The Heart of the Island

Trip Start Jun 12, 2012
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Trip End Oct 18, 2012


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Where I stayed
Buttle Lake Campground

Flag of Canada  , British Columbia,
Saturday, July 7, 2012

Howdy folks,

After two nights at Pacific Rim, it was time to head back to the east coast. We packed up the camp gear after a very bacon breakfast. Steffie introduced us to bacon wrapped prunes which sounds weird, but heated it is quite a delicious mix of sweet and salty. We left the Tsunami Hazard Zone and stopped in Port Alberni to put in our first fuel since Vancouver. Continuing on we stopped in Cathedral Grove which is home to some very big trees and the biggest had a 9m circumference. We also stopped at the other end of Cameron Lake which was a beautiful sight. A short distance later was Little Qualicum Falls where we did a loop trail past the lower and upper falls and had lunch in the picnic area surrounded by German tourists.

I had heard about Coombs Country Market from my ex-colleague Linna and so just before Parksville we stopped there to take a look. I didn't realise how big it was with so many cars parked along the roadside and market stalls lining a concrete plaza filled with different stone animal statues. It was such a weird sight in the middle of nowhere and it had quite a few hippy shops. The actual market was pretty cool to see from the outside with the low, grassy roof with obligatory goats walking around. But when we walked in to take a look we were very surprised at what we found. Inside it was quite big with many different imported foods from just about every country. There was Vegemite and Marmite along with fresh smoked salmon, marzipan, fresh bread, digestive biscuits and candy. There were plenty of knick knacks, wooden toys and a café and deli section. The collective assortment of just about every type of merchandise in a market in the middle of nowhere was a pleasant and fantastic surprise! It reminded me of the central markets which are something I’ve been bitterly missing since I left home. Banff just doesn’t cater to the foodie within.

Once back on the road we passed through the seaside towns of Parksville and Qualicum Beach which reminded me of typical Australian beach towns. The weather hit a scorching 22 degrees so we stopped at the latter for a dip in the ocean. We had to walk across some pebbles before reaching the sand and there were plenty of crabs, small fish and even a few jellyfish in the water. The ocean was indeed teeming with life! Steffie and I were the only ones game for a swim and the water was warm for the first 30cms so we just floated about in the shallows. Coming to a beach and taking a swim was definitely marking the summer now.

We followed the coastal highway up to our destination of the twin cities of Courtenay and Comox which are separated by a river. Comox is home to a large Canadian Air Force base and Courtenay was just a typical city. We checked into the Best Western Plus and lay down in a proper bed for the first time since Vancouver which was fantastic. After checking in with the virtual world and getting the laundry out of the way, we had a lazy evening in the hotel room and even went downstairs to take a swim in the pool. It was definitely good to re-join society and have a bathe!

It was a lazy morning this morning, we eventually got ready and checked out at 11am. We didn’t have far to travel so we could take it easy. Continuing along the coast road, we stopped in at Campbell River to check the place out. We didn’t know much about the place other than it was a good place to buy supplies for Strathcona Provincial Park, so we took a walk towards Discovery Pier. What we discovered that it was the 25th anniversary of this tiny fishing pier was the first purpose built saltwater fishing pier in Canada and to celebrate there was free cake and icecream. I decided to upgrade to the waffle cone for an extra twoonie and when it was brought out to me it was absolutely massive. Dave, Jack and Steffie also got one and we spent the next 20 minutes sitting on the pier trying to eat them. Dave and Jack gave up towards the end, but Steffie and I persevered like true gluttons and finished the lot. Ice cream and the seaside is definitely a summery combination! We took a walk through downtown and checked out some totem poles in the local park.

After a browse of downtown shops we left the boys and headed to the Maritime Museum. It is home to the fully restored BCP 45, a fishing trawler that was in use for 50 years until it was retired and placed in the museum. It is famous for being on the Canadian $5 note in the 70s and 80s when it was still in active service. These types of museums can be a bit hit and miss, but this one was pretty good. All the displays were pretty clean and well labelled in areas like sounders, naval swords and guns, outboard motors and the tiny ships in glass bottles. We were in there for nearly an hour before we had to catch up with the boys.

Our last stop in Campbell River was to buy supplies for our two night adventure in Strathcona Provincial Park. It was only 50kms or so to the park gate where we first saw Buttle Lake. The lake was pretty long but not that wide. We stopped in the information centre which was run by a Liverpudlian geriatric named Gerry. The guy had great pleasure in telling us that he had to drive from Gold River every day and has to pay his own fuel in addition to his many hospital adventures. I guess that he has a lot of time to himself in the tiny volunteer hut. Nevertheless it was interesting to hear about some of the things to do around the park and we settled into the Buttle Lake Campground.

There are only two drive-in campgrounds and this is the first and most northern in the park. After finding a site and setting up camp, we went for a walk down to the lakeshore where the boys were adamant that they were going to go for a swim in the freezing waters. Not to be left out, they bet me that I should swim to the island with them. Dave was a little more hesitant than Jack and he was the last one in the water. The temperature was absolutely freezing and it made swimming to the island pretty difficult even though it was short. Dave cheated by walking some of the way on the island bank, but we all swam the way back. It was refreshing and invigorating.

We had a full free day to explore Strathcona Provincial Park the next day and I couldn’t go back to sleep when I woke up at 6am, so I took a look with Steffie at some of the points of interest and hikes that the park had to offer. We settled on the Phillips Ridge hike to Arnica Lake. With a waterfall, alpine meadow and lake it seemed to offer a lot. After the boys were up and ready, we drove the 37kms down to the bottom of Buttle Lake. From there we drove through a large open cut mining area which had a kilometre long conveyor belt and a couple of open pools. We parked in the parking lot and left at 11am to trek the 6kms and 800m elevation to Arnica Lake. The estimated trek to the top was 2-5 hours so we knew it would take a while. The trail wouldn’t itself through old growth forest and before long we came to the waterfall which tumbled steeply over the granite steps. Next came the never-ending switchbacks over a poorly maintained trail that had fallen trees over many sections which required diversions or vaulting over. By 1pm it was clear that we weren’t climbing as fast as we needed to and the only people we saw on the trail was a family from Toronto that were doing a 7 day trek with heavy packs. Steffie was struggling and out of breath so eventually the decision was made to let the boys go on ahead to the lake. Steffie was determined to make it to the top, but unfortunately the steady upwards grade had taken its toll on her so we started turning back at 2:30pm. Not long later the boys came bounding back down the trail. Apparently they had only gotten to the ridgeline and then the snow had forced them to turn around (in July!) so they hadn’t seen the lake. It took 2 hours to descend and we reached the car at 4:30pm. Certainly the longest hike any of us had done and we were all exhausted.

To recover we made a stop at Lower Myra Falls to go for a swim. There was a 500m trail going down to the waterfall which was one of the most beautiful we have ever seen. The water cascaded over a series of pool before emptying into the Buttle Lake. There was even a rainbow at the end of it! It was 26 degrees so we excitedly took off our shoes and tested the water which was bloody freezing. It was probably the most cold water I have ever swam in, more cold than the lake the day before. We were all hot and bothered so we took a quick dip, but it was magic just to swim in a waterfall.

We made a few quick stops on the way back at the other campground, Auger Point and Lupin Falls. Dave thought he could see money at the bottom of the falls so he rapidly took off his shoes to go and retrieve it. Unfortunately the cold water only revealed some pure white, quarter-sized stones instead. Back at the tent, we spent the evening taking it easy lazing along the lakeshore and playing some cards. Not a bad way to relax after a hard day’s hiking!
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