Monday, 20 January 2014

Self-Evacuation or How to Get Off the West Coast Trail When You're In the Middle of It

The West Coast Trail, unlike other trail like the Juan De Fuca, really has only two trailheads, one at either end. This means that the 75 kilometre length of the trail is inaccessible except on foot for the public. Parks Canada and First Nations staff do patrol the trail and evacuate injured hikers by helicopter or by boat.

Important to note is that unless you have special permission (i.e. First Nations access rights) all areas on along the West Coast Trail Unit of Pacific Rim National Park are accessible only on foot. Private boats, including kayaks (I have known of kayakers fined for accessing the West Coast Trail, so kayakers be warned) are not allowed to land on any of its beaches. Although hikers will often see helicopters flying up and down the length of the trail, and may even see one land and drop off Parks Canada trail maintenance staff, private helicopter access is also prohibited on the West Coast Trail Unit. There's a story in trail mythology that some rich folks once asked if they could take a helicopter to Tsusiaht Falls for a daytrip. Parks Canada denied them permission, to the gratitude of many hikers who do not want to share their experience with wealthy day-trippers.

Unfortunately the most common way people leave the trail without completing its entire length is by emergency evacuation due to injury or illness. From eighty to a hundred people are evacuated off the West Coast Trail every year. That does not mean that there are high numbers of serious injuries on the trail, as when a hiker is evacuated often one member or even all of their hiking party is also evacuated. Furthermore, most evacuations are for injuries such as sprained ankles and knees, which, while not serious, do prevent a hiker from completing the trail. However, serious injuries have happened on the trail, and there has been, to my knowledge, at least one recorded death.

Parks Canada Safety Officers trying to negotiate the waves and rocks after a September storm to evacuate hikers. Photo taken at Swing Beach near Carmanah Light.

However, there is one other option whereby hikers may leave the trail that does not involve harming oneself. Hikers may exit the trail at Nitinat Narrows by arranging with the ferry operator to be taken to Nitinat village at the eastern end of Nitinat lake. Although older guidebooks may say otherwise, you cannot enter the trail at Nitinat Narrows, only exit it.

Overview of Nitinat Narrows, photo credit

On my last trip of the season I decided to take this option. The next morning after the storm it was sunny, but the sea was rough. I spoke with the lighthouse keeper at Carmanah, who told me another storm, perhaps even larger than the previous one, was expected that evening. I waited until mid-morning to make my decision, hanging out with the lighthouse keeper and witnessing an evacuation of one of the hiker groups who had sheltered at Monique's the night before. The sea was still so rough the Parks Canada staff had difficult time making the beach, and watching them struggle decided it for me. If I continued hiking south from Monique's I would be on the section of  the trail which was more sheltered, but generally more difficult. And if the storm took out one of the cable cars I'd be trapped (this has happened in the past) until Parks could get me out. I'd also end up at  the southern trailhead of Port Renfrew, the opposite end of the trail from where I was based. On the other hand, if I headed north and the storm flooded Darling River or Michigan Creek, these could become impassable (as had happened in the past). I was fairly shaken by the power of the storm, so I decided to be smart, be safe and exit at Nitinat Narrows. Besides I had hiked the trail before, but I'd never been to Nitinat, so this was a good excuse to head that way. When I reached the ferry I'd found out that I was not the only one who decided to head out. The Trail Guardians had warned another solo hiker about another storm hitting the coast, and he had decided to cut and run too.

The ferry operators charged us $50 a head for the hour long ride up the lake. Be warned, at Nitinat you are off the trail, but certainly not out of the woods. The only public transport out of Nitinat is by the West Coast Trail Bus, which stops 7km away from the village at Nitinat Junction. As  the ferry operator only takes people off the trail once he or she has finished for the day, you will have missed the shuttle on your arrival. There is a campground and a motel at Nitinat, but not much more than that. It's a beautiful place, but is, like Bamfield, a remote place accessible by logging road. As we were hiking at the end of the season, the WCT bus was only running every second day, and we would have had to stay two nights at Nitinat, either in the pouring rain at the campground or at the motel for over $100 a night. Luckily, we spoke with some friendly locals who were able to drive us to Bamfield. For a price of course, as it is over three hour return trip! So exiting at Nitinat can be quite pricey if you're on a budget. At the end of a long season of hiking, I was simply happy to eating a burger at the pub in Bamfield when the storm hit  that evening. 

Another common reason people exit the trail at Nitinat Narrows is because they have failed to allow enough time to hike the trail. The trail takes six to seven days, and even if you think you can do it three or four days, I would warn that I encountered many hikers, often experienced and fit ones, who aimed to complete it quickly and either were unable to or felt so hurried/exhausted by the pace they wished they had given themselves more time. If you don't have enough time to hike the West Coast Trail, hike the Juan de Fuca. If you find you finish the WCT early, well good for you! Go to beach and relax, or do one of the possible day/overnight hikes at either the north or south end in addition to your trip.

I would not recommend leaving at Nitinat Narrows if you are heading south to north, and arrive at the Narrows fed up and exhausted. You've already completed the hardest part of the trail, and north of the narrows it gets gradually easier and is, in my opinion, probably the most beautiful section of the trail. However, if you are hiking from north to south, and the 'easy' section of the trail has left you overwrought, then get out while you can......

1 comment:

  1. Glad to see you are writing again Lauren!