Monday, September 14, 2009

Hiking the WCT: Day 3, 9 June 2009

[Welcome to Day 3 of Hiking the West Coast Trail.  Please see my previous posts (Day 0, Day 1, Day 2) 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.]

Another 5 am wake up greeted us that morning as we had another date with a surge channel at low tide.  Actually two major ones, both bigger than what we'd crossed yesterday and one was just around the bend from camp but first we had to cross the creek again, this time beyond camp where the creek fed into the ocean. (Photo above)  After enjoying our morning dried fruit & oatmeal (or mashed potatoes in Kelly's case.  She's eaten so much oatmeal over the years she just can't face it anymore.  We didn't even notice for a few days that she was eating something else in her morning bowl!) we packed up and once again donned our water shoes to cross the creek and then suited up with boots, gaiters, and poles, ready to tackle the surge channels!

 Here's the first surge channel we needed to cross!
And here's the section of it where we were actually going cross.
Clearly, I was not the only one who recognized the benefits of a group dynamic (nor the skills of our fearless leaders Mark & Kelly) because right about the time we hit our first major surge channel, we discovered our numbers had increased by three.  Since crossing the creek, we had noticed a distant group that were gradually closing the gap behind us. (Remember, a larger group bottlenecks somewhat when encountering obstacles.) It was none other than the infamous Snorer, Boris by name, and his two female companions.

 Boris is behind Mark with the white hat.  That's Sue in front.

I wish I had a better picture of Boris wearing all of his gear. Boris was a stout fellow with a medium-sized pack from which he hung all manner of items -- not just the occasional water bottle and water shoes but all sorts of things that should have been stowed inside his pack. He looked like a Christmas tree!  The problem with this wasn't that it looked absurd (although it did), but that all of those things were swinging from him, fighting against his own center of balance and making it that much harder to climb over obstructions. In addition, all three of them appeared to have only water shoes for the entire hike. We never did find out the name of Boris' companions so we referred to them as The Natashas.

Melly & Sue shadowing Mark's footsteps through the tar spot algae.

That morning the biggest surge channels we encountered required removal of our packs to negotiate across and then we carried the backpacks across separately.  First we had a steep drop-off that required a bum slide and then careful foot-placement to avoid all the slippery tar spot algae, usually shadowing the person in front to be sure we avoided the most treacherous spots.  Mike positioned himself in the center of the channel for a friendly hand when crossing the water and then it was a giant, slick step up the other side to climb out, with a helping hand from Carter.

Bill's turn: Big step up out of the channel!

Once I had crossed the surge channel, I turned back to get photos of Mother crossing and of the channel itself, glimpsing Kelly lending a hand to these three at the back of our line. I think Boris realized (although not as quickly at Mark & Kelly) just how unprepared he and his friends were. (And yet he was always smiling!) Although they did not travel with us, they would conveniently reappear just as we hit another tough spot, all the while gathering vital bits of information from M & K.

 The logistics of moving a group like ours 

Our second surge channel was so wide that we decided on a bucket brigade to pass the backpacks, once we slid down into the channel itself, rather than try to carry them across the slippery surface.  Unfortunately, this kept us all occupied for nearly the entire group crossing and I got few photos, none of the backpack brigade itself.  Once again Boris and The Natashas were there just in time to take advantage of our assistance in crossing (and yes, we even carried across their packs along with the rest of ours!)  Later, we all wondered if they could have successfully made it across without our help.

 Melly's assisted bum slide


In addition to barnacles and algae, the sandstone shelf was positively bristling with mussels near the ocean side.  We saw many fishing boats off in the distance as the waters there were filled with salmon and halibut. We continued on the shelf until reaching the mouth of Sandstone Creek, where we were required to climb down, much like another surge channel, but this time to turn inland. (There were impassable headlands at the mouth of Cullite Cove forcing us to leave the coast.)  In fact it was high enough (about 10 feet) that we roped our packs down the side.

Roping our packs down to the creek bed.

Looking back.

Once again, the patented bum slide came in handy along with a braced-knee step stool from Lauren down to the river-rock surface below.  We broke for a late morning snack before moving on because in order to head up the sandstone bed of the eponymously-named creek, first we had to rock climb up the face cliff for 10-12 feet.

