Alberni Valley, an Unheralded Nature Nexus on Vancouver Island
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Hiking, biking, trail running, music festivals, camping on the ocean—it's all in Port Alberni, at the heart of Vancouver Island, perched on one of the world's longest ocean inlets with over 5000 years of Indigenous culture.
Port Alberni, BC - I spent the summers of my youth quietly drifting down the Alberni Valley’s Somass River in an inner tube, fixedly staring down and into the impossibly clear water, mesmerized by the passing sockeye; so numerous at the time that they seemed almost a single, great organism.
Many years later, I still find myself beckoned back to the Valley, perhaps in part due to the tinted lens of nostalgia, but mostly it's the abundance of opportunity in outdoor recreation that is so often overlooked by those destined for the coastal towns of Tofino and Ucluelet. Much is to be said of the two, but one should certainly consider all that is overlooked in making a beeline for any given destination. In this regard, Port Alberni is an unheralded nature nexus on Vancouver Island.
Regardless of the direction you decide to head in, the wealth of opportunity presented is virtually unparalleled, and you are poised to access much of the Island's hidden gems. With Port Alberni as a basecamp, visitors can make a day trip, for example, to one such location: the nearby community of Bamfield.
Here, you can join guided tours to the Huu-ay-aht nation's breathtaking (no, really, this is hardly hyperbole) Kiixin Village, within which stand intact structures dated to have been built over 5,000 years ago. To be welcomed into this space of immense cultural significance is alone worth the drive, but the trek to and from the site are what elevate the experience into an absolutely integral part of any island trip: the winding beaches are serene; the rock formations dramatically monolithic; the guides generous in their sharing of knowledge and very much adamant on educating visitors from a Huu-ay-aht perspective, from the inside looking out.
I recently spent a day with locals Joshua and Latisha Charleson, exploring in and around Port Alberni. We stopped first at the Arrowvale Campground, where we met up with Anne Collins, who took us on a guided tour around the site.
The tour, which is educational and lasts approximately an hour, is facilitated by donation. It begins at the Collins’ farm, which is bustling with life: cows, donkeys and roosters abound. After becoming acquainted with the goats, we’re passed by two horses on our way to visit the pigs (one of whom is named, endearingly, Kevin Bacon), before slipping into the riverside forest.
Of incredible intrigue are the Live Tree False Face carvings, which an uninitiated visitor could easily miss—some are impressively situated at great heights, and others are naturally obscured by the abundant growth of unkempt verdure.
Carved by Iroquois artist Mark Travis Smoke, the masks are engraved into cedar trees and serve as guardians who watch over the land. In the words of Smoke, “the masks are wooden portraits of several types of mythical beings or apparitions that appeared in dreams, who, the Iroquois say, lived only a little while ago in the far rocky regions at the rim of the earth or wandered about in the forests.”
Following Arrowvale, we head into town for a leisurely jaunt along the Kitsuksis Dyke— a walkway that trails alongside a creek and reaches its apex at a small waterfall. What is most appealing about Kitsuksis is without question its sheer accessibility, which is itself a testament to the valley's latitude of experience.
“There are a plethora of options in the Alberni Valley,” says Josh, “with trails that are fully paved and very well maintained for wheelchair accessibility or flat walks through beautiful forests for those that do not feel up for a challenging hike.”
That being said, if a leisurely walk is not your thing, you need look no further than the surrounding mountains for something more remote and physically engaged: the trail to Della Falls, Canada's sixteenth highest waterfall, for example, is just a quick boat ride away.
Between the polarities of leisure and extremity rests the Roger Creek Trail System, which guides visitors through a dense forest, cascading usnea moss ahead and enormous ferns—seemingly prehistoric in size—afoot. The interconnection of a multitude of trails (among which are the Log Train Trail and the Bear Den Trail) allows you to make the trek to be as lengthy or brief as you desire, and the creek makes for a perfect place to dip your feet in on a sweltering summer afternoon.
“In one word: Plentiful,” Josh exclaims when asked how he’d describe Port Alberni, and one would be hard pressed to disagree. Regardless of interest, age, or skill level, there is ample opportunity for all to experience an array of some of Vancouver Island’s most pristine forests, rivers, and mountains.
WHEN YOU GO
- Check out why Port Alberni is the Salmon capital of Vancouver Island
- Plan an adventure from spending the day on Sproat Lake to one of the many waterfall day hikes
- Find places to stay, shop and eat via Alberni Valley Tourism.
- Make a day trip to Kiiixn for a complimentary tour from a Huu-ay-aht knowledge keeper. Come back transformed!