Tofino – Beaches, Big Trees and Bears

After leaving Cathedral Grove, we made for Tofino out on the western coast in the Pacific Rim National Park. The town is situated at the tip of a peninsula amongst a cluster of islands and inlets.

Rather than three trees – this photograph is actually taken in the space between three leaders which arise from a single bole.

The temperate rainforests along this stretch of the coast are stunning – we walked the steps and boardwalks through the luscious greenery admiring the towering trees above and their tiny delicate lichen analogues below. The parallels with the temperate rainforests in the UK – such as those found in Wales – are apparent through their determination to green every available space – as you can see in the image of the wooden boardwalk below!

Boardwalk covered with mosses and ferns

One day we walked through the forest to reach Schooner Cove – one of the stretches of pristine sandy beaches which line the Pacific – and another, we walked the length of MacKenzie Beach watching surfers learning the waves whilst sandpipers foraged along the shoreline.

Sandpipers and sanderlings feeding along the shoreline in MacKenzie Beach

The beaches around Vancouver Island were almost all headed up with bleached-white driftwood – presumably pulled clear to lie well above the strandline. These are no mere branches – the timber at the top is often entire trees. Where these piles were well established, they provided nice little ecological niches, with plants establishing within the hollows and small birds foraging in amongst the cavities their huge trunks crated.

Driftwood piled artistically with a crow sat at the apex – corvids were frequently to be seen foraging for morsels along the shore

Whilst we saw plenty of the grey squirrels, sadly all to familiar in the UK now, we also saw some much smaller species too, such as this one which popped up to see us at Long Beach. There are two similar species – Douglas and American Red squirrels – which are tricky to tell apart to the unfamiliar eye. Fortunately their distributions are rather different – Douglas squirrel is not found on Vancouver Island.

American Red squirrel along Long Beach, Tofino

In the late summer/early autumn, the black bears frequently spend time along the shore, foraging under rocks and boulders for crabs and other rockpool treats. We had hoped to join a kayaking trip out to see the bears, but the organisers said it was too late as the bears were heading back inland to follow the salmon runs. However another outfit just around the corner was still running trips – sadly not by kayak – so we hopped on and went out to watch them! The tour leader was very experienced and spotted the ‘right kind’ of black blob at a great distance when it was merely a spec on the shoreline. On closer approach, he cut the engine and idled slowly and silently close enough for us to watch the bears without disturbing them.

Black bear foraging along the shoreline in Tofino

Watching the bears overturn the boulders as though they were simply pebbles to be pushed out of their way allows you to appreciate quite how powerful these creatures really are. Whilst we never saw another wild bear on our travels, it was great to be able to observe this natural behaviour without needing to worry too much about our exit strategy!

​On our last day, we took a kayaking trip out around Clayoquot Sound, including a walk around the Big Tree Trail on Meares Island. The staggering trees include cedars which are between 1,000 and 1,500 years old. These spectacular beings came scarily close to destruction in 1984 when MacMillan Bloedel prepared to log the island. The Tla-o-qui-aht Tribal Council declared the entire Island a Tribal Park and successfully gained an injunction against the company which has allowed these treasures to be preserved to this day. The arrogance of the proposal to log the island hit me quite strongly – after standing for 1,000 years or more, why should this generation and this company decide that these ancient trees were theirs to take? Much more chilling is to think of the vast expanses of forest which didn’t escape this fate.

The cloud hanging over the wooded islands around Clayoquot Sound, Tofino
The view from the kayak on a beautiful Sunday morning.

Next stop – Victoria out on the eastern tip of Vancouver Island!


Vancouver Island – Sea-mist in Nanaimo

After Squamish, we headed out to Horseshoe Bay and caught the late afternoon ferry across to Vancouver Island – landing in Nanaimo just as darkness fell.

Our first sunset views of Vancouver Island on the ferry from the mainland
We stayed just up the coast a little from the town itself, and woke the next morning to see the sea concealed with an inversion lit by blue skies and sunshine above.

The mist beginning to clear over the ocean between Lantzville and Vancouver as the morning wore on
We hastily corrected our plans and headed out to Moorecroft Park in Nanoose to make the most of the surreal scenery. Here we walked down to the silent shoreline and watched hawks, vultures and cormorants whilst the mist rolled down the wooded hillside to reach the sea.

Mist rolling down from Vancouver Island to reach the sea in Moorecroft Park, Nanoose.

Mist rolling down from Vancouver Island to reach the sea in Moorecroft Park, Nanoose.

Trees barely visible through the mist at Moorecroft Park, Nanoose.

Turkey vulture beside the shoreline in Moorecroft Park, Nanoose
We spent the afternoon walking around Protection Island, watching seals in the harbour from the Floating Pub, before heading inland the next day to Cathedral Grove.

The view up amongst the giants of Cathedral Grove
Sadly, the main draw of Cathedral Grove is that it is one of the few remaining stands of the old growth forest which is otherwise now largely lost. Here, the largest trees are 800 years old, measuring 9m in circumference and towering to a colossal 75m. This habit is markedly different to the growth patterns of old broadleaf trees in the UK – I recently climbed some 35m high black poplars but this is easily the highest I’ve ever been in the canopies. Our broadleaf trees grow oldest when they are coppiced or pollarded and never reach these heights – for example the Bowthorpe Oak – thought to be over 1000 years old, has a circumference of 13m but stands barely 15m high.

