by Hank Leukart
July 9, 2008
Trekking the Graveyard of the Pacific
Brothers tackle dangerous surge channels on the West Coast Trail.
A cable car hangs overhead as a hiker adjusts his tent (photo by Brian Leukart) (view all West Coast Trail: Days 1 - 3 photos)
EST COAST TRAIL, Vancouver Island, British Columbia — After our extraordinary Alaskan backpacking experience this past August, my brother and I had become addicted. For months following the excursion, we daydreamed, researched, and gushed about the possibilities for our next adventure. We considered a number of tempting options, including a Grand Canyon rim-to-rim-to-rim hike, a journey along the pristine Lost Coast of California, and even a long trek through remote Patagonia. But then, we read about the Graveyard of the Pacific.
The coastal region between Oregon’s Tillamook Bay and British Columbia’s Vancouver Island in the Pacific Northwest earned its ominous title due to the more than 2,000 ships that have wrecked there since 1800. Due to the rainy, windy, and foggy weather, the Canadian Coast Guard built two lighthouses in the 19th century on Vancouver Island’s western shore in an attempt to warn sea captains of the coast’s imminent dangers, but the improvements were not enough. When 136 people were killed after the S.S. Valencia (and its lifeboats) famously wrecked off the Island’s coast in 1906, the public outcry prompted the Canadian government to build a life saving trail, linking the remote frontier towns of Port Renfrew and Bamfield. The 75-kilometer hiking trail, which included shacks every eight kilometers with blankets and telegraph equipment, made it possible for shipwreck victims to call for help and survive upon arriving ashore in this remote area of Vancouver Island.
The trail, now known as the West Coast Trail, still exists as part of the National Parks of Canada as a well-maintained recreational hiking trail, and we wanted to hike it.
The unique challenges Alaska presented (difficult river and glacier crossings; exhausting, trailless terrain; and complete isolation in the wilderness) made us hungry for one-of-a-kind challenges on the West Coast Trail. When we arrived at the trailhead, Parks Canada gave us and the rest of the “West Coast Trail Class of June 2, 2008” a short presentation about the hike’s dangers. We were warned to use tide tables to time our coastal hiking and avoid being trapped by dangerous swells; we learned that if a helicopter flew overhead dropping tsunami warnings in bottles (seriously!), we would need to immediately drop our backpacks and sprint up towering ladder networks to avoid being swallowed by the sea; we were told to use the cable cars whenever possible to perform river crossings, which made us laugh due to “our extensive river crossing experience”; and we were urged, once again, never to run from a bear (or a wolf or a cougar).
After the park ranger sufficiently scared us, she sold us our trail permits. We donned our 50-pound backpacks (we were arguably overprepared for this trip, with more than two extra days of food and of course, the requisite board games we always take on backpacking trips) and stepped onto the ferry that took us to the beginning of our adventure.
Hoping to finish the most difficult hiking first, my brother and I started at the harder end of the trail. The trail’s first nine kilometers through the forest gave us a preview of the trail’s unique character. Throughout the forest, enormous fallen trees and logs had been charmingly arranged — we thought maybe by forest elves, but in reality the heavy lifting was probably done by the Canadian park service — to double as bridges and makeshift staircases. We climbed many multi-story wooden ladder networks. We even saw a derelict donkey engine, an old device used for hauling logs in the early 20th century (though we have no idea how it made use of donkeys and engines nor do we have any idea how the darn thing worked at all). The muddy hiking, over enormous tree root systems with lots of uneven terrain, was difficult and tiring, especially with heavy backpacks, but we made it to our first campsite with plenty of time to spare for the day. My brother easily built a campfire with driftwood, and we had a relaxed dinner. As we calmy threw a Frisbee with two girls we met on the beach from Australia and Wisconsin, we realized that despite its difficulty, the West Coast Trail would not even come close to the grueling expedition that was our Alaska trip.
On the second day, we got a taste of why so many ships wrecked along the coast of the Island; in pouring rain and fog, we hiked toward Owen Point on a rocky coastline that looked otherworldly. Carrying the albatrosses that were our heavy packs (curse that extra survival food!), we trudged over miles of treacherous, slippery boulders, some the size of carry-on suitcases, some the size of trucks. We slipped and tripped and fell and fell again. We scraped our arms, bruised our shins, and almost broke limbs tens of times. We even invented a scale of slipperiness, specifically-tailored for the West Coast Trail. The lower end of the scale, “Very Slippery,” was for a typical wet beach boulder. The higher end of the scale, “All Bone-Crushingly Slippery,” was reserved for special boulders covered in algae specifically engineered by nature to render hiking boots useless. As my brother hiked ahead of me, he yelled warnings about specific boulders: “Careful! Fantastically slippery boulder ahead!” Then, he’d fall on his head.
After finishing the arduous and dangerous boulder scrambling, we were met by a collection of surge channels on Owen Point. These channels, worn into the beach rock over hundreds of years, require hikers either to hike on steep forest trails to circumvent them or climb treacherously across them to save time. For the most part, we managed to hike around them, though once we hiked over one by balancing on a log, emboldened by the climbing rope we carried. But after we successfully but barely navigated the log, we deemed the log completely unsafe and vowed never to try crossing a surge channel that way ever again. We later learned that two hikers had tried crossing the same channel we had, fell in, and had to be rescued from the freezing ocean water after nine hours because the channel was too steep for them to climb out.
When we finally arrived after 13 kilometers at our campsite at Camper Bay, exhausted from boulder scrambling and surge channel crossing, we erected our tent, and three men in their fifties (Kurt, Ed, and John) and their sons invited us to enjoy their campfire with them. As we sat in the fire’s warmth and the three drank Jack Daniels from a flask, Ed amazed us when he told us this trip was the fifteenth time he had hiked the trail. Kurt pulled loose pages of the Odyssey from under his “tuque” (a winter hat in Canadian parlance), read them, then burned them. And in the most bizarre display of all, John threw one of his dirty shirts into the fire. “I don’t need it anymore,” he said.
These guys were old-fashioned, manly men. They weren’t lugging emergency food, climbing rope, or board games. I was honored to be in their West Coast Trail “class.”
As we sat with them, I hoped that someday, when my brother and I eventually turned fifty years old, we would still be tough enough to tackle the West Coast Trail, drinking Jack Daniels, reading the Odyssey, and burning our used shirts as we hiked.
Read about the worst day of the hike when my brother tries to start a fire in a rainstorm in the second essay of this four-part series about trekking the West Coast Trail.