MUST DO: See the Totem Pools; Visit the Quw’utsun’ Cultural Centre; See the World’s Largest Hockey Stick
Known as the City of Totems, this one-square mile city serves a regional population of over 70,000.
It was the building of the Esquimalt & Nanaimo Railway (running from Victoria north to Courtenay) that resulted in the creation of Duncan. Nearby stations were found to be inconvenient, and when Sir John A. MacDonald, Canada’s first prime minister, arrived in 1886 on Vancouver Island to mark completion of the railroad, a reception was planned on the farm of William C. Duncan. The following year, Duncan’s Station was built. The site was given the name Alderlea, but eventually evolved into Duncan. The city was incorporated in 1912.
Duncan became the supply and commercial center for the Cowichan Valley, servicing the area’s forestry industry. In 1900, ore was found on nearby Mt. Sicker, further boosting the area as a commercial center.
While the ore ran out, forestry has continued as the economic backbone of the Duncan area, but tourism has also boomed. In the mid 1980s the Totem Pole Project was born, a venture between the Cowichan Tribes and the city. Celebrating the resurgence in native art, the project has seen nearly 80 totem poles erected, many visible along the Trans Canada Highway. A self-guided tour (follow the yellow footprints) is one way to see many of the poles. Volunteers from the Cowichan Valley Volunteer Society provide free interpretive tours.
Downtown Duncan is also home to a restored 1912 train station, now home to the Cowichan Valley Museum and its collection of heritage items. Just a short drive away is the Island Savings Centre, its front adorned with the largest hockey stick in the world. A little further north on the highway is Semenos Marsh, home to a number of species of birds.
Outdoor enthusiasts won’t want to miss the trip up nearby Mt. Prevost. The road to the trailheads is rough, but the chance to see the incredible view is well worth the effort.
Just south of Duncan is the 28-mile long Cowichan River. Situated along its shores is the Quw’utsun’ Cultural & Conference Centre, a hugely popular destination that focuses on First Nations. Owned by the Cowichan Tribes, the centre’s mandate is to promote Native culture through education, art and entertainment. Further west along the river, the Cowichan River Footpath is a 30-kilometer trail through the river valley. If you’re not into long hikes, shorter trails offer easier going. The river is also great for fishing and kayaking.
If You Go to Duncan…
BY ROAD: If you’re driving from the south, Duncan is about one hour out of Victoria on the Trans Canada Highway. From the north, it is about a 30-minute drive from Nanaimo.
BY AIR: Scheduled airline connections are out of Vancouver to Nanaimo or Victoria.
BY RAIL: The Esquimalt and Nanaimo (E&N) Railway has daily trips out of Victoria.