Juan de Fuca Trail, June 21-25, 2020
by Elliott Skierszkan with edits from Emily Skierszkan
With our baby boy, born on March 7th 2020, our life has taken quite a shift this spring. Although the work-from-home regime imposed by covid has been wonderful in terms of my ability to help out and participate in Baby care, it has also brought some challenges that I think many parents are currently experiencing because working from home with kids means having to ignore your kids while working, or neglecting your work while minding after your kids. Both of these options are distracting, and neither of them offer the begone luxury of undivided attention devoted to just one job at a time. As a colleague mentioned in an email, “Family time now quantity over quality”. Anyways, it has been taxing enough that I decided to take a week off and spend some time outside.
We decided to hike, coincidentally starting on Father’s Day (my first), along the 47-km Juan de Fuca trail over 5 days. This location was ideal for all sorts of reasons. There are numerous entries and exit points, if things weren’t working out. It’s a nice length for a multi-day introductory baby hiking trip, and I felt confident enough that even with time required for play, diapering, longer camp setup/takedown times, and heavier packs, we could reasonably expect to average 9.4 km per day over 5 days. On previous day hikes since Baby’s birth, we had considered trying to get in the mountains, but with the alpine still snow-covered the logistics of keeping a baby warm, protected from the bugs and the sun and off of the wet snow on the ground just kept us away from higher elevations. Also, staying by the coast would mean we would always be close to water, a key ingredient when hiking with a smiling and adorable little pee/poo/vomit producer.
We set off to Vancouver island and stayed in an AirBnB near Sooke on June 20th, which was a great investment because Baby cried the entire drive from Swartz Bay, and allowed us to start fresh on June 21. Even if the Juan de Fuca is a very beginner-friendly hike, I still had my reservations before we set out. Kind of like when you don’t sleep well the night before an intimidating alpine objective for anticipation of facing your fear of falling off a cliff or into a crevasse, except that this time the doubt and anxieties had nothing to do with such objective risks, but rather with worries like “will baby’s diaper rash get out of control?” or “what if he gets sick?”, or “what if he is unable to sleep and exhausted and crying, forcing us to bail out at a location far from our vehicle?” Of course, the Juan de Fuca parallels highway 14 so help is never really that far—at the same time; can you still count on reliable hitch-hiking and help from strangers during the covid pandemic when we are globally being trained to avoid strangers?
Anyways, after our stopover at the AirBnB, we set off to the China beach trailhead, where we stashed a bicycle well-hidden in the bushes. This was a bit unsettling because: (1) this trailhead is notorious for theft; (2) the day prior we had patched leaks in both front and rear tubes, only to discover the front tube still had a slow leak; (3) in the midst of packing while handling a crying baby we had neglected to bring a functional bicycle pump. I addressed point (1) with excessive foliar camouflage and locks on the stashed cycle, and hoped for the best on points (2) and (3). After this stop we drove on to the other end of the trail at Botanical Beach to begin the hike.
In the weeks prior, I have been doing lots and lots of neighborhood walks in Pacific Spirit Park and in the North Shore with Baby : on my lunch breaks, before work, on weekends. Because I’ve not been hiking with an overnight pack in several months, I’ve taken to lugging around 50 lbs of rocks and climbing gear on my back during these walks in the park, which most people probably consider insane but I think my rump and my back were thankful for this training regimen leading to our first multi-day baby hike.
We split the gear as follows: Emily started off carrying our sleeping bags, her daytime clothes, and Baby’s diapers and clothes; I carried our new 3-person tent, all of our food, the fuel, stove and pots, my personal belongings, and the first-aid kit. That put Emily’s pack at 25-30 lbs, plus a 15-lb baby in the Ergobaby chest carrier (specifically the 360 cool air model), while I started off with 55-60 lbs. Starting down the trail I could feel my glutes firing off at every step like during an unpleasant physio rehab session. I kept in mind that on comparable but longer trips VOC legend Christian Veenstra has been known to carry 95 lbs at the outset—so who am I to complain? I can’t know how Emily’s legs and back were feeling for sure, but they must’ve been burning similarly after almost a year with little to no overnight trips while she grew a baby in her belly recovered from birthing.
