TR - Hiking the Nootka Trail

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The following text is transcribed from VOC Journal 48. In the spirit of preserving the original author's work, please do not edit it except to correct copy mistakes.

By Rueben Schulz and Philipp Winter.


At the end of August we hiked the Nootka Trail, a five day, 35 km hike off the west coast of Vancouver Island. The Trail is located on the west coast of Nootka Island, pretty much straight across Vancouver Island from Campbell River. The trailhead is only accessible by float plane or water taxi, float plane being the preferred choice. For the way back to Gold River (the float plane launch) the MV Uchuck III (a tourist ferry/supply boat) is the preferred choice. After a while of message board postings and e-mails going back and forth, we were left as the only two willing and able to go on the hike. Originally we had no way of getting to Gold River. We researched taking the bus to Campbell River or Tofino and taking a float plane from there, but those options always came out very expensive. In the end Philipp was able to borrow his parent’s car. The total cost from Vancouver to the trailhead, and back home totalled $350 per person. This included gas, BC ferries to/from Nanaimo, the float plane to the trailhead (Louie Lagoon), the MV Uchuck III back to Gold River, and the trail user fee charged by the First Nations to cross their land at the end of the trail.

Coastal hiking tidbits

A few tidbits about coastal hiking.

Floats on trees: A good thing to watch out for along the beaches is floats hanging from trees, as these will usually be used to mark where the trail re-enters the forest. However, just because there are floats in the trees doesn’t mean you have to take the trail. Often these just mark a trail going over a headland. Depending on tides you can sometimes go around the headland instead, saving yourself time. The trick is to figure out which ones you can go around and which ones you have to go over.

Stream crossings: It can often be difficult to figure out the best way across a stream or creek. Always be sure to look a bit inland as it can sometimes be easier up there. Some streams can be crossed with hiking boots on (if they are waterproof) and some are just too deep for that. A hiking pole (driftwood or proper) can be useful to help maintain your balance if you are rock-hopping to cross a stream.

Tides: All coastal activities require watching the tides; this definitely also applies to coastal hiking. Tides can affect whether a beach is passable, whether a stream is crossable, or whether you can go around a headland or have to climb over. Having tide-tables with you and planning your days accordingly is advisable. The tides forced us to wake up earlier as the trip progressed.

Marine radio: The Nootka Trail is remote, and you have to be self-sufficient. The only contact possible with the outside is with a marine band VHF radio. We rented one at Ecomarine Kayak in Vancouver. Luckily we never had to use it for anything more then checking the weather forecast.

Changing features: The coastal environment has a nasty habit of never staying the same. Philipp hiked the Nootka Trail a few years ago with his family and hiking it again he noticed quite a few differences along the trail. For starters there were many more streams, all of which had more water (Philipp had beautiful weather the first time). When Philipp hiked the Trail for the first time, Beano Creek was completely dammed up by a sand/pebble dam built by the wave action, so they didn’t have to get their feet wet. This time there was no dam and the water was up past our knees.

Day 1 (Monday)

We left Vancouver on Sunday morning and drove to Strathcona Park Lodge where we met up with Philipp’s parents who were camping in the area at the time. We camped with them on Sunday night not too far from the Gold River float plane launch and took the plane in on Monday morning. Philipp’s parents decided to join us for the flight in which not only made it cheaper for us, but also allowed us to fly in the de Havilland Canada Beaver: a wonderful Canadian bush plane which is over 50 years old (this plane had just celebrated its 50th birthday the previous May). We had beautiful weather on our flight in and got a nice preview of the trail as we flew over it. After landing in Louie Lagoon and getting set, we started out on our 5-day hike. It only took us about 30 min to get out to the coast and our first campsite (Third Beach). The trail was easy to follow (~700 people hike the Nootka Trail every year) but due to wet weather it was rather muddy. We set up our camp, had lunch, and set out for a day-hike north along the coast. We planned to visit an old shipwreck and tried to make it to a more northern point of Nootka Island (Ferrer Point). Unfortunately we didn’t make it all the way to Ferrer Point as the "trail" became a very heavy bushwhack once we passed the old shipwreck.

Two more groups arrived on Monday. A family of 5 (Jim and Martha Russell and their three daughters) also travelled in the Beaver, after us, and stayed at Third Beach. Another couple arrived a bit later and continued further on the trail. These were the only other people we encountered on the trail that were heading the same direction as us. We ended up stopping at the same sites as the Russell family did for the entire trip, but did not see the couple (until the ferry trip out) after leaving Calvin Falls (Day 3).

