The Vancouver Island Spine Trail
A stunning public trail traversing the entire length of Van Isle with untouched wilderness and beauty
Gil Parker, a highly experienced Canadian rock climber and hiker, first came to Vancouver Island in the late ’60s, although the years 1999-2004 were a pivotal time for Parker and his future ambitions on Vancouver Island. During that six-year period, he hiked approximately 85 per cent of the 4,300-km Pacific Crest Trail from Mexico to Canada and it was during this time that he developed the idea of a Vancouver Island Spine Trail, a 700km public non-motorized trail system running from Victoria to Cape Scott.
Parker explains, “The Pacific Crest Trail traverses mountainous terrain east of Los Angeles, the Mojave Desert crossing, high mountain passes in the Sierra Mountains, the volcano country of Oregon and the Cascades of Washington State. Each section has its challenges but in all cases, a long-distance hiker has to not only walk the trail, but also plan for food resupply pickups at 8 to 12-day intervals, and ensure adequate water supply is available.”
His vision of the Spine Trail began with creating a challenge for long-distance hikers but rapidly expanded to include non-motorized travellers such as runners, mountain bikers, and equestrians in suitable areas. The resulting concept links many existing trails, joined in continuity by new sections, to provide athletic and healthful challenges to citizens of Vancouver Island and to increase tourism interest and development.
While Vancouver Island terrain is somewhat similar to parts of the Pacific Crest Trail, there are many different challenges to construction and use of the Spine trail. “Along the route are six different Regional Districts and several municipalities,” explains Parker, “each with their own interests and regulations. In our case, we have less parkland along our route than the PCT, and more privately-owned forest land, with the attendant access issues. First Nations bands have traditional rights over much of the Crown land on Vancouver Island, whose opinions deserve inclusion in construction and operation phases. Free access to backcountry land is the major challenge to VI Spine.”
The project is being developed by the Vancouver Island Spine Trail Association (VISTA), a part of “Hike BC”, the BC wing of the National Hiking Trail (NHT). Over the past 30 years, the NHT has incorporated such significant trails as the East Coast Trail in Newfoundland, the Bruce Trail in Ontario, the Alexander MacKenzie route, and the Nuxalk/Carrier “Grease Trail” from Bella Coola to Quesnel.
The VI Spine trail does not have the historical cachet of the Camino de Santiago in Spain, nor the notoriety of the 2200 mile Appalachian Trail which runs along the eastern US from Georgia to Maine. At the same time, however, the VI Spine provides unique exposure to the concept of a "working forest" in some areas, and in others to untouched wilderness equally beautiful and challenging to any of the world’s great trails. The route traces mountain ridges passes through forests and alongside lakes. Many Island residents are unaware of their own mountain environment or the far reaches of northern lakes. “Often they become aware of their own special hinterland only through reports of overbooking of the West Coast Trail, or increasing tourist use of the North Coast Trail,” says Parker.
The VI Spine homepage speaks of a bold vision for a true homegrown adventure. “A signature recreation destination in Canada, the Vancouver Island Spine Trail will span from Victoria to Cape Scott. Traversing wild coasts, ancient and working forests and joining island communities, the trail will be a month-long journey in its entirety. Not exclusively for specialists, the trail will be an amenity for island residents and a venue for connecting them. By 2020, Vancouver Island will have a unique recreation opportunity and a showcase for its communities.”
VISTA is employing three different strategies to build trails, including use of the existing trail, collaborating with local organizations, and starting from scratch. A collaborative approach is proving beneficial as it spreads the project workload, but working from scratch will be used extensively, particularly in some areas north of Campbell River. Each section of the Spine Trail has to be approved by regulatory bodies and/or landowners, which can be a slow moving process. As such, much of the early efforts were directed at gaining access to existing trails.
There are five proposed sections of the Spine Trail. Section 1 is from Victoria to Cowichan Lake, starting at Clover Point and following the Trans Canada Trail to the town of Lake Cowichan. Currently, there are gaps in the trail along the Malahat and along the south side of Cowichan Lake.
