Tuesday, June 22, 2010

Hiking the WCT: Day 6, 12 June 2009

[Welcome to Day 6 of Hiking the West Coast Trail.  Please see my previous posts (Day 0, Day 1, Day 2, Day 3, Day 4, Day 5) 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 6 dawned grey and chilly. After packing up our tents and gear and finishing breakfast, we completely burned down what little wood we used for our breakfast fire, shifted the couple of logs we'd moved the night before, and swept the sand smooth.  Looking back, you'd never have known the eleven of us had stayed the night.  Before truly disappearing from Stanley Beach, however, we took a brief detour climbing up the sandstone shelf, around the big surge channel and past the blow hole, to see some petroglyphs, very old cave-type engravings of ships, birds, a mother figure and other less recognizable images.  The clearest of these was of the famous paddle steamer, the Beaver, the first coastal steam ship of the Pacific Northwest.  This particular petroglyph dates back to the mid 19th century when the Beaver visited the First Nations People lands in 1843.

While admiring (and photographing) the petroglyphs we listened to Mark's eloquent historical tidbits about the engravings as well as the Beaver, being careful not to step on any of the irreplaceable carvings.  Before long we were soon underway as we had a solid hour and a half of hiking the forest trail before us in order to make it to our 10:30 appointment:  Second Breakfast.  (Yes, when I take one of those online "Which character of The Lord of the Rings are you most like?" tests, I always aspire to be the mysterious, selfless ranger or the ethereal elf, but no, I'm really just the food-focused, happy hobbit.)

On the way we encountered another obstacle on the trail.  No surprise, there, right?  This time, however, it was an entirely different matter...  and required a longer detour.  Beavers had dammed up one of the creeks, completely flooding a large section of the WCT, so there was now a semi-permanent bushwhacking route in order to circumnavigate this [relatively] newly formed lake.  Not to worry, though, as we soon found ourselves stepping back onto the warped and weathered boards of the Trail proper only a few feet from the edge of the industrious beavers' hot spot.

Look closely beyond John as he steps back onto the boardwalk. 

Once back on boardwalk, our speed picked up, and we soon found ourselves on the dock of Doug's Ferry beside Nitinat Narrows, the narrow passage that connects Nitinat Lake to the Pacific Ocean.  Doug is another fixture on the WCT.  Nitinat Narrows is impassable without his help and hikers have been known to wait quite a while to catch a ride if their arrival is ill-timed. (Quite by Sea-to-Sky design, ours was not.)  But while you waited, you could enjoy a fresh Dungeness Crab that Doug hauled directly out of the icy water, in one of his nets.  He was clearly a practiced chef, unceremoniously ripping off the top shell and removing other nameless parts as he talked. (I tried not to focus too much on the ripping part; I like to eat crab along with plenty of other animal meat but I honestly think I'd turn vegetarian if I had to do my own killing & preparing.  [I know, I know; that won't help me much when the zombie invasion happens!  But think I could rise to the occasion if and when things get that dire.])

 Doug: Crab Chef & Ferryman Extraordinaire

While our crabs stewed in Doug's big aluminum pot, Sue and Bill enjoyed what they jokingly called their "first beer of the day" while Mother and I opted for ice cold soda and juice courtesy of Doug's coolers (but our own pocketbooks).  As we all relaxed, enjoying the view and sitting in actual chairs for only the second time in 6 days, two young guys arrived, looking more like city joggers than hikers, each with the smallest of packs, wearing shorts and runners (that's plain ol' sneakers) to us Americans).  They were clearly in a hurry and piqued that Doug wouldn't be ferrying anyone until we'd all had a chance to enjoy our still simmering crabs.  While most of us talked with Doug or amongst ourselves, Lauren chatted up the newcomers, learning that they were hiking the West Coast Trail in only 2 days!  Since they were traveling so quickly, they needed no change of clothes, very little food, and had the lightest of gear for sleeping.  They didn't even pack a first aid kit.  (Scandalous!) At the time we were all friendly and noncommittal but later on, alone (that is, if you can ever really equate eleven to alone) again, we agreed that speed was not the point of hiking (in general, but particularly regarding) the WCT.  Clearly, those two stuck to the forest trail almost exclusively, missing much of the best parts of the Trail.  What beauty they did pass, they almost certainly were oblivious to, in their efforts to set some sort of record.  And if they saw nothing of the trail itself, how could they honestly say they hiked the WCT?  (Isn't that like saying you've seen Lawrence of Arabia when in actuality you  fell asleep 5 minutes into it and woke up in time for the credits?) Not that I'm judging.  Okay, fine.  I'm totally judging.

