Earlier this Spring, I was offered an opportunity I could hardly pass up - to thru-hike Vancouver Island's West Coast Trail with one of my shooting coaches, John. He had a permit for the WCT for the first part of July. I have loved the idea of hiking for quite some time, but I never took that next step to make it happen. This was my opportunity to do so. Before I agreed, I did look into the trial and what others had said about it. Asking friends if any had done the trail previously and what their thoughts were. The trail is renowned as one of Canada's tougher thru-hikes, 75km along the rugged west coast of Vancouver Island. Along beaches, rock shelves, thick forests, marshes, and countless other natural obstacles. Hiking like this was something I had never done before, but I didn't think the challenge would be the physical part of completing the trail. What I had concerns about were the ladders. There are a number (I didn't count) of ladders throughout the trail. Climbing these ladders with one hand might be a struggle, coupled with the additional weight of a backpack. John and I discussed this as one of my concerns, and we came up with a few possible solutions if needed. First, let's get there and see how it goes. After a quick check to find out what I was getting myself into, I had to say yes. I came up with a few priorities; boots and a backpack were two of the more crucial items. I figured these two could easily make or break the experience. Me having a tricky personal history with boots. I needed to get a suitable pair and work them in so they would be comfortable and ready to take on the trail.
I want to acknowledge that I am aware that the West Coast Trail is not recommended for inexperienced hikers, which I was (and still am). This trip was my first camping and thru-hiking experience ever. I was uneasy about these points, but I had a lot of excellent guidance from John (who has a lifetime of experience and several successful completions of the West Coast Trail itself). My above-average fitness, strength, and time (single-day runs) in the backcountry gave me some leeway. This would be an entirely new challenge for me, and I looked forward to the opportunity to experience something new. I found I enjoyed the process of getting ready. Thinking, thinking again, maybe some overthinking, while going through a daily routine, noting what I needed, wanted, or what was luxury: best-case and worst-case planning. I debated whether I needed to add something or if one less was better. That part of hiking fits my personality quite well. But I wanted and felt I needed to be that way. Or I hoped that being so would make up for some inexperience before the trip. I thought the ladders would be the toughest or cause the most significant while on the trail. In fact, what frustrated me the most was stuffing things into sacks: sleeping bags, tents, or clothes. I quickly learned that stuffing sacks with one arm was the most challenging aspect of hiking.
John and I drove from Canmore through southern BC and took the ferry from Tsawwassen to Swartz Bay in Victoria. We picked up some last-minute items before making our way to Port Renfrew. After once or twice going through the entire packs, we felt comfortable to say we were ready. Let's get to the adventure;
Day 1 - In the morning, we got breakfast across the street from the Hiker Huts, where we were staying, before heading to the southern trailhead of the West Coast Trail. We planned to hike from North to South. At the south trailhead, we hopped onto the West Coast Trail Express. We settled in for the over three-hour bus ride through Vancouver Island's interior before returning to the western coast. The bus ride was cool by itself. Some amazing roads, and to my surprise, the first half of the trip was on paved roads before switching to gravel logging roads. Eventually, we came to the northern trailhead at Pachena Beach, and after a short wait and mandatory orientation, we set off.
Any later and we would have lost the tide, but we were able to complete the first kilometre along the beach before going inland. The rest of the day was spent following the trail through the forest. After an hour, we briefly stopped to adjust anything that didn't feel right and grabbed a drink. This stop happened to be the only time we ever encountered any bugs. But they didn't land on either of us; they were well-behaved mosquitoes. The trail started easily enough. I was surprised by the elevation gains and losses. I guess I never really thought of it, but it surprised me the first few hours. As we went on, we came across some more challenging terrain, stepping over roots or logs and short, steep inclines. The rusted motorbike was a bit of fun to come across. We did chase two bears along this section of the trail, but again the bears behaved like bears, and as soon as they heard us, they ran away. The trail was dry until the final few hundred metres as we descended towards the Michigan Creek beach access and our campsite for the evening. We were going North to South, so we covered the easier terrain with our heaviest packs and would have lighter packs taking on the more challenging terrain. We covered the first 12km of the trail in about three hours, arriving at the campsite just before 18:00 and high tide. What an amazing place to camp for the first evening, right on the beach. Additionally, we were treated to some whales just offshore, the occasional otter and a beautiful ocean beach view. An incredible way to end the first day, going to sleep to the sound of the waves mere meters away.
