It is rare, apparently, for human beings to experience total darkness or total silence. I contemplate this fact, supplied by caving guide Kate Ogden, as I sit in the depths of the Lower Main Cave at Horne Lake Caves Provincial Park, just west of Qualicum Beach on Vancouver Island’s east coast.
Headlamps off, the five of us on the Horne Lake Adventures tour strain to see, as if the dark is a velvet curtain we can push aside.
“Try waving your hand in front of your eyes,” suggests Ogden. The slow drip of moisture from cave walls gently dissolves the silence. As the parent of a feisty toddler, I find the sensory time-out heavenly.
While Qualicum is best known as a beachgoer’s getaway, local attractions such as the seven caves at Horne Lake can provide experiences beyond the summer sandcastles and soft-serve cones. Spring, when the weather deities are mercurial but the room rates are reasonable, is the perfect time to try something a little different—like going underground.
Ogden, an Australian with muddy coveralls, blond dreadlocks, and a business-like red helmet, is an enthusiastic guide for our three-hour, three-cave tour. After inviting us to switch our headlamps back on, she kneels to point out two crinoid fossils, which resemble curved scars on the cave’s limestone floor. These worm-like invertebrates thrived on tropical ocean floors 300 million years ago. Plate tectonics eventually brought the fossils to Vancouver Island.
As we explore, we shimmy through some dauntingly narrow entry holes. I marvel at the crystal formations Ogden describes as bacon strips (ridges that resemble veins), soda straws (hollow tubes), stalactites (formations growing from the ceiling), and stalagmites (growing from the floor).
“The crystals are like clouds,” says Ogden. “You can sort of find your own things.”
Riverbend Cave, nearly 400 metres long, is the largest of these karst limestone caves. It was gated in 1971 to protect its formations from vandalism and the oily touch of human hands, which cause crystals to brown. Entry into the cave, 68 metres deep, requires us to negotiate a steep, rickety metal ladder, but the effort is worth it. The Cave Wolf formation looks ready to pull its head back and howl. The rotund white shape of The Smiling Buddha, high in the cave wall, is set against a crystal that resembles a white cascade of water. In front of it is a glistening rimstone pool.
“God, it’s beautiful, like a mirror,” says Andrew Brown, an architect who recently left Texas for the peaceful shores of Qualicum.
As we clamber up into daylight, Brown, who is touring the caves with his wife and two visiting friends from Wales, says he liked the idea of a torturous descent.
“It’s almost literary,” he says happily, as we trek down a logging road to the next cave.
Heritage Forest of Qualicum Beach
The golfers at Qualicum Beach Memorial Golf Club are wearing white shorts—the optimists—ignoring signs that the bright and balmy weather may not hold. Possible showers don’t concern us, though. We’re heading for the shelter of the Heritage Forest, just across from the busy greens.
The community of Qualicum saved this area from development in through sustained volunteer fundraising between 1999 and 2002. Also called the Brown Property, the 20-hectare park has winding chip trails, an old-growth coastal Douglas fir ecosystem, a salmon-bearing stream, and an abundance of bird life. The forest is lush with cedars, sword ferns, vanilla plants, and salmonberries. As my husband, son, and I walk back to the main trailhead on Crescent Road East, a deer and fawn cross the road and slip into the forest, another family on a morning stroll.
The forest is just minutes from Qualicum’s compact core of specialty shops, galleries, and restaurants, most locally owned—I note a decided absence of chain stores. Flowering window boxes and planters along the sidewalks add to this small town’s quaint appeal, as does the historic 1912 Old School House Arts Centre on Fern Road, which shows works by national and local artists.
Milner Gardens and Woodland
I tend to visit parks rather than cultivated gardens. But the 28-hectare Milner Gardens is a pleasant blend of both, with 500-year-old Douglas firs and a bounty of indigenous plants.
The property, bequeathed to Malaspina University-College in the late 1990s, exudes the romance of a bygone era. The Milners’ 1931 house sits on an oceanside bluff where bald eagles circle overhead. The gardens feature more than 400 varieties of rhododendrons. During the Rhododendron Festival in May, some 200 people come daily to admire the blooms and visit the volunteer-run tea room and gift shop.
Qualicum Beach Museum
Saying Qualicum has a few retirees is like saying garage-sale junkies occasionally arrive early. The latest figures show a median age of 58 for Qualicum’s 8,500 residents, compared to 38 for the province. That may account for the solid base of volunteers that saved the Heritage Forest and continue to sustain Milner Gardens and the town’s museums.
No doubt, the area’s most elderly local is “Rambling Rosie,” an ice-age walrus—age 70,000—currently residing in a exhibit in the Qualicum Beach Museum.
