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Hiking the West Coast Trail in Canada

West Coast TrailThe West Coast Trail is part of the Pacific Rim National Park Reserve. It is backed by the Insular Mountain Range of Vancouver Island and faces the open Pacific Ocean. There were so many shipwrecks and drownings along this coast that it became known as “the graveyard of the Pacific”. Today, backpackers such as Andrew Sunter come to walk this rugged path that was once a life saving trail for shipwreck victims and their rescuers. The trail is not for everyone for 80-100 seriously injured hikers are evacuated every year and about 200 more sustain minor injuries.

The West Coast Trail is a 75 km trail along Vancouver Island. The trail is very hilly and you often hike on rugged, uneven ground and in slippery conditions. There are a lot of ladders, something like 300 rungs. Hikers must wade across creeks and rivers and early in the season the rivers can be swollen and difficult to cross. You can walk along the beach in some places but the sand gives so it can require extra effort.

I think there are two ways to do it. You can do it for the physical challenge and push yourself all the time, which is what I did. So you go light and fast. The other way is to take your time and enjoy the beauty of the place. You’re hiking right along the edge of Canada! If I did it again, I would choose to do it at a slower pace (although I certainly enjoyed the challenge of pushing myself the first time).

I went by myself but the next time I would go with a group. We’d bring some good food for the first couple of days, maybe a wineskin, steaks, and roast potatoes on a fire we’d build with driftwood on the beach. Everyone would share the extra load. We’d do shorter days and just enjoy being there on the coast, taking photos and soaking up the atmosphere.

Both ways are fulfilling in their own right but a compromise between the two won’t work. It also isn’t much fun to push people who don’t want to be pushed so everyone needs to agree on the approach in advance.

Overview of the trail

I entered the trail at Pachena Bay, which is 5 km south of Bamfield, and exited at Gordon River, which is 5 km north of Port Renfrew. There are different transportation services to and from the trailheads [see the park website below]. A park warden gives you an orientation session before you start.

When you leave Bamfield, the trail is fairly level and wide for quite some time. After 6.5 km, the trail descends to the beach at Michigan Creek where there is a campsite. The trail follows the beach for the next 5 km or so and there is great beach camping at Darling River and Orange Juice Creek. There is a cable car crossing at Darling River. The trail’s cable car crossings can pose a real challenge when you are by yourself and are border-line dangerous.
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The next section of the trail leaves the beach and climbs high up rugged cliffs that overlook the ocean. There is another cable car crossing at Klanawa River as well as good campsites. At Tsusiat Falls you_ take a series of ladders down to the ocean, and again the trail follows the beach for quite some distance. The trail heads inland again at Tsuquadra Point where there is old-growth forest, great viewpoints and long sections of boardwalk (that can be slippery when wet). The trail dips, arriving at Nitinat Narrows where you sit back and wait for the “ferry” operator to come pick you up (the ferry being nothing more than a small motor boat).

Along the beachWhen you get to the other side of the river, the trail continues inland along rather treacherous sections of boardwalk and you cross the Cheewhat River by a memorably high suspension bridge. You soon go back down to the beach for about 1.5 km until you reach Dare Point. I went inland for at least 1-2 km to avoid a difficult surge channel and then walked on the beach for a couple of hours to Carmanah Point and then 7 km to Chez Monique’s. This is a little settlement on a native reserve where you can buy some food and supplies. You can also camp there. One of the most remarkable and appealing things about the West Coast Trail is that it feels so remote, rugged and isolated, but at the same time you are hiking very close to and within the territory of First Nations communities that have been living in the area and using the trail in some form or another for hundreds of years. There is a sense of culture and history as well as amazing natural beauty.

When you get to Vancouver Point, you say good-bye to the beach. The remainder of the trail (26 km) is the most difficult, with very few easy moments. There are steep ladders, endless mud holes, miles of boardwalk, and several river crossings. You will probably be tired, dirty and wet but remember to look up occasionally at the tremendous trees. When you reach the end of the trail at Gordon River, raise the buoy to signal the ferry operator and wait and relax for there is nowhere else to go.

Trail hazards

Anyone who is thinking of doing this trail should be able to hike long distances through rough terrain with a full backpack. You have to climb ladders, use cable cars and wade through rivers—things you don’t do every day. I was in pretty good hiking-specific shape and I didn’t do anything especially to prepare for it. The trek is a bit of a grind but it is more endurance and pushing yourself along.

The climate there is rainy which can mean very muddy conditions and the ongoing threat of hypothermia (don’t wear jeans or anything made of cotton). I went early in the season and it rained every day but not all day long. It can be quite cold in the evening; I could see my breath.

Ladders, bridges and boardwalks can be very slick and there are several sections where it would have been quite disastrous if I had slipped. On some of the cliffs high above the ocean, the trail can be very narrow. River crossings are perhaps the most dangerous factor on the trail and people have died at the surge channels (unclip your chest and waist belts on your backpack when you make the crossings so that if you fall into the water you can quickly remove your backpack and are not dragged under). A heavy rainfall can swell a once tame creek into a dangerous fast-moving body of water. Because of this, the park says that all hikers must be prepared for 6-8 days in the backcountry to wait out unfavourable conditions (I completed the trail in 3 1/2 days).

High tides are both inconvenient and dangerous, making a tide table essential. People have died in the tides. And there are black bears, wolves and cougars so it is important to keep a clean campsite and to hang food and toiletries.

If there is an accident or injury, it can take more than 24 hours for help to arrive. The week before I went, teenagers on a school trip had to be rescued half way through the trail.

Poles are essential!What to bring

It is important not to leave too heavy a footprint so that the trail remains a wilderness experience for everyone. What you pack in you have to pack out for there are no garbage cans. You don’t need that much and it is better to go light than heavy. I brought too much stuff, especially clothes. My bag probably weighed 65 lbs and could have easily been around 35 to 45 lbs. It is recommended that your pack weigh a maximum of 1/4 (women) to 1/3 (men) of your body weight.

The basics to bring are a tent, sleeping bag (synthetic not down because of the rain and the lightest weight that you can get), a tarp, trekking poles or used ski poles (really important), medium heavy hiking boots that are waterproof and gaiters to go on your boots to make them more wet-proof. You will need a waterproof, breathable top, jacket and bottoms, a shell and fleece hat and mitts. I also brought a very light-weight propane camping stove, a rope to hang my food at the campsite, a camera, tide chart and a watch.

There are lots of water sources but you need to treat it. There are various ways to do that. I used a water pump.

Well worth the effort

The West Coast Trail is one of the best known hikes in North America, a classic. You’re right on the Pacific Ocean or hiking through old-growth forest. There are waterfalls and all kinds of sea life. It is beautiful—almost spiritual. It’s also a challenge, both physically and mentally, and there’s a great sense of accomplishment when you finish it.

The West Coast Trail is open May 1 to September 30. The maximum group size is 10. During the peak season (June 15 to September 15) 60 overnight hikers are allowed to start the trail each day, 30 from each end of the trail. Reservations can be made for the peak season. For more information and a hiker preparation guide:

Photo credits: Andrew Sunter

Edited from an interview with Andrew Sunter and from his blog.

© Riding the buses 2011

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One response to "Hiking the West Coast Trail in Canada"

  1. Andrew says:

    One my friends did the WCT a few weeks ago and had a great time. It is not a wilderness trail in the normal sense but it is unique and world class. Hope you enjoyed your trip!

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