From the Archives – West Coast Trail Part 1

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Hard to believe it was almost 2 years ago that me and the Elf hiked the West Coast Trail. Here is a report from our archives as we get ready for the Kootenay Rockwall next month.

JULY 29 – DAY -1: CALGARY TO VANCOUVER

After months of planning and anticipation, our West Coast Trail adventure had finally arrived. Since moving back to Calgary in 2013, me and the elf had been doing our annual “epic” backpacking trips. Past trips years haven’t been as successful as we’d have liked due to weather (Aster Lake), or overcrowding (Assiniboine), but the WCT looked ideal.

Flying out after work I landed in Vancouver and stayed the night at the Elf’s place. One of our goals for this year was to reduce our pack weights as much as possible. Previous trips had us each carrying packs in the mid to low 50 lbs. and we realized that we were just bringing too much duplicate gear. In the end we managed to get our packs down to the low 30’s before food, water and fuel, with fully loaded weights in the mid 40’s.

One area we really cut down on was our cooking system. No bowls or plates this time, just a long spoon and a cup (which worked out really well). Breakfasts and dinners were dehydrated meals with only bars, candy and trail mix for snacks and lunch. We had planned for 7 days on the trail, with food for an 8th day contingency. I grabbed my last shower and crawled into the last real bed I’d see for a week.

JULY 30 – DAY 0 – VANCOUVER TO GORDON RIVER

We were up at 6:00am to catch the 8:30 ferry to Nanaimo out of Horseshoe Bay. Our plan was to make the 2:00pm orientation at Gordon River (note that orientations now take place twice a day at 10:00 and 2:00) and hike the trail south to north starting the following morning. Based on the Elf’s past experience (he did the trail in 2007), we were hoping to avoid the climb down to Thrashers and make it to Campers Creek the first day.

The ferry and drive were uneventful and we made it through Nanaimo and Port Renfrew with plenty of time to spare. We spent our lunch at the Coastal Kitchen Café and enjoyed the nice weather.

The orientation was pretty straightforward, with the main warning about lack of easily accessible fresh water between Cribbs and Nitnat due to drought BC was experience (driest summer on the island in 30 years). We talked to a few of the folks coming in, and heard that a guy was in the process of running the trail. We bumped into him at the Pacheedaht Campground that evening and heard he had finished the entire 75km trail in just over 18 hours (still a far cry from the hard to imagine record of 9.5 hours!!!!!).

We checked into the campground, set up and hiked down to Botany Bay on the Juan de Fuca trail. It was surreal watching whales play in the distance while the sun went down. After a quick stop by the pier in Port Renfrew we rolled into our sleeping bags.

Pacific Rim National Park Reserve of Canada West Coast Trail Info Centre

JULY 31 – DAY 1 – GORDON RIVER TO CAMPER BAY

We set an early 6:00am alarm so we could tear down camp, pack up and grab our breakfast in Port Renfrew before hitting the trail. We took advantage of Evann’s lot right across from the information center and climbed aboard the 8:45am ferry across Gordon River. At the trailhead we took the customary photos and started our climb into the coastal rainforest.

Planning our first day had always been a conundrum, on one hand Parks Canada and Blisters and Bliss recommended avoiding pushing to Campers on the first day, but on the other hand 6km with 180m of elevation seemed like pretty a slack day and we knew that the campsite at Thrashers wasn’t exactly the nicest place on the trail. At least with low early morning tides we knew that we could hike around Owen’s point and avoid having to climb back up to the trail. This was the main reason we had decided to come in a day early so we could do the orientation, take the early ferry and have flexibility on the first day.

The staff at the info center provided a rule of thumb indicating it typically takes the same amount of time to hike from the trailhead to the junction for Thrashers as it does to hike from there to Campers. Based on this we decided that 2:00pm would be our decision point. If we made it to the junction before 2:00, we would proceed to Campers, otherwise it would be down to Thrashers.

The morning was nice enough, fairly technical with a lot of roots to navigate both up and down. My hiking poles made a huge difference, but I lost both rubber tips in mud before lunch. The Elf took a good spill and bent his pole, but thankfully was uninjured (it turned out to be the worst slip of the trip). Compared to some of my hikes in the Rockies I found the trail fairly easy to follow, but it was slow going, averaging about 1km/hr. The roots, mud, and constant need to watch where you were stepping really impacted our pace. Of course at 2:00 on the dot, we came to the junction down to Thrashers (so much for our decision point).We sat down and talked through if we wanted to proceed to Campers or not. Figuring another 5 hours (using the rule of thumb) would bring us in at 7:00pm we decided to proceed. We chatted with a German couple who were trying to make the same decision, but in their case they were deciding between taking the trail, or the beach/boulder route around Owens point.

