Tuesday, May 18, 2010

Hiking the WCT: Day 5, 11 June 2009

[Welcome to Day 5 of Hiking the West Coast Trail.  Please see my previous posts (Day 0, Day 1, Day 2, Day 3, Day 4 ) 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 5 found us packing up camp and heading back to Chez Monique where we would pick up our newly replenished food sacks and have a little breakfast before heading up to Carmanah Lighthouse. Most of us chose to purchase breakfast as opposed to eating oatmeal again and let me just say I had the best damn $20 omelet I've ever had (along with pan-fried potatoes and buttered toast.  Mmmm... butter.  Speaking of butter, you can tell while hiking the WCT that you aren't in Texas -- okay, yes, there are numerous indicators but this is one of the biggies.  At least once, someone had a stick of butter he/she was carrying as one of his/her food bag items.  If you were hiking anywhere in Texas in June, and carried an unrefrigerated stick of butter,  you'd find yourself nose to nose with an extremely friendly bear who was coveting the butter oozing over everything inside your pack.  I know, I know, the WCT is in Canada.  This is kinda like one of those Star Trek alternate universe episodes.  Can't you just go with it?)

Unfortunately, I took no pictures that morning at breakfast because Mother and I had a wee panic attack regarding our photography.  We had a total of four of the special lithium batteries for the camera for the trip and the second battery ran out very quickly so we were concerned about having only 2 left for the remaining 5 days.  We decided we needed to be a bit choosier about what to photograph so we [read: Jen] decided we had enough of Chez Monique from the night before and did we really need a photograph of our eggs?  Hmmmm....  I managed to restrain my photographic tendencies on Day 5 (as well as Day 8, actually.  Bravo, Jen!) so you may notice this section is light on photos.  (I took roughly 30 instead of the usually 120 or so.  Feel free to cheer or moan as you see fit.)  Thankfully, battery two must have been a fluke because our final two both lasted much longer and we still had battery life to spare as we left the WCT.  (Damn, now I've ruined it and you know we made it back alive!)

Here's something to ponder.  We spent every night meticulously clearing out our packs and tents of anything with a scent and either locking everything in a metal box or hanging it 20 feet in the air to keep the bears away.  And yet... and yeeet Monique lives in the exact same place with an open air kitchen with plastic for walls and a garden full of delicious, edible plants growing tantalizingly nearby.  How is that possible?  (I think maybe the bears know not to mess with Monique.)

While relaxing at Chez Monique, awaiting our omelets, we took the time to repack our backpacks including our newly-filled food bags.  I took a quick glance at my new stash and discovered one very intriguing ziploc labeled Crust.  (It had been an unspoken rule that we didn't discuss what was in our food bags and you usually had only one ingredient for a given meal so it was always a surprise at mealtimes.)  It was also labeled D7 so I spent the next three days pondering off and on, what that crust might be part of... (some sort of meat pie? dessert?  pizza?  I realize "pizza" seems an unlikely possibility, but by now I'd realized almost anything was possible to make on the trail...except, of course, Mark's beloved ice cream.)

Suddenly our gradually lightened packs had morphed back into Big Ass Packs thanks to another full complement of four days of food.  At least, in the process, we first had the opportunity to remove all the undesirables. After four days of hiking, we were intimate with the subtle difference a few ounces made so the opportunity to clear out the disappointing cider packets I didn't care for or the more unappetizingly healthy of Mother's peanut-free bars was highly valued.  This ritual was duplicated by each person and suddenly we were 9-year olds again, tossing the unwanted in the box (to be left at Chez M's) and snatching up what someone else discarded.  (The box was then left behind at Chez Monique's with other Sea to Sky supplies.)   It was a treat, actually; an unexpected little surprise.  Mother and I both made out with a few more chocolate-dipped granola bars and courtesy of Bill & John, I think, Mother snagged more cream and sugar packets to stretch her coffee.  Score!

