Sunday, September 6, 2009

Hiking the WCT: Day 2, 8 June 2009

[Welcome to Day 2 of Hiking the West Coast Trail.  Please see my previous posts (Day 0, Day 1) for the start of this 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.]

Day 2  was another challenging hiking day. Only 8 km, but hey, that's up one kilometer from yesterday. Mother and I woke up feeling refreshed, or as fresh as possible, given that we'd slept in a tent the past 2 nights and would most likely be wearing yesterday's clothes again today. We found out at breakfast, though, that was exponentially better than much of our team who had slept fitfully thanks to our newest neighbor: The Snorer. We had another early departure in order to hit the caves of Owen's Point at low tide so we were up and packed when most other tents were still quiet. As we left, a few groups started to stir, gathering around their fires, including the infamous Snorer and what looked to be two female companions.

Almost before our day began, we sighted our first set of tracks: Mink! They are nocturnal hence our early morning sighting and they have 5 toes on their slightly webbed feet which is clearest in the lower left, back foot print shown below. For me, spotting tracks was quite exciting and only slightly less thrilling than seeing the wildlife itself.  I was enthralled with the idea that these creatures were sharing the same sheltering spaces and water sources we were, hiking the same forest trail, roaming near our campsite unbeknownst to us. (It also fed my ravenous imagination, bolstering my zoological enthusiasm despite encountering no actual bear, wolf, or cougar [sigh] while in the bush.  Every time we sighted new bear or wolf tracks, I became distracted to the potential detriment of my physical safety, knowing there was a brown bear resting amicably on the far side of that nearby log or a cougar silently watching us from that distant outcropping shadowed above us if only I could focus just a little longer. [You simply cannot obsessively scan the shadowy forest on either side of you while attempting to hike across 30-year old elevated, rotting boardwalk, much of it uneven with gaping holes, shifting sections, and slippery, moss-covered edges. But, of course, I had to try. Repeatedly.])

We were all pleased to be heading up the beach straight away rather than back into the forest. (Despite its lush beauty, the forest hiking could quickly become tedious. It's mostly about watching your feet and the bum in front of you. [You can imagine the jokes starting there, I'm sure.] Whereas on the shore, we spread out and could hike at our own pace a bit more, regrouping at breaks.) It was continually surprising to me how suddenly the terrain changed on the Trail. Our night was spent on the sandy beach of Thrasher Cove but heading west just around the bend from camp, the sand was all but buried by the cascade of boulders ahead of us as far as the eye could see. They started off basketball-sized but graduated to the size of Volkswagens and even small houses.

We were about to tackle Scrambling. That's the official term for hiking-climbing-sometimes-on-all-fours over this slippery, uneven not-quite-surface. Equipment check: stow one trekking pole and put on gaiters. (Gaiters are ingeniously simply things: a piece of water-proof fabric that wraps around your ankle and calf, extending to cover the top of your boots like a pair of eco-spats. They used to zip closed but are velcro now which makes them extremely easy to put on & take off despite the ever-present mud and sand. There is a buckle that is attached to the bottom of the fabric on either side of your boot which you then cinch tight, clipping underneath the arch of your foot, directly in front of your boot heel. The final detail is a little hook that attachs to the lowest part of you shoelaces which holds the gaiter in place. Combined, these create a water-tight [if you do it right] seal so that you can hike in mud and low water but still keep the insides of your boots dry. Which is a very good thing.)

The scrambling technique involves slow-moving steps, always safely placing one foot before moving the other. You look for flat planes on the tops of rocks or, even better, wedge-worthy spots between rocks in which to squeeze your boot. Here we had our first real biology lesson, learning to identify tar spot algae which is a dark, grey-black color and as slick as black ice. We avoided it as much as we could but sometimes crossing tar spot was our only option, always taken with great care. The brown algae, on the other hand, created a lovely carpet to walk on, slightly fuzzy, a veritable organic velcro, perfect for the intrepid Pacific Coastal hiker. Barnacles were an equally effective (& pervasive) walking surface, small and ridged, making a satisfying (yet, strangely unsettling-- they are a living thing!) crunch with each confident step.

Notice the expanse behind my mother and Kelly-- we hiked through all of that!

Having one free hand in addition to one pole worked well to help brace you and yet give you a sense of security. (When I found myself losing my footing, my gut took over. And what did my gut say? It said, "Screw the pole; use your hands!") Often times, we'd have to retrace steps to find a better path (or sometimes just wobble through but warn the nearest person to avoid that section) and more than once we sat down for the patented "bum slide" to safely get down from a particularly large boulder without actually falling on said bums. We spent two very focused hours traversing this to reach Owen's Point. Mother got the hang of it but it was never her favorite; I, however, loved the scrambling and wished we'd had more than just that one section.

