Hiking the West Coast Trail
On the west coast of Vancouver Island, Canada, there lies a 75 kilometer long trail called, intuitively, the West Coast Trail. The crown jewel of hiking in British Columbia, the West Coast Trail extends north-south along the edge of the continent from Bamfield to Port Renfrew. It weaves through forests full of huge roots you must climb over, across rivers and inlets, through bogs, along beaches, past waterfalls, through a ‘hole in the wall’, and over more ladders than you will care to count as you climb, legs aching, down and then up one after another. However, so long as you have a good pair of legs beneath you and a good spirit in your chest to deal with how exhausting this trail can be, it is truly one of the most magical places you can visit in British Columbia.
The trail follows ancient routes through an area saturated with history, passing through the traditional lands of the Pacheedaht, Ditidaht, and Huu-ay-aht First Nations peoples who have inhabited the area for over 4000 years. After Europeans settled on the island, they used the traditional First Nations’ trade and travel routes to establish a telegraph line between small villages and newly established lighthouses along the west coast. A series of tragic and fatal shipwrecks off this notoriously difficult to navigate coast led to it being coined the ‘Graveyard of the Pacific’ with over 70 ships wrecked in this area alone – the most notable being the SS Valencia, a passenger ship that crashed into the rocks, resulting in over 160 casualties. In response, the government undertook to transform the old telegraph trail into a Lifesaving Trail by building up the infrastructure, refuges, and proximity of aid in the area, but as navigation technology improved, the trail became outdated by the 1940’s and was no longer maintained until it became a recreational area in the 1970’s. Its infrastructure has since been continuously developed so that it now features a variety of boardwalks, bridges, and ladders – which have thankfully replaced the ancient rope-hanging-down-a-rock-wall technique of traversing the terrain.
The trail’s rich history adds an air of ancient mystery to this already deeply spiritual land. The area is populated with ghosts – as you make your way through the thick forests and past the churning water, you will sense them walking with you. The ancient cultures that once thrived here: all but lost, brutally interrupted by colonialism. A hundred ships: left rotting, floating just below the surface. Hundreds of disrupted journeys: absorbed below into the merciless, unforgiving sea. All the people left stranded along the coast to fight their way through the forest to the nearest lighthouse. All the artists that have ventured here, in reverence. As the mist rolls in, it will bring with it the ghosts that linger here so that you become surrounded by them, mired in the trail’s history, which becomes as impenetrable, fleeting, and mesmerising as the mist itself.
So, if you decide to undertake this trip, be prepared to embrace everything it has to offer – its ups, downs, and everything in between. Learn to love climbing ladders and fording streams. Enjoy the sun while it is shining but, equally, when the mist hits, embrace it: the spirit of this mystical land can only be discerned through its dampness, so to truly arrive on the west coast you must allow the mist to enter your consciousness. Swim in the ocean at least once – Carmanah Creek Campsite is great place for swimming – preferably on a sunny day. Bring some cash so you can splurge on fresh Salmon or Crab and a coke before catching the boat across Nitinat Narrows. You will fall at least once, possibly in the mud, hopefully not on the rocks. Rub in the dirt and carry on. Camp one night at Tsusiat Falls, a beach campsite around the bottom of a waterfall with a gorgeous setting and a warm feeling of community. Bring lots of chocolate, lots of layers and rain gear, and coffee for the morning. Wear comfortable shoes but pack blister pads anyways, and, lastly, be prepared for the inevitable: sore legs. But most of all, be prepared for all the sweat and tears to be absolutely worth every moment.
Jayme Collins, originally from Canada, now lives in Berlin and works for GoEuro, a new multi-mode travel search engine. She hiked the West Coast Trail last summer and, as her legs have now recovered, she can’t stop thinking about doing it again.