Wednesday, June 4, 2014

West Coast Trail

With Pam's surgery just over two weeks away, I was keen to do a short trip since I was unsure of how restricted we'd be during her initial rehabilitation weeks in July. I'd heard people speak of the West Coast Trail on Vancouver Island over the years, but never paid very much attention for some odd reason. But after picking up a copy of the "Coastal Hikes" guidebook early this spring, my curiosity was immediately piqued. The hike was described as world class, and the pictures looked amazing. A quick Internet search sealed the deal. People came from all over the world to do this multiday hike and it was in my own backyard.

Initially I just threw some gear together, but after reading various trip reports I realized packing was going to take a bit more care. So, with a perfect forecast ahead, I carefully itemized what I'd need and got to the task of putting it all together. When finished, my pack weighed approximately 25 pounds without food or water. Not bad for a solo 5-day trip.

The West Coast Trail is 75 kilometers long and travels between the coastal communities of Bamfield and Port Renfrew. When my planning got serious, I realized two things: this hike wasn't going to be cheap and logistics were going to be far more complex than I'd have imagined. I ended up taking the ferry from Horseshoe Bay to Nanaimo, driving two hours to Port Renfrew and spending the night in the back of my truck. The next morning I paid to park by the ranger's office then caught a shuttle bus that transported me and four other hikers through a maze of rough logging roads for three hours to the trailhead in Bamfield. We drove past one devastating cutblock after another, many very active. Over the years I'd heard stories of the extensive deforestation on Vancouver Island, but found it ironic I'd not see it first hand until I came to hike the West Coast Trail, an area of incredible beauty.

A mandatory 1.5-hour "orientation" session was required in Bamfield before we were allowed to hit the trail. The purpose of this session is to educate hikers and hopefully reduce the risk of injury and the need for rescue (four rescues had occurred this year alone), but it restricted our ability to start the day early, which seemed odd since early starts usually equate to safety on long trails. Regardless, I was able to buy their official park map and pick up a tide table, both of which proved to be indispensable for the length of the journey.

The hike did not disappoint, but it took some crafty planning to spend long periods walking on the beach. Impassible headlands and surge channels provided barriers to the coastal route, often necessitating long detours through thick, coastal forest containing some of the biggest sitka spruce I've ever seen.The forest routes were often extremely muddy and the many boardwalks were in various states of disrepair, often proving to be more hazardous than helpful. A unique feature of the trail I'd not encountered before were the many ladders. Instead of switchbacking up impossibly steep slopes and cliffsides, extensive systems of ladders have been installed and they provide a very effective means of gaining quick elevation above the beach. I though of Elise while I climbed and descended dozens of these steep ladders - she'd absolutely love them!

I'd planned to hike the trail solo, but after the first couple of days it seemed as though I was in sync, pace-wise, with a fellow from Seattle. We chatted, became friendly and eventually hiked the last couple of days together. I enjoyed camping on the beach with him and a couple of young Germans who followed our itinerary, albeit at a slower pace. We had campfires on the beach each night and enjoyed sharing stories.

The highlight of the trip, by far, occurred on the second to last day. We were resting on the beach at Walbran Creek and spotted a whale close to shore. It rolled in the bay for awhile and then started swimming around a rock shelf, which protruded from the beach. We made a quick decision to make a frigid swim out to the shelf and were treated with a truly spectacular view of the whale no more than 15 meters from us as it swam back and forth below our feet. To make this moment even more spectacular, the whale rolled onto its side and revealed a calf traveling underneath, a sight I'll never forget. We were giddy with excitement and stayed that way for hours.

I ended up spending four nights on the trail and approximately five days of hiking. There were other hikers around, but it never felt crowded and we usually had the campsites to ourselves. The wildlife and natural beauty of the area is something I'll not soon forget, and I look forward to the day when I can return with the rest of the family.

I hope you're all enjoying the spring. Pam's surgical date is June 17th, provided nothing goes awry. We'll keep you all posted on her progress.


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