If you're visiting the island and plan on doing camping and hiking, make sure you are always prepared for wildlife sightings - in particular bears and cougars. Most marked trails will have warnings posted if an animal has been spotted in the area, and will also usually post tips on how to keep yourself safe. Since my husband had worked in an area where bears were present, he usually carries bear spray with him, and we'll often have a small blade with us when we are camping anyway so often have that with us if we hike. We have never actually run into an animal while hiking, it just helps to always be aware and be prepared.
Some of the most helpful tips I've picked up for a bear are to try and stand as tall as possible and make as much noise as possible. Also don't run - the bear WILL chase you.
For cougars stay calm and confident so you don't appear to be prey. If you have small children with you pick them up immediately as small children can get scared/excited and those quick movements and loud noises may scare the cougar and cause it to attack.
If you are not familiar with how to keep yourself safe, make sure to do some research on these animals before you hike. Most animals will not attack if you take the right precautions.
- Hiking and Walking
The going is slow, even on highways
(work in progress)
When you're planning your road trip around Vancouver Island, you'll probably anticipate that the going will be fairly slow on more minor roads due to the nature of the topography. However, by contrast, you might be encouraged to see a major road - Route 19 (usually known as the Inland Island Highway) - running down the eastern side of the island.
It would be logical to assume that you can make good time on this road, but don't get too excited. The section between Victoria (on the southern tip of the island) and the Parksville turnoff (to Port Alberni and Tofino) is punctuated with frustratingly frequent traffic lights, which disrupt the free flow of traffic and mean that it's hard to make good time on the road. Although the speed limit on this road is 110km/h, our experience suggested that with all that stopping and starting, you'd be lucky to average 70km/h even in light traffic, so take this into account in your planning.
This is particularly important if you have to connect with a ferry in either Departure Bay (Nanaimo) or Swartz Bay (which serves Victoria) and were wondering whether you could get away with cutting your timing fine - my advice would be to veer on the side of caution.
Unpredictable weather requires a flexible schedule
(work in progress)
Let's be charitable - Vancouver Island has an unpredictable climate and the fact that it is vegetated with temperate rain forest should speak volumes about the weather!
To put things into perspective, it rains an average of 206 days a year in Tofino. Actually from a tourist's point of view, the rain usually isn't so much of a problem as the wind and the cloud that may accompany it, which can severely limit your options in a part of the world where the attractions are primarily scenery and wildlife.
We visited Vancouver Island in early October, which is apparently not a bad time of the year to visit weatherwise. We were there for four days, and it rained solidly for three of these - frustratingly the only dry periods were the afternoon that we arrived and the afternoon that we left, and, to add insult to injury, locals took great pleasure in telling us that we'd arrived just as an unprecedented 40 day drought had broken! As a result, we were unable to go whalewatching or orca watching and couldn't take a trip to Hot Springs Cove because of choppy seas and also couldn't do a float plane trip due to poor visibility.
That's not to say that we didn't have a good time - in fact we had an excellent time and found plenty to keep us occupied, despite the atrocious weather - but we didn't get to do most of the things that had attracted us there in the first place, and will probably never have a chance to visit again because it's simply so far.
My advice to people planning a trip to Vancouver Island is to allow yourself sufficient time that you have some 'wiggle room' in which to accommodate the almost inevitable days of bad weather. For people travelling a long distance, I would suggest that a minimum of a week is desirable (although I realise that this isn't always possible) - you certainly won't run short of things to do, and a week also allows you time to leisurely negotiate what are surprisingly long distances on slow roads.
You would also be well advised to retain maximum flexibility within your schedule and take opportunities as they arise. If the weather is clear, then do your float plane trip that day, because it won't necessarily be fine tomorrow. Plan your itinerary by identifying activities that are absolutely 'weather dependent' (boat trips, whale watching, float plane trips) and those which are still possible even if it rains. The good thing about the West Coast climate is that it's mild and seldom - if ever - gets as bitterly cold as the continental interior (though wind chill could cool things down a bit) so it's perfectly possible to do a hike, explore the rain forest or go fishing provided that you have proper waterproof clothing with you.
I would also recommend picking up some of the excellent (free) travel brochures on Vancouver Island, which will allow you to identify alternative activities that you may not previously have considered if the weather takes a turn for the worst - there is a good selection available at the airport and on the BC Ferries, as well as in tourist offices.
And, if all else fails, embrace the opportunity to do a spot of 'storm chasing'!
Bear bells: Jingle all the way!
(work in progress)
When I started to research our trip to Vancouver Island, I was intrigued to come across a passing reference to 'bear bells' in one of toonsarah's tips.
As they say in the classics, "Ïf you go down to the woods today, you're in for a big surprise", and in the context of Canadian forests, the 'big surprise' is not like to be a teddybear picnic, but rather the real thing, red in tooth and claw!
Which is where bear bells come in. These small bells usually come with a velcro attachment so that you can easily fix them onto your rucksack, belt or jacket - if you're into overkill, it is also possible to buy belts that have multiple bells attached, but that seems perilously close to the domain of the bellydancer ...
The logic goes that if you wear bells, the jingling gives the bears advance warning of your presence - so far, so good, but there are two schools of thought on what happens thereafter. The optimists claim that the noise is sufficient to scare the bear away, but I should point out that the noise these bells generate is hardly terrifying, and I can't imagine a bear being so timid as to turn tail and flee on account of a mere tinkle. The cynical maintain that 'bear bells' should be renamed 'dinner bells' and alert the bear to the fact that lunch is on its way!
