SOUND AND FURY
Vancouver Island's Pacific Coast
The sea is an animal. Beyond the rain-swept windows of my room it snarls and roars as it claws at the rocky shore. I draw the curtains closed as a shiver of awe and unease curls up my spine. The scene outside is part of the notorious shipwreck-strewn Graveyard of the Pacific edging the west coast of Vancouver Island and, drawn by fascination with Nature's savagery, visitors like myself flock here through the winter and spring, on storm watching pilgrimages.
I settle into my spacious suite at the Black Rock Resort in Ucluelet. Curling up with a book in front of the living room fireplace I bask in a warm haven cocooned from the wild outer darkness. During the night I wake occasionally to the whine of the wind, the splatter of rain against the windows, and the moan of a nearby lighthouse siren which sounds like a wounded beast.
The Black Rock Resort, as befits the name is perched high on a rocky promontory and the scene from my balcony next morning is calm; the shore line is rimmed with dark evergreen trees, their tips jagged against a washed pale-grey sky. The sea has been transformed into a playful kitten: skittish little waves stroke the rocks with soft plashing sounds.
But, as I find out, that's temporary. A group of us take advantage of what turns out to be the lull before the storm. Swathed in rain gear and wearing thick-soled boots we walk along Schooner Cove Trail in the company of Gisele Martin, a member of the Nuu-chah-nulth First Nation. Gisele is a young elfin-slim woman with an encyclopaedic knowledge of the wild herbs, berries, ferns, moss, bark and roots of this typical Pacific west coast rainforest. We squelch through a few muddy patches, clamber up and down wooden steps, and pause on wooden trestles to marvel at the rush and gurgle of little streamlets. The rain is soft but persistent and the smell of wet earth rises through the undergrowth; the forest is quiet except for the sound of dripping leaves, our footsteps and voices. No birds sing this morning. There is no wind.
Fascinating as the botanical aspects of our walk are, it is Gisele's vignettes on a culture that predates the arrival of the white settlers in British Columbia that stirs my imagination. The Nuu-chah-nulth, like most First Nations people, revered the whale, the raven and the wolf and sought their blessings-not seeking to conquer nature, but to blend with the rhythms of the seasons and offer thanks to creatures and plants that nourished and sustained their communities.
Schooner Beach Cove is deserted. At ebb tide the pooled beach is a monochromatic grey, and forested islets are ghostly shadows smudging the low lying mist.
Back at the Black Rock Resort in the late afternoon we gear up for an outing along the Wild Pacific Trail, an easy boardwalk hike which hems the ocean and meanders through thickets of rainforest. Bill McIntyre, naturalist, is the owner/operator of Long Beach Nature Tour Co. with a fund of information about the old growth trees, and the fungi and lichen which grows on them. "Look at this one," he says stopping to show us a fallen colossus. "It's a nurse log. A young tree has thrown roots around the rotten 'parent' log-a fairly common occurrence in temperate rain forests." Detritus and moss has collected inside the hollow log forming a rich humus that encourages plant germination.
Most of the trail is elevated above the ocean, but in one spot an enraged sea has ripped up the embankment, thrusting driftwood logs like straws up the hillside. The trail, although now restored, had been wiped out. McIntyre adds wryly. "That could happen in the space of just a few minutes-the Pacific is notoriously unpredictable."
Not so unexpected is the storm that is now brewing. On the western horizon thick grey skeins of woolly clouds are gathering fast. The wind picks up momentum - fang-toothed and vicious, and needles of icy rain start to fall. We make it back to the Resort just in time, to dodge the full impact of the elements. The rain sheets down, and waves rear like gigantic cobra-hooded monsters, crashing, and throwing enormous spumes of spray onto the jagged rocks. The wind is demonic - a screaming banshee that whips trees into writhing shapes and sets the window panes rattling. It's as majestic and powerful a show as any storm-watching aficionado could hope for.
And the next morning? A radiant dawn sky is a palette of spilled orange, scarlet and purple, and the sea is as smooth as a wet seal's coat.
IF YOU GO:
Where to stay:
Black Rock Resort is a spanking new luxury hotel in Ucluelet. See www.blackrockresort.com/
The historic Wickaninnish Inn offers superb suites and fine dining. See www.wickinn.com/
Photos (Margaret Deefholts):
1. The restless sea along the Wild Pacific Trail
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