Tuesday, August 18, 2009

Hiking the WCT: Day 1, 7 June 2009

It's Day 1 of our West Coast Trail Hike. And for the uninitiated, technically, it's the 2nd day of our trip. [See previous post for Day 0 and the intro to our little adventure.  Remember, all photos can be clicked on to see a full-size version in all its glory, as well as see any fine details I may refer to] But today is the actual start of our hike, when we start clocking the kilometers as it were.

Like most mornings for the next 8 days, my Mother and I were awakened by the whispering scratch of Kelly's (or Mark's) nails on our tent. It was 5:00 am and we were on vacation. Normally, this whole 5am/vacation thing would be an oxymoron but we were too excited about the actual start of our hike to be tired for long. And, really, knowing Mother, she was already awake. I, on the other hand, still enjoy sleeping in...until at least 6:30.

You may be thinking right now that waking up at 5 am means we had an early 6 am departure but you would be wrong. In fact, we had a [seemingly] leisurely 8:30 am departure. If you haven't already done the mental math, that is a full three and one half hours to get ready to go. Even my mother doesn't need that long to get ready normally! And everything we were packing, we already had with us and fit in our backpacks. How long could it take, right? Let me give you a hint...it took 3 1/2 hours!

I'll admit that is a slight exaggeration, but only slight. We needed to be ready to walk away from camp by 8am for a hard 8:30am departure down the way, catching Butch's ferry across Gordon River to actually start hiking the WCT. The good news is, this was the longest it ever took us to pack up. (We learned fast. In fact, Mother and I were the star pupils. She'll tell you we were the last to be ready to go that morning but by day 2, we were ready first. I know, I know, Mark. It's not a contest. Unless you're last!)

The added time was mostly for getting the hang of things. It takes time to become both effective and efficient at taking down camp and packing your BAP (Big Ass Pack). Also, we enjoyed our last "City" breakfast since we had Len to pack out our trash. It consisted of large, fragile muffins, and heavy yogurt cups, along with a delicious, bulky fruit salad that Kelly whipped up on the fly. After this we'd be eating mostly Nutri-grain bars, oatmeal, and dried cranberries & mangos for breakfast. Our lunches and dinners, however, greatly outweighed whatever monotony our breakfasts might offer.

Speaking of food, this was one of the things I found most interesting since we had no idea what the food was going to be but knew we'd be helping to carry it. (And, let's face it, I just like food.) When we filled out all our paperwork, there was a food request sheet listing your choices:
  • beverages: regular or instant coffee (caf/decaf), regular or herbal tea (caf/decaf), hot chocolate, apple cider (pick 2/day; any combination)
  • breakfasts: oatmeal or Nutri-grain bars (specify 1, 2, 3 packets/bars; 2 is "normal eater")
In addition it listed 2 snacks a day which were either chocolate/yogurt-dipped (Mmm...) or All Natural (the old-fashioned hard, crumbly type) granola bars. Beyond that, no details were given. If you had any dietary restrictions, you were to list those so they could plan accordingly.

That first morning, we were given our food bags: fabric draw-string bags about the size of a 10-lb potato sack (but not full) with names printed on the outside. Mine said "Mrs. Peacock" while Mother's was "Mrs. White." Yep, they were the names from Clue with a few extras added to round out the total to 11! I loved it! You'd have thought it was Christmas as we immediately sat down to pore over our stockings.

Almost everything inside was in individual ziploc bags and all were labeled. Those with your name were your personal food. (Jennifer: Beverages; Jennifer: Snacks) but the bulk of it had strange codes written on them: L1, D4. L for lunch, D for dinner, and the number represented the day. So my box of Breton crackers labeled L2 would only have to be carefully packed for another day. On the other hand, my heavier D4 bag of dried rice and seasonings would have to be lugged around until dinner, Day 4. We only had our food for the next 4 days as Sea-to-Sky has a food drop arranged halfway through the hike. This allows for fresher (and usually heavier) foods than your average hiker can (or maybe will) carry. We would soon see that we were clearly eating the best food on the West Coast Trail. (Yay us!)