Anyways things got exciting right off the bat as we bobbled down to Botanical Beach and there was a whale feeding 40 meters from shore, just beyond the rocky coastal shelf. Within a couple of hours, we had also spotted our first bear, dining on the entrees offered by the day’s tidepool. OK, so A. has a great track record for wildlife spotting at 14-weeks of age!
We only hiked 7 km on the first day, ending in mid-afternoon at the Payzant Creek campsite. With heavy loads however, each of those km was well-earned! While we ate supper on rocky cliffs perched above the Juan de Fuca strait, we admired a bear and her cub doing their own dining in tidepools on the shore opposite the cove. We were alone in the campsite until dusk, when a solo hiker walked past our camp in the forest to get to the shoreline. Within a few minutes he came hustling back unnerved, telling us there was a bear by the shore! He disappeared shortly thereafter, presumably to set up his tent somewhere.
Some minutes later, after Emily and Baby were down in the tent, I walked up the trail to use the outhouse. On my way back down I heard some heavy stomping on the trail, which I assumed was the other hiker romping around. As I turned the corner, keeping my head up given the bear activity (and aware I had left my bear spray in the tent) but expecting to bump into another human, the stomping on the trail gave way to some heavy rustling in the bushes.
It was somewhat disconcerting to know this bear had walked on the trail a mere couple meters from the tent where A and Emily were sleeping. Usually I don’t mind too much about the bears when I am hiking alone or with adults, but with a baby around I didn’t feel like the normal rules for human-bear interactions applied, and I certainly didn’t want them coming that close to us! For the remainder of the trip, the bear spray was always close at hand, and we redoubled on our commitment to keep within arm’s reach of Baby at all times.
On day 2, we were beginning to feel more confident in our ability to complete the traverse because the baby-hiking was going quite well and the first night sleeping had been a success. Emily figured out that breastfeeding while lying down was easier to do in the tent than trying to sit uncomfortably. We decided to fully commit to the whole traverse when we encountered a large group coming the other way and asked them if they could drive our car to the China Beach trailhead (our intended endpoint). This worked out well for both parties; the other group was also in need of a car to help shuttle them back to their own vehicle! We ended up spending the 2nd night at Sombrio beach, and I was glad to have the InReach so I could confirm with the other group that they had left our car at the intended location with no issues. Under different circumstances I wouldn’t have minded at all having more uncertainty, but with the lack of reliability of hitchhiking in covid-days and by worries about my bike tires, and a baby in the mix, I was very happy to have less uncertainty to deal with regarding our exit plan.
Anyways, Sombrio was great, here we took advantage of another mid-afternoon end to the hike to wash a bunch of diapers and try and dry them off by the seabreeze. On the topic of diapering: for this hike, our first overnighter, we ended up packing the same combo that we use at home of cloth diapers for the daytime and disposables for the nights. Baby has had a tenacious diaper rash that we worried would be worsened by the hike, and the ability of disposables to absorb moisture definitely outperforms cloth diapers, but going 100 % disposable for the hike might have meant packing out several kg of wet diapers after 5 days. I haven’t looked up the environmental ethics of burning disposables, but in the end we did burn about half of the disposables we had consumed during the trip and they did burn, although in retrospect I think we should have packed them out. It turns out that even with sunny and windy weather, the cloth diapers took > 24 hrs to dry off, and again only with a campfire could this process be accelerated at the risk of a few singed liners. Based on what we learned, here is a gear list we think would work quite well for baby hiking, which is a thinned-out version of what we brought:
All of baby gear is packed into 2 bags. His “daytime” bag is a mesh sack that carried diaper shells, absorbent inserts, liners, the changing pad, the dirty diaper bag, and all the creams. Everything else goes into his clothes bag.
As is typical of beginners, we brought WAY too many diapers and think we can pair this down to 4 Grovia diaper shells, then 8 prefolds for inserts, and 8 fleece liners. The revised and abbreviated baby backpacking list is below:
Anyways, after our night at Sombrio we continued on for a short 8 km day to Chin beach, which also had excellent camping. Day three also ended early, so we spent time in the afternoon washing ourselves and the diapers.