Bill, Sue, & Melly -- Cheers!

After devouring Doug's delicious Dungeness crabs, it was ferry time.  Not surprisingly, our two speed demon friends were the first in the boat.  The rest of us followed suit, and as soon as we pushed off from the dock, we were moving with the tide.  Nitinat Narrows is a tidal passage; the ocean water comes all the way in to the lake so you can tell if the tide is coming in or going out just by watching the water closely.  Seals are often found in the Narrows and Mark has even been fortunate enough to see a grey whale within the passage.  Sure enough we saw our own seal playing in the dark waters that morning!

The tide was headed out and moving fast as Doug took us out to the mouth of Nitinat to see where the ocean flows in against the rocks (which, of course, you can't actually see in my photo above).  As we drew near, we saw the large waves coming in, where in times past incoming boats often crashed against the concealed rocks.  It took all of Doug's 115 hp engine to overcome the swelling tide and get us back up the passage to drop us off on the opposite bank, but out of sight of his dock, where the WCT resumes.  Speed Hikers #1 and #2 were gone before we were all even on solid ground once again.

With the Narrows behind us, we found ourselves hiking along another section of crumbling boardwalk through the dense forest as the elevation increased.  Kelly tantalized us with another (photo-elusive) bear track in the mud right along the edge of the trail so once again, I obsessively watched the thick shadows, hoping for a glimpse of fur or claw.  Alas, my only reward was tripping and dropping the camera near (thankfully, rather than over) a minor precipice.

Once again, we were on top of the world, hiking the spectacular cliff rim in the brisk, breezy air to circumvent another section of impassable headlands. We then descended to the beach to break for lunch near KM 29.  It was a cooler day with a noticeable increase in wind, so our jackets came out along with our toques as we eagerly awaited our noontime meal.  Today was Tex-Mex with tortilla wraps filled with black beans, colby cheese, fresh red peppers and salsa.  Mmmm... a little taste of home.

Melly faking a siesta

We spent the afternoon hiking the beach, drawing ever nearer to the highly anticipated Hole in the Wall, a truncated peninsula of rock at Tsusiat Point under water much of the time, but with a shallow cave that you can pass through when the tides are below 9 ft.  It's another iconic spot on the West Coast Trail that I'd been reading about and admiring photographs of for over a year.  And we were about to experience it for ourselves!

 As we came around the point, and first caught a glimpse of the Hole in the Wall, my feet seemed to magically speed up.  From a distance, it looked easily passable but as we drew near, we found that the tide was starting to come in.  In the last 40 ft or so we had to time the waves to cross the beach between two separate sections of too-tall rocks.  (This elevated my excitement level another notch and it certainly makes for impressive-sounding storytelling, but the waves were still small at that point so the wave-dodging was more about keeping our boots dry rather than risking life or limb.  Bummer.)

Foreground: Timing the waves to cross

The basics to crossing any of these tide-dependent coastal elements are: a) having a tide chart, b) knowing how to read it, and c) leaving from your previous location early enough to arrive at the low-tide point at the correct time.  Sounds simple enough, right?  Not so.  Naturally, you don't want to be crossing any of these points after dark, and there's a certain distance you need to travel each day to complete the trek in the appropriate time (hence our multiple 5am wake-ups) but in addition, you have to coordinate these various sections over the course of the trip.  It turns out Sea to Sky sets the dates for their WCT expeditions specifically by low tide charts.  That means a year in advance they are looking at the tides to pick out the best dates so that they can hit the big surge channels, Owen's Point and Hole in the Wall at the right times to still hike the full distance required those days.  (Which also means it's totally random on what day of the week they start any given expedition.)  This was another huge benefit of hiking with a guide; I have no doubt Mother and I could have successfully interpreted the low tide charts.  In fact, I read up on them in advance to understand how they worked and we were given our own along with our trail maps, but that was more for fun than anything.  Besides, my retention was poor, having not actually put them into practice.  (Curse you Mark & Kelly for making it so easy for us!)

