I have a bad head for heights. Earlier this year, in the Sooke Potholes Provincial Park on Vancouver Island, I got to show it off spectacularly. On the second day of a backcountry backpack through an area with no official trails, I found myself walking atop the Sooke Flowline, an abandoned water main that once provided drinking water to the people of Victoria. This was intended; missing my turn was not, and with the trails obscure and sometimes unmarked I was lost in spite of my GPS. I didn’t worry at first; I knew the Flowline led to the highway, from which I could not be far, so I stuck to the route rather than bushwhack in an area of valleys and cliffs.
This was a mistake. The pipe soon turned from nicely winding along the ground to perilously perched increasingly high above the forest. Fewer people come this way (because it’s wrong), so the slippery moss growing atop the old concrete was becoming more hazardous. Where there was no moss it was only because a falling boulder had punched a hole in the pipe. It was uncomfortable but not actually dangerous, until suddenly it really, really was.
I don’t clearly remember the context. The ground had been getting further and further away, then it was gone. Replaced by cliffs and the Sooke River, with the pipe that had suddenly turned aquaduct crossing at a height of about a trillion miles. It was definitely far enough. There was no escape save across the concrete pipe, which was say four feet in diameter, slippery with moss, full of holes, and, as pipes tend to be, round. I was already tired from a long day, it had been wet, I of course had 40 pounds of camping stuff on my back, doing a pirouette to turn around with so little traction and absolutely fatal consequences for a slip seemed more dangerous than proceeding. But if I crossed that river I better find something good on the other side or I’d never find the courage to cross it again.
I did cross it, and I did find something good, and I got out and it was fine. But I learned a couple useful things. One, it’s not possible for me to be literally “scared shitless” because if it was I would know. Two, although I’m fine in mountains, steep boulder fields a kilometre and a half up, and suspension bridges, when hiking my fear of heights can still be an obstacle.
So that’s how I found myself hiking the West Coast Trail, 47 miles of beach and forest and up and down just north of my old friend the Juan de Fuca Marine Trail, between the Vancouver Island communities of Port Renfrew and Bamfield. The West Coast Trail is famous for its beauty, its rugged remoteness, its immense popularity, and for its ladders. Dozens of ladders, all across the trail, up to a hundred feet high, climbing sheer cliffs, where one slip means certain death, in one of the rainiest climates in the world.
I might be an idiot. I got vertigo just from the Google Images search. But, with a week of vacation left in my pocket for 2017 and the Juan de Fuca Marine Trail already under my belt in August, I browsed Parks Canada’s website just for fun and found that, almost unbelievably, this highly popular trail had one precious opening to depart from the Gordon River trailhead, by Port Renfrew, on September 16. So I booked it, and I went, and this is what it was like. This is 11,000 words long, and will mostly be of interest to friends and family, but might also have some tips if you are planning a trip yourself. (It certainly has one, a very big one that I could have used in your place.)
Just like last time, this is based off a diary written at the time, then cleaned up and tied together after the fact. All figures are from my GPS watch and should be considered both approximate and “as the Ben runs,” except for the distance remaining, which is approximated from Parks Canada’s official trail map based on the day’s campsite. Since the official kilometre markers don’t include things like getting up and down from your beachside campsite, nor potential detours, your hike will always be longer than the official distance. That said, my GPS is prone to occasional fake news and everybody’s path is different.
By the way, if you’re expecting photographic brilliance, I’m afraid it’s all cell phone photos for this post. Some of them suck, some of them don’t. You’ll find out why.