If one were to examine a nautical chart of the western approaches to Juan de Fuca Straight it would be immediately obvious that in any type of heavy weather, in the fog, or even on a dark night, a 253 foot iron steamship (circa 1906) could very easily “miss” the exact turn (ESE) into the straights and plow headlong onto the rocks of Vancouver Island. In fact that is exactly what the 1600 ton SS Valencia did on January 22, 1906 with the loss of 133 of the 160 persons aboard.
Over the years so many ships have met their doom off the west coast of Vancouver Island that it has become known as the graveyard of the pacific. But it was the wreck of the SS Valencia that prompted the need for a shipwreck survivors trail so sailors that did manage to get washed up to shore (very few mariners of that era could actually swim) had at least a slight change they could make their way up the coast to the village of Bamfield, or down the coast to Port Renfrew.
And so the West Coast Trail was born. Initially the route followed a telegraph line connecting the lighthouses and villages. With the advent of modern electronic navigational equipment the trail fell into disrepair by the 1950’s. Then in 1967 the trail became part of the Pacific Rim National Park and was reopened as a recreational wilderness trail.
We chose to hike the trail from Port Renfrew to Bamfield, or from southeast to northwest. All the research we’d done suggested that direction would get the really hard days out of the way first and then we could finish with some less hard days toward the end. After a full day of ferry boats and winding roads we arrived in Port Renfrew and scoped out the ranger station and accommodations. We needed to be at the ranger station at 0930 the next day for a pre-hike briefing.
Fortunately we stumbled upon the Gains Beach Backpackers bunkhouse. What a score! Only $25.00 CND and the manager, Luke said we could park our car there while we hiked…and he gave us a ride to the trailhead. What a great dude!
Here is a link: http://gainsbeach.ca/?page_id=147
Regrettably we could not begin our trek until we attended a mandatory briefing at 0930 on the morning of our trip. There were about 22 hikers in attendance for the slideshow and the discussion. Parks Canada issues permits for 25 trekkers headed south and 25 headed north each day of the hiking season.
I suppose for the totally unaware camper the briefing was a good thing, but for Travis and me…it was really just 1-1/2 hours of time wasted from our hiking day. The information the ranger chick was reading from the screen was the same info that Travis and I had read online several times over the last couple of years, and on top of that when questioned about specifics, she seemed to be just making stuff up. When asked about the spacing of the contour lines on the map she replied 15 meters, that seemed odd to me at the time, and later we checked the map legend and found it said 30 meters for the spacing between the contour lines on the map. Oh well…
The real confidence killer came when the ranger chick said, “by the end of the trail you’ll be sick of the cable cars. I would just walk through the water instead”. We’ll see..
Soon we were boarding a small aluminum boat with our partners for the short ride across the Gordon River. On this little expedition Travis and I were accompanied by Steve (Smiley) and Steve (Ross), a couple of hard charging heroes who may have been a little short on backpacking experience but who would prove to have no shortage of endurance and enthusiasm on the trail.
Once across the river, our boat dropped a little gangplank down from the bow and we trotted off into the wilderness. As promised the route began to scramble immediately up through the forest. Within a couple of minutes it was evident that the term “trail” was going to be used to describe everything from a few meters of smooth wooden boardwalk to an almost unbelievably difficult passage of roots, mud, ladders, fallen trees, and water crossings. We made painfully slow progress but did eventually reach the 5 km point and made the one km ladder descent down to Thrasher’s Cove to camp for the night.
We were all pretty well thrashed but there was still much to do. Our camp routine included setting up our tents, inflating sleeping pads, getting water purified for the next day, cooking dinner, and finally washing up a bit. All of us were tucked into our sleeping bags the second that our chores were completed. Usually well before sunset.
Day two began with a 1 km climb back up to the forest trail and picking up right where we’d left off the day before. There was an option of a beach route out of camp but the timing of the tides would have kept us right up in the alga covered rocks and would have meant a 0600 roll out from camp. The 0600 roll out was not an issue but we knew from past experience that the slippery beach rocks were not much fun. Scratch that option!
The highlight of the day was the first of many cable car crossings. As we scampered up the wooden tower and dumped ourselves and our packs into the cart, Travis and I were giddy with excitement. This cable car would take us over Camper Creek, and all we had to do was just sit and enjoy the ride. OK, we did have to pull the car up to the other tower from the middle of the river, but man, what a great ride! With the two Steves pulling from the platform we blasted all the way across the water in no time. Travis and I yelled out simultaneously, to no one in particular, “suck it, ranger chick. Have you ever even been on this trail”?
