The Sunshine Coast

Story by Ron Keys// Photos by Ron Keys
June 6 2011

The roar of my Street Glide echoes off the rock wall, cut into the steep landscape, where Grouse Mountain’s snowy peaks reach up beyond the clouds. I glance furtively left through tree branches denuded by shortening days and catch glimpses of Burrard Inlet far below and the cargo-laden ships that slowly ply its blue waters. Ahead, the majestic Lion’s Gate Bridge and Stanley Park, landmarks only Vancouver can claim as its own.

I’m here for the Annual Canadian Motorcycle Hall of Fame Banquet, but my itinerary also includes a ride around the picturesque city and British Columbia’s strikingly beautiful Sunshine Coast. Although it’s November, I dare to ride up the coastal highway, across to Vancouver Island and back on a bike loaned to me by the good folks at Deeley Harley-Davidson. I ride alone; my west-coast friends are wise enough not to join me on such a chilly venture. The thermometer hovers around 10°C, but yesterday’s rain has dried, so I have a window of opportunity. Typical weather for coastal B.C. in November is rain and more rain, so my wet-weather riding gear is safely tucked in my saddlebag, just in case. The weather gods, however, seem to be riding pillion with me today.

At Horseshoe Bay, just north of Vancouver — close to the end of the world’s longest transcontinental highway — I stop to buy a CirclePac Pass, which allows me to ride all four ferries between the mainland and the island. Akin to Moby Dick, the ferry’s gargantuan mouth opens wide and I ride carefully into its steel bowels, where my boots vibrate as mammoth diesel engines rumble below. The ferry closes and my lone trek begins.

From the viewing decks, I enjoy the grandiose view of coastal B.C. and Bowen Island for the forty-minute crossing. The puffy, low-lying clouds, driven deep into fjords by the prevailing westerly winds, ascend over stately, verdant peaks. Volcanic islands punctuate the calm, blue water like massive green cones erupting from the ocean’s floor. I see the Sea-to-Sky Highway, clinging to the mountainside and meandering northward to Whistler, home of the recent winter Olympics.

Langdale — named after Robinson Langdale, who settled here in 1893 — appears as we glide past Keats Island, a haven of safety for many during the Vietnam debacle decades ago. The Sunshine Coast is rife with the homes of American transplants who fell in love with the area and never left. The land value has increased substantially since then, and though many still tread about in the humble garb of gumboots and long raincoats, that does not reflect their bank accounts. The starboard view features a partial rainbow emerging from Howe Sound — an omen of fair weather, I hope.

Upon arrival, I am first to rumble back onto solid ground and then putter slowly along Marine Drive, noticing rugged shoreline peeking through conifer trees. An aquatic rooftop sculpture comes vaguely into view, and I strain to see that it is a human form, lying prostrate with hands and feet pedalling to rotate a propeller. This is one of the aesthetic eccentricities characterizing the area where peace and love remains the mantra of the old hippy population. I carry on, enriched and delighted by this and other sights, straight into the town of Gibsons.

Gibsons’ rich history — not the least of which was its long-running TV appearance as the backdrop for the Canadian classic, The Beachcombers — began when it was named after George Gibson, who moved here from Ontario in 1886. Here, he beached his homemade sloop, the Swamp Angel, claimed 160 acres for himself and his son, and settled into the terrain. His wife, Charlotte, and daughters joined him shortly after the family home was built. George still watches over the harbour, honoured posthumously by his tall, bronzed likeness in Pioneer Square, which stands on the site of his first homestead and directly over his remains. The harbour — stuffed to capacity with all manner of fishing, sailing and powerboats — is the foreground for the pristine homes clinging to rocky outcrops high above the water. Across the street sits Molly’s Reach Restaurant, the very one frequented by The Beachcombers characters, where my imagination grabs hold for a second and I swear I see Nick and Relic stroll by. Of course they can’t, but the thought breaks my hypnotic state, freeing me to wander around the town square, a rare jewel secreted away along the B.C. coastline.

