Who knew there were rainforests in Canada? Snow, mountains, stormy Pacific beaches: those you expect. But Vancouver Island — a sprawling landmass just across the Inside Passage from its namesake city — has all of these and dense coastal rainforest, too.
In a region of considerable hyperbole, Vancouver Island more than holds its own. It is the largest Pacific island east of New Zealand, covering more than 12,000 square miles; extending south into the waters off Seattle, it links the Washington islands with the rugged coastal fjords of northern British Columbia.
Yet few East Coast Americans seem to know much about this windswept territory. If they did, they might realize what an ideal place it is for a not-too-hot summer vacation, a stopover en route to Alaska, or a rustic counterpart to Vancouver’s Pacific cosmopolitanism.
Our American Jewish forebears were initially drawn to the region for a more practical motive: the Gold Rush of the mid-19th century. Some of these pioneers helped to found what is today Canada’s oldest surviving synagogue, Congregation Emanu-El, in the provincial capital of Victoria.
The first Jewish congregants laid the cornerstone of the Romanesque Revival building exactly 150 years ago, and that fact occasions celebrations throughout 2013. In the years since, the pews within have accommodated more than their share of notable worshippers: Canada’s first Jewish judge, Samuel Davies Schultz; Lumley Franklin, the first Jewish mayor of a city in British North America; and Henry Nathan Jr., the first Jew to in the Canadian House of Commons.
Throughout the summer, frequent daily tours led by Canada’s first ordained female Jewish storyteller, Shoshana Litman, shed light on the remarkable Canadian history within these walls. With a diverse Conservative congregation of nearly 200, Emanu-El continues to be a National Historic Site — but it is also a living piece of V.I. Jewish life.
The Jewish community is centered in Victoria, on the island’s southern tip, where you’ll also find Aish HaTorah and Chabad centers amid the stately British-style buildings. But while Victoria is the urban hub of Vancouver Island, many active vacationers head to the wild, windy area known as Pacific Rim.
A logical starting point is Port Alberni, a longtime salmon-fishing center that is now developing an ecotourism identity; weekly farmer’s markets and locavore restaurants feature the fruits of the fertile Alberni Valley.
At the old-timey railway station in Port Alberni, you can climb aboard the historic Alberni Valley Railway just like the old-time loggers did, and take in the views of vintage sawmills, river dams and stunning countryside. Modern pioneers, however, might prefer to drive west through the island’s heart on the Pacific Rim Highway, the western part of British Columbia Highway 4. Past the snow-capped mountains of central V.I., the tortuous route descends among the watery inlets and temperate rainforest of the Pacific coast at Tofino.
People surf here more than they swim, though the roaring, rock-strewn waves might give any East Coaster pause. There are a few calmer beaches, however, and surfing lessons are popular among those who’ve always wanted to give those swells a try.
For the less adventurously inclined, the upscale village of Tofino is also known for its Hot Springs cove, where interlocking pools of bubbling mineral water gradually spill into the cold Pacific. Wandering from Tofino’s lush Botanical Gardens to the Hot Springs and again into the rainforest, you might feel chilled, hot, and then cold again: in keeping with its dramatic topography, this region is known for its microclimates.
The Pacific rainforest is not tropical, of course, but it is dense, humid, verdant and teeming with wildlife — perhaps too much wildlife for some. I tend to prefer my exotic fauna behind glass, which explains the appeal of the Ucluelet Aquarium.
Down the coast from Tofino, Ucluelet (pronounced Yu-Klu-Let) means “safe harbor” in the local indigenous tongue. And indeed, Ucluelet has both a very lovely, protected harbor and a rich native history. It’s an unpretentious, family-friendly kind of place, as is evident in the settlement’s annual festival, Ukee Days. Held at the end of July, Ukee Days feature live fiddle music, games involving logging, native crafts and food that reflects the local bounty.
That bounty goes far beyond salmon, as the aquarium makes clear. Ucluelet Aquarium is like none other you’ve seen: every starfish and octopus is from the local ecosystem, as is the water, and specimens are released back into the harbor after a spell in what staffers think of as “transparent tidepools” rather than fish tanks. Friendly guides are everywhere to explain to visitors what they’re looking at and what role each critter plays in the harbor environment.
Throughout the island, the culture of what Canada calls First Nations people – the indigenous tribes of North America – is evident, from place names to local festivals. Successive waves of settlement have shaped a V.I. culture that is a hybrid of indigenous, European and frontiersman.
But whether you’re a Jewish pioneer or a starfish (perhaps the oldest inhabitant of these parts), the Pacific Rim still has plenty of wilderness to discover.