Day 2 (Tuesday)

On our second day, Tuesday, we travelled from Third Beach to Calvin Falls. After getting up rather late, we broke camp and set out sometime around 11am. The first business of the day was to climb up a steep, wet, and rocky slope (which had a rope) to get into the forest. This would not be the last time we encountered something like this. The first half of this day was spent climbing through bits of forest and beach, and the second half consisted of mostly walking along beaches and nice flat sections (almost like pavement). The weather, although mixed, was mostly decent.

Early in the day we encountered the first, and only, bear that we saw on the trip. We heard a loud rustling in the shrubs beside the beach and stopped. Philipp got out the bear spray and we both climbed up onto a nearby rock outcrop. The bear poked its head out through the bushes once and then headed off into the forest rather slowly. Once it had gone far enough, we continued on our way and talked to it as we went by.

Around lunch, we stopped at a small stream and filtered some more water. The water filter did not work very well, and it was not until it built up enough pressure to blow off a hose that we realized that the filter was completely plugged up from filtering water the previous day. Some of the streams had a brown colour to them that plugged up the filter rather quickly. Once it was cleaned, it worked fine.

We didn’t get into Calvin Falls until about 6pm. The south side of the creek was covered by a huge amount of driftwood in a pile about 2m high. After a bit of searching, we set up our camp in a clear spot behind the drift wood, about 20m from the Russell family. Near the end of the day the weather had improved and become nice and sunny. However, our late arrival meant that we didn’t have time to take a swim and instead had to get straight to making dinner. The other family got in earlier, and had lots of manpower, so the girls got to go swimming while the parents cooked. In the evening, we wandered over to the other campsite and shared the fire with them.

Day 3 (Wednesday)

Our third day on the trail, Wednesday, was from Calvin Falls to Beano Creek. This day consisted solely of beach walking with quite a number of stream crossings. Beach walking gets rather monotonous after a while, but fortunately there was variety on the beach. Along one section of the beach we had to step from boulder to boulder. Since it was raining all day, this was rather difficult as the rocks were very slippery. Once we got to Beano Creek, we had to cross it as we didn't want to start our next morning with a stream crossing. Luckily we didn’t have to time our crossing with the tides as Beano Creek isn’t affected by the tides. It was a bit more than knee-deep at the point where we crossed. Rueben nearly fell in after losing his balance while trying to get a rock out of his shoes (mental note: don’t worry about rocks in your shoes while you’re crossing a creek). Once we got up the other side of Beano Creek, we realized we might have a bit of trouble finding a good place to set up camp, as it was rather windy and rainy and the entire beach was exposed. We found ourselves a nice spot behind a very big log, where we set up camp, using the log as a back wall for our tarp. Once our camp was set up we began to hunt for decently dry firewood to make a fire. Luckily we managed to find enough dry wood to get the fire started and then dried more wood beside the fire. The fire provided some heat, but we had to sit in the rain to stay beside it. The beach here is the only place along the Nootka Trail which has privately owned land. There are quite a number of cabins just tucked into the woods and even a bed and breakfast on the far end of the beach.

Day 4 (Thursday)

Thursday was our longest and most tiring day, travelling from Beano Creek to Maquinna Point. After the previous day's rain, it was nice to wake up to a tiny bit of sun coming through the clouds. Of course it was not very pleasant to put on cold, wet boots and pants. In the morning we saw some whales swimming offshore. Jim mentioned that he had seen a bear crossing the creek further upstream earlier that morning. The rain held off while we packed up, but it started sprinkling once we were underway.

We had to leave rather early to pass a cliff that had no overland route during high tide. This cliff was not very far from Beano, and a short while later we passed by a whale carcass. No pictures were taken of it, since by this time the rain had started again. Then the fun began. The beach walking ended and we started the overland route. The only route up from the beach to the forest went straight up a very wet and slippery rock face that was about 10m high. Fortunately there was a rope attached to help us. We then spent the rest of the day climbing in and out of coves and walking through the forest. Later in the day the sun started to come out and our spirits picked up a bit. We encountered a crazy couple that was hiking the trail in the other direction. They intended to complete the trail in both directions and were carrying very heavy packs.