The alternative to these various coastal crossings it to just stay on the WCT proper, hiking through the rain forest, which can be done for nearly the entire 75 km only venturing out to the beach to camp each night.  Even planning for the coastal sections, however, if we hadn't figured it out til we were already on Vancouver Island, we would have missed out on something cool (a Capital Offense to the women in my family), having not arrived on precisely the right day of the year to hit each and every milestone!

Jen & Melly in the Hole

Having raced the tides and won, we jubilantly unloaded our packs on the far side to take photos, admire the view, and relax a little before spending most of the afternoon hiking the coastline.  We had a final 2 km to get to our campsite that night at Tsusiat Falls.  By this point in the trek, we were noticeably picking up the pace; our last 3 days of hiking covered nearly half of the total 75 km distance. 

Live Sea Sponge

In the final stretch of beach that afternoon, we spread out as we often did but Mike was clearly ready to get to camp as he was way out in front and just kept powering down the beach.  Mark pressed on just to stay with him and so it happened that all the men were far in the lead.  The women were taking it a little easier, with Kelly urging us to take a short break after crossing Orange Juice Creek.  (I can understand the inclination to name things after food & drink especially after a week in the bush, but you'd think they'd have picked something better.  How about Bacon Double Cheeseburger Creek or Chocolate Peanut Butter Shake Creek?)  I think we would have pressed on if it hadn't been for Kelly but she was right -- the 10 minute stop (plus a bite or two of one of those delectable chocolate-covered granola bars) perked us all right up and made the last 40 minutes much less onerous.

By the time we arrived at Tsusiat Falls at 3:30, Mark had already staked out our territory and the guys were nearly finished setting up their tents.  The camp area was a very long raised beach, our end accessed by crossing a giant felled tree that spanned a canal-like trough.  Beyond that tucked in the side of the cliff, was a snug cave which became our Best Kitchen Ever!

Mike & Melly headed to camp.  (How was Mike behind Melly if he was the first to camp? Hmm...)

Driftwood "fence" (far left, above yellow tent) against cliff was the entrance to the cave.

Once we got our gear situated, Mother and I headed to the far end of camp to bathe in the gorgeous Tsusiat Falls.  It was by far the best (and deepest) swimming hole on the Trail and the temperature was lovely (but don't be fooled, it was still cold!)  We even swam right up under the falls into a shallow cave beyond!  

To appreciate the size of Tsusiat Falls, look closely for Lauren in the right foreground.

Once dressed and dry again, Mother and I made our way over toward the kitchen.  Before entering the cave, we chatted with Mike a bit while he toiled away filtering water into all our bottles. (And yes, the red one is Mother's and the green one queued up on the ground is mine.  But he liked doing it; I swear!)

In the photo above, Mike and Melly are wearing the latest in Trail fashion.  Mike's working the toque/shorts combo, a practical yet sporty look while Melly has chosen a more versatile layered tops and pants ensemble, knowing the nights turn chilly here on the west coast of Vancouver Island.  Pay particular attention to Melly's feet.  She's sporting a hip, new trend: the Duct Tape-Refurbished Camp Shoe.  All the Cool Kids are wearing them.  To get yours, contact Kelly Kurtz of Sea to Sky Expeditions or check out her YouTube video: The Art of Duct Tape, Lesson 2: How to fashion a replacement shoe while hiking in the bush.  (All yuks aside, Mike had spied this old, broken flip-flop along the trail near Stanley Beach and thanks to Kelly's considerable skills, not to mention invaluable supply of duct tape, she presented Mother with a replacement camp shoe.  To make matters worse, it was actually another right shoe!  In practice, it wasn't terribly comfortable so Mother mostly soldiered on, wearing one boot and one Croc at camp from that point on, but it was the thought that counted!)

Cave entrance looking out

By quarter to seven, we were all nestled in the cave, sipping hot drinks and awaiting dinner:  Country Mushroom Rice with Sun-dried Tomatoes, Chicken and Golden Raisins.  Believe it or not, this was our first night not to finish all of dinner.  And as you know, you can't just throw food out while hiking.  So, Kelly went selling.  She took our big pot and headed down the beach to offer the leftovers to other nearby hikers.  She returned shortly with empty hands and a strange smile on her face.  She proceeded to tell us that three guys appreciatively accepted the food but told her that all they had to offer in trade was some marijuana.  To which she replied, "Oh, no thank you; just bring the pot back."  As she walked back down the beach toward the cave, she realized her response might not have been as clear as she'd meant it.

