The West Coast Trail Revisited… Again and Again and Again
Since our publication of “Blisters and Bliss A Trekkers Guide to the West Coast Trail” in 1989, Wayne Aitken and I have claimed a special interest in the development of the West Coast Trail. Our annual pilgrimages together began in 1986. Prior to that we had made independent ventures dating back to 1974. Over the years we’ve come to know and love the coastline like a familiar, neighbourhood walk. We’ve witnessed changes that bred anger, changes that sparked delight and changes that engendered awe.
Opinions about the trail have flashed hot and heavy. The following have been edited to make them suitable for publication.
“All those roots and holes! Why don’t they fix it before someone gets hurt!”
“If they keep building these boardwalks, there’s going to be no challenge left!”
“It’s time they cleaned up that campsite. It’s disgusting!”
“This is no place for kids or dogs!”
“All the tramping across the sandstone shelves is killing the sea life!”
“How come they let them sell chocolate bars and beer?”
“That seems like a lot of money to pay for a long walk.”
“There are too many people! I wish they’d let fewer on.”
Woe be the decision makers at Parks Canada. Can there be any way to make us all happy?
Today the parks branch maintains comfortable offices at each end of the West Coast Trail. Hikers now sign a register, attend an orientation presentation, and receive a briefing on local conditions in preparation for the famous 75 kilometre trek. A permit encased in plastic is attached to each pack. These red tape formalities stand in marked contrast to the complete lack of structure of the past.
In 1974, four of us arrived in Port Renfrew with vague information from a friend of a friend that, “A Norwegian fisherman will ferry you across.” This knowlegeable source went on to assure us that, “If all else fails, try getting a boat at the Indian Reserve. You can throw a stone across from there.”
The local pub was the same rustic but sociable meeting place it is today. As we enjoyed a beer and cheeseburger, word of our need quickly spread. We were soon aboard a battered aluminum skiff, plowing our way across to the trailhead. Later in the 80’s and early 90’s, with 8000 hikers to transport, this ferry route became a lucrative business. Today, the price of your hiking ticket, includes a ride in a solid looking landing craft that skips across the river several times a day.
“The first part’s a killer!” This lament is common among hikers starting at Port Renfrew. The southern half has always had a reputation for beating up the unsuspecting. It’s up and down constantly as you wheeze your way over countless stream beds and around huge rock faces. Beautiful open forest sparkling with broken rays of sun suddenly give way to tangles of greenery so thick and impenetrable it’s impossible to step off the trail.
As I nimbly cross a new bridge built from indestructible, pressure-treated planks, I glimpse the tangle of brush and debris below and wonder, “Egad! Did I walk through that 10 years ago.” At another spot I’m faced with balancing on a log to cross a bushy ravine. The top of the log has been flattened with an axe and the thousands of cracks and grooves are filled with slippery looking mud. A small step has been carved to help me step up. Should I take the log or follow the muddy track down below? I choose the faster but more dangerous aerial route. Many of these daunting log crossings remain on the south end. Good balance along here is definitely an asset. Reflecting back to an earlier era, I decided we must have spent half our time balancing on one log or another.
We chuckled as we looked over a former mud-lake bordering some new boardwalk. In among the lush, reviving skunk cabbages and moist mosses, a few tell-tale footprints reminded us of the energy we burned skirting this hole the previous year. No more sinking in above the boot here. This spot was beginning to radiate some of its former tranquility. Boardwalk was often the solution for the early trail blazers too. Split cedar planks, four feet long, spanned much of the original lifesaving trail. Another early system for bridging mud, used three slender poles lying parallel and nailed to a cross piece at each end. A few of these springy challenges can still be found between Walbran and Adrenaline. Today’s state-of-the-art track is a well-supported, twenty-four inch span, which provides ample room for the single hiker.
In spite of all the boardwalk, mud continues to be a favourite topic of conversation. Muddied hikers arriving at Walbran from the South, love to tell tales of horror to the clean-skinned beach walkers from the North. Perhaps it is Murphy’s Law that a place to walk is also a place to fall. I’m confident that as long as we have rain we will have mud on the West Coast Trail.
The most popular campsites at Michigan, Tsusiat, Camper and Thrasher, have been fitted with delightful, comfortable and odour-free composter toilets. I hope these will be the final solution to an ugly problem that has plagued the trail since it began catering to 8000 or more visitors each year. At these stops, our old habits of using the ocean or “surfing” as we call it may be gone forever.
I remember the first outhouse that was placed at Thrasher Cove. It faced out over the ocean. On my first visit, I noticed slightly muddied knees protruding from the partially open door. I backed off out of sight, thinking this hiker in repose deserved to enjoy his few moments convening with nature. Moments later, as he came by me he remarked, “That thing must have been designed by a midget. I soon knew what he meant. There wasn’t enough room to shut the door across my knees.
