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Saturday, 14 April 2012

West Coast Trail 1994

It was one of those rainy winter evenings in Vancouver in 1994 and I was sitting in bar having a few brews with my friend Rory when the subject of hiking the West Coast Trail came up. I was interested but also thought that it might just be idle chit chat. One of those things that some of us talk about with enthusiasm and for some reason we never get around to it.
A few months went by and then one night I got a phone call from Rory asking me if I was still interested in doing the West Coast Trail. I told him I was. I had no idea that he had cobbled together a group and done some research on the hike.
Altogether there was going to be eight of us, Rory, his girlfriend Laura, two of Rory’s co-workers, a rugby pal who worked as a bouncer at the Roxy nightclub in Vancouver and his girlfriend, a childhood friend who had been living in Sweden and me. Our ages ranged from the rugby guy and his girlfriend who were in their early twenties to me, the oldest, who had just turned forty-eight.
The West Coast Trail is about 75 km long. It is on the west coast of Vancouver Island and runs from Port Renfrew in the south to Bamfield in the north. The hike typically takes about 6 days. Some have done it quicker but they usually travel light and are quite fit. The trail can be either hiked north to south or south to north. Originally it was known as the Dominion Lifesaving Trail and was constructed because of all of the shipwrecks that occurred in the area in the late 1800s. The trail passes through first nations lands that they have been inhabited for over 4000 years.

 The first thing we did in preparation for our trip was to have a meeting to decide what kind of gear we would need. A small fortune was spent by most of us at Mountain Co-op. We bought sleeping bags, rain gear, cooking utensils, freeze dried meals, gaiters, hiking boots, back packs, and anything else that seemed practical. Rory knew someone who was marketing a new product called Power Bars and we went out to his car and he sold us a bunch of them out of his trunk. We practiced packing and unpacking our 65 lb. backpacks.
Our departure date for our hike was set for June 5th and a few weeks before that we did a 2 day test run up at Golden Ears Provincial Park near Vancouver. It was never confirmed but I thought that maybe part of this excursion was a test to see if the older guy (me) had enough stamina. I guess I passed if it was a test.
The big day came and we all met at the ferry to Victoria out in Tsawwassen, a suburb of Vancouver. As everyone was a friend of Rory’s, most of us were familiar with at least four of the others. Who was going to share a tent with another was already determined. Everyone was kind of gung-ho about the trip and there was a lot of laughing and joking on the ferry ride.
We were met at the ferry terminal in Sydney on the other side by another friend of Rory’s who had rented a big windowed van and we loaded our gear into it. It took us about 2 hours to get to our destination which was Port Renfrew and the beginning of the West Coast trail. About a ½ hour into our ride someone pulled out a joint and it was passed around. I remember the driver steering with his knees while he took a toke. Some of the crew started singing Meat Loaf’s Paradise By The Dashboard Light and I was a bit surprised that they knew all of the lyrics.
We pulled into Port Renfrew and found the orientation hut for our trip. We were told about bear and cougar tracks and treating the water we were going to be drinking and a few of us were having trouble focusing. We then headed down to the faded red painted Port Renfrew Hotel that was situated on a dock. (It burned down a few years later and was replaced by kind of yuppie like place.) The hotel was to be our departure spot for the trip and we had few beers and played some pool while waiting for a boat to come and pick us up and take us across the water. It was now fairly late in the afternoon and it was getting dark. There was a slight drizzle outside.
Port Renfrew Hotel since replaced
The boat finally came. Aboard was a group that had just finished the hike. One of our guys didn’t have any rain gear and he cut a deal with one of those hikers for a rain poncho. Most of us were pretty quiet on the boat trip. Maybe the pot was wearing off or maybe it was the thought of hiking in the dark in an area we had never been before.
There wasn’t any dock on the other side and we basically had to leap off of the boat while cradling our heavy backpacks. More than one splash could be heard of someone not quite hitting land. There was another group of hikers huddled behind a large log waiting for the boat ride back that would end their trip. One of them jokingly said “Welcome to your worst nightmare.” Or were they joking?
After counting heads we quickly realized that we were in a bunch of muck and a decision was made to press on further along the trail. Flashlights were pulled from our backpacks. We had to negotiate some really muddy hills and pull ourselves up them with a rope. After a couple of hours of slipping and sliding we finally slogged our way to a place where we could pitch our tents. We were covered in muck and we seemed to be in a kind of strange world. I know I had never pictured this scenario. It was as if we had all been in some battle.
Somehow, with all the wetness, we managed to get a fire going. We had a bite to eat, set up our tents in the pouring rain, and climbed into our sleeping bags. We were all asleep in no time.
Being that I was the oldest (the closest person in age was a guy who was 8 years younger) I was determined not be a burden in any way. I thought that by being up first each day that I could get a jump on things and be ready to tackle the next day’s trek. It turned out to be a good idea. I didn’t want anyone grumbling about the older guy slowing them down.
By going south to north on the trail we had chosen the route with the hardest sections first. There were lots of wooden ladders and some of them were not in the best of shape. Climbing ladders is time consuming and there is no way to speed through them with a heavy pack. We didn’t cover a lot of kilometers the first few days. 
It never seemed like there was a definite leader in our party. I think Rory had the map. Our objective each day was to reach the next designated camping spot. Other than that we just kept plodding along mostly in groups of 2 or 3. We probably averaged about 10 hours a day hiking.

