Summer came cautiously, ponderously to the west coast, retracting on occasion under the stern oppression of unseasonably leaden skies. The sun stole over the mountain peaks, the alighted upon the tips of the trees, the city high-rise, scrapping the skies, then finally the greens, the sticky pavements and the restful waters of the inlet, embracing the city and embraced in turn by the warming rays. June began to wane and with it my time in Vancouver, but there was time enough for a ponderous exploration of my own, a false start to the west a little further, before the commencement of my journey at large, from west to east, hopefully from coast to coast.
My visit to Vancouver Island had long been planned; I had wanted to return, at length, ever since first stepping ashore there, for one brief afternoon, in the summer of 2006, when I saw the provincial capital ensconced within a large bay at the southern end of the landmass, Victoria. I had subsequently discovered that there is a household in the eastern Island city of Nanaimo with whom I share some particularly tenuous familial link and further acquaintances through friends in Victoria and further north. Thus I had been busy in the winter months establishing contact with these various groups, hoping to enrich my time upon the Island with opportunistic calls upon these folk. Alas, even before I set foot upon that expanse of rock once more, two of my three options had been terminated: my Vancouver-based friend from Victoria would be unable to journey with me due to work commitments and the couple to the north of this city would be - oh, the irony - returned to England for their yearly visit whilst I planned to be in their regular locale. These minor setbacks, dealing upheaval to my intended itinerary all the same (and coupled with the decidedly messy aftermath of my infamous night on the town with 'db' work colleagues the preceding weekend) saw me oscillating over departure dates for some two days, encroaching into my already limited period set aside for my trip.
My mind decided, a date determined at last, I yielded to spontaneity once more, gladly and it was with a light heart that I stood, leaning above the stern of the channel ferry destined to carry me across the short expanse to the eastern shore of the Island, gazing upon the diminishing mass of the mainland receding in our wake. In my pocket resided a one-way bus ticket to Tofino, a small surfing community on the Island's mid-western flank, a final outpost before the Pacific. The small town - little more than a typical village discovered and delighted over by the tourist and the international surfer (with typical results) - lies some four hours by bus from Nanaimo, the port-town terminus for my ferry. I had it in mind to see the Pacific, to journey over rugged, mountainous Island interior, carpeted with lush, verdant, temperate rainforest and to walk the furthest western extremity of this vast country, its smells rushing through my nose, its sounds resounding in my ears. I had no firm sense of duration here, nor did I seek such; hence the open-endedness of my single ticket: I am a traveller, I am travelling and I shall conduct my wanderings at such a whimsical, liberated tempo as that for which I and so many others yearn.
Tofino transpired to be a delight. I arrived in the strong sunshine of the late afternoon, the sea-salt thick upon the energetic breeze. I gathered my bags from the bus, received detailed directions to the local hostel from the helpful bus driver and set off down a narrow road, populated sporadically with vehicles, more resting beside the way rather than actually journeying along its path: I believe that perhaps two cars passed by me during my five-minute amble along a main street and then a smaller capillary, ending in a picturesque cul-de-sac at the water's edge. The hostel stood on a small bluff, one hundred meters or so from the shoreline. Thankfully, although the summer season was all but upon the town, there remained space enough at the traveller's guest-house for one more body.
I settled in for a brief yet enjoyable two nights in the town. The hostel was spacious, airy and endowed with the appearance of great strength in its beautiful, extensive use of mighty wooden beams and paneling throughout the building. The social sitting-room looked out through grand, towering windows down towards the water and out beyond, across to the neighbouring Meares Island, with its majestic peak, Lone Cone. It was towards this sight that my attention settled that first evening and a little discreet inquiring soon brought me into conversation with two Germans and a Swiss, all of whom had a similar intention to climb the peak the following day. So it was that in an admirably Germanic fashion, we had soon detailed our journey for the following morning, including preparation of supplies, a meeting time and a booking with the local water taxi, entrusted to convey us across the small stretch of water to the trailhead for our desired hike.
The following day dawned misty and chill, but we were confident that such an oceanic shroud would burn off in good time for our cresting of the summit sometime towards mid-day. We began our hike in high spirits and - perhaps not surprisingly, considering my choice of companions - were soon making commendably swift progress (I have a suspicion that all German and Swiss folk are born with hiking boots already snugly fitted to their feet, a map and compass in hand). Alas, our hasty pace was soon to prove our undoing as Frank, the older of the two Germans, fell whilst attempting to navigate a particularly muddy section a little too hurriedly. Although we three companions fathomed little from the misfortune initially, it soon became apparent from Frank's wounded expression and timorous speech that he had in fact hurt himself rather badly. Thus we found ourselves without medical equipment of even a basic nature, or even a functioning mobile phone from which to alert the necessary individuals (the water taxi driver for instance) of our plight. Fortune soon decided, happily, to smile upon us, as we half-carried and whole-heartedly encouraged Frank on a tedious retracing of our steps back towards the trailhead and on to the beach upon which we first alighted from the taxi some hour earlier. Progress painfully slow, and literally so for poor Frank, we ran across two girls attempting the same hike, one of whom had a mobile that we were able to borrow to alert the ferryman to our situation.