The walk to Butch's was less than 2 kilometers and we soon found our way down the gravel road. There are two ferry crossings on the WCT, both at rivers too deep/swift to cross and at each you must pay to be ferried across. Since we were part of a guided trek, these were included in what we'd already paid so no money was exchanged and we expeditiously boarded Butch's boat. We soon found ourselves crossing Gordon River, on the opposite bank, and at the real start of the West Coast Trail. Here we took our first group photos and you'll see we're still looking fresh at KM 75.

From left to right: Bill, Lauren, Kelly, Sue, Jen, Melly (my mother), Mike,
Wenke, John, Carter (The only one missing is Mark taking the picture.)

Then Mark & Kelly spent a few minutes checking packs to be sure everyone had them comfortably situated, although it's really a work-in-progress, that whole comfortable pack thing. As you hike, your pack shifts, rides up. And even when it's perfect, the next time you take a break, you loosen everything to remove it and have to adjust anew. We, too, mastered this skill with considerable practice, but consider it a more fluid sense of the word.

Next thing we knew, we were in the forest and were...hiking the West Coast Trail!

Starting at the Port Renfrew end of the WCT meant we were traveling North from the southern end of the trail and counting down from KM 75 to 0. You can hike the trail in either direction and there's much debate about which is better. The Bamfield end is easier so some prefer starting there to more gradually adjust to this strenuous hike; however, I preferred our route, even before we started. Get the tough stuff out of the way first!

Our first KM marker of the hike! Whoever was leading (Mark
or Kelly) would announce "KM __" and we'd all cheer!

Our destination that first day was Thrasher Cove which was 6 km away. Because of the difficult terrain, we only averaged about 1 km an hour. It was a full day of forest-hiking which on the southern end of the WCT means dense rain forest, frequent elevation changes, and gnarled roots (I know you think you've seen gnarled roots but trust me, you haven't. At least not until you've been on the WCT.) It was slow, methodical work to step carefully in amongst the maze of roots as we climbed up and down the hills. Our trekking poles instantly became our new Best Friends Forever (to all but Lauren who was a natural scrambler given her rock climbing background) as we used them for balancing, stepping down steep slopes, or testing mud depth.

We took our lunch break at KM 72, right beside the derelict donkey engine. [Mini history lesson: The West Coast Trail actually originated as part of a "Life Saving Trail", built near the turn of the century, as an escape route for the numerous victims of shipwrecks (see Graveyard of the Pacific). It later provided access for loggers (the donkey engine was a steam-powered winch used for logging) and a telegraph line, which you can still see along parts of the trail.]

Kelly & Mark set up our buffet atop one of the countless felled trunks and we soon enjoyed what became my favorite lunch and is now in permanent rotation at home: whole wheat mini bagels with flavored cream cheese, sliced English (The ones I get here in Austin are actually from Canada so maybe that should be Canadian?) cucumbers & tomatoes (roma travel best), and the secret ingredient: Roasted Garlic & Red Pepper Seasoning. This was our go-to spice and set out at every meal. I have since found a similar, if not identical, seasoning made by McCormick. I was somewhat surprised to be eating fresh vegetables and cream cheese but the cool temperatures and careful planning of K & M made it standard practice!

Having heard (& seen photos of) so many horror stories about blisters, I was worried I had a hot spot where my boot was rubbing so I took advantage of our hour-long lunch break to assess my feet. They were looking pretty good but Mark did advise me to use a couple bandaids as a barrier on these sensitive spots near my toes. Kelly was enjoying a little boot-free time as well and I asked her if it was true that you are guaranteed to end up with blisters by the end of the hike. She responded with, "Absolutely not" so from this point onward, my goal was to remain blister-free until I returned home. She did teach me a handy trick that helps avoid them, at least when you are beach-hiking: Before putting on your socks & boots each time, use your flattened sock to floss between each of your toes; this removes the tiny grains of sand trapped there so that they don't rub against your skin and cause blisters.

