Wednesday, 22 May 2013

West Coast Trail Full Hike May 2013

So, last time I hiked the full West Coast Trail was August 2011. It was difficult then, but many of the problems I could chalk up to knee problems I was having at the time. This time, 11 months after my knee surgery I can sum up the difficulty with one word: slippery.
Here's an overview of our trip, with photos to go along. I met up with my hiking partner/research participant last Monday in Victoria and drove up to Port Renfrew. We attended our hiker orientation that day in order to get an early start the next morning. Amongst periodic rain showers we set up our tent at the Pacheedaht First Nation campground, hoping that the weather on the trail would be in our favour. However, when we took the ferry over the next morning, it poured rain. An ominous beginning to the most difficult portion of the trail. Most people know that the southernmost end of the trail is  the most difficult section. Not many people comprehend just how difficult it actually is. I know I didn't when I first hiked it, and we were barely able to make it out on time to make the shuttle bus. To those like me who come to backpacking via alpine experiences, trail difficulty is usually measured through elevation gain, loss, and incline. These are not ways to accurately measure the difficulty of the West Coast Trail. The most difficult southern section appear, at least on the map, to have what to a seasoned mountain 'packer was insignificant topographic variation. Not so. When the trail is covered with logs, roots, and rocks and every step is a balancing act, elevation is not a good guide to difficulty.
Day 1: LOG DAY
It took us ten and a half hours to hike the thirteen kilometres to Camper's Bay. We decided to skip the first campground at Thrasher's Cove because it adds a one kilometre descent and morning ascent to the trail. This meant we hiked from around 8:30 am until 7:00 pm, with very few stops. I'm sure others, like the two men ahead of us, could hike it faster, but we chose slow and steady because much of the terrain was replete with precarious footing and quite frankly, dangerous, obstacles. Also, our short legs had trouble with some of what we came to call 'man-steps', obstacles that required us to do trail-yoga style lunges as we lacked the long legs of the steps the trail-builders seemed to have built for.  This is the portion of the trail where many people are injured. Here are some photos to give you an idea, and remember all of the wooden obstacles are wet and slick as ice.
Crawling under logs
Tromping through knee deep mud bogs with buried obstacles
Balancing precariously on slippery log bridges
Taking 'man-steps' over gnarly roots
I admit after several years of a regular knee dislocations I am petrified of slipping, and my hiking partner was terrified of heights, so these fears also contributed to our slow progress. We basically just wanted to get this portion of the trail done. We showed up at Camper's Bay exhausted, hungry (we barely ate during the day, our bodies and minds were too stressed with effort to have much of an appetite) but with the worst behind us. Most of the hikers we met at Campers, including a group of high school kids on a field trip, were on their way south, and we looked on them with pitying eyes as they prepared to tackle the next day what it had just taken us over ten hours to conquer. Although it had barely rained that day, our boots and socks were soaking wet and our gaiters covered in mud, a status which would not change for the rest of the six days on the trail.

The next day we had a lazy morning after our difficult start. We were the last to leave camp, partially due to our reluctance to don our soaking wet boots and socks (no point putting on fresh socks, they'd be soaking wet in moments). Day 2 was ladder day, hiking a mere nine kilometres from Camper's Bay to Walbran Creek. A distance that I could probably cover in 2 hours in good terrain, but which took us about eight hours. Mud, mud and more mud. And then ladders. Personally, I don't mind the ladders. They're straightforward as compared to struggling over muddy roots. But my hiking partner who is afraid of heights had a bit more trouble. Dangling from a ladder down a steep cliff, only to land on a suspension bridge, was not her favourite thing. That night she drank her entire flask of brandy (chased with Cadbury mini-eggs) in order to erase the memory.
Ladders on cliffs
Slippery rain-soaked ladders
Ladders that don't seem to end
Also cable cars and a suspension bridge, which I personally find fun, in an amusement park ride sort of way.
Logan creek suspension bridge

