After we arrived in Port Hardy, Harry had to take off to participate in a sailing competition way down in Oregon. This left the rest of us with time to explore the north of the Island on land. The four of us that remained stocked up on a weeks worth of (mostly) dehydrated food, filled our packs with gear and booked the water taxi out to Shushartie Bay to start the 5 to 7 day long hike along the North Coast Trail. I, being something of an outdoor enthusiast and a glutton for punishment, more or less knew what I was getting into. Several friends who had done the trail before told me it was quite difficult, remote and muddy, and that they had seen wolves, bears and other wildlife almost every day. This only made me even more excited about it, as I was craving a challenge and some immersion in the wilderness of the north island. I was however, a little apprehensive about how some of my fellow hikers would fare, having previously struggled with our bush whacking endeavours.
Despite some reservations, Bas, Bridget and Jonty agreed they were still interested in doing the hike. So, with heavy packs strapped on our backs and boots laced up, the four of us clamoured off the bow of the aluminium water taxi onto seaweed covered rocks at Shushartie Bay. George, the water taxi operator let us know that there was a party one day ahead of us, and would be a party one day behind, we were the only people starting the trail that day. We crossed paths with two men who were finishing the trail there, having started at the other end and were now boarding the boat to take them back to town. “The next few days are going to suck” They laughed as they passed us. A black bear scuffled along the low tide of the bay looking for something to eat as we began the trail with a steep rope climb. We almost immediately got lost. seeing a trail marker and footsteps going off to the right, we followed suit. However after about half an hour this trail seemed to disappear into a confusion of semi-trails through head-high brambles and salal. Jonty and I had to back track and scope out different directions to try to figure out what to do. eventually we spotted a piece of flagging tape in the bushes and walked towards it. This lead us to pop out onto the actual North Coast trail, much more well trodden and obvious. The bear trails we had followed had obviously been a mistake made by many judging by the muddy footprints. As I stepped onto the proper trail I noticed a tangle of grisly fresh deer bones. Deciding the vibe was already sliding downhill rapidly, I kicked them off to the side and said nothing.
That first day stretched into 8 and a half hours of deep mud, slippery roots and logs, thick forest, bugs and bog. Bridget struggled especially, being unaccustomed to a heavy pack and a rough slippery trail, every step was careful and slow. I would walk ahead about 100 meters at a time and then wait several minutes for her to catch up. While I would have liked to have gone faster, I did understand. It was very hard going and I was exhausted too. I sang through my exhaustion to scare away any wild animals lurking ahead. We passed alternately through thick forest and up to high sub-alpine bog ecosystems. We later learned that these bogs are an extremely rare and fragile environment and that the trail had been built to begin at Shushartie in part as an effort to help protect this ecosystem. Piles upon piles of soft thick green and pink mosses, labrador tea, crow berries and ferns surrounded oddly stunted and twisted trees, which I hear are actually very old despite their small size. At the end of the bog slog, when we finally reached the beach camp at Skinner creek, we were faced with a very last obstacle – Massive old growth logs piled haphazardly across the mouth of the creek blocking our way to our camp. There were groans all around at that. Once in camp our spirits lifted and we laughed together about the struggle. We saw no one else the whole day.
Our second day walking would take us to Cape Sutil, the northernmost point of Vancouver Island. Also sometimes extremely muddy and slippery, this stretch followed the coast and was much more scenic. We passed alternately through more bog, mature forest and small beaches. I saw some of the largest western red cedars I have ever seen. Their crowns splitting into a castle of spires, their ragged bark bleached by the sun, small hemlocks and huckleberries growing in the crooks of their enormous branches. On this day we also got to do our first cable car river crossing – of the Nahwitti River. Two people at a time sit in metal hanging basket while the others pulled them across.
In the second half of the day we had to cross many steep headlands in-between small beaches to reach our destination. This mostly involved scrambling up steep slopes with the help of fixed ropes. At the top of one particularly steep one, Bridget burst into tears. The other side was an even more steep wet clay bank dropping back down to sea level. It took teamwork to coach her through it. We later joked that the clay had been wet from all the hikers tears before us. At the bottom of the clay bank, Bridget mysterious found about 8 dollars in change, evidently lost by another hiker – a small reward for her bravery. We filled our water from a creek and eventually arrived at the beautiful, sandy Cape Sutil beach to camp, muddy and groaning. Bridget confessed that she would have quit already if she could, but the only way out was to walk. While we had a radio, the coast guard would be unlikely to pick her up because she was tired. Again, we had seen no one else all day; and again, spirits lifted once we reached our serene beach camp site.