Similar to our rope-aided surge channel crossing the day before, but this time vertical; we planted our feet flush with the cliff, faithfully leaned back into nothing and walked up the face, holding onto the rope.  Sue set the standard when she followed Kelly, climbing while still wearing her pack.  Mother said, "If Sue can do it, so can I."  Sue responded with something very close to, "Way to go, Mel!". (From Day 1, Sue naturally started calling Mother, Mel, which she loved and immediately endeared Sue to her. Not that it was hard, as Sue was always cheery, smiling and joking.)

Way to go, Mel!

Once up on the sandstone creek bed, the valley narrowed further as we hiked up the shallow bed itself, the cliff walls bearing down on either side of where the creek had carved its path.  It was a neat section that was unlike anything else we traveled on the WCT and would lead us back to the forest trail just before KM 58 for the last 6 km of our 10 K day.  Soon, we reached a beautiful spot where the creek waterfalled down the steep shelf; a perfect time for a packs-off break and a photo op!

We then proceeded to leave the creek bed and bushwack directly up a steep almost stair-like ascent of tangled roots, using another existing rope to help hoist ourselves upwards. 

Check out the view from above (photo below) looking back down to where we just were in the creek.  That's how high up we climbed to get back up to the main trail!

Next, we had one half of the 16 Cullite Creek ladders -- the largest set on the WCT -- to climb down to get us to our lunch spot, on the rocky bank of the creek.  We had a bit of a stau because other hikers arrived at the bottom while we were headed down, ready to climb up so we traded off, a couple of our group going down, then letting them come up.  Luckily, there was one platform midway down that was long enough to allow a couple people standing on it so we could pause there and switch off, very carefully skirting each other (since you're twice as deep wearing your pack!) so as to keep from falling
off the edge.

Once we reached the bottom, we enjoyed our bounty on the rocky bank of Cullite Creek (Our bum pads were true luxuries, especially at times like this!):  tortilla wraps filled with your choice of cream cheese, jams, peanut butter, apple slices, and even some hot salsa!  I have to say cream cheese, blackberry jam, and apples rolled up in a wheat tortilla is quite tasty!  Peanut Butter and salsa's not bad either.

Another interesting tidbit about meals was the issue of left-overs.  Clearly, with 11 hungry hikers, we needed ample food but we also didn't want extras as we had to pack everything out.  Each meal, if something produced trash, it was the job of the person who had carried it to pack out the trash.  For example, for our lunch Day 1, one of the items I had carried was a bag with individual peanut M & M's for each person so after everyone ate theirs, they gave me the empty wrappers to tuck back in the ziploc and stash with the other Smellies in my food bag.  Another lunch we had these weird (Sorry guys, I know you all liked them!) sesame bars for dessert which weren't particularly sweet and mother and I didn't care for them.  We didn't have to eat them, but we did have to surreptitiously add them to our individual trash bags as they were to too bulky and obviously left behind (since there were exactly 11) for the designated person to have to pack them out.  If your item was a tomato or an apple, there was very little waste.  But, if you were carrying a jar of peanut butter, like Carter, it was pretty heavy if it was still half full.  So it behooved him to encourage people (think of it as selling) to eat more peanut butter.  We did, but there was still a fair bit left.

Lunch vultures

See, I actually did filter my own water occasionally.  And this time, it was straight from the creek!

After lunch, Mother and I sat down to write in our journals.  We managed a steady routine of enjoying our lunch with the gang but settling in to write as much as possible each day while most everyone else rested. (Although Wenke had a small journal she wrote in, presumably making notes about what she might write for an article but she either penned much more quickly than we did, kept some sort of amazing German shorthand, or just wrote less as it seemed like we were furiously scrawling in our books much more frequently than she.)  If we didn't manage time at lunch, there was just too much left to write about in the evenings.

We packed up after lunch, made our final washroom stops somewhere out of sight, and then took our first cable car ride across Cullite Creek.  These are 2-person contraptions with just enough space to wedge two Big Ass Packs between 2 hikers, hung from a cable which you then pull yourself along using a rope attached to pulleys at either end.  Conveniently, however, with 11 people (and two young, enthusiastic outdoorsy types-- thank you Lauren & Carter!), we didn't even have to pull ourselves along.

