Controversy surrounds Comox’s serene Mack Laing Nature Park

This is the beautiful view from Mack Laing's final home, Shakesides

This is the beautiful view from Mack Laing’s final home, Shakesides

I have come away from Comox’s serene Mack Laing Nature Park conflicted, to say the least.

We recently enjoyed a visit to this tranquil refuge stretching along Comox Bay, where early Spring sunshine filtered through tender green leaves and blooming lilac, splashed against the huge abandoned vegetable garden, infused Laing’s two former homes with a soft light. It is those beautiful old structures that have left me arguing with myself about what their future should entail.

The ghost of Mack Laing lingers in Shakesides, his final home and one of the two he built that is slated for demolition

The ghost of Mack Laing lingers in Shakesides, his final home and one of the two he built that is slated for demolition

Hamilton Mack Laing was an internationally-renowned artist, naturalist and ornithologist who purchased several acres along Comox Bay in 1922.  He developed a thriving nut farm and lived a simple life, collecting specimens for museums and harvesting much of his food from the woods and waters that surrounded him. He wrote copious numbers of feature articles for nature publications, developed relationships with other artists and naturalists, and has been described as the forgotten Roderick Haig-Brown (also unknown to most for his conservation work and writings).

Laing eventually sold off some of his holdings, which he originally purchased for $150 an acre, and ended up with several acres of sweeping waterfront featuring wind-blown sea grass, tidal flats and saltwater marsh. In the 1970s, well before his death in 1982 at age 99, Mack Laing donated the property and the last of the two homes he had built there to the town of Comox.  Apparently he had hopes that at least one of the houses would be used as a natural history museum.  To ensure that his wishes would be honoured he bequeathed $55,000 to the township upon his death in 1982, with the stipulation that it be invested in order to fulfill his wishes for the property.

Baybrook, Laing's first home, sold off after his wife died of cancer. The memories of their happy years together there were apparently too much for him to bear.

Baybrook, Laing’s first home, sold off after his wife died of cancer. The memories of their happy years together there were apparently too much for him to bear. Built in 1923 from a house kit, it is also slated for demolition

The house was not maintained, and early this year the Comox council voted in favour of tearing down both houses, which have been vacant for years. There has been much controversy over the decision, and much bitterness amongst Comox residents as to what should happen and what the house should be used for, if at all.  Which….is why I am conflicted.

These days when you visit Mack Laing Nature Park there is nothing but the soft sigh of the wind, calls of bald eagles and pileated woodpeckers. The ghost of Mack Laing lingers in Shakesides, his final home – he lived independently until his dying day and although access to the home is blocked you can still see remnants of his life through the windows. The huge lilac continues to thrive, part of his woodpile remains out back. There is/was a massive vegetable garden, still protected by high deer fence but growing little but horsetails these days. Look around and you see the signs of a life that was well, but simply, lived.

This memorial cairn was erected in the park by friends of Laing after his death in 1982.

This memorial cairn was erected in the park by friends of Laing after his death in 1982.

The park also features meandering trails and all manner of flora and fauna, enhanced by large picture boards. A productive salmon stream bisects the property. There is a commemorative cairn in honour of Laing.  A wander to the waterfront offers vistas of mountains, glacier, the town of Comox and Comox Bay.  There are a couple of benches and a short boardwalk, maybe a couple of other visitors but essentially, the place is much like it must have been when Laing first saw it almost a century ago. Quiet, peaceful, with nothing but the sounds of the natural world to enhance a soul-reviving experience.  Sit in the sunshine on one of those benches and you come away a changed person.

 Information boards about the flora and fauna of the site make this a true nature park - an excellent but unobtrusive addition

Information boards about the flora and fauna of the site make this a true nature park – an excellent but unobtrusive addition

So, my question is this: although it appears that Mack Laing’s wishes will not be fulfilled, would he be so upset about it?  While we abhor the destruction of anything that has an historical footnote and we certainly don’t advocate flying in the face of final wishes, I find myself wondering how distressed he would be.  The property is safe from development and will, house or no house, be preserved as a calm natural oasis for humans and wildlife. Perhaps that is going to have to be enough; at the very least, it is something.

Further information on Mack Laing, his activities and the current controversy can be found at the excellent website of the Mack Laing Heritage Society of the Comox Valley at:

http://macklaingsociety.ca/about-mack-laing/

 To access the Mack Laing Nature Park, go to the far end of Comox Road, park your vehicle on the street and enter along the path adjacent to the park sign.

GPS co-ordinates are:

Lat. 49.671781  Long. -124.912534

N 49 40.307  W 124 48.443

Posted in COURTENAY/COMOX VALLEY, DOG-FRIENDLY, KID FRIENDLY, SPECIAL PLACES | Tagged , , , , , , , , , | 10 Comments

Port Alberni’s SteamPunk Café brings new energy to a town in revival mode

SP ExteriorIn a town that is transitioning from an industrial heritage to an outdoors and retirement mecca, Kevin Wright and his SteamPunk  Café and Coffee House have hit a home run.

Located exactly in the centre of Port Alberni’s old uptown business district, the café is attracting a varied and interesting clientele that speaks to the diversity of its residents.  The fact that the place offers not just home-made goods but also caters to current dietary trends (gluten-free, vegan) doesn’t hurt either.

Not your average café interior.....

