(Written by Amanda Johnson)
It started on one drizzly Wednesday, September 4th, 2013. As we headed to the ferry an unusual feeling settled over me, like we were going to another land and and would never return. Excited and slightly flurried, we caught the 6 pm ferry to Victoria and enjoyed dinner while we watched the sun set over the mountains.
The drive from Victoria to Port Renfrew was winding. We found the hiker’s parking lot with ease, but then backed the car off the curb into a ditch. It got stuck. The time was 11 pm. For the next three hours, some of us played cards at the local pub, while the others stayed with the car. Finally, thanks to Bruce (a local) and his hydraulic jack, the car was free. Off we went to a campsite at a nearby beach.
We woke up at 5 am and broke camp. The Port Renfrew bartender had told me the previous night that a water taxi left from the port every morning at 6:15am, and I was hoping it was cheaper than $80 the shuttle would cost. In fact, the water taxi cost $135 (but whale watching was included). Sofiya and I considered hitchhiking to the trailhead, but decided to take the shuttle. We had coffee at the same pub/restaurant where had played cards the night before.
The shuttle ride was about four hours and ever so bumpy. The scenery wasn’t much – clear-cuts and gravel roads – but I did see a moose cow. There were signs every couple kilometers which said “Radio Checkpoint”, or something similar. Our driver picked up his radio at each one and said something. I wondered if this was to prevent collisions of logging trucks on the small, winding roads.
Arriving at the trailhead, I made small talk with some fellow first-day hikers, Jess and Marty. Two men who had just finished the trail gave me a can of bear spray in exchange for beef jerky. The ranger gave us a brief orientation covering tide tables, impassable headlands, and tsunami evacuation routes. In retrospect, the tsunami evacuation routes were useless, and we learned the hard way about the impassable headlands. The tide tables, on the other hand, became top priority in the days to come. We planned our days so we could hike on the beach, as much of the beach is only passable at tides below 8 feet.
The first day’s hike consisted of ladders, the quaint Pachena Point lighthouse, and two black bears. It rained for less than an hour. This is the only rain we would see for the entirety of the hike. The trail was muddiest on day 1, and became less so with each passing day as the sun dried it out. From time to time the trail became a mud pit, and we would prance from log to stump to root. When there was nothing solid in the middle of the pit, we would hug the marge of the path. Salal plants make good hand holds. Inevitably, we would slip and land shin-deep in mud. My hiking pole got stuck in the mud and, when I pulled it out, only the top half came.
Leaving the trail to check out the Pachena Point lighthouse, was like being transported to somewhere else. Nicely kept flowerbeds, a mowed lawn, and a neatly painted red and white lighthouse greeted us. Looking out to sea, Sofiya yelled: Sea lions! Upon closer inspection, we promptly decided they were sea birds. This happened frequently in the next days, mistaking birds for sea lions. In the end I don’t think I saw a single sea lion.
Anyways, we arrived at Michigan Creek campsite as the sun was beginning to set. It was hot and sunny. To the left, a guy was sunbathing on a giant piece of driftwood. To the right, a group of people were doing yoga on the beach. Bright splashes of colour adorned tree branches, and I soon realized they were buoys carved with peoples’ initials and the date. Like Chinese lanterns strung up for decoration, they gave the campsite an eclectic look.
We set up camp, sharing a site with some South-to-North hikers. After 5 days on the trail, they looked happy and healthy. Phew. We ate dinner to the setting sun and the methodical crashing of the waves.
When I emerged from the tent at 8am, there was no trace of the South-to-North hikers. I explored the beach and stumbled upon a giant remnant boiler (which I later found out was from the Michigan shipwreck in 1893). We walked along the rocks in the bright sunlight. We saw cougar, bear, and sea otter prints. Once I walked closer to the forest, and I saw a pile of empty sea urchin shells. Conclusion: sea urchins must be a choice food for the large mammals that live here.
One foot got soaked trying to play hopskotch across the Darling River. By lunchtime, it was hot. I let my boots and socks dry in the sun. The others napped in the shade, and I think Marie-Eve was taking pictures. Hiking into the forest, we saw the much-anticipated cable car! Hauling it up with all our might, we loaded our packs and two of us into the cable car and – whoosh! – off it went. Five minutes and ten aching biceps later, the cable car and all its contents were on the other side. After two repeats of this cycle, I decided that cable cars were not as wonderful as I had initially thought.
