Island Escape

Story by Tim King// Photos by Tim King
May 1 2015

A father and son play hooky from school for a trip to B.C. and a day ride on Vancouver Island

My son, Max, and I are two up on a BMW F800 touring bike, making our way out of Sooke on Vancouver Island’s south coast. It’s our last big stop after leaving behind Victoria’s morning rush hour and heading into the wild. The road has fallen in line with the rocky coast of the Pacific Ocean, and I’m bending the bike left and right around constant corners, seldom able to see more than a few dozen metres down the road. From the steep hillside, a deer pops over the barrier onto the road right in front of us. The BMW seamlessly comes to a stop two metres in front of an animal that’s all Image of BMW F800eyes. She tears off into the forest and we close our mouths. Looking around for the inevitable follow-up deer, I spot it next to the barrier eyeing us up. Pulling away slowly, I decide to ease off a bit and keep it under 80. You don’t need to be going breakneck speeds to enjoy this road.

I’m supposed to be at work as a teacher; instead I find myself playing hooky with my son over 4000 km away from home on a cool but beautifully sunny Friday morning at the end of May with a rented motorcycle and 300 km of astonishing roads in front of us. Sometimes life offers up nice surprises.

Change Is Good, Comparatively Speaking

I’ve been riding for just over a year, and this BMW F800 is only the second road bike I’ve ever ridden. My 650 cc Kawasaki Ninja is back at home and I’m amazed at how different two machines that do the same job can be. The BMW is a bigger bike, and with larger seats, it’s much more comfortable, according to my trusty passenger, and feels like a more mature bike in every sense. Redline is a sane 8000 rpm, and with all that comfort, it’s easy to ride for a long time, even two up. Other than the weird left-hand/right-hand turn signal switches, it’s a smooth transition from the Ninja (one of the reasons I chose it).

Vancouver Travel Working our way down this increasingly empty coastal road, we stumble across the small town of Shirley and Shirley Delicious café. The technician at Cycle BC – where we picked up the bike –told us that the temperature can drop 10 degrees on the coast, and he wasn’t wrong. After warming up with a hot coffee and the best sausage roll I’ve ever had, we bump into another BMW rider who’s in his seventies. After some affable Teutonic chat (I don’t tell him I actually own a Kawasaki), we are back on the long and winding road.

From Shirley, we wind our way northwest up the quiet coast. The east coast faces Vancouver and is as busy as anywhere in Canada, but the west coast faces the endless Pacific and remains largely unpopulated. We see only a couple of other vehicles as we chase the tail of this amazing road clinging to the side of mountains and edged by ocean. The switchbacks that lead down to single-lane bridges over mountain rivers look more like a path found in Scandinavian fjords than Canadian back roads.

We stop and stretch about 40 minutes into the ride at a scenic lookout, which along with many provincial parks dot the route. As we clear the strait between Vancouver Island and Washington State’s Olympic Peninsula and begin to face the Pacific, tsunami warning signs with escape routes appear. You really get a sense of being on the edge of the world here. The edge of North America, the edge of the former British Empire, facing half a world of ocean.

Seashells by the Sea Shore

Vancouver Island ShoreA few buildings scattered among the trees mark the town of Port Renfrew, which seems more of an idea than an actual place. We pass through it in moments and find ourselves on a rough paved road into Juan de Fuca Provincial Park, where we hope to find Botanical Beach. Max and I strip off the bike gear, stow it in the big Givi tail box and head down the trail. The tide is out and an amazing beach full of tidal pools awaits us.
We warm up on the long walk down to the shore, soon finding ourselves clambering over black stone jutting into the ocean. The sea life is prodigious, with massive strings of clams, crabs and a million creatures crawling on the rocks. The smell of salt and sharp, clean air is magical; we’re the only people here.

A couple of hours pass by while we wander around the rocks, but I’ve only rented the bike for the day and the sun’s position shows it’s way past noon. I figure we should eat, and the Coastal Kitchen Café on the way in looked like a good choice. But Max has a thing for chain restaurants and says he isn’t hungry (though he was). I don’t get to the Coastal Kitchen Café, one of my few regrets on this trip. I’m looking at my watch and wondering how I can possibly get back to Victoria, since it’s getting on to 2 p.m. and we’re not even halfway around our loop yet. Lake Cowichan is halfway across the island. It’s only 63 km away, but this road is something else, and you don’t make time on it. Around every corner – and there is always a corner – you find idyllic waterfalls, tumbling mountain rivers and absurdly beautiful alpine vistas. The BMW is bending left and right over the patchwork surface, the suspension soaking up the bumps. I get into a rhythm and lose myself for a while chasing this road.

Time to Refuel

Unlike on the Ninja I can barely feel Max back there until he uncharacteristically thumps into me as I brake for a switchback. He mumbles that he’s okay, but we’ve been on the road since 9 a.m., he’s had no lunch and he’s dopey – not a good combination. I push on to Lake Cowichan, now more worried about him than enjoying the ride. We stop in Cowichan and eat lousy fast food. He perks right back up and we get back on the road quickly because it’s almost 4 p.m. and I’ve got less than two hours to return the F800. Cowichan marks the return to the populated side of the island, and the highway out of it is the first 100 km/h zone we’ve seen since leaving Victoria. In a flash we’re back to the Trans-Canada in Duncan; after a day spent virtually alone on twisting roads, we find ourselves in a traffic jam surrounded by big-box stores. I’m wishing we’d turned around and gone back the way we came. Even a commuter road like this makes most roads in Ontario look sad. It’s smooth (it barely snows here and frost heaves are all but non-existent), and the asphalt constantly snakes over and around mountains. Though very different from the island’s west side wilderness, the highway ride back to Victoria is nice and fast.

Once clear of Duncan, we don’t see another slowdown until entering Victoria, and it isn’t a big one. By five o’clock we’re pulling back into Cycle BC’s downtown Victoria shop, tired but elated. The bike did the whole trip, over 300 km all told, on a single tank of gas. It also cast some perspective on my Ninja. One of the reasons I fell for the Ninja was the sound of its engine; I’ve seldom heard anything happier. I enjoyed riding the BMW, but that engine gets the job done with little joy. The good news is, I now have much higher standards for control feel, brakes and suspension, but without that singing engine, I’m just not smitten. Deserves a Return Ride As for the trip, it was unforgettable. From sea to sky and back again, it was challenging, exhausting and completely worth it. Were I to do it again, I think I’d get the bike for 24 hours instead of eight and stay over in Cowichan before coming back down the empty coast the next day. That road deserves two-way attention, and I’d happily avoid the traffic on the busy side of the island, as well as the stress of trying to rush the bike back. I’d also eat lunch at the Coastal Kitchen Café, damn it. The days are long on Vancouver Island in the summer. If you left at noon on one day, you could meander up to Cowichan, enjoy a 10 p.m. sunset and be on the road well after sunrise at 6 a.m. the next day, looking forward to retracing those mad roads back to Victoria. I’m already planning my next escape.

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