But that's the idea, being able to manage it yourself since most people hike in twos and threes.  It was certainly faster having L & C do it (and guess who else managed to catch up just in time to grab an exertion-free ride?  Yep, Boris & The Natashas.) but I felt a nagging sense of, I don't know -- misrepresentation, maybe?  I'd been priding myself (and telling others!) that although my mother & I were doing this hike with a guided group and might be eating a bit better than if we tried it solo, we were still doing all the tough stuff-- carrying all our own gear and food, roughing it tent-style, peeing in the woods, etc.  And here I was getting a ride on the cable car.  How embarrassing.  (Not that anyone else seemed to feel this way but I didn't take a poll.)  I mean, if this were Survivor, they'd catch me on videotape and show everyone what a liar I was.  And you know I'd be voted off the island that very week!  I told myself, then and there, that the next time we encountered a cable car,  I was pulling us across.

Melly enjoying the ride.

Once on the far side of the creek, we had the other 8 sister ladders to climb up.  Naturally, it took a little longer than the downhill side but since we had strategically placed ourselves near the front of the line, Mother and I were up and resting while waiting for most of our team to follow.  While cooling our heels, we met a solitary hiker, Steven, heading in the opposite direction, who was in need of a little assistance.  His boots were falling apart!  Thankfully, part of your standard first aid kit (at least the hiking/trekking version) is: duct tape!  And it turns out Kelly is rather skilled in the Art of Duct Tape.  She fixed Steven right up and he calmly went on his merry way, heading down the ladders.  This started a discussion of how often this sort of thing happens.  Kelly said every season they run into similar situations which surprised me.  Having a pair of good, solid boots seems the obvious number one priority when heading on a hiking/backpacking trip. (Little did I know, then, how hard the WCT is on a decent pair of boots.  Kelly said she has to replace her boots each year.)

Now, folks, what you've all been waiting for.  The highly anticipated and never disappointing, all-powerful, boot-consuming...wait for it... MUD!  Yes, it was Day 3 and we were only now hitting our first real mud.  (As it turns out, that, in itself, is quite miraculous.  Sue's previous trip with Kelly on a similar trail was almost constant rain and mud.  Frankly, hearing the stories, we were amazed that she'd come back for more.)  Why no mud yet?  Because there had been nearly two weeks of no rain and still not a drop on the Trail.  And yet, check out the mud we encountered: 

Now, try to imagine what it would have been like if it had been raining like normal.  June is part of the rainy season, after all!  It's so cool (highs in the 60's during the days) and moist that there are many parts of the trail that were ankle-deep mud despite the near-drought conditions.  We were all rather superstitious about talking about the rain.  Mark referred to it as precipitation as if not using the "R" word would keep the Rain Gods deaf (a bit like You-Know-Who) and the rest of us followed suit, preferring not to tempt fate.  All except Mother, that is, who almost seemed to relish saying the R-word aloud.  (I hate to think what the rest of the group might have done to her if the heavens had opened up after she said it.  It wouldn't have been pretty.  I'd have been sad to go on without her... although... my tent would have been roomier.)  Here you can see how handy those gaiters are; without them, all that mud would have been inside our boots and socks, coating our laces.

Mmmm...mud! (I knew when I was really hungry because it started to look like chocolate to me!)

Sometimes hiking was just the mud.

From Day 0, Mark's mantra had been Embrace the Mud! because if you climbed on floating logs and death cookies (flat slices of giant trees placed in the mud like deceptively handy stepping stones but so slippery and usually tilted just enough to send you flying) to try to avoid the mud, more often than not you ended up spectacularly wiping out (which, again, with a 45 lb BAP can be dangerous).

Dry (slightly less dangerous) Death Cookies

But, we'd yet to have to really follow Mark's lead since it had been so dry; most of us managed to instinctively avoid the mud until that day.  Except for Wenke.  She was amazingly skilled at avoiding the mud.  I'm sure her lithe figure normally made for near-floating movement but remember, she's got the + 40 lb pack too so I like to think she was stomping around only slightly less than me.  So, suffice it to say, it was a momentous occasion when she finally muddied her footwear as much as the rest of us.  We're talking groaning (by her!) and cheering (by the rest of us!) and, of course, photographic evidence!

Wenke, no longer impervious to the mud.

Just as we started truly embracing the mud we found ourselves back on boardwalk for 2 clicks, but this time in the flat, sunny expanse of bog (which reminded me of some of our hiking in Alaska) which although not the most beautiful portion of the WCT, did afford a variety of unique plants.

 Melly in the bog.  (Is that her Crocs hanging from her pack?)

These including a lovely little variety of dogwood plant, skunk cabbage (which the bears love to eat and we found along much of the boardwalk-- along with muddy bear prints on the walk itself.  Yes, the bears and other wildlife like the easiest route as well!)