Once we carefully stowed everything (including another package of fragile crackers for me; I guess word got out I was the Cracker Whisperer), it was time to get a move on.  And time to pick up those backpacks.  This was the heaviest our packs would be for the entire trip-- and, man, did we feel every ounce of their 45+ lbs.  I'm probably just whinging here, but I swear, my food bag was substantially heavier than Mother's this time around!  I guesstimate that my pack hit 50 lbs that day but, of course, there's no way to prove that (or disprove that, now that I think about it so maybe it was more like 70 lbs.  Heh-heh.)

After making our farewells to Monique and Company, we headed around the last kilometer of the cove to the true Carmanah Point and climbed up a brief set of ladders leading to Carmanah Lighthouse directly above us.  There we met Jerry, the lighthouse keeper, and his wife, Janet.  They live at the lighthouse full time, in a modest white clapboard home adjacent to the lighthouse itself.  They keep a garden along with a greenhouse and even have a helipad for emergency access.  (I must admit I was slightly disappointed that the air-evac I'd imagined -but not for Mother or me!- never occurred.  Seeing the seaside cliff location of the helipad made for the most fabulous cinematic crane-shot in my mind!)

There was a carefully arranged whale skeleton laid out on display in one section of the lawn and even a whimsical little stone-edged hedge maze, a pattern in the grass awaiting a bit of magic to transform it into actual walls.  Their most coveted decorations (at least to my mind) were large glass weights from fishermen's nets that wash up on shore like gorgeous crystal gazing balls.  Mark and Kelly had mentioned that they often wash up on the beaches of the WCT during the winter months but that they have never found one as they are snatched up by the first people to pass along -- usually those that live on the Trail, namely the lighthouse keepers or First Nations stewards who are the first to hike the trail each Spring before the hiking season begins.  (I think this was code for:  If you find one on your very first visit when we hike this trail 4 times a year, year after year, you're dead.)

Sea Lions on Haul Out Rock

Jerry set up his telescope so we could have a closer look at the sea lions lounging on Haul Out Rock below and we admired the sweeping view of the coast and ocean, imagining what it must be like for Jerry and Janet (and their children when they still lived at home) riding out the turbulent storms through the isolated winter months.  Afterward Janet gave Mother, Sue, and me a tour of her garden and greenhouse.  We noticed a fine-gauge electric wire around the perimeter which it turned out was to discourage the bears.  As we got closer to the greenhouse, we saw evidence of their previous handiwork:  Large holes in the walls had been patched where a bear had torn through in search of Janet's succulent lettuce which she said the bears really seem to like.  You could still see the 5-pointed configuration of the holes where the claws had pierced through.  Remember those opaque, plastic kitchen walls of Monique's?  Well, we're talking the exact same material used for the walls of Janet's greenhouse.  Clearly, the bears must be less fearful of Janet's wrath.  (Or, maybe her lettuce is tastier?  ...impossible.)

Bears' Handiwork

Having donned our cozy toques and jackets while wandering about the breezy grounds of Carmanah Lighthouse, it was time to strip back down to our base layers in anticipation of warming up again once we started hiking.  Mother and I kept our toques on our heads to bridge those first few chilly steps until we were fully moving and heated up again.

Leaving Carmanah Point, we headed north back down along sandstone shelf where we saw more teeming tidal pools and encountered The Cribs,  a large expanse of jagged, volcanic rock that lines the coastline almost like an exposed reef, so that you walk inland of the The Cribs, and they form a barrier between you and the ocean.  It was another fascinating landscape change all the more special as we spotted a pod of grey whales breaching, three or four tails proudly displayed before disappearing beneath the dark surface.

Hiking past The Cribs.
Looking back, The Cribs close up.