Dipping into the edge of Lake Cameron
As well as admiring the trees themselves, there were the decorations of bryophytes draped over the branches and hanging down in straggled strands – the most appropriately named being the Witches Hair lichen.

Trailing bryophytes amongst the lower branches of the confers in Cathedral Grove.
Next stop – heading out to admire the rainforests and the Pacific Ocean in Tofino!

Squamish – Sea to Sky

We’ve just returned from an amazing couple of weeks spent on and around Vancouver Island in British Columbia and I’m still processing all the sights and experiences. Vancouver island is extensive, BC is huge and Canada is just colossal – I’m aware that we only scratched the smallest surface of this stunning destination but I thought I’d share below a few of the highlights from the trip. First stop, Squamish!

This town is nestled between the mountains and the sea and claims the title of ‘the Outdoor Recreation Capital of Canada‘. I can see why… whilst my fingers itched to join the climbers scaling boulders and pitches all around, we had only a few days and there was adventure enough without taking to the vertical!

A view of the Strawamus Chief, taken at sunset from Smoke Bluffs with Squamish town nestled below

The Strawamus Chief hangs above the town and we were lucky enough to have a perfect view of this iconic mountain from our window. At night you could watch the stars wheel overhead whilst mornings would see the peak revealed or otherwise concealed by rolling clouds which permitted glimpses in silhouette before billowing it back into obscurity.

Starlapse over the Strawamus Chief

We walked the Chief trail which can take you up to all three consecutive peaks of this enticing prominence. Although time conspired against a view from the peak, the route up from Shannon Falls was spectacular – a combination of natural path and the built elements such as log-steps and boardwalks required to surmount the otherwise impassable. The forest which hugged the base and through which the path ascended was our first real view of the eerily beautiful bryophyte-hung conifers which we were to become familiar with over the next few weeks.

Shannon Falls etching its way through the deep conifer forests which crowd around it


A grey second day took us out along the Mamquam river which empties into the Sound at the foot of the town. The salmon runs were just beginning and we walked through the gravel banks amongst saplings and driftwood to watch their backs breaching the ripples as they spawned in the shallows.

These runs bring the eagles in the winter where thousands can be seen taking advantage of the fish – the record count in 1994 was 3,769! Sadly we were a little too early  as they peak in November.

The humped back of a spawning male pink salmon (Oncorhynchus gorbuska) breaching the water in Mamquam river.

The salmon die after spawning and we saw many dead along the gravel banks, as well as failing and foundering in the river itself. This seemed a sad sight, but the runs of salmon from the oceans to the rivers, and their subsequent demise in freshwater, are a vital ecosystem function in transferring nutrients from one location to the other. The fish are caught or scavanged by a wide variety of species, from bears and eagles to mink, otter, gulls and vultures. This is transferred to the land through droppings, but also manually moved by bears in particular who will take the fish into the forest but often feed only on the most select parts, leaving the rest to be scavanged or simply to break down and decompose. One study in south-eastern Alaska found that up to 25% of the nitrogen in the foliage of trees was derived from spawning salmon which makes this miraculous migration a key component of the forest ecosystem.

One of the many salmon carcasses which contribute to a vital upstream flow of nutrients

Our stay backed onto Smoke Bluffs and we took a couple of walks in the trails which weave through this forest. With huge boulders scattered amongst the conifers, and no shortage of mountain bikers willing to throw themselves down them, the trails were somewhat more challenging than the average stroll through the woods but all the more exciting for it. Whilst the evidence of others was apparent, we found ourselves alone; the sense of stillness and quiet in those woods was unlike everything I’ve ever experienced, shielded by high canopies above with all sounds softened by the sea of ferns which lapped the edges of the trail. Down low too were some beautiful lichen forests, emulating their larger neighbours in miniature.

Lichens growing within a bed of moss upon the rocks in Smoke Bluff park

One our last day, before heading on to Horseshoe Bay to catch the ferry across to Nanaimo, we caught the Sea to Sky Gondola for a bird’s eye view of the landscape. Sea to Sky is the name of the route and the region, and it’s not hard to see why – the view from the 885m high peak out across Howe Sound shows what a stunning combination of the elements this place is!

The view out over Howe Sound from the top of the Sea to Sky Gondola

At the summit station were creatures which I first thought to be butterflies, but on closer inspection realised were grasshoppers. I think these are Trimerotropis species and their sustained bouts of flight were unlike any I have seen our UK species do. These noisy ascents would last 10 seconds or more and had the air of a display about them – this is something which females of the genus are known to do when receptive to mating. Whilst conspicuous on the wing, they were perfectly camouflaged against the rocks, disappearing if you took your eye off them only to reappear precisely where you left them!

Trimerotropis grasshopper on the rocks at the Sea to Sky summit

Next stop – Vancouver Island!