Tonquin Valley tales & toenails

I finally lost those two toenails.

It is, after all, November.  The toes had it coming. They were crushed, mashed, marinated and stomped during an August hiking weekend through Jasper’s Tonquin Valley.

I should’ve pulled them off when they were still bendy and juicy.  Instead, I had high hopes they’d hang on.

No such luck.

So, I pulled both of them this morning.

Hiking Jasper’s Tonquin Valley brought long distances, frozen feet, mucky bogs, and unexpected wild beauty. It was actually the most sensational yet challenging hike for me all summer – one of those ‘perfect storms’, I guess you could say, to assault the senses.  There were times of great beauty wrapped in an exquisite sense of loneliness and mental exhaustion.

Tonquin Valley can be explored in a loop, but for a one-car quickie weekend hike, M. and I parked at the Portal Creek trailhead, where we’d return in a few days, and began our trek in towards the Maccarib backcountry campground.  Hiking into Tonquin up and over the 7,100 foot Maccarib Pass is reputedly the more scenic of the ways and we weren’t disappointed.

Towards Portal Creek

The route began with a slow ascent along Portal Creek, through the forest and up across rock slides. After the first 8.5 km and 350 m of gained elevation, we stopped for a break at the Portal Creek campground. I was cooked. And surprised.  I didn’t expect to be that wiped out after only a few kilometres.

TV cowgirlsAfter a break to refuel, and to discover the al fresco toilet options, we started the climb up Maccarib Pass.  We passed a handful of other hikers, and a convoy of supply horses.  Not too many folks on the trail.  I stopped a lot to take in the views and catch my breath.

Reaching Maccarib Pass was a total rush, and it was heady to soak up the expansive alpine meadows and multiple peaks. You could even see the lovely Mt. Edith Cavell from the top.  From there on it was a downward jaunt out of the pass, down through the next valley, all with a teaser of our first glimpse of the Ramparts. Total shot of energy, like the first 8.5 km didn’t even happen.

First glimpse of the Ramparts

We reached the Maccarib backcountry campground around the 19 km mark, to wrap up our days’ hike.  M. and I chose sites across from one another – both with a wonderful view of the tips of the Ramparts. The evening was spent eating and talking, and going for a walk to the lake to check out the mountains, which were truly magnificent in stature, and fantastical in name:  Drawbridge Peak, Bastion Peak, Dungeon Peak, Parapet Peak, Thunderbolt Peak, to name a few. Essentially the Ramparts is a sub-range of a dozen or so impressive, towering peaks upwards of 10,000 feet ringing the Amethyst Lakes.

Evening walk Tonquin Valley

Early the next morning, I woke up to the delicious patter of rain on my tent fly. Which then became the vaguest whisper of snow.

I pushed out of my tent to the most exhilarating blanket of white covering the ground, the tent, the trees, the view. The soft, heavy, wet snow plummeted down. I walked alone through Maccarib, absorbing Mother Nature’s amazing display.

Summer wonderland

My affection for the summer storm, however, began to wane as the morning progressed. We weren’t done with Tonquin. We’d only just arrived, and it was time to pack up and move on to the next campground, Surprise Point, about 9 km away. My tent was wet. My mittens and boots were wet.  And if I stopped moving, I was going to get cold.

I really hate being cold.  My mind hates being cold. It becomes a little obsessive.

What ought to have been an easy valley walk to Surprise Point became a bit of a snowy slog, with no view, no perspective.  The low clouds and swirling snow hid the Ramparts, in addition to covering the path.  M. led the way, breaking trail.  For me, it was mentally exhausting to tramp through the snow and squishy mud.  My feet were absolutely soaked through, and the inside of my shell was wet and clammy against my skin. I could feel my overall body temperature dropping even though we were on the move.

We broke our rhythm for quick look at the Amethyst campground (apocalyptic in the snow – flattened, with not a sign of civilization) and then for lunch at the Clithero campground, which seemed even more socked in (M. raised my spirits by sharing his chicken soup = lifesaver).  The snow lightened up and eventually stopped, but we still couldn’t see a single mountaintop despite being surrounded.  The last bit to Surprise Point was across uneven terrain beside the lakes, where occasionally the path bordered small but deep, black pools of water.

It was here my right foot slid left in the slippery snow, and I wiped out hard, backpack swinging out and gravity pulling me towards the pools.  I was going in, I was sure of it. It took every ounce of energy to fight my body weight.  I ended up in a heap on the snowbank, my face suspended above the water.  M. paused and looked around. He took a few steps towards me and cocked his head.  “Well, what are you doing down there?”  Then he turned and kept walking.

Undecided as to whether I should laugh or cry I rather ungracefully pushed off my hands and knees to get to my feet, and struggled to catch up.

Surprise Point

We arrived at Surprise Point as the clouds began to lift.  I was relieved to be home for the night, and both M. and I hung our gear out to dry on the trees around the campground. Once we’d set up camp, we walked over to the lakes to check out the Ramparts once again.

I could spend a week just watching the sky move and the light change.

The Ramparts

Tonquin Valley

M. was set up to take photos for a while, but I was slowly losing steam. My feet were still soaked to the bone, and my skin was cold. I had to throw in the towel, despite the beautiful surroundings.  I hustled back to the campground and got my stove going. I needed to eat something and get into my sleeping bag before I froze to death.

Don’t get me wrong, it wasn’t actually cold outside. If I’d had dry feet I think the situation would’ve been different. My boots just had no defence against the wet, wet snow.  I ate something, and filled my Nalgene bottle with boiling water to use as a mini furnace inside my sleeping bag. I stored my food in the campground food locker and headed off to my tent.  I put on all my long underwear, warm layers and hat.  It took me almost two hours to stop shivering. Miserable. Seriously.

Despite a restless night (with many thoughts of “why is it that I do this??”) I woke to a brilliantly sunny, happy, bluebird day.  The world had essentially transformed from snowy chaos.  I stuffed plastic bags bags in my boots and slid on a pair of dry socks. We were out for three nights/four days, and I’d brought three pairs of socks. I had to ration accordingly.

