The West Coast Trail
The best 50th birthday present ever!
Chances are, you are one of those people who always dreamed about hiking the West Coast Trail. Maybe you read a book about the trail, or saw a documentary. It seemed such a wild and beautiful place: how great would it be to sleep out on the beach, listening to the bark of the sea lions and the boom of the surf?! But life, as it does, got in the way and the wild west coast kept getting pushed to the bottom of your personal "to do" list. As time passed, it seemed you were never going to hoist that pack and set off through the rainforest.
That was me, on New Year's Eve, 2006 . I could hardly have arrived at 2007 more out of shape and overweight, yet if anyone had asked me what was missing from my life, I would have replied "adventure". It was time to make some changes, so I decided to launch the "A Better Janet In 2007" project, starting with a fitness class aimed at people like me...people who were starting to have trouble getting up off the danged floor. After 8 weeks I had lost 15 pounds and gained enough fitness to enroll in a circuit class. To my surprise, I not only kept up with my younger and slimmer classmates, I had great stamina and a "can do" attitude that allowed me to push hard and explore my limits. My instructors were great and my confidence soared.
After three months of circuit training, I realized that with our summer vacation and travel schedule, I was going to have to work out on my own for June, July and August. Hmmmm. How would I keep myself on the fitness trail? It ocurred to me that my 50th birthday, due to fall on September 20th, might be a handy hook on which to hang my health goals. I suggested to my husband that for my birthday he give me, not some extravagant present or party, but his support and partnership in tackling a big physical goal: hiking the 75 km West Coast Trail. It was something I had always wanted to do, but now I was not at all sure my aging carcass could withstand the training, let alone reach a point where it could carry a 40 pound pack over rough terrain for 7 days. But I decided to try. I read every book and web account on the trail I could find.
In early June, we bought hiking boots and packs. I decided to defer purchasing further gear until I was sure I could actually hike the trail. I began training with an empty pack (our wonderful Tatonka packs weigh about 5 pounds empty), and added 5 lb. a week until I reached the magic 40 lb. I hiked around our little town, including in each hike our infamous local beach stairs. I also started a learn-to-run program, making very sure to keep the progress ultra slow so as to avoid injury. I took a wilderness navigation course from Trailpeak.com, and started doing TerraCaching (which usually involves fairly long hikes). I kept up my strength training at home with free weights and a BOSU ball. We also did several trial day hikes, the most demanding of which was the gorgeous hike up into the Spring Mountains in the Mount Charleston, Nevada area to see the ancient Bristlecone Pine Tree, Raintree. That trail begins at a thin air altitude of 6000 feet, and ascends 1500 feet over three miles. It was one heck of a workout.
In late August, although still 40 pounds over my goal weight, I felt confident I had trained just enough to think I could tackle the West Coast Trail. Just. In the last week of training I squeezed in three hikes carrying 40 lb. I had no trouble on these 2-3 hour hikes, but they tired me out and I was uneasy at the prospect of carrying that heavy pack on a rougher trail, over a longer day, every day. Would lunch on the trail give me enough strength to hike the extra hours? I decided to monitor my physical progress daily on the trail, with the idea that if I just couldn't manage, I would bail at the three day mark. You can exit at the NitNat crossing by catching a ride home with the ferry operator at the end of his day, and arranging transport from the head of NitNat Lake back to civilization.
Excited, but apprehensive, we bought all the rest of our gear: the Mutha Hubba tent and footprint, Exped 7 Downmats (a bit heavy, but I knew I needed a great sleep to recover at nights), MontBlanc DownHugger sleeping bags (oh so comfy!), a SilTarp II for the inevitable rainy days, MSR's pots and pans, Superfly stove and fuel canisters (3), hiking poles (purchased last and on impulse, but one of the best purchases we made) and the nifty Katadyn Vario MicroFilter for filtering our water out of the local creeks. We tried some dried meals, made our lists and checked them twice, repacked the packs several times to get the pack weight down (end start weights were about 55 lb. for Richard, 45 for me), and decided on a provisional route. The final addition to my pack was my birthday camera...a heavy digital SLR beast with a midsize telephoto that I had to carry in my pack, carefully wrapped in a soft jacket, but I wanted nice photo quality. Alas I had no time to practice using it before we left, and every time I wanted to take a shot, Richard had to laboriously unpack the thing while I stood still. No Greater Love Hath Man...