Blooming Dogwood

 Bear Salad:  Skunk Cabbage

Also notable was the gorgeous, tiny sun dew which not only looks like a miniature venus fly trap but is part of the same family and Labrador tea whose leaves are used by the First Nations people to brew tea as a caffeine-like substitution.  The tricky thing about Labrador tea is that has tiny white flowers which are often mistaken with the tiny pink flowers of a similar-looking poisonous plant called Western Bog Laurel.  So don't go idly brewing tea the next time you're wandering the forests of Vancouver Island.  Unless you're decidedly sure of your local flora.  And you're not colorblind. 

Sun Dew

Bog became forest once again and we soon found ourselves at Logan Creek and it's iconic suspension bridge which despite being made primarily of rope, does have a wood walking surface and doesn't bounce nearly as much as I'd hoped.  Still, it was beautiful and the view down and across was quite spectacular despite my less-than-spectacular photos.  (That was one of the very few negatives to hiking in such a big group.  I was always shooting on the walk, so to speak, and although it allowed for someone else to take our photo together, I was still at the mercy of someone else's pace.  Of course, if we'd been alone, I would probably still be on the West Coast Trail, valiantly trying to get the perfect Logan Bridge shot or the quintessential dilapidated boardwalk photo.  [And at that pace, I'm sure even the pokiest zombies would have found me by now.])

Melly on Logan Creek bridge

Jen: Look, Ma, no poles!

We once again clambered up and down mirror-image ladders, this time those flanking Logan Creek.  Nearly as large a set as Cullite's, Logan does trump Cullite in one respect: It has the single longest mother of all the ladders on the WCT.  We were forewarned of this fact so I planned to count the rungs but it's hard to stay focused on counting while trying to climb safely, shift your poles, and prepare for one-shot-only before/after photo ops.  Naturally, I lost count.  Thankfully, it turns out it's a known quantity so my disappointment was short-lived. (Only the 5-10 minutes until I discovered Kelly had the answer:  66!)  The distance from rung to rung varies from ladder to ladder since they are handmade by different, local stewards and carpenters but most were close to 18" apart so I'd guesstimate that the Logan mother was about 100' tall.  Not too shabby!

Melly coming up the mother!

Still finding ourselves on the forest trail because of a dangerous, impassable surge channel at the waterfall at the mouth of Adrenaline Creek, by 3:30 we instead took our final packs-off break beside the Creek further inland before pressing on with our last 2 kilometers of the day until reaching camp.

3 kilometers to go.

We remained perky and enjoyed another one of Mark's silly stories -- this one a 20-Questions type of riddle -- but somehow our collective enthusiasm ebbed away in that late afternoon break and not long after being back on the trail again, we were all wiped out and ready to make camp.  Even our usual constant teasing and chatting faded with our energy and Mark, in the lead once again, worked hard (I didn't realize this until later.) chatting to keep our minds off our child-like are-we-there-yet? thoughts.  In our last half hour as we drew ever closer to our destination, Mother planted her trekking poles like she had a thousand times before and somehow it caught on something and torqued just right.  Snap!  She'd just broken one of her brand new Komperdell poles!  (This is a rather common occurrence regardless of the brand or style, and in fact, it was the second pole incident in our own group alone.  Lauren was perfectly comfortable hiking without the benefit of her poles but had decided on Day 2 to at least give them a try.  I think she snapped hers within 20 minutes.  She looked up with a so-much-for-that-experiment expression and promptly stowed them away.)  Mother was, of course, very annoyed to have broken a pole (especially at our current low-level morale) but with Lauren's spare there was hardly a pause and for the rest of the hike she contentedly scrambled everywhere unfettered while Mother (grudgingly) used their mismatched set.  (And because I'd hate for you to have anxiety about it for the next 5 days...yes, they both held for the remainder of our hike.  Whew, disaster narrowly averted!)  Mark took to saying, "we're almost there" and "just down that ladder" or "over that hill" which I started to retort with half-jesting "you're lying!" comments as each time, despite our further descent, we still could not see the beach.  Finally, seeing the white and blue of the coast through the trees, we dragged ourselves across the treeline shortly before 6pm.  We'd made it to Walbran Creek!

Mother in our penthouse suite!