We left our camp set up and hit the trails for a day hike to check out the local glaciers.  A couple of ladies we met who were staying further along the trail at the ACC Wates-Gibson hut admired our tenacity to camp in the snow. I simply had cabin/roaring fire envy.  The Alpine hut was a few kilometres down the trail…Even though the day was sunny and warm, I had that cold misery imprinted on my being from yesterday and my mind was struggling to shake it off.

Back at Surprise Point around midday, we packed up our gear and returned down the trail towards Amethyst campground.  The terrain we’d travelled through was unrecognizable from the previous day: grassy meadows, 360 degree views of the mountains…. By now, the frozen paths had thawed into some serious mud pits.  Most of the time it wasn’t a small muddy patch where you could skirt around the edge; rather, it was a full-on mud fest, with deep churned guck which comes as part and parcel when you trail-share with horses. There was no way to fight it. Just walk through the middle. Get dirty, get wet.

Amethyst campground had melted back to normal with only small moats surrounding the tent pads as evidence of yesterday’s snowfall.  We set up our tents across from yet another glorious view of the Ramparts. Regardless of the close proximity to the lake, we had no bugs on this summer trip. I’d even packed a bug net, having read accounts of voracious mosquitoes, but I didn’t need to use it at all. Not only bugs, but we didn’t see caribou or bears, either.  Quite a quiet trip for wildlife, really.

Tonquin Valley teeth

While Maccarib had a handful of campers and Surprise Point had been deserted, Amethyst was actually full to capacity.  It was a real treat to visit with others on the trail, but also a little trickier to plan trips to the (open-air) loo…ha.  That night, when nature did come calling at 0200 hrs, I stood outside in amazement to watch dancing ribbons of the Aurora Borealis morph across the night sky.  The green bands of light held steady in the north for as long as I watched.  How can you bottle that feeling? Finally, I crawled back into my tent, zipped up my sleeping bag, and dozed off.

The next morning, an equally stunning display welcomed the day while we ate breakfast.

TV sunrise

A liquid gold sunrise in the Rockies.

Liquid gold sunrise

And home time. My last pair of dry socks sunk into wet boots.  It was a long haul out of the mountains that day, at about 25 km, but a gorgeous journey retracing our steps out of Tonquin Valley.  I felt quite humbled by this trip. My feet were in rough shape from all the long distances and being constantly wet. I was so appreciative of the fact that summer was winding down, and this was going to be one of my last hikes of the year.  On every hike I’ve had this year, I’ve bumped into fellow hikers from out East or overseas who make a trip to the Rockies as their one big annual vacation, with months of planning and preparation.  How spoiled was I to just get an email from M. saying, “how ’bout Tonquin?” and we could zip away for the weekend?  So lucky.

 

 

 

West Coast Trail Day 7 – #takemehome

Going home. Going. Home.

Last day on the trail. I hate to say it, but I was ready, which meant I was done. Day 7.  Let’s go.

After a night of intermittent sleep, I was up early and ready to hit the trail.  Hugh was the same.  We cheerfully and efficiently stuffed our gear into our packs, so old hat at this point. Everything fit so well. We could do this with our eyes closed.

P. awesomely shared some of his snack packs: plump Ziplocs filled with GORP, along with a Clif bar and tiny pouch of jerky nestled on top.   This totally made our day knowing we’d have good fuel for the hike out. And even more so, someone else’s food looked so much more appealing than the dregs of our supply.

M. and I had had a conversation a few nights ago about the WCT, and the possibility of hiking it again. The words NEVER and HUH-UH and YEAH, I DON’T THINK SO came up. Neither of us took many photos of the south end compared to the north, and I have to wonder if it was just exhaustion and not lack of beauty that made that happen.  I was still of the same mindset on our last day. Done with this. Don’t need to ever do it again. Not interested especially in ever doing the south end of this trail.*

Most of our cohort was up and gone from the beach at Thrasher’s Cove quite early, intent on hitting the river shore and flagging down the ferry at a reasonable hour.  Some had bus reservations at the trailhead back into Victoria, some really just wanted a hot shower.  We faced the music of that steep, 1 kilometre climb back out of the beach and up onto the ridgeline running through the forest.  Holy sweaty start to the day, Batman. OMG.  Such a wake up call. I think I got a wee bit grumpy at that start. P. and M. breezed up the incline with no problem. I was just cuh-ranky.

Once at the top, this was it – – – > Thrasher Cove to Gordon River (5 km).  ONLY 5 km. Only.

Thus began an undulating trail through the old growth forest. I think there’s some trail psychology to the last day of a long hike. IS the end of every hike really, truly horrible? Or is it the anticipation of wrapping up a hike conflicting with the actual timing that makes it just endless? Five kilmetres seemed fairly long on this fine morning.

Ultimately, we climbed up to the highest point on the trail – near the derelict donkey engine abandoned in the middle of the forest – and then we lost elevation for the remainder of the hike, but in a very slow and roundabout way. The trail had plenty of ups and downs to keep you on your toes. At one point Hugh and I followed Mathieu and Anne down a steep embankment, only to discover we were totally off trail and had to painfully pull ourselves back up.

We started meeting up with little groups of hikers fresh off the ferry: pairs, groups, families. Everyone smelled delightfully clean, and I stared in envy at some brand new clear water bottles strapped to another hiker’s pack. City water. Shiny gear. Bright-eyed and bushy-tailed hikers.  No one wanted to stop and talk, everyone was keen to keep moving and getting on to Thrasher or Camper Bay for the night.

We could always hear the ocean along this portion of the trail, but could no longer see it. Our entire 5 km was in the trees. The route was a actually quite pleasant, and if you didn’t have a huge pack strapped to your back, it would be a nice little jaunt through the woods.  Of course, I say that having already spent a previous six days on the trail.  To those just starting out at Gordon River, the trail would undoubtedly appear rugged, steep, muddy, rooty, and full of broken bridges, boardwalks and ladders, with a couple of monster-like uprooted trees and an assortment of banana slugs hanging out along the path, not to mention the lovely fern beds and mossy bits along the way – something I just didn’t “see” anymore.  A few markers did appear to be missing, though, or we just didn’t notice them, and kilometres 71, 72 and 73 seemed to take a very long time to get through.

