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Vancouver Island backcountry gravel roads - access, logistics and routes.

Updated: Jan 28



There are many thousands of kilometres of gravel roads on Vancouver Island suitable and open for Dualsport and Adventure bike travel, leading to the remotest corners of the island.


Backcountry gravel road exploration and travel here has a reputation of being difficult and interrupted by numerous security gates that necessitate bushwhacking to force an entry or an unexpected turnaround halfway through a planned route.

As a dualsporting Van Isle resident, I can assure you as a prospective visitor, that this isn't so! I'll explain why it is not so, and how to explore "The Island" by motorcycle, ATV or 4x4 successfully and without committing trespass (or breaking and entering and committing criminal damage)...


Of course, I cannot guarantee all of the routes hinted at above are always passable, nor that they are entirely suitable for every type of vehicle and level of operator competence - but you already know this!


The Vancouver Island backcountry.


Vancouver Island is forested. It is perhaps less forested now than it was fifty or one hundred years ago, but the essential nature of the island is mountains, valleys, rivers, lakes and forests. Lots of forests. Thick, old, dense fir and cedar forests. We don't have prairies, dunes, deserts or open broad-leaved woodlands. We have Mirkwood and Fangorn forests. To travel the Vancouver Island backcountry is to travel through the forest. The backcountry roads have been built by the logging industry and are gravel and blast rock - and there are lots of 'em!



Ownership of Vancouver Island forests.


Without getting into the politics and history of the forestry industry on Vancouver Island, it is sufficient to say the following:- The forests of Vancouver Island fall broadly (but not exclusively) into two "ownership" categories - forests in "private" ownership and forests owned by the "Crown" (Provincial and/or Federal government ownership).


The forests on the eastern side of the lower half of the island, from Campbell River, through Courtney/Cumberland/Comox, the Nanaimo hinterland, Cowichan Lake and down towards Victoria are "owned", managed and administered by the forestry industry conglomerate Mosaic. I have put owned in inverted commas as a nod to the sensitivities of different groups of people who dispute the concept of land ownership in different ways...


Most of the rest (but not all) of the forest lands are in "Crown ownership" with timber harvesting rights licenced to forestry companies. Owned by the Government(s) of Canada - and therefore arguably by the population - management, commercial realisation, exploitation and regeneration responsibilities of these forests are devolved by the government to forestry companies through a series of Tree Farm License agreements.


The following two maps indicate the geographical areas of interest held by Tree Farm Licensees (TFL) and Mosaic. If you look between the two maps you can see where the TFL blocks end and in the lower map, where the gates are that control access to the Mosaic Forests:



the above map, showing the status on a given day of Mosaic forest access gates is at: https://www.arcgis.com/apps/webappviewer/index.html?id=8192f63600b64ca2a642ec9722dfad8e




Forest access versus gravel road access - a fine distinction, or not depending on your choice of backcountry activity.....


This point may or may not be out of logical order - but here goes anyway!


Different groups of backcountry users have significantly different access ambitions and approach "access" from different directions (to stretch the metaphor). For example, hikers, climbers and hunters will want to travel through forested areas in pursuit of their preferred recreation areas, those who fish, canoe and kayak will seek access to the waterways. Riders of road legal dualsport and adventure bikes will want to confine their travels to the gravel roads - knowing true cross-country travel is too difficult, or will entail riding motor vehicles on routes designated for walkers/cyclists/horse riders and/or may entail crossing privately owned land.


The scope of this essay is strictly confined to the use of registered/licenced/insured motor vehicles on publicly accessible gravel roads crossing Crown Lands. The special case of invited access to roads passing through Mosaic forests will be addressed but all other issues of "access" are beyond the reach here.


No other category of "access" can be addressed within the scope of this article.




To take Mosaic lands first...


The Mosaic company controls its lands and forests. The commercial value of the company is directly related to the timber stocks growing in its forests. Mosaic has an interest in protecting its "timber stocks". The biggest risk to its stock is forest fires - the biggest preventable cause of forest fires is human (mis)activity. Keep people out and you minimise that risk. Alongside this is the potential for encounters between recreational forest travellers and industrial forestry activity.


Mosaic as a company recognises the fact that people want to be in the forests and if they are denied, they will often find a way in.

Such unauthorised presence would come under the civil law offence of Trespass - provided no damage to property is caused.

Damage to property as a result of Trespass may well constitute an offence under Criminal law.

It is better all round if access is managed and controlled to please as many people for as much of the time as possible. Better to have visitors than trespassers, perhaps?


To achieve this balance, Mosaic largely restricts public access to its forests during the monday to friday working week, opening their gates for recreational forest access during daylight hours on saturdays and sundays. The company has a website and one of the pages has a map showing the positions of the gates and is updated daily with their open/closed status.


It is important to remember:

  • You are invited onto Mosaic lands as a visiting guest. You do not have a right to be there...

  • The open gate you came in through may not be open when you wish to leave.

  • The Mosaic roads are private roads and as such, your motor vehicle insurance is not in effect. If you are involved in an accident your insurance won't pay up, if you cause damage your insurance won't pay for it. If you need breakdown recovery, your BCAA or whatever may not come to get you.

