Thoughts on hiking and running the West Coast Trail

“Is the West Coast Trail runnable?” is what my ultra and fastpack buddies are wondering.

If sports magazines are anything to go by, running the WCT is now the thing to do. It’s strange to me how it got on the populist radar, because as far as I know, very few people have done it. I would expect other classic backpacking trails out there to make running mag to-do lists first.  This trail is not really very conducive to running due to its nature, its structures, and the fact that, hello, there’s lots of backpackers using it.

And then, a large part of me feels it would be a shame for a trail like WCT to become a proving ground for those who wish to exude an exclusive cachet among their peers. It’s such a recognizable trail others can relate and it would evoke the kind of response you want from an audience. “Oh wow, you RAN that? you’re amazing! you go girl! respect!” etc. etc. Maybe hence its presence on the populist hit list.

Maybe I fear it would only be a matter of time before someone would inevitably want to be the first to do it in sandals barefoot, or in a superhero costume, or as a human centipede while tied to seven other people, or back to back, or whatever.

Having said that, yes, I would run the West Coast Trail. Meaning, “run” it as in hike-run.

**update, I did go back and ultra-light it in July 2016**

In this report I attempt to cover:

  1. How is the WCT unique and considerations for this specific trail
  2. Execution considerations including hiking pace splits
  3. If I were to run it, how-would-I-do-it preparation notes

I assume readership is not fretting about finishing the trail but rather already possesses the prerequisite skills, and is reading this as a way to gain ideas/ perspective on how it can be completed with max enjoyment and min suffering. Everyone and his dog has an opinion about the WCT. These are mine, based on a reconnaissance hike May 3-7, 2016.

The Benchmark: Records show the WCT at 80.03km long; fastest known time just over nine and a half hours. Official kilometer markers start at 0 at Pachena Bay (North trailhead) and end at 75 at Gordon River (South trailhead). Options for inland trails or beach access will vary the distance.

May is a great time of year to go: WCT is notorious for rainfall. We (Brian and Shilo and me) had 1 day of intermittent drizzle followed by 4 days of hot cloudless sunny days. Normally May average forecast is 28 days of rain out of 30, with highs 5-15C. May is cooler, spring flowers are blooming, and wildlife left to their own devices over the winter are reacquainting themselves with human interference. There were “bear in area” and “cougar in area” signs and cougar and otter prints everywhere in the forest and on the beach.

Best of all there are far fewer hikers than peak season in July and August, meaning walk-on permits are available and there is virtually no waiting for cable cars or ladders. The quieter vibe to the days on trail and at campsites can facilitate a heightened sense of camaraderie with other shoulder-season enthusiasts. The Nitinat ferry crossing owner-operator told us that in summer it’s not unusual to have 40 or 50 people waiting at the dock. <insert our expressions of disbelief>.

Spring trail maintenance is ongoing, e.g. ladder replacement and beach access that had been washed away in winter. It’s like opening day at a retail outlet and the staff is still getting set up.

Route overview: We started at Gordon River (South). The North section was originally intended to be a 9-ft wide road for the last 8km so that tells you something. At the South end, Nature is days away from reclaiming the rainforest.

Highlights:

  • The variety in texture underfoot. Soft, squishy, hard, slippery, crunchy, rocky, slabby… It was like traveling through many different phases even though, yes, it’s the same stretch of coastline. When we got tired of trees and roots, we’d pop out on the beach. When we got tired of burning in the sun and sand we’d hop into the cool shade of the inland trail and navigate the mud. After a while we’d gain high vantage points from the cliffs. Then soon again we’d be back at ocean’s edge with lots of fascinating marine creatures to examine.
  • The history of the trail. This shoreline claimed many lives – this path that was once a lifeline for shipwreck survivors is now maintained for the benefit of scenic wonderment and being travelled for pure enjoyment. It provokes reflection.
  • The man-made structures are wooden, industrially bolted, and in various stages of decomposition. I get the feeling that what is deemed unsafe is replaced but if missing or broken boards merely make things difficult, Parks is like, then deal with it, people. This was fun, maybe more fun in retrospect than during the hike. We came here to participate in a wilderness experience after all, not a human mass migration on a moving sidewalk.

Splits: Parks provides an excellent waterproof map and the Tofino tide table (both downloadable ahead of time) at the mandatory orientation session. You will consult these often. Bring a watch. At a moderate to slow but steady hiking pace, here were our splits, roughly, including breaks.

