Coastal Trekking on Vancouver Island
I love hiking, I love backpacking, and I love to spend time in nature. I have had amazing experiences both in the mountains and by the ocean. When asked to write an article about my treks on Vancouver Island, I jumped at the chance to go back in time and relive my past experiences. I hope you enjoy the memories as well.
This was the year that my casual hiking turned into an obsession. I started hiking almost every weekend and I also went on my first backpacking trip. It was also the year that I was introduced to coastal hiking and, living in BC, that meant Vancouver Island was my prime destination.
Inexperienced as I was, I chose to start with a shorter, easier trail. While I knew Cape Scott was the furthest away and would require the longest drive to get there, I had heard the trail was clearly-established and well-marked, the terrain suitable for an amateur such as myself, and the distances and tides easy to plan around.
I had, however, also been warned about the effect of poor weather on the trail. A friend had recently gone himself only to get caught in torrential rain, not only making the trip a wet and miserable one, but also making the trail muddy and the boardwalks slippery. In fact, he was so vehement about the boardwalks being treacherous that I fully expected us to have issues of our own.
As luck would have it, not only did we not have rain on our 3-day trek but it had not even rained in the previous few weeks meaning the trail was essentially mud-free and the boardwalks bone-dry. After the trip, one of our group members mentioned that she was disappointed by our weather because it presented no challenge and thus made the trip too easy. For me, I was, and still am, always happy to welcome good weather on my trips.
While certainly not the most challenging trip I’ve done, I remain fond of Cape Scott for several reasons. I love trees – old trees, dead trees, coastal gnarly trees – and Cape Scott had a great selection, whether hanging out on the top of sea stacks, in lush pocket forests, or snuggled together in a strange little meadow that almost looked like a scene out of a Dr. Seuss book.
The beaches were gorgeous. At low tide, we hiked along, admiring the sea life in the tidal pools, poking our heads into caves that were normally submerged, or just watching the fog slowly roll in over the water.
The evenings were beautiful as well – the dying light over the water, falling asleep to the quiet rush of the waves on the shore. And there is really nothing quite like opening your eyes, undoing the flap of your tent, and slowly waking up to an ocean view.
If you are lucky, you can also spot lots of wildlife on Vancouver Island trails and Cape Scott is no exception. The highlights of our trip included a bald eagle sitting in a tree on the edge of the beach and a small black bear. It was quite amusing actually; we had just broken out of the forest onto the beach to check out some sea stacks when suddenly we looked to our right and there it was. I am pretty sure that was also the moment the bear saw us because it froze, staring right back at us. Then, almost simultaneously, both the bear and one member of our group ran back into the forest. The rest of us looked at each other and all we could think was, “she ran right where the bear was headed”. We quickly entered the forest to find our friend before the two terrified creatures ran smack into each other.
Finally, one of my favourite aspects of this trail was the lingering history. There were remnants of settlements, old tools and artifacts, and even gravestones along this trail. As an avid history buff, I was thrilled by every hint of the past that we discovered en route.
Nootka Trail, 2006
Later that same month, I tackled another coastal trek, one that I had heard amazing things about and was very eager to try. The Nootka Trail on Nootka Island, though considered fairly short for a coastal trek, was made more complicated by the logistics in getting to and from the trail, the rustic nature of the trail and campsites, as well as the tidal dependencies. This one required a significant amount of pre-planning.
I was embarking on this journey with mere acquaintances – people I had met through friends in a hiking club. I had yet to find out how well we would get along for five days on the island. We had also been warned about how bad the weather could get and about some difficult sections of the trail.
Armed with our plans and our gear, we headed out on what would become my favourite trip of all time – coastal or mountain, almost 10 years later, this one still tops the list. Nootka isn’t just a trail; from start to finish, it is an adventure.
For starters, to get to the trailhead we were flown in by float plane to Louie Lagoon at the north end of the island.
On the Air Nootka dock at Gold Creek
Not only was this a great start to the trip but we actually flew over the entire trail. I was snapping pictures the whole way and ended up with great shots of the trail from both the air and the ground. At the southern end of the trail, at the First Nations village in Friendly Cove, we caught the MV Uchuck III ferry (made from an old converted minesweeper) back to the mainland.
The trail was quite diverse – each section offered something new. One moment we were in the headland forests climbing over and under fallen logs, next we were down on the beach at low tide exploring pools and watching the crabs skitter around our feet, then we were scaling rock walls with ropes to get back into the trees, and then we were back down on the beach trudging through pea stone gravel, etc.
I remember this one section – the top of the beach was full of big, awkward boulders so we decided to take advantage of low tide and hike along the smoother rocks further out. The only problem was they were covered in seaweed and every step was very slippery and potentially treacherous. Only a few kilometres of trail took us over two hours as we weaved in and out of the rocks seeking the best places to step. One member of our group had a brilliant idea – she quickly took off her hiking shoes, tied them to her pack, and slipped on a pair of neoprene socks. Wearing those, she was better able to navigate the wet rocks and made it to the other side well before the rest of us. Unfortunately, only one of her hiking boots made it with her. Upon reaching the end of the slippery rocks, she sat down to change back into her boots and discovered that one was missing. It must have fallen off her pack at some point and since there was no path per se and we had all taken different routes through the slimy mess, there was little hope she would ever find it again. She ended up wearing the neoprene socks for the rest of the trip and we all had a good laugh wondering where her boot would end up.
