Since I was 19, I’ve had a personal “rule” that I should visit a new country every year. Adhering to this was easy when I lived in Europe, but now I’m living in a country only fractionally smaller in square kilometres than that entire continent, not so much. However I’ve come to appreciate that you don’t have to go abroad to find something new and inspiring. I ask myself which is better – to get a vague idea of several countries, or to truly get to know one?
To celebrate my 25th birthday, I spent a long weekend in Sooke, on the southern tip of Vancouver Island. Although only 38 kilometres from Victoria where I currently live, it’s not necessarily a place one would consider going to for just a short visit. And yet it’s a place where you are suddenly exposed to swathes of tranquil forests, an abundance of pleasant hikes and a bounty of intriguing wildlife. It’s a place that proves you don’t have to go far to find beauty and adventure.
En route, my friend and I stopped at Walmart in uptown Victoria to buy some bedding. It was a hot day and as I tested the side of my face against five different pillows all with marginal variations in style, the white-walled, air-conditioned environment of the huge store suddenly made me begin to feel restless. Victoria is a cleaner and quieter city than most, but there are people and cars and buildings nonetheless. Having grown up in the rural countryside, I need shots of rugged nature from time to time to rejuvenate myself. It was time to see more green.
On entering Sooke River Campground we stopped by the reception where a large lady sat in a rocking chair on the deck, peering over her newspaper with a suspicious frown. She resembled one of those GI Jane-types you probably wouldn’t want to get on the wrong side of. We had booked one of the three rustic cabins…and rustic was a very accurate description. However we seemed to get the better deal as based on the number of Canada geese around, it would have been difficult to find a piece of ground to pitch a tent on that wasn’t speckled with poop. I haven’t been in a campground since 2014 and just being amongst tents and campers got me excited, stirring memories of childhood holidays and the smell of barbecues and refreshing feel of morning dew on bare feet.
A lovely place for a relaxed evening stroll is Whiffin Spit, just down from Sooke town. The south side looks across the Juan de Fuca Strait towards Washington State and the north faces Sooke Basin. With the latter, it’s just unfortunate that the ugliest hotel you’ve ever seen was built on the water. Its huge white frame stands out in gaudy contrast to the green surroundings. The architect seems to have gone for a European look but a rustic brown would have done nicely.
For breakfast the next morning after a cozy night’s sleep in our cabin, we stopped at The Little Vienna Bakery which had friendly staff and an authentic Austrian decor. We ordered a tasty cinnamon schnecke and a filling breakfast bun to share. The cafe seemed to be a fond favourite with the elderly local population who would sit with their coffee and cakes reading the newspaper.
Then it was north towards the Sooke Potholes, where you can either stick to a gravel path that follows the river or take a wilder route closer to the water’s edge. We chose the latter, clambering over rocks, ducking under branches and darting over gaps in the rock over the water to cross to the other side. Other hikers would peer at us sitting on the other side of the river with expressions of awe, as if thinking, “How did they get there?” I noticed how when crossing over to the other side of the river via gaps in the rock, I would hesitate upon seeing a fast section of the current swooshing below me. Even if I had fallen in, there are many calm pool sections of the river where I, a pretty strong swimmer, would have been able to stop myself going further downstream. I feel like I’ve become more cautious in the past year or so, more likely to reconsider the sensibleness of doing certain physical activities instead of just going for it without worrying so much.
Instead I seem to be developing interests in more static things, such as bird watching. (Is this what happens when you reach a quarter century?!) We observed the routine of a bluish grey bird that would zoom over the water and through the gaps in the rock, only to return to her nest around a minute later to feed her chicks. Then we spotted two birds, with the dad presumably the one perching on a stone in the water as if scanning the area for safety. It brought back childhood memories of when a blackbird once made a nest in my family’s garden wall. Everyday when I got home from school I would eagerly peep through the cracks to see how things were progressing. I remember the devastation and guilt I felt when one day I saw the eggs had been abandoned.
