Part of an occasional series exploring North America’s national, provincial and state parks.
PORT ALBERNI, B.C.
You can almost taste the green. There is the nearly yellow of new growth and the nearly black of the moss, and every shade between those. It’s inside your nose, sweet but wet. Heavy.
It is raining, but the forest canopy keeps you drier than you expected. It is made of shadows and it is muffled, like there’s loose cotton in your ears. Like you’re in church.
This is Cathedral Grove.
This is our nation’s ancient architecture: 800-year-old Douglas firs and the red cedars that were once used to carve totem poles and hollow out canoes.
These trees are alive. I mean really alive — they watch you and I think they laugh a little behind your back. Be still and you’ll see their faces in your peripheral vision. Rounded trunks become laughing bellies, moss-covered branches are arms, knots are eyes and noses, eyebrows are carved by nature into the bark.
“Cathedral” is a European invention, but the godliness you feel here is older. So much older.
Just down the road from Cathedral Grove is Little Qualicum Falls. It is just as powerful, but it is not quiet and it is not peaceful. You can hear the angry cascade as you approach the forest, like static on a radio turned up too high.
We are still in rainforest here, and it’s dark under the canopy, so the white water shines as it bubbles and races down the mountain, eroding rock and devouring plants that have the misfortune to fall in.
It’s not safe here. That water is hungry, and some of the paths are steep and marked with tangled roots that can trip a careless traveller. The thick black mud under your feet is slippery and makes a threatening sucking sound every time you lift your shoes.
I’m awarding MacMillan Provincial Park (Cathedral Grove) and Little Qualicum Falls Provincial Park four stroller wheels (out of a completely arbitrary five), with the caveat that I went alone, without children or strollers, and walked only a small part of Qualicum Falls at the tail end of a rainy day.
There are kilometres of trails at the Falls, and although I spent my time in the dangerous portion right by the falls, there are apparently lovely swimming holes and wider, family-friendly paths throughout the park. There is also a campsite. The parks are midway between Parksville and Port Alberni on Highway 4.
If you do both parks, as I did, save Cathedral Grove for the end. Its quiet beauty will offset all that raging water and close the day on a spiritual note.