  • If a gate is open, you are invited to go through it. If it is closed, do not go around it.

  • The Mosaic web page with gates information is: https://www.arcgis.com/apps/webappviewer/index.html?id=8192f63600b64ca2a642ec9722dfad8e

  • The Mosaic access page is: https://www.mosaicforests.com/access

  • The Mosaic homepage is: https://www.mosaicforests.com


Take Home messages. The Mosaic forests are open for travel, but on Mosaics terms. You can plan and follow a route through their forests but you can't rely on the gates being open. Your road vehicle insurance won't be valid and the company won't allow any form of motorsport on its land!



Crown Land forests.


This next bit is especially relevant to backcountry motorcycle travel and the production of Backcountry Navigation Trials events by VIME.


Resource Roads (Forest Service Roads, FSRs) on Vancouver Island Crown Lands have Highway status under the BC road traffic legislation.

For a fuller explanation of this please see: https://www.gr200.com/post/vime-events-the-bc-legal-framework


We are entitled under BC legislation to ride these Crown Lands Resource Roads, as public highways (provided we conform to the legislated requirements of motorists). Further, we are allowed to run and participate in non-race/non-speed "navigation trials" (aka Regularity Rallies) over these roads, and your ICBC insurance covers you for participation in such events (provided you haven't got Collector registration and insurance).


Edit: This point may be mistaken. Please check with your insurance provider that your road insurance remains valid while you participate in road-legal navigation trials - aka regularity rallies. Emphasise not a race or speed event, time trial or stunting test.


FURTHER EDIT: I realise I have written this insurance point from the perspective of participating in VIME backcountry navigation trials. Travellers over these roads who are not participating in an event would be travelling as if they were on any other public road. Collector insurance would on the face of it, continue to be in operation.


The relevant references and hyperlinks are in the published document given above.


Knowing the extents of the Crown forests and Tree Farm License areas, the legal authorisation to use the roads and the licencing and insurance position, just about all of the forest roads on the north of The Island are open for backcountry travel.


The first map, showing routes by Gaia is just a fraction of the extent of the gravel road network. These are the roads I have picked out for the purpose of planning VIME navigation trials events. These routes loop or travel on to other roads that in turn lead to somewhere else. There are at least three times as many kilometers of roads that lead up a valley or mountain and just stop, necessitating turning round and returning the way you have just come (which wouldn't make for much of a navigation trial!).


The reason for this is Forestry good practice of not having roads cross watersheds.


Many of the roads I have not highlighted on Gaia lead into the backcountry to lakes, Recreation Areas or coastal areas of outstanding beauty and solitude. If this is your thing there is much to be gained from close study of the maps!

map detail example, showing Forest Resource Roads (FSRs) that don't provide useful options for navigation events as they don't "go anywhere" - the unhighlighted roads if you were wondering.....




Other considerations - fuel, food and shelter.


There are four cornerstones to backcountry travel.

  • Access (asked and answered above)

  • Fuel

  • Food

  • Shelter



Make no mistake, the North Island is backcountry. No highstreets, coffee shops, few petrol stations, little in the way of urban development or facilities. You cannot travel casually in the North - you need to plan and know where you are going to supply...


Fuel, food and shelter...


I will try to arrange this for maximum efficiency. Given the urbanisation of the north island is as limited as it is, often/usually/mostly centres of habitation provide fuel, food and motel-type accommodation should the weather turn wet and you don't want to camp. There are many places to camp across the North Island, ranging from fully-equipped to wild camping. I will concentrate on motel accommodation.


The plentiful provision of "resources for travellers" on the North Island stops at Campbell River.

If you are going to venture any further north, you are going to need to know what you are going to do...


North Island resource locations.


Highway 19

  • Duncan Bay (north Campbell River). Fuel

  • Sayward Junction. Fuel, food (restaurant and grocery shop), three campsites (one free) and WiFi internet at the CoOp.

  • Woss. Fuel, food, motel

  • Port McNeil area. Fuel, food and accommodation.

  • Port Hardy area. Fuel, food and accommodation.

Port Hardy is the end of the line for Highway 19.


Highway 28, Campbell River to Gold River

  • Gold River. Fuel, food and accommodation.

  • Tahsis. Fuel, food, accommodation.


And beyond....


  • Zeballos. Fuel, food, accommodation


  • Port Alice. Fuel, food, some accommodation


  • Coal Harbour. Accommodation.


  • Holberg. Fuel, food, accommodation.


  • Telegraph Cove. Food, accommodation.


And that is about it, for 50,000 sq Km.


  • Outside the centres of habitation you won't find much cell-phone service.

  • Take a satellite SOS device to call for assistance should something go wrong.

  • Equip your bike with waterproof usb charging sockets to keep your electronics going.

  • Have a subscription-paid Gaia map of the North Island downloaded onto two GPS-chipped smartphones and

  • take a very close look at the weather forecasts.

  • Let someone know where you plan to go and when you expect to be back.


If you are a high-maintenance traveller, this probably isn't your thing but if it is a small adventure you are in need of the North Island may be what you are looking for.


Happy travels and pass the winter planning.


Jonathan


Further reading


A Citizens guide to proving public access.



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