Friday, 28 February 2014

Day-Hiking the Wild Pacific Trail: Frontcountry vs Backcountry

As the West Coast Trail is closed for the season I thought BC Family Day long weekend in February would be an ideal time for me to visit the frontcountry unit of Pacific Rim National Park Reserve. I had a meeting with the Parks Canada research coordinator to attend, and my fiance and I decided to make a weekend of it.

Ucluelet Harbout

Ironically considering its title, the 'Wild' Pacific Trail is likely one of the most 'civilized' hikes on the west coast. It currently consists of two section, both within the municipality of Ucluelet, and apparently more sections may be added in the future. It is not a Parks Canada maintained trail (perhaps this is why it is so well-maintained!), as Ucluelet is adjacent to but not within Pacific Rim National Park Reserve.

It was a cold and blustery February day, so we only hiked part of it as my partner is a fair-weather hiker. We walked the 2.6km loop by Amphitrite Lighthouse. It was so odd to see an automatic lighthouse, which I know is becoming the norm, when I was used to the lighthouses of the west coast trail, which are homes as well as coastguard beacons. It's hard to imagine a time when the lighthouse at Amphritrite was as remote as Pachena or Caramanah Light, but around the turn of the century I suppose it was. Near the lighthouse there was an interpretive sign which showed an old photo of the original Amphritrite Light. Constructed of wood, it apparently blew down not long after its initial construction in a winter storm! 
Amphitrite Light

As we walked it began to snow, complementing the frozen tide pools. The setting was dramatic, and nearby were hotels and luxurious vacation homes. Their views were certainly more spectacular than those of most Bamfield or Port Renfrew homes, which were constructed more for shelter than scenic potential. This simple walk reminded me of why some people expected the scenery of the West Coast Trail without the grunt work that went along with it. If people were basing their expectations of the West Coast Trail on the Wild Coast Trail, where the scenery was wild but the trail was tame, then I could see how some first-time WCT hikers easily got in over the heads.

The difference between the frontcountry and the backcountry trails are more extreme in the Pacific Rim region than most parks. In most parks, from my experience, backcountry overnight hikes begin as extensions of day hikes. Thus a day-hike is not necessarily easy, and the transition from a well-maintained frontcountry trail to a rougher backcountry one is gradual. However, Pacific Rim was designed differently from some of the older parks in the Rockies with which I'm more familiar. It was conceived of from the get-go as three different units. The West Coast Trail Unit and the Broken Group Islands Unit were set aside as terrestrial and marine backcountry areas, respectively. Long Beach Unit, making up the coastal area between the towns of Ucluelet and Tofino was designed as and continues to be a frontcountry unit. What this means is that there is a separation from those who travel to the west coast to partake in backcountry activities and frontcountry activities. While this may be good for park management, whose job it often is to manage tourists more than any other wildlife, what does it mean for the experience of visitors? 

K'wistas Visitor Centre on Wickannish Beach

When I visited the K'wistas Visitor Centre at Wickannish Beach, the main information centre for both the Long Beach Unit and Pacific Rim Park Reserve as a whole, I was struck with the irony of this backcountry/frontcountry separation. The newly redone information centre was filled with excellent displays about the terrain, history, and First Nations Traditional Ecological Knowledge (TEK) of the Pacific Rim National Park. Displays were informative, were often triligual (written in Nuu-chah-nuulth as well as English and French), and acknowledged the complex relationship First Nations people had and continue to have with the ecosystems within their territory. From the displays at K'wistas, one would think that Pacific Rim was a flagship example of the co-management of the a park between traditional owners and government.

There was plenty of information about the ecology and history and traditional ownership of the West Coast Trail at the information centre at Long Beach. However, because of the geographic separation of these units, it is unlikely that anyone hiking the West Coast Trail will visit Long Beach on the same visit to Pacific Rim where they hike the WCT. Yet I would argue, it is often West Coast Trail hikers, who spend a full week traversing and interacting with the places of Pacific Rim, who have the keenest interest in the type of knowledge displayed at K'wistas. WCT hikers, who have a physical, phenomenological experience of the places of Pacific Rim, have less access to information about the places they travel across than the day visitors at Long Beach.

Part of this is because Parks Canada information on the trail is focused on getting hikers through the WCT safely, perhaps at the expense of more esoteric knowledge of the terrain. However, it is ironic that those who most fully invest in learning about a landscape by physically traversing have less access to information (at least, officially sanctioned knowledge) about the ecology, history, and traditional owners of the park.

Which brings me back to the Wild Pacific Trail in Ucluelet. Scenic, informative, but wild? Beware of names. 'Wild'-ness is a marketable designation, and does not necessarily connote the lack of human presence or environmental manipulation that popular culture ideally associates with it.

Tofino condos....something you'd never see in Bamfield

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