Today was our day to see the southwest corner of the island. The highway from Nanaimo to Victoria on this Saturday morning was uncrowded; once again we saw urban deer, although we've yet to see any out in the country. A doe with two fawns cautiously crossed the highway, disappearing into the roadside woods. River Jordan shoreline
Lord Dunsmuir was a coal baron who grew quite wealthy and built two stone castles in Victoria. We drove past Hatley Hall, on a large waterfront acreage surrounded by a matching stone wall, and landscaped with formal Italianate gardens and sculpture. The property is now part of Royal Roads University, formerly a military academy, but the castle has been preserved as a national historic site.
To the Northwest from Victoria, along the shore of the Strait of Juan de Fuca, we came to several little peninsulas, hilly and forested, but filled with farms and exurbanite homes and dead end roads. This was the region of East Sooke. We were directed to a Historic Site, and drove down the road wondering where and what it was, until we saw a sign where the road was flanked with tall Lombardy poplars. They were planted in 1903 by Mr. Henry C. Helgesen to grace the entrance to his farm, Sherbrook -- that was the Historic Site!
We came to a beachside RV Park, and then followed a NO TURN AROUND AFTER HERE sign through a mile or so of sharp hilly curves to Pearson College, named after the former Canadian Prime Minister. It's a small college in an idyllic setting deep in an old forest, and belongs to the United World Colleges. We checked on the net and discovered there are United World Colleges on all continents. Can anyone tell us more? Recently logged slope
After Sooke there were no more towns. The road continued to Port Renfrew, 84 kilometers away. An ominous sign said there was no gas there. But our map showed a bright red line along the coast, and a light red line heading inland from Port Renfrew, and we had plenty of gas, so we soldiered on.
Things became clearer in the town of River Jordan, located at the mouth of the Jordan River. We were in logging country, and this was a typical company town. There was one of those public relations story boards that logging companies have put up describing their stewardship of the land, their reforestation, the jobs they create, and their community services. But we saw no one in the town of River Jordan.
As the road corkscrewed along this difficult coast, we had little chance to view the nearby ocean, but a good many indications that this entire stretch of coast is like a huge agribusiness, where coniferous trees are harvested and replanted in a thirty- to sixty-year cycle.
We drove up the street and back in Port Renfrew, deciding on a place for lunch. There was one place with take-out sandwiches, and a very large and new Lighthouse Restaurant which wasn't open yet, and a tiny little place -- the site of the former gas station -- called the Galleon Cafe. As soon as we walked in we knew we had made the right choice.
Gary Pearson retired after 20 years in the operations room of Canadian The Harris Creek Spruce Navy destroyers, and settled in Port Renfrew. Now he fishes for food fish and for specimens for the three huge aquaria in the restaurant, while his wife, Karen, cooks. Gary gave us a copy of a book he and Karen had written about Urban Archaeology -- finding amazing old items wherever people start digging. Then he showed us a mural of all the shipwrecks in the Strait of Juan de Fuca. He explained that the tide comes boiling through a 3000-foot trench but has to get forced over one shoal spot that's only 100 feet deep, so it produces huge waves -- which have been known to grow to 100 feet in height. These waves would lift the ships' anchors right off the bottom and toss them to their doom on the rocky coast. Some of the ships weren't even caught by bad storms, but were forced to wait at anchorage for clearance from the B.C. government before discharging their cargo of men with gold fever.
They gave us a map showing the logging road to Lake Cowichan -- that was the light red line we planned on driving. "Good road," he told us, "takes an hour and fifteen minutes." Port Renfrew is experiencing some hard times now because the logging rights were bought by a New Zealand company and all the local workers are laid off, so it's either fishing or tourism (or, perhaps, movie making.) Gary told us that the salmon fishery would be coming back tremendously next year due to letting the fish get back up the rivers to spawn.
Meanwhile we were enjoying our lunch and listening to this wealth of information!
Whenever anyone's in Port Renfrew, they should head straight for the Roadside Stream Galleon Cafe for good food and conversation from Karen and Gary Pearson!
Leaving the coast from Port Renfrew, we drove for an hour and a half through logging country. There was much more cutting than we had seen along the coast road. Sometimes a line of trees by the road disguises an expanse of stumps and tree. The loggers seem to be oblivious to the steepness of the terrain; trees are cut from steep mountains as well as flatter areas. At Harris Creek we followed a short trail to the Harris Creek Spruce, an enormous old tree protected by a low fence. Its age and present circumstances are a mystery but it would seem to be safe from chainsaws.
Now that we've had two drives to the back country of Vancouver Island (Tofino and Port Renfrew) and had a good look at the countryside, we understand more about the geography. The First Nations only inhabited the areas close to shore, because the forests were dark and difficult and dangerous, and the sea supplied virtually all their needs. Similarly, the early exploitation of the resources focused on sea otter pelts and fishing. The lumber companies prefer to get their felled trees to water, so they can be pulled around by towboats to the mills on shore. Great parts of this country remain without roads, and many British Columbia communities are reached only by water.