Tackling the 75km West Coast Trail

I slipped my feet into the white sand. Its cool composure liberated me from the throbbing pain. I was too exhausted to jump into the ocean and wash out all the dirt on my face and my hands, and the sweat that has accumulated on my skin and my clothing. I laid there for a couple of hours, soaking in the warmth of the sun, the breeze of the sea, and the sand between my toes, thinking about nothing but: I’ve done it!

Seven days ago, my girlfriend and I had packed our backpacks with everything we needed to survive for a week: camping gear, hiking clothes, dehydrated food, and survival kit. We had planned this trip for a few weeks and were anxious to finally begin. The West Coast Trail has always fascinated me. I’ve heard about it from fellow adventurers I’d met along my travels, and it seemed like the kind of adventure I had to put on my bucket list. I am no expert hiker, although I have several trips under my belt. The Pacific Northwest has been my backyard for over a decade now, offering many trails to wander, glacier-fed lakes to discover and mountain peaks to conquer. I have also hiked around Kathmandu, Nepal, staying in tea houses, eating home-cooked meals and carrying a small backpack. But the WCT was the kind of adventure I’ve never done before. It was a physical and mental challenge far beyond anything I’ve done. It was much more than just a stroll in the woods.

The West Coast Trail is a gruelling 75km long backpacking trail hugging the southwestern edge of Vancouver Island in British Columbia, Canada. Construction of the trail debuted in 1889, originally part of a communication system connecting the British Empire in North America by an undersea cable which ran all the way to India. After the wreck of the Valencia in 1906, the trail was improved to facilitate the rescue of shipwrecked survivors along the coast. It is now part of Pacific National Rim and is known as one of the world’s top hiking trails.

Day 1: Embrace the opportunity
Gordon River to Trasher Cove- 6km

Butch took us to the trailhead across the Gordon river with his fishing boat. We jumped off the craft onto the sand, only to be welcomed by a 52 rung vertical climb ladder. Welcome to the WCT!

My bag was heavy. It pulled my shoulders and the strap on my chest pushed my lungs making it hard to breathe. It wasn’t that the trail itself was hard, but rather acclimatizing to my gear. My 43 pound bag carried all I needed for surviving a week in wilderness. I did read it shouldn’t be more than 30% of my weight, yet bringing a deck of cards, a reading book, tank tops and too much food seemed to be essential and weightless at first glance. I regretted my amateur decision of bringing the unnecessary every step I took, carrying a bag nearly half my weight, turning into a turtle camouflaged by her shell. It was a slow march through the woods, travelling 1km an hour.

As I hiked I pondered what drew me into doing this trail. It wasn’t solely for the remote beauty of the coastline, the impressive old growth forests and the endless empty beaches. I wanted to test my capabilities, to see how far I could go physically and mentally. I was attracted to the sheer challenge, to the experience, to the accomplishment, to the opportunity to learn and to grow.

When we got to Trasher Cove, we set up camp on the beach, and watched the sun disappear behind the trees, leaving an orange glow over the ocean. As the sun dimmed its light, we called it a night.

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Day 2: Slow down
Trasher Cove to Camper Bay- 8km

The sunrise was sublime. The sky was clear and the breeze was invigorating. We started the day on the beach at low tide, hiking on black stone shelves, careful about wet surfaces. This part was so beautiful, and pretty enjoyable to trek. We walked through a cave and arrived at Owen Point where a group of sea lions sun bathed on a rock erected from the ocean.

We hopped from boulder to boulder, jumped over crevasses, traversed the edge of a gully holding on a slippery rope.

The magnificence of the views muted me. I was in awe taking in impressive images of the vistas. We took our time, slowing down to admire the incredible landscape.

When the tide rose up, we entered the forest and finished the trek inland. It was muddy, extremely muddy, and we had to be very smart about each step. This very technical day ended up at Camper Bay, where we arrived in our first cable car.

As the sun shied away behind the clouds, we gathered around the campfire with fellow hikers, discussing of food and gear, and sharing stories of the trail and of home.

We retired early to our tent, away from the beach and sheltered in the trees. Then the rain began.

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Day 3: Love the journey
Camper Bay to Walbran- 9km

It poured all night, and it wasn’t ready to stop. We broke camp, put on our monster backpacks and headed back on the trail as the heavy rain lashed. The course was challenging and we got to test our skills and our sense of humour on slippery logs, impassable headlands, uncountable ladders, broken boardwalks, thick patches of deep mud, suspended bridges and one more cable car.

It wouldn’t have been the WCT if it wasn’t for the wet weather, the rugged terrain, the remoteness of the trail. I was soaked, dirty, sweaty, yet I couldn’t be more happy to walk this incredible journey.

As we reached our couple last kms, the sun slowly penetrated the clouds. The forest canopy stood high above me as the sun rays filtered through old growth trees. I fell in love with the lonesome beauty of nature. It was raw, it was pure, it was terrifyingly beautiful.

The trail opened up to the creek, that ran into the ocean. We walked through the fog, shuffling our tired and wet feet in the sand. Campers setting up their tent, warming up by a fire, and collecting water greeted us with a smile. It felt like a parallel universe, being alone all day in the wilderness and arriving to a place temporarily inhabited by humans. I grabbed my flask of maple whisky from my bag, and took off my shoes. I didn’t want to start a fire, set up the tent, get fresh water nor cook dinner. I wanted to admire that well-deserved sunset.

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Day 4: Things aren’t always like planned, and it’s okay
Walbran to Cribbs Creek- 11km

The morning light seeped into the tent. I forced my feet back into my wet socks and boots, and strapped my loaded bag on my back. Our plan was to hike on the beach, but the creek was too high to cross that early. We changed our plan and headed inland, after crossing our third cable car.

