“Why do you go away? So that you can come back. So that you can see the place you came from with new eyes and extra colors. And the people there see you differently, too. Coming back to where you started is not the same as never leaving.”
― Terry Pratchett, A Hat Full of Sky
Why: Why not? The WCT is reputedly one of those epic hikes that I’d tucked away in my brain for a rainy day. When my cousin M. said this was the summer he was going, I kinda hinted I’d love to come along, and he was cool with that. He was bringing his dad, uncle P., and I added my son, Hugh, to the roster.
Trail stats: The trail is supposed to be a miserable grind through unruly roots and muddy bogs, along slippery boardwalks & bridges and precarious bridges & ladders. Black bears, cougars and wolves await around every corner and up each tree, waiting to pounce and eat you for dinner. If nothing else fails, the hypothermia will get you and the mice will chew their way into your gear and nibble all your trail mix, pooping as they go.
“Your pack is way too heavy.” Albert hoisted my pack back onto the picnic table. “Open it up, let’s see what you’ve got in there.”
I had no intention of taking out a single thing from my 52 lb pack for the West Coast Trail. I was, however, entertained by this marauding stranger with the pick up truck, the Chinese music blaring from the stereo and the feather in his hat. He had stopped by the campsite next to ours at the Pachena Bay campground, and I figured he knew the campers.
I quickly discovered Albert’s M.O. was to stop at any site with hikers that looked like they were heading out on the WCT, offer them tea, advice and conversation, and in return, ask for some boiling water (for the tea) and the open mind to accepting a resume for any future tour guide or construction needs. Some people were receptive, some were not. He was ousted from the neighbouring campsite.
“Sleeping bag – okay. Tent – yes. What’s this? Your food is a hundred pounds! There’s way too much in here.” Albert pulled out my trail mix bag in particular. He pointed to the M&Ms. “You don’t need this much chocolate. You should give some to me. I love chocolate.” When I laughed off his request, he moved over to visit with uncle P. and cousin M. for a bit.
“Who IS that guy??” Hugh, my son, had stayed hidden in his tent during this exchange, and had just emerged to pack up his gear and scarf down some breakfast.
Albert was a good guy. He told us stories of the trail, life on the island, and the lies Parks Canada tells about “red tide” and paralytic shellfish poisoning. “I eat shellfish all summer long and I’m fine. They don’t want you to harvesting anything, that’s all.”
It was day one for the four of us on Vancouver Island’s West Coast Trail. We were hiking 75 km North to South from Pachena Bay to Gordon River with the intention of taking 6 nights and 7 days to work our way through the coastal temperate rainforest and sandy beaches. Hugh and I were pretty stoked to hit this trail. I’d hiked with Hugh before, and also with M. I had a good idea of their capabilities and hiking styles. It would be my first time with P.
Today’s plan was to hike 14 km from Pachena Bay to Darling River: an easy stroll on well-groomed, rolling trails through the rain forest. We dutifully took and-we’re-off photos in front of the WCT sign near the Parks building where we’d received our maps/tide tables and had our mandatory orientation. Crossing Pachena Beach at low tide, we spotted the forest trail markers (floats/buoys) and headed into the trees to find the path.
This was my first hike ever through a cedar forest with towering trees, a fern-covered floor and a somewhat eerie stillness. The dirt footpath muffled our footsteps, and the farther we got from the beach, the darker and quieter the forest became. We often didn’t see or hear other hikers coming towards us until they were a few steps ahead. In fact, the first wave of hikers coming from the South were fairly early in the day, making tracks to complete their journey on the WCT.
All the northbound walkers were in good spirits and a few ladies apologized for their smell. I couldn’t smell anything but I totally get where they were coming from at the end of a long trek! Mmm that greasy feeling. But the big news on the trail that morning was actually a yearling black bear – with no mama bear in sight – hanging out by a nearby creek. We didn’t see it… And then another set of hikers reported on the same bear, that it was now up a tree. We still didn’t see it… The anticipation of seeing a bear faded as we continued on.
Throughout the day we crossed bridges, ascended and descended several short ladders, and had a few cool rest stops. Giant fallen cedars with their intricate root systems exposed towered above us as we passed by, housing a whole plant walls and newly-created eco-systems.
Before we saw them, we could smell them: the sea lion rock just offshore was home to mammoth, lolling sea lions barking away at each other.
Michigan Beach had a decidedly Bohemian feel. Talking to a couple of campers there, we learned that the gray whales were super active up and down the coast, and were particularly frisky today. Almost immediately, we saw a whale exhale explosively through it’s blowhole right offshore, followed by the slow curve of it’s back and a showy little dorsal fin – spectacular!
We continued along the beach, with the sand constantly shifting beneath our feet. Our pace slowed down a bit as we struggled to master walking in the soft sand. Two kilometres later, we arrived at Darling River, a lovely little camp area with a fresh water source fed by a small waterfall, and room in the forest and on the beach for tents. Our very first night beach camping! Hugh and I set up right on the beach with our tents, careful to watch for the hide tide markings (as not to be swept away unexpectedly in the middle of the night).
Hugh hit the sack shortly after his tent was up. I wasn’t too surprised – it was an eventful first day with our very full packs. I ate supper alongside our companions who each prepared their own dehydrated meals. It was neat to sit on large pieces of log driftwood, watching for the gray whales and listening to the ocean. The weather was warm without being hot, and Pacific smelled, well, like the sea.
M. kindly had brought back some filtered water for us all at supper, but as the sun set I needed to get more for the night and for tomorrow’s breakfast. It was dusk, and the “better” water was as close to the falls as possible. Nobody was around the fresh water source anymore, and I kept thinking about our orientation session, where we were instructed to keep an eye out for the sneaky cougars… bending down or appearing small (ie. when one is busy filtering water) can lead to a potential cougar attacks as they’d view you as prey.
Boy, oh boy, I kept singing songs to those bears and cougars and I climbed over logs towards the waterfall. I splashed my way across the stream to a gravelly sandbar, so that I could be out in the open and watch the forest on all sides. It took forever to pump the water… the water on the North end of the WCT is a lot more silty, and requires frequent cleaning of the ceramic filter. And it never fails that when I go to get water, I somehow get covered in it as well. So, about 30 minutes later I singsonged my way back to camp, water splotches all over my pants, but unhindered by local predators.
As the sun finally dropped behind the distant outcropping, I sat in my tent, with the fly and the screen pulled back (no bugs!), sipping fresh water and contemplating the darkening sky. A good first day.
Tomorrow – Darling River to Tsusiat Falls