In 1996 Emma and I had just finished university. Emma took off for Canada for Christmas and I followed soon after meeting up with her in Toronto. We visited a local library one day where I pulled a book off the shelf called ‘Hiking on the Edge’, about Canada’s West Coast Trail.
I was instantly smitten by the glorious pictures of tall old growth temperate rainforest, wild surf, suspension bridges, cable cars and river crossings. ‘We have to do this’, I said to Emma. So we did. That April we headed over to British Columbia where we found ourselves living and crewing on a yacht, the Thane, that took pleasure cruises out of Victoria Harbour on the Straits of Juan de Fuca. Here we bided our time until hiking season opened on the 1st of May.
As soon as the trail opened we were off. The trail was everything ‘Hiking on the Edge’ promised it would be and I fell in love with the remote, wild and rugged landscape. Emma recalls that we came across a family walking the trail. I don’t, but I do recall getting to the end and announcing that I wanted to come back and hike it with our kids.
When these twelve months of roaming the world came around, one of the first things I seized upon was the chance to fulfil that nineteen-year-old whimsical wish, the chance to go back and hike the trail again. This time with Amy and Oliver. A visit to Vancouver Island became a fixed stop over point along our way. Emma’s dad Ian picked up on ramblings about where we intended to go and what we intended to do and decided that the West Coast Trail would be a good goal for him as well. His training started more or less immediately.
Nineteen years after the fact, my memory of the hike was all gorgeous scenery, exciting ladders and cable cars and the joy of being somewhere a long way from anywhere. It seems likely now that my commitment to walk the trail was made with a significant glossing over of the challenges it actually presents – to anyone, but particularly to a family represented by three generations. Sixty-one years separated the oldest and youngest amongst us this time around.
Parks Canada say that, ‘The West Coast Trail should not be considered by: children under twelve’ or ‘those with little stamina or recurring knee back or ankle injuries’. Amy is eleven and Oliver is nine and a year ago Ian was having trouble getting through eighteen holes of golf due to a bad back. Hmm. I kept telling myself that Amy and Oliver were really closer to twelve and ten.
According to Parks Canada more than 100 hikers are evacuated every season due to injuries. ‘Many sprains, fractures and dislocations happen because of a slip or trip and progressive ankle and knee injuries are also common and over a period of days may become so sore that hikers cannot carry their pack’. Did we know what we were getting ourselves into?
Foul weather is also an issue. One website warns:
You must have grit, the ability to weather quite a bit of misery on the trail. It’s tough in a way that expectations realise and don’t understand. It’s wet. Wet all the time. Wet in a way that saps enthusiasm. When you are on the trail and it’s raining, you are waking up in a damp tent in a fogged in beach. Your stove won’t start and you feel heavy before moving. Remember, you have to have true grit. It’s wet and cold and miserable all around. But you are full of excitement and strength. Of course it’s raining today. If it wasn’t it wouldn’t be the West Coast Trail. Make sure you wake up to this mindset. Because if you don’t, well…
The reality of all this grew on me in the days leading up to the hike. Sure we had hiked to Annapurna Base Camp and trekked for five days through the highlands of Iceland, but on those occasions we had guides and porters and friends. Here however, we were going it alone. No Andrea and Peter to lead the way and no Nepalese strong men to carry our load.
But still, the dice had been rolled. We had charted our course and there was no turning back. Ian had undertaken a serious training program and flown out from Australia specifically for the purpose and we had been gearing up for months buying new boots, camping mats and the like.
We flew into Victoria on Vancouver Island and met Ian shortly afterwards at the Strathcona Hotel. Two pleasant days in Victoria followed. Emma and I found the ‘Thane’ still operating out of the central harbour. We stopped by for a chat with the new owner, a photo and a trip down memory lane.
We also got down to business prepping for the trip. We made multiple trips to the local outdoor shops, buying freeze dried dinners and other miscellaneous odds and ends. Emma and I visited the grocery store, purchasing around $400 worth of food, supplies for five people for eight days. As we piled six bags of muesli, one of granola and a bag of oats into the trolley we looked at each other and mused over how it was all going to fit in our packs. The two of us would carry the bulk of the load in an effort to lessen the load on our older and younger companions.
The night before the bus to the trailhead I slept very little. I tossed and turned and pondered how we would go coping with the 40-50mm of rain forecast for the day after we set out, or what we would do if one of us got sick or injured. The mandatory Parks Canada briefing at the trailhead covered what to do when confronted by bears, cougars and wolves and did nothing to lessen my anxiety. We told Amy and Oliver we were unlikely to come across any, but apparently bear sightings were a daily occurrence…
I felt much better when we finally got underway. Our packs were bursting at the seams. Scales at the trailhead put my pack at around 30 kg (the scales were a bit dodgy), Emma’s around 24 kg, Ian’s around 20kg and Amy and Oliver at 8 kg each. My pack was so full of food I had to strap the tent horizontally across the top instead of carrying it inside – never had to do that before.