We had some lunch at Camper Bay and then continued on to Cullite Cove for the night. Somewhere around here is where our daily routine began to settle in. Oatmeal and coffee for breakfast, roll up camp and hit the trail, hike steady all morning, and then stop for a nice long afternoon lunch break. Boots off, big freeze dried meal, hot coffee or tea, and then back on the trail till early evening and setting up camp. As you may have guessed, by the time we were done with dinner I was off to cozy time in my down bag. Hence the lack of beautiful sunset photographs. I don’t think any of us were even awake at sunset. We’d all zone out for a few hours, then be awake in the middle of the night for an hour or so, and then sleep till about 0530-0600. Of course I had my iPod touch filled with books, music and podcasts to entertain me. As well as my Moleskine notebook in which I was keeping a daily journal of our travels. One morning Smiley confessed that he’d been awake for hours during the night and he’s spent his time mentally redesigning his tent and practicing holding his breath. He proudly stated that his best time was 2:20, after which Travis offered him one of his crossword puzzle books. We didn’t want Steve conking out with some kind of brain tumor during the night.
Day three offered some interesting sights along the trail. We started out with another cable car crossing and then lots of ladders, mud, roots, spongy rotten broken wooden boardwalks, and tip-toeing along the tops of fallen trees… What a great “trail”.
When we got to Walbran Creek we had to ford the mouth of the stream at the ocean. Normally this would have been a simple barefooted dash across for me, but by now I was sporting a nasty little blister on each foot so once I reached the other side I tried to take a little extra time to dig the sand out from under my skin before we set out again. Well, I tried…
Our route continued along the beach for several kilometers. Beach hiking with backpacks is part art and part science. Imagine every step is slippery, off camber, or trying to grab your boots and pull them backwards. We were constantly looking ahead and evaluating the terrain, looking for some hard sandstone shelf or packed sand. In addition to that we had to factor in the tides to make sure we didn’t get “cliffed” out at any of the numerous headlands that jutted out into the sea. Many hikers have been stranded and even killed when they got trapped by the incoming tides, then couldn’t go on and realized that they couldn’t go back either.
We came upon an enormous dead Stellar’s sea lion on the beach near Pt. Vancouver. You really don’t get the sense of how big they are when all you see in the water is their head and a bit of their backs. This guy was massive, he smelled BIG too. Maggots were buzzing in and out of his eye sockets, there was a pool of decomposed sea lion juice congealing around his head, there were xxxxxxxxxxxxxxx OK, that’s quite enough. I’m sure you get the picture… But I can still smell him!
It wasn’t much farther down the beach that we saw a beautiful (live) black bear. This little 2-3 year old jet black bear was digging through the surf salad bar looking for snacks. He looked up at us, but really didn’t seem too interested in four smelly hikers. The lowering tide allowed us to walk out on the sandstone shelf a bit and skirt around him with the minimum of intrusion into his lunch break.
Speaking of lunch breaks, we were in for a special treat for our lunch break this day. Late in the afternoon we arrived at Chez Monique. What? A restaurant in the middle of a coastal wilderness trek? Yep!
The West Coast Trail crosses several First Nations Reserves along the way. Down here in the states we would think of these as Indian Reservations. Just before Carmanah Point is a small section of land belonging to the Ditidaht people. Monique, a 72 year old French Canadian woman married a Ditidaht man years ago, and has been running her little blue tarp burger stand on the beach for decades. She has become an icon of the trail.
We ordered deluxe burgers with everything on them and plopped into the plastic beach chairs to take a load off. That may have been the best $24.00 CND we’d ever spent.
Soon enough we were climbing ladders again making our way up to the Carmanah Lighthouse. One of the few lighthouses on the BC coast that is still manned by humans. We arrived as one of the lighthouse keepers was testing a hoist and winch apparatus. When she finished she kindly broke out her giant spotting scope and trained it on a sea lion haul out for us to examine all the barking pinnipeds.
Eventually we dragged into a wonderful little campsite at Cribs Creek. We had covered 18km and I’m sure I speak for everyone when I say we were kinda weary and ready to get our boots off. I wasn’t really hungry after my giant hamburger so I took care of filling my Camelback and got some water cooking in my JetBoil stove. I did a quick JetBoil bath and got tucked into my hooch for the night. I remember laying there, dry, warm, cozy, with the sun beating in against the side of my tent…the next thing I remember is walking up and it was the middle of the night. Nice!