For us list-makers, talliers, and rank-orderers, today would be an impressive one (possibly tying as my favorite day on the entire trip). In addition to Owen's Point, the rock-&-boulder-scramble, and various animal or tracks sightings, we would encounter multiple surge channels as well as see our first sea stack: an incredible result of water erosion. Waves carve away at the rock, leaving a tall, semi-cylindrical shape like the world's tiniest island crossed with a stationary wine cork, immobile but bound to start bobbing any second, its verdant top brilliant in the morning light. Gorgeous.

Owen's Point is one of the most famous spots on the WCT and one that was highly anticipated by Mother and myself. We'd been looking at photos in our various books for months now. As far as I was concerned, if we didn't get to hike through Owen's Point and Hole in the Wall [Patience, grasshopper. You'll have to wait for Day 6 for that one.], what was the point? I was prepared to wade neck-deep through churning seas, hoisting my BAP over my head with herculean effort, all the while avoiding the vicious biting of piranha swarming my legs. Thankfully, Mark & Kelly meticulously planned our trip so as to conveniently (assuming you drag yourself out-of-tent at 5:30am!) arrive while the tide was out thereby avoiding all those pesky piranha. Phew! These sandstone caves have gradually eroded over time, creating amazing spaces within. The algae-covered walls are nearly fluorescent in shades of chartreuse, citron, and rust-- quite incredible.

Melly: Entering the caves at Owen Point

There was one small cave with a natural window overlooking the larger cavern that we all climbed in to sit for photos. Naturally, despite taking over 1000 photos on this adventure, we do not have a photo to do the caves justice. So if you're impressed with these shots, I wish you could see it in person. What I'm missing is a wide shot with a person to show the impressive scale.

Walking through Owen's Point

The far side of the caves. (For scale, the long, white rock in the middle was large enough on which to get a group photo of us all!)

Owen's Point was where the trail turned North, heading up the unsheltered coast of Victoria Island. (Thus far, we'd been somewhat protected in the Juan de Fuca Strait.) Here we saw sea lions on the outer rocks, seals in the surrounding waters and even 2 grey whales heading south in the distance. With the caves at our back and sea stacks receding in the distance, we next encountered our first sandstone shelf hiking. When it comes to beach hiking, sandstone shelf is the favorite, certainly Mother's and mine. Sand may be beautiful but it is a real slog to hike through along with the extra weight of your pack which just pushes your boots deeper in the sand. Despite the initial breathtaking sight of the coast line, my appreciation of the beauty of our beach hiking was, I must admit, sometimes dampened by the trudging pace when we were on sand or pebble beaches. Sandstone shelf, found along large expanses of Victoria Island's west coast, however, is fairly flat sandstone rock and therefore much faster and easier to walk on, minus a bit of tar spot algae and frequent (yet highly noteworthy) surge channels here and there. It is a pockmarked moonscape of rock that often looks otherworldly. (Dalmation-spotted rock was the term that first came to my mind when I saw this.)

A surge channel is a narrow (narrow being relative, of course) inlet in the rocky shelf that is filled as rushing waves strike the shore, then reverses and empties as the waves retreat, creating a powerful and sudden current or surge. Many of the surge channels we encountered could be skirted and a small few were narrow enough to actually step over, but anything wide enough to require a leap that we couldn't circumvent had to be clambered in and out of. (Going on a Bear Hunt's "If we can't go around it, then we'll have to go through it" comes to mind...)

Passable surge channel

We had 2 major surge channels to tackle. The first was too high to climb down and it reached all the way to the forest line so our only option was to scale the edge of it, using a rope to brace against the rock edge. We then proceeded to bushwack through the forest a bit, to then come out on the other side of the channel and back onto the shelf.

Of course, in the photos it doesn't look steep or slippery, particularly in this one of me on the rope but that darkened rock was covered in slippery algae and sloped down just enough that if you didn't lean your weight back to brace yourself against the now-taut rope, you just started sliding down. In the next two photos, the first is a close-up showing the rope and rock where we actually crossed and then in the more distant shot (Click on the full-size photo and look closely in the upper middle of the photo for the white buoy marking where the rope starts.), you can see the drop-off itself.

The notable thing about pack hiking is what would usually be only a minor spill or even just an off-balance moment that you can quickly overcome, can suddenly become a major fall with the addition of 40+ pounds. And you don't internalize this difference until you almost fall the first time. So, always always, it was Mark's and Kelly's goal to avoid anything questionable that would cause one of us to go down. And if you did feel yourself falling, you were supposed to throw your weight backwards to fall on the giant, soft cushion of your pack. We had very few incidents the entire trip and those we did have were minor (No expensive air-evac necessary, right Mamma!  The cost is to you if you have to be helicoptered off the WCT due to serious injury.  Most evacuations are by boat, however, if the injured person can get to a camp/evacuation site.) which is why we did not cross the surge channel using this deceptively easy-to-cross driftwood, conveniently left behind by someone braver (or perhaps just crazier):

Our second major surge channel that morning was a bit more typical. M & K would scout ahead, testing the tar spot-covered rocks, assess distances between rocks, and determine the best route for the group to take. They would then spot, usually along with Carter and Lauren (who quickly become guides-in-training, unsurprisingly given their respective backgrounds), ready to assist the rest of us as needed when we crossed.

