Cycling Tofino: The Ucluelet Bike Path
For the past two years, a pathway project has been underway in the Pacific Rim National Park Reserve on Western Vancouver Island. It is a 25km path that will connect Tofino to the Ucluelet area. It has taken considerable resources, planning, and coordination by many levels of Government and communities in the area. Though the pathway officially opens in Spring 2022, we had the chance to ride a small part of it—before the weather hit.
One of the reasons our family moved to Vancouver Island was so that I could ride year-round. Winters here tend to be much milder than the rest of the country, and I jokingly refer to the island as the "Hawaii of Canada". And this year, for my 44th (December) birthday, I came up with an elaborate plan to go surfing and biking on the same day, in celebration. In support of my grand designs, my wife booked a great hotel in beautiful Tofino, Canada's number one surf spot on the west coast of Vancouver Island, filled the car with bags and toys and kids, and off we went for my birthday celebration. But as we know, even the best-laid plans…
Getting to Tofino entails driving one of the most spectacular highways in Canada—the stunning Highway 4. This highway runs east-west, from Parksville on the east coast of the island to the Pacific Rim Highway on the west side of the island. It's a winding, beautiful piece of tarmac that flows with wild rivers, ancient forests and skirts the southern border of the majestic Strathcona Park. The entire drive makes you feel like you are a part of the mountains—that you could almost touch the peaks.
Admittedly, my wife and I were a bit naive about the drive. We had made the journey many times in the summer, but for some reason forgot that there could be snow in those mountains in the middle of December. Thankfully, our winter tires kept our little Hyundai on the road, and we made it over the pass just fine.
At the time of writing, Highway 4 is under construction for safety improvements not far from the Pacific Rim turn-off. Because of this, the highway has daytime closures from 5-7am and from 11am-3pm. Check here for the schedule and details.
Our favorite family spot to stay in Tofino is the Pacific Sands Beach Resort. The resort is situated just south of Tofino in Cox Bay. All rooms at the resort look out onto the beach, and you can fall asleep to the sound of crashing waves. It's not the cheapest place to stay (nowhere in Tofino is), but it allows you to wake up, grab your board, and hit the waves. The beach break makes for a wonderful day in the whitewater, or—if you are skilled enough—to go out further for the green waves. It is also directly on the multi-use pathway I planned to check out for my ride.
On the morning of December 11th, 2021, I woke up with a head cold, a storm had landed the night before on the coast and blew out the surf. Going into the waves would have been suicidal. I lied in bed for about 45 minutes staring at the ceiling and feeling sorry for myself, but I managed to muster the positivity to decide that I could still (at least) get the bike ride in. I had heard a lot about the path that was being constructed that runs the length of the Pacific Rim National Park, from Tofino to Ucluelet. Maybe I couldn't surf, but there was no way I was going to miss the ride.
The Pacific Rim National Park Multi-use Pathway
The official name for the pathway is ʔapsčiik t̓ašii (pronounced ups-cheek ta-shee) and has been a collaboration of many levels of Government and local First Nations communities. The pathway lies in the ḥaḥuułi—the traditional territories and homelands of the Tla-o-qui-aht First Nation and YuułuɁiłɁatḥ. The First Nations people have lived on the west coast of Vancouver Island for 10,000 years. Before the arrival of European explorers and smallpox, it is estimated that 100,000 people lived on this coast. During the 1800s, most First Nations communities lost more than 80 percent of their population.
ʔapsčiik t̓ašii is a nuanced phrase that can be most easily translated to "going the right direction on the path". The meaning gave me pause, it being my 44th birthday and all. Over the past few years, I have been making substantial shifts in my life—reprioritization of my attitudes towards health, happiness, family, and work. Cycling of course is a huge metaphor for how we direct our lives and stay on the path. I have rebuilt myself and happiness around my bike and plan on doing so for the remainder of my time on this rock. In that way, I hope I am staying true to the meaning of ʔapsčiik t̓ašii.