Marker 75.  Epic.  We took the obligatory photos and walked the last few steps onto the small, rocky beach where the ferry would cross the river to collect us.  We sat. We waited. I thought I would feel a lot more accomplished.  Instead, I felt that while the hiking was done, something else was still undone… incomplete.  A very odd feeling. Our last day took us about 1 km per hour for those last 5 km.

KM75

We crossed the river on the ferry and were at the other side in minutes.  We disembarked and took the time to weigh our packs.  Mine was only down by about 5 lbs despite all the food I’d eaten.  M. slid our permits into the Parks Canada box, and P. went to fetch the truck, which he’d left in the care of the Pacheedaht Campground.

Over. Done. (But undone).

** Of course, sitting here on a cool October morning, trying to recall this last day on the trail from July, there is a glimmer. There is a “what if” and “maybe I should…” going through my head.  Never say never.

 

West Coast Trail Day 6 – #mclovin

WCT ConverseI shook off yesterday as best I could.  Today was  Sunday.  Not that days of the week really meant anything. But I had been counting sleeps.

In fact, counting sleeps is something I do not only for the anticipation of Santa, but also when backpacking. No matter where I am, or who I’m with, or what day I’m on, I mentally take quiet notes of how many sleeps down, and how many to go. I often think about my husband, knowing exactly where he’ll be at 8:00 pm every night (the bath). And the cats, where they hang out (end of the couch and in Oliver’s room). And it’s with a certain longing I recall the lovely, civilized routines of emptying the dishwasher, drawing the curtains at bedtime…

And I woke up today knowing there was only one more sleep on the trail.  Huzzah.

M. and P. were up and at ’em at a decent hour. I think they’d done their chores and started packing up before I could even haul my sorry self out of the tent.  Camper Bay was still jammed with backpackers. At least a dozen tents huddled together on the sand strip, a rowdy mash-up of hikers from each direction, everyone in a different stage: cleanliness, happiness, denial, exhaustion, etc.  And of all these characters, I quite enjoyed the little crowd that had formed around P.

P. was a social butterfly. He didn’t even have to look for a party, the party had come to him. It was a fairly large group of, oh, “middle-aged women” I guess would be the fairest assumption, who were hiking south to north.  He held court as they flitted back and forth, chatting him up as they noisily gathered their gear. From the snippets of conversation amongst themselves and with others, I figured if I had to hike with these women, they’d drive me nuts with their regimented plans and know-it-all attitudes; but if I was in a pinch, they’d always take care of me.

I sat on my driftwood bench sipping a cup of coffee (which, btw, was courtesy of P. who had shared his cruise ship collection of instant coffee with us) and watched the ladies warily, from a distance, dote over P. The French couple lounged nearby at their fire pit, Converse-clad feet up on logs, making no move to get going at all.  Mathieu caught my eye and raised his sunglasses. “These women, they’re like BIRDS. Squawk, squawk, squawk. So LOUD.”  He slipped his sunglasses back over his eyes and jammed his hat down over his ears.  Even Anne, normally full of humour in the mornings, agreed. “Thank God they’re hiking the other way.”

Eventually, the ladies wrapped up and wished P. the best, and headed northwards along the trail.  M. and P. also wanted to get an early start on the day and, shouldering their packs, made their way towards the cable car.

Hugh finally poked his head of his little yellow tent in the newfound silence.  “What the heck was going on out here?? What a racket!”  He disappeared, and started shoving his pack out from inside of his tent. However, in forcing his pack through the fly, which was still fastened at the bottom, we suddenly heard a sharp CRACK and his tent buckled. It was just a broken pole.  Not a big deal, we’d figured we’d duct tape it tonight. Better Day 6 than Day 1.

With most of the campground mostly deserted, with the exception of Mathieu and Anne, we savoured the peace.  It was a blessing to gather one’s thoughts and set intentions for the day.  Live, love, happiness – let’s roll!

I pulled on my wet socks, laced my boots and headed to Camper Creek with Hugh.  We skipped the cable car and jumped stone to stone across the creek instead. The water was low enough that it was safe to traverse. At most, your feet might get wet. And, CHECK.! they were already wet, so no harm no foul.  We scrambled along the forest paths to catch up to M. and P.

Today’s hike was Camper Bay to Thrasher Cove (8 km + 1 km off trail to the camping beach).  We had a choice today to hike along the beach around Owen Point at low tide (it is impassable at high tide), where there was some serious bouldering and cool caves to explore OR take the forest route along boardwalks and tree bridges.  Because the tides this time of year were higher, and the hiking window along this stretch of beach was tight, we opted for the forest route as the safer alternative for our group.

Hugh and I met up with M. and P. on the trail and travelled with them for a bit before pushing on ahead.

Day 6 on our own

Today’s hike turned out pretty amazing. Our route made points of contact at two beach entrances for the Owen Point route, but otherwise it was deep in the old growth forest with mud pits, boardwalks, ginormous cedars and my favourite part, the log bridges high above the forest floor.   The “bridges” were simply fallen logs needed  to traverse mucky ground or small gullies. The logs could be fat or thin, mossy or slimy. At least they were chiseled along the top and notched for a bit of boot-grip.  At one point, we travelled about 10 feet off the ground along a linked log path, with 90 degree angles at the junction points, six foot high brush overgrown all around us. “Marco!!” I’d yell before dancing across from log to log.  If I heard a “Polo!” I’d pause on a log junction until a north-bound hiker appeared and could safely pass.

We hiked a bit with Ange and May, the Calgary girls, and were lapped by Mathieu and Anne, who were like antelope on the trail.  We stopped for lunch and a couple of extended rest breaks but didn’t see M. and P. so we kept on moving forward, leaving our leaf faces now and then.  By about 2:00 pm we’d  reached the junction for Thrasher Cove.  Here, I’m sure, many decisions have been made.  The end of the trail was only 5 km south at the Gordon River ferry crossing.  Many hikers buckle down and continue on to complete the trek on their final day. We knew Thrasher Cove was only 1 km away, and that was home for the night, so we took a right on the path towards the beach.

That last 1 km to Thrasher Cove took a looooong time.  We began to lose elevation almost immediately, and it was with a sinking realization that we knew to get back to the junction would require a very steep hike first thing in the morning.  The trail down to Thrasher was arduous, rooty and muddy.  My knees creaked anytime I had to make really long steps down off rooty edges.  The finale came in the form of several tall ladders, and then poof! we arrived blinking in the sunshine, feet on sand, dazzlingly happy.

