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Whale Interpretive Centre, Telegraph Cove
By Kimberly Walker
Once you head north of Campbell River, you get the distinct feeling that you are truly heading into the wilderness. As the miles stretch on and you see nothing but trees, mountains, and the occasional glimmer of water, the meaning of the tag line “escape into nature” really begins to sink in.
Northern Vancouver Island packs plenty of wilderness punch and the true star of the region is the abundance of outdoor adventure opportunity. From week-long adventures such as kayaking the Broughton Archipelago and hiking the North Coast Trail, to significantly shorter strolls along forested paths and wind-swept beaches, Northern Vancouver Island is a dream destination for all those who love the outdoors.
Northern Vancouver Island is a large area geographically, covering approximately one third of Vancouver Island plus numerous smaller adjacent islands. The area requires some planning to visit. There are long stretches with no cell phone service, you won’t see a McDonalds or Tim Horton’s for your entire trip, some communities have only one or two gas stations (and they may close earlier than you expect!), and many worthwhile destinations require travel on gravel logging roads. To plan your trip, pick up a copy of the excellent Vancouver Island North Explorer Guide at your local visitor centre. The guide details interesting community information (such as population!) and makes suggestions for things to see and do in each community. It also provides information on many cultural, natural, and recreational activities available throughout the region such as hiking, fishing, museums, and wildlife viewing.
All of the North Island communities are small. In fact, with a population of just over 4000, Port Hardy – the largest community in the region and a hub for both transportation and services – feels downright cosmopolitan compared to its neighbours. This is, of course, all relative as nearby Coal Harbour has a year-round population of 139 and Winter Harbour has just five permanent residents! If you are looking for a largely do-it-yourself destination with plenty of opportunity to enjoy nature and soak up the solitude, the North Island is for you.
Start your journey in Port Hardy – home to the informative and well-organized Quatse Salmon Stewardship Centre. (Please check for open days). The interpretive centre has numerous hands-on activities to delight and educate including microscopes, giant keystone species Jenga, and a circular tank that allows you to literally be surrounded by the ecosystem the centre aims to protect. A guided tour through the Quatse Hatchery provides an up-close look at salmon in various stages of life and the process of salmonid enhancement and conservation undertaken by the Northern Vancouver Island Salmonid Enhancement Association.
Port Hardy makes the perfect launching point to explore smaller neighbouring communities. Holberg, Winter Harbour, Quatsino, and Coal Harbour are all destinations with few “packaged holiday” options but plenty of wilderness to appreciate. Keep in mind, that getting to each of these destinations is half the fun and be sure to make plenty of stops at the viewpoints along the way.
The second-largest community on the North Island is Port McNeill. Coming in at just over 2000 residents, Port McNeill serves as a launching point for many ecotourism opportunities. Fishing charters, kayak excursions, scuba diving adventures, and wildlife viewing tours all depart from Port McNeill regularly. The town itself offers an informative museum focused primarily on the logging history of the area. After checking that out, head to the nearby “world’s largest burl” – a 30-ton anomaly discovered in 2005 on a Sitka Spruce tree.
A small but worthwhile detour off the main North Island Highway is Telegraph Cove. With a year-round population of five, Telegraph Cove’s population balloons in the summer when fishermen, kayakers, and tourists descend on the charmingly restored community. As the location of the original BC whale watching company, Telegraph Cove is the perfect place to get out on the water. Follow up your tour with a visit to the excellent Whale Interpretive Centre to see numerous skeletons of local marine mammals and learn about the challenges these creatures are facing as well as conservation efforts that have been undertaken to protect them.
Northern Vancouver Island is the perfect place for a road trip if you are looking to unwind away from the hustle and bustle of the city. Spend time walking the many oceanfront paths, test your luck by dropping a line off one of the piers, and embrace history and small town charm at the local museums. If you leave the mindset of “seeing everything” at home, you will be rewarded with rich experiences that you are unlikely to find in any guidebook.
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Published: June 15, 2022
Last Updated: May 12, 2023
Kimberly is a Special Education, Elementary School teacher in Hope, BC. Previously having worked ten years at the Hope Visitor Centre & Museum promoting tourism in Hope and British Columbia, Kimberly worked on many local history projects in the museum as well as researching and writing articles for the local newspaper. Kimberly loves travelling with her husband Dale and their dog Alpine. In the fall of 2014, they spent the first 78 days of married life travelling and camping their way across Canada - just the two of them and the dog - travelling in a Hyundai Elantra! Kimberly loves various outdoor recreation types and exploring our beautiful province.