‘Blisters and Bliss’, the West Coast Trail guidebook, describes day one of the walk as ‘a stroll to grandmas’, twelve kilometres that can be knocked off in three to four hours. It took us five, maybe six and Ian commented ‘that was about as hard as I expected the hike would be’. Hmm, I thought. At least it didn’t rain.
It did rain that night though. It came down in buckets and was still flowing when we climbed out of bed the following morning. I stole a moment with Emma, a little knot of anxiety churning in the pit of my stomach and said ‘we’re going to get soaked’. We had thirteen kilometres to hike that day and the joyful prospect of packing up in the rain.
If only Andrea and Peter were here I thought. Hiking with another family provides a certain silent assurance that comes by virtue of not being the only ones crazy enough to take their children to wild and remote places. As it turned out however, Andrea, Peter, Sydney and Tobin really were with us after all.
Back in Toronto we received a parcel from the Douglas Grants in the mail. It was, in Andrea’s words, an ‘unabashed attempt to make it into another (8)itchyfeet episode.’ It came with a freeze dried meal (delicious), gaiters (essential), dehydrated peanut butter, maple syrup lollies (candy for the north Americans out there) and candy bracelets for Amy and Oliver.
We were lead to understand that the care package demonstrated:
‘an extreme level of care and devotion. Many days were spent dehydrating food in the sweltering outdoor kitchen… It was also not expected, though perhaps it should have been – as we are in Canada, that the first version of this package would be literally wrestled out of the jaws of a racoon and his mates. Ok so not actually wrestled. But they did eat it, and I did hear them fighting for it and I did make Peter go at them with a bat. He was too late. This is the second package’.
The package also included photographs of the four of them taped to chopsticks with instructions that they were to be placed and photographed at particularly scenic locations, around camp and with places to be set for them at meal times. It was good to have their faces looking back at us from under the tarp as the rain poured down. This was just the kind of crazy thing they would do to.
With rain gear on, the track got tougher. The first of many mud lakes opened up before us, there were many ladders, some up to 65 rungs high and suspension bridges to be crossed. If Ian was phased by the reality of day one he hid it well. Judging by his demeanour, he had spent the previous night developing a steely resolve to see the trail through which only seemed to grow day after day.
Still, for all the thoughts that filled my head about how Emma and I would shepherd our crew safely through, the wonders of the trail also began to unfold. They were an antidote to my anxiety, a salve for the soul and welcome reminder of just why we do this sort of thing in the first place. The old growth spruce, hemlock and cedar of the West Coast Trail is serene and peaceful and beautiful. It is one environment where wet and grey truly serves to enhance the view. Wet is how it is meant to be.
Massive trees, some twice the span of my outstretched arms lined our way, all of them covered in sphagnum moss and ferns. Ecosystems within ecosystems. Creeks, rivers and waterfalls cut across our path in shallow and deep gullies and all the while the roar of the wild west coast was somewhere just off to our right.
Hiking in the forest was interspersed with hiking on the beach when time and tides allowed. Sea lions could be heard long before they were seen on rocky haul outs. Rock pools presented all manner of sea creatures and wild waves crashed to the shore even in the light seas. Rocky headlands adorned with cedar trees silhouetted themselves against a sky painted in endless shades of grey. It was postcard picture perfect, despite the weather.
The rain eased as we hiked on. Emma smiled at me and said ‘we’re doing it’. Emma is, to borrow a corny saying, my rock. A pivot point around which my wildly erratic emotions of wonder, excitement, fear and worry oscillate and I love her for it.
It stayed wet and grey into day three. Ian, Oliver and Amy had the occasional ‘lie down’ as slippery surfaces did battle with their preference to remain horizontal. Walks on the beach became a continual search up and down looking for sand that didn’t sink an inch and a half with every step.
As we walked we stopped and chatted with hikers travelling in the other direction. Like Emma and I years ago, the average age of trekkers was undoubtedly twenty something. To a person every one of them did a double take at the sight of Amy and Oliver before offering words of unabashed admiration. Towards the end of the hike we came across a group of track builders who declared them to be the youngest trekkers of the season.
