A Week on the West Coast Trail

It was only day three of our seven day trek and I was questioning why on earth I had decided to spend my holidays hiking 75 km through mud, roots and rocks, sleeping on hard ground and eating dehydrated food when I could have gone anywhere else instead!  The incessant rain that day had not only dampened our spirits but any possibility of a warm fire that night.  We were sore, wet, dirty and, to be perfectly honest, miserable by the time we reached camp that evening, our progress slowed by a group member whose knees had blown up to the size of cantaloupes.  We’d reached an evacuation point and she had to make a decision – go on or go home.

Recently named by Explore Magazine (October 2015) one of the 50 Best Hikes in the World, the West Coast Trail (WCT) is no ordinary walk in the park.  The warnings of what lay ahead came early, printed in vivid red on the white board in the Parks office.  There had been 53 evacuations off the trail as of July 11 and the board was ten days out of date.  At that rate, the number would easily rise to the average of over 100 evacuations per year.  While not particularly long, the physical and mental challenges, combined with a rugged natural beauty, make the WCT one of the top hiking destinations in Canada, drawing adventure seekers from all over the world.  

Running along the Pacific Coast between Bamfield to the north and Port Renfrew to the south, the WCT was originally known as the Dominion Lifesaving Trail.  The trail, which included a new lighthouse at Pachena Point and shelters containing wireless telegraphs, emergency food and supplies, was constructed in 1907 to facilitate the rescue of mariners stranded after their ships went down in what became known as the “Graveyard of the Pacific”.  Rusting remnants of the ill-fated vessels can still be found today along the trail.

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One of the many ladder systems

Passing through the traditional territories of the Ditidaht, Pacheddaht and Huu-ay-aht peoples, the trail became part of  the newly formed Pacific Rim National Park in 1973.  With 70 ladder systems, 130 bridges – some no more than a slippery, moss encrusted fallen log – and four cable cars,  the trail is an endless obstacle course that, combined with sudden weather changes and remote wilderness conditions, requires a fit body, firm resolve and a good sense of humour.

We were a group of ten, seven women and three men who’d come from all across Canada and the U.S. to challenge ourselves in one of the most beautiful spots on earth.  The remote coastal trail winds its way through old growth forests of cedar, hemlock and spruce, down onto rocky ocean shelves exposed by the low tide, through bogs and along long sandy beaches, accompanied by the constant thrumming of the Pacific Ocean against the shoreline.  Waterfalls, caves, tide pools and sandstone cliffs are only some of the natural wonders encountered along the route.

There are two schools of thought when hiking the WCT – start at Bamfield and head south while the pack is heaviest and the trail easiest, or start in Port Renfrew and move north, getting the hardest part out of the way the first few days.  A third entrance at Nitinat Narrows was added in 2014 for those wanting a shorter experience.  We started in Port Renfrew and, after a quick ferry across the Gordon River, headed north.  The first day began with a steep climb under the dense and fragrant cedar canopy and past the highest point on the trail, getting a taste of what lay ahead as we skirted mud puddles and climbed over roots the size of my waist.  After a short but strenuous hike, we set up camp that night at Thrasher Cove, still close enough to civilization to see the lights of town across the harbour.  A little beach yoga to stretch out the tired muscles and we nestled into our tents to be lulled to sleep by the soft lapping of the waves against the beach only meters away.

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The Trail

We kept to the shoreline our second day, clambering under, over and around the boulders and cedar logs that littered the rocky shelf, slick with sea grass and periwinkle snails.  The destination was Owen Point where the low tide exposes a tunnel through the rock and the sun’s reflection casts a vibrant rainbow on the stone.  The tide was already rising by the time we arrived and, without a moment to remove our boots, we waded through the cavern and waist deep into the sea to climb back up onto the sandstone shelf and the trail the would bring us to Campers Bay.  It would be four days and a few blisters before the boots would dry again.

Day three it rained.  And rained.  And rained.  It was inevitable; we were hiking through a rainforest!  One woman I met on the trail rolled her eyes as we chatted over lunch under the canopy of a giant cedar.  “This is our seventh time doing the trail.  I keep saying it will be the last time, but every year we come back and every year it rains.  I don’t know why we keep doing this!”  Then she smiled.  Already questioning my own sanity, I now questioned hers as well.  “You’ll understand,” she said as she repacked her lunch and headed on toward Port Renfrew.

Day three we climbed and descended and climbed again the longest and steepest ladder systems on the trail, rungs and rails slick with mud and rain.  Some were missing rungs, forcing us short folk to become circus-worthy contortionists, hanging precariously by our fingertips, one foot barely on the rung at our waist, knee pressed to our chest as we stretched the other leg as far as possible, toes searching for that next rung somewhere below us.

Day three one of our group slipped off the boardwalk into the bog.  Sinking into the muck above her knees, unable to move in any direction, it rook four of us to pull her out.

Day three tested our resolve.

Our fourth morning saw the sun creeping through the trees at Walbran Creek as we crawled out of our tents, a warm breakfast and good night’s sleep the cure for all that ailed us the day before.  My friend had decided, despite her still swollen knees, to continue on and we headed out across the slow moving creek for another day.  With a low tide, we were back on the rocky shelf, away from the roots and mud, the worst of the trail behind us.  It was an easy and relatively flat day of hiking, allowing us the time to appreciate the windswept shoreline and relaxing rhythm of the surf licking against the ledge.  We also had a treat waiting for us down the trail – Chez Monique’s.

