Route: A 350 km loop from Vancouver to Savary Island via Vancouver Island & the Sunshine Coast Highway.
Written by Sarah Howell
Like any adventure, it starts with a vision. My vision was of the white sand beaches and warm waters I’d heard everyone bragging about since moving to the West Coast of Canada. Warm waters? White sand?
I thought it sounded impossible in the typically very cold waters and rocky shores of the Salish Sea. But locals kept reassuring me, Savary Island was like the Caribbean of Canada.
Of course, like any diligent traveller I did my research—got on Instagram to suss out those white sand beaches. Convinced, I then typed ‘Savary Island’ into Google Maps and instinctively clicked on the skeuomorph of a little cyclist riding a bike. Bingo!
As it turned out, you could cycle to this island of paradise. Was a 350 km loop too much? It was further than I had ever gone on a bikepacking trip before. This time, however, I was much better equipped: a lighter bike and padded cycling shorts! Fortified by these not-insignificant facts, I decided it then. Savary Island would be my next bikepacking adventure.
After making my decision I worked on convincing my partner to join along for the ride. Bikepacking alone is another wicked sport of its own. Luckily, he got really into it. The planning and preparation of it. We both did.
Together, we arranged outfits. Rationed supplies. Even decided to upgrade our packs and invest in fancy new bags that strapped straight to our frames. We were headed to the Canadian Caribbean afterall! We needed to do it right.
Day 1: Kitsilano - Qualicum Beach 78 km
For any vision to come to life, first it needs action. To be set in motion. That first step. Or in this case, first pedal.
It was a beautiful mid-September morning when we finally set off. And yet, inspite of all the previous excitement, I found myself incredibly shaken. Literally. All this new gear on my road bike that I hadn’t thought to test ride beforehand was making me wobble, and suddenly I was second guessing each stroke, unsure it would hold. Or that I’d be able to hold it all together for another 350 km along the famous highways we would be riding on.
Luckily, the first leg of our journey was a road I knew well. Like most cyclists in Vancouver, the ride from Kitsilano to West Van then on to Horseshoe Bay is part of our regular summer training routes. I knew the roads enough to trust myself with this unfamiliar set up I was riding with. And that was enough to get me to our first of many ferries, safe and sane, heading to Nanaimo with the usual White Spot breakfast to fill our bellies.
By the time we disembarked, we felt more assured with our bikepack set up. We were excited even to ride the amazing cycling trails paved through Nanaimo and then conquer the Island Highway. Everything started out smooth under a mid-day blue sky.
And then, we hit our first true highway patch. A shoulder littered with so much debris and rocks you wondered what would get you first: the trucks and giant camper vans narrowly speeding past? Or the discarded junk left like obstacles along the side of the road? I was gripping at the bars of my bike, white knuckling, just trying to stay the course and keep breathing.
There were stretches like these on our trip that tested me mentally more than anything else. Stretches that shook at my core. Made me seriously second guess what the heck we were doing out there on the roads.
Luckily, though, there were stretches that made up for it and helped ease the nerves back down. For me, that stretch began at Qualicum Beach.
Day 2: Qualicum Beach - Powell River 70 km
From Qualicum to Courtney you ride with the ocean mostly at your shoulder as you ambulate up the coast. The views, the air, the roads, everything is quite spectacular. Especially if you have clear blue skies and extended summer days like we did.
We seemed to fly through this section. With two noteworthy stops. The first was a little roadside foodtruck called Bean There that served some seriously good coffee, smoothies, and breakfast sandwiches. All of which we gobbled up, while basking in the mid-day sun with a front row seat to the sea.
Then we did a mandatory stop at the Courtenay Museum where some of my deceased grandfather’s artwork is still exhibited. We even got a private tour from one of the museum curator’s, Pat Trask, who had both known my grandfather personally and—perhaps more interestingly—helped uncover the fossil remains of the Elasmosaur. A giant marine reptile that lived in the time of the dinosaurs. My biased opinion? Check out the Courtenay Museum if you’re ever around.
We finished the day by cycling onwards to Powell River, where we took our second BC Ferry ride. This time, saying goodbye to Vancouver Island.
Day 3: Powell River - Savary Island 27 km
There’s a point in cycling where your body starts to get addicted to the motion. Even though on climbs you curse and swear, you realize that stopping would be harder. Inertia is death. It’s easier to just keep going. To wake up, repeat, and not have to double think life.
That’s the best way to describe the section from Powell River to Lund—the last stop on the Sunshine Coast Highway. You ride some seriously worthy climbs, but the road is mostly yours and you feel like this is what the sport of road cycling was made for.
When we finally got to the end of Highway 101, we felt like gods. So much so that we attempted to ditch the water taxi we had pre-booked to take us to Savary Island and tried to rent kayaks instead to traverse the 45-minute paddle over to the island’s eastern shore. Gods don’t cheat, we thought. Unfortunately, there were no kayaks available that day, so we came back to Earth and reverted to our original plans. Reminding ourselves that even some Gods rest.