One of the challenges of the West Coast Trail is just getting there. We live in Tsawwassen, BC. Sounds close, but it took us most of a day to get to the trailhead...either trailhead. Our injury prevention strategy was to hike the trail north to south, thinking to hike the relatively easy half of the trail while our packs were at their heaviest and our legs their least practiced. We drove to Port Renfrew, stayed at the West Coast Trail Hotel (which has the nicest imaginable pillows), ate at the Port Renfrew Pub (which has the nicest imaginable beer), and the next morning caught the 8:30 am, brilliantly driven, West Coast Trail Express (bus, aka The Vomit Comet) to the Pachena Bay (Bamfield) trailhead. We attended the 1:30 orientation, and while we had planned to spend the night in Bamfield, it was a sunny day and there was room for us to start without a reservation (we had reserved for the next day); we left right after the lecture, around 2 pm on September 12th.
In spite of the terrain being the easiest of the hike, this was one tough day. Unused to carrying packs for so long, we were exhausted. At one point a small mis-step nearly ended the trip...my pack momentum caught me off balance and I nearly pitched down a rocky 8' embankment. As we reached the Pachena Point Lighthouse at KM 10, I felt as bad as I was going to feel for the entire journey. And that's when I learned one of the most valuable of the trail's lessons: hot, sweaty, sore and further demoralized by the thick, cold fog that suddenly blew in, I was reading the lighthouse bulletin board when I saw a menu offering pop and chips. Push the buzzer, it said, and one of the keepers would come out to take your order. I had sworn off junk food months before, along with alcohol (even small amounts interfered badly with my training...ahh, the delights of creeping middle age), but the prospect of sour cream and onion chips with Coke was suddenly irresistible. I rang, the keeper got my goodies and to my amazement, after downing my high fat, high sugar snack, I felt like a new woman! I had just learned what it meant to "bonk". And how to fix it. After that, I learned to prevent it by snacking and hydrating every 90 minutes of hiking time. And bought extra Coke at every opportunity!
That night, we camped in the fog at Michigan campsite, roughly 12 km into the trail. We had planned to camp at Tscucowis Point, but it was too dark to go on. Already, we were altering our goals and schedule, something we learned smart hikers must do when things change and better information presents itself. We were lucky to camp on the south side of Michigan Creek...there is a lovely pair of tent sites there, comfortable and fairly private. The river was low, so you could rock hop across. While wood is scarce at this popular campsite, we found lots by searching the beach to the south, and had a nice fire. We began our traditional camp approach that night: arrive and immediately make tea on the Superfly, have a quick snack, then set up the tent and make dinner. I slept like a baby that night, and every other, and never realized that Richard, who is truly bear-phobic, woke up all night to check he had bear spray and bear bangers at hand. He kept all this to himself, so I could enjoy my wonderful trip without a worry in the world. That, ladies and gents, is True Love. Especially as I was so tired I snored like a trooper, and he couldn't be sure the awful noise was me or some slavering ursine preparing to rip the tent wall aside and dine on Fresh Hiker...
Next morning I noticed someone had placed a pack of cigarettes and a
bic lighter in the potty...presumably for the enjoyment of all those
who subsequently sat to take their ease? It struck me as a very sweet
gesture, not that I imagine many WCT buffs are smokers.
After a bracing pot of coffee (we used a filter that fits inside a wide mouthed Nalgene bottle) and a big bowl of oatmeal and fruit, we filled our water bottles (2 litres each) and set off on the next leg. Just as we prepared to leave, a fellow camper ran past us yelling "There's a bear on the beach! A large bear! A very large bear!" Peeking southward along the route we planned to hike, there was indeed a bear on the beach, a smallish black bear who was supremely uninterested in all us hoomans. He was making for a small creek and quickly disappeared into the forest. Undaunted, we hoisted on our packs and hit the beach hike, where I promptly had my first and only fall, on the slippery rock shelf. I took my eyes off my feet for a second and suddenly found myself flat on my back. Both elbows hit hard but the pack saved me and I had no more than bruises. Good thing I followed conventional wisdom and packed the light, bulky items to the bottom and outside of my pack. Chastened, and getting out the shiny new hiking poles, we hiked to Tsusiat Falls, a total of 13 km.
Tsusiat Falls campsite is spectacularly beautiful, and as the hike was short, we got there in time to swim (the sun was out, and hot), clean up and do a spot of laundry. While swimming, I turned around just as a fellow hiker reached into his trunks to lather his naughty bits. We were both startled but then I grinned and we both burst out laughing. I turned away to let him have his privacy but it was a nice moment, and illustrated one of the loveliest side benefits of this hike: you meet so many very nice, unpretentious and congenial persons along the way. Richard also magicked a small bottle of champagne out of his pack for me, a congratulation for doing so well on training and the trail. He's a nice man! We sat comfortably cuddled up on the still warm sand, backs against a huge driftwood log, and sipped our champagne while the sun sank, orange and pink, into the sea. This was the West Coast we had dreamed of.