Whether or not bear bells are effective or just a gimmick, you have to ask yourself whether you really want to jingle your way through the forest sounding like one of Santa's reindeer. For one thing, you'll probably scare away the birds and small animals that you might otherwise see, and irritate yourself and your companions to distraction.
On the upside, bear bells make a tremendous souvenirs, as they are affordable and make a great talking point for the folks back home. They are available in most hiking and outdoors equipment stores, although I ordered mine online and had them shipped to a relative we were staying with as I knew we wouldn't have much time for shopping - these cost less than C$5.
As with so many of my travel souvenirs, mine are going straight on the Christmas tree!
This is not the place to economise on waterproofs!
(work in progress)
To say that it rains a lot on Vancouver Island is an understatement: unless you're a rainforest enthusiast, it's probably one of the wettest places that you'll volunteer to go on holiday, so bear this in mind when you're packing for your trip.
In truth, there is no 'dry' season: it just rains less often and less heavily in summer. By way of context, Tofino gets some sort of rain 260 days a year - that is, about 60% of the time - and has an annual average rainfall of 3.3m a year (about 11 feet in old money)! Yet Tofino is positively dry compared to Henderson Lake - only 50km from Ucluelet - which is officially the wettest place in North America, with a stonking 6.7m of rain a year (although in 1997, it recorded an almost unimaginable 9,479 mm of rain, or well over 30 feet)!.
Rain on Vancouver Island comes in all sorts of forms, from atmospheric sea mist drizzle to torrential downpours. Unsurprisingly, Ucluelet's Brynnor Mines holds the Canadian record for the greatest precipitation recorded over a 24hour period: 489.2 mm (1.5 feet) which fell on October 6, 1967.
By now, you should be getting the message that this is not a place that you should venture with cheap rainwear! When making your choice, bear in mind that although it rains a lot, the climate is otherwise fairly mild, with few days falling below zero, due to the moderating effect of the sea. Thus, if you're planning to be moderately active you should ideally select rainwear that can 'breathe', rather than fisherman-style oilskins in which you'll quickly overheat.
I had to buy a waterproof jacket when I was on Vancouver Island, as I discovered on our arrival that I had foolishly packed my daughter's by mistake. If a similar thing happens to you, you won't lack for somewhere to buy a replacement, but be warned that it's not a cheap option (a very basic jacket which was reduced by 50% in a closing down sale still set me back over C$100), so if budget is a concern, rather do your homework and shop around for a bargain before you leave.
Victoria ≠ Vancouver Island
If you think a quick visit to Victoria is the same thing as "seeing Vancouver Island" - think again!
Vancouver Island is a massive island with distinct regions, towns, cities, coastlines, and parks. It even has several different climate zones, that's how large this island is. Victoria sits at the very southern end of Vancouver Island and is the most developed, urban part of the island.
By sticking to Victoria, you are seeing the urban side to Vancouver Island in place of the more rugged, wild parts of Vancouver Island.
Watch out for bears
This tip also appears on my Tofino page but I’m including it here too as you really can’t be too careful around bears.
We’d seen bear warning signs on the mainland of British Columbia, but no bears. On the island thought it was a different matter, and we saw two bears on the same day! Our first sighting was of this one, just strolling beside Highway 4, the main road that crosses the island from east to west. I was lucky to have my camera on the back seat of the car at the time, rather than the boot (trunk) so managed to grab a couple of shots. Later that afternoon we were in the Pacific Rim National Park and stopped at one of the parking lots to visit the beach. Some hikers told us they seen a bear earlier in the day, and sure enough when we returned to our car and started to drive out of the lot, there he was, although too much hidden by bushes to get a good photo this time.
A leaflet I picked up while in BC sets out the “Bear Basics”:
~ Keep your distance, and never approach a bear
~Avoid eye contact
~ Face forward – never turn your back on a bear
~ Talk to the bear if he’s noticed you (the leaflet adds “in a soothing voice” but I’m not sure I’d be able to manage that as soothed is the last thing I’d feel in that situation!)
~ Be quiet, if the bear hasn’t noticed you
~ Make yourself look big, e.g. by waving your arms around
We also read some “helpful” advice about playing dead – apparently this is a good tactic if the bear has just eaten, but a very bad one if he’s hungry. Nowhere did I see any advice on how to tell a hungry bear from a full one!
- National/State Park
These guys are very friendly......as they write you a ticket!
i had been travelling for 28+ hours (no sleep)and was hanging out but they like doing their jobs and gave me a ticket for being over the speed by 10miles an hour.
Considering the UK is MPH and they are KPH and everything thing else i was a little Pxxxxx to get the ticket...but hay ho welcome to Canada.
they got a job to do
No Sleep When Shivering
For those of you who opt for the campgrounds instead of the hotels, take note: stock up on blankets and pillows, especially if you're right by the water. The summer days are gorgeous and hot, but it might as well be winter when night rolls around. Take a lesson from my less than stellar sleeps, and invest in cosy blankets- at least 2-3 on top, and one for you to sleep on top. Wear socks.
NEVER FEED WILDLIFE
Unattended food and garbage attract trouble. Beware of wild life on roads. Pull over to VIEW wildlife. Do not get out of your car if you spot a bear. Give bears space--you are in their territory. If you face a bear or cougar, face the animal and retreat slowly. DO NOT RUN or play dead. If the animal is threatening, act aggressive--shout, wave a stick, throw a rock.
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