Day 4: Rest day on Savary Island
Our rest day was on the fourth day. On the island paradise that had lured us to embark on this epic bikepacking adventure in the first place, Savary Island.
At first, what strikes you about the island is how simple it is. There’s no electricity here. Only one small convenience store with basic staples and—especially noteworthy—perhaps the best liquor selection in the provice (hello, magnums of Veuve!). There’s also only one dirt road connecting one end of the 7.5 km long island to the other.
We ditched our road bikes for e-bikes and explored the island’s hidden bays and beaches. Unfortunately, any Caribbean-like qualities that had lured us here in the first place soon evaporated. Instead, a thick, pungent smoke drifted over the island from nearby forest fires. We chocked for air as we e-biked back across the dusty road, retreating into our cabin with a bottle of red wine we had scored from the convenience store’s finer selection.
By the time we awoke the next morning, ready to embark once again on the road, previously blue skies had been painted red. Everything looked like an inferno.
Day 5: Lund - Stillwater 50 km
Perhaps the smoke rolling in was foreshadowing for the rest of the trip. Because from that day onwards, our journey seemed to feel more harrowing.
Perhaps it was the aches we had both come to develop. His tush. My elbow. We rode through the sores, shaking them out when the road allowed. We blamed the rest day (not the wine!) for making us stiff. So we pushed on, trying to shake off the fatigue.
Perhaps it was all the uphills.
Perhaps it was the ever-busier roads with car traffic.
Whatever it was, we were glad when the day ended. Especially so because at the end waiting was a tiny home complete with a hot tub we had booked on Airbnb. The owners brewed their own cider and left us some cold bottles in the tiny fridge. We sipped the sweet cider as our muscles loosened in the hot tub, all the while listening to the sea lions barking from their perch on a rock island just off shore. This to us was the closest to paradise we had found on the trip.
Day 6: Stillwater - Davis Bay 70km
Like life, cycling is one of those things where you sometimes feel like there’s no reprieve. You’re on a hill climbing, climbing, and just when you think it’s over, suddenly the road snakes left, higher still. So you climb on. Then the road turns right, snaking upwards seemingly to destination unknown. But of course, you rationally tell yourself: what goes up, must come down.
The downhills are arguably worse. Especially when you’re speeding down a highway, zero shoulder, cars whizzing past, bike packed with gear.
This was how I learned about the wobbles. There was a truck. I think he was in a race with me, trying to beat me on a downhill to an intersection up ahead. He’s turning, I’m not. And as it turns out, my rim breaks are barely responding to my frantic pulling. There were a few things I didn’t know at the time: One was that my brake cable was impeded by the bag I had strapped around my handlebar. T
he second was that when you’re going super fast and try to break quickly, your bicycle will go into what’s known as a speed wobble. The front end of the bike starts to oscillate from side to side and then can get worse and worse, oscillating more and more. If you’re really unlucky, it can be so bad that you eventually lose control of your bike and crash.
Luckily for me that day, I stayed on my bike. And very soon after that truck turned right in front of me in a narrow miss, the downhill snaked to uphill, allowing my bike to lose its speed. I was so shook though that I had to pull off the highway at the next turn and just breathe.
Day 7: Davis Bay - Kitsilano 50 km
We were finally going home, but the wobbles had shook me so much to my core that I contemplated taking a bus for the last leg. My fear was being fueled further still by the fact that this section of road along the Sunshine Coast Highway is also littered with commuter traffic heading to and from Vancouver. And the shoulder really isn’t made for road bikes.
The nerves, I felt them creeping just as they had on the first day, tempting me to abort the mission.
I took some deep breaths, clipped into my bike, and settled into a pre-dawn ride. We hoped an extra early start would allow us to beat morning rush hour traffic.
As we rode into Gibsons, pink hues pierced the sky with the rising sun. Finally, the smokey haze had cleared. My body sighed with relief as the first rays of the day touched my face. It made me teary eyed it was so beautiful. But I was ready to be home. Back on a more familiar road. If every good adventure reaches a natural breaking point, it seems I had finally reached mine.
We took our last ferry ride of the trip (we had taken five total) and soon were retracing our steps, from Horseshoe Bay to Kitsilano. I knew these last few hills that would drain the last of my legs. I was ready for the final push. To leave it all on the road, hang up our bikes, and get back to our dog.
When it was all over, my partner and I asked ourselves if the journey to the Canadian Caribbean had been worth it? Truth is, in hindsight Savary Island felt like an excuse. We were never really going in search of white sand beaches. Rather, we were going in search of an adventure to make us feel more alive. And that is ultimately the real reason any of us embark on a bikepacking trip. The destination is merely a point on a map, a route for the experience of riding free to unfold.