The West Coast Trail
This summer I took an amazing journey, one of my “Bucket List” trips – the beautiful West Coast Trail on Vancouver Island, BC. I was brave and did it with two women, my Melanie and Mallory (my little sis).
It’s a 75km slog on the western (duh) side of the island. It was first developed as a rescue route for ship wrecks along the coast, so subsequently you see a lot of shipwreck junk along the beaches, along with lots of Tsunami debris washed over from Asia.
The trail is certainly not for the faint of heart. It’s not that long, and you don’t really gain all that much elevation, but boy is it technical. After the driest July on record in Vancouver, we were lucky to do the trail in August, and suffer through the rain. It makes more of a difference than you’d expect. When it’s sunny the trail is beautiful and fun. When it pours heavy rainforest rain on you all day, it’s a little tougher to keep the morale up. Oh… and did I mention how muddy it gets? Like half way up your shin kinda mud. Mud that will suck your boot right off. Good thing we were prepared with full gore-tex shoes, rain pants and rain jackets. Next time I think I’ll have to bring one of those stupid little umbrella hats though… that would have been nice to have! It is also extremely slippery in all of that rain and mud, tree roots and slippery boardwalks are the worst culprits. Not one of us escaped without a slip and fall! The tree roots account for much of the technical difficulties – imagine the size of 700 year old tree roots.
The other technically difficult aspects of the trial are the ladders. Lots and lots and lots of ladders. They’re not actually all that difficult, but they are treacherous, so you take your time in the pouring rain with muddy boots, to make sure that you don’t fall 75ft down. They can be a bit taxing on the quads and glutes when you have to haul your 55lb bag up 3 vertical stories straight. But I shouldn’t complain too much (read on). There are also cable cars. Where you pull it up to you by rope, throw all of your stuff in then zip down and partially up the other side, then you have to pull your self the rest of the way hand over hand. Luckily, I helped out a group, and in turn, they helped us. That’s trail folk for ya!
Aside from going through a lot of mud in the beautiful old growth rain-forests, we hiked a lot on the beach. That was my favourite part. It was really unique to hike on the rocks in the intertidal zone and along the sand dodging the incoming waves. There’s a ton of life present along the trail, we saw sea lions (and heard them barking like crazy through the fog), whales right off shore, sea otters, crabs, slugs, sea urchins and tons more.
The coastline is gorgeous wrapped in fog, as it so often is. We would woke up most mornings to either rain or thick as pea-soup fog. On only one day we were lucky and the sun burned up the fog and made for an amazing day, we camped at the nicest campsite on the beach, right beside Tsusiat Falls. What a gorgeous spot. And boy was it nice to bathe in the sun, take a shower in a freezing cold water fall and dry our bones (and clothes).
The next days we were not so lucky. After 50km and another night of camping in the rain, huddling under a tarp to eat and try to get dry, things went down hill (figuratively speaking). Our first time long-distance hiker, Mally, started to deal with some pretty nasty knee pains. I could empathize, because I’ve dealt with the same issue on previous hikes. Thankfully Whitney was there, one of the people in a group that started the trail on the same day as us. In conversation a day earlier we learned that she is a physiotherapist… what luck.
So, after a morning of climbing tree roots and ladders, we came across Chez Monique, where we decided to wait for Whitney and her gang to catch up with us. Chez Monique’s is an amazing place, akin to an oasis in the desert. It is a small “restaurant” right on the beach on the WCT – imagine that. They have beer and coffee and chocolate and AMAZING burgers! It’s run by Monique, operating it on her family’s ancestral land. It’s a wonderful service they provide to the hikers and it’s too bad that Park’s Canada doesn’t recognize her and help her out. Monique herself is an incredible woman, an unstoppable force who has tons of stories to tell about her diverse life. She advocated for her peoples rights to stay on their land in the park, she was a computer engineer, she’s operated Chez Monique’s for a (very) long time and many more. Her and her staff were a great help to us as well.
Anyhow, I’m digressing. Whitney and the gang arrive a while after we devoured our burgers. She checked Mallory out, bending, stretching, poking and prodding. Sometimes physiotherapists can seem like witch-doctors, just being able to wiggle and poke something to tell you what’s wrong with it. Sure enough she diagnosed Mally with patella femoral syndrome, which is basically swelling of the junk under your kneecap. So with every step, the inflamed ligaments are causing unwanted friction and resulting pain. This diagnoses came at the 50km point (of a 75km trail), which when you’re doing the trail North to South is considered the half way point and the most difficult parts of the trail still lay ahead of us. With Mally only being 16, we thought she might still want full use of her knee in the future and decided to take the safe route and get out of there before she really injured it for life. It was a very tough decision to make, but it was for the best.
Monique called the park service for us, who showed up 3 hours later with their boat. It’s an wonderful service they provide to the hikers, picking up and shuttling out the injured, which there are plenty. 5 people were extracted from the trail just in the time we were on the trail. Mally was the 47th person to be evacuated in the season so far.
Looking on the bright side of things… we had a great boat ride. The water was as calm as it gets for the pacific ocean, and the fog was heavy, making it quite eerie. At one point the parks officer driving the boat stopped it and shut off the engine and said “Imagine that you’re Columbus, in the 1500s, and you’re stranded here like this for days on end waiting for the wind to pick up and the fog to lift. The pacific is known for times like this, where you can be locked in fog, drifting in the middle of the ocean for days on end. You wouldn’t know it with only 1/8 of mile of visibility, but we’re only a mile off the coast.”. It was quite the experience in itself. It was however bittersweet, when we passed in front of the final campsite and the end of the trail, realizing that we wouldn’t be getting that ultimate sense of accomplishment, knowing we had conquered the West Coast Trail. Instead it had conquered us… this time.