After lunch, we encountered our first set of ladders. I wish I could tell you how many ladders we traversed on our trip but it turns out Parks Canada counts them in sets: 36; but in truth each of those sets includes anywhere from 5-15, I'd estimate. It's not unreasonable to say we climbed up and down 300+ individual ladders, some more than 60 rungs in length. Imagine climbing up/down the outside ladder of a 6 story building. Now imagine doing it with a 45 lb pack strapped to your back and a pair of meter-long trekking poles dangling from your wrist, hampering your movement. (It was actually quite fun and not nearly the toughest thing we did!) If it were at a particularly large set of ladders, we'd shorten our poles and strap them to the outside of our packs so as not to have to maneuver those, although at least half the time we just kept them out as it took a substantial amount of time to stow them. With a group of 11 (4-5 times larger then most of the other groups we encountered on the trail), there's a certain amount of delay: waiting in line to climb ladders in order to safely space us out, slowing while traversing obstacles, and pacing ourselves in the forest (better known as "Short legs; Long legs", which was frequently our hiking order in the forest so that the group sets the pace to the slowest hiker. Sue, our shortest member, was usually the first to cheerily announce this.)

We reached KM 70 close to 4pm and took the 1 km beach access trail to Thrasher Cove. The WCT campsites vary in size and popularity (some are less busy simply because some hike the trail more quickly and don't need those extra stops along the way. With our sizable group, we were taking a somewhat leisurely 8 days) but most hikers stay at Thrasher Cove. Hearing the term campsite, don't envision organized pad sites and place-trash-here signs; rather, it denotes the presence of composting outhouses, bear boxes, tsunami evacuation routes (we'll get to that!) and usually enough shore above high tide for setting up tents. In addition, hundreds of felled weather-beaten trees litter the coastline and over time many of the smaller ones have been arranged to accommodate tents and kitchens, as we called the area around the campfire. All but deserted, we had our pick of the cove where we took advantage of forest-nestled areas for tents and a semi-permanent kitchen complete with raised benches, one of which even sported a backrest (a novelty already!), and a frame perfect for drying clothes, all fashioned from gathered driftwood.

Nearby we set up our tent areas, a ritual that was repeated every night. After setting up the tent, we would brace the rope stakes with large river rocks to keep them from slipping in the sand. Then we'd remove our boots (ooooohhhh...aaahhhhh) and socks and put on our camp shoes (which were Crocs for my mother and me). Then we'd unpack our BAPs, removing all our smellies, pulling out fresh clothes and swimsuits, and lay out our thermarest pads so they could air up. We soon found if we set out whatever else we'd need later-- sleeping shirts, journals, headlamps, toilet paper-- it was easiest. Then we'd zip our mesh doors closed to keep out the sand fleas, prop up our packs under the compact, covered vestibule, and lay out any clothes/boots that needed drying. (We learned the next morning that this only helps until sunset, at which point your damp clothes instead become wetter. So much for drying out our swim wear. Most days it was too cool, we stopped too late in the day, and there simply wasn't enough sunlight to dry things out by the morning. So, we found ourselves wearing river-washed, damp undies or t-shirts more than once until Kelly gave us another brilliant tip: if you sleep with something damp --not wet-- inside your sleeping bag, your body heat will dry it out during the night.)

At this point each evening, most people rested a bit, bathed at the river-mouth (although that night the ocean was the only option. Brrrr.), visited the outhouse, etc. and then found their way to the kitchen with their food bag. Here we'd find Mark and Kelly busy prepping for dinner and already boiling water in at least one of their 2 large pots so that we could enjoy a tasty, hot beverage. Ours was a helpful crew so there were always at least a couple of us chopping veggies or collecting firewood but still, M & K would first set up for mealtime while the rest of us had a chance to relax or clean up, their tent was usually the last to be pitched each evening and they were always up before anyone else. Sitting down around the fire, drinking hot chocolate, and relaxing after a full day of hiking was always one of the best parts of the day. So much so, that it took an effort of will (at least for me) to actually tune out the conversation to write in my journal, and when Mother and I would retire a little early in order to write before going to sleep, it was always with a reluctant Goodnight that I left the light of the campfire and camaraderie of our companions. (Although, the impetus to carve out writing time grew as we reached camp on Day 2 and I had yet to finish Day 0!)