With quite a distance ahead and ever-sharpening hunger pangs getting the better of me, I pry myself away to roll on out toward Robert’s Creek, the proudly self-proclaimed “Gumboot Capital of the World” due to its residents’ favourite footwear (more commonly known as rubber boots). I head for the Gumboot Restaurant, recommended by my sister, who used to live here and tantalizingly refused to say why I simply had to try it. Even as the Harley’s garish growl ruptured the quiet calm along Lower Road — which parallels the coastline and plunges in and out of a towering, coniferous rainforest — it is still soothing and peaceful. Creek after creek, fed by mountain runoff, babbles down to the ocean far below. I wonder for a moment if I have wandered off course just as a homemade sign nailed to a ramshackle, red-shingled building with a moss-covered roof announces my arrival at the mysterious eatery.

I take a brief respite and wander aimlessly along the path leading to the sea. This place, a refuge for so many American boys, was the antithesis of barrelling headlong into the Southeast Asian impasse of the ’60s and ’70s. I listen to its soundtrack of wind whooshing and driftwood bobbing delicately over gentle waves, the sounds heard only in a place such as this. Contrasting the mellow shorelines is a colourful and vibrant eclectic community of artisans still abuzz with the life breathed into it three generations ago by draft-dodging and peace-loving hippies, most of whom celebrate and connect with nature through their worldview and organic, vegetarian lifestyle. These Vietnam-era immigrants, and their children and grandchildren, have sustained their quirky, yet idiosyncratic enterprises — a woodworking school, art galleries, distinctive shops stocked with wares of local crafters — that could only exist in a place as unconventional and anomalous as this.

An audible rumble in my stomach tells me it’s time for some grub, so I amble into the distinctive and rustic Gumboot Restaurant and seat myself amid flea-market décor with random and mismatched tables, chairs and even the silverware at each place setting. Its ambiance speaks loudly of the locals’ (that is, the Creekers’) atypical way of life. I chomp away on scrumptious meatless chilli and a sub bursting with vegetables and cheese as I behold the oddities gilding nearly every inch in view. Eager to move on to the next leg of my journey, I continue through town on Lower Road as it guides me to 101, the Sunshine Coast Highway.
After a mere seven kilometres of leisurely winding downhill, I exit the majestic Pacific rainforest and approach Davis Bay and Selma Park. Strung along the beautiful shoreline of Trail Bay on the Strait of Georgia is an awesome view of Vancouver Island along with beachside communities, pebbly beaches and miles of sea walk basking in sunshine. The tide is out, evidenced by pools and sandbars, and at the end of a long wooden pier jutting out into Trail Bay are a few fishermen dipping lines into the sea. I chug along, regretting my schedule as the town fades in my mirrors and I head uphill back into the forest. Here, the fun begins. I sweep back and forth, up and down between apexes along the 55 km stretch of undulating terrain between Selma Park and the Earls Cove ferry, certainly the most enticing and exuberant part of my trip up the Sunshine Coast. The region’s mild winters ensure smooth sailing on pristine roads with little to no traffic on this serendipitous November afternoon. I settle into my saddle for the 45-minute ride of sheer pleasure that eventually delivers me to the docking place of the ferry that will next carry me to Saltery Bay.

I ease off the throttle and reverberate down a slope to the ferry dock, passing a sign reading “Egmont 6 km.” I check the ferry schedule, only to discover that the next ferry won’t sail until 4:00 p.m. I wonder briefly how to kill some time before realizing the answer is right in front of me: a ride to Egmont and maybe even a hike out to the Skookumchuck Narrows, if I hurry. Skookumchuck is a Chinook name meaning strong waters. Skookumchuck Narrows is a tightly corseted natural passage dividing the Sechelt and Jervis inlets, energized by a three-metre tide change and the force of 200 billion gallons of water flowing through a slender channel. If my timing is right, I just might witness the massive convergence of water surging through the Narrows at an amazing sixteen miles per hour. The exhilaration of “standing waves” attracts kayakers worldwide who travel here to experience the phenomenon.

