The West Coast Trail is one of those infamous treks that most BC residents hear about in childhood. The ladders, the bogs, the tree roots; all lasting 75km. Known as the ‘graveyard of the pacific’, this stretch of land saw countless ship wrecks. Indeed on the hike itself evidence of this history is present in rusting anchors, boilers and other pieces of aged debris. Reminders of the Japanese tsunami are also dotted along the trail, consisting primarily of lone shoes and laundry baskets.
The hike is known for its difficulty, and many hikers must be airlifted from the trail. The absence of cellular signal only exacerbates the existing safety concerns. Thus, on deciding to complete this hike, it was clear a unique communications solution would be required. At Walco, we have sold the Spot Gen3 to many hikers in just such scenarios. Thus, it seemed a perfect answer. Spot was immediately on board with the idea, accommodating my adventure through providing product and assistance.
The trail lies between Bamfield to the north, and Port Renfrew to the south. We accessed both locations from Nanaimo. A shuttle runs between the two points, as well as to various cities. Our group decided to leave vehicles at either end. Thus, the evening before our departure, we drove to Port Renfrew to drop the car. As my ferry was quite late, and the drive is nearly 3 hours, we did not arrive until midnight. In the dark, we had a difficult time navigating Port Renfrew, which has no cellular signal. However, we did manage to find the WCT office. Across the street is a large lot with a house on it. Pay parking is available for 5$ a day. Again, due to the darkness, it took us nearly an hour to discover that payment could be made after dark in a drop box attached to the trailer at the back of the lot.
The next morning, we arose at 5 am for the 3 hour drive to Bamfield from Nanaimo. We chose the route through Port Alberni. Past this point, the road descends into unpaved gravel for 84km. This is a very good logging road, and is mostly devoid of the giant potholes we all remember from childhood. However, it is extremely dusty. If another car is in front of you, it will be nearly impossible to see.
The WCT office is very well marked on this road, and turns into a large (free) parking lot.
Saturday, 11 am -7 pm to travel 22km:
Orientation is mandatory for all hikers, taking place at 10 am and 2 pm. This primarily consists of collection of permits, reviewing a board for cougar and bear sightings and listening to a brief lecture on the nature of the trail and how to use the cable cars (namely, upper body strength).
We began our journey at the north end, near Bamfield BC. Due to orientation, we did not get underway until nearly noon.
Known as the ‘easy end’ it is quite a flat and pleasant affair for the first 10 km leading to the lighthouse. This is a good warm up, and we ended up taking our lunch at this point. There is a nice lawn to rest on, and a hose that can be used for drinking water (upon treatment).
The terrain became slightly more challenging after the lighthouse. The beautiful vistas continued and we saw many animals from the high vantage points.
That evening, we decided to set up camp at the 22km mark. The campsites are located on the beach, although some can be had among the trees. The WCT is known for fog, and the beach does have a particular dampness to the air. Campsites are very well marked with numerous buoys etched with the names of previous hikers.
Sunday, 9 am- 8pm to travel 26km:
The second day we hiked primarily on the beach. This choice was a mixed blessing. The tide was just going out when we began. Thus in many places the sand was quite firm and walking was very comfortable. Many sections were also composed of large boulders, and our task was to navigate stepping from stone to stone. Other sections consisted of solid rock shelves, often covered in seaweed and other slippery lifeforms. Finally, there were sections that were loose beach sand. These were extremely exhausting to walk with a heavy pack in the direct sunshine.
The wildlife on the beach makes everything worthwhile. We were constantly surrounded by sea lions, whales cresting, eagles, countless crabs, sea anemones and other tide pool dwellers. We also had a chance to meet some of the Guardians, who patrol the aboriginal lands. They were extremely helpful in advising us regarding tide levels and our ability to reach certain destinations.
Personally, I found the beach hiking the most enjoyable. You spend a great deal of time staring at your feet, trying not to fall over the tangled terrain. Thus, when you are on the beach, you can also take in the multitude of rocks, creatures, beach glass and other beautiful objects.
