An adventure in which five women carry a combined one-hundred-and-ninety pounds of food, shelter and vodka seventy-five kilometers down the coast of Canada’s Vancouver Island.
Day 1: Port Renfrew to Camper Bay
Distance: 13 km
I earned my trail name before our quest had even begun when the metal clasps of my new hiking boots embraced, merging left and right foot into one, and sending me sprawling across the floor of the Nanaimo ferry women’s washroom. In a fit of laughter that made us all almost pee our pants, ‘Boots’, my alter ego, was born.
I thought very little of my decision to hike the WCT until we were ten steps in and my ass had started to burn in protest. From that point on I thought a lot about what motivates a person to embark on any great journey; for the idea of a place to grab hold so completely that the next step you take is into the unknown to see for yourself. The impetus behind my own decision probably had a little to do with a romanticized vision of completing one of Canada’s great expeditions, a lot to do with the crazy women who signed up alongside me, and everything to do with my sister, Jill – our fearless leader by unanimous vote who promised us safe passage and the best dehydrated turkey tacos north of the border.
We rushed to the dock for 8:45 am, the first of three daily departure times when a man named Butch made himself available to shuttle hikers across the stream to kilometer 75, the southern-most end of the West Coast Trail. During the comically short boat ride it occurred to me that building a footbridge would make a lot more sense to everyone except for Butch.
After being deposited unceremoniously on the other side, we sprawled out at the foot of the Parks Canada sign and wrestled with our packs to find a last minute place for water bottles, unwanted layers of clothing, and car snacks we weren’t yet ready to part with. I watched as the other hikers from our ferry skipped off into the woods one by one with seemingly nothing in their bags except for dehydrated chicken and air. Jill hung a bunch of bananas on the outside of my pack where they dangled defiantly, mocking the other hikers and their space-efficient snacks as they passed.
We scampered across fallen logs and over swollen tree roots that had outgrown the soil, slowly picking our way through the living obstacle course. Sometimes rough steps were carved out of the giant tree stumps that blocked our way, other times fallen logs doubled as tightropes across gaps in the trail. Periodically, the path would lead us off the edge of a cliff where wooden ladders had been erected, some 60 feet high, their rungs in various stages of decay. Hand hand foot foot. I focused on the rhythm of my ascent to distract me from the thought of my pack pulling me backwards into thin air.
No matter how quickly I placed one foot in front of the other, we covered roughly one kilometer of trail every hour. I directed my rage at the distance markers, their smug yellow faces taunting me as we crawled past. Like turtles, but more badass. Ninja turtles in brand-new hiking boots.
Day 2: Camper Bay to Walbran Creek
Distance: 9 km
Rain chased us to bed and woke us the next morning. Water bounced off the stretched nylon of our tent making outside sound like a terrible idea. I stuffed dry socks into damp boots and walked down to the ocean, instant coffee in hand. I heard the crash of waves before I could see them, their journey back out to sea still shrouded in mist.
I propped my pack on a tree stump and starred it down. Mounting it required a sort of two-step tango in which I balanced it on my knee before letting out a grunt while swinging it over my shoulder. The weight of it radiated down the length of my tiny torso, through my shoulders, back and hips into the soles of my now scuffed boots. Whenever I tried to look up at the canopy above, knives in my shoulders forced my eyes back down into the mud. I wrenched on the straps of my pack to pull them tighter, willing the mass to become part of my very being instead of the unbearable gorilla on my back that it was.
In our shared pain, everything became funny. The memory of me spread eagle on the floor of the ferry washroom. The rhyme game Erin and Shea played to pass the time. The middle-aged woman with a broken leg, high as a kite on morphine and strapped to a body board, playing matchmaker for the pair of haggard-looking (yet handsome) Coast Guards carrying her down off the trail.
Lesson learned: Don’t ask the girl without a waterproof cover for her backpack to carry the tent.
Day 3: Walbran Creek to Carmanah Creek
Distance: 7 km
On the morning I thought my spirit would break the skies cleared and the tides rushed out to sea long enough for us to skirt the shore. I skipped in slow motion down the beach, my pack bouncing behind me out of time. The wide-open stretches of sand granted us respite from the mud and the tangled underbrush of the forest, but the beach slowed our progress in its own way. Grains of shell and sand seemed to melt away under our weight, creating tiny avalanches with each step. We walked and walked until the fog burned off into a bluebird day.
Monique was a squat, gruff woman who ran the burger shack at Kilometer 45, just south of Carmanah Lighthouse. Monique’s shelves were lined with every vice a backpacker could dream of – cold-ish beer, wine, sour candies, chocolate bars, toilet paper and, of course, burgers. We bought one of each and sat around a communal campfire chatting with a pair of WWOOFers from Switzerland who had spent the summer taking orders from Monique in exchange for free room and board.
