From the restorative power of its majestic landscapes to the lively buzz of its friendly cities, Canada’s most picturesque province has it all, says Mike MacEacheran.
The water was alive. It shone as we sailed in a silvery light. An orca and a calf appeared in front of the ship, leaving foamy foam in their wake.
There were binoculars and cameras everywhere, but as we glided silently through Johnstone Strait, I watched with the naked eye, transfixed. Seeing some of the world’s largest toothed whales in the wild induces a special kind of peace.
Whale rush hour is one of the main attractions when sailing Vancouver Island’s fragmented north shore, but it’s just one of many almighty distractions. The ever-changing backdrop of towering mountains, ancient rainforest, rising coastal mists, and hauntingly beautiful ocean provides a magical, dreamlike backdrop for any excursion. And even if you don’t see killer whales or humpback whales, be on the lookout for grizzly bears that roam the shoreline, hunting salmon and snapping mussels. Seals, sea lions, eagles, Canada geese, otters, and raccoons are also common sights. The wild nature of the British Columbia coast makes you reflect on the magnitude of nature.
This is the essence of why I love Canada’s westernmost province and why I’ve visited so often over the past decade: It opens me up to the unfiltered wildlife encounters of the Great Bear Rainforest and the meditative seascapes of Desolation. sound; to the transformative power of nature on the Sunshine Coast; in the soft light of the Tofino ocean. It makes me feel alive and I return home with dreamy memories.
Creating lasting impressions is something of a British Columbia specialty. Its ten mountain ranges, from the West Coast Mountains to the incisor-shaped Canadian Rockies in the east, are first reflected in travelers’ sunglasses and then linger in memory much longer. With such enigmatic names as Selkirks, Valhallas, Kootenays, Monashees, Cariboos and Bugaboos, these dizzying sweeps have amazed explorers for centuries. And they also conspire to hide some of North America’s most exciting activities.
I’ve roaded the Powder Highway ski towns of the Kootenay Rockies, from Rossland to Nelson, from Revelstoke to Golden. I’ve mountain biked along repurposed rail trails in the Okanagan, rafted the luminous rivers of Wells Grey, and soaked my bones in hot springs formed by volcanoes and glaciers thousands of years ago.
Bald eagles are often so abundant that they seem to always be watching. Their presence couldn’t be more appropriate for such a primitive landscape, but chances are you’ll see the birds of prey in the city. This feeling that wilderness is everywhere is easy in British Columbia, and on a trail in Vancouver’s pristine Stanley Park, perhaps the most beautiful urban park in the world, it feels like life exists in perfect balance.
Crowded spaces are rarely high on someone’s wish list these days, and even in Vancouver, Western Canada’s liveliest city, the map is full of breathing room. In addition to the green lung of Stanley Park, there is the epic Seawall boardwalk for biking and, among other places, English Bay for kayaking. Other favorites include Grouse Mountain for the best views of the North Shore and the city, and the 230-foot Capilano Suspension Bridge, where I last walked on the mist of the river and felt like I was stepping back in time.
History and living cultures
There are many moments when the past reaches out, but none more than learning about over 10,000 years of Indigenous Peoples, of which there are over 200 different Nations in British Columbia. The province is a land of cultural revelations, traditional longhouses and pow wows – celebratory gatherings of indigenous communities.
And it’s not just the animal-crested poles that are sacred here. The claw-shaped Haida Gwaii archipelago, drifted from the mainland west of Prince Rupert, is an area that archaeologists believe could be the first place humans set foot in this part of the world, and it is still uncovering secrets in SGang Gwaay Llnagaay, an abandoned town from the 19th century. Now a UNESCO World Heritage Site, it can be identified today by the carved mortuary and memorial posts and the remains of large cedar longhouses, which serve to illustrate the power and artistry of the Haida and their relationship to the land and ocean.
Remnants of this and the living continuation of other dynasties are evident throughout the province. At the Squamish Lil’wat Cultural Center in Whistler, the history, legends and oral traditions of the Squamish and Lil’wat Nations are beautifully expressed and preserved. On a visit to Alert Bay on Vancouver Island, you can see the evocative U’mista Cultural Center and the twisted totem poles that stand majestically in ‘Namgis Cemetery. Seeing a thunderous clear sky in a calm afternoon light, spraying those pillars in oranges and pinks, forms one of those lingering memories that I have since packed up and taken home.
Next time, I’ll combine my interest in history with backcountry hikes on the West Coast Trail: a dream-inspiring coastal hike through temperate forest and the traditional territories of the Huu-ay-aht, Ditidaht, and Pacheedaht First Nations , who manage the maintenance of the trail. Pachena Bay Campground, at the north trailhead, is located at the mouth of the Pachena River next to the Huu-ay-aht First Nations community of Anacla, nestled in ancient rainforest next to a long sandy beach which directly faces the open Pacific Ocean.
The end of the road will take me to British Columbia’s capital, Victoria, but I’ve been here before. I make it a point to visit whenever I can, and much like Vancouver, its craft microbreweries and sustainably-minded seafood restaurants offer tranquility for body, mind, and soul. Here the rhythm picks up from the slow-motion forest trails, but the attitude is still one of sharpening perspective; you can feel it in the locals’ own connection to the land and sea around them. And well, they should be happy: because here they have fresh air, space and freedom, where everything in nature feels new.
Plan your adventure with the latest tour operator packages
mountain country (canadian affair)
Take a classic scenic route through British Columbia and Alberta.
Exciting British Columbia (canadian sky)
Hike, bike and raft through British Columbia’s most exciting rapids.
Vancouver Island Explorer (first vacation)
Combine city sophistication with wildlife experiences on a self-drive coastal trip.
Canadian mountain country (Travel bag)
Begin your adventure in vibrant Vancouver before exploring British Columbia and Alberta.
Here on Canada’s west coast, nature and culture welcome you to explore not only new sights, but new sides of yourself. Connect with communities and places that have been shaped in harmony with nature and find yourself in British Columbia on your next vacation.
Learn more at hellobc.com/findyourself
Top Photo: North Vancouver Island Tourism/Steven Fines