During this stretch there are two restaurants. At Nitinat Narrows, there is a ferry which brings you across the water. On the south side of the narrows there is a small restaurant with crab and fish. They also sell cold beverages. We had heard water was scarce between the 30 and 40 km mark, thus being low on water I stocked up at this point. I would have enjoyed sitting down for crab, but my friends decided to push on. The second restaurant is on the beach and sells burgers. Again, I cannot make a recommendation on this as my friends decided to keep moving.
That evening we camped at the 48 km point.
Monday, 8:30 am to 8 pm to travel 22km:
Unfortunately, due to high tide, we had to take the forest path on the third day. This was by far the most difficult section. Three main factors contributed to this: ladders, steep terrain and irregular terrain. The ladders, while not overly prolific, tend to be in groups of 3 to 4. This is usually present when going in and out of river beds. Thus, you will take 4 ladders of 30 or so rungs down, only to cross a bridge to 4 ladders of equivalent size.
The upward terrain was also very challenging to navigate due to mud and erosion. Much of the trail was a tangled system of roots that required very careful, and never secure foot placement. This is where the knees and ankles really prove their worth. Many sections I had to use my stick and hold on to higher sections of root to hoist my body and my bag up the steep embankment.
This section also consists of many ‘log bridges’ over streams. At one point, there was a chain of four perpendicular logs supporting each other over a stream. Another point, we had to walk over a 25 ft. drop using only narrow and much repaired log.
The trail would have been far more difficult with the usual degree of dampness common to the WCT. This year has been unusually dry, and the park had not had rain for six weeks. On the trail we were extremely grateful for this environmental abnormality. The mud was ankle deep in sections, rocks were very slippery and often our path was also home to a stream. However, we did not have to use any of the cable cars as the rivers and streams were so low.
Our third night we camped at the 70km mark at Thrasher’s cove. This is one section that has a large series of ladders in and out.
Tuesday, 8 am to 11 am to travel 5 km:
The final day we hiked from Thrasher’s cove to Gordon River. This section, while having fewer ladders, had far steeper sections of trail. Thus, I personally found this section to be the most physically exhausting.
Also, the ferry comes at irregular times. I believe it is roughly 8:45, 10:30, 11:30, 1:30, 2:30 and 3:30. As we knew we had many hours of driving to retrieve the car from Bamfield, we were dead set on catching the 11:30 ferry to Port Renfrew. We managed this with about a 20 minute margin. The boat ride is short and drops you at the WCT Centre, where you leave your permit and pick up your vehicle.
In hindsight, there are a few things I brought which made a massive difference in my experience.
First, bring a walking stick, or be sure to acquire one from the first beach. The terrain is extremely irregular, and I cannot express how many times the walking stick was instrumental in maintaining my balance while boulder jumping, navigating bogs, or even just trying to walk down a root laden trail.
Second, bring a tensor bandage. As mentioned, the terrain is never flat. Your knees and ankles will be working overtime trying to maintain some semblance of balance. Thus it is very likely that you or one of your party will suffer some knee or ankle discomfort.
Third, footwear is a challenge. I wore hiking boots, which were a mixed blessing. Walking in the sand with heavy boots was less than enjoyable. However, I was able to walk through the mud, while my friends in runners had to preform incredible feats of acrobatics to attempt to avoid it.
Fourth, bring a Spot device. The trail is extremely uneven and often involves climbing up tree root systems, through mud puddles and using ladders with broken rungs. There were numerous times that I nearly slipped and fell. Having the Gen3 massively alleviated the concern over injury. It would be extremely difficult to procure help in the remote and difficult sections of the trail. There were several stretches where we did not see any other hikers for several hours.
Furthermore, I know the device provided massive peace of mind for my family. We finished the trail in 3 days instead of 5, and as I sent a message every evening, my family used the GPS coordinates to locate our campsite. When I spoke to them from Nanaimo, they had been following our progress and had an idea of our speed and were we should be at what point. Thus, even if I had been injured an unable to send a SOS, my family had an awareness of my regular behavior, and would have noticed a dramatic change.
The WCT is beautiful and challenging, and well worth the effort. However, it is not to be taken lightly. I feel my experience would have been vastly different had we taken 7 days, which is the average. However, even at our quick pace, we had the opportunity to see incredible vistas, countless animals and sea creatures and beautiful stretches of beach. Perhaps even more importantly, now we can boast the feat of having completed the West Coast Trail.