A few hours later, we declined the Ditidaht luxury campsites. After all, we didn’t lug our tents all this way to not use them (and luxury camping cost $60). Just down the hill was a beach where we set up camp. It turned out to be a gem. Driftwood was aplenty, and we had the whole place – creek, cove, and beach – to ourselves! In no time at all the tents were up, a fire was ablaze, and dinner was on. Another sunny day came to an end. Marie-Eve went to brush her teeth after dinner and thinks she saw a cougar peering at her from across the creek. I burned my socks trying to dry them over the fire.
Day 3, we took our time having breakfast and breaking camp. I found a buoy washed up on shore, carved AMJ’13 into it, and hung it high in a cedar tree. I put on my socks, which were clean but half burned from trying to dry them over the fire the night before. A short 2 km walk in the woods, and we came to the Nitinat Ferry. The Nitinat Narrows had an almost magical shimmer, and it was teeming with jumping salmon. Soon enough, Hippie Doug and his black lab came to pick us up. The other side of the narrows was a dock with a small shack and a large table, with a tarp serving as a makeshift roof. We ran into our friends Jess and Marty, as well as two others who we had been hiking with, in a broad sense, from the beginning. They were quitting the trail because they’d overpacked and one of them had an injured toe.
We feasted on freshly-caught crab, halibut, and salmon. At the table were other hikers coming from the South. They were veterans of the West Coast Trail, this being their 3rd time hiking it, and they gave us some advice on a secret beach access point. It was muddy in the forest, they said, and we should stick to the beach to save our shoes and our sanity. After a completely satisfying lunch, and a candy each from Hippie Doug (“for the pretty ladies”), we hiked through marshes on a series of boardwalks. The vegetation was beautiful. Red bunchberries and salal berries were everywhere, and I even found bog cranberries.
We found Jess and Marty on the beach. All seven of us knew it was time to go inland, but we could not find the trail. I led an unsuccessful bushwhacking attempt. In the end we came out of the forest 20 m further along the same beach. Sofiya ran back along the beach and signalled to us that she had found the trail.
We hiked in the forest and then back onto the beach. The sand was perfectly smooth. Flocks of seagulls going about their business would scatter in all directions when we walked by. Dare Beach featured a rock arch which we could only pass under because it was low tide. On the other side of the arch, the terrain was smooth rocks with craters. Each crater teemed with sea life in the form of starfish, anemonies, urchins, and small fish.
The sun was setting as we reached the Cribs Creek campsite. This campsite was full of people, most of them going South-to-North. By this time it had occurred to us that most people do the trail in a South-to-North fashion. Nevertheless, we were glad with our decision to go the other way. We were glad to see two of the people who had taken our shuttle bus from the parking lot to the Gordon River Trailhead. We were meeting halfway at km 42!
When the sun went down, what a nice view of the stars we had! A few hours later, the throaty gulching barks of the sea lions awoke me and continued until morning. We never saw them, however, because the fog was so thick. Setting off into the mist, we looked forward to brunch at Chez Monique’s. We did a quick walkabout at the Carmanah Lighthouse, whose grounds were extremely well-kept and which featured a fossilized whale skeleton.
That haven of comfort, Chez Monique’s, had a fire burning and a kitchen full of good things. We ordered coffee and omelettes, which were delicious to the last bite. Warm and recharged, we continued along in a dense fog. It was eerily peaceful, as if we could emerge into some time and place long ago. Coming up to Vancouver point, we saw a whale surface a couple times. We hiked on boardwalks, and crossed the suspension bridge across Logan Creek. A few ladders and some trail later, we arrived at Cullite Creek. We opted to ford the river instead of taxing our arms with the cable car.
Arriving at the Cullite Creek campsite, we were greeted by two young men who smelled like fresh laundry. They were greenhorns, only two days in, and we were the veterans! The cove tended to amplify the sounds of the waves. Vahid went for an accidental swim in the creek. That night, I slept soundly, but the waves were loud and I dreamed that I was in Calgary during the flood.
We woke up before dawn and set off with a mission: get down to the beach at Sandstone Creek to save ourselves having to slog mud in the forest. It would be so much faster and easier (irony coming…). We rappelled down a very steep slope with the aid of a rope. The rope was already there, so we reassured ourselves that this was a passable, if not official detour. Sandstone Creek was beautiful, and the water was tasty. We trod down the sandstone, on top of 1 cm of flowing water. There was no clear path downstream; just a fast-flowing knee-deep creek. There was also a fallen tree and some car-sized boulders higher up, which blocked our view of the creek as it made a bend. Still unsure as to whether this route was passable, we sent Katie across the log to investigate. She came back optimistic, so on we went.