Eventually we caught up with the Russells (they passed us earlier in the day). They set up camp at a pretty pocket beach that was surrounded by cliffs and had a large rock "island" in the middle. The surrounding cliffs had many small caves where we could find dry wood. They suggested we stay with them, but Philipp wanted to continue on to the same place where he had stopped previously, so off we went. However, the route off the beach went up a 10m wall, and we were so tired by this time that we took one look at it and turned around. After setting up camp, we gathered some wood and shared a fire with the Russells. We used the fire to dry out our socks and boots, though some sparks melted a small hole in the tongue of Rueben's boot. The weather cleared off by the night, and we watched the stars from beside the fire.

Day 5 (Friday)

Friday was one of our shorter days. We got up rather early, since we needed to cross the Tidal Lagoon outflow before high tide. The description of the lagoon was "wade at low tide, swim at high tide." During his previous trip, Philipp observed some impatient people rig up a rope to pull their gear across at high tide, with disastrous, wet results when the slack in the rope submerged their packs.

We left first in the morning, but the Russells eventually passed us as usual. Since the weather was good, we all stopped to look at some sea caves on the way. Part of the trail went through a bog; it had a partial board walk built out of sticks that other hikers had thrown in the mud to keep from sinking in too deep. We caught up to the Russell family at the Tidal Lagoon outflow. The water was a bit higher than our knees, but did not prove too much trouble to cross once we took off our shoes and pant legs. However, the tide was coming in quickly and even ten minutes later would have made it more difficult. It started to rain again just as we were crossing, but the rain didn’t last long, and the day turned out to be the hottest of our trip.

After hiking for another twenty minutes, we eventually found a nice campsite by the only stream and water source. The site had a very nice driftwood table and windbreak already built for us. We couldn’t see Friendly Cove from the site, but could view it from the beach. The tent was up before lunch, allowing us to relax during the afternoon. During the afternoon, Rueben did some laundry in the creek and took a bath in the ocean. We took advantage of the hot weather to dry out some of our wet gear, though Rueben's boots did not dry out completely for another week. Dinner consisted of a very elaborate couscous dish with dried chick peas that had soaked overnight.

Day 6 (Saturday)

Our last day on the trail was rather lazy and didn’t begin until quite late. It rained again during the night, but soon turned sunny and nice. Breakfast consisted of fresh bannock (fried bread) with some jam that we had bought on the BC Ferries trip to Nanaimo. The nearby creek was necessary for Rueben to wash his hands in after kneading the dough.

A little while later we completed the trail with a leisurely, 30-minute hike to Friendly Cove. Friendly Cove currently consists of a few houses, a few cabins on the lake, one small church (turned museum), a dock, a very cool lighthouse, and some composting toilets. The permanent population is only around 5 to 8 people. It was formerly a large village with a fish canning plant. Pictures in the church show houses lining the entire cove: an area now covered by blackberry bushes. The lighthouse has a large tower for the light, a large house, a few other buildings, and a helicopter pad. The helicopter pad is separated from the lighthouse by a deep ravine, so the two are connected by an impressive 30m long bridge. We got to visit Friendly Cove in peace, before the flocks of tourists arrived from the ferry. Once they arrived, we relaxed and ate our last lunch on the beach.

This village has a lot of historical importance. It was the site where Captain James Cook became the first European to set foot on British Columbian soil in 1778. The Spanish also established their only fort in Canada here and maintained it from 1789 to 1795 when they gave it up to the British. The first Spanish missionary to the BC coast also landed here. Nookta Island therefore became an important focal point for English, Spanish, and American traders and explorers. This history (and more that we have forgotten) is written up in the entrance to the empty church. Because of the importance of this site there are plans to build a larger museum there.

Once we finally boarded the MV Uchuck III our hike was over. We sat on the outer deck of the ship and enjoyed the sun as well as the views. The Nootka Sound resident orca, Luna, decided to join us and swim in the ship’s wake. He managed to keep up with the ship while swimming upside down. Luna got separated from his southern resident pod in 2001, turned up in Nootka Sound, and has stayed there ever since. Once we arrived back at Gold River we walked to the car and got ready for a long drive back to Nanaimo. We drove the few hours to Campbell River, took a short break at Tim Hortons, and headed out again for Nanaimo. Overall the drive took us about 5-6 hours to the Duke Point ferry terminal where we had to wait for quite a while for the much delayed ferry. We finally arrived back in Vancouver around 1 or 2 am, exhausted but glad to be home.