The ʔapsčiik t̓ašii connects Tofino to the Ucluelet area. It passes through First Nation land, the Pacific Rim National Reserve, and connects all the communities along the Pacific Rim Highway. Construction began in 2019 with a healthy budget of $51 Million CAD. The pathway is set to be opened officially in spring 2022 but does allow for conditional use before that. A few spots are still under construction, so be careful, patient and respect any workers you may come across.
The pathway is a 25km stretch of pavement 3.2m wide with 1m unpaved shoulders. Similar to the highway that brings you into the area, it is a winding and immersive experience, and it is designed for people of all ages and mobility.
Experiencing the pathway, my first reaction was to be a bit taken aback. To me, it seemed a clear decision had been made to favor accessibility over the ecological impact and riding experience. The pathway feels more like another highway: it dominates the land rather than being part of it. You get the sense you are on rails as you bike past all the natural beauty, as if on a train. It really feels it that has been designed to get you from A to B, rather than the experience of the journey. I really wanted it to be a nice gravel run, or a hard-packed dirt path—something that blended into the environment more. I was disappointed—and disappointed in that disappointment.
Reflecting on the ride, I realize the pathway is just not intended for me, and the kind of riding I love to do. This is a significant project, and I always support new developments that encourage people to get out on a bike and explore. However, I wondered who the intended (or expected) audience would be for a cycling road of this scale. I understand that the pathway should be accommodating to all, but still feel it could have been accomplished with a lighter, more natural touch.
Since coming home and doing more research on the project, I have relaxed my opinion. This video outlines just how much consideration went into the cultural and environmental assessment of the pathway. The official reasoning on paving the pathway is:
"ʔapsčiik t̓ašii is being built with long-term sustainability in mind. Paving the pathway will provide for an increase in its lifespan, while significantly reducing costs for ongoing maintenance and repairs. A paved pathway will also create opportunities to address the needs and interests of a broader range of park reserve users, including cyclists, people with strollers, and visitors who have limited mobility."
It's easy to be critical. It's tough to build something of this scale with as many sensitivities and stakeholders as this project has. That they have managed to build something for cyclists and pedestrians in such a beautiful landscape is something to be grateful for.
Tips On Beach Biking
The major highlight on the pathway is of course Long Beach. A 5km stretch of wonder that is home to all sorts of marine life, including grey, humpback, and orca whales. It is also the epicenter of the Canadian surf scene. If you are traveling south on the pathway, you will be able to get onto the beach at the Incinerator Rock entrance, ride the full way down the hard-packed beach and hop back onto the pathway at a south exit.
Up until Long Beach, my birthday ride had been going fairly well. However, halfway down the beach, the storm hit again, and I was stuck in a monsoon with nowhere to go. It was raining upwards. The weather conditions on the coast can be pretty unforgiving, and at one point, a huge wave washed high up onto the shore and caught me and my bike in knee-deep water. Many cyclists will cringe hearing this. Everything on an ocean beach has been purpose-designed to wreck your bike. Saltwater and sand are both kryptonite to bike drives. If you do ride on the beach, try to ride as far away from the water as possible. Salt is hygroscopic, meaning it sucks moisture from the air. The iron in your chain and components then absorbs that water and that accelerates rusting.
A few days after getting home, I went into the basement and saw that my chain had fully rusted. My stomach did a twirl and I was almost sick. I thought I had ruined my bike. I ended up replacing the cassette and chain which were not easy to find in today's Covid world. When you are finished with your ride, make sure you hose down your bike fully to remove saltwater and sand. Then re-lube the drive (a detail I sorely missed).
Not all rides can be winners. And apparently, not all birthday plans come to fruition. But do not let that stop you from experiencing ʔapsčiik t̓ašii. A massive amount of effort and resources have gone into this pathway. It is a fantastic addition to the area that creates access for everyone, regardless of ability, mobility, and transport. We absolutely need more options for active transport everywhere in Canada. And ʔapsčiik t̓ašii is evidence of "going the right direction on the path" from our Governments and communities.