Chuck Norris was at the forefront of my mind. The bearded action hero has come to epitomize male testosterone, and here I was, jetlagged to hell, sleep deprived, and hiking on one of the most notoriously rugged trails on the planet. I had been picked up at the airport, handed a 55lbs backpack, and immediately sped off for the long haul to Port Renfrew. My friends were already there, getting orientated about bears and tides from a severe Park Ranger. On arrival, they had great fun terrorizing me about killer cougars on the prowl, and the fact that over 100 people are evacuated from the West Coast Trail every year. Considering that my training had consisted of vodka in Russia and smoked meat in Montreal, they knew I was in for a challenge. I would need all the male bravura I could get just to survive, and thus the spirit of Chuck Norris became my hiking Yoda.
There have been over a thousand shipwrecks on the Straight of Juan de Fuca, known as the Graveyard of the Pacific. In 1906, the Valencia wreck claimed 133 lives, leading to the creation of a Life Saving Trail to help shipwreck survivors and rescuers find a route to safety. The old trail fell into disrepair until 1973, when it was incorporated into the Pacific Rim National Park. Today, the 75km West Coast Trail is so popular that quotas limit the number of people who can enter it each day, and people come from all over the world to hike the boardwalks, ladders, sandstone cliffs, beaches, and muddy obstacles. Surge channels and tides pose constant risk, and the trail is only open between May and September outside of the really bad weather months. Simply put, the West Coast Trail is not for inexperienced day hikers. Like say, myself.
Preparation was key. We brought the vital walking sticks and waterproof gaiters , the camel packs, fire paste and dehydrated meals. Lunch would consist of GORP (granola-oatmeal-raisin-peanut) and energy bars, dinner pasta, rice or tuna. Our route would go from Port Renfrew to Bamfield, effectively starting with the most difficult days to get them over with. “There’s no way I could do this the other way round,” explains Julia, a hiker from Calgary that I met at the trailhead. “Knowing what hell is to come would ruin the experience.” Hell on the WCT corresponds directly to rain, which can fall 6 inches in just 12 hours, turning everything into a cold, muddy quagmire. A park ranger told me that hypothermia is one of the main reasons people get evacuated. Fortunately, fine-yet-foggy weather would hold all week.
Just a few hours in, my friend Andrew slips and sprains his ankle. He looks like a soldier who’s been shot in the gut, and we’re immediately thinking “evacuation.” But he puts on an ankle guard and somehow soldiers on, every step agony, the gait of a stepped-on spider. After a grueling 14km walk, we finally made it to our first stop, Campers. We cooked the meat I had carried for the first meal, put the food in the bear locker for the night, and crashed hard. “The nice thing about hurting your ankle is you forget how much your back and feet hurt,” says Andrew, the lucky one.
The difficult 9kms from Campers to Walbrans is a ladder frenzy. Climbing or descending an 80ft ladder with a heavy pack puts tremendous strain on, well everything. Many times this week I would praise the value of painkillers. On the WCT, there is no safety channel, no roads that run anywhere near. Helicopters and boats patrol the coast looking for evacuees, and hikers need to help each other out when in need. The dense forest itself is eerily quiet, so different from the buzzing jungles of Borneo I experienced earlier this summer. I met a lone hiker named Al. “Hiking the WCT alone is creepy, more for the bears in your mind,” he says. While bear, wolf and cougar sightings are rare, these three animals sit at the forefront of your imagination, waiting to pounce behind every tree. Especially at night, when the forest is so black and silent you can’t help but feel like a victim in a cheap horror movie.
The pack lightens with every day, the muscles get hard. Male bonding be damned, I’m surprised to meet more women on the trail than men. Everyone’s sharing information, pushing their limits in good spirits. At Cribs, luminous starfish and anemones glow in tidal pools, and the sun breaks to reveal BC’s beauty at its most spectacular. We take a day off to relax, build a massive bonfire from the thousands of washed up logs nearby. It’s a bring-your-own-log party. Our leader, Kyle, fashions wooden benches and walking at a brisk pace, always finds the choice campsites. We build a tarp sauna for hot rocks; we construct campfires of exquisite craftsmanship. Such is life beneath the stars.
The day’s hike is never easy, but refreshing creek swims and absolute relaxation always reward the hard day’s walk. Tsusiat Falls, Michigan Creek, the names of the campgrounds become like old friends. After six days, food consumed and camera batteries low, we trudge along the final 12kms to the end. My knee buckles, reminding me of the hairline fracture I picked up in a bike accident all those years ago (also known as “my lucky break.”) I limp out of that majestic forest knowing full well why so many folks add the West Coast Trail to their bucket list. They come for the adventure, the incredible beauty, the warm friendship, the physical challenge, and the excitement of discovering something new every day.
If you’re interested in the West Coast Trail but are not up to speed on tide charts, multi-day hikes and how to pack, Great Canadian Trails offers guided excursions.