On Day 3, we had a big hike in front of us. On this mid-section of the WCT, you are pretty much forced to put in a long day on the trail, especially as Cheewat campsite had been closed all season due to fears an habituated bear was hanging out there. The only official destination for the day was Cribs. A remarkable 17 kilometres away. Oy vey.
It was a tough day, but interesting too. As we hiked down the beach, we noticed a long line of tracks, just below the high tide line. Sometime in the wee hours, a pack of 5 wolves had trotted down the beach, and headed up a small creek just south of our campsite. We pushed on, delighted to think of our close encounter. We planned a rest stop at NitNat, and found the sections bracketing the NitNat crossing some of the toughest on the trail. It was such relief to reach the river and stop at the ferry float for a delicious lunch grilled up by Doug. Doug's NitNat crab is outstanding, the best crab I have ever eaten. I can't wait to have another! We decided to order both the crab plate and the salmon plate. By this time, we were starting to enjoy the massive food lust that hiking hard for hours a day produces. When the salmon plate arrived, we were ecstatic to find it came with a large roasted potato and butter. OMFG.
Do they ever get out of the ferry? Doug's good beasts at Nitnat.
After lunch, ask Doug if he would show you the teeming schools of fish under the dock. A fisherman himself, Doug has found that years of dumping crab shellings off the wharf have attracted species you would not otherwise see, and he can help the ichthyologically challenged among you identify the dock denizens. I spent a happy half hour on my tummy on the dock, peering into the depths. Also be sure to sit down with that blessed tin of icy Coke and browse through Doug's wonderful photo album. All kinds of creatures have swum up the river to the crab shack. I only wish those photos were scanned and posted online somewhere. Like Doug, they are treasures.
Leaving NitNat, we ascended up the headland and into The Swamp. Here, Richard decided he could tiptoe across a log, avoiding a particularly nasty mudhole I myself had chosen to negotiate. As I squelched into the mudhole, I said to him, "You are a brave man." At which point he promptly fell over into the swamp. Happily, he managed to hook his right leg over a log at the last moment , and saved himself a complete ducking in the ooze. It earned him the 2007 "Most Excellent Bruise Award" ...he had a pie-plate sized torrid purple sunset on the back of his knee for the next week.
This was also the day I learned that yes, Virginia, you and your pack do fit into the outhouse and you can pee without taking your pack off. I had read in other trip accounts that hikers find taking the pack off an enormous pain, and I was incredulous. Who wouldn't want to get that 40 pound beast off any time you could? Well, everyone. Getting the pack off is not worth what you have to do to get it back on. You are hiking, you are tired, and slugging that thing on and off is Too Much Work!
By the time we reached Cheewat, the baked potato and butter were wearing off. After a summer of no campers, I was inclined to stop there anyway, sure the bear had moved on, but Richard smoothly suggested we keep going: we had some energy left, and we hiked on to Cribs. A nice enough place, it has a lovely sand beach, is large, and brimming with firewood. But the surf crashes onto the offshore reef there and I found the scenery rather forbidding. We awoke to the usual morning weather: deep, drippy fog. By now we had a good departure routine going: have coffee, eat, clean up in the stream, pack up, filter the day's drinking water and flavour it with Gatorade crystals, pack your pockets with granola bars for snacks, and any other necessaries (like toilet paper rations) for the day, and visit the potty one last time.
I should also mention that every morning before we put our hiking socks and boots on, we spent a few moments dressing our feet. By the second day, we both had some smallish blisters, and were finding the sheer pressure of us + packs was making the bottom of our right big toes sensitive. We carried several blister aids, in particular moleskin, blister pads and duct tape. Dr. Scholl's Blister Treatment pads won the treatment wars handily, with duct tape a surprisingly close second. We settled on dressing blisters and hot spots with the Dr. Scholl's pads (they are oval bandaid looking things with a gel centre), and the pressure sensitive big toes were fine if wrapped in a single layer of duct tape to prevent any sock/toe friction during the day. BTW, the big toes stayed numb for weeks after the hike...
By the time we pulled into camp at night, our feet were damp and soft. We would change into beach sandals to let our feet breathe and dry out, toasting them well by the fire. Before booting up in the morning, we carefully made sure that all blisters and sore spots were dry and dressed, and that feet were ENTIRELY sand-free before going into dry socks. The boots were shaken well and any little bits clinging to the lining were picked out before going on.