With the new plan in mind, I head toward Egmont. The road is tantalizingly twisty and resembles a long private driveway deep in the forest more than a public road. Words cannot encapsulate the magnificence of the Canadian rainforest, so lush and green and covered in sphagnum moss. The scenery seeps into my very soul. My eyes widen in wonder as my head pivots left and right to take in the pristine environment until I glide into the hamlet of Egmont, a diminutive outpost alongside the Sechelt Inlet, my exploration of which barely eats up a nanosecond of my two-hour wait. Will I have time for a hike before the next ferry sets out to sea? I silently coast into a parking space and, camera in hand, trundle along the gravel pathway to a stream beside The Green Rosette, a bakery serving tourists and hikers. In the distance, a woman moves steadily toward me. She approaches just as I bend down to snap that once-in-a-lifetime shot of a crystal-clear babbling brook; I look up at the camera’s click to inquire how far it is to the Narrows. She answers, “at least 45 minutes, one way.” A bit of elementary arithmetic tells me there just isn’t time, so I dejectedly plod back up the hill to the parking lot.

I backtrack at an easy pace, winding through the rainforest to the ferry. I again pull into the bike lane and cruise up to the front of the line. Conversation comes easy to western folks, and I while we wait, a few of them admire my shiny new black Harley. All manner of stories are told, about western loggers of the mighty redwood forests, and prospectors hunting for that elusive big claim. I thoroughly enjoy this chatty interlude with folks from different walks of life. Soon, anxious engines are starting all around me simultaneously, the choreographed mechanical dance beneath the hoods of the vehicles about to board the ferry.
I feel particularly anxious to get to Saltery Bay, because there is still 31 kilometres left on today’s ride up the Sunshine Highway and it’s getting late. With our short November days, it will be dark by the time the ferry unloads. Riding on strange mountain roads after dark is not my idea of good, safe fun. A necessary venture, however, if I am to reach my night’s accommodations, the Crow’s Nest B&B at Powell River.

Dagmar and Ray, the owners of The Crow’s Nest B&B, have reserved a room for me in their home tonight. They met in the Yukon – Dagmar was a young girl from Germany and Ray a Canadian boy – eventually moving south to Powell River and opening their B&B, a dream they made real together. I look forward to seeing the faces of my cyber-friends at their beautiful home overlooking the Strait of Georgia, where one can watch the approaching Vancouver Island ferry from the front balcony.

Because I’m parked at the far side of the ferry this time, a racy little Volvo is allowed off before me. I had hoped that he wouldn’t hold me up, but am happy to discover that the line-jumper is a blessing in the dark. I tuck right in behind the Volvo, which blazes a quick and safe trail most of the way to my destination. Twenty-seven minutes later, I see the glimmer of lights piercing through the murky, cloud-filled November sky. Powell River isn’t a big town, so finding Michigan Avenue and The Crow’s Nest isn’t difficult. The lights are on and an “OPEN” sign makes me sigh with fatigue and relief as I gingerly ride up the gravel driveway. Gathering up my things, Dagmar greets me at the door. She’s a welcome sight after a long day on the road, as is the room to which she leads me, where I collapse for the evening.

The harbour view is magnificent as I gaze out the window, even on a moonless night. I nestle into the envelope of warm covers on the soft bed and listen to tomorrow’s foreboding on the Weather Network before aiming the remote control to order the TV off, and rolling sleepily over into a well-earned slumber. The sound of rain pattering on the roof gradually fades away with my consciousness.

The next morning, after Dagmar’s delectable homemade breakfast, I stand on the balcony and watch through the rain as the ferry bobs toward land. Dark threatening clouds drift about in a shadowy, rainy sky that promises an uncomfortable ride on Vancouver Island. But, it is November and I am content that I was given one lovely day to ride up the Sunshine Coast in solitude. I’m lucky to have had such a fantastic day of riding.

The mighty twin roars to life, and as I lazily meander down through town to the waiting ferry, I pat her shiny gas tank with my damp, gloved hand and silently thank her for graciously and safely carrying me through the wonders of British Columbia’s beautiful Sunshine Coast.


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