I waded into Carmanah Creek and let the icy stream erase the memory of the day. Crouching down to maneuver the water filter into the fastest moving area of stream, a cautionary tale from our orientation session floated forward into my consciousness. Avoid squatting in isolated areas. That’s when a cougar is most likely to mistake you for dinner. I remembered the oversized cat paws imprinted in the sand less than a kilometer down the shore and promptly stood up.
At night I had developed a reoccurring dream that slugs the size of my hand were crawling next to me on Erin’s head.
Day 4: Carmanah Creek to Tsusiut Falls
Distance: 21 km
Beating the tide required us breaking camp earlier than any of us would have liked. We rushed through breakfast and the now familiar motions of returning the contents of our mobile home back to our packs. Mixed in with the aches and pains of the past few days was an overwhelming sense of gratitude to be conquering this trail together — five sleep-deprived women moving together as one relatively cohesive unit.
We walked with a sense of urgency, unsure of how quickly the Pacific would move in to reclaim the shore. Crustaceans crunched underneath, traction on the otherwise slippery ocean floor. Purple starfish clung to sides of rocks and angry crabs waved their pinchers in protest we passed. We moved quickly and quietly, trespassers through an exposed underwater world.
It took four days but I eventually found my trail legs. I bounced along a stretch of boardwalk, unfazed by how it twisted and tilt like the uneven walkway of a funhouse. I prattled away to whoever would listen, polluting the otherwise tranquil forest with my chatter. “Let’s play a gam…” Thump. My feet slipped from under me, and a millisecond later my pack had me pinned to the ground. The girls loosened the straps to extract me, and pulled me back up to my feat. Adrenaline coursing through my bloodstream, I managed to laugh through tears, “Boots got burned again.”
The first time we spotted a grey whale, we shrieked and did cartwheels on the beach. Tiny bursts of expiration seemed to follow us just off shore the rest of the day, catching our attention just in time to watch a gentle grey arc retreat back into the ocean.
At Kilometer 32 the Nitinaht Narrows divided the trail and the Ditidaht First Nations helped to steward hikers across the water. Only, of course, after a rest at Carl Edgar Jr’s crab shack. We nursed our blisters and bruises as a young woman pulled our lunch from the ocean off the side of the floating restaurant. I let my feet dangle in the ice-cold water as crab sizzled nearby.
We lingered at the crab shack long enough for the other hikers to disappear and one of the fishermen to take a liking to us. He was tall and wore sturdy looking overalls and a thick silver braid down the back of his neck. Our new friend spoke few words to us but filled our water bottles with ice when we weren’t looking. Just as we began the slow process of packing up to leave, he dug his hand into a plastic bin on the dock and pulled out a fish. He paused for a moment at the edge of the dock and looked to the sky. Then, in one sweeping arc he tossed the fish into the middle of the bay. I squinted into the sun to where he pointed. From the tops of the ancient pines on the opposite side of the narrows an eagle took flight. I watched, mesmerized, as it made a wide circle above the bay before swooping down in front of us to claim his prize.
Day 5: Tsusiut Falls
Distance: 0 km
Tsusiut Falls dribbled half-heartedly next to our campsite, a reminder that while rain may have drenched our spirits for three days straight the rest of Canada’s West had been ablaze for most of July. We woke late on the morning of Day 5 with no intention of moving. A rest day had always been part of the plan; an incentive to push through the rain and the tangled roots of the south shore in hopes of a full day at the beach. We washed the mud from our clothes in the cold, salty ocean and drank Vodka Crystal Lights at noon. When the sun began to burn pink and orange around the point, we sat and watched the whales move past us onto the next campsite.
I ate my instant oatmeal sitting on a log in-between a Tsunami warning sign directing hikers to higher ground and a battered motorcycle helmet that looked as though it had washed ashore from Japan.
Day 6: Tsusiut Falls to Michigan
Distance: 13 km
The terrain changed around us as if we were moving through different levels of a video game. We were higher now, skirting cliffs high above the sapphire blue coves below. The narrow trail snaked through forests full of 500-year-old Sikum trees. After six days of placing one foot in front of the other, the singularity of this focus began to melt the noise of the outside world away. I forgot to wonder about what was happening at work, where my boyfriend was, or whether or not I had checked Facebook. I started to measure my time in inches on a map and re-hydrated dinners. The kilometers were long but life was simple.
Day 7: Michigan to Pachena Bay
Distance: 12 km
I’m not sure what I expected to feel when I finally finished the trail, but I imagined it would be momentous. I spent the final kilometers simultaneously trying to breathe in every memory of the past week and praying that the last cursed distance marker was around the next bend. In the end, we finished the West Coast Trail in an anti-climactic haze. Trail turned to well-coiffed grass, the Park office came into view, and we finally threw our bags down on the ground and ate the last of the peanut butter.
Have you hiked the WCT? Thinking about it? Let me know in the comments below!