Cullite Creek cable car

 I think they're fun, even if some people don't
The next morning we couldn't take the beach route heading north out of Walbran because Walbran Creek was running too high. I'm a stickler for hiking safety regarding river fords, and won't do a ford unless the water is running at knee height or lower, if possible. I'm a strong swimmer, but I know that with the dead weight of a pack (make sure to undo waist buckle when fording) crossing a spring flow is not an easy task. So we took the forest route, which, like most of the southern forest routes, was muddy. We were able to 'refresh' the water in our wet boots within only half an hour on the trail. But we didn't mind. Because today was HAMBURGER DAY. Yes, today was the day where 1) we'd finally get to hike on the beach and 2) we'd fill our bellies with delicious burgers from Chez Monique's. 
This was a good day, perhaps our best day, and not just because of the delicious grilled meat on a bun. Almost as soon as we started on our first beach walk of the trip just south of Bonilla Point, the sun came out. For the first time on the trip I put on sunscreen! It was joyous. 
And then, out of the fog ahead of us, was a white gleam of hope. Chez Moniques. Home of the famous trail burger. Chez Moniques is run by, well, Monique, a lovely woman who operates a store-cum-hamburger stand-cum-hiker-shelter on Carmanah Beach. It is located on an "Indian Reserve" land claim inherited by her husband Peter (who informed me that in the Ditidaht language, Carmanah is actually called Kla-ba-iwa). They used to live there year round, but now they only occupy it during the trail season, along with 2 dogs, a cat, and a host of WWOOFers (Willing Workers On Organic Farms) who help Monique out with her garden, cafe and store. Her humble shelter feels like a palace to the weary hiker and Monique is friendly, hospitable, and full of knowledge about the trail, the area, and the land. It's worth going to Monique's just to speak with Monique and Peter, who are quite the amazing pair. 
At Moniques we sipped cold beers, devoured burgers and salad (fresh produce! amazing after 2 and a half days of dehydrated meals), and had a lovely, lazy afternoon in the sun.

Afterwards, we headed up to Carmanah Lighthouse, then down to the beach for a quick and easy hike to Cribs campground. Ending with a beautiful sunset, hamburger day was definitely the best day. 
Day 4: Boardwalk Day
This was our longest day in terms of kilometres, with about seventeen kilometres between Cribs beach and our destination of Tsusiaht Falls. It also involved a ferry crossing at Nitinat Narrows and some delightful beach walking near Cheewat. However, what defined the day were these: 
Looks like nice and easy walking, eh? DECEPTION!! These are as slippery as ice. Shuffling along like grannies, we crossed these perilous hazards at a mind-numbingly slow pace. It was actually easier to walk in the swamp beside the boardwalk than on the boardwalk. That night, I dreamed of wooden slats covered in a thin, slimy, slippery, goo. Apparently if one hike's the trail later in the season, this goo is gone. Lucky us hiking in May, we encountered the full extent of a winter's slime build-up. 
The section between Tsusiaht Falls and Michigan Creek is one of my favourites. For one thing, it has some of the best views from the trail, which either follows the beach or winds along some stunning headlands. Also, the terrain is much easier in this section, so it's possible to actually look around, instead of at your feet, without worrying too much about slipping and sliding into a ravine. This is also the portion of the trail where I will spend most of my summer, hiking in and out of the Pachena trailhead. Also, the area north of Tsusiaht Falls is Huu-ay-aht First Nation territory, and I have full permission from the Huu-ay-aht to conduct research on their territory. It's also just plain beautiful. Since I'll be spending most of my summer in this area, I'll write more about it another time. This is also a good wildlife viewing section, with bald eagles posing majestically perched on walks, whales spouting off shore, and bears.....pooping all over the beach (yep, this was our bear encounter, nearly stepping in mountains of scat). 
The last twelve kilometres have little in common with the southern end of the trail. A nice wide trail with few obstacles, we were able to exit the trail in about four hours, including a stop at Pachena Lighthouse. The last few metres of the trail were spent walking on the white sand of Pachena beach, a great way to end our trail odyssey. 
Last campground at Michigan

1 comment:

  1. Great trip report on the current trail conditions. A small group of us will be doing the hike very shortly and it was of great benefit to read how things are on the trail. :) Many thanks!