Not your average café interior…..

The SteamPunk was designed to become what Kevin terms the ‘social nexus’ of the uptown area, and judging from our recent experiences there that seems to be exactly what is happening.  The unique décor has an industrial flavour to it – it wouldn’t be difficult to believe you were walking into some sort of factory or mill, thanks to Kevin’s artistic and construction talents.  There is old ‘stuff’ all over the place – vintage typewriters, factory signs, memorabilia from days gone by when Port Alberni was a thriving forestry, mill and fishing town. It is the sort of environment that pays tribute to the past while looking to the future.

Home-made beef barley soup and a ham and cheese Panini make for a filling and delicious lunch

Home-made beef barley soup and a ham and cheese Panini make for a filling and delicious lunch

There is a lot of other quirky stuff too, including a unique method of garnering tips for the friendly, efficient staff.  Every day at the order counter there are ‘decision of the day’ jars set up with a question above them – patrons can cast their vote by dropping tips into the jar of their choice.

One of the creative and beautiful coffee drinks

One of the creative and beautiful coffee drinks

The food is typical café food with a happy difference – everything is made in-house. Chef Alison, who has 27 years in the food industry and some serious culinary ‘chops’ begins her workday at 4:30 a.m. and by the time the doors open the home-made soups, scones, muffins and other tempting tidbits are waiting for the first customers. There is a wide range of paninis and wraps that can either be consumed on-site or taken ‘out’, several unique and healthy salads and, of course, artful and tasty coffee concoctions.  Alison is given free rein in the kitchen, and it shows in the creative and flavoursome offerings that show up at the front end.

The SteamPunk Classic Panini - a flavourful medley to roasted vegetables, cheese ... and bacon!

The SteamPunk Classic Panini – a flavourful medley of roasted vegetables, cheese … and bacon!

There is also a unique and beautifully-constructed deck in front of the café for al fresco dining in fine weather.  It has taken up a couple of parking spots and is the first such deck that city hall has allowed in the hundred-year history of the town.  There are industrial touches out there too in the form of some large, brightly-painted gears that add to the overall charm of the place.

At the moment Kevin is in the process of adding a book shop that will connect to the coffee house in a space next door. The book shop will feature new and first and second editions only, will include more of Kevin’s interesting décor and  will no doubt prove to be a valued and unique attraction.  His hope is that comfy seating, good coffee and interesting books will bring in more of the new ‘emigrants’ who are fleeing the cities for Port Alberni’s friendly, inexpensive and spectacular environs.  In the meantime though, it’s great to see that there is life in the old girl yet thanks to a vibrant and enthusiastic business community committed to re-invigorating a town that has so much to offer.

Further information on the Steampunk  Café and Coffee House can be found on Facebook at:

https://www.facebook.com/steampunkcafeportalberni

 Price rating: $-$$

The SteamPunk Café and Coffee House is located at:

            3025A Third Avenue, Port Alberni

GPS co-ordinates are:

Lat. : 49.233655  Long.: -124.807388

N 49 14.019  W 124 48.443

 

Posted in INLAND CENTRAL ISLAND, KID FRIENDLY, WHERE TO EAT | Tagged , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Coombs’ Coastal Carvings Fine Art Gallery features diverse contributions from First Nations artisans

One of the turnings designed by Jeremy Humpherville and created by Douglas Fisher

One of the turnings designed by Jeremy Humpherville and created by Douglas Fisher

 

The collection of buildings and businesses that comprise the tiny community of Coombs these days is diverse, to say the least.  Most folks head for the famous Coombs Market, better known these days as Goats on the Roof. But while the market and its assorted neighbouring businesses hold certain charms for many we prefer the quiet oasis just across the bridge that serves as home to Coastal Carvings Fine Art Gallery.

Coastal Carvings is operated by Jeremy Humpherville, a big, friendly bear of a guy, and his wife Darlene.  Jeremy was born and raised in Haida Gwaii (or the Queen Charlotte Islands, if you prefer), where he learned the fine points of creating native art from his uncle. It is a talent and a passion that stretches back for generations in the Humpherville family, and it has been honed to a peak of exquisite beauty by Jeremy and his brother Jerett.

Jeremy’s work first came to my attention late in 2012 when I was working on a freelance story about the spectacular award-winning Music By The Sea home being constructed on the waterfront in Qualicum Beach. His creative eye was evident in every nook and cranny, creating a series of breathtaking works of art throughout the home. That project, he says, was ‘a gift’ – it’s like a complete portfolio all in one house.’

Tsimshian artist Dorothy Jarvis contributes oil paintings that relay the ethereal loveliness of the remote northwest coast Native villages

Tsimshian artist Dorothy Jarvis contributes oil paintings that relay the ethereal loveliness of the remote northwest coast Native villages

But, I digress. The gallery started off originally as a showcase for Jeremy’s work, but soon expanded to include a total of 41 indigenous artists.  Things have been pared down a little since the early days and the century-old residence that now serves as home to the gallery currently houses the work of 28 First Nations artisans.

If you are thinking that all you are going to see at Coastal Carvings is the usual traditional Native art, think again.  There are both traditional and contemporary First Nations creations on display – all of them beautiful for very different reasons.

