Monday, September 8, 2008

West Coast Trail

It started innocently enough. A group of us were sitting around a picnic table at the ADZPCTKO in Lake Morena, sharing hiking stories. I started describing my 2006 hike on the West Coast Trail, and the scenery and ruggedness got the attention of a few. Fortified by beer, 3 or 4 of my new friends expressed interest in a late summer WCT trek.

4 months later, there I was making a trip to the ferry to pick up Brian (Tomato) and Leila (Swifty). My fiancee, Rebecca, kindly offered to drive us all to the Bamfield trail head on Monday, Sept 1. We had a campsite reserved at the beautiful Pachena Bay Campground right by the trail head. After a dinner of campfire-roasted hot dogs and a quiet night by the beach, we said goodbye to Rebecca and Shadow and proceeded to the Parks Canada office for our orientation.

All hikers on the WCT are required to take the 1.5 hour orientation, which is offered 4 times daily. We diligently watched the PowerPoint presentation, grabbed our permits, and hit the trail at 10:45. When starting at the North end of the trail, the terrain is quite easy and the miles go by quickly. Our first stop on the way to Tsocowis (km17) was at the Pachena Lighthouse. The Lighthouse grounds are open for exploration, and panoramic views give a preview of the scenery to come. The guest book entries at the Lighthouse provided much hilarity, and started some running gags that lasted the duration of our trip. You really had to be there to appreciate them.

After a bit more inland hiking, we reach Michigan Creek and the beginning of beach walking. A sealion haulout rock provides ample entertainment for a lunch stop, and we're blown away by the size of these massive creatures. Swifty presented us with a list of wildlife she expects to see on the trail, and the first one is crossed off. Moving on, we explore the shipwrecks of the Michigan and Uzbekistan, as well as some nice rock shelves and tidal pools. The low tide enabled shelf-walking, often referred to as a hiker superhighway. Because we were making such good time, we walked right by our destination and didn't realize our mistake until we reached the impassible Valencia Bluffs. After my cohorts teased their "experienced" route planner, we realized the fortune of our mistake and explored some beautiful waterfalls and rock formations. A short backtrack took us back to Tsocowis and a soft, sandy campsite. The evening presented a stunning sunset and plenty of wood for a fire.

The next morning began with some forest walking, which on the WCT inevitably means mud. Lots of mud. Fortunately, there had been no rain for a couple of days, so the mud wasn't as bad as it can be. The three of us had very light packs, trail runners, and hiking poles, so we were able to hop over and navigate our way through the mud with little effort. Heavily-laden hikers coming the other way took a look at our relatively clean feet and assured us that the mud got much worse. We were offered advice such as "You haven't seen anything yet" and "Hope you brought your gators.. or a life jacket!". While well-meaning, their comments became more fodder for our trail banter, and the theme of inflatable flotation-device gators began.

Tomato and Swifty have extensive hiking resumes, both having done successful Pacific Crest Trail thru-hikes, among many other accomplishments. I had warned them that it was a different breed of hiker on the WCT, but I don't think I could have prepared them for the absurdity we witnessed. 80 lb. packs were commonplace, and we even saw several people with a pack on their front as well as the back. Although we all started heavy in our earlier hiking days, it was unbelievable that people would attempt a trail as rugged as the WCT without any research at all. "At least they're out there" we agreed, and kept our observations to ourselves.

I digress - back to the trail. At Trestle Creek we're rewarded with more beach walking, taking us to our first cable car crossing at Klanawa River. A group of fellows heading South demonstrated how to help each other across, and waited around to give us a hand. Having people on the cable car landing to pull the car across makes it much easier than pulling yourself when you're in the car. The pulleys were also in much better shape than my 2006 trip, so the crossing was fast and fun. A few more inland miles, along with some impressive ladders, took us to Tsusiat Falls for lunch. The tides and storms change this beach annually, and what in 2006 was a large freshwater pool at the base of the falls was now a tidal bay with steep banks. Swifty and I braved the cold water for a quick shower under the falls, while Tomato settled for the mist bath available nearby. The waterfall is astounding to watch, but the strutting alpha-males offered scenery we didn't come to see, so we packed up and headed back up the ladders to the trail.

Moving on through more inland mud, our next stop is to wait for the ferry at Nitnat Narrows. We chat with some fellow hikers here for half an hour until the ferry comes for the short trip across the narrows. On the South side we're offered beer and seafood, but decide to keep trekking. There is quite a crowd there, and we agree we'd rather be hiking. Right after the ferry dock is a swampy area, flooded several years ago by a beaver dam. The boardwalk is in rough shape, but we motor on through to the beach access at Cheewhat River. Some fun beachcombing with a few inland detours around surge channels brings us to Cribs Creek, our campsite for night two.

