Getting Lost in Nanaimo’s Backcountry

I’m well aware that if the Land Cruiser tips over, the worst we’ll suffer will be bruised egos and the conundrum of how to roll a beast of a machine back onto its wheels out in the middle of nowhere. But the Cruiser is fidgeting at a rather precarious angle and for a few tense moments, Julia and I hold our breath, and I plaster myself as far back as I can into my seat, as though my slightest counterbalance will magically upright the vehicle. Shayd, behind the wheel, carefully makes adjustments, shifts from drive to reverse, back and forth, back and forth…

…and finally the Cruiser is upright, or at least as upright as it can be on the steep, rocky trail, and we’re delicately making our way forward, barely clearing the trees clustered tightly around us.

We’re in the backcountry surrounding the coastal city of Nanaimo, located on Vancouver Island. The Island’s size always surprises visitors. When I worked for Destination BC, writing travel information for their website, one of our most oft-repeated facts was that Vancouver Island, at 32,137km sq/12,408mi sq, is just slightly larger than the country of Belgium. It takes nearly 8 hours to drive from the southern tip to the north, and much of that is through small towns, one lane highway through forest and the occasional mountain pass and along stunning coastline. On the east side of the island, the mountain ranges of the mainland can be seen, and on the west side, the Olympic peninsula of Washington state. Further north, it’s nothing but the endless horizon of the Pacific Ocean.

So after a weekend spent driving down logging roads, across creek beds, and up rocky, narrow trails that I never dreamed a vehicle could tackle, I’m feeling a tinge of anxiety that Vancouver Island still holds a million secret, stunning places and I won’t have the time to see them all. I’d driven through Nanaimo countless times, for example, and had never considered what might be hidden away just a short ride from its downtown.

We visited a lofty ridge looking out over what had been dense forest, and was now pocked with swathes of clear cut. At a certain time in summer, the air there is filled with hummingbirds. From there, we were led to a secret cabin, likely built by the ATVers that frequent the area’s trails, one of those places where someone’s pet project turns into a shared space, stocked with second hand pots and pans, sleeping mats and an axe to chop wood for the cast iron stove.

The view from the cabin’s fire pit was incredible, lights from small coastal towns glimmering directly beneath us, and the mountains of the Sunshine coast rising in the distance on the mainland. The cabin became our home for the night, and we drank beer and bourbon and made dinner over the fire. Shayd kept the stove hot throughout the night and it was a comfortable sleep within the rustic walls.

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The next morning, we did get lost, but never really, truly lost, and drove up and down the logging roads, listening to music, stumbling across mirror-surfaced lakes and passing ragged stumps of once mighty trees. We relocated to the hills above the Nanaimo Lakes, and promptly got lost again, but let the unexpected twists and turns lead us to a camping spot along the shores of a lake.

From our site, a waterfall could be heard roaring somewhere off in the distance. A little beach made a perfect canoe launch, and previous campers had left behind plenty of material to feed the campfire. We took turns paddling the canoe around the lake, cast the fishing rod (some bites, no catch), and Julia and I sat along the lake’s edge and sketched and whittled twigs, basking in the patches of sunshine that blew through.

The weather that day was a character in itself, at times warm and embracing, or weeping in thick swathes of rain shower, then throwing a tantrum, spitting hail down at us. But we took it in stride, and the three of us piled in the canoe and moved to fish off the sandbar across the lake and watched the weather cut down the slopes of the surrounding mountains and sweep across the surface of the water.

It was one of those weekends where most things did not go according to plan but I left feeling like everything had been perfect. Sometimes it’s not about having good weather or reaching your ultimate destination– it’s more about a thoughtful tour guide, the hospitality of the locals, spending time with a close friend. It’s taking a chance on a last minute plan change, finding adventure in the small moments and, well, let’s be honest: having access to a rugged 4×4 vehicle in which you can also sleep when it pours rain all night.

You can see more photos from the weekend on Shayd’s website.

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