It reminded me how in life things don’t always go as planned, and it’s okay. Sometimes we have to change our route or take a detour, but that doesn’t mean we’re not on track.

We arrived at Cribs Creek where I immediately removed my wet gear. I skipped dinner, still full from my decadent $22 cheeseburger I had at Chez Moniques’, a 77-year-old lady who opened up a burger shack in the middle of the trail on reserve land. I was exhausted and chilled to the bones, so after setting camp I crawled in the tent, zipped myself into my sleeping bag, and let my head sink into my pillow.

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Day 5: Keep going forward
Cribs Creek to Tsutsiat Falls- 16km

It felt like a never ending story. My bag seemed heavier than the first day, carrying wet and sandy gear. It was a constant effort to stay upwright. I longed for nothing more than water and to take my pack off my shoulders.

It was a slow progress, stepping one foot in front of another, carefully watching every movement, every step.  My eyes focused on the slippery roots, the sinking mud holes, the loose sidewalk. It became so technical I’d forget to look up. I had to stop, not only to rest my back from the load, but to admire the scenery. I stood in a world of infinite, pure and quiet beauty.

I’d take a deep breath, taking in all the fresh air and the beautiful images. Somehow it gave me energy to pursue. As it reminded me why I was there on this trail, how going forward was the only way to see more, to know more, to live more.

The last couple of hours were brutal. My body was about to collapse in the loose sand, my hair sticking to my face, my provision of water rapidly diminishing. I knew I had to keep going forward, because going back to where I started wasn’t an option. So I put one foot in front of the other, over and over again, because at least I was going somewhere. And I was going to make it.

I was drained, in pain and on the verge of collapsing when we arrived to the falls, but I was also over joyed and astonished of how far I’d gone.

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Day 6: Appreciate the details in each moment
Tsutsiat Falls to Darling Creek- 12km

We woke up to the roar of plunging waves. We admired the falls rushing their fresh water into the ocean bed. The birds songs travelling through my head overpowered the pain on my body. I was ready for another day.

We started off with a series of climbing ladders. I’m not sure if I got used to them, but I didn’t mind them. I had a couple days left on the trail and I was going to win. The clouds rolled in but it never rained. The overcast weather was ideal. There were some really nice stretches in the forest, and cliffside paths, with the ocean appearing in occasional views. I had to pause to appreciate the precious details of my surroundings. It was the lush greens of the trees, the water dripping from the tip of the branches, the sun filtering its timid rays through the fog, the sea foam caressing the sand…

It made me realize that since I’ve been on the trail, my mind never wandered like it does back home. I was so focused on each moment, on each step, free of appreciating the perfection of every circumstances. My mind wasn’t trapped in the past or the future. I was right there, in the reality of the moment, precisely where I was supposed to be.

When we arrived to Darling Creek, we found ourselves completely alone in wilderness. Hikers kept going further on to the next camp. We decided to stay, and enjoyed the whole beach to ourselves. We finally managed to have a raging bonfire, dry our clothes and boots, carved our names on a buoy and share our highlights of our trip, while sipping on the last drops of our whisky and savouring the ice cider I kept for our last night.

The sun came out for a last show of setting light and glow.

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Day 7: Push your limits
Darling Creek to Pachena Bay- 14km

We rose up to a moon crescent and a starry sky. It was 4am and we had a big day ahead of us. We couldn’t miss our shuttle in Pachena Bay back to Gordon River, and considering our slow pace, we had to have an early start. We poured the Bailey’s we kept for that morning into our coffees. I don’t know if it was the caffeine I didn’t have in a week, or the small dose of alcohol in my body, or a sudden boost of stamina on my last day, but I felt awake and energized. I knew I had to push myself even more today than the others. I had to, and I would. I was committed to accomplish this hike with bliss.

The first couple of kms were on the pebbled beach. We arrived at the other camp where everybody were still snoozing. We tiptoed through the tents and took the trail inland, making our way through the forest in the darkness of dusk.

This last stretch was the easiest of the whole trail, and we crunched distance like superheroes. I didn’t let my back, nor my blisters, nor my aching knee, nor my exhaustion discourage me. I was in such a mindset to push and keep going that I couldn’t feel anything anymore but my mind taking over my body. I was in a state I haven’t been in while, pushing myself well beyond what I thought were my limitations. I became numb to my pain, and felt the exhaustive exhilaration of pushing myself to my limits, with a burning desire to make it to the end.

We travelled 14km in less than 3 hours. And then there it was, the end. We have arrived.

We have done it.

We signed off and unloaded our packs from our backs. We took off our shoes and our gaiters. We were the first ones of the day to complete the hike, and we had 4 hours before our shuttle. So we took the trail that headed to the white sand beach.

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Humbled and blissed

The coastal trail had humbled me. I was brought into the flow of life, embracing the immense beauty and magic of each moment. I had pushed myself further that I’ve gone before, and discovered a strength within that assured me that I could achieve anything I set my mind to.

The WCT reminded me the importance of setting ourselves goals, pushing ourselves out of our comfort zone, challenging ourselves to take one more step, running when we can’t walk anymore. By physically and mentally pushing ourselves, we discover that pain and exhaustion lead to incredible feelings of joy and success.

Life is about choosing our own path, taking risks, embracing uncertainty, taking the unpredictable turn, falling down, getting up, and never giving up when the road gets tough. We are stronger and greater than we think, and are capable of anything we set ourselves for. As long as we keep moving forward. As long as we have the right mindset and are not afraid to cross the creek and get wet.

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