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Unfinished Business – Riding the North Island to Holberg

The southern tip of Vancouver Island is famous for flowers and soft beaches. Life at its rugged north end is an entirely different matter. Just riding the North Island to far-flung Holberg is half the challenge.

It was when Mike and I rode past the 50th parallel marker at Campbell River, BC that we knew we were passing into a less explored part of Vancouver Island. There were fewer amenities ahead. Mike was on his F650GS. I rode my Kawasaki KLR650. We thumped along into the compound to be first in line in the waiting lanes for the Quadra Island ferry. Hopping off the bikes, the sea breeze was welcome as we removed our helmets. A whiff of low-tide driftwood and kelp was in the air.

It was the first day of a three-day late spring adventure into northwestern Vancouver Island. I remembered a friend who lived on Quadra, someone I’d teamed up with in a Vancouver Island rally called the Orca Run two years earlier. (“Ride of the Orcas, March 2014.) Brent Henry was planning a two-month sortie into Australia on a KLR650 and, although trip preparation prevented him from coming with us, he invited us to spend the night at his place. It was bound to be an interesting evening.

After riding off the ferry slowly behind a large flock of foot passengers walking off at Quathiaski Cove (a settlement on Quadra), we met up with Brent at the local plaza and he showed us the way to his castle. Brent’s home was a peaceful place, a modified trailer, tucked into a grassy clearing a short distance from the south shore of the island. A KLR650 on a centre-stand and a Suzuki DL1000 were sheltered under a carport.

Once we settled in, Brent mentioned how generous and helpful Australians are. Through various online adventure rider forums and a supportive contact, Brent had sourced a Kawasaki KLR650 in Australia; it’s the bike he knows best. A variety of hosts will provide couches and beds for him as he makes his way from Melbourne to Perth. Brent has traveled all over North America on his KLR, most recently out to Prudhoe Bay, Alaska on the Dalton Highway. Along with his riding pals Dave Williams and Jim Martin (who hosts and produces Adventure Rider Radio just down the road from Brent’s place), he had come to know the back roads of Vancouver Island thoroughly, making my Vancouver Island off-road travels look like those of a novice. 

Next day, with a wave, Mike and I crunched our way down Brent’s gravel driveway and onto the road back to the terminal and the ferry that would return us to Vancouver Island. After the scenic crossing, we focused on the task ahead, getting to Port Hardy. It was 240 kilometres away. Then we’d travel 50 kilometres off-road to the community of Holberg. From there we hoped to get to the northern-most tip of Vancouver Island achievable by road: Cape Scott Provincial Park. There we’d find the trailhead for the hike to San Josef Bay. 

After riding the steep ramp off the Powell River Queen, the change was almost instant. There was a climb and the air got distinctly colder. The road no longer followed the sea. It took us west, sometimes even southwest, away from the salt air of Discovery Passage and Johnstone Strait. The rise continued and soon I pulled over to a rest stop and dug in my panniers for my heated vest.

I grew up on Vancouver Island, in Victoria. Its creature comforts were far removed from the rugged country we were climbing into, yet somehow part of this same island. Seven years before, going through a difficult separation, I had hopped onto my KLR650 and had ridden north solo, hoping to find answers in the northern recesses of the island I called home. Instead of finding answers, I had become more puzzled. How could this craggy, stunning, landscape of towering mountains, vast stands of cedar and hemlock and few human beings be part of the Vancouver Island I thought I knew?

On that trip seven years ago, I had ridden into Port Hardy and had considered taking the gravel road to the northwest tip of the island, just to say I had. But I didn’t do it. I had stayed at a hotel in Port Hardy watching dozens of eagles rip leftover salmon from a trawler to shreds, the birds of prey swooping and gliding with joy from their newfound feast. While watching them, I had wondered what was down that road. What had I missed?

With unfinished business like that, you might say I was in a hurry to try the road this time around. But, the three days we had for this ride didn’t leave much time for our intended 1,100 kilometre round trip from the Victoria area and back again—we had to push it and it was now definitely time to get a move on. As we punched throttles to 120 kilometres per hour, Mike and I motored toward the island town of Sayward where we’d find fuel, the increasingly dense stands of coniferous trees crowding in on us as we rode.

The North Island Route is an unfettered twisty turn festival. We found the road in quite good condition with long undulating curves and few interruptions. There certainly weren’t any traffic lights! But here is a different climate than on the southern part of the island— the weather and temperature can change quickly. Passing the turnoffs for Woss and Port McNeill, the route finally returned from inland mountains to rejoin with the coast. It covered ground parallel to Queen Charlotte Strait with many options from that point. There was a secondary road leading to Port Alice, or a tri-ferry route starting from Port McNeill to the Kwakwaka’wakw’ village of Alert Bay on Cormorant Island, then the old Finnish settlement of Sointula on Malcolm Island across Broughton Strait.

But Mike and I were pushing on to Port Hardy, where we planned to have lunch after a quick look around. Finding some fish and chips at Captain Hardy’s, we texted our loved ones that we would be out of cell phone range for 24 hours. Then we got back on our bikes to take the Holberg Road.