Bill, Mike, Wenke, Lauren and Carter

The brisk afternoon quickly grew colder and the blowing wind found its way into our cozy cave so we stretched yellow tarps behind the driftwood wall/bench that existed at the mouth of the cave to give us a bit more shelter, casting a golden tint on everything until the sun set.  After dinner, we enjoyed Vanilla Mousse with Strawberries.  There was always a simple pleasure in relaxing by the fire, in the company of one another, tired but content, chatting and laughing.  And, of course, eating.  Later, we passed around tasty treasures we'd all been saving, including the Caramilk bar that Mother and I had been hoarding since Day 0.

Eventually, someone noticed Mike's ever-present baseball cap was missing and he somewhat dejectedly told us the wind had seized it in the final stretch of hiking.  He had reversed course and walked back quite a ways, hoping to find it on the beach he but was unsuccessful.  Apparently, this was one of those items that has been around so long it's almost a part of you.  It had a small, red oak-leaf symbol of some kind; I think it was for a Canadian sports team.

Mother and I decided to take a stroll past the falls, to take a few more pictures at sunset as well as visit the outhouse before it was dark.  This turned out to be a lengthier outing than we expected as the facilities were at the extreme opposite end from where we were camped out.  In fact, I think all of the men decided to just visit the rocks on the opposite side of our cave, to save them the hike.  It was a worthwhile visit, however, if for no other reason than to show you the pictures below and say, "we had to climb up and over that to get to the toilet!" (I especially admired the driftwood stair-ladder that some industrious individual fabricated.  It actually worked too!)  A photo like The Return Trip (below) epitomizes the West Coast Trail; out of context it seems like just a random shot of the surrounding landscape.  Until, that is, you realize it was our one and only way to get back down to the beach.

Goin' Up

The Return Trip

Once back around the fire, we soon had a pair of visitors -- whether due to the lure of the cave's sheltered warmth or the draw of a large, loquacious group of hikers, I'm not sure.  Enter Simon and Mark: solitary hikers that just happened to be on the same rough time schedule so although they had hiked separately, keeping different paces, both wound up at the same campsites each night.

Simon, a Scot from Manchester (but originally from Glasgow), was an easygoing, friendly man that we all liked instantly.  He was maybe 35 and had been on an extended holiday from his job and would soon be heading back to real life.  (He made scientific instruments, which in my mind resembled something shadowy and sinister, from the likes of The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari but was more likely to be precision instruments calibrated to the nearest nanometer in a positively-pressurized clean room somewhere.)  It turned out he had decided only 24 hours prior to fly to Vancouver to visit a friend and then realized he couldn't just sit around her flat all the time so he surfed online looking for things to do in Vancouver when he came across the West Coast Trail. Only 12 hours before departing, he decided to go for it and dug his hiking gear out of his attic!  This story impressed me in multiple ways, not the least of which was that he didn't need to do any physical training to successfully hike the WCT (not an insignificant feat), followed only somewhat distantly by the fact that he'd been traveling the world, free as a bird, for the past couple of months leading up to this spontaneous decision.  (In my ideal alternate universe, I'm a Robert Rodriguez/Sofia Coppola/Tim League composite with a little bit of Simon-from-Glasgow-via-Manchester thrown in for good measure.

The second hiker, a nearly-silent, seemingly antisocial (although Simon later claimed he was just exhausted) young man named Mark, was utterly forgettable except for one noteworthy detail:  He was wearing Mike's beloved baseball cap!  At first Mike said nothing; it was getting dark when they arrived so in the dim light of the fire, it wasn't obvious to anyone else.  We all listened to Simon's story, chatted about the Trail, etc.  And then during a lull, Mike said in a very casual manner that Mark was wearing his hat.  Mark just looked at him as if he thought he was joking.  Mike mentioned losing it that afternoon and Mark grudgingly admitted to having just found it on the beach shortly before arriving at camp, although he still didn't relinquish his prize.  Mike was quiet but steadily looked at Mark who, like a sullen boy returning a stolen treasure, reluctantly handed it over.  Mike didn't grin so much as press his lips together with a nearly imperceptible nod as he contentedly settled his cap back on his head.  And that was all.  I can't even recall at what point Mark exited the scene (I told you he was forgettable) but we never saw him again.  And good riddance, trying to keep Big Mike's hat!