Beach!  Seriously! Awesome!  I dropped my bag and walked straight into the ocean up to my knees. The cold water seeped through my boots and my socks, rejuvenating my feet and my mind. I splashed for a bit, washing off my boots and pant legs as well. Freedom.

The beach was already fairly clogged with tents, and the southern, sunnier end had filled up with brand new hikers who’d just started their adventures.  We trudged north along the sand, crossing the trickle of freshwater, and pitched camp across the wee channel from Mathieu and Anne.  They were  already completely set up, and were sunning themselves down near the water’s edge.   We threw hiking poles, Hugh’s tent fly and a few other bits of our stuff onto the sand near our spots to hold space for M. and P.’s tents.  Hugh immediately went about organizing a campfire for M. and P.’s arrival, digging out an old fire ring, gathering driftwood and shaving kindling.  He took about a dozen trips further north along the beach to procure all sizes of driftwood.

Day 6 on the beach

While Hugh prepped the fire, I washed out clothes, hung damp things to dry, set up the tent and re-organized my food bag.  I’d budgeted fairly well for my food. For each day I’d rationed 1 bag of trail mix + 2 bars (ie. Clif Builder Bars, Luna bars, Kind bars) for the trail, and then 1 breakfast and 1 dinner. There was also a handful of trail/lunch extras like Moon Cheese and beef jerky.  Hugh and I shared a lot of our trail food, so if I ran out he had more and vice versa – it just depended who had the easiest access to the snack when hunger struck.  I had two dinners and two breakfasts left (I think I’d skipped a dinner somewhere along the way) and no trail mix/bars.  Hugh had a bag of trail mix and some Ichiban noodles.  We pooled our rations and planned on finishing up most of it tonight and tomorrow morning, leaving the trail mix for the walk out.

Hugh’s tent pole didn’t cooperate with our duct tape and stick splint ideas, so we decided he’d share with me tonight. My tent did sleep two, and was a palace for one, so there was no problem fitting him in.

M. and P. arrived at Thrasher Cove around supper, and it was fantastic to see them. We had the opportunity to sit around the fire for a bit and swap stories of our day.  Supper didn’t take to long to make and consume, and Hugh continued to feed the campfire with driftwood.

Day 6 Thrasher Cove

It was both a relief and a sadness to be spending only one last night on the WCT.  Home is a good place, you see.

I wandered the beach a bit, chatting with the south-bounders.

Day 6 awesomesauce The hikers heading north all looked so bright-eyed and bushy-tailed, not to mention, CLEAN.  Yep, I wanted no part of that. Haha. As well, I had no desire to get on my soapbox…I wanted them to experience everything for themselves, no expectations.  (And I’m also recalling all the “helpful” soapbox advice we received from passing hikers about the journey = 25% useful, 50% misguided, 25% grandstanding.)

We passed our last evening watching the tide creep in, to ensure our tents weren’t sucked into the ocean.  P. and H. had both gone to sleep a little earlier, M. stayed up to take photos. After the all clear, I headed to bed.

Good night, WCT.

Day 6 tide watch

Tomorrow – Thrasher Cove to Gordon River

 

 

West Coast Trail Day 5 – #pissedoff

0410 hrs, Camper Bay

Awake. In the dead of night. Drained from frustration.  Dirt under my fingernails – again. Stinking like a latrine.  An angry, sticky, stinging red rash on the inside of my thigh.

OMG. Why am I awake at this hour? It’s been a crap sleep following a crap day.  I’m a prisoner of my own mind.

Where do I start describing this past day’s adventures?  If I was to pull out my journal, you wouldn’t read a thing about the splendid suspension bridge at Logan Creek and the towering sets of ladders at either end. You wouldn’t know that we skidded along slick, moss-covered, broken boardwalks, some at crazy, rollercoaster angles. You wouldn’t see how we crossed a bog filled with mud pits and stunted trees, or traversed elevated log bridges suspended over a blanket of ferns.  You wouldn’t have even thought I was on the WCT. You would’ve thought I was pitching a fit in, say, traffic, or because my Starbucks order was wrong.

Day 5 grumpy kat

There just wasn’t a lot of joy on this day.

First, the spiralling-out-of-control hygiene issue. I think Bill Bryson captured it best from A Walk in the Woods:

You go through a series of staged transformations – a kind of gentle descent into squalor… At the end of the first day you feel mildly, self consciously grubby; by the second day, disgustingly so; by the third, you are beyond caring; by the fourth, you have forgotten what is like not to be like this.

And let me tell you, by the fifth day you can truly not even stand the chunky tang of yourself.  You catch a whiff of that juicy pong emanating from some unknown crevice and your head spins.  How, HOW in this modern world could I possibly not smell like fresh eucalyptus or baby powder?  I came to adore my tiny bottle of hand sanitizer because it had a faint after-scent of an orange orchard. I would often walk, just smelling my fingers, in order to feel human.

Second, there was pace.  We all have different gaits, and I was not in my groove.  At all.  Day 5 was our very first short day: Walbran Creek to Camper Bay (9 km), and also our first day hiking on the technical side of WCT.  Well, that 9 km hike took us 11.5 hours.  ELEVEN AND A HALF HOURS. I almost lost my mind. Admittedly, it came down to expectations. I didn’t realize it would take the four of us that long to complete this section.  They say the WCT is 30% physical and 70% mental. Well – I hadn’t budgeted mentally to be on the trail an additional three to four hours than anticipated that day. Nor did I set aside enough trail food for that length of time (read = hangry).

Third, pain.  While the true battle raged on in my beady little brain, after about eight hours on the trail, the body started to fight back as well.  I developed a long chafing rash on the inside of my thigh.  Hugh’s feet began to ache – as if on cue – and he was suffering terribly the last few hours. We were both pretty damn miserable.

If I had had the courage, I would have talked about how I felt with my hiking companions, or split up and hiked alone for a bit. To walk it out. To decompress. But I didn’t. And that probably added to my total vexation…not knowing how to be honest with myself or the group.  M. was silent. P. barked at us for jumping on the suspension bridge. Hugh bitched about his feet every 15 minutes. I was seething.  Good times, no?