Day 2 - We began with a little over four kilometres along the beach. With the tide low, we headed away from shore on the rock shelf. The game we played was learning what was slippery and what wasn't. It is fantastic to be walking along the ocean floor. We saw many small crabs, mussels, and other tidal wildlife. After a stint on the water's edge, we had to go into the forest. The trail was already getting a lot harder to get through. We had to bull our way through some thick sections of overgrowth. Sprinkled in with several boardwalks, bridges, and ladders. As we left the forest again at the 20km marker, we stopped for a snack before proceeding almost three kilometres to the Klanawa River. In most years or times of the year, the Klanawa has a cable car to cross. With the severe dry, nearing drought conditions this year, the river was hardly flowing, and we just walked across a gravel bar that now separated the river from the ocean. Once across this area, we had to go inland for a few more kilometres before crossing the upper section of the Tsusiat Falls. At about the 25km mark of the trail, we descended our longest ladder section yet, down to the beach to the Tsusiat Falls campsite. When I thought the Michigan site was amazing, this area upped the bar. One of the points of interest of the trail is the Tsusiat Falls. I spent some of the afternoon exploring the beach and falls. Going into and under the falls was a magical experience. We had covered about 13km in just over four hours. The views were spectacular, but it wasn't my best night's sleep. I later concluded I should have flattened out my tent site a little more, as I slept at an angle. Or that is what I'm going with.
Day 3 – We awoke to a light mist hanging in the air, and most things got a little wet. We started with about four kilometres along the beach before needing to go into the forest and serpentine our way around Tsuquanah Point. Where we ended up at the Nitinaht Narrows and waited a few minutes before the ferry came by to pick us up; on the other side was the Crab Shack. The shack is just after the 32km mark of the trail. John and I stopped to grab a light meal before continuing. From the Crab Shack, there was a long section of boardwalk. I think perhaps the longest continuous section of boardwalk as well, and it made for easygoing. We were back on the dirt trail and logs before long and went through Clo-oose and onto the bridge crossing at the Cheewhat River; after a short wooded section, we could access the beach. The following two kilometres of beach might have been my favourite beach for walking. This was resort-quality sand and beach. It is also the flattest beach we experienced (a great relief from some of the other severely canted beaches, which you could feel messing with your hip alignment after a time). The sand was a beautiful pale colour, with the receding tide making the sand hard and a dream to walk along. We were enjoying ourselves so much that we didn't pay attention, nor did we see the buoys that marked the beach access of the trail- where we should have gone back inland. Instead, the sand transitioned into a solid rock shelf. Though we had some time before the tide came back in, we felt we didn't want to be stuck around Dare Point when the tide did come in. After a short scramble, we were all good again and continued along the waterfront along Dare Beach. Rounding the next point, we came across an amazing rocky breakwater that shields the beach behind. Welcome to the Cribs Creek campsite. This breakwater was incredible. We still had a fairly low tide when we arrived and set up our campsite. As the tide came up, the waves would break over the rocky outcrop, and just before high tide, the water found its way around the breakwater, flooding a shallow plain between the beach and the breakwater. It was surprising how quickly it happened, from a dry(ish) beach to a foot of water in what felt like a few minutes. This would be our second-longest day for time and distance covered, ~13.5km in about five and half hours. From our campsite, you could just hear and see a few offshore rocks ladened with seal lions. It usually didn't take long to find a sea lion or two playing in the waters between those outcroppings and the beach.
Stay tuned for the final days of the West Coast Trail...