Choosing boots and socks is quite an art. After trying on several pairs of boots, we both agreed Meindl boots felt by far the best. In spite of varying advice on the subject (in particular a sniffy, self aggrandizing lecture from an annoying shop clerk at a destination outdoor store who when we asked his advice on WCT footwear, rolled his eyes and said HE only did the trail in running shoes...sputtering with rage, I took a deep breath and took my business elsewhere...), we found big, stiff approach boots were crucial in protecting toes and ankles. You can tackle some serious terrain and remain very steady on your feet with the hefty boot construction. And we trained in our boots to ensure our feet got tough in all the right places...no pedicures while training! But it took me quite a while to find the perfect socks. I finally settled on two sorts that seemed to work well on uphills and downhills, and that stayed in place all day. I was happiest in a pair of eco-wash wool/synthetic blend socks. We also wore gaiters. Mine have a small snap on the back, at the top of the gaiter, where it chafed the back of my knee. Most annoying.
We left Cribs early...mostly because the weather was nasty and I really didn't like the place. I had planned at least one rest day on the trail, in order to either heal from or prevent overuse injury, so we decided we'd do a short, 4 km. hike to Carmanah Creek and the campsite there. One of the toughest climbs on the trail is the ascent from the beach to the lighthouse at Carmanah Point, but we managed it in sections and in due course arrived at the world famous bistro-on-the-beach, Chéz Monique.
Here we spent a delightful hour or two stuffing ourselves with Monique's yummy burgers (beef or the ling cod caught fresh that morning by her husband) and exchanging pleasantries with everyone coming and going. Monique also sold Cokes (for me) and beer (for everyone else), fresh fruit, candy and Toblerones. She is a fascinating lady, engaging and opinionated. These days she spends the winters in town with her adult children, doting on her two year old grandson, but in spite of not being particularly well (congestive heart failure and recently a sprained ankle) she loves to spend her summers here on the beach feeding hikers. The day we stopped in, her husband along with employee Mikey were doing the cooking. Mikey hiked through one day and sort of never left...I don't blame him. Recently re-arrived from a tour of South America, Mikey is full of stories. I could have stayed for days, talking to these three. It is quite a life they have chosen.
Monique warned us that Carmanah was over-run with seagulls and so it was. The stench was truly astonishing, so in spite of the fact that Carmanah Creek is drop-dead gorgeous (and we had hoped to hike up the creek 2 km to see the Carmanah Giant), we pushed on to Bonilla Point.
Ahhh, Bonilla Point. My favourite campsite on the trip, in spite of the outrageous lack of a composting potty! Because this site is situated below a small cliff, the sea cave to the north is the only logical and private place to commune with Mother Nature and it has become a bit...objectionable. Time for Parks Canada to put a potty here. Anyway, the sun came out for us and we were delighted to find a small waterfall tucked in behind the camp, replete with an icy cold pool to swim in. Our friend Gerhardt (from Metchosin) and his cousin Connie and her husband Hycho (from Germany) pulled in a while later and we had a riotous reunion, having met on the bus up from Port Renfrew. Gerhardt disappeared with his towel and Campsuds and shortly we heard truly horrible screaming coming from the waterfall. Richard and I fell down laughing: we had already had our bath, and the water was achingly cold. But as the screaming continued, growing in volume and agony, I turned to Richard and said, "Jeepers honey, what if Gerhardt is being mauled by a bear?!"
Gerhardt survived, and that night built us one of his signature massive bonfires. A group of Americans pulled in after a dinner at Monique's, and it turned out one of their members, Erik, was celebrating his birthday that day. We all sang Happy Birthday, and I must say, Gerhardt has a fine singing voice too! Erik mentioned that he was quite disgusted at all the garbage the hikers leave on the beach....until we explained the plastic bottles you find here and there are mostly washed in from the fishing fleets offshore. The next morning, I collected two plastic containers covered in Japanese writing. Their fleet works our offshore as well.
We meant to stay an extra night at Bonilla, and I really wish we had as there are two lovely points to explore at low tide. But the travel bug was on us so we packed up and headed out in the morning. Maybe it was the prospect of facing the sea cave once more?...anyway, we thought we would hike on to Walbran Creek campsite (which has the nicest potty on the trail, and a great swimming spot) and stay there. Alas, the seagulls had moved in here too, and it smelled, if possible, even worse than Carmanah Creek . No way was I going to scrub up in that mass of feathers and floating poo. So we took some photos, including my favourite shot ever of Richard:
Isn't he a handsome devil?
