Top of the Island

June 18, 2017

West from Port Hardy, at the far north of Vancouver Island, there's a grand hinterland of wild coastline, pristine parks, mighty fjord-like inlets, a few scattered villages and near endless wilderness. This is rough, end-of-the-road, backroads riding country, gateway to Cape Scott Provincial Park, the North Coast Trail, and the BC Marine Trail. The rewards are rich, and a trip up to the Top of the Island leaves a lasting impression. 

 

I had an stretch west of Coal Harbour, where I came upon 4 roadside bears within about a half-hour. This fellow unnerved me as he did not run quickly off into the bush like good bears are supposed to. Eventually, he ambled off.

 

This was a longer ride, the better part of 2 weeks (with a long post below). The riding distances were not that far. From Port Hardy west to Winter Harbour (the main road) is only 80+kms: overall, my ride was ~250kms, with a couple of dead ends and lots of camping stops.  Everything is a little rougher, further from people and the comforts. There's more loose dirt, stone and mud to make roads memorable. The stores in Holberg and Winter Harbour are tiny affairs, open only in the late afternoon. There are more bugs in the late spring.  People say there are more bears, wolves & cougars (I did see quite a few bears). And the NW coast is a wild wonder.

 

 Morning at my camp along the beach at remote Grant Bay, west of Winter Harbour. I had the whole bay to myself.

 

I left my car and started my riding adventure at Port Hardy, end of the North Island Highway, home to the BC Ferries terminal at Bear Cove. Port Hardy has a population of ~4,000. It's the big town in the neighbourhood, a centre of forestry, and a booming adventure tourism hub in season. Over a third of the far north population is of First Nations descent. Port Hardy is within the traditional territory of the Kwakiutl.

 

 The BC Ferry 'Northern Experience' docked at scenic Bear Cove just south of Port Hardy. It sails up the magnificent Inside Passage north to Prince Rupert.

 

I headed SW to Coal Harbour, a major whaling outpost in days gone by. I camped along the seaside by the town marina, and watched boats, seaplanes and marine wildlife come and go. Then I continued west along the north of Holberg Inlet, which carries great ocean ships deep into the heart of north Vancouver Island (this is where I stumbled upon the apparent convention of roadside bears). 

 

 Turns out that the end of the rainbow is in Coal Harbour, right over the marina

 

Holberg village is the logging centre of the north. Just to the SE along the majestic Inlet is a major log dump. There's a store that opens at 3pm, and sells gas by the 20 litre can. And the Scarlet Ibis pub & restaurant opens at noon!

 

Looking east up Holberg Inlet from the end of the spit at the edge of town. This was the spot, I was told, where one could find the best cell phone coverage (worked for me...). 

 

From Holberg it was 30+kms SW to tiny Winter Harbour, formerly a major fishing centre, which today swells in population for the summer tourist season - mostly for sport fishing. There's several RV Parks/campgrounds, a store, lodge and and marina (Winter Harbour Marina - where they were very helpful to me). The village has a true end-of-the-road vibe - worth checking out.

 

 Looking east along the shores at Winter Harbour, from Winter Harbour Marina & RV Park

 

That covers the 'cosmopolitan part' of this post. Next I'll share a little about some of the remote corners I explored and camped at (the real highlights). But, first, here's a north Island map to help people get their bearings. I've added in my riding routes and some villages and campgrounds. This 'Top of the Island' ride was within the red oval you see at the NW corner.

 

 

I rode west from Holberg into Cape Scott Provincial Park. I had planned to push my loaded bike a few kms along a trail into a wilderness campground at the mouth of the San Josef River. However, turns out the park is off limits to bikes. Frustrating, but understandable, as bikes can degrade trails. So, I backtracked a couple of kms and camped at the nearby San Josef Rec Camp, maintained by Western Forest Products, the big forestry company in this neck of the woods. They also maintain many of the roads. Check out this link above to Cape Scott Park. For many, this is the primary wilderness destination in the region. There are world famous wilderness hikes, including the multi-day North Coast Trail. 

 

Selfie from Cape Scott Park trailhead. My trip was late May/early June, but it was unseasonably cold, particularly the nights, with some serious rain days.

 

South along the wild coast from Cape Scott is Cape Palmerston, where there's another Rec Camp at the end of a wilderness track. A final bridge has been washed out so one needs to hike in the last 1/2km or so, parts of this along a rough overgrown trail and the remnants of the old bridge. But it's worth the effort. I had a great little camp along the wild, exposed stretch of coastline. Incredible place. Further to the south, reachable by a longer hike (~1+ hour) is Raft Cove, which some other rough campers strongly recommended.

 

Cape Palmerston seaside from my little camp. There are a few tent pads, and camping spots down along the upper shores. Wonderful, rough beach walking.

 

West of Winter Harbour is Grant Bay Park and beach camp, another real gem. It's a tough ride in, with a 1/2 km final stretch along a trail (you can push the bike). But Grant Bay was gorgeous (see new Fav Campground page). It's a more sheltered bay, with fine, soft sand beaches and open views to the south. There's no formal campsites - rather, you pick a spot along the upper beach that appeals to you. I had the whole bay to myself.

 

 My camp along Grant Bay

 

It seems there is little public travel east of Winter Harbour, south of Holberg Inlet. My maps showed Koprino Rec Campground on Spencer Bay, and I decided to check it out. There was log hauling traffic, mostly heading to the log sort SE of Holberg along the Inlet. The company and drivers were great - a manager in his pick-up stopped to find out where I was headed, shared some local advice, then radioed everyone to ensure they'd be keeping an eye out for me.  

 

Koprino camp was yet another end-of-the-road place. There was a log sort not far to the north, and some of the sites seemed to no longer be maintained, though this may have been because it was early in the season. Again, I had the whole place to myself, with incredible views south out to majestic Quatsino Sound. Boats passed by heading to or from Coal Harbour, Holberg or the First Nation community at Quatsino. A few seals and sea otters cruised the near shore, looking for dinner, no doubt.

 

 My set-up at Koprino Rec Camp, along the shores of Spencer Bay.

 

Often I wild camped at the end of the day, but I want to call out a couple more worthwhile Rec Campgrounds I stayed at. On the main road from Port Hardy to Holberg, you'll pass along the south shores of Nahwitti Lake, and you'll see the turn-off into the Rec campground. A number of trees came down  not too long past, but there were a few open sites and clearing was underway already, so I assume things will shortly be back to normal. Closer to Part Hardy, you'll see Georgie Lake FSR branching north off Holberg Road. After 5kms, you'll reach the fine campground at the SE corner of the lake (check out Fav Campground).  

 

 Georgie Lake Rec Campground at dusk - looking up the lake from the little beach at the SE.

 

Below is another bear picture, also from west of Coal Harbour. After seeing a couple of bears in a short stretch of time I started to pay REALLY close attention to the road ahead. See this fellow peering through the undergrowth? I suspect that in many cases I pass by bears and simply never notice them.  

 

 

Finally, there was some tough terrainto cover this trip, so I'd best give some credit to my trusty ECR bike. I had to carry over a week's supply of food at times, so I was travelling pretty heavy. Some brilliant riding.

 

 

 

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