Section 2 of the trail heads from Cowichan Lake to Port Alberni, including the Tuck Lake Trail, Runner’s Trail, and Alberni Inlet Trail. Section 3 starts with the Log Train Trail and then winds along the crest of the Beaufort Mountains to Cumberland, although the exact route through this stretch has not been decided on. Section 4 runs from Cumberland to Strathcona Dam, west of Campbell River, from the Puntledge River along Forbidden Plateau, climbing Mt Becher into Strathcona Park then northwards along the ridge east of Buttle and upper Campbell Lakes. The final section from Strathcona Dam to Woss and then onto Cape Scott is less defined, although VISTA has recently completed a feasibility study to locate a suitable route from Strathcona Dam to Port McNeill and onto Port Hardy. From this point, the trail will run north to Shushartie Bay then link up with the existing North Coast Trail to the endpoint at Cape Scott.
Regarding First Nations traditional territories, VISTA is very cognizant of the need for a respectful approach. “The Vancouver Island Spine Trail Association (VISTA) encounters many areas where the trail will cross land which is part of the traditional territories of First Nations,” explains Parker. “The intention of VISTA is that the trail will ultimately benefit First Nations as well as other citizens of Vancouver Island, and will attract tourists from outside the Island. There will be benefits to local citizens directly, and to any organization that wishes to support tourism as well.”
Early on, the Board of VISTA made a decision to limit the amount of work on trails on traditional areas to planning and flagging only, with detailed trail construction and clearing to occur only after the support of the project is indicated by the appropriate First Nation.
In initial sections of the VI Spine trail work in 2011, contacts were made with the Ditidaht First Nation prior to work on the Tuck Lake Trail west of Cowichan Lake. VISTA requested information on any archaeological sites or cultural values of the land traversed. Later, VISTA worked with the Tseshaht First Nation to connect the trail to the Runners Trail - constructed in 2012 - and has carried out trail maintenance subsequent to that time.
Further elaborating, Parker says, “In the current plans for trails in the north part of Vancouver Island, we are working with the ‘Namgis, and Kwakiutl First Nations, and with the Nanwakolas Council which represents several First Nations. The Board of VISTA believes that a cooperative approach will result in a good working relationship, and shared values and benefits from the VI Spine Trail.
Comox Valley ultramarathon runner Sarah Seads is a huge advocate of the Spine Trail. The owner and founder of local fitness business Equilibrium Lifestyle Management (ELM), throughout this year Seads will be exploring and documenting sections of Spine Trail. As new sections of the trail are completed, Seads will be running deeper and deeper into the heart of Vancouver Island, documenting each leg and creating trail reports to help others plan and complete their own adventures on the trail.
“I have known about the Spine Trail for years,” explains Seads, “but this year the Spine committee has really made a lot of progress with the trail. They just keep persevering to realize their vision. Once completed,” adds Seads, “the Vancouver Island Spine Trail will create a lasting legacy for islanders and adventurers from around the world.”
Seads has completed a second adventure on the trail, a 37km jaunt from Port Alberni Inlet to the Log Train Trail, a mostly undulating single track with some short technical sections requiring scrambling over rock. “What an absolutely beautiful trail! Very few people on Vancouver Island know about this trail network and even fewer tend to make it out to this stage of the Alberni Inlet Trail. The extra drive and shuttling required to make this route a point to point make it a bit more challenging to access but it is worth it. This leg of the Alberni Inlet Trail was absolutely breathtaking.”
Seads added, “The trail was constantly surprising us with its changing ecosystems. In a matter of minutes, it switches from cool, lush fern gulleys to hot, dry rocky bluffs home to red twisted arbutus groves. Don't plan on setting any records on this trail because you will need to stop over and over to take it all in. I believe I only just scratched the surface of what this beautiful area has to offer.”
Seads’ over-arching goal is to raise awareness of the Vancouver Island Spine Trail Association and their epic 700km trail vision.
The VISTA homepage quotes Briony Penn, a well-known Canadian environmental activist, adjunct professor of environmental studies at the University of Victoria, and the Liberal Party of Canada's candidate for Saanich—Gulf Islands in the mid-2000s. “The West Coast Trail has proven there is demand for pilgrimages into the wilderness. The time is now to create the world’s next pilgrimage joining up the last of the ancient forests and rugged coastlines of the entire length of Vancouver Island.”
Gil Parker, still hiking, still full of vision and zest, agrees. “I had a bold vision. It’s slowly but surely being realized and once complete, this trail is truly going to be something else.”
Photo: Vancouver Island Spine Trail Association