Mahatta River isn’t on most people’s radars, let alone on anyone’s list of top places to see. It’s nothing more than a logging camp 55 km from Port Alice, BC. When the locals heard that Robynne Devine and I were going to ride our bikes out there, they thought we were nuts, and their reactions made us wonder if we were the first to even think of such a journey? That made it even more appealing!
At one time Mahatta River was only accessible by boat or plane. It had an airport nearby that had a landing strip just big enough to land a small plane, or you could arrive by float plane in the harbour. It was a logging camp that housed a approximately 200 people at its peak, which included my family and Robynne’s. I was too young to remember living there, I was less than a year old when my family left whereas Robynne’s family lived there off and on until she was 15. That’s when they closed the camp and punched a logging road through to Port Alice. Her family was one of the last ones to leave.
There wasn’t much there to draw either of us back to visit: the houses, pool, and community centre had long been demolished and reforested. The only things that remain now are the workshop for the heavy-duty mechanics and barrack-style living quarters for the workers who now live there for shifts throughout the year. So, what made us decide to ride to the middle of nowhere? For us, it was a trip down memory lane and what we had hoped would be an awesome adventure.
The area is quite remote so we weren’t sure what we would encounter on our pedal. Neither of us had been on the logging road that connects Mahatta River to Port Alice so we weren’t even sure what the road was like – aside from what Google maps told us. The north end of Vancouver Island also has a healthy population of bears, cougars, and wolves so there was always the chance of running into them, as well.
With Mahatta River still being an active logging operation, we needed to do our homework. The last thing we wanted was to run into logging trucks on the road. They’re big, they’re dusty, and they’re fast! They also wouldn’t be expecting to see two women on bikes… Robynne still had contacts in Port Alice who worked in the area so we were able to reach out to the local logging companies to see if they were going to be active the weekend we were planning our trip. We lucked out, it was one of the few weekends with no activity. Our trip was a go!
Next on the list was finding a bike for Robynne. Her current bike is a hybrid and she wasn’t sure if it would survive riding on gravel roads. We found her a 2018 Norco Optic C3 and I was setup on a 2018 Norco Fluid FS3. We also needed to find suitable bikepacking bags. We used the Topeak Backloader and Frontloader bags, which are waterproof and don’t require racks. Perfect for mountain bikes. Plus the north end of Vancouver Island is notoriously wet so we didn’t want to take any chances of having our gear soaked!
Robynne had arranged for us to stay with a friend in Port Alice the night before our trip so we could get a good sleep and an early start. We also got some local knowledge of what to expect on the road. When we woke the next morning, rain bouncing off the road. Lovely. But luck was on our side, the rain stopped just as we were loading our bikes and that was the only rain we saw. We hoped it would help to keep the dust down on the gravel road as we headed out.
It was a typical north island morning, kids were playing street hockey and there was little traffic on the road. Most of the kids waved as we rode by, except for one who told us to get off the road. Robynne and I just looked at each other and shrugged our shoulders. During the rest of ride on the road out of town we joked about whether we would need the bear spray we had packed and caught up on life since it had been over 25 years since Robynne and I had last seen each other. Then we hit the gravel and knew the grind was beginning.
Google Maps and Google Earth may give you an idea of an area, but it never really gives you the full experience. The views as we pedalled along the bay were stunning, although overgrown where some of the lookouts were supposed to be. And the hill that we needed to pedal up was just as daunting in real life as we thought it would be when we did our research. It was seriously the never-ending hill and I don’t think either of us had seen so much bear scat! Maybe we would need that bear spray after all? The thought of the 10 km downhill on the other side is what got us through that slog.
The going was slower than we hoped, riding uphill with a loaded bike won’t earn you any personal records or Strava QOM’s. Going downhill can also be challenging as you fight speed wobbles and try to keep your stability on loose gravel. This was the only real challenging part of our ride, the rest of the ride to Mahatta River undulated with much shorter ups and downs.
Even better was the lack of traffic. While we knew there wouldn’t be active logging that weekend, we were still expecting to see more locals out driving. One of the things both Robynne and I remembered from growing up in the area was the amount of “boonie bashing” we used to do on the gravel roads.
Some of our favourite memories were on the gravel roads around the north end of Vancouver Island. Almost every weekend a group of us would head out in our vehicles, all equipped with CB radios, and explore. We likely would’ve explored this area, too, had the road existed when we lived here.
We made it to Mahatta River early afternoon. Robynne showed me where our houses would have been and showed me the dock that she walked along every week to go to and from school. (Our high school had dormitories for out-of-town students like herself. She would take a water taxi to Port Alice every week to catch a bus to Port McNeill, where we went to school.)
Then it was decision time. A storm was rolling in so what was originally going to be a two-night pedal was cut to one night. Do we stay in Mahatta River on the campsites near the beach? Or do we continue on to the next location and what promised to be an even more beautiful spot?
By this time, we had been on the bike for over five hours and we were starting to feel the fatigue, but we had another ace up our sleeves for this trip…a support vehicle! They had been travelling along ahead and were waiting for us at the Mahatta River turnoff when we arrived.
Knowing we were tired and had another two or three hours of pedalling to get to the next spot, we decided to climb into the truck and shuttle a portion of the way. Google Maps showed a 5-km descent into our intended campsite so we decided to ride into camp in style! Except Google lied. We never did find that sweet downhill for a grand entrance.
Our campsite — which will remain nameless — was right on the beach and we were the only people there. There is nothing like having a rugged beach on the West Coast of Vancouver Island to yourself! After a bit of exploration, we treated ourselves to a nice, cold adult beverage while our support crew setup camp. It was relaxing watching the waves roll up on the beach. And nice to have a support crew to make us supper!
We drove back to Port Alice the next day and took our time to explore other nooks and crannies along the way. I had forgotten how pretty that part of Vancouver Island could be. The drive was spent reminiscing about our ride the day before. Both of us knew we’d be back to do it again someday. We have some unfinished business.
This trip required a lot of local knowledge to pull off. A big thank you to everyone who helped to make it happen, you know who you are!