And we pushed on another 3 km to Logan Creek. Interestingly, that's my hiking pole in the photo above. Richard hiked with two, and as a life long downhill skier he felt completely comfortable, but I hated managing two poles, preferring to hike with just the one pole, leaving a hand free for balancing or holding onto things. Dang! If I had left my extra pole at home I could have put the sugar and coffee creamer back into my pack!
Incidentally, I found that as the hike progressed, Richard, and all the other gentlemen looked better and better...the beard and the mud seems to suit them. It is monstrously unfair, but the reverse seems to be true for the ladies. I had already chosen comfort over glamour, hiking in a hairstyle and wardrobe I wouldn't be caught dead in at home, but I was painfully aware I looked worse every day. Generally, you meet hikers at mid-day, when you are halfway between campsites. In spite of starting the day clean and tidy, by noon I would be covered in mud and soaked with sweat. Mercifully, I had elected to leave the mirror at home...I saw all I needed to in the expressions of the people we passed.
On the Logan Creek suspension bridge. Mud from here to there and having a great time!
As we crossed the suspension bridge over Logan Creek, we noticed a rather scruffy gentleman standing nonchalant at the other end. He ignored us, rather pointedly, and seemed to be examining his manicure. Dressed in a tux and smoking an imported cheroot, he would have been entirely in his element. Stopping to chat, we realized that he was part of a party of three from the New York area. The remaining two were struggling down the ladders and insisted "Dad", our friend on the bridge, had nothing heavier in his pack than crumpled pages of the New York Times. They congratulated me on my birthday, took a lovely snap of us on the bridge (the only extant proof Richard and I did the West Coast Trail together!), and carried on. Laughing, we were about to ascend the big ladder set on the south side of the bridge when we noticed a small unmarked stairway leading down. Was this the trail to Logan campsite? Who knew? We ventured down, and realized there was a bear cache and potty at the bottom of the ladder. Yay! We scurried down and set up camp.
Wow, did I love Logan! Tons of driftwood collects in this small bay, and even more wood washes down the creek in the winter runoff. I spent some very happy hours exploring the massive piles of trees and drift, and even found a huge old logging trestle bridge that must have come down the creek at some point. The timbers in the bridge are enormous. As the tide was out, I was able to walk around the point, busily collecting washed up fishing floats, which everyone strings up to mark campsites and beach accesses. I was especially fortunate to find a perfectly clean and intact 5 gallon plastic mayonnaise bucket that had washed in off a fishing boat. Not only did this spare me squatting by the creek to filter water (my knees were pretty thrashed by now), but I could now take a civilized bucket bath, warm water and all. Heaven! Logan Creek is especially fine for bathing as it has a sandstone bed, and large, rounded pools have been worn into the sandstone by rocks bumped by the current.
Most of the campsites have a creek or pool in which you can take a nightly bath. We carried Campsuds and every night I chose a chilly dip in the creek over going to bed sticky and sweaty. Happily, in September privacy is easy to come by, and the night we camped at Logan, we pulled in early and had the place to ourselves. I had a good, long scrub, then a nice cup of tea, and just as we were getting dinner ready, an enormous pod of killer whales passed by. They were quite far out, but we could still see their fins and spouts. There were well over 20 animals, and it took quite a while for them all to pass through. We had a gorgeous fire that night, and got everything cleaned off and dried out. Good thing.
Toward dawn, the heavens opened and the monsoon arrived.
We packed up quickly, keeping things as dry as possible. For the first time we fished our rain gear out and donned jackets and pants. Within an hour, in spite of the rain, I pulled off the jacket. I was getting uncomfortably hot, even with all zippers open, and it was better to hike wet in a wicking tee than hot in a goretex jacket. I kept the rainpants on because we were slogging through one of the worst sections of the trail, the approach to Camper Bay campsite. Passing through the bogs on the headlands, we did see lovely sundew plants. Any wet and sunny spot in the bogs has small colonies of them. But the root and mud sections were truly abysmal.
We had, based on information from other hikers, decided to hike past Camper and its comforts to Beach Access B. This would allow us to camp close to Owen Point, which can only be rounded at tides of 1.8 m. or less. In the morning, there would be a tide of 1.7 m. That's cutting things rather fine, as we would only have a brief window to round the point. The sections bracketing Camper are probably the toughest the West Coast Trail has to offer. Coming down the long and treacherous incline into Camper my legs were tired and I was only grateful I was not having to ascend the very rudimentary and treacherous path. Happily the creek was dry enough we could rock hop across it (as we did all but the first two cable crossings...it was just beastly hauling ourselves and our gear across the rivers on the cable cars, I hated them). Hilariously, a group was having a terrible time crossing on the cable car. As we arrived, they were all shouting at the last member, who was alone in the cable car hauling herself across. They had lots of bad advice, all the more ridiculous as they could all have just pulled on the cable and helped her; you don't need to be in the cable car to haul it across. I called up to her and said her mates could give her a hand, and she replied they didn't seem inclined to help. If I had companions like that, I called, I'd be hiking on alone! She laughed, but it really wasn't very funny. Her crew, squabbling at each other like a pack of noisy, distractable puppies, failed to take the hint. And it was only their second day out. Oh my.
