*Note from editor: We’re pleased to feature the following post from Toronto writer Julia Howell who, given the recent Alberta flood, had to move quickly to reconfigure her trip West. A warm thanks to Clayoquot Wilderness Resort for collaborating with Toque & Canoe on such short notice. We confess we’ve been eyeing your award-winning lodge for some time. Enjoy!
Sometimes, travel is just an escape. If you’re lucky, it’s a game changer.
My daughter and I weren’t supposed to end up at Clayoquot Wilderness Resort. But a week before our departure from Toronto – en route to Western Canada from Ontario on a mother/daughter wilderness adventure – we got a call.
The hike-in lodge we were headed to, located in the outbacks of the Alberta Rockies, was delaying its opening due to excessive snow pack. And this was late June. Fortunately, after some scrambling, we were able to find another, equally compelling Rocky Mountain destination as back-up.
Our trip was salvaged. Or at least, we thought it was.
Then the Bow and Elbow rivers – in one of the greatest floods in Alberta history – conspired to drown out any hope of hiking. Roads were wiped out and backcountry access would be impossible. Calgary, the first stop on our planned trip, was devastated. All this on the day before our departure from Ontario.
What to do? Recalibrating the combined schedules of my 17-year-old daughter Claire and myself was not within the realm of possibility. It was now or never.
In stepped Clayoquot Wilderness Resort to the rescue. Our flight from Toronto rerouted to Vancouver Island and our Great Canadian Wilderness Adventure – the one we’d been looking forward to for so long – was officially still on.
Arrival – Gary picks us up in Tofino for the forty-minute boat ride to Bedwell Sound. His grandfather operated the first water taxi service in the area, essential for ferrying school kids back and forth to the main island. Despite the challenges of living in a remote locale, Gary has no interest in any other life. Even Nanaimo is too big for his liking.
Arriving in Bedwell Sound feels predetermined. Surrounded by verdant mountains on three sides and a halo of mist up above, the setting is mystical. Clip clop, clip clop. A horse-drawn wagon appears from around a corner to transport us to the resort. In less than five minutes, we join a collection of Old West-style outpost buildings and white canvas tents – each elegantly equipped with antiques, gas lamps and tapestries and linked by a meandering boardwalk floating above the earth’s floor.
A team of smiling faces and a glass of sparkling wine greet us at the cook house which is a soaring glass and timber construct with a lively open kitchen and plenty of bar stools. John, our host, runs through the orientation, an essential primer to maximize the experience that he and his wife Adele masterminded from their home in Ontario some fifteen years ago.
After an unhealthy life in the music business, the pair sold everything in Toronto and moved north where their house became a refuge for other burned-out city deserters. To escape guest overcrowding on the homefront, the couple hid themselves in a miner’s tent deep in the bush, surrounded by their favourite furnishings and Persian rugs.
The vision for Clayoquot Wilderness Resort was born.
Day One – We wake when we feel like it, after the best sleep of our lives. Our lair for the next four nights is like a scene from 1001 Arabian Nights with the added bonus of rhythmic rain patter on our tent ceiling.
After the perfect continental breakfast of homemade granola, yogurt, fresh berries and banana bread, Claire and I elect to explore a fraction of the 500-acre property on horseback. We are accompanied by two lifelong equestrians, Sam and Sydney.
Surrounded by soaring trees with hairy Jurassic spider limbs, Sam expertly points out edible Salmonberries that we pluck for sampling and she tells us about the curative powers of false Lily of the Valley.
I envy her and the other fifty plus staff who have either grown up in the surrounding region or who have hand-picked this life over the city. But my favourite moment of the day is turning to see the beaming face of my daughter and knowing there is no place she feels better than in the woods.
These woods are like no others we’ve ever seen. The trees are taller, the moss thicker, the green just plain greener.
Nikki and her loyal dog Witwalk take us out in the afternoon sea kayaking on the estuary. A lovely, peaceful serenade that reminds me of the bayou. But instead of Spanish moss we have the temperate rainforest’s version – old man’s beard or Usnia, lending a theatrical curtain to the setting.