“It’s actually been described as the most complete marine-mammal fossil from this coast,” says curator Graham Beard, a retired biology teacher, noted fossil collector—and garage-sale aficionado.
The father of one of Beard’s biology students discovered the fossil in 1979. The man was digging for oysters on a local beach when he spotted tusks protruding from the sand. He assumed he’d found sea lion remains, but it was something far more special.
Rambling Rosie, who was named in a community contest, officially belongs to the Canadian Museum of Civilization in Ottawa. Beard wishes he could display her in Qualicum permanently—not to mention the 20,000 fossils now stored in his garage. British Columbia’s sedimentary rock produces some of the finest fossils in the world, he says, particularly from the Mesozoic era.
Scientists come from around the world to study the specimens in this paleontology exhibit, which is sponsored by the Vancouver Island Paleontology Museum Society. There is a coelacanth from Wapiti Lake near Tumbler Ridge; trilobites from Morocco; a fossilized jellyfish from Australia; and a vast collection of local ammonites, an extinct group of marine mollusk.
The 300 or so fossils occupy the main floor of the museum building at 587 Beach Road. The top floor is devoted to the area’s social history. Exhibits include re-created scenes of life from the 1920s to 1940s, as well as some Victorian artifacts. My young son enjoys taking a seat in the Depression-era classroom. The general store display includes quaint products such as Dr. Chase’s “Nerve Food” and “Gin Pills for the Kidney”—if only these remedies existed for parents today.
And, of course, the beach
There are few beachcombers on the broad sandy shores of Qualicum Beach today. The sun shines on the Coast Mountains across the Straight of Georgia as I watch my husband try to teach our son, who has just mastered walking, how to skip stones on the ocean. Unfortunately, A.J. seems to have his mother’s arm. Seeing their blond heads side by side, I realize it is rare for me to just sit and watch them play, so I do—while the quiet lasts.
Qualicum Beach is on Vancouver Island’s east coast, 47 km north of Nanaimo on Hwy 19A, the old Island Hwy.
Descend into the depths of Horne Lake Caves Provincial Park (www.bcparks.ca), 26 km west of Qualicum Beach; take the Horne Lake exit off Hwy 19 or Hwy 19A, follow signs for 12 km. Horne Lake Adventures (250-248-7829; www.hornelake.com) offers cave tours; two caves are open to visitors who prefer to explore unguided.
Stroll the 28-hectare Milner Gardens and Woodland (250-752-6153; www.milnergardens.org), 2179 West Island Hwy.
Birdwatch in March and April during the Brant Wildlife Festival (604-924-9771; www.brantfestival.bc.ca). Eco-tours, nature photography, and local art shows celebrate the arrival of migrating Brant geese to the Parksville-Qualicum area.
Explore the Heritage Forest, steps from downtown; main entrance on Crescent Road East, opposite the golf course.
Meet Rambling Rosie, the fossil walrus at the Qualicum Beach Museum, 587 Beach Road. Museum opens May 24; for off-season tours, contact Graham Beard (250-752- 9810) or Arthur Skipsey (250-752-6441).
Discover local artisans at the Old School House Arts Centre (250-752-6133; www.theoldschoolhouse.org), 122 Fern Road West, or wander the shops in Qualicum’s pedestrian-friendly centre.
Beach House Café (250-752-9626), 2775 West Island Hwy. Waterside café with thin-crust pizza and memorable salmon burgers.
Fish Tales Café (250-752-6053; www.fishtalescafe.com), 3336 West Island Hwy. Fresh seafood, from fish and chips to seafood cannelloni.
Shady Rest Waterfront Pub and Restaurant (250-752-9111; www.shadyrest.ca), 3109 West Island Hwy. Choose pub grub or finer dining, both with an ocean view.
The Old Dutch Inn (250-752-6914; www.olddutchinn.com), 2690 West Island Hwy. Family-friendly waterfront dining in the Windmill room. Also, reasonably priced inn rooms.
Qualicum Beach has a wide range of accommodation, from luxury B&Bs to waterfront motels and family campgrounds. Here are just a few options.
Riverside Resort and Campground (250-752-9544; www.myriversideresort.com), 3506 West Island Hwy. Situated by the Little Qualicum River.
Sand Pebbles Inn (250-752-6974; www.spebbles.com), 2751 West Island Hwy. Excellent value oceanfront motel.
St. Andrews Lodge and Glen Cottages (250-752-6652; e-mail: firstname.lastname@example.org), 3319 West Island Hwy. Rustic, pet-friendly waterfront cottages. Note: no credit cards.
Qualicum Beach Chamber of Commerce (Visitor Centre: 250-752-9532; www.qualicum.bc.ca).
Town of Qualicum Beach (250-752-6921; www.qualicumbeach.com).
Tourism Association of Vancouver Island (250-754-3500; www.vancouverisland.travel).