Later on, our nightly ritual continued with Sue reading us one of her pub quizzes.  Simon upped the bar, answering not only correctly but quickly and often (apparently those scientific instrument makers are smart guys, despite their tendency toward early German Expressionistic film).  With his addition to the game, we had only 5 passes that night as opposed to our more typical 9 or 10 out of 20 from previous nights.  Still, even Simon didn't know which son of Genghis Khan succeeded him as Great Khan in 1227.

It was Night 6 and I was running out of opportunities to help out with a Bear Hang!  (And by help, I primarily mean witness and take pictures.  I really need my own personal Jen Cameraman-- you wouldn't believe how many times I want to be photographing/filming something while I'm participating and you can rarely do both successfully.  Okay, that came out sounding way too much like a Madonna: Truth or Dare moment.  You know what I mean.)  I had planned to document the procedure at Stanley Creek the previous night but the nearest suitable tree was up past the giant felled tree and a pain to get to so I wimped out.  But not tonight!  Lucky for me, there was an ideal Bear Hang tree not too far so at dusk Mark, Wenke, Carter, and I lugged the food bags down the beach to this tree growing out of the side of the cliff like a backwards letter L.  There were already a couple of bags dangling from it from other hikers so it was clearly an ideal spot.  Mark's practiced lob landed the rope smoothly over the necessary high branch and we hoisted all eleven bags to safety.  Most of the pictures I took were too dark or fuzzy, but the best one is above.

Look closely under the Bear Hang for what looks like a typical road sign (except for the part where it's in the middle of the freaking rainforest).  This is the ever-present Tsunami Evacuation Route sign found at every campsite which I believe Parks Canada instituted in 2004 or 2005 after some big, bad tsunami hit somewhere (but don't hold me to that).  At each location, these safety signs point the way to higher ground that is supposed to be high enough to be safe.  M & K told a couple of stories about having to pack up camp and spend half the night crammed in one of these areas without a fire during a Tsunami Warning.  If, however, you hear a  massive sucking sound you drop everything and run for the shelter immediately because that sound... it's the waves pulling back in a vacuum before the Monster wave hits.

I love the image on the signs too -- the giant wave looks more like a tentacled sea monster to me. (I know, I know, there I go again with monster this and zombie that but it's not my fault; I was born in October.)

At every point where the WCT accesses the beach, old buoys have been hung in the trees as a sign to find your way back to the Trail if you've been hiking the coast (or alternatively, if you get washed up on the beach after a tragic sinking ship incident).  At most points, there are only a couple of buoys as the signal but at the campsites, there are many more and it seemed the farther north we went the more we found.  Tsusiat Falls had the most yet.  Early Season hikers rescue the buoys and carve names, dates, pithy phrases and then hang them in the trees as a kind of I was here statement.

By Day 6 you might be wondering if we were all ready to go home.  Absolutely not.  We were home.  Actually, that was the amazing part about this trip: everything was filtered down to its essence, to simply being. To be hiking in this breathtaking place, to be writing in my journal, a giant driftwood log at my back, to be enjoying a beach picnic of salami, cheese, crackers & veggies there in the middle of nowhere. There was no sense of needing to be, or even wanting to be, anywhere else except right there. When asked why none of their trips are shorter than a week, M & K explained that you needed that length of time to emotionally invest in your trip; otherwise, just as you're starting to settle in, your brain is thinking about what you have to do in 2 days once you're back home. And they were so right. I didn't think about all the tasks waiting back home nor did I focus on how my family was managing without me. (We purposely left our cell phones behind although it turned out there was sporadic coverage on the Trail.) At least not for the first 5 days.  By Night 6 we only had 2 days of hiking left with one final night on the Trail.  And I regretted having my normal life encroach on this experience in those last couple of days. If I could have somehow arranged for a bout of temporary amnesia that would have faded away during that last day of hiking, I think it would have been perfect.  A more cynical person might say I was getting tired and was ready to go home. But that person would be wrong.

Sunset from Tsusiat Falls

[To keep reading, here's Day 7]