Tofino Trek

by Alan Campbell  November 2004


The weekend of September 24 through 26 saw 15 members of the ‘Rhododendron Propagating Group’ venture to the ‘wild’ Northwest on our annual plant collecting expedition.  Our trek to Tofino to collect cuttings from the garden of Ken and Dot Gibson is without a doubt, and meant to be, vastly more soporific than the plant hunting expeditions of the Hootman/Wharton variety.


The afternoon of the 24th saw the staggered arrival of this year’s selection of travelling arboriculturists to the Tofino Motel (our base camp so to speak) quickly followed by our first hike up ‘Painted Mountain’. Ken and Dot graciously accept this yearly influx of ’rhodophiles into their home and rhodo talk quickly fills the air between the tipping of wine glasses and the crunching of crackers and cheese.  The dinner hour sees this motley crew off to one of the town’s fine restaurants.


A blanket of fog enshrouds the morning of the 25th but quickly burns off, giving us a bright west coast morning.  Six of the more adventurous of the group charter a float plane to take a sight-seeing flight up the coast and over to Strathcona Park while the remaining ‘feet firmly on the ground’ of us beachcomb the sands of Chesterman’s or go birding on the inside mud flats.  We all meet up again at noon to fill the chartered boats that will take us to Stubb’s Island.


Susan Bloom, the owner of Clayoquot Island (as she prefers to call it), is seldom in attendance when we visit but the caretakers, Chris and Sharon, greet us warmly as always.  The propagating group has for years now been taking plants to the island and its near perfect growing conditions.  These plants are not gifts for Susan, for Sharon, or for Chris but gifts to the island.  Clayoquot Island, and its virtual isolation, is becoming thought of as our west Coast version of a Rhododendron DNA Bank.  Sharon’s enthusiasm is infectious as she leads us around the estate pointing out various rhododendrons, which the propagating has donated, and the amount of new growth they’ve produced.  An hour and a half and an offered hot buttered rum later, our cruise director (Kenny G) shepherds us back to our boats.  Twelve of us board the motor vessel Browning Passage and head for remote waters and a circumnavigation of Meares Island.


The Browning Passage’s first stop is in remote Quait Bay, the location of the Clayoquot Wilderness Resort and Spa.  This ultra-luxurious resort is situated on 300 acres and features a floating lodge.  The lodge has sixteen rooms and can accommodate 32 people.  The second part of this resort is nine miles away at the head of Bedwell Sound, 500 acres on the Bedwell River bordering Strathcona Provincial Park.  This Wilderness Outpost offers a safari style eco-adventure in ultra-luxurious great white tents, 16 in number and again for 32 people, dining tents, library lounge tent, spa and games tents.  Adele Caton, the General manager, graciously offered us a quick tour of the floating lodge allowing us a view into how ‘the fortunate’ spend their summers ‘roughing it’.  You too can enjoy this remote rustic posh for a mere $550 a day with a three-day minimum booking.


Our second stop takes us into tiny Dog Leg Cove and its resident couple living on a floating home and garden.  Over the last 14 years this rather eccentric couple has been expanding their home by beachcombing and salvage of all manner of wood, lumber and floats.  Their whole constructed residence has been painted bright green and pink (you can’t miss it).  Their garden provides all sorts of vegetables, the penned chickens provide breakfast, and the sea provides the bulk of their needs.  Of course with the sale of wood and ivory carvings in the best Artisan stores in major cities, they are not destitute.  If the reader is a faithful watcher of the CBC and Arthur Black’s show Weird Homes, you have already been a visitor.


Pilot Porpoise leads us down past the entrance of Bedwell Sound to join in the ‘Teddy Bears Picnic’.  Eight Black Bear are sighted at various points coming to the low tide and their evening meal.  We accompany the bears’ dinner with our own ‘pot luck’.  The wine flows and the single malt is miserly shared.  More bears are sighted, or are they stumps?  The setting sun sees us into Tofino and end of our seven hour cruise.  Back to the motel, all of us to one room, there’s wine left and rhodo talk to share.


A foggy Sunday morning and breakfast at the ‘Loft’.  At 9:30, anticipation rising, its off to the Gibson garden and the expressed purpose of our visit to Tofino.  Kenny G. greets us, pruners holstered to his hip and leads us single file into his rhododendron wonderland.  Ken removes large branches of various rhodos throwing them out to the path; like a piranha to a carcass, we fall on them, secateurs flashing, leaving nothing but a skeleton of wood.  We are entertained by Ken’s rambling commentary, his thoughts on each plant: “…this one’s a Cadillac…, …this one is Evelyn’s best…, …plant this one on a hillside to see the white under-leaf, like a lady climbing a step ladder…”.  Two hours and our eyes are glazed, desires sated, plastic bags full, and the draggees’ patience showing cracks.  We gratefully thank our hosts and turn our cars down the hill, Ken and Dot waving good-bye to the ’cutting vultures’ again for another year.


Someone jokingly commented that these cuttings are the most expensive we’ll find this year, but that’s not the point.  Yes we came for cuttings, but we have also seen the grandeur that our Island can offer, some of the wildlife our Island supports, friendships maintained, friendships acquired, and interests shared.  A weekend priceless.