The gallery’s bright rooms display a unique and diverse collection ranging from original oil paintings to sculpture, to Jeremy and Jerret’s beautifully-crafted furniture pieces and turnings. When I visited the gallery recently there was an exquisite pair of moccasins, Native jewellery, a traditional native head dress…and a saxophone bearing the artwork designed by Jeremy for Juno-award-winning Phil Dwyer’s Sea Wind musical instruments line. There were huge wall sculptures, large works and small works, all with varied pricing depending on the artist and the work.

A unique original piece of furniture created by Jeremy and his brother Jerett

A unique original piece of furniture created by Jeremy and his brother Jerett

While Jeremy is the first to admit that Coastal Carvings’ offerings are not inexpensive, he also justifiably points out that a piece purchased there will never be seen or duplicated anywhere else. When something takes a year to create and is one-of-a-kind there is a certain value to those aspects alone, not to mention the enhanced beauty that such a piece creates in a purchaser’s life.

Jeremy is keen to make the gallery all-inclusive of the many talented people who contribute to the finished pieces seen in Coastal Carvings..

“At present we represent only aboriginal artists, but a lot of them collaborate with other craftsmen, and we want to acknowledge everyone who is involved in the final results,” he says.  “So, we are thinking of diversifying a little in order to accomplish that.”

Sculptures of all shapes, sizes and subjects can be found at the gallery

Sculptures of all shapes, sizes and subjects can be found at the gallery

Jeremy and Jerett work closely together on design and construction of various furniture pieces, which are assembled in their workshop in Qualicum Beach.  And, says Jeremy, Jerett also offers input on the designs that go into his carvings and other projects when he is working on custom pieces and home designs.

“By doing that, we refine each others’ work” says Jeremy.

Clearly, Coastal Carvings is a labour of love.

‘We want to make the gallery thought-provoking,” says Jeremy. “We put our heart and soul into it. The gallery is really like raising another child, and you just hope it comes out right in the end.”

Traditional First Nations head dress

Traditional First Nations head dress

Judging from the exquisite beauty to be found at Coastal Carvings, it’s pretty clear that the Humpervilles are doing a fine job of raising their ‘other child’.

Coastal Carvings will host an open house on Saturday, May 9 from 10 a.m. – 5 p.m. Guest artists will be on site.

A saxophone is not what you expect to find in a Native art gallery, but Jeremy designed the logo and artwork for Sea Wind Musical Instruments

A saxophone is not what you expect to find in a Native art gallery, but Jeremy designed the logo and artwork for Sea Wind Musical Instruments

Further information about Coastal Carvings can be found at the website:

http://coastalcarvings.com/

            Coastal Carvings is located at #6 (the blue house), 2340 Alberni Highway

(Highway 4A) Coombs, just west of the Coombs market, across the bridge.

            GPS co-ordinates are:

            Lat. 49.305593  Long. -124.425391

            N 49 18.336  W 124 25.523

Posted in ARTISAN GALLERIES, ATTRACTIONS, EAST CENTRAL ISLAND, INLAND CENTRAL ISLAND | Tagged , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Grandon Creek Nature Trail offers a short but lovely excursion

The trail wends its way along the ravine bordering Grandon Creek

The trail wends its way along the ravine bordering Grandon Creek

It’s not a particularly big or impressive excursion in the whole scheme of things, but a pretty tucked-away hike in the west part of the village of Qualicum Beach has been a long-time favourite of ours.  Grandon Creek nature trail has undergone some changes since our family first discovered it more than 30 years ago, but they have been changes for the better.

Grandon Creek

Grandon Creek

The park can be accessed from two locations, either off Hoy Lake Road West, or at the junction of Crescent Road West and Beach Terrace, just off Highway 19A (or the Old Island Highway, as it is known by locals) The entrance to the trail near the old highway offers a small parking area, so is probably the best starting point if you are in a vehicle.

Remnants of days gone by - a felled tree, complete with logger's notch, acts as host for new growth

Remnants of days gone by – a felled tree, complete with logger’s notch, acts as host for new growth

We spent a very pleasant hour hiking (mostly uphill) Grandon Creek on a recent lovely Spring morning. We were delighted to find that what was once a rough trail cutting along the streambank has been rejuvenated and upgraded with bridges over boggy areas.  There are still muddy spots, but nothing like the trail of old.

Trillium  can be found alongside the trail in early Spring

Trillium can be found alongside the trail in early Spring

Thanks to the efforts of the Town of Qualicum Beach and the Qualicum Beach Streamkeepers Society the creek is being restored as a spawning and rearing site for Coho salmon and cutthroat trout.  Sedimentation and human disturbance over the years has had significant impact on the fish populations, but with the efforts now underway it is hoped that Grandon Creek will in future be home to thriving communities of the two aforementioned species, as well as to Chum salmon.

Skunk Cabbage - or Swamp Lantern

Skunk Cabbage – or Swamp Lantern

Although the maple and alder leaf canopy hadn’t yet unfurled when we visited, there was plenty to see and enjoy on our adventure.  There is green everywhere – a huge variety of mosses cling to almost everything, massive ferns dominate the slopes of the ravine and, of course, there are the native cedar, fir and balsam.  Trilliums had sprung to life, brightening the trailside with their graceful white blossoms, and the perennial skunk cabbage, a sure herald of spring, brightened streamside with their vivid yellow presence.

