The West Coast Trail

Rona was rescued from one of the world’s ten toughest trails, the West Coast Trail, which is situated on the west coast of Vancouver Island. Here you can encounter black bears, cougars and have to cross three Indian reservations. It is also known as the Shipwreck Trail.

June 30th 2001 – this was exactly one year since I had said goodbye to my job at St Peter’s College, Oxford to prepare to set sail that September in the BT Global Challenge Round the World Yacht Race (the world’s toughest yacht race). Now, a year later, having completed the race, I was back in the UK but not for long.

On July 4th I flew to Winnipeg to join with Cathy Sullivan and her sister, Wendy. Cathy had taken part in the Yacht Race from Boston to Buenos Aires and taken to heart Sir Chay Blyth’s words that ‘you need to have something to come home to’. Two weeks later as I sat at Camper’s Bay, on Vancouver Island waiting to be evacuated out by the Wardens I wondered whether this had really been what I needed!

The plan was to walk the West Coast Trail from Bamfield to Port Renfrew on the Pacific coast of Vancouver Island. There were bears at the northern end, cougars at the southern end and three Indian Reservations to cross in the middle. One of the party had dropped out so the three of us remaining had to carry 50lb packs on our backs.

The trail starts at sea level and for 17km is easy walking with the occasional tree-trunk to cross. On the first night, we camp at Darling Creek, but as we arrive other trekkers are blowing whistles – a sign that a bear is near.

The trail is stunning, running along cliff tops covered in bogs and remnants of one of the Earth’s greatest temperate rainforests, then plunging down to the shore with its shelving, coves, bays, waterfalls, rivers and creeks. There are steep slippery slopes to  negotiate, and – in places for those that can’t be negotiated any other way, a series of endless ladders, some as high as a 25-30 storey building.

The trail takes you along the very edge of cliffs with a steep drop to the rocks, you clamber over tree roots or climb down through them 8-12 ft to the trail below. It is rugged and arduous. 10km can take 10 hours. Fallen trees abound, covered in moss and lichen. A trunk may only be twelve inches wide, but it is often the only way to manoeuvre precariously across a creek ten feet below. And, if it is green, it is slippery…

Boardwalk designed to protect the bog, rotting in the damp conditions, allows only one person to cross at a time. The trail is hazardous. Manual cable cars are the only way to cross deep, fast flowing rivers – the only ferry is on the Nitinat River where you can eat freshly cooked crab served on a paper plate with a cold soft drink. Heaven in the wilderness!

It is steep, it is physically demanding – and despite no rain for three weeks, the trail has numerous mud holes. An error of judgement as to where a tree root or rock is and you are knee-deep in mud. It is crucial to carry enough water to enable you to get to the next source sometimes 17km away. It all has to be treated.

Every morning the sea mist rolls in but usually the sun breaks through making it a magical trek through the forest. If overcast, the sun would appear to ease aching muscles as we made camp. At the end of the day to paddle barefoot in the sea was a welcome relief! Whether resting overnight at Tsusiat Falls or amongst the driftwood at Walbran Creek there are other trekkers to socialize with, or you can relax undisturbed.

As well as the bears there are Californian Gray whales, bald eagles, sea-lions, seals, sea otters and deer in this isolated area. Sometimes there is a choice between forest or beach although transversing the latter can be deceptively hard. On the shelving it becomes easier to walk, although often treacherous. Surge channels are to be avoided at all costs.

This is called the graveyard of the Pacific; the trail was made to help the shipwrecked get to safety and remains of wrecks are still visible along the shore. The trail is open to 52 people a day from May to October but it is unquestionably dangerous, even today people die. About 250 people are evacuated from the trail each year.

After 62km, with only 15km to go I was one! For the previous 15km every step sent a sharp pain through the back of my right knee. To continue would do irreparable damage. Construction workers at the campsite contacted the Wardens who were alerted about my plight and promised help as soon as possible.

The next day as I waited alone for rescue, I was disconcerted to hear growling coming from the bushes nearby, but with no weapon or other means of defence, I have no option but to ignore it and hope ‘it’ goes away. After what seems an eternity, the Wardens arrive by boat and question me on the injury before they agree to take me with them; they only deal with serious injuries – this is no way out for those who have simply ‘had enough’.

As we head towards the trail end, they ensure anyone they see on the coast is alright. As if to compensate me for my ‘early bath’ from the expedition, as we near the mouth of the Gordon River  there is a pod of Orca in a feeding frenzy. We watch in awe – the Wardens take research photographs and I take mine.

The following lunchtime I collect the rest of my team who have just made it to the end of the trail. Cheerfully they tell me of a further danger which they had managed to avoid in their final leg from Camper’s Bay to the trail end. However, they had seen a fresh print…. The growling I had heard nearby whilst waiting to be rescued had been a cougar!