The tide table looked unfavorable but they decided to head down to Thrashers and wait it out if they needed to. In hindsight, it would have been better to take an early day at Thrashers as it took us much longer than the 5 hours we expected to make it to Campers. While the trail became more down than up, we found a lot more mud (even during this dry year) and considerably more deadfall to navigate. It was a good sign that several bridges on this section had been recently replaced (could even smell the fresh cedar sawdust), which made for some nice crossings along the way. Around 7:00pm we encountered the only rain we would experience on the trail (about 12 seconds of light sprinkles), which means we’ll need to come back some day to really “earn” our WTC experience. With darkness closing in we stumbled into Campers around 10:00pm (still much better than our 2013 hike into Aster Lake when we arrived just before midnight).

We set up the camp, filtered our water for the next day, and grabbed some Cliffbars for dinner (too exhausted to make up a hot meal). Sitting around the campfire for a bit, we realized the record holder for the WCT had finished it in less time than it took for us to make it to Campers.

During the rest of our trip we talked to a few folks who had hiked the tail before, and most suggested that a better rule of thumb was to take your pace from Gordon River to the junction and extrapolate that to the remaining section to Campers (particularly if you’re doing it in a single day). In our case a constant 1km/h took us 13 hours to hike the 13km.

Dwarf and Elf ready to hit the trail

Ready to hit the trail

75km to go on the West Coast Trail

75km to go

First Ladder on the West Coast Trail

First ladder

AUG 1 – DAY 2 – CAMPER BAY TO WALBRAN 

At 5:30am we realized that we had made a mistake (not the tide), but that our tent was right next to the main path through camp. With folks starting to pack up and chat next to us we laid in our bags hoping for another hour or two of sleep, but gave up after half an hour. Less than 6 hours of sleep and 13 hours of hiking the day before made it fairly rough. We did take solace in knowing that 2 of the 3 hardest “days” were behind us.

I ended up eating my dinner from the night before and watched the imposing fog bank just off shore send wisps of mist over the campsite. We talked with the German couple from the day before and found that their trip down to Thasher’s and Owen Point had worked out well and that they had only needed to wait 30 min for the tides to go down. This was our first (of several) experiences with realizing that the recommended tide levels for certain portions of the trail were perhaps conservative, particularly in the ideal weather we were having. We also chatted with a few other folks who would become familiar faces over the next few days.

Reflecting on the day before, we decided that next time we would either split the first day in two, or take the beach route around Owen Point. Hitting the trail just after 9:00am we would later call today the “sampler”. Between Campers and Walbran you experience a little bit of everything, ladders to start the day, ladders in the middle (including the big climbs down and back up at Cullite and Logan Creek) and ladders at the end, boardwalks of varying quality (we eventually developed our own rating system for the boardwalks, ranging from category 1 for virtually new, to 5 for rotting piles of wood), roots, mud, balancing on fallen trees across ravines, a cable car across Cullite (my first), and the suspension bridge at Logan Creek. It was neat to see the suspension bridge terminate into the side of a cliff with the ladder built right on top of it.

Again the weather was ideal and we made decent time, coming into Walbran around 6:00pm. With more time we sat down for a proper dinner and campfire, socializing with several folks heading north and south, including a friendly mom from Toronto who was soloing the trail. We eventually got to think that she might have the right idea in how she attacked the trail. Most mornings she’d get up at 4:30 or so, hike a few hours, grab breakfast, hike some more, have a nap on the beach, hike again, maybe have lunch, have another nap, and get into the next camp around 7:00. A very laid back approach.

One thing the Elf noticed this time around was that evening campfires were a lot more fragmented. During his last trip he observed that virtually everyone congregated around one big fire, while this time there were 7-8 fires going with each group largely staying to itself.

We decided to turn in early and catch up on our sleep. It was a good feeling knowing that the hardest parts of the trail were behind us.

Logan Creek - West Coast Trail

Logan creek

Ravine Crossing - West Coast Trail

Ravine crossing

View out to the pacific - West Coast Trail

Out to the Pacific

Beach at sunset - West Coast Trail

AUG 2 – DAY 3 – WALBRAN TO CRIBBS CREEK

Having picked a better place for our tent, we slept in till 7:30am. The rhythmic sound of the waves crashing on the beach made for a very restful sleep. Opening our fly, we were greeted with a thick wall of fog (the only morning it decided not to remain offshore). Our fly was soaked, but we had brought an extra stuff sack for such an occasion. After reading stories of people who’d hiked the trail in 6 days of pouring rain, we counted ourselves lucky.