We arrived together at Camper Bay sometime around 8:30 pm, the sun long gone.  All of our usual travel buddies had pitched camp between 3:30 – 5:00 pm which reconfirmed my crazy exasperation at how long we took.

To boot, the beach was NOT the utopia promised by hikers we’d met who’d travelled from the south, raving about the wonders of Camper Bay. Little did they know, the best was yet to come in terms of beach camping, and quite frankly, Camper Bay was a crowded, over-run, shanty town of tents squeezed onto a strip of sand behind a natural beach/rock wall so that you never really had easy access to the ocean. The water source was a stream and a pool (oh yes, guaranteed someone washed their stinky arse in that drinking water).  The best sites, of course, were already taken.  (Ummmm, mind you, I was so damn grumpy by this point, I may kinda have had a corrupted view on Camper Bay…)

Day 5 shantytown

We threw our packs down near our hiker buddies, avoiding one area of beach that apparently regularly got pummeled with rocks from the nearby cliff.  The French hikers, with great kindness, welcomed us to share their fire and offered up their large bag of filtered water so we could refill our bottles and prepare supper right away. Hugh and I gratefully accepted their generosity. We popped up our tents and ate, chatting back and forth with the friends from Montreal.  Hugh disappeared to bed after dinner and after taking some Advil for his bruised feet, and was out for the count.

After that, I just moved in slow motion. I’d caught one or two where-had-the-sun-gone snaps before it got too dark, just after we arrived. Otherwise, night was closing in.

Day 6 last of the sun

I still had to put the food away, visit the loo and all sort of other chores that seemed to take forever.  I hadn’t even taken my boots off.  I tried to shake off the day. Instead of the have-nots (no bathing, no post-hiking down time, no patience, no courage) I had to concentrate on the haves (alive, breathing, injury-free, kindness of fellow hikers, food and water in my belly).

It was 10:30 pm, sitting in the darkness by the driftwood campfire of the Calgary girls, when I finally peeled off my boots and my wretched, soaked socks. They stoked up the fire so I could hang my socks on sticks to dry. (Which truly is all aesthetics – nothing really ever dries on the WCT. ) I just sat and stared at the flames while they told stories of their day. When I finally rolled into my bed, or rather, on top of my bed, trying to air out my horrible rash, I could barely stand the smell of myself (how is it that I reek like an outhouse???) and I was exhausted by the ramblings and battles of my own mind.

Holy, I need to CHILL OUT.  A new day is about to dawn in two hours…

Tomorrow – Camper Bay to Thrasher Cove

West Coast Trail Day 4 – #keelykeelykeely

I was deep in another world.

It was vaguely post-apocalyptic, and sort of Waterworld (without Kevin Costner) but civilization had mostly ended and scattered populations floated upon the ocean. Hugh and I had sailed to the aircraft carrier that was now Great Britain and were to make contact with his Internet friends he’d met while gaming online for hours on end. They were going to help us “…because it’s raining out, but it’s not as bad as it sounds when you’re in the tent.”

It was M.’s voice blended with the rapid pitter-patter of rain on my tent fly. I struggled to pull myself out of such a deep sleep to comprehend what he was even saying. “…tides…leave by eight-thirty.”

“Right! Yes! Okay!” I tried to act like I was lucid. I shook myself awake.

Rain. Crap.

Yes, it’s the WCT, and rain is really the norm. We’d been blessed with our mild weather and gorgeous sunsets. If you want to talk Achilles heels, mine are not mud, heavy packs or long distances… mine would be dealing with group dynamics, and me/my gear being wet and being cold.  Now I’m sitting in my tent, strategizing how to pack up my stuff while keeping it as dry as possible.

We’d literally pitched camp where we fell last night right out in the open on the beach. No extra tarp cover. No forest cover. Just rain.  I typically pack up everything outside my tent, so I needed to switch up my method. I changed into my hiking clothes (always an awkward dance inside the tent), and started packing my sleeping bag, mat, camp pillow and clothes.  I tucked away my book, and because I didn’t know what to expect on my first day of rain, I also packed my camera (I’d just pull out my iPod for quick snaps).  I unzipped my tent screen and awkwardly put on my hiking boots in the vestibule.

Taking a deep breath, I unzipped the tent fly… it was grey out there.  A totally faded morning with drizzle from the sky.  M. was right – the rain was not as bad as it sounded from inside the tent.  I crawled out onto the wet sand, then propped my pack up on a log and threw my pack cover over it.  I trotted over to Hugh’s tent for a wake up call and gave him the morning weather report and timeline to get on the trail.  Time was important today for the tides.

With orientation for the WCT, each hiker is given a map with the tide tables – to match our hiking dates – taped inside. Some of the beaches are impassable when the tides are high, and it’s not worth getting stranded for hours on end, or wet.  Or in a worst case scenario – drown.  Today we were heading from Cribs Creek to Walbran Creek (11km) mostly along the beaches.

I wasn’t too excited about the rain.  It wasn’t hurting me, of course. But even though I had a waterproof coat and pants, I have this annoyance with being wet and cold, and today had the potential to suck.   I did my best to seem cheerful to Hugh, and he was keen to get up and get moving.

We both finished packing up in fairly good spirits but that fine sand stuck to everything it came in contact with…it was a total pain to fold up a wet, sandy tent that weighed a whole lot more now.   We ate a cold breakfast of trail mix and granola bars, not wanted to fuss with the stove and doing dishes in the drizzle. M. and P. are a solid pair, and took their time to prep a hot meal.  I didn’t have that patience.

Day 4 IG shots

We left Cribs in the cool drizzle, walking along the beach. It was wet and slow-going. I found the shifting sand combined with a snail’s pace to be frustrating. By the time we reached the short segment of forest leading to the Carmanah Point lighthouse, Hugh and P. were ready for a break. They parked it at the fork in the road while M. and I went to check out the lighthouse.  Just like Pachena Bay’s lighthouse, it was like entering the compound of the Others, from Lost. Manicured lawns, flowers, fuel tanks, a house, a swing set; general neat, tidy organization in the chaotic world of the WCT. Oddly enough, it held no appeal to stop and stay. We were barely at the start of our day – time to keep moving.