On the other side of the creek we met a new pair of hikers. They were miserable, wet and cold. One was soaked to the skin, and they asked desperately how much further it was to the campsite. They had left Thrasher that morning and arrived late at Owen Point, but unwilling to backtrack and take the ladder set back up to the main trail at Thrasher, decided to push through. Even the point shelf was awash, and one of them slipped and fell into the surf. Dangerous stuff. She managed to get out and back onto the shelf, but she and her gear were totally soaked in icy seawater. It cannot have been fun to hike the next, very taxing, 5 km dripping wet...in the rain. We told them Camper was lovely, and just around the corner. They said how cold they were and we suggested they build a great big fire, drink lots of hot tea and dry out. Exhausted and teary, as they turned to go, one said miserably "this pack is so heavy". I patted her on the arm and said the terrain will get easier and your pack will get lighter (thinking....once you get past the next few kilometres, that is). She said she hoped so, and as she crossed the creek, disappearing into the trees, I looked back and noticed her pack was fitted all wrong. It was hanging loose and way too low. I had spend a careful hour refitting my own pack on our second day, making it ride extremely high and tight. It was far more comfortable and less unwieldy when adjusted that way. I hope someone helped her with that.
Which, if I may digress, brings me to the topic of Hiking Companions. Richard and I have been married yea and verily these 21 years and more, and we get along like a house on fire. As we hiked the trail, many times we would be chattering away, giggling our heads off over some silly joke when hikers would appear ahead of us on the trail, grim and silent. I cannot emphasize how important compatibility is on the West Coast Trail. You are pushing yourself to your physical limit, and I think any sort of strain or irritation would easily magnify and become intolerable. It is important not just to get along well, but to keep a positive, team oriented outlook, and take active good care of one another. Encouragement from your hiking companions can make all the difference on a day when you are struggling.
We were very fortunate when we hiked that the campsites were virtually empty. However, two nights ahead of us on the trail was a large group hiking south. We never bumped into them, but they made quite an impression. Anyone who had shared a campsite with them was ticked off. The large group liked to party, at top volume, well into the night, and their guide had a penchant for wandering the campsite clad only in his Speedo. The general consensus was that he should have chosen alternate evening attire.
Midway along the trail we bumped into a second large, all female group headed north. It was late in the day and, dressed for a day of hiking and afternoon tea in Stanley Park, they were headed into a multi-kilometre stretch devoid of campsites. Where are you camping tonight, we asked. The older lady in front barked "I don't' know." Hmmm. Where did you start this morning, we asked. "I have NO IDEA!" she growled. Well, we said, have a good one! The ladies behind her looked embarrassed, but resigned. Their guide, bringing up the rear, looked harried. We chatted with him briefly while the Tartar led the group on. He had a secret spot to camp in somewhere around Clo-oose, and when we asked quietly how things were going, he replied, heavily, "It's not raining." We all laughed then. Poor man. I hope he had a stash of single malt in that secret camping spot...
A charming example of prime West Coast Trail terrain...
Back to where I Ieft off, with the soaked pair heading off across Camper Creek, we pondered the folly of attempting Owen Point on a high and rising tide. It is worth noting that on almost all of the beach hikes, hiking at high tide is a nasty experience. Above the tide line you often have deep sand or deep gravel. These soft, yielding surfaces vastly reduce your hiking efficiency and are exhausting. On our next WCT attempt, we will time our hike for very low tides, when the firmer (and more zoologically interesting) subtidal terrain is exposed. In general, the inland trails are easier to hike than the beaches above the high tide line.
Having successfully negotiated the miserable post-Camper terrain, we passed Beach Access A, which was uninspiring but dry. Too late, we arrived at Beach Access B, and realized A was a palace by comparison: we should have stopped at Camper. Beach Access B is a muddy hole carved out of the salal: dark, dank and dreary. Don't ever stay there! There is no place to build a fire and no wood to build it with. It also lacks "facilities" as well as any easy spot to "facilitate" in...good luck, by the way, with Parks Canada's cheery advice to walk off the trail "three boxcar lengths" to relieve yourself. On many sections of the trail, this is a sheer impossibliity. Beach Access B is a case in point, but it was too late to change our plans as dusk was beginning to fall, so we resigned ourselves to peeing on the beach shelf, swept out as much water from the campsite as we could, set up camp (using our SilTarp for the first time) and quickly cooked a big, hot, noodley dinner. We had a wee bit of scotch left, thank heaven, and felt a lot better after a meal and a tot. What a long, hard day it had been!