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Crossing the “Bridge”

Torn down at the end of each season and rebuilt in the spring, Chez Monique’s is a makeshift open air restaurant, offering hot coffee, burgers and motherly advice to weary hikers.  Monique has been running the restaurant on Ditidaht land since 1991, providing a welcome respite from the wilderness along with essentials like pain relievers, candy bars and beer.  Because beer is an essential.  We are, after all, Canadian!

After a lazy lunch, sunning in the hammock and making friends with the local cat, we headed north again, with a quick inland jaunt to the Carmanah Lighthouse before descending back to the beach and our camp at Cribs Creek. The warm sun and hot meal had boosted our spirits and that night we watched the sun slip silently into the Pacific, beer in hand, laughing over the mishaps of the day before.

By the fifth day, we’d embraced the mud, barrelling through the puddles rather than picking our way around.  I’d begun to list those of my friends who might actually appreciate the challenge as much as I was beginning to enjoy it.  A few names came to mind, though I had yet to consider whether I’d be willing to do it again myself.

We were on our way to Tsusiat Falls, a 17 km trek that included a ferry crossing at Nitinat Narrows and yet another treat.  First Nations manage the channel crossing and cook shack, offering fresh, local seafood steamed right on the dock.  By fresh I mean pulled out of the ocean in front of your eyes.  That morning, we feasted on the succulent flesh of fresh dungeoness crab and firm, flaky salmon, the best the west coast has to offer.  The crossing could wait!

The trail had levelled out, the ladders were no longer as daunting, and we made good time that day.  Unfortunately, the tide wasn’t on our side and we had to settle for photos of “Hole in the Wall”, a passage through the rock carved by time and tide, from above the shoreline.  A dip under the falls at Tsusiat and another postcard perfect sunset before settling in for the night made up for the missed opportunity.

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A Little Perspective

We made our last cable car crossing on day six over the Klanawa River, then returned to the sandy beach where remains of capsized vessels litter the shore near Trestle Creek. A quick climb back into the dense forest led us the view at Valencia Bluffs, the point along the Island coast where the worst marine disaster had occurred in 1906.  Of the 160 crew and passengers aboard the 1600 ton steamer Valencia, 125 lost their lives, leading to the creation of the lifesaving trail.

I took a moment to consider the challenges those survivors had faced, finding themselves ashore a remote and unforgiving terrain, their heavy wool clothing drenched with the sea, exposed to the winter winds and waves that batter the coast and at risk of encounters with cougars and bears.  We, with out lightweight gear, quick-dry clothes, camp stoves and dehydrated meals that would  last beyond our planned seven days, had little of which to complain.

The fog rolled in our last day and, after a quick examination of the buoys hikers had scavenged off the beach and carved with their names and dates, we moved back inland, stopping at the Pachena Bay lighthouse still in use today.  Not much further up, we stopped again to observe the dozens of stellar sea lions on the rocks below the trail, some resting, some battling each other chest to chest, their sharp barks and deep growls piercing the otherwise still air.

No one was interested in lingering, though.  Just a few kilometres from the trail head and daydreaming of a soft bed and hot shower, we picked up the pace, wanting to finish as quickly as possible.  The trail had widened now to accommodate the day hikers heading to the lighthouse.  Spirits were high and smiles wide, until we came to the last ladder system.  Groans filled the air, followed by laughs, as we lined ourselves up and began the final descent that would take us to the Park office and our waiting bus.

A new group of hikers, fresh from their orientation and excited for the adventure ahead, came out of the office as we lined up for our final group photo.  “What’s it like,” they asked, eyeing our muddied boots, scraped knees and weary faces, wrinkling their noses at the scent of stale wood smoke and sea salt.

“It’s tough, but you’ll love it,” we told them.  I’m not sure they believed us.

We left with memories recounted on the drive back to Victoria – of the river otters catching breakfast in the sea, the grey whale passing by our lookout as we ate lunch, the nest of garter snakes we unintentionally decided to dine beside one afternoon, and all the struggles and mishaps encountered along the way.

Asked if I would go back, I have to admit I would.  Because I understand now.  The West Coast Trail is everything it claims to be – rugged, remote, beautiful – and so much more.

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Heading to Michigan Creek

IF YOU GO:

  • Access to the trail is by reservation only with a maximum of 75 overnight hikers per day.  Registrations are presently underway at http://www.pc.gc.ca/eng/pn-np/bc/pacificrim/activ/activ6a/iii.aspx
  • Pack light but pack layers.  The weather can be changeable and you want to be warm, particularly if it’s raining and you can’t get a fire started.  Our local Mountain Equipment Co-op has a good packing list you can download from their site at http://www.mec.ca/AST/ContentPrimary/Learn/HikingAndCamping/TripChecklists/WestCoastTrail.jsp
  • Gators and sturdy poles are a must.  Do NOT go cheap when it comes to poles.  Our group had three poles break in the first three days, all the same kind.  I personally prefer the titanium telescoping style.
  • Bring cash for lunch at Chez Monique’s and at Nitinat Narrows.
  • Pack it in; pack it out rules apply.  Leave no garbage behind, including burning in the campfire.
  • Hiking alone is not recommended for safety reasons.  If you want to do it but can’t find a friend to join you, I highly recommend Ecosummer Expeditions.  I’ve taken a couple of trips with them and the guides are top-notch.

2 thoughts on “A Week on the West Coast Trail

  1. Good for you for actually hiking the West Coast Trail! The mud, the rain, the hardship – don’t think we could do it :-). We’re day hikers (who like our creature comforts), so admire people like you who take on these great adventures… The scenic rewards must have been great though!

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