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To Tahsis: Exploring and underbiking Vancouver Island’s remote coastal mountains

Fernie Gravel Grind heads west - way west - in search of less-travelled roads

Photo by: Lucas Greenough

Vancouver Island is 456-km long. The vast majority of the island’s population is tucked on the east side of the island. Outside of Tofino, only a few scattered small villages cling to the rugged west coast where they are exposed to the full brunt of the Pacific Ocean.

Tahsis is, even among these small places, very remote. It is 300-km from Victoria, the province’s capital and the sign on the way into town boasts a population of “around 350,” though no one seems to be keeping track too carefully.

Today, the tiny town is our ride objective. Before the road to Tahsis was cut in in the 70s, the town was only accessible by boat. It was remote enough that, when it was first opened by a forestry company, residents didn’t need a license to drive it. Gravel bikes have really opened up this kind of exploration – or, at the very least, made it much more comfortable than it was back in the days of road bikes and 28c tires.

Sam Whittingham of Naked Bikes and Chris Hatton lead the charge out of Gold River. With little to no traffic, we largely had the road to ourselves. Photo: Lucas Greenough / Landyachts.

Starting from the slightly larger town of Gold River, nestled at the head of a different inlet, our group of ten set out on the rough, still rarely travelled road to Tahsis. It is a 130-km out and back that starts, turns, and ends at sea level, but squeezes in over 2,000 metres of elevation gain as it winds between the peaks of northern Vancouver Island.

Three of our group of 10 decided to extend the route, biking door-to-door from Strathcona Park Lodge to Tahsis and back. Carter Nieuwesteeg, organizer of Fernie Gravel Grind and a rider for Santa Cruz, Chris Hatton, a 7Mesh employee in training for Unbound, and Naked Bicycles Sam Whittingham, the only one of us to have travelled these roads before.

“Strathcona has been on my radar since doing a hiking trip up there three years ago,” shares Nieuwesteed, who organized our group for the weekend. “Since then, I’ve hard whispers about gravel magic from legends like Sam Whittingham and friends from back home like Arnaud Lavergne, who used to work at the lodge.”

Carter Nieuwesteeg leads the charge on the first ripping descent from Bull Lake. Photo: Lucas Greenough
The rest of us opted for the shuttle from Strathcona Park Lodge, a family-owned lodge and education facility nestled between Strathcona Park and Upper Campbell Lake, and a hard, but manageable 130-km route.

130-km may not sound like that much to more flat-lander Canadians, but the mostly gravel route pitches back and forth between steep, loose switchbacks (real fun on the way out. Challenging in a very different way on the route back) that wind between peaks and gently rolling roads that follow rivers and inlets along  the valley floors. By the time we’re back in Gold River, we’ve crammed in 2,200m of elevation gain, and loss along the way.

“While there is something to be said about solo gravel missions, I think bike rides (especially of the gravel type) need to be shared with your buddies,” Nieuwesteeg explains when asked why he puts so much time into organizing this type of weekend on top of racing and putting on Fernie Gravel Grind. “If you’re not getting out and enjoying B.C. with a group of people that get you stoked to ride even more then you’re missing the point.”

Chris Hatton takes in yet another valley vista on our way out to Tahsis. Photo: Lucas Greenough / Landyachts

The route starts with a steady climb out of Gold River before a ripping, fast descent back down to near sea level. It then rolls alongside a river for a while, surrounded by lush rainforest that looks like the set of Lost World before the expansive views along this winding terminus of Nootka Sound. There’s something special about traveling from one side of the Island to the other. The towering walls on either side of Tahsis accentuate this.

While most of our group was still feeling sharp, we still decide to stop in at Sally’s Cafe for fresh coffee and baked goods. The owners have operated this small restaurant since 1970. As the towns turned from forestry to tourism, the clientele has changed. Sitting at the top of the boat ramp for the (very infrequent) ferry to Zeballos, they say they’ve seen a growing number of bikepackers pass through on the North Island loop over the past couple of years.

We spent a good hour winching our way uphill under the looming outline of Tlupana Peak. Photo: Lucas Greenough / Landyachts

Our path today leads back the way we came, though. As we leave the ocean behind to head inland, the last sign on the road of town reads “The last one to leave should turn out the lights!” Based on our brief visit, we’re guessing Tahsis will be seeing more visitors again, not fewer.

For our little group, the day’s biggest challenge still awaits. The climb up to Bull Lake – the day’s high point at 600 metres, doesn’t start until you are unfortunately close to Gold River, then climbs sharply towards Tlupana Peak. Watching the snow-capped mountain slowly draw closer is the main distraction from gradients that frequently push well into double digits, per cent wise.

Baked goods hand-ups were key on the climb to Bull Lake

As we trickle over the summit, we’re greeted by Paul Chatterton from Strathcona Park Lodge. He’s been supporting all day, with the occasional coffee and baked goods hand-ups, but this time he has a full cooler of refreshments. We gather up, and roll out together for a fun gravel descent back into Gold River, then pile in the van for a short drive back to the lodge.

The view from Strathcona Park Lodge is a stunning way to start the day. Photo: Lucas Greenough / Lanyachts

A beach sauna, lake dips, buffet dinner and beach fire restore our legs and spirits just enough that we can take on another day of riding. Chatterton, who has worked at the lodge and lived nearby for over a decade, guides us on a tour of Snowden Demonstration Forest’s best gravel bike-friendly singletrack, ending on the flowing perfection of Dean Martin.

Snowden singletrack feels purpose-built for drop-bars in places. Photo: Lucas Greenough

From there, most headed to the ferry for a return trip to the mainland. Others settled into a late brunch at the Ideal Cafe before heading out towards home. For all of us, the

To Tahsis: A Vancouver Island Gravel Epic