As darkness fell and we prepared for the night, I happened to be gazing through the cut in the salal when I noticed a pair of hikers passing by on the beach. I exclaimed to Richard that there were hikers going by, and he thought I was having a bit of a joke. But I insisted they were there, packs and all. The shelf there is treacherous, not only horribly slippery, but it slopes down to the crashing surf. This is no place to be tottering along at nightfall. I was terrified they were heading off to do Owen Point in the dark and at the wrong tide, so Richard sprinted down to the shelf and convinced them to come up and camp with us for the night (Beach Access B has two muddy little pits to camp in). They were heading for 150 Yard Creek, about a half kilometre along the beach, having heard there were nice campsites there. As far as we could see the next day, there are one or two spots where the trail crosses the creek, but that's about a quarter a messy kilometre up from the beach. No place to be bushwhacking in the dark and the rain.
Unimpressed with our hovel, and lacking a waterproof tent, they decided they would head back along the trail to the drier Beach Access A. But they returned in a few minutes. They had no flashlights or headlamps and the trail was pitch black. Glumly, they confessed they were wet through and through, and had forgotten to waterproof their boots before hitting the trail. Most of their borrowed gear was below par. They were in a pretty miserable state. We urged them to have a big dinner and get right into bed, afraid to ask if their beds and bags were dry.
Our own gear came up trumps that night. Carefully stripping off our muddy, wet things at the tent door, we had two large vestibules to keep boots and packs out of the rain without having to sleep with them. We had been using our pack rain covers all day, now one went below our stuff to keep it out of the puddles, and one went over in case the vestibule blew open or leaked in the night. We strung our headlamps from the gear loft and gratefully changed into our warm, dry, clean polypropylene long johns and fuzziest socks, snuggling into our DownHugger bags on top of our Exped DownMats. I had the best sleep of the trip that miserable night, perfectly warm and dry.
The next morning it was foggy and raining. Reluctantly, we decided hiking Owen Point in that sort of weather was too dangerous, so we opted for the forest trail, in spite of having been told in no uncertain terms that it was a beast. Well, it was a beast, but a familiar one. As Richard said to me that morning, we don't know what the beach is like but we know we are good in mud. And we were. At one point we passed a couple just starting their hike. To our trail-conditioned noses, they absolutely reeked of fabric softener! I guess we reeked too...of things less pleasant; maybe that's why they were rather cool and uncommunicative, tee hee. Having got up early to make the tide at Owen Point, we arrived at the Thrasher turnoff at 11:30 am. We had intended to climb down the famous Thrasher ladders and camp there for the night, but the sun was starting to shine and we felt in really good shape. We weighed the prospect of another rainy night against that of a hot shower and a restaurant dinner: no contest! So in spite of the daunting reputation of the Thrasher-Gordon River Trailhead section, we pushed on.
And we made great time. This section, admittedly easier to hike north to south than otherwise, had some steep ascents, but was relatively straightforward and is only 5 km long. It is tough, and you have to mind your footing carefully, and there are a couple of big challenges if you are under 6 feet. I stopped at one spot and wailed "What are the hobbits supposed to do?!" I only got up that step by levering myself sideways and pushing off and up from the horizontal. This section is also quite boring; all dreary open second growth forest, and no views. That said, along parts of the trail the thick old telegraph wire from the 1800's is still visible. It has fallen down but is in remarkably good shape. And the donkey engine you pass is a very interesting bit of equipment. I thought about all the men who had worked here: it must have been brutally hard labour, logging these steep, dark slopes. I also imagined the people, men, women and children, for whom the trail was built. Survivors of shipwrecks, they too passed this way, long before me.
At last, we heard the drone of a boat engine and dogs barking in the distance...the final descent into Gordon River. It seemed to take forever, but we broke through the trees and saw Gerhardt and crew waiting for the ferry. I was so proud of myself! Arriving at this spot took not just months of training, but a new vision of myself and what I could do. Richard bowed to me and (contrary to our usual hiking style) gestured me to go ahead. I curtsied, and sashayed down the last few feet of the trail. There were high fives all around and victorious finish photos. We were tired, sore, sweaty, stinky...
...and gloriously, gloriously happy!