Signs of the ravine having been logged many years ago remain – massive stumps still bear the scars of loggers’ notches. But there is new growth, too – some of it springing from the very trees that were cut down decades ago.

A fallen tree acts as a nurse tree for moss and ferns

A fallen tree acts as a nurse tree for moss and ferns

All along the trail there is the delightful sound of running water and bird song in the background, a soothing addition to the overall loveliness of this most enjoyable short hike.  If you want to continue further on you can hit the wood chip trail at Hoy Lake Road West and walk all the way in to the village, or skirt the village and explore the Arbutus Trails. For us, on this particular day, the hike up to Hoy Lake and then back down the ravine to West Crescent was just enough to give us a taste of Spring, fresh air and the outdoors – always an invigorating experience after the rains of winter.

Further information on the Grandon Creek nature trail (and a map) can be found at the website:

http://viewer.visitparksvillequalicumbeach.com/publication/4f82932c#/4f82932c/18

GPS co-ordinates for the West Crescent parking area are:

Lat. 49.3572374292841  Long. -124.46750235666803

N 49 21.434  W 124 28.050

Posted in DOG-FRIENDLY, EAST CENTRAL ISLAND, KID FRIENDLY, SPECIAL PLACES | Tagged , , , , , | Leave a comment

Ucluelet’s Blue Room serves up fresh food and casual comfort

 

Blue room sign

‘Come hungry. GET STUFFED. Leave happy’ –  tag line of The Blue Room Bistro

The small fishing village of Ucluelet is full of pleasant surprises, not the least among them one of the best all-day breakfast joints on the Island. The Blue Room bills itself as a west coast bistro and to a great degree that description fits. It is a casual, comfortable place and the food is fresh, plentiful and reasonably priced.

We blew in to The Blue Room for breakfast on a sopping wet February morning and were quickly seated by our friendly waitress. Coffee arrived promptly and we spent a few minutes perusing the drool-inducing menu amidst the cheerful Saturday morning patter of a small, slow-paced village.

Smoked salmon Eggs Benny

Smoked salmon Eggs Benny

With our orders placed we had an opportunity to take in our surroundings – basically a large room (painted blue, of course) with big windows that offered 200-degree views of the harbour.  The décor is very simple, with clean lines and a lack of pretension dominating. Large windows ensure the place is bright, even on the dreariest of days. As I noted earlier, casual and comfortable.

It took a while for breakfast to arrive – the place filled up quickly shortly after we walked in the door. The wait for our meals wasn’t excessively long though, and we were happy to just relax and visit with our friends.

The Breakfast Scrambler can feature pretty much anything your heart desires

The Breakfast Scrambler can feature pretty much anything your heart desires

It turned out that the wait was worth it, as it usually is when food is being prepared fresh and ‘from scratch’. My husband had ordered the smoked salmon Eggs Benedict, which he proclaimed some of the best he had ever enjoyed.  They arrived with a generous serving of The Blue Room’s signature hash browns (no pre-frozen pulpy stuff here, you can rest assured!). My order of the ‘build your-own’ breakfast scrambler featured three eggs and fresh spinach and mushrooms, accompanied by lovely, dense multi-grain toast.

The Blue Room also serves lunch, which receives good reviews too. The lunch menu offers everything from the ubiquitous fish and chips to salads, wraps, sandwiches and burgers.  There is a kids menu as well, which features whale-shaped pancakes for breakfast.

Clean, simple lines, water views and a lot of blue are the hallmarks here

Clean, simple lines, water views and a lot of blue are the hallmarks here

During the warm weather months there is a pretty patio that offers sweeping views of the harbour. Which has me thinking that we have a perfect excuse to return to one of our very favourite communities and The Blue Room to enjoy the patio and try out the lunch menu.  It doesn’t get much happier than that.

            Further information on The Blue Room Bistro and its offerings can be found at the website:

http://www.theblueroombistro.com/Home.html

wheelchair-lThe Blue Room is located at 1627 Peninsula Road, on the main drag into the village

GPS co-ordinates are:

Lat. 48.94212482490295  Long. -125.54698062796183

N 48 56.527 W 125 32.819

 Price rating: $ – $$

The Blue Room Bistro on Urbanspoon

Posted in KID FRIENDLY, WEST COAST, WHEELCHAIR ACCESS, WHERE TO EAT | Tagged , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Port Alberni’s Swept Away Inn will sweep you off your feet

 

The Swept Away Inn

The Swept Away Inn

Big smiles. Warm welcomes. Amazing slow food. And, the most unique bed and breakfast experience you are ever likely to have.  Roll it all together and you have the distinctive, snug and delightful Swept Away Inn, berthed at Centennial Pier in Port Alberni.

The inn is housed in a 100-foot retired minesweeper/tugboat/fishing lodge that dominates the new pier in the heart of downtown Port Alberni. It took a full year for hosts Daniel and Bouchra to refurbish the boat in Port, by which time their initial plans to move on to Tofino had vanished.  The couple fell in love with Port Alberni and its people and made the decision to stay right where they were.  Since late summer of 2014 they have been running the B&B and offering dinner club-style meals that have proven to be a hit with local residents and travelers from all over the world.

The dining and lounge areas exude comfort and warmth

The dining and lounge areas exude comfort and warmth

The couple’s efforts have not gone unnoticed – they recently were selected as one of the top five nominees for a BC Small Business Award. As we discovered on a tumultuous rainswept winter day, all the praise for their efforts is not unfounded.