The hike on Day four from Chin Beach to Bear Beach, which the trail map marks as ‘most difficult’, turn out to be quite easy as the trail bed was in excellent condition. I think the ‘difficulty’ rating BC Parks gives has more to do with elevation gain than trail ruggedness, but we’re used to hiking in the mountains so some up and down is fine. We also ended mid-afternoon at our camp at Bear Beach, and on our last day we pushed the leisure to a maximum by spending a couple hours napping in the midday sun at Mystic beach before the short hike back to the trailhead, where thankfully my bike (with two full tubes) and our car were happily there ready for us to re-enter civilization.
In the end the Juan de Fuca trail turned out to be an ideal location for a first multi-day baby backpacking trip. For the most part, everything went very well. Baby seemed to have had an incredibly stimulating experience admiring the sea and the rainforest all along, and getting the luxury of napping in the chest-carrier anytime he wanted. Our rhythm settled into an hour or two of hiking while he napped or admired the scenery, with half-hour breaks for us to snack and rest our backs, for Baby to wiggle and coo around on the forest floor, and to do a breastfeed and diaper change. The evenings were a bit trickier, because Baby required to be nursed to sleep all the time (at home he does go down on his own, but out camping there was just too much excitement) so Emily had to be in the tent from about 6 or 7 PM onwards with him while I did all of the camp-kitchen cleanup and gear tidying. Despite Baby requiring hands-on interaction most of the time he is awake, we still never took more than 2 hours from wakeup to being on the move and that includes warm breakfasts and packing the tent.
The trail itself is beautiful. I found that the beach-hiking sections, always the best part of coastal hikes, were much shorter in comparison with other coastal hikes that I have done, which is compensated by the incredibly lush old growth. Unfortunately, this old growth feels like a bit of a sham because it is actually only a very thin veneer of unlogged forest between the intertidal and inland areas, and the trail in many places does go in and out of trashy, brown and sterile second growth which is desolate and bleak in comparison with the old growth. A testament to the way in which Vancouver Island has been operated as a tree-farm for the last century. The trail also felt comparably busy to most of the other ‘wilderness’ hikes I am used to, but that is probably to be expected for a ‘baby-friendly’ introductory hike. With only Emily and Baby and I in our hiking party, it also was probably a good thing to have other people around in case she or I had any problems, because it would be hard to get ourselves out of trouble independently if either of us ended up alone with a baby.
We also made a series of beginner mistakes, packing too much (in this case too many diapers and baby clothes), but I think we can be overall quite satisfied with our effort. After all, Emily hand-sewed some non-cotton bug/sun/weather protective clothing for Baby (best mom ever!), we successfully went through a few rounds of cloth-diaper uses/washes/dry cycles, and we successfully gave Baby his first wilderness ‘bath’ (a rinse with soapy water at a creek mouth). All of this makes me feel confident that we’ll be able to do longer self-supported wilderness hikes this summer, knowing that in the meantime I need to add more rocks to my backpack to train for expedition packs that are only going to be getting heavier and heavier . . .
Here are a few more photos for your enjoyment.
Appendix — our tent sleep setup
Parents are typically concerned with risks of SIDS, keeping baby warm/comfortable, and having him sleep well. Sleeps were certainly a challenge on this trip, especially when we camped at Sombrio in full sun with sun setting at 9:30 PM, i.e., well after Baby’s bedtime, and creating a beaming greenhouse effect in the tent.
Keeping Baby warm was easy enough: he had fleece clothes and we wrapped his bottom half with one of our lightweight puffy jackets, tucked underneath his thermarest to keep it from moving. He generally slept on a foam thermarest right beside Emily, who could grab him to breastfeed easily during the nights.
To keep the light dim, the best bet was to setup the tent under the forest canopy rather than on the beach, and we also duped Baby into thinking it was bedtime by pulling his tuque over his eyes, but we had to be very sneaky and do this slowly lest he find out we were trying to deprive him of the hyper-stimulating tent environment and scream in protest.