The beauty of this trip can be summed up in one word: solitude!!! Don’t get me wrong, I like the company of my fellow hikers; however, I also love when our group is the only one there. And on Nootka island, the solitude was endless and pristine. I can count the number of other people we saw on two hands and when it came to the campsites, we were blissfully alone.
Of course there were times when we were surprised by the sudden presence of people. One interesting note about this trail was the lack of outhouses (not sure if this has changed since then). So, you had to use the intertidal zone on the beach for your bowel and bladder relief. Being such a quiet trail, it seemed like it would have been easy to find an empty section of beach to see to business. For the rest of the group it was but for some reason, I was not so lucky. Every time I went to the intertidal zone, I encountered other humans. One time a float plane flew above my head, another time two people on jet skies ended up stopping right in front of me, and then there was the day that two hikers came over the crest of the hill just as I was…well, you get the idea. To this day, my fellow hikers still tease me mercilessly about my inability to find solitude when nature called.
This hike, though not too long in terms of distance, is very tidal dependent. We usually had to wake early and hike in the morning arriving at our next campsite by early afternoon where after a quick setup, we would then have the rest of the day to relax and spend the time how we wished. We spent some time swimming – in the ocean, in Calvin Falls, in larger tidal pools. We spent time chatting and getting to know each other, exploring near the campsites, lounging in the sun, and relaxing by the fire. I also found myself curled up on logs reading about the region (yup, history buff strikes again).
The weather was fantastic. It rained only once at night and that was the night we were sleeping in the sea caves so it didn’t bother us one bit. By the time we woke up the next morning, the rain was gone. I say “woke up” but the reality is, I hardly slept that night. As excited as I was to be sleeping in a cave, I soon realized the expectation was far better than the reality. For one thing, it really does get pitch black in there and every sound carries loudly through the silence. In addition, the ground was slanted so I spent the entire night sliding down in my sleeping bag and then clawing my way back up to my side of the tent so I didn’t squish my tentmate. When that 3 am urge to pee came on me, it was so dark and eerie in the cave that I could not bring myself to leave the tent. My bladder and I were grateful when day finally dawned, light appeared in the sky, and we could call the night done.
This trip remains my favourite for so many reasons – the solitude, the adventure, and the changing landscape chief among them. Perhaps most importantly of all, by the end of the trip, the acquaintances I had started with had become friends. To this day, they are some of my closest friends both on the trail and off and we have enjoyed many more backpacking adventures together since then.
Juan de Fuca, July 2008
Now, at this point, you might be wondering why I have not yet done the most well-known of all the coastal hikes on Vancouver island. Truth was, the West Coast Trail turned me off simply because it was so well-known and popular. I pictured crowded campsites and assembly lines of people on the trails, thought back to the solitude of Nootka, and thought “heck no”. So, when my friends and I decided to do another coastal hike in 2008, opting for the less popular Juan de Fuca seemed far more pleasant.
As there are multiple entry points along the trail, we knew some of the beaches had a tendency to get busy; nonetheless, we figured we would still have moments to ourselves. And we did – often we were alone on the trail or the only ones exploring the beaches. The campsites were definitely busier but there too we were able to find little quiet nooks for our group.
On Juan de Fuca, you hike primarily in the forest popping out on beaches only to camp or for brief stretches of the trail. There was more elevation than I had expected; we found ourselves climbing up a hill only to head back down to cross a creek then up another hill only to head back down to the next creek and so on. While the forest was lush and inviting, the up and down sequence got a bit monotonous after a while, especially in the drizzling rain.
The other thing we experienced in the forest was mud – and lots of it. We had been warned about this in advance but we were still impressed by the sheer quantity of mud we encountered and, as it hadn’t even been very rainy, it was clear that it could have been much worse. By the end of our trip, our hiking boots of many different colours were all the same shade of brown. This was less unpleasant than it sounds though; after all, once your boots are covered in mud, there is little point in concerning yourself about it further. Plus, there is something childlike and fun about getting covered in mud. A couple accidental falls or slips into deep mud created moments of hilarity for everyone involved, even the poor person experiencing the mud bath.
The trees on the trail were awe-inspiring and the beaches great for exploring and covered in ocean creatures and plants. We even occasionally found remnants of shipwrecks.
The campsites were primarily on the beaches and we were lucky to have good weather while relaxing at camp. We swam in the ocean, climbed atop the massive rocks on several beaches, read and snoozed in the sun, and enjoyed great conversation around nightly campfires.
I celebrated my birthday on the trail one night and was delighted when my friends presented me with gifts: ginger cookies (my favourite!) and a shoulder massage. Another evening, we sat on the beach and were surprised to see fireworks across the water. After several nights on the trail, you forget about the rest of the world and so we were surprised by the July 4th American celebrations.