We then spent the rest of the morning hiking along the beach except when we had to skirt an Impassably Large (that phrase says what I want it to say but I'm not quite sure it's legit:  So impossibly large as to make it impassable) surge channel.  In so doing, we found ourselves for the first time climbing the trail up the mountain's slope to the edge of the ridge, just skirting the forest, literally walking within a foot of the drop-off which was deceptively safe-looking due to the thick plant life growing along it so as to give the illusion of another couple of feet of solid ground.   My only consolation was that if I fell, I'd at least have a bit of a cushion (even if it appeared to rival a briar patch.  Surely, briar is preferable to rock as a landing site.) Besides the exciting, not-quite-death-defying-despite-my-effort-to-make-it-seem-so aspect to the cliff hiking, we had an absolutely spectacular view -- high cliffs, green verve, wind-beaten hemlocks and Sitka spruce against the craggy rocks below, beach, surging sea all in one sweep of our wide eyes.  Without question this was Mother's very favorite type of hiking and I loved it too.  It had been getting gradually cooler as our journey progressed but up at the edge of the world there, it was even colder although in a wonderfully brisk, refreshing way.  Almost made me forget how hot it must have been back in Austin.

Shortly before lunch, we hit another milestone:  KM 37.  The halfway point of the Trail!  Unfortunately, since we'd hiked back down to the beach again there was no physical mile marker to commemorate the moment with a photo. Oh darn.  We all collectively Woo-hooed our virtual landmark, pressing on just past Dare Beach where we stopped for a lunch of brie, garlic cream cheese, my crackers, something Kelly and Mark called antipasto but I would term olive salsa, pepperoni sticks and fresh yellow and red peppers.

Sea to Sky Smorgasbord

While enjoying another tasty meal, we relaxed against the ever present driftwood logs and I decided to embrace the "best seat on the trail", what Mark always called it when sitting on the lower, soft fat portion of his BAP.  Our packs were so bulky that it made for a very comfy seat although it took a bit of maneuvering if you had anything attached to the front of your pack since that side went face down. With all the straps sticking up it looked like some giant beetle stunned on it's back.  Mother was skeptical but decided to give it a try since I dug it but I'm not quite sure she really liked it. (Little did I know that later that afternoon/evening this would turn out to be a mistake of monumental proportions.)

Kelly enjoying "the best seat on the trial".

After lunch we found ourselves hiking on wet, dense sand which was easier than the shifting dry sands of previous stretches.  Kelly spotted a bit of sea glass amongst the pebbles and pointed out to us that this is the only legitimate souvenir of the West Coast Trail as all the flora, rocks and even driftwood is protected.  Naturally, Mother and I became obsessed and over the course of the next hour or two found a handful of roughly dime-sized pieces in various shades of emerald, aqua, and chartreuse.  Mother found the largest single piece (nearly quarter-sized) yet I found what we thought was the prettiest color, a vivid indigo.  Clearly, the mystery of the sea and its currents were at work because we only found the sea glass for the space of 2 hours or so, covering a small section of beach.  I vigilantly kept an eye out on the beach for the rest of the day and to a lesser extent, the rest of our hike, but we never found another treasure.

Jen communing with Treebeard -- one of the biggest Cedars on Vancouver Island.

Soon, we returned to the trail, climbing high into the dense forest, crossing another river, the Cheewhat this time, by way of its handy wooden bridge, thank you very much.  For the rest of the afternoon we hiked through the Dididaht Tribe Reserve lands.  At one point, the trail led us up a lengthy, steep section which Mark said Len had named Cardiac Hill but I don't think has an official name.  We were headed toward a Super Secret campsite on Stanley Beach, which is not even on the trail map because it is not a real campsite, nor is it open to your average hikers.  But somehow Sea to Sky (probably due to its inherent awesomeness) again had special privileges so we were allowed to camp there but with a few restrictions I'll cover in a moment.