We went through a lot of mud the first few days. Throughout the whole hike a lot of time was spent looking at the ground and making sure we didn’t trip on roots or rocks. Breaking an ankle meant a helicopter coming to the rescue. Our packs were really heavy and if we slipped on the wet surface or tripped, gravity would take us in whatever direction the pack weight wanted to go. I know I took a couple of tumbles but luckily no damage was done.
Every few hours we would take a break, have something to drink, munch some granola. I was smoker and a few of the other guys were casual smokers. They would sometimes share my stash and at times I felt like the quartermaster doling out my smokes. (I know that there are many who won’t be able to relate hiking in the wilderness to pot and cigarettes but….)
The first thing we did each night when we arrived at the next campsite was start a fire. Pitching our tents only came about after a bit of a rest. The freeze dried food tasted pretty good. Anything with a bit of sodium in it would have tasted pretty good. Not a lot was said around the campfire at night. We were too exhausted. I don’t think the meaning of life was ever brought up.

Taking a break

One guy brought his fishing rod with plans of using it at the end of the day. It never happened. The guy who was a bouncer carried most of his girlfriend’s gear too. He was one strong guy. Another guy brought along a really tiny TV to see if he could pick up the Vancouver Canucks on it. The Canucks were in the Stanley Cup finals at the time. He never did get a picture on that TV.
Most nights we could see the lights across the ocean in Port Angeles, Washington. It was nice to get our hiking boots off at the end of the day. By 9 p.m. we were all fast asleep. My supply of Drambuie held out for about 4 days.
I hated wearing gaiters and packed them away pretty quickly when I couldn’t stand the itching on my legs any longer. For the first few days the weather was kind of drizzly but we were hiking under the forest canopy so we really didn’t get soaked. I wasn’t that fussy about wearing raingear and wore it only if I had to.
Our first few days were spent in the area where the wooden ladders were. Aside from the ladders there was a lot of hiking up and down hills. We had to crawl across a few large logs to get to the other side of some creeks. I wasn’t brave enough to walk across the wet logs with a heavy pack on my back.

The ladders
The terrain that we hiked changed from time to time. We went from walking in muck in boggy areas to slippery wooden boardwalks to heavy wet sand on beaches. Although our hiking boots were waterproofed, they still got wet on the inside and we dried them out each night by the fire. Some of us  developed a few blisters and we were glad that we had brought along a product called New Skin with us.
I can’t say that I can recall the name of every stream or area that we stopped along the way but I do remember the places that stood out the most.
There was the cable car that we pulled ourselves across a creek below, the lighthouse that we passed by, Tsusiat Falls, First Nations guys that took across Nitinat Narrows in their boat for a reasonable price and sold us some live grabs that we cooked and devoured, the little shack out in the middle of nowhere where some First Nations people sold hotdogs and beer. One person in our party took a liking to this spot and apparently decided to shed his clothes while lingering there, according to two girls that passed us on the trail.
Cable car


Tsusiat Falls

Crab catch

Beer & hot dog hut
The days went by and on the 6th day we still had about 25 kilometers left to go to the end. We had covered about 2/3 of the trail. We all wanted to see the Canucks playoff game that night and a decision was made to hoof it the 25 kilometers all in one day. After lunchtime I lost sight of anyone else in our crew. They had all taken off like there was a land or gold rush.
I kept up a steady pace, only stopping every hour and a half or so for a short break. 25 km is a long hike. It was almost all wooden board walk and I later found out that we missed a number of interesting things off of the trail like the seal colonies. Hour after hour went by and then, late in the afternoon, off in the distance I could see an opening in the trees. It was the trailhead. I walked out into the clearing and spotted the orientation hut.
A few tears came to my eyes. Not out of relief but from the feeling of sticking with something over a number of days and accomplishing a goal. Many who have done the West Coast Trail know what I mean.
Before we left on this journey, we made arrangements for my secretary and her husband to rent a van in Vancouver and drive over to Vancouver Island and pick us up at the end of our trip. Sure enough, I ran into her moments after arriving at the end of the trail. She seemed as excited as I was. I soon found the other guys from the hike and after some hugs and handshakes we grabbed our gear and checked into a fishing lodge that was owned by the bouncer guy on our trip’s girlfriend’s dad. It was great to have a shower.
That night we all went to a local tavern and watched the Canucks in game six of the Stanley Cup finals. It was hard to decide what to order on the menu. It all looked so good. We were all higher than kites even before we had a few beers. I guess you could say we were celebrating.
I don’t remember much about the trip back to Vancouver. A few days later we all got together at Rory’s place and watched the Canucks lose in game seven. We went our separate ways mostly and I have only stayed in touch with Rory and Laura.

Me, Doug, Rory, Laura, Colin #2, ?, ?, Tom
Tom passed away in November of 2013 after a bout with prostate cancer. He was a great guy.

Two summers ago, my girlfriend and two pals set off on the West Coast Trail. I declined an invitation. It wasn’t that I didn’t think I could hack it at 63 years of age, it was more like I didn’t want to do comparisons. I dropped them off and picked them up at Banfield. They didn’t quite do the whole hike end to end but they were out there for seven days. 

Hugh, Linda, Brian


Over the years I have listened to conversations of people talking about doing the West Coast Trail. Some of those conversations seem to make the hike sound like a walk in the park. It isn’t. I remember seeing army guys with exhausted looks on their faces the time I did the hike and seeing the fatigue of the folks who had just finished the trail when my girlfriend went.

In the end it may be one of those bucket list things, a family or friends sharing a journey, or a good slice of life. It is nice to belong to an unofficial club. You have to do it to say you did it.


  1. Great post, I love the WCT, this next summer I'm going for my 4th time, my 5 kids in tow. You're correct, there is nothing easy about this trail, it leaves everyone I've met with an experience of a life time.

  2. Thanks Foster. That's a lot of kids!