We signed out, got a ride back to the Hotel and had a long, hot, soapy, oh-so-fabulous shower...it had been 48 hours since my Logan Creek bucket bath. Then we dressed in nice, impractical clothes and met Gerhardt and crew for halibut and sweet potato fries at Port Renfrew's Coastal Kitchen Café. Man, what a menu! We could have eaten there for a week, and the proprietors have an album of exquisite photos they took while on a trip to India. Well worth a browse over a fine meal.
We compared trail notes and agreed that there are three variables on the West Coast Trail:
1. Weather. Out of your control, but if you print off the 10 day forecast (we found Neah Bay 's the most accurate; click on detail and you get an extended forecast) just before you leave, at least you have an idea what to expect.
2. Your fitness level. You do control this one! You need to have a certain level of fitness, and be up to carrying a heavy pack for long distances, but the prime requisite for completing the West Coast Trail is not so much aerobic fitness or skill level, but raw stamina. That said, the more fit you are, the less chance of injury. As you hike the trail you are levering yourself up and over small to medium sized, and sometimes very large, obstacles. All day long. This means your knees and quads must lift, lift, lift. In planning your training hikes, choose routes or training routines that build that skill.
3. Your gear. Gear choice can have a huge impact on both comfort and safety. Expensive gear is lighter and that means you carry less weight, reducing injury potential. Being reliably warm, dry and sound asleep at night is important to your daily recovery. And you have to carry enough high quality calories to keep you strong and alert. We carried 21 pounds of food between the two of us. Our usual hiking snack was Sweet and Salty granola bars, mostly because they are delicious. We never got tired of them. Mealtime nutrition was more exacting. We fortified our morning oatmeal with protein powder, flax meal, dried fruit, and powdered milk. Our lunches were usually hot. Our favourite breakfast/lunch was whole wheat tortillas spread with rehydrated refried black beans and the bacon that is precooked, packaged in plastic, which cooks in seconds. Everyone loved that dish.
For dinner we usually had an entree from Backpacker's Pantry. They were really good, especially the Turkey Alfredo. Another great dinner was a side of flavoured Idahoan instant mashed potatoes topped with rehydrated veggies, tinned chicken and gravy made from a small package. Most people on the trail ate two entree servings a night. We shared the 2 serving size, but also snacked. One night we asked some other campers what they were having for dinner...they said instant rice and instant gravy. That is NOT what your body needs! I think paying close attention to your meal choices will pay off in terms of feeling good the next day. We carried a lot of chocolate, and to my amazement, Richard had packed a small plastic bottle of scotch, but every night before we fell asleep we shared a protein bar. I felt having a tummy full of protein would likely support the nighttime tissue rebuilding process.
I have read that on a hike of this nature, your calorie needs double. I would also say that your need for quality food increases as well. We missed fresh fruit and veggies, which do not lend themselves to multi-day packing. I was sure to incorporate into our meals and snacks increased amounts of everything: carbohydrates (both low and high glycemic index sources...one for the long, slow burn, one for the quick jolt of energy), fats and proteins. I also find that on long workouts, having dilute Gatorade in my water bottle prevents nausea. We used ibuprofen freely and found a dose at bedtime helped us stay comfortable and asleep. In spite of being very well fed, I lost about 10 lb over the week we were out, and was surprised to note a huge gain in muscle as well (particularly legs and back). Even after two days stuffing ourselves at Sooke Harbour House (replenishing our glycogen stores!) we came home more trim and fit. Which, incidentally, points up not only the importance of regular back-country trips, but implies that even a fairly heavy training regimen at home pales in comparison to The Real Thing.
You have two opportunities on the trail to order up a hot meal, at the NitNat ferry crossing and at Chéz Monique (in both places, by the way, you need cash...about $20-30 per person, per meal, depending on your appetite for treats and beer). Uncertain they would be open so late in the year, we packed food for those meals, plus an extra day, just in case, so we walked out with about 5 lb./2 days of food left. If the weather had been better we would have extended our trail time and eaten that extra food!
What would we do differently?
-Carry a second box of Blister Treatment
-Carry a folding bucket to make water filtration easier
-Pack the waterproofing wax for our boots.
-Make sure that wherever we camped, we could build a nice driftwood fire to dry out by.
-Take along some multivitamin/mineral pills as we felt low on Vitamin C.
That's it. We congratulated ourselves that we did our homework, trained adequately, geared up well (we read a LOT of gear reviews and solicited advice on Trailpeak.com), and exercised good judgement on the trail.
My one regret....we didn't take an extra day or two to enjoy the place!
Have fun when you go. Enjoy the West Coast Trail, it is everything you dreamed it would be.