Wilderness Bases: The Alberni Valley

Story & Photos© Al MacLachlan

Latest News: Port Alberni is having one of the best Sockeye Salmon runs in years!


Port Alberni is one of the most over-looked places on Vancouver Island as a base location to do wilderness adventures. Yet it's in the centre of Vancouver Island, joined to the Pacific coastline via a long 48 kilometre inlet, has great fishing and access to good hiking, canoeing and kayaking. It's also close to Bamfield and the Broken Islands, and about an hour-and-a-half from Long Beach, but has much better summer weather. So, even when it's raining or damp and foggy on the West Coast, it'll be hot and sunny in P.A. as locals call it.


One of the first things to notice as you come down the hill on Highway 4 to the Alberni Inlet are the Welcoming Totems at Victoria Quay and the Whaler's Canoe. The Whalers' Canoe, which was carved from yellow and red cedar by Nuu-chah-nulth craftsmen, is a replica of a historical whalers' canoe pursuing a Gray whale. There were eight men in the canoe, with the steersman in the back to direct them. The hereditary chief, who stood at the front has got the harpoon. The Nuu-chah-nulth are one of the First Nations who have inhabited the area for thousands of years.


For a small city, in the middle of the wilderness, there's much more to do locally besides the wilderness activities. For example, remember those old steam trains that used to chug through towns across North America, their funnels pumping out smoke, the whistle blaring, the clickety-clack on the tracks, and the guy in the caboose who used to wave at one and all?


Well, on the Alberni Pacific Railway they still have them. Pulled by a faithfully restored 1929 Baldwin steam engine, the train travels from the old 1912 station near the Harbour Quay through the town, past the surrounding forest, over timber trestles, catching stunning views of the Klitsa and Nahmint mountains before arriving at the McLeans Mill about 35 minutes later.


That is, if the train doesn't get held up by the nefarious Beaufort gang, or if you don't decide to stop for a wine-tasting at Chase and Warren winery. When you arrive at McLean's Mill National Historic Site, you see that the compound has been painstakingly resurrected to become Canada's only remaining steam-powered sawmill. You'll feel like you stepped back in time 100 years. Everyone is dressed as they were then, and they actually work the Mill at various chores. Usually, there's a theatre group, with musicians, who elaborate the history in a very entertaining way and lead you around the grounds.


There's two large lakes not far from town. Sproat Lake is more civilized, with facilities such as restaurants and pubs; and this is also where the Mars Bombers are based. These huge float planes are busy in the summer putting out forest fires all over the Island, but generally you can see at least one of them on the lake, as you kayak by. There's ancient petrogylphs in the provincial park, hiking trails, swimming, fishing and water activities.


Great Central Lake though is wilderness, although there's canoe rentals, a water taxi and camping at the Ark Resort. This is also the gateway to world-famous Della Falls and other remote areas of Strathcona Park.


This is black bear country, and if you want a photo of one, this may be the easiest place in the world to get one, as in late summer with the salmon runs they are seen regularly at places such as Victoria Quay, and Stamp Falls fishing. At Stamp River Provincial Park you can see thousands of salmon below the falls as they circle the pool before they ascend fish ladders on their way to spawn. In August it’s the sockeye, followed by coho, and then Chinook arrive as late as December. The Stamp River has rafting and other exciting activities, as well as the ubiquitous fishing. There’s also a horse trail along the river bank called The Stamp Long River Trail.


Among many hiking trails in the area is the historic Log Train trail, which used to be a railroad bed, but local volunteers now maintain the trail for hiking, horseback riding and biking. The trail officially opened April 1, 1990, and it is about 28 kilometres long; but there are different entry and exit points, so the trail can be hiked, or biked or horse-ridden along segments of the old railway bed. There are bridges over creeks, beautiful forest, some fantastic views, and the trail brings bird watchers from many different places.


Campbell River and Port Alberni both have competed for the title of the Salmon Capital of the World. It's a mute point really, as both are very good fishing spots. It depends on the year and conditions, and the salmon runs. Neither have been as devastated as some of the Fraser River runs, but there is not much industry in either city, except for the mills. Nonetheless, it’s not what it was in the old days. Of course, nothing ever is.


Further Info:

Sproat Lake: http://www.env.gov.bc.ca/bcparks/explore/parkpgs/sproat_lk/

Stamp River: http://www.env.gov.bc.ca/bcparks/explore/parkpgs/stamp_rv/

Horse Trails: http://www.bchorsemen.org