Our first real "camp food" dinner was Pasta Alfredo with Clams (tri-colored noodles with seasonings, dried broccoli, and canned clams with fresh red pepper added). K & M dried their own veggies and made their own recipes as opposed to the more common meal-in-a-foil-pouch-that-you-heat-over-the-fire we saw other hikers eating. It was yummy and we even had tasty sandwich cookies for dessert! When dinner was over, we washed our dishes about 100 ft down the beach below the tideline. (So any bits are washed out to sea. Big bits you pack out as personal garbage so it pays to clean your bowl! Likewise, if we had left-overs in the pot, it had to be eaten so Kelly occasionally played Mom, encouraging 3rd -- yes, two was standard practice for all of us!-- ) helpings if necessary, although we were excellent eaters so it wasn't needed too often. Only once did she have to go find other takers for our left-overs which wasn't hard, as it turned out, since we ate better than pretty much everyone else on the trail!)

Mark carried a large bladder for water filtering at camp, along with a compact, pump-action ceramic filter so we could refill at camp as well as at lunch (if we stopped near a water source). I zeroed in on this since I consume so much water but as it turned out, Mike became the Master Water Filterer --he said it was his exercise!-- and was happy to filter & refill everyone's water bottles and Camelbaks so even though I probably drank 2-3 times as much water as everyone else, only occasionally did I actually do the dirty work myself. (Thank you, Mike or should I say, Popeye?) You may not realize it but water is heavy. Most of us carried a liter bottle which was 2.2 lbs and/or Camelbak (more like 3-4 lbs if full) although most only had one filled at any given time to keep the weight down. I kept both of mine filled but it was worth the added few lbs not to run out of water while hiking in the afternoons. Roughly calculating, I think I drank 7-8 liters a day and that was rationing.

Mike hamming it up while doing his job!

That night Sue started an evening ritual as we relaxed beside the fire: The Pub Quiz. It turns out the Telegraph Weekend has this weekly trivia quiz in its games section (Sorry, looks like they don't have it online.) with its catchy line "Who will be the mastermind this week?" Sue saved them up for the 8-9 weeks preceding our trip and each night she'd pull out a new one, put on her glasses and ask, "Who will be the mastermind tonight?" She would then read the questions aloud and keep track of who answered what. As a group, we usually answered only about 70% of the 20 questions as they were heavily weighted on the British scale. (Questions like: Who was the first British singer to win the Eurovision Song Contest, in 1967? If you're like us and don't know but are dying for the answer here it is.) If any one person managed 4 or more, they were doing quite well. I, of course, was lucky to manage 1 a night, but it was very fun and rather impressive-- the breadth of knowledge our collective group had. There was a bonus question called Snorter of the week (this name made us laugh every time) that was always a doozie. [Off hand, do you know which son of Genghis Khan succeeded him as Great Khan in 1227?]

As the evening wore on, more hikers arrived, setting up their own campsites. Our group was big enough that we mostly socialized within but that was not always the case. We met a number of characters along the way, including a few repeat cove-mates headed in our same direction, although no one kept pace with us the entire length of the WCT. From Mother's and my tent at the north end of our area, we wouldn't know it until morning, but one of these last groups to arrive had an unwelcome guest who would become known in our circle, at least for now, as The Snorer. She and I, however, fell asleep easily, soothed by the sound of the surf and our own well-earned exhaustion. (And maybe a soft snore or two of our own.)

[To keep reading, here's Day 2.]


  1. WOW! Jen, I could not and would not do this trip, but to get to experience it from the comfort of my computer is awesome! I love all the photos added in to illustrate the story! Thanks for taking the time to construct such a beautiful blog!

  2. What an amazing adventure! You've got the gift of stortytelling!
    I'm from Vancouver Island and have been meaning to hike the trail for years. Reading your story has lit a fire under my butt to start planning.

  3. I'm glad you enjoyed it, Trevor. I'm working hard to finish writing my last 2 days and finally complete this epic story! :-) (In addition my mom and I are trying to nail down our next hike in the region!) I hope you make it happen as it was truly one of the top 5 experiences of my life! Happy Trails!