I found having a group to work together almost always resulted in things being easier and certainly having a large group (not to mention two skilled WCT experts) made times like crossing the surge channels an exciting challenge as opposed to something distressingly difficult. [Note: Remember, this is considered a difficult trail and is rated as strenuous. For me, the concern was not about being physically prepared but rather knowing the right way to do things. If we had planned to hike on our own, I would certainly have prepared further, but I did read 4 different books about hiking the WCT and there were still countless things that I learned from M &  K that I would not have known, many of them specific to this particular trail.]

One of the fascinating things about the surge channels was seeing them empty or at least partially so. It wasn't hard to imagine the ocean surging in, especially when looking at the debris left behind-- giant logs tossed against the backs of their throats like toothpicks. Part of me wanted to find a nearby rock that might be high enough and just wait for the tide to come in and see all that action.

Around 1pm we took our lunch break high on the sandstone shelf near KM 65, just below access point #2 where we would soon leave the beach to head back into the forest for the rest of the day.  Meals were always a highlight-- Yes, I know, the trip was about the nature experience but food was the next most important thing, I swear! -- because it seemed like magic each time K & M conjured such delicious fare out of thin air (plus a few ziploc bags of dried this-or-that).  Today's spread was an array of salami, cheddar, and crackers (Half of which were my box of Bretons that I had gingerly packed and repacked at the top of my pack, lovingly caring for up until this point.  And the other half?  Well, let's just say that they were a little crumbly and we joked that John would not be carrying any more crackers in his food bag once we replenished our stores.)

A little lunchtime siesta was standard practice.

On the WCT, there was no gradual shift from beach to forest. It was always a sudden change, sweeping aside the curtain of overgrowth to the muted forest interior, the exposed beach disappearing in a matter of steps as the veil closed behind us. Here the trail was either back to roots, roots, and more roots or boardwalk much of the way, built to allow access through otherwise nearly-impassable sections where the forest floor is a maze of felled trees, overgrown plants, mud, and mire. This section is quite old, the boardwalk rough-hewn and in some need of repair. These were always my favorite parts of the boardwalk, beautiful in their moss-covered, warped edges, merging with the wilderness, seeming nearly as alive as the lichen-covered trees crowding around them. Unfortunately, the harsh winters take a serious toll on the WCT, particularly in regards to the all-wood boardwalks and ladders so it is a constant and never-ending task to replace damaged sections. I suppose, then, I should have been reassured by the newer sections that have been replaced, looking very much straight out of Home Depot, but I just couldn't help it;  I preferred the rustic, dilapidated sections, despite their sometimes questionable appearance and shakiness.

In addition to the frequent boardwalks, we encountered our first log-crossings, which spanned various lengths at different heights but were never quite the spanning-a-deep-gorge drama that I had, of course, envisioned, complete with swelling music and snapping crocs below (never mind the fact that there are no crocodiles here). All things being equal, that was probably a good thing. Still, even a log only a couple feet off the ground isn't without its challenges when backpacking.

This log only appears to be on flat ground, floating on the sea of thick undergrowth.

Mark & Kelly had an uncanny (Can you say experienced?) ability to sense when we were flagging, providing just the right nudge to perk us up-- a couple of hard candies after a particularly long set of ladders, or one of Mark's funny jokes at a brief packs-on break. (My favorite he told in a faux French accent, about 3 kittens named Un, Deux, & Trois who were playing on the snow and ice when suddenly they fell through the thin ice. The punchline? Why, Un, deux, trois, "cat sank", of course!)

Our afternoon wrapped up with a few more sets of ladders and then by 4:30 we hit KM 62.  We were at Camper Creek where we could see our campsite around the bend on the far side of the bank!  Although the creek wasn't as  deep as usual due to the lack of rain in the past couple of weeks, it still required removing our boots and switching to our water shoes to cross.  I had envisioned tying our boots to the outside of our packs but what we actually did was tie the laces together, hung them around our neck and then push them over our shoulders so they actually hung over the pack, directly behind us.  That way they didn't create opposing momentum when we moved. Then we loosened and unclipped all our straps so that if we did start to lose our balance we could ditch the pack without it taking us downstream with it.  (Granted, downstream in this particular case would have only been a step or two away.)  Still, that water was cold.  And the rocks hard.  But we made it across the creek with no spills.