The rest of the shuffling walk back to the beach stretched into hours; we arrived back in time to rendezvous with the water taxi at mid-day, by which time - in another life - we had intended to be attaining the summit, not the base, of the mountain. Of course, Frank was our priority and there was never any question that we would rescue him before considering a second attempt at the hike. Frank safely deposited back within the boat, on his way to Tofino's small medical outpost and an x-ray that would confirm a hairline fracture of his fibula, we three survivors decided to double our efforts - and our caution - to attempt the hike a second time. On this occasion, all remained well and I was able to soak up the sights, smells and humidity of the temperate rainforest at close quarters. The forest covering the slopes of Lone Cone, all the way up to its summit was alive with twisting creepers, colourful flowers and towering trees, some stunningly vast in girth and height. Cicadas chirped, birds sang and mosquitoes whined in the dappled sunlight, bouncing off the crowded undergrowth, occasionally finding a route intact to reach down and warm our heads, necks and labouring limbs.
The route up was arduous, steep and slow. I have climbed many hills and mountains, both over the course of this trip and beforehand, but none have been as vertical and as challenging as this: many times I felt my laborious step slip, struggling for purchase on the sheer incline, hands whirling in panicked motion, seeking hopefully, desperately for balance, for physical support from a branch or root. Our ascent was swift and taxing: we rose 800 meters in just over two hours, gaining the summit in a little over half the time estimated for such an effort (my apologies for the self-exultation contained within my tone: I feel rather proud of the feat, if only as a lasting mental balm to counteract the exhaustion and flagellating mindset felt once at the peak). By now the time was approaching three o'clock in the afternoon and the cloud had burned off as much as it was ever likely to: alas, much of it remained to obscure the breath-taking view and chill our heaving frames with a cold, persistent drizzle. Still, we were elated with our success and settled down for a much-deserved lunch of sandwiches, fruit and energy bars. As we sat, hunched upon the least soaked of the fallen trunks dotted around the summit, the rain cleared and the clouds lifted, fractionally. We were able at this point to make out the sleepy town of Tofino, lying below us and across the small channel, seemingly unchanging and accepting of its lot in the world. Beyond, the land fell away into the vastness of the Pacific, stretching out towards the horizon, where water met cloud in a hazy union. Lying north and south, shoring up the peripherals of this beautiful sight, rising sweeps of green erupted from the watery depths, snagging first wispy and then more corporeal gatherings of damp whites and sullen grey. It felt humble to stand, so small, and look out over the vastness of the scene and yet, by the same token, it seemed grand as well. I imagined the scores of people who had stood, just as I did now, and cast their eyes across this view, startled their senses with such a marvellous vista, in such a wondrous setting.
The necessary descent was far harder for me than the preceding climb: my knees have never been particularly sturdy and they especially despise the persistent pressure applied by a walk of any nature in a downward direction. Upon this occasion, of course, I had chosen to outdo my customary expectations of a hike and said knees were not at all impressed - two days later, I was still hobbling slightly in the fashion of a tormented runner, foolhardy in their persistent motion even as they crash against their physical 'wall'. Seeking to close my ears, if not my neurons, to the condemnation issuing belligerently from my joints, I focused upon taking photographs of the gorgeous natural scenery roundabout and making light conversation with my two remaining companions, now more akin to mountain-goats than I could ever hope to be and, indeed, than I could appreciate in my current place of subversive, shrieking discomfort. Once again, we made good time and arrived back at the beach in plenty of time to meet the water taxi one final time. I returned to a warm shower, followed by a merry evening of entertainment with some new friends from the hostel (who had wisely decided to refrain from the day's hiking exertion) at a local bar, where we were serenaded by some rather talented regulars making good upon the provision of an 'open mic'.
The following day, which broke warm and light for me after a night of virtuous abstention from all things alcoholic, I departed Tofino with my Australian friend Lanfar, with whom I had passed the previous evening singing along to Johnny Cash numbers and who had travelled to the town with his car from his familial base further east in Qualicum Bay, to the north of Nanaimo. Lanfar dropped me in Parksville, from whence I hopped aboard a bus bound for Nanaimo itself and a rendezvous with Jacki and her children, distant relatives or a sort from the side of one of my non-biological aunts. I was on the road once more and already I was meeting interesting, warm-hearted people to colour the various scenes along the way: roll on Nanaimo and further adventure!
Best wishes to all!