Parksville to Denman & Hornby Islands

As I sit here sipping hot creamy coffee, I can smell the salty spice home fries cooking up in the kitchen here at Jan’s Café on Hornby Island. Looking back on the past few days, I begin to see what they mean when they say that cycle touring can often be more of a mental challenge than a physical one. But right now, sitting shaded in the cob and oak building in the community hub, looking out at the bustling heart of the island, I feel rather content. I couldn’t have asked for better weather the past week. And the forecast is nothing but sunshine interrupted by one partly cloudy day. Though the sun has burned me where I failed to block it, I enjoy it for the beautiful sunrises and sunsets, the light streaming through the forest onto the mossy earth in the mornings, the leisurely pace of the summer, and the carefree days of riding without worrying about rain soaking my gear. I have yet to purchase a rainproof sack for my camping gear, but I’m not worried about it right now.

The day started with some hot honey peanut butter oatmeal, my favorite easy camp breakfast. I salt the water to boil it as quickly as possible — this way I preserve my fuel canister’s longevity. Add some powdered milk, oats, stir it up, toss in a spoonful of peanut butter and honey, and if you’re feeling gourmet, add a spoonful of rich coconut butter. The result? A hearty, rib-sticking breakfast that will power you for a morning ride up many hills. I pack up my tent as quickly as I set it up, and leave the hordes of screaming children at the wooded camp-suburbia known as Rathtrevor Beach Provincial Park.

I decide that I should head north to try to make it to Cortes Island for a supposedly epic party happening over the weekend. That’s another 100km away, and I have only been doing 50 a day. So, it looks like I wouldn’t make it until Saturday night or Sunday morning. I decide that if I decide not to go all the way, I can catch the ferry to Lasqueti Island, or if I go further, Hornby Island. Both islands I have heard good things about. A friend told me at this year’s Pickathon festival to check out Lasqueti. I don’t remember exactly what he said about it, other than there were a lot of cool people there. I since learned that they are completely off the grid. Most people there run their own solar power, or don’t have power at all. As I neared the departure point for Lasqueti, I stopped into the bay to think some more about what I wanted to do. While I looked out over the salty harbor in Parksville, an older gentleman of about 60 years approached me, telling me about his cycling tour around Australia. He strongly recommended it as my next destination, saying something to the effect of “if I were a dictator I would force you to go there”. I told him I’ve been to New Zealand and loved it, and would definitely consider Australia. The roads are rough there, he said, so you’d have to get yourself some thicker tires and a mountain bike frame. I told him I would definitely look into it. I told him I was considering going to Cortes Island for this party, and he said if I wanted to get there faster, there was a bus station at Qualicum Beach that could take me to Campbell River, where I could ferry hop to Cortes Island. I thought that sounded like a good idea, because I was feeling like I needed to meet more people, to make more connections. After all, solo cycling can get kind of lonesome at times. Life on the road is like that, though. You meet people, then you say goodbye, and repeat. Still, I felt like something good would come of it if I could make it to Cortes. So I headed north, thinking I might catch a bus the rest of the way so I wouldn’t miss the party.

Once I arrived in Qualicum Beach, I found the info booth where I was referred to, and I inquired about the fare for the bus. It was $39, plus I’d have to box up my bike just to transport it on the Greyhound bus. And there weren’t any boxes big enough to fit my bike around for a long ways. Damn you Greyhound! I wish they would get with the times and add a bike rack on the front of the bus. Perhaps it was meant to be, though. I didn’t want to shell out that kind of money to get my lazy butt 100km north. I’m here with my bike, and bike I shall. So, I did the only thing I had the option to do. I kept pedaling north.

An hour or two later, a guy around my age pedals up behind me and says hello. We chat a bit as we ride, and I learn that his destination is Hornby island to crash at a friend’s house for the night. It was another couple hours to the ferry, so we ended up riding together and talking about bikes and how going down the hills is the best part.

When we pulled into Buckley bay, I realized that the skin on my thighs were feeling rather burned. That morning, I had donned my ultra-tight biking shorts that exposed more pale skin than any other shorts I own. And of course, I didn’t apply sunscreen, because, frankly, I usually only put on sunscreen after I’ve gotten burned. The sun just feels great until it’s too late. I had pedaled 55km, it was late afternoon, and I just felt like being done with biking for the day considering my burn. So I said what the hell, I’ll come to Hornby Island while I’m here. After all, I had heard good things about it from several different people.

So, here’s the route I ended up taking… You can see the hop between the islands over the course of a few days:

The first thing that greeted me on Denman island, the in-between island, was, you guessed it! A big-ass hill. At least I had a new friend to laugh about the ridiculous grade of the hill with. I noticed that riding with a partner made the unbearable parts of the ride a lot more bearable. He told me I should check out Fillongley Provincial Park for camping. The ferry attendants had told me that it was all full, but as usual, I wanted to see for myself if there was a place to throw down a tent. I struggled up the hill, and enjoyed its downhill counterpart on the way to the park. My new cycling friend disappeared, before I could say farewell, and I rolled into the park. Of course, it was full, as I had heard. But, past all the cars, I kept going, over the cement barrier, past the sand pits that threatened to grind down all the sensitive parts of my bike, and pulled into the most perfectly flattened area just past a few rows of trees along the beach. This was the best place to pitch a tent, ever. The air was thick with the smell of ocean and pine, and I rested against a tree, paying attention to the rhythmic ebbing of the tide. After taking the site in for a few minutes, I set out to take a few photos of the area.

This is where I ended up pitching a tent, even though the campground was "full". Didn't look full to me!
Nice sunset!
The paths around the park weren't all that bad. Kinda nice, actually.

