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West Coast Trail
I recently took a trip up the West Coast Trail on Vancouver Island, B.C. (That's British Columbia - no time travel involved).  The West Coast Trail is located on the west coast of Vancouver Island, about 1.5 hour's drive west of Victoria.  The trail hugs the coast along the length of Pacific Rim National Park, from Port Renfrew to Bamfield - a distance of ~76Km.  A hundred years ago, the route of the WCT was most often hiked by survivors from ships which wrecked along the coast of Vancouver Island.  Now, it's just survived by hikers who volunteer to get wrecked in one of the wettest places on earth.

After a brief ride on the BC ferry and a quick drive, I found myself in Port Renfrew.  Thanks to a completely beaurocratic Canadian Parks staff, I wasn't able to get hiking until 9am the next morning.  Port Renfrew consists of a few motels and restaurants, a couple convenience stores and the trailhead.

The trail starts with a quick boat ride over the Gordon River, the trailhead is on the other side of the river.  I was immediately introduced to the nature of the WCT.  Much of the trail is unimproved and simply beaten into the ground by generations of hikers.  This can work with some trails, but the ground along the WCT consists of mud, roots, fallen trees and bogs - not the best base for a hiking trail.  The trail is one long improvised path through the wet forest.  If a tree falls parallel to the path, it becomes the trail.  If a tree falls across the path, the trail just goes on top of it.  There are no switchbacks on the WCT.  When the trail reaches a steep area, there are ladders.  This might seem like a luxury, but most of the ladders are nearly rotten and slippery when wet.  Climbing up and down hundreds of feet on ladders with a full pack is not an easy way to travel.  The trail crosses a number of creeks and rivers which pour into the Pacific Ocean.  These rivers are crossed on bridges (which are often broken) or cable-cars.  The cable cars consist of an aluminum bucket suspended on a cable. You have to pull a rope to haul yourself to the other side of the river.

The first day, the condition of the trail got progressively worse.  As I neared Walbran Creek, the trail was routed through a bog.  The tread consisted of nothing more than mud and roots.  Progress was extremely slow and frustrating, made worse by a somewhat steady drizzle.  Every now and then the trail was routed on a wooden boardwalk.  The boardwalks were a nice change from the mud, but a lot more dangerous.  Most of the boardwalks were old and rotten.  They were often just slightly tilted and covered with a thin layer of wet slime.  Even though I was walking very carefully, I fell a number of times.  I was just lucky that I didn't land on a rusted nail or break my arm on a tree limb.  Before long, I had my share of bruises, and was inventing new swear words to describe the trail.  This attitude wasn't making the hike fun though, so I soon started challenging the trail to 'bring it on'.  "Ah... cool! more mud!!!", became a common refrain.

The area I was hiking through wasbeautiful.  Everything I looked at was alive.  Every tiny niche was claimed by some moss or fern or mold or mushroom or fungus.  The trees rose high above, their giant continuous canopy held a hidden landscape known only to creatures that could negotiate its tangled mass. 

At the end of the day I reached Walbran Creek where I found company with a number of wet and tired hikers.  Most of the hikers were from Australia, Canada or the UK.  I didn't meet any hikers from the USA. The southbound hikers assured me that the trail got better north of Walbran.  I camped on the beach and hoped for a better day to come. I had only hiked 21Km, but it felt like 3x that far.

The second day the trail did indeed improve.  Of course, much of the reason for the improvement was that the trail was often routed along the beach.  The beach wasn't muddy, but it was sandy. Walking in sand was a lot better than walking in mud, but it wasn't easy.  It was very tiring, especially since the sand was loose.  Still at least I didn't have to think about every step, and my feet were dry... That is until I got too close to the ocean and my feet got soaked by an errant wave.  (I was pretty pissed about that).

A few Km's down the beach I came across abeached whale.  It was a gray whale, but its color was now a sickening shade of white.  I couldn't look long at the fleshy ooze coming from various orifices on the whale.  I briefly crossed downwind of the whale and got a sniff of 'whale decay' - one of those indescribable smells you don't want to experience.