Day 1. Gordon River to Camper Bay (Kilometer 62), 13km total, 10:15hrs

  • Gordon River to Thrasher Cove (Kilometer 69): 6km, 4:30. Forest.
  • Thrasher to Owen Point (Kilometer 67): 2km, 2:00. Boulders.
  • Owen Point to Kilometer 66: 1km, 1:00. Surge channels.
  • Kilometer 66 to Camper Bay: 4km, 2:45. Forest and mud pits.

Day 2. Camper Bay to Bonilla Point (Kilometer 48), 14km total, 12:00hrs

  • Camper Bay to Walbran Creek (Kilometer 53): 9km, 9:30. Forest and mud pits
  • Supper at Walbran: 1:00. Many consider Walbran the hard-to-easy transition point. The reward of “easy” had been propelling us forward for the last few kilometers and we celebrated by resting our feet here for a while.
  • Walbran to Bonilla: 5km, 1:30. Sand.

Day 3. Bonilla Point to Kilometer 29, 19km total, 11:30hrs

  • Bonilla to Carmanah Lighthouse (Kilometer 44): 4km, 1:30hrs. Sand, low tide slab.
  • Carmanah to Nitinat Narrows ferry crossing (Kilometer 32): 12km, 6:30hrs. Varied trail, extensive new boardwalk.
  • Chilling with junk food, beer, and crab: 1:30hrs
  • Nitinat to Kilometer 29: 3km, 2hrs: varied trail.
  • We had a bit of a problem finding the inland access at around Kilometer 39 and ended up on a very rough animal trail – there were footprints so others had gone that way – we ended up backtracking and taking the beach route. We had to be on the Nitinat dock by 5pm so we pushed to make up time; there are camping restrictions leading up to Nitinat so once you bypass Cribs (Kilometer 42) you are committed to catching the ferry. We had verbal permission to overnight at Kilometer 29. No fresh water, so we’d filled up beforehand. This was by far our favorite site, especially the next morning when we saw how busy the official campsite at Tsusiat Falls was, with a dozen tents or so.

Day 4. Kilometer 29 to Michigan Creek (Kilometer 12), 17km total, 8:00hrs

  • Kilometer 29 to Klanawa River cable car (Kilometer 23), 7km, 2:30hrs. Varied terrain, packed trail. This was the first time we encountered enough people on trail so as to have to wait a short few minutes for the cable car. It was great to have help pulling the car across and just sit back and let the men show off their muscles, ha! Parks recommends being at Orange Juice (Kilometer 15) at minimum to have sufficient time to catch the outbound shuttle the next day.
  • Klanawa to Michigan: 10km, 5:30hrs. Varied terrain, packed trail, gravel, sand.

Day 5. Michigan Creek to Pachena Bay (Kilometer 0), 12km total, 4:15hrs

  • Michigan to Kilometer 6, 6km, 2:30 including stops at Pachena Lighthouse and the sea lion haul out rock. Packed trail.
  • Kilometer 6 to Pachena Bay, 6km, 1:45. Packed trail.

 

Packing: I started off with a tall narrow pack because I wasn’t sure about overhanging vegetation and managing ladders, but after so much balance work and crawling under low logs and over high logs, I found I preferred a shorter wider pack setup. Balanced weighting is critical. This is a trail that snaps poles.

Water: I brought a 1L Nalgene and a 1L Nathan Bigshot to have the option to clip water to my pack, which I did not end up doing – you seriously do not want stuff swinging around on your backpack when balance is so important to preventing slips and falls – so next time I backpack I’ll use the Hunersdorf bottles to save weight. I’d brought apple cider mix and Vega electrolyte (Brian and Shilo brought Nuun). The 4 pouches of cider mix were heavier than I would have liked but having flavoring for the water was quite nice.

Footwear: It’s wet out there. Feet will swell and unseasoned boots may shrink. There isn’t much opportunity for stuff to dry out even if you catch the evening sun and in any case sun can’t be counted on. The terrain is so varied you will likely be making concessions one way or another. I started off with boots (Mammut T Advanced GTX, which I use for pretty much all activity including biking and snowshoeing) and long gaiters. After Walbran, the hard-easy transition point on the trail, I switched to flats with an integrated ankle gaiter (New Balance 110 – used in Tuscobia Ultra and Yukon Arctic Ultra, so they were perfectly sized for Smartwool medium cushion socks with room in the toebox). I thought the minimalism might bother me with the weight of the backpack, but it didn’t, and they were great for low tide walking and for keeping out sand and mud although the finer sand was starting to interfere with the zipper. Parks recommends soft rubber soles over hard rubber like Vibram, and I believe this to be good advice. I’d also brought flip flops but they were not useful to me.

