One of the great advantages I’ve had is the good fortune to be in a profession that has taken me to some very interesting places. While I was attending medical school in British Columbia in 2011, a couple of my classmates and I were sent over to Vancouver Island for a one month rural family medicine rotation. During that time, I had the chance to visit several remote places that I will likely never see again and to date, this remains one of my most memorable travel and life experiences.
Vancouver Island is situated in the northeastern Pacific Ocean, the world’s 43rd largest island. The biggest city is Victoria, the capital of the province of British Columbia, located on the southern tip. The western coast is a popular destination for surfers, particularly the district of Tofino. I didn’t go to any of these places. Instead, I spent my month on the northeastern end of the island, in the small town of Port McNeill and its surrounding area.
Originating as a base camp for loggers and becoming a formal settlement in 1936, Port McNeill is located along the Queen Charlotte Strait, boasting a population of merely 2,064 people. It actually serves as a central hub for North Vancouver Island, offering the only access to the adjacent villages of Alert Bay and Sointula via the BC Ferries service.
Get to the chopper!
Port McNeill has one tiny hospital run by a group of physicians who also provide medical care at satellite sites in the region, including the aforementioned Alert Bay and Sointula, as well as Kyuquot First Nations reserve on the island’s northwest coast, and Rivers Inlet on the central coast of mainland British Columbia – home of the Wuikinuxv Nation. By far, the coolest experience I had during my month in Port McNeill was acting like a real country doctor and riding a helicopter out to all these outpost clinics in our catchment area. Rivers Inlet was a particular highlight, as the village is so remote that it is only accessible by plane or boat. It was a truly special opportunity to see this place.
Experiencing Indigenous culture
Vancouver Island has been the homeland for many Indigenous people over thousands of years. The North Island in particular is concentrated with a number of First Nations reserves, where we visited to provide medical care, and also learned more about Aboriginal culture and arts.
Hiking and more hiking
There is incredible hiking all around British Columbia. The island is no exception, as we saw during our free weekends spent exploring trails around the region. I also rode a bike here for the first time in many years, and had the humiliating experience of crashing into a ditch. I think I’ll just suppress that memory from now on. 😳
Whales and other wildlife
The North Island is a top destination for whale watching, with the best viewing time between May and October. There are a few tour companies based in Port McNeill and nearby Telegraph Cove to the south that take you out on the water. We in fact went on two whale watching excursions during the month we were around. Since we arrived early in the season, our first outing was not fruitful when it came to seeing whales, but we did spot a grizzly bear – from a distance, of course. Our second attempt was more productive, with a pod popping up right at the end of our ride. For those with less luck seeing live whales, there is the Whale Interpretive Centre museum in Telegraph Cove to check out.
There is a lot of other wildlife on the island, with black bears being a fairly common sight while driving around. Thankfully, I never came across any while on foot. Vancouver Island is also known as having the largest concentration of cougars in the world, accounting for a quarter of the 3,500 that make British Columbia home. Coming face to face with a cougar is obviously highly undesirable. We did have one suspected close encounter while we were hiking and were interrupted by a low growl coming from somewhere deep in the woods. Needless to say, we booked it out of there at lightning speed.
Poking around for crabs
This was undoubtedly my favourite experience on the island. In keeping with the small town attitude of friendly hospitality, one of the locals offered to take us out for a day to go crabbing. This involved heading out in the early morning at low tide, grabbing some long sticks, and literally poking around the shore to pull crabs out. We made out really well, and unlike my recent experience crabbing in Hoi An, were allowed to keep our catch and enjoy it for dinner. 🤤
Shortly after this final excursion, I said goodbye to Port McNeill and we headed back down the coast, all the way to the city of Nanaimo where we would catch the ferry to the mainland and return to urban life.