We set up our tents in a snug, sheltered spot under the trees and then helped prep for dinner.  Tonight's dinner was probably the favorite of the trip: an amazingly huge amount of both chili and mashed potatoes.  The chili had all manner of dehydrated veggies plus a few fresh items like red peppers and tomatoes added.  Like any good host, Mark knew that presentation was everything so when it was time to serve us, he explained there were three options:
  • Great Wall of China (half and half in your bowl)
  • Moat (a castle of potatoes with your chili surrounding it)
  • Volcano (a mound of potatoes with a hole in the middle and chili poured over the top)

Mark creating the Volcano

My favorite?  The volcano, of course!  You know, maybe if I offered up those three options at home, Will and Cooper might actually eat chili or mashed potatoes the next time I served them.  (I can dream, right?) 

When dinner was over (which even included tasty two-bite brownies!), we washed our dishes at the creek mouth so as not to leave food traces for olfactorally-superior bears, nor pollute the creeks further in, where we collected our drinking water. (Years ago, many of the creeks were still safe to drink from but now you must either filter or chemically treat all water sources, although some of the local First Nations peoples whose traditional territory most of the trail is part of, still drink only the untreated water without incident.)

Just about the time we were settling down to relax our over-full stomachs, we had a visitor:  Dan, a Pacheedaht (One of the three First Nations tribes found there.) Steward.  It is the Stewards' job to maintain the trail & boardwalks in addition to educate hikers of the history of the trail and their people since the West Coast Trail is on their lands (lands which have been theirs for 4000 years.)  Dan was an enthusiastic storyteller and very proud of his heritage.  Set back in the woods was a newly rebuilt cabin for him and his other stewards to live.  One always stayed at their home base while the others traveled their portion of the trail, making repairs.  They were responsible for the first one-third of the WCT from the Port Renfrew end. 

It was cooler that night now that we were unsheltered from the ocean breezes (despite what it appears with Dan in his shorts and t-shirt.  He's a big guy, if you can't tell.)  The rest of us were dressed more like Mother, breaking out our shiny, new waterproof jackets (thanks to the mercy of the rain gods!) and donning our toques (rhymes with dukes) which is the term for our cold-weather hats.  There was no history of this term.  It just is: Toque.  (And as far as mother was concerned, she either wanted to wear her Tilley sun hat or her toque at all times.  You'll notice there are very few pictures of her with no hat.  That was intentional.) Anytime we weren't hiking (or bathing), we were usually wearing our toques.  It was amazing that you could be hiking in short sleeves, hoofing along, warm, and within 5 minutes of stopping be so cold.  Kelly was always reminding us "Toques on. Insulation layers." whenever we stopped because it was important to maintain your body warmth. (When reading about backpacking trips, avoiding hypothermia is the primary safety concern as once you get cold it can be extremely hard to warm up again.)  I loved the cool temperatures-- knowing this was only a 2-week reprieve from the long, hot Austin summer.

 Melly sporting her toque and pristine jacket.

Like most nights on the Trail, we were all pretty tired and ready for bed by 9 or 10 o'clock.  Shortly before dark, however, we saw a late arrival to Camper Bay: the Snorer and his 2 companions.  Thankfully they set up tent farther away from us than the previous night.  By 9:30, Mother and I were snuggled up in our matching Cat's Meow sleeping bags, trying to catch up on our journal writing before we feel asleep, anticipating our earliest wake-up yet: 5 am.

[To keep reading, here's Day 3]


  1. I really enjoy your story telling. Your writing style is so easy to read. It seems as if we are tagging along with you. Thanks for taking the time to share this with us.

  2. Jen, I am so grateful you are taking the time to create this! I feel like I can now say I am familiar with the WCT myself, thanks to you!:-) I know in years to come you will be so happy you recorded all fo this in such detail. It always amazes me how much we can forget, although that does allow me to reread favorite books over and over!

  3. It sounds even more fun when you write about it Jen! You were a serious rock scrambler, so nimble and quick when you weren't looking back to make sure I was doing okay. Yea, yea, of course I noticed. Back in the day, I would have been right there with you, but the old knees and my balance aren't what they used to be, so for me it required more concentration than all the other types of terrain--and ALL the hiking demanded full concentration. As you said, none of the trail allowed even the most seasoned hiker to gaze about while walking. Like driving a car, it was eyes on the road at all times. And yes, it was all about the food--something I think the entire "Short Legs, Long Legs Gang" would agree upon. When you expend that much energy with sometimes tedious concentration, over a long period with complete mental focus on the task, when you finally stop, your body kicks in and tells you it needs fuel in a way most of us never experience in our everyday lives. I really do think this could be published and NOT just because I'm your Mother. Your storytelling skill truly paints a picture and entertains as well.

  4. Very impressive! As Dawn said, your writng is terrific.
    Have a wonderful birthday.
    Love, Uncle Paul & Aunt Mary