As we left this section of the park and headed southwards, a couple on the side of the road ahead waved us down awkwardly. “Hey! We’re not hitchhiking, it’s just our car’s parked back that way,” the man said, pointing in the direction we’d come from, “and we spotted a bear and her cub on the side of the road.”
“Oh!” we replied in surprise. How typical that we had been too busy talking about something to notice two bears casually strolling nearby. We invited the couple inside our car and drove them back to the parking area, peering into the bushes in hope that we’d see the animals. No sign.
Nevertheless, it became our de facto duty to warn others of the sighting. When we spotted the men we’d seen earlier bathing in the river walking along the road in the direction of the bear, we wound down our windows and told them to jump in. We would stop oncoming cars to pass on the information, and tell others stood in parking lots. “Oh wow!” “Where were they?” “Were they big?” began a series of questions. It was like being the geek in school who suddenly becomes super popular once he claims to have seen a famous actor in the street. You could say we became quite proud of our services, even though we hadn’t actually seen the bear ourselves. It was easy to imagine a game of Chinese Whispers ensuing, with us by the end having concocted some wild story about how we had to fight off a ginormous bear that pounced on our car and grabbed one of us by the arm, dragging us out of the smashed window…
Further down stream, a gang of four elderly cyclists were taking a dip at the serene beach section. It was lovely to see a range of ages at the potholes, whether it was families with young kids, elderly hiking groups, or even young adults like our friend we spotted showing some visiting pals around.
For lunch we ate in town at Mom’s Cafe, an American-style diner with blue leather booths, black and white tiles and female-only servers. I was torn between the Hawaiian burger and fish and chips, but ended up going for the former. A minute later, a server walked out with a plate of fish and chips and I instantly regretted my decision.
“More water, honey?” I was asked while eating by our server who looked a few years younger than me. Servers over here seem to like using these pet words, but I personally find them quite irritating. Minutes later, the same server approached the table in front of us and asked cheerily, “How are you ladies doing here?” only for her face to drop in horror when the mother replied curtly: “This is my son.” Ouch. To the server’s defence, any 8 year old kid with long hair in a ponytail is going to be easily mistaken for a female.
I’d had my eye on the dessert counter since we arrived, and ordered a slice of the chocolate cream pie. “Two forks?” asked the server, occasionally glancing over warily at the table in front. My friend shrugged a half-hearted response, holding his stomach like a woman in late pregnancy while I sat up excitedly in anticipation. Back came a huge slice of rich chocolatey goodness smothered with whipped cream. Buddy conceded defeat after two bites and thereafter watched me in bewilderment with a small hint of both admiration and disgust as I proceeded to clear the plate. I definitely have a second stomach for these things.
When we went up to pay, our server was still in a state over her incident with ponytail-boy’s mum. I told her to keep the change.
Driving along Sooke’s winding coastline is a real treat, offering breathtaking views of the Pacific Ocean and Washington State’s Olympic Mountain range. It’s beautifully rugged and untouched, and made the plastic, suffocating atmosphere of Walmart feel almost like something imagined. The provincial parks in Sooke are perfectly maintained too; there are pit toilets and useful information boards, but otherwise the nature is undisturbed by commercial projects. We pulled into French Beach Provincial Park and the big lunch finally hit me. I dropped off in the car, mouth open and all. I can never usually nap in the afternoons. Sooke was becoming more and more impressive.
On French Beach I discovered my unknown appreciation for rocks. “There’s… so many, all…so different….so…pretty,” I gasped to myself in awe as I began forming a pile that would later become the source of a stressful decision about which ones to keep and which to leave behind.
We drove on towards China Beach, and on the way pulled over to admire another view. Suddenly something in the water caught my attention. I realized it was a seal, powering through the waves with a slow yet defiant bobbing action that resembled the Loch Ness Monster. It was the longest seal I’d ever seen. It stopped in the shallows and we walked down onto the rocks to get a closer look. The seal had attracted the attention of others, as a man followed suit with his dog by his side, phone out to take a photo. ‘What a cute dog,’ I thought, looking at the golden spaniel fondly. Then it started barking and darted towards the water where the seal bathed.