The sturdy tug has weathered the 70 years of its west coast existence with a good deal of grace, helped along by Daniel’s ministrations. Step into the combined lounge/dining area and you are immediately enveloped by the cozy ambiance and the  one-of-a-kind appeal that only a shipboard experience can offer. Combine that with the warmest of welcomes from Daniel and Bouchra and there can be little doubt that you are headed for an extraordinary time.

Bouchra works her magic in the galley kitchen

Bouchra works her magic in the galley kitchen

Bouchra grew up in Morocco and learned to cook at her mother’s side.  Her innate talent for flavour combinations and her dedication to what she calls ‘real, slow food’ shines through in every dish that arrives on the table. The combination of local ingredients and hours spent in the galley kitchen produces a wide variety of amazing taste sensations that keeps people coming back for the Swept Away limited-seating dinners.  The night we were there we were treated to a traditional Moroccan meal that included a mouth-watering tahini, home-marinated olives and a traditional chicken dish featuring preserved lemons, olives and Bouchra’s own combination of  time-honoured spices.

A traditional Moroccan dinner

A traditional Moroccan dinner

By my estimation it was three hours, start to finish, before dinner arrived at the table.  But all through those hours we enjoyed the company and conversation of Daniel and Bouchra. Both of them are very engaged in the local community, so discussions range from our travels to their concerns about a possible coal port on the Alberni waterfront and revitalization efforts in town.

‘Our goal is to see the world through our guests’, says Daniel, and from the sounds of it they are doing exactly that.

The packet freighter Frances Barkley is berthed just a stone's throw away, making the Swept Away Inn a convenient overnight stay for travellers heading out early on the Barkley

The packet freighter Frances Barkley is berthed just a stone’s throw away, making the Swept Away Inn a convenient overnight stay for travellers heading out early on the Barkley

Dinner finished, we hang out in the beautiful lounge area for a while before heading off to our small (but comfortable) quarters. Bunk beds are the order of the day here – nothing has been changed from the traditional accommodation found on older vessels, and we are fine with that (although we giggle a lot at having to pass each other going sideways in our small state room). We have a porthole that looks out to the wharves where the fishing fleet and the venerable packet freighter Frances Barkley are  docked and, with wind and rain buffeting the boat we are rocked gently to sleep.

Breakfast the next morning is another Moroccan delight – Bouchra prepares barghrir, or ‘crepes with a thousand holes’, topped with a flavourful brown sugar sauce and bananas.They are substantial enough to sustain us well into the afternoon.

Traditional accommodation on a ship - comfortable bunks, small staterooms - a very unique experience for many

Traditional accommodation on a ship – comfortable bunks, small staterooms – a very unique experience for many

While the Swept Away Inn is not what anyone would class a luxury bed and breakfast it is most certainly clean, comfortable and more than welcoming. The food is amazing, the hosts are even more so…and really, how many people can say they have stayed on a 70-year-old retired minesweeper? It’s one of those once-in-a-lifetime opportunities that we wouldn’t have missed for the world.

            The Swept Away Inn doesn’t have a website, but if you want to keep track of their dinner offerings and inquire about the bed and breakfast availability you can find them on Facebook at:

            https://www.facebook.com/sweptawayinn

 The Swept Away Inn is located at Centennial Pier at the bottom of Argyle Street, adjacent to Harbour Quay, Unit 1, 5505 Argyle Street

            GPS co-ordinates are:

             Lat. 49.23507867084177  Long. -124.8163073878357

            N 49 14.105  W 124 48.978

Posted in ACCOMMODATIONS, INLAND CENTRAL ISLAND, WHERE TO EAT | Tagged , , , , , , , | 2 Comments

The Wild Pacific Trail – one man’s dream creates an internationally-renowned legacy

Oyster Jim Martin - the dreamer, and the dream

Oyster Jim Martin – the dreamer, and the dream

One man’s dream. One magical internationally-renowned legacy. That best sums up Ucluelet’s Wild Pacific Trail – a spectacular network of easily accessible walking trails  that stretches for a total of 10 kilometres (6.25 miles)  along the awe-inspiring headlands of Vancouver Island’s wild west coast.  There aren’t enough adjectives in the English language to describe this beautiful-beyond-words trail. And there probably aren’t enough words in the English language to thank Oyster Jim Martin, the affable, low-key fellow who came up with the idea way back in 1980 and finally is seeing his dream come to fruition after 25 years.

The historic Amphitrite Lighthouse overlooks the Graveyard of the Pacific

The historic Amphitrite Lighthouse overlooks the Graveyard of the Pacific

The story of Oyster Jim and the Wild Pacific Trail evolved because Jim enjoyed fishing and hiking along the rough coastal headlands near the small fishing village of Ucluelet. He conceived of a walking trail that would allow folks of all ages, abilities and financial status to enjoy the sublime beauty of the wild coastline. His initial efforts to interest the community fell on deaf ears – fishing and logging were the mainstays of the local economy early on and there was little, if any, interest in developing the trail.

Crashing surf draws storm watchers during the winter months

Crashing surf draws storm watchers during the winter months

Things began going sideways with the traditional employment tracks in the late 1980s however, and by 1995 the bottom had fallen out of both sources of income for many local families.  Oyster Jim, with his quiet persistence, convinced the community that a trail that offered stunning vistas might help boost tourism.