Another 15 minutes past the whale, a couple nativeCanadians had set up a little cafe.  The trail crossed a couple small indian reservations in its route, and some of the locals tried to make a living off the steady stream of hikers.  I had heard that the burgers in the cafe were not to be missed.  They weren't bad, but I'd hesitate to give a good review - cold buns - yuk. (how hard is it to toast a bun?). Just past the cafe, the trail passed by alighthouse.  I hiked the short spur trail to the lighthouse and looked around.  The lighthouse seemed strangely out of place.  The yard was covered by a neatly manicured grass lawn.  The buildings were tidy and white.  It was almost like a slice of suburbia in the middle of a jungle.  I couldn't go up in the lighthouse, so I quickly headed back down the trail.

The trail did get much better the second day.  There were a lot more boardwalks, and some of them were even new!  I could spend more time admiring the abundance and variety of plants along the trail.  The sun even came out briefly and made the green forest glow.  While I was walking down one section of boardwalk, I had an unexpected encounter. I looked ahead and saw something headed toward me on the trail.  It took me a few seconds to comprehend that it was a mountain lion... and it was a big one.  I'd never seen a mountain lion in the wild - they're extremely skittish - I was sure that many of them had seen me though.  The big cat looked up and we stared at each other for a long moment.  He was about 40 yards in front of me.  My first instinct was to make some noise to spook the cat away.  I clanked my poles together, stomped on the boardwalk and yelled something.  It didn't move at first.  I remembered that my camera was in my backpack, under my rain cover.  Before I could think about retrieving it, the mountain lion decided to take off.  He turned to jump off the boardwalk, but there was nowhere to land.  So, he trotted back up the boardwalk around a corner and out of sight.  I heard some rustling in the bushes as I passed the area, but I never saw him again.

Isoon reached Nitinat Narrows - a break in the forest where Nitinat Lake empties into the ocean. The only way across the narrows is on a boat operated by another local resident.  I waited on the dock with a few other hikers who had decided to end their hikes. There were 3 Austrians and a young Canadian couple.  All of them had enough of the mud and rain and were heading up the lake to Nitinat village, where the boat operator lived.  The boat operator was out checking his crab traps (dungeoness crabs lived in the brackish waters), but soon returned and took me across the lake.

North of Nitinat narrows, the trail was routed on top of a cliff high above inaccessible beaches.  Eventually, the trail dipped down to the beach. After a few miles of beach walking, I made it to Tsusiat Falls - a waterfall that emptied into the ocean.  The clouds broke up, and I hung my stuff out to dry in the waning sun.  I camped on the beach near the waterfalls.

It was raining when I woke up.  The rain was steady and unbroken.  So, I packed up as quickly as I could - sloppy wet tent and all.  A half hour up the trail, I managed to eat some breakfast under a giant tree which acted as a rain shield.  After another half hour, I reached the Klanawa river.  The only way to cross this deep and wide river was on a cable car.  About an hour before I arrived, the cable car platform on the other side of the river had collapsed.  There were four hikers on my side of the river debating what to do.  On the other side of the river, one of the hikers had a back injury and couldn't move.  Another hiker was tending to the injured person - putting a tarp up.  Someone had already gone for help in the other direction.  As difficult as it was, there was only one decision to make - turn around.  I yelled across the river to let the other hiker know we were turning around & would also try to find help.  I headed back down the trail, more than a little bummed-out.  I had to inform a couple groups of hikers that their trips would be cut short.  One girl I met literally screamed and cried upon hearing the news - she'd been out for 5 days and was determined to finish.  An hour later, I met a couple hikers who had a cell phone - it didn't work out here.  After another hour, I spotted a guy in a yellow rain suit walking down the beach with a shovel over his shoulder. I guess he was doing some kind of trail work (I have no idea what he was doing on the beach with a shovel though).  He did have a radio, and hadn't heard of the accident.  I told him what I knew, and continued back to Nitinat Narrows.  The boat operator invited me to his cabin near the dock to warm up while we waited for more hikers to arrive.  By 5pm, there were 9 of us crammed on the boat for the 35 minute long ride to Nitinat village.

Nitinat village was a depressing sight.  About 160 natives lived here.  Most of them did nothing.  Dirty wet dogs roamed the streets, many of the houses were in need of repair, junk was piled up haphazardly here and there.  There was a small store - which closed about 5 minutes before we arrived, and there was a small motel.  Some of the hikers stayed in the motel, 5 of us negotiated a ride to Port Renfrew - 3 hours of bumpy logging roads.  I got to my car at about 11pm, the rain had not stopped for one minute all day.  My adventure on the WCT was over.


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