Hiking the West Coast Trail

By Benjamin Massey · October 3rd, 2017 · 1 comment

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.

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Hiking the Juan de Fuca Marine Trail

By Benjamin Massey · August 11th, 2017 · 2 comments

The Juan de Fuca Marine Trail is a 47-kilometre back country backpacking trail, along the south coast of Vancouver Island between China Beach (west of Sooke) and Botanical Beach (a 45-minute walk south of Port Renfrew), paralleling British Columbia Highway 14.

No, you’re thinking of the West Coast Trail. The West Coast Trail is half-again as long, filled with vertiginous ladders, cable cars, and boat rides, and about ten times more famous. The Juan de Fuca Trail is the West Coast Trail’s misshapen bastard brother. You can do them both in one huge trip, connecting through Port Renfrew, but there’s no doubt who the alpha dog is.

I’ve never done the West Coast Trail. I have now done the Juan de Fuca Trail, and my choice was pure practicality: the three-day August long weekend was already coming, and I’d worked enough overtime to win a fourth. The recommended time to spend on Juan de Fuca is four days; for us ordinary Joes the West Coast Trail takes seven. So on Wednesday I was booking buses and a night in Victoria, on Thursday I was on the move, and on Friday I was hiking.

Naturally I had a trail guide. Published in 1998 and allegedly revised in 2008, Donald C. Mills’s Giant Cedars, White Sands paints an idyllic picture:

The Juan de Fuca Marine Trail gives hikers the freedom to use the trail any time. They need not make reservations or pay for trail or ferry permits. The bridges, boardwalks, and suspension bridges are very safe. The Trail is forty-seven kilometers long and can be hiked in part, as a day hike, or hiked all at once, in four to six days. Whether you are a novice or an expert hiker, you will want to experience this new and challenging trail.

As a dissenting view, let us take VancouverElizabeth‘s review via TripAdvisor, from June 29 of this year:

Dangerous Trail.

Just hiked this trail. The trail is seriously degraded. There has been no upgrades in 20 years. At some parts the trail is poorly marked. There is a considerable amount of deep mud and the trail is steep, slippery and difficult to navigate. A challenging trail with many obstacles and many parts that are dangerous.

One star.

VancouverElizabeth’s is the truer analysis. The fine backcountry constructions have become at best worn, at worst ruins. Almost every staircase is missing at least one step, maybe half are only relics in the dirt. Even in a bone-dry summer the mud was unavoidable and thick, while erosion has made steep slopes worse and some flat parts risky. I didn’t find navigation difficult but there are open areas where I can see how one might, and there are opportunities to pass the last marker on a beach and wander into the wild until you run out of either land or patience. Slippery? Definitely, when I did it, despite the drought. It’s probably hard to get yourself killed, but easy to bust an ankle hours from highway and help. Oh, and this part of Vancouver Island is one of the world’s leading black bear habitats.

I disagree with VancouverElizabeth in two ways. First, there have been a few upgrades in twenty years. Over four days I saw nine wood planks that had obviously been replaced since the hardware was originally installed in the late 1990s. So there.

Second, and maybe I’m feeling generous because it was my first multi-day thruhike after a year of one- or two-night ins-and-outs, but it was better than one star. Dangerous, sure, tiring, in spots, but that’s part of the fun. And there were rewards. I wouldn’t leap up and down to call it “a world-class adventure hike” (in the words of Giant Cedars, White Sands) but I might do it again.

This diary is largely for myself, so I can look back years from now and say “oh yeah that was neat.” People making plans might find aspects useful, and I’ve provided statistics for each of my four days. But mostly, this is for buddies and family who want to read about what I’m doing. General interest is likely to be limited. That’s right, blogging it old-school.

There is no cell service or wifi so I wrote each entry in camp and put them together back home. So don’t think this is any sort of as-it-happens diary: they’re a day’s impressions cleaned up after the fact. I hiked westbound, from the China Beach trailhead to Port Renfrew, but the other direction is also popular.

Trigger warning: this post contains materials that may cause distress to readers sensitive to cheap wooden staircases falling apart in public parks. Please read on at your own risk. Emotional counsellors and psychiatric advise are available through the City of Toronto.

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