I had mixed feelings as we took the left onto the road. I knew I was dealing with that unfinished business so there was some satisfaction there, but I knew it would not be an easy road. The initial two kilometres were paved. Then the dry, dusty gravel began and would continue for 50 kilometres. Some rain splattered against my bug-smeared windshield, but quickly stopped.

As I got up on the pegs of my bike to redistribute my weight over the front wheel, I looked for the right line to take through the gravel. Luckily, the road is well graded and there were few potholes, but sections of deep gravel and the occasional obstructive stone sticking out of the surface kept my eyes focused on the road ahead. There was one stop along the road I had to make, and was soon hammering on my front brakes, to the bewilderment of Mike behind me.

The Shoe Tree is one of those remarkable points of interest along an unremarkable stretch of gravel road. Back in 1988, a Holberg resident was bored of the drab surroundings on her commute into Port Hardy for groceries and appointments. So she found a tall cedar snag and nailed her son’s used sneakers to it—the Shoe Tree became a local success story. A quarter century later it’s now hard to find room on the massive trunk for even one more pair of tired soles.

The scenery became more interesting as Nahwitti Lake appeared on the right, but I had to remember to keep my focus on the bumpy road ahead, which had now turned to washboard, and not focus strictly on the beautiful scenery. The KLR jolted and squeaked, as it took a pounding. Just a few kilometres past the junction with a logging road called Hushamu Main, the road narrowed and several one-lane wood bridges appeared. I loved crossing them, after making sure there were no logging trucks on the other side looking to cross over first. I brake for logging trucks!

The descent into Holberg was quite dramatic, with a few twists that required discretion at the throttle. Soon asphalt appeared as the Holberg Store (also the local bed & breakfast), emerged suddenly on the right. We hauled on the brakes and covered the town’s lone fuel pump in our dust. 

The gravel road had proved typical of others built and maintained by logging companies, reminding me of those into Carmanah Walbran Provincial Park and Bamfield further south on Vancouver Island. 

After dismounting the bikes, checking in with our hosts and changing clothes, we realized we wouldn’t have time to get out to Cape Scott and return. Disappointment turned to excitement as we realized where we were. We set out instead to explore the town. A sign pointed us to the “suburbs” which consisted of a one-kilometre loop of 1940s era houses, some seemingly empty and dilapidated, others recently maintained with siding or woodwork, several of which have trucks parked in driveways with the Western Forest Products logo on the doors. WFP is a major employer in Holberg.

We crunched down the hill into town in our hiking boots, spying the marshland of the end of Holberg Inlet. The waters of the 70-kilometre inlet began a kilometre away. A log dump and crane were visible in the distance. There were also a surprising number of wooden pilings jutting out of the eastern shore of the inlet, the decaying supports of what was the world’s largest floating town. 

After a wander through the WFP compound (where all buildings must be covered in beige aluminum siding apparently) and admiring the post office building with a tsunami warning sign, we proceeded to The Scarlet Ibis for a drink.

While enjoying the view of the inlet and the quiet from the patio, our young waitress came out to have a chat. She informed us she’d been up at 3AM that morning splitting cedar shingles at a logging camp near Macjack Main just west of us. 

Mike and I were impressed, but as we told her of our travels and origin in Vancouver she began talking quickly in the vocabulary of the logger, seemingly glad to have outsiders to talk with. Terms like “B-Train” and “slides” made me realize we had ridden to a part of the island very different than south of the 50th parallel. Up here, people had to diversify and live by their wits. She hinted that there were not many men who tolerated a woman working in the camps. She had to prove herself in the dangerous and highly skilled but male-dominated world of logging on northern Vancouver Island. I listened to her, fascinated by her experience.

A short walk back up the hill to the Holberg B&B was soon followed by dinner in the lovely Hasjka kitchen. Eastern European cooking would fortify us after our 300-kilometre day, 50 of that off-road. Stuffed peppers, meatballs, garlic noodle soup and dumplings soon had us feeling quite satisfied. We were joined by Milo and Eva Hasjka, their daughter Monika, along with two friendly gentlemen, Keith and David. They were lodgers at the B&B, joking around with the Hasjka clan as though they had been there for weeks. 

They were technicians working on the radar towers at the nearby station. Holberg used to host a Royal Canadian Air Force base. CFS Holberg closed in 1990, but there are still a few radar towers as part of Canadian Coastal Radar facilities. David, a young fellow with a weathered ball cap and a few days growth on his chin, explored the local beaches when he had time off. He told us it was amazing what could be found washed up on the beach. From brand new shoes to bicycles, tires and housing materials of all kinds, he had found them on this extremity of coastal British Columbia.

Mike and I would pull out of Holberg early the next morning after a pancake breakfast, dealing with the dusty gravel road better in the sun than the cloud and cold of the day before. We would weave our way through the gravel patches and silently ponder the peace and the simplicity of this northwestern part of Vancouver Island. Even though its furthest reaches had eluded me, there was a smile on my face having connected with another remote part of British Columbia by motorcycle. I reminded myself there could always be another trip. 

by Trevor Marc Hughes Canadian Biker Issue #315


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