Cribs Creek is a large, picturesque beach and a popular camping spot. There's probably 40 people already camping there when we arrive, so we cross to the south side of the river which is currently unoccupied. After finding a small spot between the logs in which to cram our three tarptents, we count another 20-30 hikers come from both directions. Every available spot near us is occupied, but once the sun goes down a bit it doesn't feel so crowded. For some reason nobody decides to camp on the gently sloping beach at the far North end, where I camped in '06. Wood is scarce, but we scrounge up enough for a comfortable fire and enjoy an evening of stargazing and conversation. I suggested it would have been nice to have grabbed a few beers from the Nitnat ferry dock, but, alas, hindsight is 20/20.

Day three brings us an overcast morning, but a feature-filled day of hiking is ahead of us. After a beautiful beach walk to Carmanah Point, we head up the steps to explore Carmanah Lighthouse. A few photos and sights keep our interest, but the thought of breakfast at Chez Moniques keeps the visit brief. Soon we're heading down the ladder to the makeshift "restaurant" and its charming hostess, Monique. We all opt for the breakfast plate of eggs, potatoes, bacon (for some) and toast. Fresh cowboy coffee is served while we occupy a table with the best view for miles around. While we're waiting for our breakfasts, (actually second breakfasts, Tomato pointed out) Swifty notices an uninvited guest behind the restaurant. A black bear, muching on the salad bar, has decided to join us. I let one of the cooks know, and he chases it away. Another wildlife sighting is crossed off the rather demanding list given to me by Swifty.

After breakfast, a fantastic beach walk lies ahead. Our second cable car crossing, over Carmanah Creek, goes smoothly and leads us to Bonilla Point. Here we're treated to a large pod of Grey Whales surfacing and spouting not far from shore. We gawk for a while, then eventually have to keep moving. One more off the list. The next obstacle is Walbran Creek, which we're told isn't in flood so is crossable. When we arrive, it looks a bit higher than we feel like crossing so we take a side trail up to the cable car. From here, the trail moves inland to avoid the Adrenaline Creek surge channel, site of numerous injuries and evacuations in previous years. A mix of mud and slippery boardwalks is our price for the previous fun on the beach. When we get to Cullite Creek, we decide to check out the camping area. A short side trail heads down to Cullite Cove, with a few small tent spots crammed into the trees. There was nowhere we could set up three tarptents, and after discussing the option of rigging up a tarp and sleeping out, we opted to get back on the trail and stick to the original plan of Camper Creek.

And we were so glad we did. Camper Creek, while fairly busy, offered a less crowded option of camping on the peninsula reached by a quick river crossing. Tides can be an issue here, so we chose a high spot carefully and proceeded to set up. I had been having trouble getting a good pitch on my new Contrail, so Tomato helped me achieve my first perfect pitch. A small breeze helped us air out our damp gear, and we settled in for another fun night around the campfire. Wood was once again scarce, but Tomato's fire building skills outshone even his tent setup skills. Swifty shared some marshmallows procured at Chez Monique's, and I used the time to quiz my hiking friends about long distance hiking. I learned a lot from them this trip, and the reality of a PCT thru-hike in 2010 started to sink in.

We arose early on our fourth day, eager to explore Owen Point at low tide. A long beach shelf, followed by tidal caves, boulders, and even bigger boulders were the highlights of this day. I think anyone hiking the WCT owes it to themselves to consider this optional, difficult route as part of their itinerary. It is definitely the most rugged and dangerous part of the trail, but offers West Coast scenery at its finest. Much to Swifty's delight we saw a sea otter and a seal, and the list was quite complete. Tomato, an accomplished rock climber, bounced across the boulders and disappeared from sight. Swifty had a bit more trouble with the large boulders, but admirably kept a strong pace and we arrived at Thrasher Cove at lunch time. Our original itinerary had us spending the night at Thrasher, but the campsite is purely functional so we chose to keep going to the end.

Heading inland at Thrasher, the only option, reveals 5km of ladders and hill climbs. A straight line on the map, it's actually a considerable amount of switchbacks and altitude gains. The hiking is fairly easy though, and we get to the ferry with plenty of time. Some overloaded hikers we passed were going to have to rush for the last crossing at 4:30, as the camping options at the ferry beach are very limited. Once over Gordon River we take a short bus ride into Port Renfrew for a hot meal and a cold beer, and I call a surprised Rebecca requesting an early ride home. She's unable to make it, but luckily my mum steps up to the plate and zips out from Sooke to drive us home.

I'm really glad my new friends were able to join me on this trail, and hope they both take back the fondest of memories (and forget the bad ones). We've already begun discussing where we can hike next year, and I know we'll follow through and get together again.