People were less surprised to find a gentleman of Ian’s vintage out and about, but to my mind his achievement was greater than the kids. If Amy and Oliver tired, it was only mentally as demonstrated by their running and leaping off logs or continual combing of the beach for firewood at the end of each day, regardless of how far or long we walked. Ian by contrast seemed as content to be still when the day’s walk was done as he was determined to see it done in the first place. After up to nine-hours trekking at a stretch, no-one begrudged him his seat.
We sent Ian out as the pace maker the majority of the time giving him the chance to pick his way along at the pace that suited most. The terrain on this hike is hugely varied, but predominantly exceedingly rough, especially in the latter stages where our progress was slowed to less than a kilometre an hour by ladders, mud, roots, fallen trees and slippery surfaces. If Ian was a little slower over the rough terrain, he was unstoppable on the smooth flat stretches of boardwalk and beach, leaving us all scrambling to catch up.
As things went, Ian was followed by Amy, Amy by Oliver and Oliver by me. Emma brought up the rear. In addition to pack mule, I took on the role of story teller, to stop Amy and Oliver thinking about their feet.
We spent three days recounting the American space program and one of my favourite stories, the flight of Apollo 13 before moving on to William Wallace and finally the Hunt for Red October. If I paused for more than a minute or so Oliver would without fail open his mouth to politely and cheekily say, ‘and ah now keep talking…please’ to prompt me along. Andrea’s maple syrup lollies and candy necklaces brought me some story telling respite. You can’t talk with a mouth full of Canadian deliciousness.
By the end of day three we had hiked 42 of 75 kilometres. Excellent progress, except for the horror stories on the state of the trail that lay ahead and the Parks Canada briefing that said it will take just as long to get from kilometre 54 to 75 as it will to get from 0 to 54. Amy’s anxiety grew with all the tales of the trail ahead.
I reassured her that most people just love to ‘talk it up’ and was in turn reassured when this turned out to be true. The trail did deteriorate. It was continuous mud, ladders and twisted gnarled tree roots, but of course was not impassable as some would almost have had us believe. Amy’s mood lightened the further we got into the hardest part of the trip and she and Oliver revelled in the adventure presented by ladders which descended more than a hundred metres straight onto suspension bridges and cable cars which whizzed across ravines.
The weather on days five, six and seven of our trip turned out to be magnificent and we all revelled in the sunshine. Clear skies lightened the mood and bright sun dried out sleeping bags, socks, boots, tents, fly’s and ground sheets. Oliver took to collecting firewood and he and Ian soon had us a blazing fire each evening. It’s hard to describe how much happier it is to be in a camp warmed by a fire. We sat around for hours drying socks that would be soaked through within twenty steps the following morning.
Peter, Andrea, Sydney and Tobin took on many useful campsite roles, sterilising water, cooking, helping with the fire and reading books.
Our confidence grew as each day passed and it soon became clear that the shortest route off the West Coast Trail was the route which would take us to the end. Failure was not an option! Still the trail had a few twists and turns before it would let us see it through. The campsite on our last night was on a beach some 230 metres below the trail itself. A one kilometre side trip separated the two and it had to be ascended again the following morning.
The rain also returned, and saw us once again packing up under the tarp on our final morning. We woke early, 6.00 am, as we often did to make sure we had sufficient time to traverse our route. This was especially important on the last day given the last ferry across the Gordon River and back to civilisation departed at 3.00pm. The guide book suggested it would take around five-hours to go the final five kilometres.
We made it by 12.45 pm, wet through but uncaring. We did it. We did it. I’m not sure how… but we did it! I was filled with relief and a large amount of pride. Relief and pride that our unusual little team of trekkers had successfully finished one of the most gruelling walks in the world. I had dismissed the title before we begun, but think now it may be a reasonable estimation.
The burgers and beer at the Port Renfrew Pub were amazing and the bus ride back to Victoria like being whisked out of one universe and into another. Ian had booked us into the Monaco Spectacular, a grandly named and suitably well-appointed apartment back in Victoria with views across the city. Its creature comforts were most welcome after our eight days in the wilderness.
The West Coast Trail the second time around was not the easiest project we have undertaken and significantly harder than it was when Emma and I tackled it solo nineteen years ago. It will however undoubtedly be one of the highlights of our year, up there with the La-ha-ha-ha trail and the Annapurna Base Camp trek.
It will be a highlight because it wasn’t easy. A little bit of a paradox perhaps, but therein lies the appeal. It’s the achievement that makes it memorable as much as the scenery, not to mention the wonderful and rare opportunity to do such a thing as part of a family group of three generations. I hope that in time to come Amy and Oliver will look back and understand just what they have done and how marvellous it is.
Now here are a few additional photos because it was just so picturesque!
Fun with the Douglas Grants