Meet Terry Lewis, the Man Behind Vancouver Island’s Epic 800 Km Trail

It's been a long and winding road to get the trail built

Volunteers have been working on the trail for more than 15 years

Some people call Terry Lewis the “dirt doctor.”

In his professional life, the Courtenay resident with a Ph.D. in soil science was a slope stability consultant in the forest industry. He dove into running, mountain biking and trail building in his retired life.

At first, he built mountain bike trails. Then in 2012, he met Gil Parker in Cumberland. Parker, an active, mountain climbing Victoria retiree, had hiked the 4,600 km-long Pacific Crest Trail from BC to Mexico over five years. Parker came away from the trek with the idea of building a long-distance hiking trail spanning the length of Vancouver Island. Parker called it the Vancouver Island Spine Trail.

“As soon as I heard about the trail, I was on board,” Lewis said in an article published recently in the Comox Valley Collective.

The two of them hit it off. Lewis was hooked on the trail concept.

Fast forward a decade, and the route is done – almost. Lewis is the director of operations on the nine-member board of the Vancouver Island Trail Association. In other words, he does everything. He and a core group of about 20 dedicated volunteers maintain the trail, apply for grants and write media releases, among a long list of tasks. The society’s annual budget is tiny – $20,000.

“I probably spend about 1,000 hours a year on this. It’s like a full-time job,” Lewis said.

It was, and still is, a beast of a project.

It measures 800 km from Victoria to Cape Scott and cuts through a cross-section of Vancouver Island land use complexity. There’s unceded First Nations territory, private land managed by Mosaic Forest Management, provincial Crown land doled out to Western Forest Products through Tree Farm Licenses, Provincial Parks, and Regional Districts.

Most of the route follows existing trails, with new trails built where necessary to link up sections. A few years ago, the board decided on a name change because some people thought “Spine” implied that the trail requires technical mountain climbing skills. It doesn’t. So it became, simply, the Vancouver Island Trail.

In 2018,  Isobel Glover, a 20-year-old University of Victoria student, was the first to hike the entire route in a single big push. It took her two months. She ate 1 kilogram of food per day.

“The thing about living on Vancouver Island and in BC is you walk a few paces, and nature is right there. You don’t need to go anywhere special. It’s all right here,”  Glover told Times Colonist writer Jack Knox not long after finishing the trek in late August 2018.

Lewis estimates that between 15 and 20 people make the entire trail yearly. But those are only the trekkers he knows about.

On paper, the trail is complete. However, much work remains to do on the administrative side of the equation.

Though the ‘Namgis First Nation welcomes recreation and tourism on its territory, it can’t deal with the trail. A formal access agreement with Mosaic Forest Management has yet to be finalized. As does an application to the provincial government to get Section 57 status for parts of the trail (an official recreation designation under the Forest and Range Practices Act.)

Gil Parker has Parkinson’s disease and is no longer involved. Lewis says they need new, young blood to keep this dream alive.

“I’m 77, and most of our volunteers are in their 60s and 70s. We are in serious need of younger volunteers or clubs that might want to adopt sections of trail,” Lewis said. “We also know from experience that the trail will virtually disappear without regular maintenance in only three to five years.”