Many people think of Port Alberni as a jaded logging town, lost somewhere in the wilds of Vancouver Island. A million tourists drive through here every year, on their way to the trendier west coast resort towns of Tofino and Ucluelet. However, the few who make the time to stop here and explore soon find out that Port Alberni is one of Canada’s best-kept trail-running secrets.
I used to be one of those travelers who snub their noses at Port Alberni. Back then, I had no idea what this place had to offer to runners. A century and a half of forestry means that there is an extensive network of logging roads lacing their way through the mountainous landscape. Although much of the original old-growth rainforest has been cut, the new-growth forest is lush and mature: cedar and hemlock and spruce trees festooned with moss and lichens, all underlain by a carpet of ferns and berry bushes.
Running on logging roads is better than running on pavement – but it is still not real “trail running.” Fortunately, this town has very active communities of mountain bikers, dirt bikers, and hikers – and they all work at developing and maintaining trail systems. For a trail runner, the logging roads provide access routes to trailheads, or valuable links between trails when on a long run – but they are not the running destination itself.
Several years ago, I started to make a point of stopping in Port Alberni for a trail run each time I drove through. The first trail that I discovered was the Log Train Trail, a 20-mile route that follows an old railway bed from Alberni’s logging days. It skirts along the hillsides, an unusually flat route for this mountainous town. Off the sides of the main trail, mountain bikers have cut paths uphill and downhill through the forest. As I got to know the area, I found I could choose which type of trail run I wanted to do: go for distance and speed on the flat Log Train Trail itself, or push my technical skills on the steep side-trails.
Then I discovered the Fisherman’s Trail in Stamp Falls Provincial Park. This quickly became my favorite running trail: a hard-packed dirt path that twists and winds along the river bank. In spring, it is littered with wildflowers. In autumn, black bears fish for salmon in the river, and maple leaves dangle, golden, in front of the dark spruce fringe.
The more I explored, the more I met up with other runners, gradually becoming part of Port Alberni’s running community. As both my social life and my sporting life migrated to this town, I eventually realized that I should just move here.
One of the trail runners I met became my running partner, and then my life partner. Dave was born and raised here, and he’s been running and biking these trails for thirty years. The network of trails I had discovered on my own pales compared to the trails that Dave has shown me: steep, technical routes that go straight up the mountainsides; scenic trails along the Alberni Inlet (a 40-mile long saltwater fiord); and overgrown paths, nearly hidden, that lead to abandoned cabins and mine workings. Dave and I have run hundreds of miles of trail together around here, and we know we have many hundreds more left to explore.
I have been a runner, on and off, nearly all of my life. For most of that time, I ran because I felt I should: it is good for me, it keeps the weight off, it keeps me strong.
But something funny has happened these last few years. I no longer run because I “should.” I run for the pure joy of it. I love the feel of the trail beneath my feet: the constant twisting and flexing of my ankles, rather than the repetitive strain of pounding pavement. I love the mental focus, the attention to foot placement over rocks and roots, rather than the monotony and zoning out on a flat straight road. I love the adventure and exploration: rounding a corner to discover an unexpected vista, or a rare wildflower, or a deer and her fawn.
Although I have entered some races, I have never been focused on training for races. Now, I am even less so. These days, most of my runs are around here, with Dave and his two dogs. We run for fun. We stop to take pictures. We walk sometimes.
Port Alberni’s trails have changed me as a runner. I hope that you can find your special place too, trails that you come to know and love – trails that will keep you running for the joy of it, and not because you “should.”