Avoid tourist traps like Banff, Lake Louise, Jasper, where you will be trampled underfoot by the hordes. Instead, wander through forests, hike mountain trails. Breakfast with long-distance truckers in roadside cafes, watch wildlife, see how people live in remote communities.
A notice at the entrance to Cottonwood Park in the town of Prince George reads: This is a Bear-Tolerant Community. Not the kind of sign we usually find in parks here. But wild animals are a fact of life. Hikers hang tinkling bells from their daypacks to tell bears of their presence. Yellow signs alert you to the risk of hitting a moose as it wanders peacefully across the road. Deer forage in front gardens. A beaver waddles purposefully through a hotel parking lot, heading for the nearby pond. And you will never forget the eerie cry of the loon as it floats on mirror-still lakes.
Clearwater is a small settlement south of Prince George, not much more than a gas station, a few lines of houses, a roadside restaurant. But that restaurant has a gigantic parking area where a small rental car looks lost. It wasn’t designed for you, it was planned around those enormous truck-trailer combos which ply up and down the Yellowhead Highway linking the Yukon with Vancouver, Alaska with CalIfornia. Just turning one of those things requires more space than an Irish housing estate.
At breakfast, truckers gather in groups, shedding their padded plaid jackets as they warm up over the first steaming mug of coffee. “Bad bit of road coming down the Dempster,” you overhear. “Took me three days to scrape the mud of Alberta off my drive shaft.” “That real steep bend, y’know it? Took it slow, put my foot right down on the brake — and nuthin’ happened!” A communal intake of breath, a leaning forward. This sharing and partaking is a living tradition among those who travel the lonely roads day and night. These rest breaks are often the only chance they get to talk to their own kind, those who know the hardships and the difficulties they face on a daily basis. Then, enormous breakfasts demolished, the last drops of coffee drained, they lumber to their feet, smite comradely shoulders in a gesture of farewell, and head back to their trucks. Suddenly old songs like ‘24 Hours from Tulsa’, or ‘By The Time I Get to Phoenix’, make sense.
Just above Clearwater is Blue River, where a young team of enthusiasts sell tickets for river safaris to see bears, bald eagles, whatever happens along on that particular morning. It’s all casual, friendly, personal, and far more rewarding than the over-organised tours you will find operating out of larger centres.
The small boat guns down the immensely wide river. All around tower mountain peaks, many still capped with snow at the summer’s end. A bald eagle cries harshly as it lifts from a tall fir. Close by, a salmon leaps. What a way to spend a beautiful morning, you think in exultation.
Suddenly the guide cuts the engine and swings the boat silently towards a rocky shore. His keen eyes have spotted movement. And there, indeed, is a black bear, just emerging from the trees to amble along the water’s edge, turning over stones in search of food.
Floating silently offshore, we are no threat. He probably sees us as a raft of logs being sent downriver to the mills. So close you can see the satiny black fur rippling, he wades into the shallows and sits down with an audible sigh of relaxation. It’s a privileged moment.
Vancouver Island is about the same size as Ireland, but with a virtually inaccessible interior of high mountain ranges and very few east-west roads. Most visitors head for the capital of BC, Victoria, admittedly a lovely waterside city with real charm. But it’s also crowded with tourists, year-round. As is Tofino, the surfing and whale-watching lodestar on the west coast.
To get a real feeling of The Island, as locals call it, strike north towards somewhere like Campbell River. Here the balconies of the Passage View Motel look right out on the strait between island and mainland, giving spectacular views of passing eagles, whales, seals, otters.
A steady drumming sound arouses you in the middle of the night and you look out to see a huge cruise ship floating by, lit up like a miraculous vision.
That’s when you realise that cruises might not be for you. Passengers are trapped, unable to do anything but dine constantly or look out at the passing scenery in the dark. You, on the other hand, can not only enjoy the sight of the passing ship, you can see the scenery unfold as you drive, stop to explore tiny bays, chase passing orca whales to get the best photograph.
For the experience of a lifetime, go out with the postman. This coastline is so indented, it would give Norway’s fjords an inferiority complex. Whole communities are inaccessible by any means other than boat. Or floatplane. Which is how the mail gets delivered. Coril Air at Campbell River will take you along too. Fly up remote sounds, land in sunlit bays, climb wooden ladders to tiny landings. A cook needs to be dropped off at a logging barge in the middle of nowhere. The cheerful red-headed lady in bib-front overalls was eager to get back to “her” barge. Her kids were grown, she had time to herself, she loved her job. “Three weeks on, one week off.” Wasn’t she worried, being the only woman among all those tough lumberjacks? “There’s one iron rule. You don’t mess with the cook!”
Ferries are a way of life in coastal BC, and if your opinion of ferry terminals is jaundiced, then prepare for the experience of a lifetime at Tsawassen. Just south of Vancouver Airport, this is where you catch the boat for Victoria, and it’s the glorious standard to which all others should aspire. Crammed with shops, cafes, stalls, must-have clothing, designer sunglasses, fresh fudge, Chinese buffets, and of course freshly-ground coffee. Always aim to get to Tsawassen at least an hour early.
Instead of retracing your steps from Campbell River to Victoria, hop across to Powell River on the mainland and travel down that coast. Every so often, the road ends suddenly at a pier, you board a ferry to the next stretch, and so on. It’s called the Sunshine Coast, but Hopscotch would be more descriptive. Each boat ride gives you glimpses of tiny tree-covered islands, dreamlike wooden houses, the occasional whale or seal.
At Lund, just beyond Powell River on the edge of Desolation Sound, the road really does end. From there it’s hiking or paddling your own canoe. And here is a truly unique place to stay. The Dome is a tiny round beehive tucked into the depths of the forest, where deer graze on the lawns outside and bears potter by at nightfall. You are simply miles from anywhere and for those wanting the true wilderness experience but with modern conveniences (sauna anyone?), this is Nirvana.
“It was built by draft-dodgers back in the Seventies,” explains owner Roisin Sheehy-Culhane who runs Great Balls of Wool, a knitting shop in Powell River. “When we moved here, it was pretty dilapidated, but we did it up gradually, and now it’s much sought after. Families in particular love it because there is no noise, no disturbance, just peace.” Roisin, incidentally, grew up in Kinsale but has lived here for years. “Sometimes I miss the conversation and the craic though.”
Dublin or Cork to Vancouver: via Heathrow with British Airways, from €700 return; via Amsterdam with KLM from €625 return.
Passage View Motel, Campbell River, from €55 per night for a double room. In Vancouver, outside the city centre is cheaper.
Quality Inn Maple Ridge (from €59) is a good jumping off point for the Rockies; Quality Inn Langley (from €64) for the Tsawassen ferry to Victoria. Find the unique Dome at Lund on www.magicaldome.com
Expect to pay €10-€12 for excellent meat and fish main courses, €3 for a large beer.