Mesmerizing.....

Mesmerizing…..

It all sounds pretty straightforward, but in fact the maneuvering that it took to acquire the co-operation of developers, First Nations, private property owners, federal, provincial, regional and municipal governments and logging companies is almost as mind-boggling as the finished product.  Oyster Jim credits Charles S. Smith, former director of real estate for the now extinct MacMillan Bloedel  forestry company, with much of the success of acquiring access to the headlands, but it is clear that without Oyster Jim’s perseverance nothing would have happened.

The story of the destruction of the  barque Pass of Melfort and the subsequent construction of the Amphitrite Light explains why this section of coast is called the Graveyard of the Pacific

The story of the destruction of the barque Pass of Melfort and the subsequent construction of the Amphitrite Light explains why this section of coast is called the Graveyard of the Pacific

The first leg of the trail, a 2.6 kilometre (1.6 mile) loop, wends its way through old growth rainforest, along craggy promontories,  out to the Amphitrite Lighthouse and back to a well-marked parking lot.  The loop trail opened in 1999 and has been a popular destination for locals and travelers alike.  We got our first taste of it at sunset during a brief summer stopover and were so entranced that we made immediate plans to return, to see more and take in the stunning sweeping vistas, the wildlife, the forest – the enchantment of a truly wild, unspoiled and inspiring place.

Looking towards the Broken Group Islands and the Graveyard of the Pacific, where so many ships have foundered and so many lives have been lost over the years

Looking towards the Broken Group Islands and the Graveyard of the Pacific, where so many ships have foundered and so many lives have been lost over the years

The Lighthouse Loop is an easy walk, and pretty much anyone should be able to manage it with ease.  There is even wheelchair access at the lighthouse; anyone in a wheelchair with a strong companion would probably be able to enjoy the entire loop with little trouble.

Dogs are welcome on the trail but should be kept on leash due to the presence of wildlife

Dogs are welcome on the trail but should be kept on leash due to the presence of wildlife

Further along the peninsula there is an additional 7 1/2 kilometres (4.6 miles) of trail that straggles along the coastline, providing more spectacular scenery looking out to the vast Pacific Ocean. Various sections of the trail are divided up with names such as Ancient Cedars and Rocky Bluffs, Artist Loops, and Big Beach and Brown’s Beach.  There is also an interpretive trail at Terrace Beach, very close to the lighthouse loop.

Depending on where you decide to start and finish your exploration (there are several access points) you will find picnic tables, a children’s interpretive area, viewing decks, beaches, surge channels, pounding surf – well, the list of delights is endless and always varied depending on the time of year and the time of day that you visit. You can certainly rest assured that you will never be bored, and you will never see the same thing twice – the varied moods of the ocean and the bordering bluffs and forests guarantee that.

There is excellent signage at the access points

There is excellent signage at the access points

One of the best features of the trail is the fact that it allows visitors to marvel at the massive gray whales (upwards of 20,000 of them) that migrate through the area between March and May each year. There is plenty of other wildlife as well, including bald eagles, sea otters, occasional bear, deer, cougar and wolf.

More of the spectacular scenery along the Wild Pacific Trail

More of the spectacular scenery along the Wild Pacific Trail

While some visitors may feel a little nervous about the possibility of encounters with larger predators, Oyster Jim offers a succinct answer to their concerns: “If you act like bait, you get treated like bait.” There are tips on dealing with wildlife in the trail brochure, which is available at the access points to the various sections of the trail.

Virtually all of the trail is well-marked and very well maintained – Oyster Jim spends 48 days a year on the maintenance aspect alone. The actual meticulous building of the trail, viewing platforms, bridges and other features seems to take up most of the rest of his time, but despite the long slog to make his vision a reality he still exudes a quiet enthusiasm for all it offers.

A hiker contemplates the scenery from a high rocky bluff - not a recommended  place to be when the surf is crashing in

A hiker contemplates the scenery from a high rocky bluff – not a recommended place to be when the surf is crashing in

Along the trails visitors will find benches (many of them in memory of Ucluelet pioneers), interpretive signs, brochures, donation boxes, maps, distance markers and bags for doggy excrement.  The entire trail system is so well planned, laid-out and maintained that one is left marveling at the minds and hearts that have created it all. Donations from all quarters help to support the trail, and a dedicated 12-member volunteer board of directors steers the affairs of the non-profit Wild Pacific Trail Society.

I have only one warning about the Wild Pacific Trail – if you expect to complete hiking the various sections in the suggested times on the brochures, forget it. We took more than twice as long on a couple of sections  – not because of any difficulty with the trail, but because at every turn there was another breathtaking view that meant we paused, took hundreds of photos and reveled in the moment (which often stretched to several minutes). I am sure that Oyster Jim and his dedicated team will be pleased to hear that – it is what this wonderful trail is all about.

Further information on the Wild Pacific Trail can be obtained by going to the excellent website (be sure to watch the 22 minute video there) at:

www.wildpacifictrail.com

GPS co-ordinates for the first leg of the trail, the Amphitrite Lighthouse Loop, are:

Lat. 48.92369104633025  Long. -125.54015174761571

N 48 55.421  W 125 32.409

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Matterson House evokes the charm and pace of yesteryear

Historic Matterson House was built in 1931

Historic Matterson House was built in 1931

It’s just a tiny little cottage built in 1931, but for the past 19 years the old Matterson house has served up some of the best food in the village of Ucluelet. Husband and wife team Sandy and Jennifer Clark have created a warm and welcoming eatery that is evocative of the history of the quiet fishing community perched on the western edge of North America.

