Magic moments in Canada's secret kingdom

Marble River, on Vancouver Island, is a long way from anywhere — and that's very much the point.

Imagine a place that is so remote, so pristine, unspoilt and isolated from anything that just being there feels incredibly spiritual. 

Welcome to Marble River on Vancouver Island, about as far away from Perth as you can get, both physically and spiritually. 

Located at the northern end of the island and accessible only by boat or seaplane, it’s a long way from Perth, but that’s the point, isn’t it? 

My wife, Dianne, and I are sitting in a 3m Zodiac inflatable dinghy having disembarked from our “mother ship” of some 10m. Walt is our host and guide and does a wonderful job at both. 

Leaving Quatsino Sound and entering the river mouth, schooling salmon are leaping from the water by the dozen, threatening to land on my lap. Walt explains the salmon are waiting for the rains to trigger their migration upriver to spawn. In the meantime, they leap from the water in preparation for the waterfalls and obstacles ahead. 

Walt tells us to look out for wolves on the river banks, they are quite common here but not today apparently. The river narrows and the cliffs encroach, pine trees cling precariously to the face of the gorges. The water is crystal clear and 5m in front of the Zodiac are three juvenile mink, swimming across the river. We watch with delight as they clamber up a fallen tree, glancing back to see if we are a threat. What a delight and I can’t imagine turning these cute little creatures into a coat. A few metres away the water boils as something larger splashes away, Walt suggests it’s one of the local river seals and moments later, a pair of eyes and a nose appear, watching us silently. 

The gorge has now closed in on either side, about 10m wide, which highlights the sheerness of the cliff walls. Walt reduces the motor speed so we idle upstream, river seals follow us constantly now, like naughty puppies, staying out of reach but curious. 

The gorge walls are near vertical and the cliffs soften with vegetation and the tree line touches the water, you can see clear animal trails where they cross the river or come to drink, or perhaps feed on the migrating salmon. 

We approach a dogleg in the river where there is a small cave, created by centuries of water cascading against its cliffs and eventually creating a house-sized underhang. 

Walt steers the Zodiac into the cave. The roof is so low we need to duck. It is spectacular, as Walt turns off the motor and the river eddies keep us in situ, our hands on the cave ceiling as we peer out of the blackness to the myriad of colour beyond. Walt kicks the motor into gear again and we gain some speed to get through our first set of faster water. 

The seals have stayed behind in the deeper water and now it’s just us, the river, numerous eagles above and whatever is watching out of sight from the tree line. Walt points to some fish remains snagged on a submerged tree branch, probably the remains of a bear’s lunch. We don’t really talk, it doesn’t feel right to do so. It is a special place.

Up ahead I can see a small waterfall then I see some movement and a bear is climbing away from the river and up a path. We are still some 100m away but he must have seen us approaching. Walt motors the Zodiac into the boulder-ridden bank and ties it off so we can get out and stretch our legs. Walt disappears up a near vertical cliff, Dianne and I are left wondering if we were meant to follow. 

He appears from above and beckons us to follow. I look at the cliff and then at my wife. On the wrong side of 60, we’re not as nimble as we once were and Dianne does not “do” cliffs. But to my amazement, up she goes. We crawl and scramble about 10m to a flat area where Walt is sitting in the mouth of a cave where, he explains, a bear will hibernate for winter. The trees are thick and the cliff is very steep but we manoeuvre to the cliff edge, a sheer 10m drop.

Below us are hundreds of salmon, matching the current to keep their place in the river. Walt explains this is what the bear would have been after minutes earlier, his version of a smorgasbord. Silently we watch the spectacle below and admire the astonishing landscape surrounding us. 

There are several types of salmon, mainly coho and chinook, just waiting for the rains and the ecosystem to start the spawning and dying process again. We could have stayed for hours, it is a magical place. Reluctantly we return to the dinghy to begin the journey home. 

We drift silently downstream with the current. We hit the deeper water again and the river seals appear in numbers. It is so peaceful. The river is about 15m wide here and Dianne points to the river bank with a gasp. Sure enough, a mature male black bear, weighing about 200kg, is peering around a tree, as though the tree hides him from us. He peers from behind the trunk like a child playing hide and seek. 

He feels threatened so moves away. This is literally metres away and we can see every expression on its face and hair on its back. We are buzzing, grins from ear to ear and hearts pounding. Amazing, brilliant, something to remember for life. The rest of the trip down is almost anticlimactic after that encounter, but stunning nonetheless. Embarking on to the mother ship, our minds are still processing the day. Everything about it was priceless. Not a person, nor a boat, bus or anything manmade was seen and that alone is rare. 

On the way back to Quatsino Lodge, we check our crab pots for tonight’s dinner. The day can’t get any better until Walt points and exclaims: “Killer whales!” Sure enough a pod of seven are on the far side of Quatsino Sound, about 700m away. Walt explains they are headed in the direction of the lodge and we quickly catch them with the male having a dorsal fin about 1.8m tall. For 30 minutes we follow the feeding pod and are again speechless as we witness something truly amazing. 

The water is mirror-like with only the orcas and leaping salmon breaking the surface. Eagles sit proudly atop trees surveying their territory. There are ramps of sea otters amongst the kelp beds, holding hands and cute as buttons.

It may be a long journey here but trust me, it’s worth every second.


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