West Coast Trail on Vancouver Island
West Coast Trail on Vancouver Island
By David Smith
As the sun sets over the Pacific, my hiking companions and I attempt to dry our boots beside a driftwood-fueled fire. As often happens on the West Coast Trail (WCT), the water is winning the battle. On the long summer days, we have plenty of time to sit around the fire, laugh, and reminisce about the day’s adventures before the orange glow finally fades over the horizon.
Each day brings different stories. We began our trek at the trail’s rugged southern end, a brief ferry ride across the Gordon River from the outskirts of Port Renfrew, B.C. From there, it’s an immediate climb on a muddy path into a thick forest. The first two days are some of the most arduous hiking any of us have ever experienced: steep ups and downs, ankle-deep mud, stream crossings on slick, angled fallen logs, and repeated ascents and descents on rain-soaked ladders. All of us are exhausted and muddy. We’ve all slipped and fallen multiple times and are minus one hiking pole – snapped in half after a tree root and mud-induced stumble – but nobody’s hurt. (This is no small point: before hikers start the WCT, they must attend an hour-long orientation, complete with a briefing of injury evacuation statistics for the past several years, which number around 100 per year.)
Yet there’s another side to the story. Each day of the trail ends with a night camped out on an impossibly soft beach. Each site has a stream of clear, cool water, and if you’re lucky – we were – whales, eagles, and pinnipeds of various stripes offshore. There is always plenty of driftwood to build a fire of any size one desires. Because Parks Canada, which manages the WCT, limits access to 50 people beginning the 47-mile (75 km) trail each day – 25 from either end – crowding is not a problem. Though a breeze often comes in off the sea, the air temperature remains relatively mild even at night. In other words, this is paradise camping, as long as you can stay reasonably dry.
The hiking is challenging, yes, but exhilarating: the numerous ladders, hand-operated cable cars, and even a bouncy suspension bridge constitute an experience unto themselves. And the first two days out (or three, depending on pacing) from the south end are by far the most treacherous.
As you head north, the trail gets wider, flatter, and even a bit drier. The endless ups and downs of the heavily forested south end give way to long stretches of beach hiking, which, though they can be tiring, are at least flat. The kilometer markers, which pass slowly at first, begin to melt away noticeably faster. Picture-perfect rock formations and tide pools line the shore.
Each night northbound, the campsites become more scenic. The picturesque Tsusiat Falls – a waterfall right on the beach – is a welcome sight at the end of one long stretch of beach hiking, and a wonderful background soundtrack for sleeping. Though our group arrived too late to get a prime camping spot, the craziest among us (me) enjoyed a frigid swim through the pool at the falls’ base as an after-dinner treat.
Yet for all its natural beauty, the West Coast Trail has a human story as well. The trail was originally built as a lifesaving trail (and road, in its northern sections), and many of the shipwrecks still remain rusting offshore. The people whose traditional lands it traverses – the Huu-ay-aht, Ditidaht and Pacheedaht First Nations – still live along its route, and some of their members maintain the trail, even its most rugged sections. The ferry operators and fishermen, who are often one and the same, serve up some enviable seafood and friendly banter. And of course there are the fellow hikers. Campsites tend to be friendly and unterritorial, with strangers mingling fireside before heading opposite ways the next morning.
By the time we reach the northern end of the trail near Bamfield, our group shares an anticlimactic feeling: for all its challenges at the south end, the WCT ends with a flat, wide trail through a pleasant forest, complete with overlooks of sea-lion covered rocks and sun-splashed bays. We suspect the southbound hikers we meet judge us slightly for our trail-worn appearance, but that’s fine. They’ll soon learn that mud and the WCT go hand-in-hand. Of course, so do wildlife, unforgettable hiking, and pristine beach camping. Oh, and sunsets: if you go for one thing, go for the sunsets.