After cooking myself a quick dinner of quinoa flakes, dehydrated black beans and lentils (as per usual), and a tortilla with butter I got from a café in Nanaimo, I was satiated and felt the weight of my eyelids grow, pulling me into a restful sleep in my comfy sleeping bag.

At 6AM, I briefly awoke to a gorgeous eastern sunrise.

The first picture I took from inside my tent when I awoke at 6.

Knowing that the sunlight changes quickly, I hopped out of my tent in nothing but my underwear to snap a few photos.

One of the most beautiful sunrises I've seen yet on my trip.

Satisfied with the gorgeous photos I just acquired, I went back to sleep for another hour or so. When I awoke, I decided to check out the Denman Saturday Farmers market. There, I talked to a few people about what I should check out on the island. I heard that most people pass straight through Denman on their way to Hornby. I wanted to give Denman a chance at showing me its beauty, so I decided to start biking towards Chickadee lake, where I heard, there was a huge rope swing. About halfway there and the road turns into gravel. Not my favorite surface to bike on, by any means. Especially considering the thin profile of the tires and the weight of all my gear. Though I kept pedaling in hopes of soon feeling the cool water envelop me after flying briefly through the air. Soon, I would encounter a difficult road.

It’s when I’m climbing the steepest hill I’ve ever climbed –and it’s loose gravel– that I sometimes wonder why I punish myself like this. No pain, no gain, right? Life is a series of overcoming struggles to prevail with a sense of accomplishment. That is what I try to keep in mind as I push with all my strength to keep from toppling over. I found myself pushing myself up this gravel hill without even knowing for sure if it was the right way to get to Chickadee Lake. There wasn’t anybody around to ask directions from, and the map I had wasn’t really helping all that much. After the gravel turned into sand, and the bike could no longer stay balanced, I felt rather frustrated. I could see the lake from up high, and I realized I had gone the wrong way. At least it was mostly downhill back to the intersection where I went astray. At the bottom of the hill, I saw a gorgeous girl pedal by, and I asked whereabouts I might find this lake. She gave me the proper directions and I followed them, finding the lake successfully. Here was the legendary local’s swimming hole with a big rope swing.

They weren't kidding, this rope swing was huge.

I decided that it was still chilly in the shade, and I wasn’t overheating in the sun any longer. So I waited on the rope swing. I did lay on a halfway torn up dock and sunbathe for a bit before I jumped in. The water was so crisp, clear, and almost warm. It was a delight for the senses and a great escape from the heat of the sun. I had the entire lake to myself, minus the distant echoes of unseen children across the lake. It was peaceful here, almost too much so. There was nobody around, and I felt like I should be taking advantage of the solace and meditate some more. I did that for a little bit, but felt a nagging feeling that I wanted some company, someone to enjoy the peace with.

I was reminded of Into The Wild, where the main character said in the end that after escaping the masses of people in the cities, he realized that it was human connections that was all that really mattered. I was feeling that I should find a place with more people and be more proactive about meeting them. How was I to reconcile the urge to turn within for happiness and the opposite urge of seeking happiness through connections with others? I have yet to discover the answer. My first instinctual response is balance. Balancing time alone in quite solitude and time with friends. Part of solo traveling is not really have a core group of friends with you, it seems. In Nanaimo, I met a few fun guys to hang out with, but something told me I had to keep moving, so we parted ways just hours after we met and went to have beers together.

After enjoying the sun and the lake, I kept moving. I decided to check out Boyle point park, I heard it was nice from some of the locals. Onward I pedaled, in search of my next camping site. A half hour later, I was at the trailhead to the park. And it was gravel again. Also adjacent to me was the ferry to Hornby Island. Still recalling the experience with gravel earlier in the day, I decided to just go straight to Hornby.

More hills, of course. Oh well, I decided to head to the nearest provincial park, 8km away. There was no camping allowed, but you know me by now. I would find a place to camp. Before I got to the park, I saw a cute little town center, where everything was closed for the day (the sun was only beginning to set). I saw an older guy with a draping white beard, just sitting on a bench by himself. I asked him if he lived on the island, for how long, and if he enjoyed it. He said he loved it. He advised that if I was looking for a free place to camp for the night, I should check out this unmarked road past the baseball field. He said nobody would fuck with me there. Stealth camping in highly visited areas can put one slightly on edge, so I decided to go ahead and seek out the lesser known place to pitch a tent for the night. I noticed on my ride to the site that there was a “movie night” and they were showing “The Tree of Life” at the community center. After days alone in the woods, seeing a movie seemed like a nice change of pace. I set up my tent, quicker than ever, and headed to see the movie. Naievely, I thought it would be a free movie. It was not. It would take 7 bucks to get in. I decided, like I usually do in those kinds of situations, what the hell, just this once. I smelled popcorn after I entered, and buttery kernels of popped corn sounded nice. It would really top off the movie night experience. One bag of corn later, and the movie begins. The first thing I notice is the awful hissing sound of the film. Either their sound system sucked, or the film itself was noisy, I don’t know. I shrugged it off, thinking I would just get used it. An hour later of slow-paced mournful cinema and a kid who coughed every 30 seconds, and I decided to call it quits. I was far from the first person to leave. I think this film was too artsy fartsy for most people there. They probably just came because it had Brad Pitt in it. Yawn. Time for bed.

After an uneventful night of sleep (preceded by various sounds of midnight creatures prowling around my tent), I awoke to more sunshine. I decided I would go back down to the café and co-op area to refill my supplies and update the site. And that leads me up to now, where I’ve been typing away for the last few hours, drinking coffee and eating home fries. I think I’ll go ride around and check out some of the parks. Maybe I’ll find a better spot to pitch a tent, who knows?

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