Footprints along the log gave us more reassurance that we were going somewhere. However, I had learned from bushwhacking two days previous that even dead-ends get well-trodden by hopeful hikers. Some log hopping and we came to a rocky beach. It was half past seven in the morning. What I saw made my heart sink: the creek fed into the ocean, with vertical rock faces bordered with bus-sized boulders to the right and to the left. There was nowhere to go.
Marie-Eve arrived at the ocean-large boulder interface next. She wasn’t keen on turning back, and opted to climb the boulder and assess the situation. I hoisted her up onto the boulder, which was slippery but which had a few barnacles at just the right place to provide a fingerhold. Marie-Eve climbed the boulder with ease before disappearing around the corner. A few minutes later, she reappeared 15 feet above me, standing on a rock. “It looks good”. We hoisted our packs and poles up using a rope, and then hoisted each other up cheerleader-style.
The path before us was a flat plane of rock, with the waves crashing a few feet below. It became clear that we had to get out of there before the tide came in. We again noticed footprints in patches of sand. “Difficult Surge Channel” (the first of three) looked like a hole drilled horizontally into the vertical rock face we were following. The speed of waves increases when they are funneled into smaller spaces, creating a dangerous backlash that can swallow you. At low tide we hopped into the hole and climbed out the other side. The walk was amicable enough, with tide pools and smooth rock under our feet. I was keenly aware that this was not hospitable terrain. We saw a boat, which may have been fishermen, rescue patrolers, or fishermen who were told to keep an eye out for endangered hikers.
The dense fog started to clear, giving us a patch of blue sky. We had a huddle and drew ice cream cones in the sand. Katie said she would buy us all doughnuts when this was done.
Presently, we came to another surge channel,one more treacherous than the last. The inside walls were slippery – covered in algae – and waves swished up over the rock on which we had to step in order to cross the channel. Apart from the rock, we stared into a deep chasm of cold seawater. It would be an unpleasant place to lose your footing. Looking a couple metres into the ‘cave’, I noticed a log bridging the ocean chasm. A tempting alternative to the water island, which required a big step on both sides. A tap of my foot to the log sent it into a spin. Alternative: failed. We hopped to the rock ‘island’, which was big enough for one person standing, then to the other side. From there, we clambered around a boulder, walked across a plank (evidence that someone had been there before), and pulled ourselves up the concave rock on the other side. Home free!
After we’d crossed that perilous pool came the comforting Camper Creek. We ate lunch in the sun. The next 3 km was muddy with tree stumps or boards as bridges. We wanted to hike along the beach, but it was half-high tide and rising. Taking a vote, we decided to hike along the beach despite the advisory on the map. After all, we were experienced West-Coast Trail hikers. Descending the ladder, we saw that the flat rock route was covered in 12″ of water. No matter; closer inland was a mat of bull kelp on which we could trudge. We hiked until the water was too deep. Then we headed further inland, climbing a sandstone wall and then crawling across a slimy rock ledge. This was not getting any easier.
Looking ahead, we saw that our path lead to a pebbly beach adjacent to a vertical rock face. We got the point; “High tide – Do not pass”. Getting past the beach would require waiting five hours until low tide. It was fun for the first part, I mused, turning around to go back. Looking behind, I realized that everything had changed in the last 20 minutes. The bull kelp which had been a walking mat was now a floating soup. We would have to walk along the 50-degree sloping sandstone wall. It was a lesson I won’t soon forget: nature wins. Eventually we clambered back into the forest and started the last leg of the day’s journey.
Every time the path descended, or if we came to a downward ladder, I thought: we’re at the campsite. But no campsite came. It seemed like years before we came to the Gordon River-Camper Creek – Thrasher Cove trail intersection point. One kilometer and some slippery mudsliding later, we came to the beach. There was a ship in the cove. We could actually look across and see, in the not-too-far distance, more land! The beach was full of first-night campers. We had to choose a remote campsite, and finding firewood was a real challenge.
We went for a last-night dip in the ocean, had dinner, and talked around the campfire. Washing our dishes was tough. Our flashlights attracted thousands of jumping insects. It was a good thing Sofiya moved our packs inland, because the tide came two metres from our tent during the night. I would have been missing my pole and other vital gear.
The most beautiful sunrise of the trip was on our last day. We paused to take a few pics before tackling the final 5 km. We had been warned by so many that this was the hardest part of the trip. Looking back, it really wasn’t. True, elevation gain was the greatest. But by this time, our packs were light and our muscles were made of steel. First-day hikers eyed us with wonder and asked us about the rest of the trail. We said it was beautiful. One hiker asked Katie if it was easy; the look she gave him said it all: No!