbage
Walking down the trail at Sombrio feels like entering the setting of a dark fairy tale. Giant elevated root systems provide cavernous hiding spots among the ferns. A small suspension bridge crosses Sombrio Creek. Skunk cabbage provides a brilliant yellow relief from the green and gray color study.
But there’s also a gnawing sadness behind the beauty. Here and there, you stumble across unlikely domestic ruins among the forest — a small concrete foundation or some remains of a brick chimney.
In the late 1990s, the provincial government integrated the area into the greater Juan de Fuca Provincial Park. Only one problem: A community of people had lived off-the-grid at Sombrio for decades. Hippies. Families. Surfers. People who chose to exist outside conventional society. With nothing but squatters’ rights to fall back on, the families were forced quietly from the land and the eclectic collection of shacks and cabins were flattened, one by one.
Our first night on the beach, we ran into Mike Callaway — known locally as Rivermouth Mike — one of the individuals forced to leave. He now lives in Port Renfrew, but still spends a lot of time at the beach. With lively eyes, he told us about some of the more notable trees and asked us to help keep the area clean. (Rivermouth Mike is interviewed at length in “Sombrio,” a documentary film by Manly Media about the evictions.)
As the sun broke through the clouds on what I thought was my last day on the island, it wasn’t hard to see what had drawn the Sombrio dwellers to such a remote spot. On our way back, when we began passing the strip malls of Victoria’s outlying suburbs, it grew even clearer.
After my Canadian friends dropped me at the Victoria Clipper terminal and sped off for their own ferry to Vancouver, I eagerly anticipated a warm shower and soft bed back in Seattle. Instead, I found myself inwardly seething as the attendant offered me the $75-per-night stranded passenger rate at their partner hotel and told me to try my luck tomorrow.
Cringing at the thought of my wet camping gear, I managed to keep a proper stiff upper lip as I declined the offer, rented the cheapest car possible and headed straight past the warm Victoria pubs for one more stormy night on the Strait of Juan de Fuca.
John Kinmonth is a Seattle-based freelance writer.