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Vargas Island

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Journey to Ahous Beach

Photography by Louise Christie

A stiff breeze impels me towards the federal wharf in Tofino just as surely as it whisks spindrift from the swells of surf that break on nearby Long Beach in Pacific Rim National Park Reserve. Now that the strengthening sun has routed the hamatsa , or cannibal spirits, of winter, I’m journeying to the west side of Vancouver Island in search of change. After a winter of layering myself in Gore-Tex, fleece, and polypropylene, I’m more than ready to succumb to the summer urge to hop, skip, and go naked.

My weekend destination is Ahous Beach on Vargas Island, five kilometres north of Tofino. All but deserted since the Ahousat First Nations moved northeast from Vargas’s outer coast to Flores Island’s sheltered inner shoreline in the 1880s, the wind still plays and whispers through the salal and Sitka spruce, and across the shell middens in grassy clearings where their villages once stood. Vargas boasts one of the largest collections of Native heritage sites in Clayoquot Sound.

By prior arrangement, Neil Buckle meets me at the First Street dock in Tofino and ferries me and my backpack to Vargas in his trusty aluminum skiff. It’s a 30-minute ride north across Templar Channel and around Wickaninnish Island to the Vargas Island Inn, which he and his wife Marilyn have operated since the 1970s on property that his grandparents first homesteaded in 1910. A haven for kayakers, the inn also marks the start of an old telegraph trail, constructed after the establishment of a lifesaving station in Tofino in 1913, that leads three kilometres west across island to Ahous Beach.

As much as I’d like to paddle my way around the 60-square kilometre island to Ahous Beach, my respect for the power of the exposed open ocean exceeds my kayaking skills. My backpack may weigh 20 kilos, but carrying that burden for what amounts to little more than a one-hour hike is a small price to pay for peace of mind. And as I’m not counting on finding fresh water, I’m carrying enough to last several days.

Buffeted by storms that often drop as much as a 15 centimetres of rain per day, much of low-lying Vargas Island – about half of which is provincial park – is a blend of soggy peat bog and crescent-shaped sand berms. Fortunately, a corduroy of cedar planks and shore pine poles covers much of the trail. It provides a raised surface across which I pick my way past pink western bog laurel blossoms and strawberry-hued hummocks of peat moss. A peregrine falcon circles lazily above while a banana slug the size of a Popsicle hugs the ground below.

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