“Hudson, come back! Hudson!” the dog’s owner started yelling. But the dog ignored him, splashing through the waves with barks of naive curiosity.
“That seal is going to destroy that dog,” my friend remarked matter-of-factly. We could only watch helplessly as the dog rushed towards the seal, its owner shouting madly. Then the dog suddenly looked back at its owner as if having had second thoughts and began to return to shore. We breathed out in relief.
Seconds later, it bounded back towards the water.
“Hudson!” shouted the owner desperately. His friend joined him and threw rocks in the dog’s direction, but he wasn’t interested, persevering through buffeting waves to get close to the seal, which was beginning to kick up a splash in panic. I held my breath and prepared to block my eyes as the dog got within 10 feet of the seal, only to once again retreat. The owners turned back and the dog trotted beside them, grinning at them with his tongue hanging out as if to say, “Chill guys, I was just playing with you.”
The Canadian version of ‘Fenton’ in Richmond Park sprang to mind.
We carried on to China Beach, where most of the park’s signs seemed to warn of recent cougar sightings. Despite the bear sighting that was not sighted by us earlier in the day, I’ve been advised a few times that it’s actually cougars that residents of Vancouver Island have to worry about. (And not just the human kind.) Bears are supposedly more reactive in their aggression, only attacking if they feel severely threatened, whereas cougars will apparently just go for you no matter what, leaping down unexpectedly from trees, pouncing from behind etc. And yet when you’re walking along a pretty trail, it’s surprisingly easy to forget about a blood-thirsty predator lurking in the bushes.
At least, it was that evening on China Beach, which was empty apart from two surfers braving the coastal chill. On the Sunday morning we headed to East Sooke and stopped in Roche Cove to hike to Matheson Lake. The trail starts on the famous Galloping Goose bike trail and then descends into forest. Strange noises began to enter my ears. Was it a bird calling…or something else, something bigger? The crack of a twig would send my head swinging to the side in suspicious alarm. The sounds seemed to increase in loudness and frequency. I heard footsteps, they sounded like an animal…coming closer.
Suddenly a brown spaniel bounded over a little hill towards us. He carried a thick piece of branch in his mouth with his head and tail held high in an expression of stubbornness equivalent to a toddler adamant they are going to drag their cot all the way into their new room instead of moving into a “big girl’s” bed. His owner followed suit, rolling her eyes. We watched fondly as the dog struggled to fit through a narrow gap between two trees, all the while never once considering abandoning his new find.
This trail had many ankle-twisting forks, which led on to an interesting debate about many times I’d have to stop and rest if my friend got injured and needed piggy-backing to the car. Later we drove on to the quieter western edge of the park, where there were several plots of land for sale to build houses on. I observed through green eyes the dreamy views anyone building a house here would have. If only my generation could look forward to affording such a piece of property…
Our final hike was an easy 30-minute stroll from Pike Point to Iron Mine Bay. Sweet birdsong accompanied our final few steps down to the small pebble beach, where dogs we had passed by on the road earlier fetched sticks from the water. Glistening blue water stretched out before us all the way to the snow-capped Olympic peaks. I felt truly blessed to have views like this pretty much on the doorstep of a provincial capital city.
I had been spoiled by the weather in Sooke and came away smitten with the stunning coastline I’d witnessed. I returned home to my apartment in Victoria to learn of the terror attacks in London, and suddenly felt a sense of guilt for having spent a peaceful weekend exploring quiet trails and gorgeous beaches while friends and relatives of mine were potentially getting caught up in the horrific events. London and my old life there felt so far away and yet this news hit really close to home too.
No matter how big and busy your city, having a few days away in quiet, nature-filled surroundings will make you feel rested, recharged and even more appreciative of the variety of life that exists on our planet.