We woke to a foggy morning and a long beach hike to Dare Point. Two things happened at Dare Pt. One: we climbed ladders back up into the forest again, and two: we’d reached the half way point of the trail. In our briefing we had heard that the second half of the trail was easier than the start, but so far that fact had been pretty well disguised by the mud, bogs, ladders and the roots we’d been scrambling up, over, under, and around.
We did find a few moments of luxury when our trail crossed through a Ditidaht reserve near the fishing village of Clo-oose. The path was smooth, wide and gentle for about 2 wonderful kilometers. When we crossed a small bridge over the Clo-oose river I understood how the river got it’s name. To the natives Clo-oose meant river of URINE! It was named for the smell, the taste, and the tannin colored water. I know what you’re thinking. Yep! We drank out of it too!
By noon we had made it to km 32 and the Nitinat Narrows. The Nitinat is a tidal estuary that floods for miles up into Nitinat Lake. Included with our hiking permit was a boat passage across the narrows so we wasted no time and climbed aboard another aluminum skiff, skippered by the very dapper, Perry. A First Nations man dressed in a sports coat and slacks, with just the right combination gold chains and missing teeth to make him irresistible to the ladies.
We were getting low on water and by asking southbound hikers we learned there might be a good water source 2 km up the trail where we had to scramble over a huge log jam. Well it turned out to be a great water source and we dropped our packs for a lunch break. We would soon be back on the beach route and we needed to relax a bit to allow the tide time to recede from the famed “Hole in the Wall”. The passage through the giant sea arch was only passable at tides below 7 feet. It was gonna be another couple of hours before we could proceed anyway.
We eventually arrived at Hole in the Wall just as the first signs of beach were uncovering with each receding wave. A first the decision was made to kick back on the rocks for an hour and let the tide fall some more before we attempted to sprint through the arch, but the next thing I know everybody is down in the surf line timing the waves, and ready to make the dash. Sheesh!
Well we cleared the hole without incident and by the time we’d hiked on to Tsusiat Falls the sun was shining brightly. Tsusiat Falls just may be the most famous camp on the trail. I’m certain that it is the most photographed place on the trail. A beautiful wide waterfall cascades down from a cliff and splashes into a pool on the beach. Travis and Ross skinned down to their boxers and went in for a swim. Any thoughts we had of camping at the falls were instantly dashed by the dozens of campers already there and the fact that the bear proof food lockers were several hundred feet up the hillside ladders. The thought of climbing up and down those ladders just to grab a quick snack had us marching on down the trail for a less crowded campsite.
And that is just what we found as we rode the cable car over the Klanawa River. The camp at the river mouth was tucked back into the salal, protected from the wind, and the ground was covered with fir needles…no blowing sand in my tent. Bonus!
The next morning when we set out on the trail our intended destination for the next camp was Michigan Creek. Michigan Creek was the last campsite on the trail before the camp at the Pachena Ranger station and the end of the hike. Somewhere along the way I made the casual suggestion that if we wanted to just pound out the last 12 km today we could hike all the way out, get a ride to the village of Bamfield. I guess the thought of showers and real food were too much to resist and the plan was set. It was gonna be 25 km but everything we’d read said that the last 12 km followed an old road. The trail was “3.6 meters wide, smooth and well maintained, following a slight downhill grade all the way to Bamfield”. OK, we could do that.
Our morning began with a nice beach walk for about 2 km. The tide was out and the tide pools held our attention like little kids. Progress was slowed by the need to look into every pool and examine every sea animal.
We stopped into the Pachena Lighthouse and watched gray whales spouting along the shoreline. Then it was time to make the final slog out to the trail’s end. Oh, and that part about the smooth 3.6 meter wide trail…absolute fantasy! I’d actually printed that from a Parks Canada web site. It could not have been any more inaccurate. We had mud, roots and massive ladder climbs right to the very end. And on top of all that it had started raining about 7 km from the end. Wow!
With a few phone calls from the trailhead pay phone, I had us lined up with reservations on the next days bus back to Port Renfrew, a ride to Bamfield, rooms in the bunkhouse, and hot showers. Oh, and there was a Pub next door to the bunkhouse. Pretty sweet!
Well that’s about it, 75 km in 5 days. We spent the next day hanging around Bamfield until the 1300 bus ride. We moved back in with Luke at Gains Beach for our final night and then at 0600 the last day it was wheels up for Victoria and the MV Coho to Port Angeles.
A final note to Travis, Steve and Steve. You guys are the best trail partners a wilderness trekker could ever ask for! Thanks for the great trip boys. Kat