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Nature hugging in backcountry B.C.

Globe and Mail

It’s 9 a.m. on a juddering, loose-stone logging road that could easily dislodge a filling or two. For most visitors to northern Vancouver Island’s Port Hardy region, this is exactly the kind of potholed dust track to avoid taking your hire car on. But for north islanders, it’s a well-known access route to backcountry bliss.


“We wanted to bring people to the places locals go,” says driver Chris, expertly weaving his chunky-tired van past tall stands of sun-dappled alder and hemlock trees. He and his partner Anna – along for today’s ride with a friendly Port Hardy hiker named Courtney – launched Cove Adventure Tours earlier this year.


Around 60km east of town, the gnarly old forests, vast deserted beaches and surprisingly quirky history of the region’s rugged Cape Scott Provincial Park are today’s camera-luring focal points. But first, there’s an essential pit stop to make.


It’s a little early for Lucky Lagers at the remote Scarlet Ibis Pub but owner Pat is a bagged lunch expert. The chatty landlady – “I came for pizza in 1978, bought the place in 1981 and I’ve been here ever since,”– is a twinkle-eyed local legend. After I admire the grand inlet views from her back deck, she also tells me the bar is for sale.


Daydreaming about my pub-owning prospects, we’re soon back on track, a black bear sauntering in front of us only briefly slowing our progress. By the time we reach the park’s trailhead, the ferny foliage has closed in, beady-eyed ravens are croaking our arrival and a cloudless blue sky is framing a crowd of towering trees.


Senses heightened as we enter the shaded, cathedral-quiet trail – it’s an easy 45-minute stroll to our first stop – tiny white dogwood flowers stud the feet of centuries-old western red cedars. Bearded with lichen or warted with large burls, some are kingly giants, making me crick my neck to gaze at their distant crowns.


Frisbee-sized fungi jut from some trees, while others wind around each other in sinuous symbiotic hugs. But when a gaggle of beatifically grinning hikers pass in the opposite direction, the sound of swishing waves breaks the silence. Bright blue sky paints the widening cracks between the branches ahead like a stained glass window.


We’re soon blinking in the sudden, overwhelming sunlight of San Josef Bay beach. A vast swathe of soft white sand backed by dense trees and framed on either side by forested slopes, we’re the only visitors, apart from a couple of families and some distant foraging shorebirds.


Hitting the beach like giddy five-year-olds, we collect sand dollar shells and smooth driftwood pucks, peering into small, anemone-packed pools. Gathering for lunch around the stacks – the beach’s volcanic rock towers, each covered in wild flowers and bonsai-sized hemlock trees – I comment on my unusually relaxed state, making a mental note to buy that pub and relocate as soon as possible.  


Reluctantly tearing ourselves away, we eventually zigzag back along the sand. Back in the forest, we soon find an intriguing plaque among the trees, indicating the site of a shop that once stood here. In the early 1900s, many hardy settlers arrived in this area, carving homesteads from the dense undergrowth.


Promised an access road that never came, the settlers slowly drifted away – except one. Bernt Ronning built his home here in 1910, sustaining himself as a trapper and fisherman until the 1960s. Passionate about horticulture, he also created one of the province’s most astonishing private gardens.


Ordering seeds from around the world, he planted everything from rhododendrons to Swedish whitebeam trees. And although the forest quickly reclaimed his remote five-acre garden after his death, a local couple restored much of it in the 1980s, making it freely accessible to visitors who could find it.


Only the hardiest plants survived, including a pair of monkey puzzle trees that are perhaps B.C.’s oldest. One of these giants died recently, but its 100-foot-high partner remains, covering the sky like an eclipse when I stand beneath it. More than 20 of its offspring now dot the garden, keeping Ronning’s green-thumbed dream alive.


Back on the road, there’s time for a bonus stop before our late-afternoon Port Hardy return. Driving up a steep logging road that provides panoramic side-views of the bucolic slopes, we reach the hidden gem Goodspeed Fossil Bed. “We’ve only just discovered this ourselves and we’re tying to find out more about it,” says Anna.


Almost 250 metres above sea level, it’s a shallow, walk-in shale pit. Picking-up some flat, angular rocks, most are laced with delicate shell patterns, fossilized reminders of an ocean-submerged ancient past. A surprising finale to my restorative off-grid day out, it’s another reminder to buy that pub and join the locals here permanently.


If you go:

Cove Adventure Tours offers several guided hikes in the region, including the all-day San Josef Bay and Ronning’s Garden Tour ($140 per person). Tours run until the end of September. Information:

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