I was already wet. The raincoat was waterproof but my sweat created a cold layer against my skin. When we emerged from the forest onto the beach, I was thrilled to see Chez Monique’s, the second food stop along the WCT, and its spiral of smoke from the roof of the tarp shack. Hallelujah – a wood stove! I was freaking freezing. We sped up to cross the crescent of sand, eying up the handful of small boats clustered in the sheltered bay – always a back-up escape plan in mind…

It was still a little while before lunch, so the options were breakfast or burgers, and then anything from the extended convenience-store style menu.  We grabbed a free table, and set our wet packs off to the side. Hugh and I went to the kitchen and ordered hot vegetable soup, fully-loaded burgers and a handful of treats including Power-Ade, chocolate bars, butter tarts and gummy worms. I paid.  We spent about $70 there. Seriously.

I peeled off my raincoat and hung it over the back of the plastic lawn furniture. I went over and stood by the stove, which was outfitted with a dryer hose as a chimney.  There was a minor fire while we were there…and a conversation about a new shipment of supplies coming in soon.

Like the last stop, kids were taking orders and delivering food. But Chez Monique’s had a decidedly different feel than the crab shack.  Maybe it was the rain, maybe it was the vibe… The kitchen was the happiest area of the place. Monique was there taking orders and managing her folks.  The remaining cluster of shacks had a very communal feel, complete with a roaming barefooted toddler sporting dirty curls and a bearded drifter who was one day short of his two-week commitment to Monique, and didn’t hold back in sharing that he couldn’t wait to get off the trail. It was a place that could be more oppressive than idyllic if one was to stay longer than just for lunch.

The highlight – the absolute highlight – of Chez Monique’s was a young Aboriginal boy with the clearest blue eyes and the most delightful confidence that only a grade 5er could carry off. That perfect moment in time, that quintessential 11 year old boy archetype – confident, free, innocent and unabashed. Clad in boarder shorts and a sleeveless Hawaiian t-shirt with palm trees, despite the cooler weather, he was a busy little employee, running to and from the kitchen, answering questions and visiting as he went.  He wouldn’t let you take the burgers from his hands, but insisted upon placing the food down in front of you.

I would totally hike the WCT again next summer just to see if that kid is still around. I would also make t-shirts and hats with his picture and wear them proudly. He was that cool. I will never forget his little voice, calling my name: “Keely! Burgers for Keely! Keely, Keely, Keely!”

We ate up and warmed up.  And then we left.

Hugh and I surged forward, fuelled and free. The next 8 or so kilometres were all on the beach. We walked at a comfortable pace, chatting amiably, stopping for rests and to reconvene with M. and P. every two kilometres or so, to ensure everyone was doing alright.  This pace worked so well for us, and really helped Hugh’s feet, and lifted our spirits on this dreary day.  We skipped the cable car, jumping across the stream on the beach. We rounded point after point, making our way to the evening’s camp. We walked on soft sand, hard sand, pebbles, rocks, boulders and tidal flats.  We saw beautiful rock formations exposed at low tide, with trees growing out of top; a handful of baby otters and an eagle; loads of sea urchin shells and pretty pale green, blue and white sea glass.  An unexpected journey, these beaches.

Day 4 going home

We arrived at Walbran Creek at a civilized hour, with the sun breaking through to give us two hours of complete and total humanity.  Hugh and I hung our gear out to dry on great driftwood logs before finally pitching our tents and setting up camp.

Day 4 beach life

The evening ablutions ran their course; water gathering and feeding took place. Hugh retired early, and P. and M. went about their own chores.  I did a lot of sitting and staring out at the ocean. I missed the grey whales from the past three days. The sun set once again, and I settled in to my little home, tent fly open to the ocean, to read.

Day 4 tent life

Day 4 Reflection 02Tomorrow – Walbran Creek to Camper’s Bay

West Coast Trail Day 3 – #deadmanwalking

I woke up.

No cramps. No vomiting. No pain.  No death in general.  Tah-dah!

Phew – I’m so glad that the shellfish didn’t kill me. WON’T be doing that again. For reals.

Turns out I slept so fitfully I didn’t even hear the chaos in the girls’ tent just over from mine. They’d left the screen unzipped about an inch, and in came da mouse…apparently it was an animated 5 minutes of mouse flinging to get it out.  The mice had left our camp mostly alone.  A net bag holding my stove and tea kettle over by the campfire got a nibble, but that was it.

Happy to be alive (and mouse-free), Day 3 looked promising, despite the face it was our longest scheduled distance on the trail (16 km) hiking between Tsusiat Falls and Cribs Creek. Day 3 foggy beach walk

The morning held an ethereal quality as we slowly made our way along the beach surrounded in fog, with the sun trying to shine through.  Hikers moved in quiet bunches, each finding their own pace. Eventually the fog engulfed the hikers in front of us and we were seemingly alone on the shifting sands.

That’s when we noticed figures on the massive rock formations in the sea.  Hugh didn’t bring his glasses on this trip, and was convinced that these were campers who’d found their way out to a rock during low tide. But upon closer inspection, the “campers” were actually large bald eagles!  Just hanging out.  I’ve never been that close to a bald eagle before!!Day 3 eagles are coming

Day 3 hole in the wallThe fog continued for a couple of kilometres along the beach, and at one point, just past the Hole in the Wall, I could swear – absolutely – that I could hear singing.  Hugh scoffed, and called me crazy. (And that’s a fair judgement – haha.)  But I swear… the voices rose and fell, like they were caught in a breeze and tossed to shore, then muffled again by the mist. My ears fought against the sound of the waves moving on the shore, trying to pick up the melody. I’d hear it, stop walking, then it would disappear. It was so beautiful. Haunting.  This continued on for about 20 minutes.