I cap the day with melt-in-your-mouth venison and perfectly paired wines for a five-course dinner.
Day 2 – We start with coffee service delivered to our tent in a thermal bag, a note enclosed to return all remaining contents to the cook house. No ingestibles of any kind can be left for the enjoyment of the local bear population.
Today’s wilderness adventure begins in the gear room where we are fitted head to toe in insulated and water proofed garb. Nothing is going to dampen our enthusiasm for what is ahead, not even the heavy rain.
We are assigned to the resort’s elder statesman, Quaamina, who takes us out by motor boat. He tells us his Ahousaht (First Nations) name means “warrior leader” which he lives up to as he fights high winds, pelting rain and ocean spray to make sure we don’t return home disappointed.
Two black bear cubs, four grey whales and several puffin sightings later and we are sated. Then we hit the jackpot. Quaamina takes us to a rock cropping where we are invited to witness, up-close-and-personal, a sea lion colony. There are about forty in total, mostly harem to a massive bull. The bull is swaying and braying and defending his flock to an unwelcome marauder who is flexing his muscles on the periphery.
We are only twenty feet away. I feel like a voyeur from another galaxy.
After five hours on the water, which goes by in a heart beat, we opt for a hot tub. The steam from the wooden barrel floats up to clasp hands with the mountain mist. We sigh deeply and ponder what we’ve seen.
Day 3 – For our penultimate day, we initially decide to lay low and stick to dry land. John convinces us otherwise. His commitment to hospitality combines delivering absolute comfort with encouraging guests to explore the edges of their comfort zone.
So after gearing up with all the impermeables, we drive to the suspension bridge to begin our journey down the Bedwell River rapids by kayak. I gather quickly that our vessels for the excursion have little in common with the heavy, wide set numbers we use back home.
These ones are born to roll. Dickson and Carl have us do an intentional flip to get our heads around pulling off the skirt handle and slipping out of the boat so that it will be less of a shock when the inevitable capsize happens. The water is frigid but the exercise works, injecting us with a sense of mastery over what is ahead.
The first set of rapids is the most challenging. We go downstream at a steep decline and the waves are wildly thrashing with no express purpose but to try and catch us up.
We make it to the bottom, upright and elated. In total, we are about three hours on the river, with rapids of various levels of intensity around every corner – some sending us swooshing through like luge athletes, others more like obstacle courses that take us around jutting rocks and hanging branches.
The mountains are all around with the circling mist cocooning us in its fold.
We arrive at the bottom of the river to a steaming mug of hot chocolate followed by a restorative bowl of chili with chipotle, roasted red pepper, smoked pork, black beans, creme freche and a toasted homemade biscuit with basil butter on the side.
Our final day – I learn that when you reside at the edge of the earth you must relinquish any sense of control.
We get word in the morning that due to fog there will be no planes arriving or leaving Bedwell Sound today. Instead, our stay at Clayoquot Wilderness Resort is cut short to factor in a boat to Tofino, ground transportation to Nanaimo and then a seaplane to the Vancouver International Airport.
Sounds like an adventure to me. And my daughter and I still have time for one more activity. Contentedly, off we go to the archery range – escorted by Brendan – in the pouring rain.
In retrospect, our time at the Clayoquot Wilderness Resort really was magical. I left both humbled to be in the company of such incredible natural beauty but also appreciative of the people who made the experience so perfect.
There is much left unexperienced. Rock climbing, zip lining, skeet shooting, fly fishing and celebrated massages await.
I may never have the fortune to find myself there again, but at least I’ve left knowing what exceptional travel is all about.
If not with me, I like to imagine that maybe some day Claire will return with her daughter. I know that Clayoquot Wilderness Resort will be there like a warm embrace, come rain or shine.
*Note to readers: Julia was a guest of Clayoquot Wilderness Resort. They did not review or approve this article before publication.