With the tides favorable, we were able to take the beach route out of Walbran and I had my first experience walking on the granite shelves. I found it not nearly as slippery as I had expected, but it was pretty cool to see the varied creatures in all the tidal pools along the way. I also got to learn all about different kinds of sand, hard packed beach that made the miles fly by and loose stuff that seemed to suck the energy right out of you. Now I understood the weaving tracks in the sand as folks searched for the line with the firmest sand. The scenery along this section was incredible (even in the fog) and we ended up stopping at Bonilla Point for a bit to take some photos.

It wasn’t long before we started encountering folks coming the other way extolling the food at Chez Monique. This was something I had been looking forward to. Then like a wall, the fog ended abruptly and we emerged into the Sun. The burger at Chez Monique was everything people had said it would be and after a few days of dehydrated food we dove into them like starving men.

While the tide table had us expecting to wait several hours to make it to Cribbs Creek, we decided to press on anyways and see how far we could make it before waiting for the tides to go out (which turned out to be all the way to Cribbs). Climbing over the headland we stopped in at the Carmanah Lighthouse and walked the labyrinth. It’s hard to imagine raising a family on that few acres of land with only 2-3 trips out a year, but maybe the Etzkorn’s have the right idea. Soon we were back down to the beach and decided to keep moving until the tides held us up, but except for one point where we had to climb over a large piece of driftwood we were able to make it into Cribbs without any problem.

Arriving at 4:00 we weren’t sure what to do with all this spare time. In the hot sun, our fly dried quickly and we set up a siltarp for some shade. The sand at Cribbs was very fine and it seemed to get into everything.

Again we spent time chatting with several folks, had a relaxed dinner (still hungry even after the feast at Chez Monique), lit a campfire and took pictures of the setting sun. We knew the next day would be the longest (by distance) day on the trail.

Granite shelves in the fog - West Coast Trail

Granite shelves in the fog

Carmanah lighthouse - West Coast Trail

Carmanah Lighthouse

Chez Monique - West Coast Trail

Chez Monique

AUG 3 – DAY 4 – CRIBBS CREEK TO TSUSIAT FALLS

We were on the trail just after 8:30am and made good time along the water. Cheewhat beach was spectacular, the wide virgin sand made us think of places in the Caribbean or Mexico.

It’s too bad they don’t allow camping here and with the distance we needed to cover there wasn’t much time to sit and enjoy. We easily could have dropped our packs and spent the day, but rather we picked a point on the beach and declared that we were at the halfway point (37.5km). Just before the Cheewhat River we encountered warning signs about a wasps nest on the trail, but we quickly passed through the area with no problems.

The bridge and boardwalks made for quick travel and we arrived at the narrows just before 1:00. Taking our packs off at the crab shack we grabbed lunch. Oh man… that halibut steak and baked potato were really, really, really good (better than the burger). Looking at the cabins, we thought it might make for a fun vacation with the family, taking the water taxi down the lake and spending a few days fishing and whale watching.

We spent an hour gorging and relaxing before grabbing the ferry across and climbing back into the trees. It wasn’t long before we came to the edge of the map and celebrated flipping it over to the backside. Just before the reserve at Tsuquadra Pt. we noticed several tents down on the beach (not the glamping sites), while this would have made a nice place to break up a long day, it would have required more planning on our part to manage without food lockers, washrooms or freshwater.

Folks later mentioned that the section of beach had lots of problems with mice. Getting back onto the beach we bumped into a pair of trail guardians doing maintenance, and they echoed that this was definitely the year to be hiking the trail. As we approached Tsusiat Point we saw that the tides lapping through the hole in the rock so we took the short bypass over the headland (irritating an eagle along the way).

Back down to the beach we were joined by a pair of grey whales who paralleled us most of the way to the falls. It was pretty amazing to watch them just offshore playing and spouting water. Before we knew it we were at the falls, but with the dry conditions it was more of a trickle.

Picking our spot we noticed that the campground was by far the busiest of the trip with a few more “casual” campers. Sitting down to make dinner we relaxed by the fire knowing that only easy days lay ahead of us.

Bonilla Point - West Coast Trail

Bonilla Point

36.5 written in the sand - West Coast Trail

Halfway point

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Kelly McDonald

After spending 12 years in Ottawa Kelly returned to Calgary in 2012 and decided to pick off where he left off by roping his closest friends into some new back-country adventures (some more fun than others).

Kelly McDonald is a father of two hobbits ages 12 and 13 and tries to get them out into the wilderness as often as he can.

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