Vancouver Island

Meet Oyster Jim

Twenty years ago, the forest around Ucluelet was so thick and untouched that it was impossible to see the ocean. “Oyster” Jim Martin changed that.

by Karin Olafson

Photo by Douglas Ludwig

He’s the man behind the Wild Pacific Trail, a network of accessible gravel paths that cuts through dense forest and offers panoramic views of the Pacific Ocean.

It’s an overcast day when I set out to explore Ucluelet’s Wild Pacific Trail. I’m at the start of the Lighthouse Loop route, where it’s silent and still, until a low rumble comes from the road. Coming toward me is a man with a silver beard, riding on a camo-coloured quad and wearing a high-visibility vest, big black galoshes and a neon baseball cap with “Wild Pacific Trail” woven into it.

“I’m Oyster Jim,” he says, then gives me a wide gap-toothed grin and a hug.

Oyster Jim Martin is the visionary behind the Wild Pacific Trail, the 8-kilometre trail that’s now Ucluelet’s number one attraction for locals and visitors alike. He’s become something of a local legend in recent years — especially after being awarded the Meritorious Service Medal from Canada’s Governor General in June 2017. Everyone from the town’s service staff to the mayor know him.

“There’s not one best spot. The whole trail is like a jewelled necklace.” — Oyster Jim Martin

Before we explore sections of the trail together, Martin explains how he wound up in “Ukee.” He visited his relatives in Clayoquot Sound for one month at a time every summer for nine years in a row, until he finally moved here from Colorado in 1979. He acquired his nickname because of his trade: he worked as an oyster farmer, and was the only one in town with his own personal plant.

After just one year in Ukee, Martin started to put together a plan to build an accessible and free public trail in the area. “I spent lots of my time out on the headland because I was determined to catch salmon off the rocks,” he says. “And that’s where I first recognized the outstanding perspective from the shoreline that you just can’t get from a boat or a plane. I saw that this was the perfect place for a trail.”

Martin advocated for the trail for 16 years and only got approval to begin building in 1996, when the town’s resource-based economy was suffering.

“We were really bruised after 1993, and our energy was down,” says Dianne St. Jacques, the mayor of Ucluelet. “Jim came along with the vision for the trail and pitched it to us as a great community amenity, but also a very valuable tool for our economy.”

Pointing at the seemingly impenetrable forest, Martin explains how he went about building the trail. “I crawled through the bush — in some places I couldn’t even set foot because it was just too thick,” he says, explaining how he then used a chainsaw and mini excavator to clear a trail. “I worked my way along until I reached a spot that was impossible for a gravel trail to be built. Then I came at it from another direction and connected them however I had to.”

Martin approached the trail’s creation with two criteria in mind: to maintain contact with the ocean as much as possible, and to knock down as few trees as possible. He continued to build sections of trail on his own for almost two decades, completing the final loop in 2015.

The remarkable trail winds mostly through the wilderness, showcasing the varied, rugged beauty of the Pacific Northwest at every turn. And Martin is still improving and adding to it.

It’s low tide when we start exploring the Lighthouse Loop. Martin points out the twisting cedars, the coastal Sitka spruces and trees swept sideways by winds so strong they’re frozen at odd angles. “It’s called krumholtz,” says Martin.

He adds that visitors have a good chance of seeing animals — like sea lions, seals, sea otters and whales — from the numerous viewpoints and cedar benches, all constructed by him, dotted along the path.

We end up at a viewpoint Martin calls Wedding Point, located past the Amphitrite Point Lighthouse. Its panoramas are so picturesque that it’s become a popular wedding destination. Martin says it’s one of his favourite spots, but points out that he has many.

“There’s not one best spot,” he says with a smile. “The whole trail is like a jewelled necklace.”

Later, I walk through more of the Wild Pacific Trail’s seven loops. I hike past Terrace Beach’s sandy shores, past the tide pools at Big Beach, and watch the waves crash on the rocky shore from a viewing deck.

Oyster Jim Martin created a trail that’s on the edge of the earth, and it feels as though he’s sharing a natural wonder with anyone who walks it.