The next day proceeded much the same – long beach walks, forest, headlands, wolf tracks, bear droppings, animal bones. We came across very clear bear tracks in wet sand. we could see the print of it’s claws as it walked. On this day however, Bridget scrambled down the banks more quickly, and there were no actual tears. She was starting to feel more confident. At our camp at Shuttleworth Bight – a long and windblown white sand beach – we encountered other hikers for the first time. Bridget and Bas began constructing “camp sandals” out of driftwood and salvaged rope. This lead to Bridget creating a whole ensemble out of sword ferns, salal leaves and ropes. She was either having fun now or going nuts.
The trail proceeded into long stretches of stoney beach, fog and sea lions, windblown trees, eagles and vocal ravens. We rejoiced at another cable car river crossing – they are pretty fun. At our camp on the fourth night at Laura Creek, I sat up at the fire into the evening. I watched an eagle swoop from an overhanging tree branch and in one swift motion pluck a fish from the surf with it’s talons. Two sea otters floated lazily on their backs in the dwindling light. a shorter day of walking through ancient forest and across logs over creeks took us to another beautiful white sand stretch – Nissen Bight. There were only two other people camping there when we arrived. As the sun set we watched a group of dolphins chase jumping salmon in the bay. Our shorter day had afforded us more energy and we stayed up late sharing whiskey at the fire with our two camp neighbours. There was very strong bioluminescence that moonless night. We all had to run in skinny dipping. As we stepped over the wet sand, each foot print illuminated glowing green in the night.
We had triumphed over the hardest part of the trail and were now entering Cape Scott Park, where trails were better maintained and we had more fellow hikers. While I was glad to have reached that point, I had enjoyed the previous feeling of being so remote. After watching two black bears trundle along the other end of the long beach, we left our camp set up there and set out for a day hike to the Cape Scott light house. Several hours of beautiful sandy beaches, ancient forest and old wagon roads later we arrived at the lighthouse.
We were greeted by Tod and Harvey the lighthouse keepers. Cape Scott is one of the last manned lighthouses on the coast. Their neat white bungalow with the standard issue red metal roof sits in a clearing at the top of the hill beside the light itself. Tod and Harvey are a couple, having been together for 28 years, they have kept the lighthouse for 18 years and have fought to keep their jobs. Their role is both to maintain the light but also
as a weather station and Coast Guard outpost. They told us stories of the intense storms they have seen including waterspouts that suck up fish from the sea and drop them in the forest. A park ranger later told us that they will hike out to all the emergency
shelters in the park mid-winter to see if anyone is there. Their supplies are dropped off by helicopter once monthly. Todd emphatically stated that in the beginning they would run out of some things, but he has it perfectly calculated so that now he never runs out of smokes. Billy Proctor, the famous old fisherman of Echo Bay, lamented the automation of most lighthouses. It’s a whole different story, he said, when you know that there is a human being out there looking out for you.
On the walk back we talked almost non-stop about food. We realized that while we had brought enough food to get by, we were exercising so much every day that we were not taking in enough calories to keep up. Now we were dreaming about pizzas and burgers. We had heard that the shuttle bus back to port hardy sometimes stopped at the Scarlett Ibis Pub in Holberg. We woke the next morning to the rain that Harvey had informed us was coming. That wet and hungry day we received the generosity of a park ranger and group of boy scout leaders – who graciously shared trail mix and fuel when we had run out and were struggling to build a fire to cook lunch in the wet rainforest. We spent our last night there camped on San Josef bay amid the sea stacks and the mist, waves crashing on the sand. We were all very wet, sandy and exhausted at this point after seven days in the bush. Bridget, while persevering, was still complaining and we were all thoroughly ready for a hot shower and big meal. Our grumbling heroine Bridget had persevered and finished the trail (not that she had much of a choice). The next day the Burgers at the Scarlett Ibis were the most delicious we ever tasted. As difficult and exhausting as it was at times, I loved being out there. The Cape Scott area is one of the most beautiful places I have ever been, and I revelled in the feeling of being truly in the wilderness along the North Coast trail.