The more things change, the more they stay the same
Story & Photos by Trevor Marc Hughes
As a kid, the promise of a summer’s drive up Vancouver Island to camp was gold. It would get me through the last month of school in Victoria, knowing that I’d be travelling along the Malahat Highway in my parent’s four-door Ford, then joining up with Hwy 19A – what I knew then as the Old Island Highway – for the scenic drive to either Miracle Beach or Rathtrevor Beach. Once we arrived, we’d pitch a tent or put up the tent trailer and savour a week of simplicity in the woods, with a glorious beach nearby where we’d beachcomb for sand dollars and walk forever along the sand. Hwy 19A was the road to paradise for a kid who loved scenic drives and the great outdoors.
Recently, I brought my two sons to camp with their poppa at my old stomping grounds at Miracle Beach. Sometimes I even get the chance to ferry over on my BMW F650GS and ride the road to paradise. I’ve developed a new appreciation for the road as a motorcyclist and try to ride it once a season. Its curves, slow pace and scenery have given this motorcyclist a thankfulness for its being there. It’s something of a pilgrimage for me, Hwy 19A.
Change is inevitable, though. At the turn of the 21st century, Hwy 19A was superseded by Hwy 19. With the opening of this new highway, vehicles could now haul at 120 km/h
along straight, dull asphalt all the way to Campbell River. Hwy 19 went inland, avoiding the towns, parks and scenery I’d so enjoyed as a kid travelling up island to summer’s paradise.
A discovery on a recent Hwy 19A ride made me a little concerned. My favourite Old Island Highway fuel station wasn’t pumping gas anymore; the old pumps had been switched off. I couldn’t believe it. I was surprised and disappointed. The Fanny Bay Service Station was a little north of Qualicum Beach and always made for a good stop to stretch legs and feed the tank.
With my favourite gas station closed, I wondered: Was business along the 19A suffering as a result of the new speedier highway? It seemed a good time to do some two-wheeled research.
At Parksville I countersteered off speedy Hwy 19 and geared down to cross railroad tracks for the deactivated E&N Railway, already allowing the slower island pace of life to seep into me. I pulled up next to a characterful wood cabin. I’d arrived at the Parksville Museum, an outdoor park containing classic buildings from the town’s seaside resort past. Craig’s on the Sea Auto Camp was a common retreat where, between the 1930s and 1980s, you could pull up on a motorbike or in a car and set it in a lean-to shelter that was part of the cabin. Craig’s Camp would set the stage for the many modern resorts by the water I saw as I rode on toward Qualicum Beach.
The area is known for its sea air, and it revived me as I opened up the throttle. Pulling inland for a bit, it wasn’t long before I rounded a corner and trees gave way to a free descent to the sandy crescent of Qualicum Beach. I geared down and passed many cruisers stopped for a break by the sea.
An Old Watering Hole
I pulled into a place I’d always associated with motorcycles. The Shady Rest has made for a popular mid-ride stop for riders to wet their whistles. It’s been open since 1924, and judging from the bikes leaning casually out front on their side stands, business wasn’t suffering.
The Old Island Highway passed through several towns right on the water, communities that have been built up because of their proximity to the sea. Taking a wide curve back from another inland stretch, I rejoined the water at Qualicum Bay and decided to turn off onto the gravel of an old service station lot. What was once the foundation for fuel pumps had become the base for a giant piece of public art. An impressive green fish in a canoe seemed to have swallowed a fisherman at the entrance to the Sandbar Café and Art Gallery. It was an example of how businesses seem to have diversified from the days in which 19A was my childhood road to paradise.
As eye-catching as the massive green fish was, it wasn’t as jaw-dropping as the number of motorcyclists rumbling along 19A on a sunny Saturday in early summer. My left hand was tiring from all the waving it was doing. I wound along the treed highway, an occasional passing lane appearing, but for the most part a simple two-lane road. I steered north away from the beachside, smelling smoke from a driftwood fire. Arriving at the Fanny Bay Service Station, I took a few snaps for old time’s sake.
Once again, my parallel twin engine hummed next to the seaside. At Fanny Bay, a motley collection of anchored watercraft ranging from sailboats to a rusting ferry surrounded oyster farm beds, laid out neatly in several rows above the waves. In the distance, I spotted a two-storey building nestled between piles of oyster shells and I twisted the throttle a little more to get to it. This was always a place of interest for me as a kid driving up-island with my family.
Mac’s Oysters opened in 1947. Gordy McLellan is the grandson of Joseph McLellan, the founder of the business, and he now operates it. I asked him if the faster highway has cut into business. Fanny Bay is now famous for its oysters, and Gordy told me he sends two trucks of oysters to Seattle a week. “Many businesses did close due to the opening of the new highway,” he said. “Our store here is a minor part of our business now, so it didn’t matter so much.” Gordy told me he sees “loads of motorcyclists” along 19A. Before 19 opened, there was too much traffic, he said. “It was bumper to bumper through town. Now that the dust has settled, there’s a fair amount of traffic.”
I thanked Gordy, and with a glance at nearby Denman Island, I mounted up, put on my gloves and aimed the F650GS northeast.
Soon after passing through the intersection at Buckley Bay, where a ferry takes vehicles to Denman Island, I cruised past the old schoolhouse at Union Bay: an aging coal-mining town with stories to tell along its heritage row. Then it appeared. The Highwayman Saloon. It always had plenty of big Harley cruisers out front, as it did on this day. As a kid, I thought it looked pretty intimidating. What if I were to pull over and find out more about it? Hey, I’m an adult now. Would my orange GS be welcome among the dark cruisers? Maybe on the way back?
The Final Section
I zipped through Royston, where the Comox Logging and Railway Company line stopped and logs were boomed in the harbour. Comox and Courtenay seemed like major metropolises compared to the towns I’d passed through earlier. I rattled over an open-grate bridge, Comox Bay to my right and farmland straight ahead as I veered inland to ride the final section of 19A.
This straight section, which I rode during the afternoon’s magic hour, passed through the lush farms of the Comox Valley. Off to the west were the snowcapped peaks of Strathcona, Vancouver Island’s largest provincial park.
It wasn’t long until I leaned into another corner and there were gentle ocean waves again, lapping against the beach at Oyster Bay. I pulled over at Oyster Bay Shoreline Park, one of my favourite rest stops, and breathed in the rejuvenating salt air.
At Campbell River, I slowed down in the mid-island traffic and spun around outside the terminal for the ferry to Quathiaski Cove on Quadra Island. The shadow of me astride my GS was cast to my left.
Upon my return to Union Bay, I decided to pull into the lot at The Highwayman. I wanted a picture of my GS among the hardened cruisers in the old coal town. With a little trepidation and a nod to my childhood self, I nestled the GS between two large Harleys. While I was snapping photos one of the owners of the cruisers approached me and commented on how much he liked my F650GS. His only surprise, he said, was the absence of a boxer engine, it being a parallel-twin. John wished me a “shiny, orange side up, rubber side down.”
I rolled away from the saloon in the evening glow. Clearly, the Old Island Highway, my road to paradise, was doing just fine. The kid I used to be would approve, I think…