First, though, we still had to get to Stanley Beach.  Once we reached the top of Cardiac Hill, we continued to hike through the forest, on a flat section of trail until late in the afternoon, when our fearless leader suddenly stopped, gesturing into the thick foliage to our left.  This was where we were leaving the trail?  Mark claimed there was a subtle trail there that the Dididaht used to access Stanley Beach but I wouldn't have found it if it hadn't been pointed out to me.  And as we followed this slender vein of thinned vegetation, if we hadn't been trailing Mark, I'm quite sure we'd have wound up lost in the forest [possibly like Hansel and Gretel but in my version, the witch would have more closely resembled a zombie and rather than wanting to cook us in a pot, she'd have happily munched our raw brains!]  Even then, our path ended at a large fallen tree.  Since we were hiking early in the season, it turned out no one had been this way since the winter and the felled tree was an unexpected obstacle.  Mark scouted the way first and then we all followed single file in a very undignified crawl under said tree, then tracing his path through the unyielding undergrowth, attempting to avoid more than one conveniently jutting eye-level hazard.  Once we cleared the tree and could stand again, we found ourselves in the shadow of this nearly devoured old house.  After that it was only a hop, skip, and a jump -- not that we felt like hopping or skipping, let alone jumping by that time.  Crawling on our knees while wearing a 50 pound pack was never a favorite activity, but doing so after hiking 10 kilometers lowered its Fun Value even more.  I'm not complaining.  Okay, well, I am, but it's for a good reason.  I want you to imagine how we were feeling at this point.  Wiped.

Do you see a trail there? No, I didn't think so.


Shortly, the forest cleared to reveal the beach, hemmed in by sandstone shelf to the left and forest to the right, complete with a wonderfully derelict-looking boat, haphazardly tossed in amongst the bleached logs.  We began our now comfortably familiar routine of staking out our tent sites and setting things up.  As usual, immediately following tenting, our boots joyously came off.  This is when things turned dark.

We're talking epic nightmare here.  If Shakespeare were still alive he'd have written a new tragedy.  And it would have gone something like this:  The pivotal scene shows a supporting character, Jen, beside a tent, unpacking after removing her boots.  She is wearing purple water shoes.  Suddenly, there is much muttering and sand flying from the far side of the tent.  Jen goes around to the back side to find the lead, Melly, frantically pawing through her bag, items flung helter skelter as she goes.  The camera cuts away to a close up of her feet.  Both are sock-covered but only one is in a brown water shoe.  We then see a two-shot where Jen speaks to Melly, clearly concerned, and then she too starts searching, albeit a little less frantically.  At this point, Melly starts to resemble a dragon-- you know, smoke coming out of her nostrils, tail lashing, teeth gnashing, cursing.  (Dragons curse, right?)   And one foot stomping.  Yes, one of Melly's Crocs was missing.  [Insert dramatic music here.]

(I was a most dutiful daughter at the time, trying to help her find the offending AWOL sandal, and hoping this wouldn't ruin the trip for her.  Only now do I have the temerity -- and the 1500 mile distance! -- to tease her about this, especially, especially when she might say it was my fault.  [Maybe I can blame Mark?  hmmm...]  Because after mentally retracing our steps that day, the last place we knew we saw the sandal was when we had lunch and she and I both sat on our packs.  Where our shoes were clipped on the outside. By pressure-click carabiners.  And sure enough, we later found photo documentation [see below] that the shoe was missing two hours before we reached camp and we had made no other packs-off breaks since lunch.  GuiltyI'm sorry, Mamma.  Okay, to be completely honest, Past Jen was very sorry; Present nearly-one-year-later-Jen, however, is kind of delighted as it makes a great story.  And the moral of the story?  No, it's not "don't sit on your pack"; it's "buy brightly colored water shoes that do not blend in with your pack [or the surrounding terrain]!"  Oh, and maybe "secure your shoes in a different position".)

Look closely for the single camouflaged shoe.

After tearing through all our gear at least three times, as well as retracing our steps through the forest back as far as the overgrown house to no avail, we tried to settle back into our usual routine.  Knowing exactly how Mother felt (as I'd have reacted in precisely the same way),  I tried to give her some space to silently fume, and headed to the kitchen area with my journal and our water bottles.