We didn’t see much in the way of wildlife but heard lots of talk about a bear. Seems everyone we passed on the trail had seen it but we always seemed a step behind. Wildlife is one of those things that often comes down to luck – sure, it depends on the season and other factors as well but it can be sheer chance as to whether you will see that whale or bear or whether it will elude you and surprise another hiker instead.
The West Coast Trail, July 2010
Okay, okay, even I agreed it was time to hike the mother of all coastal hikes on Vancouver Island. My usual backpacking pals weren’t available this time round but another friend of mine was eager and we soon convinced others from our hiking club to join us. This trail requires a lot of advance preparation. It is so popular that only a certain number of people are allowed to start from either end on any given day so making sure you get your preferred start day and direction means being on the ball as soon as booking becomes available.
And of course one of your first decisions is: do you start from the south or north? We had heard arguments for both – some say it is best to start at the south and get the hardest part over with first while others claim it is best to start at the north so your pack is lighter by the time you hit the toughest sections of the trail. We opted to start at the south and tackle the toughest section first. Personally I think we made the right choice – do the grunt work first and then spend the last days of the trip more relaxed.
We also opted to do a longer trip than usual (7-8 days) allowing for more flexibility to adjust plans as we went along, even taking a day or two rest at some gorgeous beach en route. This wasn’t just a mad dash from start to finish, this was going to be a vacation too.
The best part of this trip was the weather. We had rain off and on for the first day and a half and that was it. The rest of the trip was glorious sunshine – in fact, at times, especially during long beach walks, it was too hot. The last day we watched as this amazing fog rolled in to blanket the trail. On our last day, we were chatting with a trail employee who told us we had lucked out with the sweet spot in terms of weather – the week before we arrived had been all rain and she said that once it comes, the fog usually settles in for days.
The first days in the south were indeed the toughest of the trail – we were mostly in the forest and it was, at times, very awkward. Mud, tangled roots, wet boardwalk and ladders abound. Oh, the ladders! The first few were fun enough but after a while, they become a chore. And for someone like me with a fear of heights, some were downright terrifying. Eventually my friend suggested I try to somehow relax myself during each ascent or descent – that is how I ended up singing Christmas carols each time I faced a steep ladder. I know, it sounds silly but it worked. By the end of the trail, no songs were needed; I was scooting up and down ladders like a pro.
We had a rough plan of where we were hoping to land each night but our plans very quickly changed when my friend’s knee, which had been ok for years, suddenly started acting up. Our pace slowed and we were forced to make some adjustments to our schedule. This also quickly changed the tone of the trip – a tension developed between my friend, who felt bad, and some of the other members of our group who were frustrated at the change in pace. This tension lasted well into the trip – until my friend left the trail at Nitinat Narrows, the dividing line between north and south. I was sad to see her go as we had planned the trip together but I knew her knee would not make it the rest of the way and she was miserable.
The one wonderful result of the injury and our adjusted pace was that we often ended up at the less well-known, and thus less-used, campsites. Some of these turned out to be my favourite spots on the entire trail. Don’t get me wrong, staying at Tsusiat Falls was absolutely gorgeous and a total must for everyone but my favourite campsite was on a secluded stretch of beach with only each other, glorious sunsets, and driftwood for company. Yes, even on the West Coast Trail, I managed to find the peace and quiet I always seek. Interestingly, it was also at these peaceful spots that we had our best whale sightings.
Our other major wildlife sighting was a little baby seal. At our trail orientation, we were told to watch out for the baby as the mother leaves it on the shore when she goes out hunting. We were warned not to approach it or touch it because if the mother smells human, she may not come back. While we did indeed keep our distance, we bumped into some people that day who said they had seen a woman touch the baby; apparently she didn’t speak English and so didn’t understand when people told her to stay away. I very much hope the mother did come back for her little baby despite the human contact.
My favourite moments on our trip included the caves at Owen point (definitely recommend working around the tides to check these out), the cable cars (now those were way more fun than the ladders), the tidal pools full of starfish and anemones, cooling down in the falls, and the crab at Nitinat Narrows. Everyone told us how great the hamburgers at Monique’s were and they were indeed a delicious treat mid-trail, but for me it was the freshly-caught, freshly-cooked
crab that won for tastiest food. And I again celebrated my birthday on the beach; this time I was surprised with gifts of smoked salmon, packaged mulled wine, and freeze dried ice cream. It was a great party – they even stuck a birthday candle into an energy bar to sing me happy birthday!
It doesn’t surprise me that this trail is revered internationally; its beauty is certainly not exaggerated. And having time to both explore and relax on the beach gave me both the adventure and the vacation I had been seeking.
There are still other coastal trips on Vancouver Island I have yet to experience – the Mid-Coast Trail and the newer North Coast Trail, for example. My daughter is currently too young to go backpacking but I am looking forward to the day when I can introduce her to some of these magical places and make some new coastal memories.
Article contributed by: Merewyn Hines