We took a rest break, leaning up against some rocks on the beach. (It’s all about finding the perfect rock or log that supports your butt and your pack at the same time. That way your whole body gets a break.)  Peering out to sea, I watched as the fog seemed to thin and fade directly in front of our stretch of beach, revealing a fishing boat and two – what appeared to be – traditional sea canoes.  For a brief moment, I could put bodies to the voices, this time talking and laughing, when the curtain of fog dropped as abruptly as it had lifted, and the boats were swallowed up again and all went silent. So magical…

The beach trail ended when we hit the official Ditidaht Indian Reserve lands, and we moved back onto the forest trail which curved inland to avoid the impassable headlands.  The trail began to get a little more technical with mud pits and root-y terrain. After we had just finished a particularly sticky climb, we met a group of hikers, one of which was wearing a pair of Crocs wrapped in duct tape.  Apparently his boots fell apart hiking through the mud on the South side, and this was his only solution – game on!Day 3 Nitinat Narrows

We reached the Nitinat Narrows just in time for lunch.  The Narrows is a tidal passage about 3 km long, and wide enough that hikers can’t cross without the use of the ferry.  The cost of the ferry is included in the hiking fees for the WCT, and M. (holder of the paperwork) had all of our receipts for passage.  I bribed Hugh with a mini Baby Ruth bar to get him to holler “Hey you guys!!!!!”  across the channel to catch their attention…not long after, the ferry chugged to life and came across to fetch us, bringing us to the other side.Day 3 crab shack

Et voila, our first “fast food” of the trail: the Crab Shack.  Locals serve up fresh crab (hauled right out of the water in front of you!) and salmon with a baked potato for $25.  As well, they have a cooler full of pop and beer, bags of crispy potato chips and cheezies, and chocolate bars.  Yuuuuum.  Hugh and I were on a bit of a budget, and we knew there was another food opportunity the next day, so we spent our pennies on pops and deliciously salty cheezies and chocolate.  I also gnawed on a protein bar to make sure I was getting enough fuel for the rest of the day.Day 3 Mr Crabs

We still had about 11 km left to go.

Hugh and P. had both expressed reservations about today’s hike simply based on length. And it was true test of endurance, especially with a heavy pack.  Exhaustion  impacts people in different ways.  I’ve been there on hikes in the past, and I get that…when you’re so beat that you can barely speak, you lose your appetite completely, and you adopt that 1000-mile stare at the end of the day.  I’ve had my friends almost force feed me my food to keep me fueled in order to boost strength in these situations.  It’s not pleasant, when the last thing you want to do is just be left alone to zone out. But it’s important.  No fuel in the tank, and your hiking days can turn into excruciatingly long treks through a wild blur.

Today’s food stop perked everyone up, and we moved forward refreshed and ready; however, fatigue caught up not long after and it was slow going through the rest of our day through all kinds of terrain.  There were plenty of stops.  A lot of stops.  So many, many stops. It’s a double-edged sword: the more you stop, you get a mini break, but the longer your day, and the longer you are on your feet with a heavy pack driving you into the ground. Choose your poison.Day last 11 km

We arrived at Cribs Creek, slogging along the last bit of beach to our destination – just around 41.5 km from where we started a few days ago.  We didn’t even bother seeking out prime real estate and ditched our bags closest to the last tent pitched on the North side of the beach.  Hugh had his tent set up and was inside before I could say Jack Daniels.

The beach was full of campers all eating dinner and settling in for the night.  I mostly remember the feeling of the cool, silky, superfine gray sand on my puckered feet, clomping across the beach to stash the food bags, use the loo,  and find more water, and setting up my tent near Hugh’s on a little sandbank. I may have eaten a cold meal that night…I know Hugh probably scarfed down crunchy Ichiban inside his tent, cougars and bears be damned.  With Hugh tucked away and fading into dreamland, and P. going about his nightly routine, I sat on a log with M. watching the night creep in.

Tomorrow – Cribs Creek to Walbran Creek

 

West Coast Trail Day 2 – #redtide

Day 2 reflectionIf I die tonight, tell my mother I love her and my father that he is a good dad.  Tell my brother he rocks. Tell my husband I chose him for the happiness he brings me. Tell Oliver he is a strong young man who can do anything he sets his mind to, and to not be so hard on himself. And tell Hugh that his is good and kind, and that he is going to do amazing things in this world and touch the hearts of many people.

I’m sitting in my tent at the end of day 2 silently freaking out.  Today I ate something I shouldn’t have and the consequences could be deadly.

***

Day 2’s agenda was to hike from Darling River through to Tsusiat Falls (14 km), and the morning started out beautifully with breakfast and a show thanks to the gray whales.  They were just offshore, as usual, and we watched as they dipped and dove through the water. And we even saw one whale breach three times!  Beautiful.Day 2 breakfast beach treasure

After eating breakfast and packing up our gear, checking in with each other for any miscellaneous aches and pains, we hit the trail.  The day was filled with beachwalking, ladder climbing, and strolls along mossy, slippery boardwalks.  We saw the whales quite a bit, and goggle-eyed sea lions watching us from the water as we walked, just their little heads poking up. Very curious little fellows.Day 2 trail shots

We passed the site where the 253 foot iron steamer Valencia sunk offshore in 1906, losing more than 125 lives.  Of the many vessels that sunk off this Graveyard of the Pacific, public outcry for the Valencia was the loudest, and helped push for the further development of the WCT and the building of the Pachena Lighthouse in 1907.

Why the fuss? Hard to imagine in this day and age of instant news and social media.  But reading the Valencia‘s account is bone-chilling, and apparently the wreck surpassed all but the sinking of the Titanic in terms of “sheer horror.”  The passenger ship became engulfed in fog, and the hull was pierced upon the jagged West Coast rocks. The captain chose to jam the ship into the rocks about 30 yards offshore rather than sink in the deep water.