I was surprised to find the fire deserted, save M & K and their usual ritual of boiling water and preparing dinner.  And then I spotted a few toques peeking up from the edge of the high sandstone shelf. Circumventing a good-sized surge channel, I climbed up the rocks on the far side and sure enough, almost everyone was there, silently taking in the reverberating sounds of the waves crashing into the cliff, swelling and receding near the edge.  I heard someone say "blow hole" and waiting patiently, we were rewarded with a 15 foot plume of water as the surging continued.  I think most of us could have sat there until dark, enveloped in the almost tangible sound of the churning sea so close, but either hunger, chill, or in my case, the need to catch up on a bit of writing (as I still hadn't had a chance to record all the details of Chez Monique) compelled us to return in ones and twos to camp.

Soon, most of the group was gathered around the fire in a flat, nearly empty patch of beach.  All except Bill who was still off bathing -- he was the most committed to trail hygiene of all of us and bathed every night no matter the temperature, which that night was freezing, as the unsheltered ocean was the only option.  (The rest of us usually managed a quick dunk every other day... plus or minus a day.  Or two.  No naming names here.  What happens in Hike Club, stays in Hike Club.  I swear, though, no one ever smelled.  Honest.)

One of the conditions of staying at Stanley Beach was to leave no trace so although we could have a small fire, we had to put everything back where we found it, including any logs we moved to sit on so we kept our kitchen to a bare minimum.  I settled down to write, but dinner was ready shortly: delicious Thai Red Curry Chicken & Tabouli with crackers and herbed goat cheese.  And for dessert?  Fire-roasted marshmallows!  Kelly had picked up a bag at Monique's plus Wenke added her own personal stash which she generously shared around.  It turns out Kelly is the World's Greatest Marshmallow Roaster.  I capitalize that because I actually thought I already knew a pair of world-renowned marshmallow masters but Kelly surpasses even them.  (Sorry, guys!)  The odd thing is, she doesn't even really like the marshmallows; but she'll happily roast them to perfection for you again and again! (Win!)

Mother managed to rejoin the group in time for dinner and although not quite her happy self, was making an effort to get past her shoe incident.  (I think the marshmallows helped.)

When dish duty came, we had to hoof it out to the shore as we weren't allowed to wash in Stanley Creek.  (Of course, by Day 5 Sanitation Standards, if you licked your bowl clean, that was almost good enough.  The real coup was timing it when the last of the hot water for drinks was used and about to be poured out which was then available for the lazy person's washing.)  The other noteworthy "leave no trace" aspect of camping on the Dididaht beach regarded bodily functions:

[EEWWW Factor imminent!  TMI Warning Alert! Daddy, you might want to skip the next paragraph.  I'm just saying... you've been warned.  Okay, it's not that bad.  Besides, I know you all (except Daddy) really want to know.]

No fancy WCT Composting Outhouse here.  Your options were hold it for 24 hours or use the vaguely disastrous-sounding Tidal Flush.  Which basically meant, do your business near the water, below high tide so that when the tide comes in, the ocean takes care of the "flush".  Logically, this meant not going at high tide unless you wanted to be squatting in ankle deep surf.  (Which just seems wrong.)  Initially, I'd envisioned a long, bare coast devoid of anything to take cover behind but the rocky outcropping where we'd watched the blowhole turned out to serve a dual purpose.  I'm sure Mother could have managed without this particular experience, but I was actually glad.  In my own bizarre Adventure Travel Personal Code of Ethics, I'd been thinking how-can-I-say-I-roughed-it-on-an-8-day-backpacking-trip if I never had to Take Care of Business without a toilet seat?  Plus, Future Jen now has the Tidal Flush experience in her back pocket, ready for anything when The Apocalypse comes...okay, or maybe just in my indy B-movie where we pretend it's the end of the world.