Our first experience at Matterson House came after a cold and windy boat tour of Ucluelet harbour on a winter’s day.  Searching for a spot to enjoy a warm beverage we tripped up the stairs and into the peaceful environment, where we were greeted by hostess (and server, and owner….) Jennifer.  We spent half an hour chatting with her, imbibing in hot drinks and discussing the issues of the day. Although we were the only ones in the restaurant on this late Friday afternoon and we weren’t spending much money we were made to feel most welcome.

Shrimp-stuffed mushrooms

Shrimp-stuffed mushrooms

The next night four of us descended on the little yellow cottage for dinner. With only a few indoor tables and the outdoor verandah obviously not in use, we had made early dinner reservations. We were the first in the door that evening, but as the night wore on more patrons arrived to enjoy the plentiful food and warm ambiance.

We began our meal with a shared order of mouth-watering mushrooms stuffed with plump prawns and topped with the most yummy cheese concoction. The sauce was so flavourful that we felt compelled to mop up every single drop of it with the excellent bread that had arrived early on.

Oyster main course

Oyster main course

The main course for three of us was the special, a flavourful and generous serving of penne pasta napped with a tasty sauce and brimming with seafood.  The fourth member of our party opted for the oysters, which he deemed ‘perfectly wonderful’. Five plump gems arrived on a plate crammed with vegetables and rice. There was no chance that any of us were going to leave Matterson House hungry.

We finished our meal with a shared order of a large and very filling piece of mixed berry pie – again, more than ample serving size, packed full of fruit.

The interior of Matterson House is small, but not cramped, and offers a level of warmth and comfort from yesteryear

The interior of Matterson House is small, but not cramped, and offers a level of warmth and comfort from yesteryear

I think one of the miracles of this little gem is that it has been successful despite the complete lack of an internet presence, other than reviews that have appeared on the likes of Urban Spoon, Fodor’s and Trip Advisor. Matterson House does not have a web site; nor does it have any social media profile.  You can’t look at their menu on-line, you won’t see many foodie photos of what gets put on the table. What it does have though, is good word-of-mouth advertising in the community – ask almost anyone in Ucluelet about good places to eat and Matterson House invariably crops up. Word is that they do some of the best breakfasts in the village, so that is on our agenda for the next trip to the west coast.

Matterson House is open for breakfast, lunch and dinner Wednesday to Sunday, closed Monday and Tuesday.  Reservations (for dinner at least) are a good idea – you can phone Matterson House at (250) 726-2200

            Matterson House is located at 1628 Peninsula Road in Ucluelet.

            GPS co-ordinates are:

            Lat. 48.94255362591963  Long. -125.5486269110429

            N 48 56.553 W 125 32.918

            Price rating: $ – $$

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Forces of nature combine to create unique magic in the annual Spring herring fishery

FB Cover There is a magic that descends on both the east and west coasts of the Island late in February or early in March each year.  There is no set date, nor agenda. It is, for those who know about it, one of the major happenings of the year – an event orchestrated by nature, not the hand of man. Some years it lasts upwards of a week; other years, it lasts less than 24 hours.  It draws many thousands of residents and visitors to the beaches to watch in rapt attention, a mesmerizing and, somehow, exciting occasion that is a sure harbinger of Spring.           

Herring fishery at night

Once the fishery is open fishermen work day and night , creating the effect of a city on the water when darkness falls. Thousands of gulls swirl around the boats, sea lions bark and the thrumming of the boat motors becomes a unique lullaby

Ever since the 1970s, when I first experienced the annual herring fishery on the west coast of the Island I have marveled at the combined forces of nature that draw  humans, seals, sea lions, sea birds and, of course, the main attraction – the millions of tiny silver fish that bring them all together in a flurry of activity.  For the humans, of course, the attraction is the fishery that produces thousands of tons of herring roe – a delicacy in Japan.  The creatures gather too, not just for the roe of course, but for a good feed that will sustain them through migration or mating season.            Herring sunset The sense of anticipation builds at the marinas and harbours late in February as fishboats await word of the opening from the Department of Fisheries.  For many, the  fishery is an opportunity to make some serious money in a short time frame so it is important to be in the right place at the right time. The length of the fishery is predicated upon Pacific herring stocks, which vary from year to year, and on demand. Some years the opening sees a veritable city of sea-going vessels on the water, engines thrumming and fishermen working 24/7 to get their share of the haul.  Other years, like the one immediately following the earthquake in Japan, there is almost no activity because there is no demand for the end product. 

Sea lions

It’s not just the activity on the water that attracts people – hundreds of sea lions, brant geese, seagulls and bald eagles make their presence known during the fishery too, taking advantage of easy prey

So every Spring, we wait and hope, keeping an eye on the waterfront, checking with friends and acquaintances up and down the coast. The sights and sounds are captivating enough that we have found ourselves driving considerable distances to take them in, for the herring are fickle and spawn in different areas each year. What may be a frantic scene of activity on the Qualicum Beach waterfront one year may another year see the same area entirely bereft of boats.  There are no guarantees, so watchfulness is essential.           