Passengers were tossed overboard [by the pummelling waves] almost immediately. Women and children were lashed to rigging out of reach of the sea. ‘It was pitiful to see women, wearing only night dresses with bare feet on the frozen ratlines, trying to shield children in their arms from the icy wind and rain,’ writes freight clerk Frank Lehm.  Daybreak brought a grisly spectacle. ‘Bodies hung suspended from the rigging like flies in a web. Once rigor mortis had run its course they loosened their hold and tumbled into the water or onto the deck with a flaccid thud.  More corpses drifted between ship and shore, scoured of flesh and features as if by a giant cheese grater,’ Graham writes.  One lifeboat finally made it ashore and its crew soon found the telegraph trail, made it to the lineman’s cabin, and cabled Cape Beale.  Another vile night passed as rescuers struggled along the trail and ships sailed from Victoria to lend assistance. ~ Ian Gill, Hiking on the Edge

There were survivors, but not a single woman or child lived through the ordeal.  No remains of the Valencia can be see from the trail, although we did pass relics of other wrecks, including a boiler, and anchor and other bits and pieces.Day 2 more trail shots

It was actually at Trestle Creek, where we spotted the anchor on the beach, believed to be from the shipwreck Janet Cowan, where I made a really dumb choice.Day 2 Anchor

Trestle Creek was a great spot to stop for a break, and many other hikers had the same idea. We bumped into folks from our camp last night, and then also a large contingent hiking from the South. As we snacked and people-watched, I observed that a bunch of Japanese hikers weren’t nibbling trail mix or protein bars; instead, they were full on cooking a meal, with their stoves out, pots bubbling, etc.  It seemed like a lot of work to me!  I usually save my cooking for mornings or evenings only while on the trail.

Upon closer inspection, I realized that the menu was comprised of shellfish, which was undoubtedly harvested from the very beach upon which we were sitting.  The hikers coaxed the meat out of the shell using a gold safety pin and then dipped it in a sweet chili sauce they’d brought along. The side dish was steamed seaweed.Day 2 red tide

I couldn’t believe it. Didn’t they know about red tide? How the higher levels of neurotoxins in the algae could then cause paralytic shellfish poisoning in all the mussels, clams, etc?  This was a big deal at the WCT orientation – harvesting is off-limits and consumption could cause death.  But here they were, happily noshing on a free meal from the sea.

I poked Hugh.  “Check that out!  Don’t they know that’s not cool?”  And then when one of the ladies went to wash her dishes, she used the freshwater source as opposed to the preferred method in the WCT literature – the ocean.  “OMG – does no one read the WCT rules??”  I was high on my rule-book horse.  What kind of eco-monsters were they letting on the trail?? So many people disregarding the environment, etc.

But then I decided I wanted a photo of the shellfish (because the zoom on my camera wasn’t good enough), and went over to speak to the hikers. Oh man, they were soooooo nice and sooooo hospitable.  Really, really lovely people. They laughed and joked, and said sure I could take a photo as long as I didn’t work for Parks Canada.  They told me all about their hike, their cooking… and then they passed me the safety pin.

Ugh.

Even in my regular, at-home existence I don’t eat shellfish. With my father highly allergic to shellfish, we just never had it around the house growing up. In my adult years, I’ve tried out a variety of it (gagged through oysters, plugged my nose through mussels, etc) but it never really was my thing.  And here I was, taking photos of these nice people and trying to get to know them, and then boom!  I’ve got to partake.

They say going on the trail brings out things in your life that are forever present. Issues you need to deal with, reoccurring challenges, all of it is magnified.  And here I was: I just can’t say no. I didn’t want to be impolite, to offend anyone, to cause a situation of conflict. I politely declined once, twice, three times. They kept asking. Offering.  So, I just did it. I ate it. Regardless of the fact I could die. And the fact that this choice also made me a ginormous hypocrite.  Epic fail.

I mentally plugged my nose and scooted the tiny portion of meat to the back of my mouth, as to avoid any tastebud contact.  I chewed. It squidged about in my mouth. I chewed some more. They were all watching me so carefully.  I swallowed, and smiled. They smiled when I smiled.  I thanked them and complimented the food. One of the ladies brought over a new pot of seaweed, and they started feeding this to me as well, telling me it was sweet (it was). It was fine – I could eat however many pots of seaweed as necessary to get me through the rest of the conversation. But then one man said he was going to get me a “good one.”

No! Not another! Nooooo!  I politely declined, but of course the pin came my way, this time dunked in chili sauce. “Is good!” the man insisted.  Another death sentence down the hatch.  Then two more.  I wrapped up my visit and got back to my crew.  It was time to move on. But my head is spinning…What have I done?Day 2 cable car

Right after our break came our first cable car in order to cross the Klanawa River, which required all hands to be on deck.  We sent P. across, then M., and then Hugh and I together.  The 10-second thrill was quickly replaced by the need to start hauling oneself via rope, hand over hand, to reach the platform on the opposite side of the river.  I’m really glad all four of us worked together to get across the Klanawa! In retrospect, keeping it to one person and one bag per cable car is the best way to go.Day2 cliffs

Just two more kilometres through the rainforest along a cliff we caught glimpses of tonight’s home sweet home, Tsusiat Falls.  We scrambled down a set of ladders to the beach and scored a sweet set of spots all together in a little driftwood fortress, complete with a “living room” for our campfire.Day 2 fortress

The fresh water source for this beach was Tsusiat Falls themselves…lovely falls with a little “swimming hole” at the bottom (again, people were swimming, bathing, brushing their teeth and washing stuff in this small body of water…the same water we were filtering to drink. But post-shellfish-madness, I’d given up my fight on the subject and just had to let that go in my mind. After all, I could be dead tomorrow).

The beach was really spacious with lots of room for tents and campers. Hugh started the campfire. This particular beach was crazy good for driftwood, and Hugh made a great fire. Mind you, it did take a little patience. We quickly discovered that no matter how bone dry the wood felt, it didn’t burn easily and it took a while to build up strong, hot embers.Day 2 campfire

After dinner, I went for a wander up and down the beach, soaking my feet and legs in the water, letting the waves push and pull, push and pull.  It refreshed the body and the soul.  Bedtime came soon enough.Day 2 Tsusiat Falls campground beach

Day 2 beachDay 2 Tsusiat Falls

***

All I could think was that I was truly going to die. Tonight. Miserably.

I’m tucked away in my tent for the night, after a such an amazing day, and I keep going back to the shellfish.  What a stupid thing to do.

Part of me is like, HA! Sucker, give it up – you’re going to be fine. Stop playing the victim and love that you lived in the moment.

The other part  is whacking me in the face with a phone book – you just threw away your life because you avoided honesty in expressing your opinions and beliefs just to avoid a (possible) conflict, dumbass!!

Only time will tell.  I fall asleep to the setting sun and the melody of crashing waves.
Day 2 Tsusiat sunset
Tomorrow – Tsusiat Falls to Cribs Creek (if I live, of course.)