West Coast Trail

I’ll start with the weather. That always makes for good conversation. It passes time when talking to neighbours, grandparents and people who still use those cheap shitty barometers that are always stuck pointing to “CHANGE”.

Since arriving on Vancouver Island, the weather has been temperamental – the wettest they have had in years. The fact that we have been volunteering on an organic farm has brought us more in tune with the daily forecasts. Firstly, we have noticed the blights and pests that have affected the early spring crops from too much rain – tomatoes have suffered. Secondly, we are now in a job that allows us to work outside (save when sheltering in a greenhouse), so we now have the benefit of knowing first hand when it is raining.DSC04625

Despite the heavy night time rain, we have actually had it pretty good here in Saanich. To be honest, we escaped the worst of it – most occurring before we arrived. The only problem is, that the soil needs precious time to dry out. With the days off, that gave us a bit of time for some exploring. After getting our mountain bikes, we have made our second major purchase of a Dodge Grand Caravan. We saw it listed one day while in Victoria and rode out to inspect it. Due to the torrential downpour, it was only a wise decision to purchase the van and go about building our bed in the back. Opting for the width of a single mattress so that we could still fit two bikes inside.

For our first journey, we took the van and travelled with our co-workers out to East Sooke for a day hike. Kersten, our Swedish boat building, basket weaving, civil engineer extraordinaire showed us how to identify and pick edible native plants. We ate various plant varieties such as salmonberry shoots, sheep sorrel leaves and the male variety of horsetails. We even learned that you could make a pesto out of stinging nettle, so went about picking a large bag full. Sooke was a great introduction to hiking on the Canadian shoreline allowing us to see to various wildlife including seals and river otters.

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The West Coast Trail is probably the most famous of all hikes in Canada. Cleared in the early 1900’s in response to the frequency of shipwrecks along the coast. This section was infamously known as “The Graveyard of the Pacific”. As the Canadian temperate rainforest was densely vegetated, the trail afforded support to shipwreck survivors and rescuers. As maps and technology improved, boats gained GPS and the number of accidents dropped, the need for this trail diminished. It was revived as a hiking trail and a challenging one at that. The length of 75km is supposed to take around 5 days to complete, with sections involving ladders, cable cars and mud a foot deep. You would normally plan for some time to undertake such a hike. We did it in one afternoon. Special thanks to the help of our host, Rachel, who gave us a tent, foam rollers and backpacks. Leaving in a rush that night, we departed across the island to start early the next morning.

Our first sleep in the van went relatively well. The odd logging truck woke us at random times through the night. It was more comfortable and quicker to set up the bed than when cycle touring. However, there is less opportunity to be discreet. A van is a bit less mobile and can’t be hidden behind a row of bushes as easily. The logging roads from Lake Cowichan were for want of a better term – potholed worse than a pimply teenagers face. You couldn’t go over 30km/h on them, and we were certain that our car would need to be booked in for a service by the end of the trip.

Once checked in for orientation with the friendly park rangers we were briefed about the many dangers present on the West Coast Trail including; bears, wolves and cougars. Shit! Large apex predators, with sharp teeth and claws. Innocent and naïve New Zealanders are most scared of rats outside the tent (they also have those too). Bears, we were told were inquisitive and liked to eat your food. They had large steel boxes at each campsite to stow your food and if you gave them a wide berth and didn’t threaten them or their cubs, they would generally not claw your face off. Cougars, on the other hand, were really nasty shits. They would stalk you for hours, sometimes days – waiting to pounce. Tam couldn’t stop visualising this cougar creeping up a ladder towards her. Being crepuscular hunters (at dawn and dusk), they tend to attack when you are filling up water or washing the dishes in a stream. Your best protection is to wear your ridiculously heavy pack at all times. The bigger the prey, the less likely they are to pounce. Cougars, we were told, are really just big cats and anything you do to scare a little cat should scare a big cat; if you only do it bigger. Maybe a big spray bottle full of water? A big hiss and spit? A big pull of their tail? We ended up skipping the section on wolves because the audience had asked too many questions on cougars.