Still in the front of our hiking queue, Mother and I had first pick for our tent and snagged a raised campsite, just up from the kitchen, which Mark called The Penthouse.  As usual, we went through our evening set up rituals, albeit a bit more wearily that night, especially with the added task of dealing with now-muddy gaiters and boots.  Our bathing in the ocean 2 nights before had been frigid so we were loathe to wash again but our need for a least minimal hygiene won out.  (Or maybe it was just fear of being ridiculed by the gang.)  At least there was a bit of a fresh water pool as part of the creek so it was bound to be better than the nearby ocean.  Kelly called it "warm" but it was still freezing.  We persevered although I had to threaten to drown Mother to get her to dunk her head! (It was at this point we were just starting to realize that our scaled-back joint soap was woefully inadequate for the two of us.  That's #2 on Mother's list of What to Take More of Next Time, following closely behind More Underwear!)
Still life with hiking boots.  (Better known as Trying to Dry Your Boots Out)

Dinner was ready very soon that night-- Planned in advance by M & K, knowing Day 3 is always a long one. -- Teriyaki noodles with dried apricots, sugar snap peas, & coconut powder.  It was delicious!  John had the great idea of adding some of the left-over peanut butter to his individual serving to give it a bit of a Thai Peanut flare which was inspired. (Not to mention, it helped lighten his son's pack!)  Being the thoughtful person I am, I was happy to help Carter lighten his load as well.  It had absolutely nothing to do with the fact that I love Thai Peanut anything.  We enjoyed single Kitkats as dessert and took our Pub Quiz, chilling by the fire, but by 8:45, Mother was falling asleep so we made our goodnights.

Camp food is awesome!

As we played a couple hands of Gin Rummy in our sleeping bags, Mother and I marveled at having successfully completed the toughest 3 days of the WCT!  Knowing the most grueling part was behind us, made our temporary exhaustion and aching feet or knees only a minor irritation rather than cause for concern in the coming days.  (Although, once we turned off our headlamps, snuggling down to sleep, I couldn't help but think back to the surge channels, Owen's Point, the suspension bridge, the longest ladder and feel a little sad at having all that excitement behind us already! Luckily, we still had plenty of WCT milestones still to come.  Not to mention our first late morning wake up.  We didn't need to be on the Trail until 10am so we could sleep until 7am.  Woo-hoo. Zzzzz...)

Sunset at Walbran Creek

[To keep reading, here's Day 4]  


  1. Thanks for all the magnificent pictures! I really appreciate all the detail you give, and you are such an excellent writer, it just flows along! I also love the humor, I am laughing out loud all the time! I also love knowing this other side of you through these blogs! I am so impressed that not only could you DO this, but that you actually CHOSE to do it and ENJOYED it! That is quite incredible, as far as I am concerned!

  2. Another fabulous chapter about our adventures, Jen! I loved reading about Sue and remembering the friendship that instantly developed between us due to our similar ages. When she began calling me "Mel"--which I usually don't like-- it made me feel like her special friend. I miss you, Sue! When I read about Sandstone Creek, it reminded me that the popularity of the WCT is probably due to the variety of terrain you get to experience when you hike there. Mark and Kelly told us that their WCT hikes are always filled and they thought it was for that reason. Speaking of Mark and Kelly, I have to praise them for setting the tone for our trip. It was always fun, even when it was really hard. We learned so much about Vancouver Island and its precious and fragile environment and history. They engendured comradery within our group and at their most fatigued, they were professional, humorous, and always looking out for the safety of each one of us. I was especially impressed at their willingness to help other hikers in any way they could--like Boris, who should not have been on the trail. On another topic, I had to LOL when I read your description of the cable cars and your moral dilemma. No wonder you were instantly up there aggressively towing the pulley line on the next ones! As I reflected over Day 3 while reading, I remember it was definitely our toughest day on the trail. We had to hike an extra 3KM after an already grueling day, because Logan Creek Camp was taken out by a storm and the whole side of the hill and a substantial bridge had collapsed into the creek, not to mention a bear had taken up residence there recently so the Pacific Rim National Park had closed the camp to all hikers. To end my ramblings on a lighter note, do you remember that this was also the day we both said, almost simultaneously, that the surroundings made us think of R.O.U.S.'s (Rodents Of Unusual Size) from "The Princess Bride" and that we could just imagine them leaping from the underbrush to attack us?! Our fascination with movies was not lost on the trail.

  3. Hi there. I'm a first year college student doing my thesis paper on hiking the west coast trail. Could I contact you for an interview of your experience? My email is
    Thank you