Spectators watch the herring fishery

The many footprints in the sand are testimony to the throngs that gather at the beaches to watch the action. There is an appeal for all ages.

If you are fortunate enough to be near a fishery opening, don’t be surprised to see hundreds of other people joining you along the waterfront, night or day.  Some folks even bundle up the kids, pack hot beverages and folding chairs, and head down to the beach in the dark to take in the magic and excitement of a spectacle that will, guaranteed, remain in the mind’s eye forever.  Before you head to the beach be sure to pack binoculars and cameras.  Dress warmly and wear warm, waterproof footwear.  

Seagulls at Qualicum Beach

Thousands of seagulls gather on the beaches to feed on the herring spawn, which is sometimes ankle deep

You may think you are just going to spend a few minutes watching but, guaranteed, you will be so enthralled with all of the activity and excitement, with the huge variety of wildlife that gets in on the act, and with the overall impact that this natural phenomenon has on you, that you will end up lingering.  If you aren’t totally entranced, I can only surmise you must be dead.

Posted in ATTRACTIONS, COURTENAY/COMOX VALLEY, EAST CENTRAL ISLAND, EVENTS, KID FRIENDLY, WEST COAST | Tagged , , , | Leave a comment

Ucluelet’s Subtidal Adventures offers a delightful peek into another world

Brian Congdon on his retired 65-year-old Coast Guard vessel

Brian Congdon on his retired 65-year-old Coast Guard vessel

There is a whole lot of beauty, history and wildlife packed into Ucluelet’s harbour that one might never know about if not for Brian Congdon and his Subtidal Adventures.

CormorantsWe recently enjoyed a couple of hours on the water with Brian, who has been running his eco-tourism adventure tours off the west coast of the Island since 1978. A former park warden at Pacific Rim National Park, he was the first to come up with the concept of eco-tourism in Ucluelet and over the years has introduced thousands of visitors to the wonders of one of the most spectacular areas anywhere in the world. Subtidal Adventures is also the only company in Ucluelet to offer tours on a year-round basis. Even if you are there in the dead of winter you can delight in an on-the-water experience – wind, waves and weather permitting.

A hopeful sea lion joined us for a portion of the trip

A hopeful sea lion joined us for a portion of the trip

Subtidal is not what anyone would consider a big corporate presence in Ucluelet – one delightful 65-year-old former Coast Guard cabin cruiser and a single Zodiac may not sound all that impressive. But the intimate knowledge of the area and sheer affability of the skipper make for an engaging three or four hours on the water.

Eagles

Bald eagles are not an unusual sight

We were in Ucluelet in early February and enjoyed a basic harbour tour on a foggy, breezy and threatening-rain afternoon. Despite the less-than-stellar weather we came off the Dixie IV with dozens of photos and a new appreciation for all that makes Ucluelet unique.

Before we even pulled away from the dock Brian pointed out a regal blue heron perched on a piling high above us.  From there we wended our way past myriad fishing boats of all shapes and sizes, fish plants and a seaplane hangar constructed during World War II.  We hadn’t been on the water more than a few minutes when a lone sea lion, hoping that we were a fishboat that would supply an easy lunch, began tagging along beside us.

A view out to the open Pacific Ocean on a foggy day

A view out to the open Pacific Ocean on a foggy day

Further along the narrow inlet we encountered several bald eagles and a gaggle of cormorants and gulls perched on a chunk of rock.  A detour into a small bay in search of sea otter proved fruitless on that particular day.

One of the abandoned Japanese residences at Spring Cove

One of the abandoned Japanese residences at Spring Cove

We crossed the inlet, buffeted at this point by a little rough water, and journeyed into Spring Cove where derelict houses and wharves revealed the sad story of the Japanese internment during the Second World War. A couple of the families returned to their homes there following the hostilities but there is a poignant aura that permeates the place and leaves one feeling reflective and a little sad at the turn of events so long ago.

A west coast scarecrow, meant to keep sea lions off the wharf

A west coast scarecrow, meant to keep sea lions off the wharf

Back in more protected waters, we headed past more fish plants and a west coast scarecrow – a mannequin dressed in bright yellow rain gear, fishing rod in hand – designed to keep sea lions off a wharf.

Brian is incredibly patient when it comes to offering the best opportunities for photographs, and he is a walking history book when it comes to the past of his home of more than 40 years.

This is all that is left of the wharf at Spring Cove, a thriving Japanese fishing community prior to WWII

This is all that is left of the wharf at Spring Cove, a thriving Japanese fishing community prior to WWII

Although our touring options were pretty limited in the dead of winter we were grateful for the chance to appreciate and explore Ucluelet from the water.  Subtidal’s adventuring opportunities expand to whale, bear and other wildlife watching, sunset tours and exploration of the spectacular Broken Group Islands beginning in March and stretching through the summer and autumn.  We can’t wait to re-join Brian to learn about and see more of this beautiful and intriguing area.

Further information on Subtidal Adventures can be found at the website:

www.subtidaladventures.com

Subtidal’s headquarters is located at 1950 Peninsula Road, Ucluelet

GPS co-ordinates are:

Lat. 48.94487296732658  Long. -125.55765529999996

N 48 56.692  W 125 33.459

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