At Tsusiat a few years back, two open-air, moulded fiberglass privies without roofs sat high on the sand at either end of the beach. Patrons sat facing inland, their lower body hidden from the beach by a raised back. Hikers waiting below could track progress by watching the upper torso dance. The winter storm that claimed these bastions of exposure did us all a big favour.
In August of 1974 the trail spilled us out of the thick salmon berry onto the rocky, muddy shore of the Nitinat. There was no dock, just a couple of bleached planks and some broken buckets. We looked out over the river in anticipation, but there was no boat to take us across or other sign that humans lived nearby. The length of shore, some 100 yards away, had no landing beach but to our left a rocky point blocked much of the view. The water flowed past us towards the sea, stretching the shore weeds like streamers in a breeze. All was silent except our voices. Our packs become back rests. We settled along the planks and in the grassy bank to wait.
An hour passed. Salmon jumped, we skipped a few muddy stones, an eagle flew over and then quite suddenly a canoe emerged from around the point. The loan boats-man skilfully lifted his outboard as the canoe slid smoothly up our beach. The tide had changed and the movement of water had almost ceased. A dark-skinned, wrinkled old native greeted us with a toothless smile. “You come two at a time,” he said.
As I loaded my pack, I realized the canoe was an old weathered dugout. My grip on the shiny, smooth gunwales tightened as the small boat settled in the current. Three, small freshly-caught cod gaped up slightly ahead of where I’d settled on my knees. Greasy, blood-streaked water sloshed around the cod and between my legs. Water lapped against my clutching hands. In moments we were all across and our native friend was tucking away $5 from each of us. From our new vantage point we could see out the mouth of the river to the ocean as the canoe headed that way. We watched it disappear over the crest of a huge rolling breaker.
Cut to August 1999. We are lounging about on the small north dock of the Nitinat eating crackers and peanut butter and chatting with two other hikers. Carl Edgar arrived in his huge, aluminum skiff. He’d been fishing that morning and snagged his forearm with a hook which was still embedded in the flesh. A friend used heavy wire cutters to snip off the shaft close to the skin because the dangling lure kept jolting and causing pain. “My wife will be taking me into Port Alberni right after I drop you off,” he explains.
In spite of the injury, he sold us a freshly caught ling cod which he filleted right on the spot. Carl Edgar is a descendant of the old man in the dugout canoe. His family has been collecting the toll for the last dozen years. On the opposite dock about ten hikers were waiting. Some were resting on the same grassy bank we used 25 years before. This time the cost of the boat ride was included in our trail pass, but we still paid Carl a few bucks for the fish and a couple of cans of beer. We called a few greetings to the other hikers and then headed off up the boardwalk into the salmonberry with another Nitinat story to trade.
I usually stop in the middle of the Logan Creek suspension bridge to look in all directions. Gently bouncing high above the creek, I’m filled with a sense of awe and drama as I savour the ocean view. I’m hanging on a marvel of technology that makes me feel small and yet it’s dwarfed against the steep walls of the canyon. Before the bridge, these were the toughest walls to climb . Wide ladders made from lashed or spiked driftwood poles leaned perilously against bare rock faces. Rough ropes were strung from outcroppings and roots to provide precious hand holds. Progress was dead slow as hikers picked their way across the cliff faces from ledge to ledge gasping from the effort and the thrill. The experience was repeated to a lesser degree at Sandstone and Cullite. Today it’s tortured lungs and grinding knees as I climb the endless ladders. I’m happy I no longer need to worry about finding my next foothold. The ladders provide their own dramatic challenge.
There’s a long stretch of soft, golden sand near Cribs Creek that collects the markings of every trekker’s feet all day long. Between the tides, footprints over footprints accumulate upwards from the water’s edge. It’s a stark contrast to those days when there were no footprints but your own. Those were beach combing times when I used to poke at the clumps of fresh flotsam hoping to find the elusive glass ball. Now I find myself watching for the next set of hikers.
“Good day! Having a good hike?”
“Great! How about you?”
“Terrific as long as it doesn’t rain. Just watched a whale back there. He hung around for about an hour. Seemed to be foraging on the bottom or something.”
“No kidding? Hope we see some. How’s the trail up ahead?”
“The sand is brutal. Have a good one!”
Hiking the trail has become a wilderness experience mixed with a strong dose of socializing. At Michigan an Irish Policeman and his wife shared our evening coffee; at Tsusiat a German school teacher offered to translate “Blisters and Bliss”; at Monique’s place more than 20 trekkers chatted over lunch; at Carmanah the lighthouse keepers, Janet and Jerry dropped in for morning coffee; at Walbran a group of 10, who signed up at the YMCA, enjoyed their guide’s cooking; at Camper a 78 year old man, who trained by carrying his pack up a ladder to his roof, shook our hand; at Thrasher a large group of retirees proudly showed us all their home dried food; in the pub at Port Renfrew we celebrated the completion with a beaming group of hikers. The West Coast Trail has become a different and unique hiking experience. When I’m out there, there is no other place I’d rather be.