And on that note...   I think we've reached the end of Day 5.  Time for bed.  Or rather sleeping bag. 

[To keep reading, here's Day 6]


  1. Catherine SikoraMay 18, 2010 at 11:20 PM

    Well worth the wait! I feel as though I just got back, myself, after having read all that amazing detail and great storytelling! I can almost feel cold from the ocean breeze and frigid water, despite the fact it is about 80ºF right now at 11:15pm! This has to be the most suspenseful story yet! So much foreshadowing - I was on the edge of my seat wondering what got ruined in your pack when you sat on it! WOW! What a finish! (Pun intended, tee hee!)
    Love, Catherine

  2. I hope the next section comes a little quicker but i'm certainly glad you are still posting. i really enjoy hearing all the detail and seeing the pictures. i was concerned about the bad news coming and almost skipped down the page. You are a great storyteller!!


  3. Too bad we didn't ask Monique if she had any bear tales; I'm sure she has great ones, but then all her stories made you want to pinch yourself to see if it was all real or just a great dream. I still think about Charlie Parker and wonder if he's wandering the trail or strutting the streets of Bamfield or Port Renfrew. Charlie Parker, for those of you reading this, is a beagle belonging to Monique & Peter, who routinely gets loose and travels up and down the ladders and along the paths of the WCT for days all the time. He is scarred from a cougar attack that was fatal to his sister, Ella Fitzgerald, some years ago but that doesn't stop him. During our visit he was off toward Bamfield so we had hopes of seeing him on the trail but unfortunately did not.

    Ah yes, I remember fondly getting to select from all the snack bars when our packs we once again filled with food for the coming meals. It was not unlike a mass of children going for the candy when a pinata is finally struck open. And I was able to rid myself of all those nasty birdseed & tree bark bars that Mark paid extra for because he thought I was allergic to peanuts. It never occurred to me that he would look at EVERY ingredient label for the smallest speck of peanut when I asked him to choose non-peanut snacks for me. Clearly, he was going to ensure that I did not because a medical emergency on the trail. Next time I will be sure to say--not allergic, just not a fan. As for the BAP, mine was most definitely less heavy than yours. I suspect that was because Mark wanted to make sure the 'old girls'--Sue & me--made it to the end of the trail. It was very considerate of him, but I think that by the end he realized that we didn't need any special handling!

    The cribs were something out of a 'B' Sci-Fi movie because they didn't look real. The rock looked like it was artificial from some cheap amusement park or an old Star Trek episode. It made them actually a little eerie.

    My most vivid memory of Cardiac Hill was the home of the local Ditidaht resident which we saw once we reached the top. It was a small home with the most incredible view--a private wooded cove with a pristine beach and hundreds of miles of ocean beyond--shared only with a few hikers tramping along the trail from June to September each year. What a lucky guy.

    Now we get to Stanley beach trail, an all but invisible path off the WCT and while you imagined zombies, I thought it the most likely place we might come nose to nose with a local black bear. This was also the location of the now infamous 'lost croc incident' which I must make a few comments about. Finding one of my crocs missing meant that I had to either continue to wear my boots after more than 10 hours in them or go barefoot which wasn't really an option considering the terrain. You were a wise woman to give me space to get over being angry about it because knowing there was nothing that could be done only made me madder that I hadn't seen it come off my pack. It is hard to imagine being without all the creature comforts we all take for granted, but on our hike we had precious few and taking our boots off after a long day of hiking and getting into slipper-like crocs to relax with a hot beverage was one we all looked forward to with great anticipation. I think this is one of those things that you have to experience to really understand Jen, don't you?

    Ah, yes the tidal flush. Well, I actually felt just as you did about it. I wanted to experience every aspect of a real wilderness backpacking trip too, but was only worried whether my knees would cooperate, especially since I had not completely healed from my recent arthroscopic knee surgery. Piece of cake!

    Keep up the great work; I just love reading about our trip!