by Hank Leukart
July 13, 2008

Every hike has a worst day

Lighting a fire on a West Coast Trail beach in a rainstorm is not easy.

My brother Brian folds a wet tent in the morning after our hike’s worst day

My brother Brian folds a wet tent in the morning after our hike's worst day (view all West Coast Trail: Days 4 - 5 photos)

This is the second essay in a four-part series about trekking the West Coast Trail. Read the entire series for the whole story.

W

EST COAST TRAIL, Vancouver Island, British Columbia — There’s no way around it: by definition, there’s one day in every hiking trip that’s the hike’s worst day. You always know that day’s coming, you just don’t know when and how bad it will be.

My brother and I awoke on the West Coast Trail at kilometer 22 at Walbran Creek, excited and ready to hike to Chez Monique, a “restaurant” unexpectedly located about halfway along the trail in the wilderness. Other hikers had warned us not to expect much; reportedly, the “restaurant” consisted of a few tarps and two propane stoves set up to feed burgers to hikers. Nevertheless, we were looking forward to Chez Monique’s relative comfort, and we took to the forest trail as rain started pouring down.

For most its length, the West Coast Trail has two roughly parallel trails hikers can follow — the forest trail and the beach trail — each with pros and cons. The forest trail often provides more demanding hiking, with uneven terrain, tree roots that cause even the most careful hiker to stumble, and in the rain, gallons of mud everywhere. The beach trail can be sparklingly beautiful, but during storms, the rain and wind are miserable, the soft sand can easily exhaust a hiker after only a short distance, and high tides sometimes make the beach dangerous and completely impassible.

With the rain on the forest trail, we found ourselves trudging through mud deep enough to envelop our hiking boots, and we began trying to develop new mud-walking strategies to streamline our travels. Up until that point, we had been performing what we called “Phase One Mud Walking” — avoiding mud by walking around it as much as possible. “Phase One Mud Walking,” we quickly determined, was problematic in that it took too long and significantly increased our hiking distance. Quickly enough, we invented “Phase Two Mud Walking” — taking the least muddy route one can take without slowing down. Once we were willing to “accept muddy feet”, we left our deep fears of mud behind us and found this system to be much more efficient. Yet “Phase Three Mud Walking” — walking straight through all mud as fast as possible — seemed beyond our comfort-level. We dared not enter Phase Three.

We were ecstatic to be back on the beach and out of the sludge by kilometer 24, until we found ourselves hiking on unprotected coastline in the Strait of Juan De Fuca around Bonilla Point. Rain relentlessly fell on us, wind unyieldingly blew on us, and frustratingly soft sand turned our calf muscles into jelly. Our soaked backpacks seemed to weigh twice their normal weight. With every step we became wetter, crankier, and more tired. The promise of burgers at Chez Monique was the only thing keeping us going.

“As we entered the camp, we had high hopes that we would see other members of our West Coast Trail class. We half-expected to see those manly middle-aged hikers Curt, Ed, and John roasting a whale they had caught with their bare hands on a spittoon they had made from driftwood.”

We slogged ahead. Through the fog, in the distance about two kilometers away, we could barely make out a white tarp. Were we really that close to Chez Monique? As we continued, we realized we had reached the Carmanah Creek campground, and the map showed that we were only one kilometer from the restaurant. As we entered the camp, we had high hopes that we would see other members of our West Coast Trail class. We half-expected to see those manly middle-aged hikers Curt, Ed, and John roasting a whale they had caught with their bare hands on a spittoon they had made from driftwood. We anticipated seeing Larissa and Lis, the girls from Australia and Wisconsin, welcoming us with open arms. Instead, there were no people in sight.

Confused and exhausted, the storm was getting worse: pelting rain, gusts of wind, and soaked sand made the beach hiking grueling. We were so drained that the thought of walking the two kilometers to Chez Monique and back to the campground seemed unthinkable. Disappointed with our stamina, we decided to set up camp, build a warm fire, eat one of our own dinners, and hide from the rain in our dry tent.

Because of the rain, all of the driftwood in sight was soaking wet. I used a hatchet to get some dry cedar chips and small wood shavings from under the outside layer of a piece of driftwood while Brian collected more kindling and built a small fire shelter to keep the kindling dry. As Brian tried to get the kindling to light, I stood near and over the fire to block the wind and heavy rain. Just getting our matches to light was almost impossible because the matches and the strike surface were wet. Even when Brian did get a match lit, he found lighting the wet kindling difficult and burning the wet driftwood nearly impossible.

He was frustrated.

“What is the deal with these matches?!” my brother screamed. “These waterproof matches are not waterproof!” The more he yelled at the matches, the less they seemed to cooperate. Waterproof and windproof matches are only waterproof and windproof, it turns out, once they’re lit. Take one of those matches lit and put it in a wind tunnel or underwater (really!) and you’ll be hard pressed to put it out. But try lighting one in the middle of a storm, and you’ll be wishing for a blowtorch in no time. The wet matches were breaking, bending, making streaks on the strike surface — doing everything matches can do except creating flame. Then, we ran out.

Suddenly, it hit me — this was the hike’s worst day.

Of course, we’re always over-prepared, and I was carrying plenty emergency matches in a waterproof container in my bag. Yet making a campfire was a luxury, and the emergency matches were for cooking meals on our stove — every day for the rest of the trip, we would need at least two matches per day to make a hot breakfast and dinner. But, shivering in the rain, we really wanted that campfire. We agreed to try a couple emergency matches.

After my brother spent over an hour trying to light a fire on the Graveyard of the Pacific in its famously inexorable wind and rain, he succeeded. The newly-dry matches from my bag, in combination with a reworked kindling structure, did the trick. We cheered, tried to warm up and dry off near the fire, and cooked a hot dinner.

We nestled into our dry tent as we listened to the rain gush without stopping for the rest of the day and throughout the entire night. We wondered how our fellow hikers had fared in the storm.

We looked forward to the next day, knowing that burgers at Chez Monique were only a kilometer away. We had already faced the worst day.

Was it really our worst day? Did we ever make it to Chez Monique? Find out in the third essay of this four-part series about trekking the West Coast Trail.

Brian blows on a fire in the pouring rain, desperately trying to get it to light

Brian blows on a fire in the pouring rain, desperately trying to get it to light

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