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With a map in hand and a chart of the tides, we were well prepared to get going. Our first 12km was well maintained and wide, similar to many of the NZ Great Walk trails. The biggest thing we noticed was the complete absence of birdsong. If it weren’t for the ocean waves, we would have been enveloped in an eerie silence. Cedar, fir and pine trees penetrated high into the canopy creating a humid climate underneath, perfect for mud. After about 10km we started getting this massive stench waft through the trees. The sound of the ocean became more of a low drone and groan. Through a small clearing in the trees we found the source, a large sea lion colony perched on a rock. There were some really big monsters. They were fighting each other off and somehow performing the most graceful of dives into the surf. You would have expected a bit of a belly flop and a large splash, but nope, the judges on the rocks would have given at least an 8 out of 10 for that entry. Several hundred metres on was the Pacheena Lighthouse. We had a quick talk to the resident lighthouse keeper of 17 years – his wife busy in the garden. He mentioned his neighbours were only bad in a NW wind and that the solitude didn’t bother him much. With 10,000 visitors a year walking through your lawn, you probably wouldn’t feel too isolated.

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At Michigan Bay, we came across the first campsite. Which consisted of a bear box, a longdrop a few level surfaces on the beach and some driftwood to gather for fires. Hikers have taken to collecting flotsam in the form of buoys and tying it in trees with their names carved in. We decided to pitch another couple of kilometres down the beach at Darling River as Michigan was already looking full. Along the way, we came along another terrible smell in the form of a whale carcass, with eagles feasting on its remains. It wasn’t the only thing washed on the shore, nearby iron anchors, ship timber and frames were all embedded in the sand – this was why they called it a graveyard.

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Making camp we quickly sorted the wet wood from the dry and began a small fire. Watching the sun set late we felt the first rays of what felt like summer finally arriving (not like we have been too long without it). We had pasta with nettle pesto for dinner – our first attempt at a foraged meal. To be honest, it tasted like shit. Really bitter and needed to be neutralised. But, we persisted and stomached it, hoping the next batch might be better. Our cooking equipment and food were placed in the bear box – even toothpaste needed to go in there.

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The following day took us mostly along the beach. We saw a few whales just past the surf and river otters on the flats with their heads in the rock pools looking for crabs. At the Kanawa River crossing the first cable car we came across was an experience in itself. You could only fit one passenger in and you needed to pull your own weight to get across – taking around 5 minutes each. Thankfully we arrived just before a school group of 20 did.

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IMG_20170519_191937Finally, after some tricky navigation around muddy patches of trail we arrived at Tsusiat Falls. We decided this would be as far as we would go, because the reviews of the next fifty kilometres was more trail, more mud, more ladders, less sights, all round more challenging. We missed out on a First Nations Crabshack and a Burger Joint, but decided better of them and would brave the 25km hike back on the last day.

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We secured the best patch of real estate before other travellers arrived. Making a lentil dhal for a heartier meal. Hiking felt so much more limited than cycle touring. You didn’t cover as much ground, you had less options for food and you carried all the weight on your back. There are some trails where bikes just can’t go. This would most definitely be one of them.

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Our return hike back to Pacheena took us over familiar territory, although the inf rolled infamous West Coast fog. We knew the course and made up time accordingly, not stopping for sights or obstacles. Everyone coming onto the trail from Pacheena thought we were completing the hike and so were congratulating us on our journey. We eventually stopped telling them we had only done about half and went along with it. Being offered congratulations and shots of Fireball whisky were worth it.

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Back in the carpark, the single foam mattress looked a luxury compared to the thin rollers and we settled quickly into a deep sleep. During the night, a bright flashlight woke me up. Thinking it was some warden checking cars to see who had avoided paying a camping fee, I rolled off the bed and hid, imploring Tam to do the same. Tam drowsily saw the same light and seeing it inspecting the cars figured it was actually, in fact, a burglar. She rapped on the glass window which spooked the holder of the flashlight retreating back to the campsite.

The drive back was nothing special. The towns of Bamfield, Port Alberni and Nanaimo were not really worth writing home about, so we’ll spare you those. Four days off the farm and the vegetables had grown markedly. With the sun now in full force, it looked like there would now be more than enough work for the coming days. Lucky that we had taken this chance to get away.

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