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Originally published June 5, 2013 at 7:04 PM | Page modified June 21, 2013 at 10:23 AM

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A perfect play day on Vancouver Island

If you could choose a day of outdoor adventures to relive again and again, what would it be? Here’s one writer’s choice of a Vancouver Island idyll.

Special to The Seattle Times

If you go

Exploring Vancouver Island


Sprawling Strathcona Provincial Park is about halfway up Vancouver Island, west of Courtenay and north of Tofino, B.C. A smorgasbord of activities awaits, including fishing, camping, hiking, mountaineering, boating, rock climbing and mountain biking.

Horne Lake Caves Provincial Park is on Horne Lake, off Highway 19 east of Parksville. Hourly tours $24/adults. Some sections free to explore on your own. Bring warm clothes, sturdy shoes and a headlamp.

Cathedral Grove, in MacMillan Provincial Park, is just off Highway 4, 10 miles east of Port Alberni. Free. Allow at least 30 minutes to explore.


Fanny Bay Oysters has fresh local seafood at the Buckley Bay ferry landing;

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When I was asked to become a regular contributor to The Seattle Times’ Outdoors page, I spent a lot of time thinking about my favorite days in the wilderness.

As I compiled my list of “best days” I began to wonder, “If I were Bill Murray stuck in the movie ‘Groundhog Day,’ which day would I want to live over, and over, and over again?”

Hands down, this is my day.

I was midsummer road-tripping around Vancouver Island with my then-girlfriend Amanda, following a loose itinerary that we made up as we went along. A heat wave was in full effect; we had a double kayak on the Subaru and a back seat full of camping swag. In other words, the perfect setup for a day of adventure.

I didn’t know it at the time, but this would be the trip that helped our relationship turn the proverbial corner. Awe-inspiring nature fused with a budding romance would prove to be so alluring that we would return to Vancouver Island two years later to officially tie the knot.

My Groundhog Day opens in Strathcona Provincial Park — an enormous swath of wilderness in the center of the island crowned by an emerald alpine lake nestled within a splendid basket of mountains.

We dropped the kayak into the flat water of Buttle Lake. By late morning, it was already getting hot, without a breath of wind or ripple in any direction.

By the time we reached the far side of the lake, we felt like we were miles from anyone. We sunbathed on flat boulders and became shrieking cannonballs when we plunged into the clear Canadian snowmelt.

One of the downsides to crystal clear water is that you can see below you, and we probably would have stayed in that spot all day if Amanda hadn’t noticed a spaghetti-sized worm-creature swimming in a most unpleasant way a few feet below us. We decided skinny-dipping was no longer on the agenda.

Motivated to move

Perhaps the creature was sent to push us along, because a quick paddle and a short drive later found us at jaw-dropping Lower Myra Falls with a series of cascading waterfalls, stunning views and terraced pools that begged to be explored. We felt like we’d been transported to a Hawaiian paradise, yet shockingly, we had the place to ourselves.

We scampered over the rocks, wasted time in private pools and dared each other to stand beneath the waterfalls for photos. When a family arrived an hour later, we headed out in search of lunch, eventually stumbling upon the Buckley Bay ferry landing and Fanny Bay Oysters.

We bought a half dozen of the live fatties along with a cheap knife and shucked our lunch over a beachfront driftwood table — learning to probe for the oyster’s “key” to pry them open. And while I scraped my hand in the process, the discomfort was more than worth it — their clean, buttery goodness in the raw was deemed amazing even to my southern-born girlfriend with little experience in slurping oysters.

Following a promising sounding dot on our map, the afternoon found us in tiny Horne Lake Caves Provincial Park. We skipped the guided tour and opted for the free “explore on your own” experience. In true unregulated Canadian style, we spent the next two hours surrounded by freakishly weird limestone formations that resembled chocolate lava eruptions frozen in time.

Shimmying up walls and looking for hidden ledges and small holes to scoot through, we marveled that once again, we had the place to ourselves. LED headlamps: check. Filthy clothes from spelunking: check. Big smiles: check. Free caves without having to follow a guide: discount double check.

Land of the giants

Another surprise was in store for us that evening along Highway 4 when we spotted a sign for Cathedral Grove old-growth forest. The sign wasn’t really necessary. The slumbering giants were impossible to overlook.

A quick stop was all that was needed to casually stroll among some of the biggest red cedar, Sitka spruce and Douglas firs on the planet (the biggest more than 800 years old). They were deemed so impressive, even the early loggers couldn’t bear to cut them!

We pushed westward toward a spine of mountains that runs down the center of Vancouver Island. Our hope was to find a suitable car-camping spot. A few hours later, we realized we were so enthralled by the rugged valleys and torrential rivers (which would be in national parks almost anywhere else) that we’d nearly reached the Pacific Ocean. Rather than backtrack, by 9:30 p.m. we were sitting on the beach catching the tail end of a brilliant sunset.

We sipped boxed wine from plastic mugs as we reflected on the diversity of a single day: kayaking in the morning, a waterfall shower, oyster shucking for lunch, caving in the afternoon, an old-growth forest in the evening and wide, sandy beach at sunset.

Play. Repeat. Play. Repeat. I want that to be my Groundhog Day. What’s yours?

Seattle freelancer Jeff Layton has traveled to more than 75 countries as a journalist, photographer and tour leader. He blogs at

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