Back to whether it’s runnable.

Short answer is, depends on your risk appetite. Can you run across slippery nurse logs 6 feet in the air? Can you run over cracked slab covered in slick algae and snails and a foot of water? Can you jump from car-size boulder to boulder? Of course you can. Do you want to? I dunno.

I would do it for fun, not speed, and in dry weather possibly trying for a walk-on spot in spring once the forecast looked good. I would start at Gordon River, do the orientation the day before, and pre-arrange ferry. New Balance 110 or trail runners. I’m undecided about ankle gaiters. The mud pits are certainly deeper than ankle, but gaiters help prevent shoe loss in the mud suck. Undecided about bringing a change of shoes and socks. First aid, phone, e-bivy and/or 2 emergency blankets (taped corners and middle edges with hole punched, one to use as a tarp with poles and one to wrap around your body or ground tarp), a water filter for immediate drinking while the water tabs get thrown in a bladder and start their 20-minute long work. Food. Headlamp.

Mentally you’d just have to be ok with spending a vast amount of time in the first third with the aim of injury prevention.

You would also just have to be ok with waiting your turn on ladders and dealing with significant human traffic (we are permitted again for July). I would consider going directly through the smaller streams not only because the cable cars are a bit fussy to handle solo but also due to potential wait time. If you do not make the ‘cutoff’ for the Nitinat Narrows ferry (43km by 5pm) recall that there are camping restrictions (although you can pay for a covered shelter or tent pad), so ongoing pace assessment would be important especially at Cribs, the last campsite before the Narrows.

Training would be focused on core work, balance, and one-legged step ups and step downs with good technique. I’d schedule ankle sessions with my physio including one-legged jumping exercises, and I would consider pre-taping the ankles. That’s for the roots.

As for the sand, it can be very soft or more like loose deep gravel – at times it was very much like snowshoeing, and energy intensive. Sometimes the inland trail will be firmer.

The ladder aids are such a small part of the trail and few of them are truly vertical (lean into them for balance – no need to hang onto them with your arms as it’s unlikely you’ll peel off backwards), so I think they receive undue attention.  It is more of a priority to be able to manage technical terrain (judging footing, choosing a good line, having strength to pick up your feet to prevent tripping, stepping down off high roots and rocks efficiently, using poles and hands effectively).

A wilderness first aid course would be useful.

Logistics for non-locals: The West Coast Trail Express (trailbus.com) service is excellent for shuttling to and from trailheads. You can rent equipment including bear spray, purchase fuel, and leave luggage with them. There is no water at Pachena Bay so post-hike you can taxi or hop on the bus to the town of Bamfield 5km away to buy snacks and water for the 6-hr bus ride back to Victoria. The bus makes a stop at a convenience store just outside Gordon River in case you want snacks (who doesn’t?).

Cash: Parks recommends bringing $100 cash. What the heck is there to spend money on? Monique’s burger stand (Kilometer 44), Nitinat crab shack ($25 per crab, but the best you will ever have!), a ride to Victoria if you self-evacuate at Nitinat ($150), tips at your discretion, comfort camp (Kilometer 30, $90 for a tent with 4 cots).

Luxuries: Next time I backpack this route, marshmallows for the campfire.

 

Updates:

Logistics are somewhat complicated. I’ve done my best to describe how-to, which might spare you some headache. Road junctions are not all marked. Cell service is intermittent, largely non-existent. Info as of July 2016.

Permits: You need a permit even for day hiking. You will only be issued a permit and be able to register onto the trail after attending a mandatory orientation session (held twice daily at 10.00 and 14.00 at trail offices). Regardless of where you are starting you can obtain your permit at either trailhead.

  • Reserve ahead of time – info at pc.gc.ca. Reservations for the season open in January.
  • Standby – inquire at trailhead offices or check for openings at pc.gc.ca. Good luck.

Getting to Gordon River trailhead.

  • Nearest town: Port Renfrew (5km)
  • Nearest campground: Pacheedaht Campground, right next to trail office and the dock
  • Trailhead transport:

The trailhead is immediately across the river from the campground.

  • Trailhead ferry operates between 9.00-16.30
  • Arrange with local charters who may tell you that it is illegal
  • Row your own boat across (you will be fined for littering if you leave it on the other side)
  • Parks does not endorse swimming across

Directions:

From Victoria (2hrs): Hwy 1 to Hwy 14 to Port Renfrew. Turn towards the coast at the Port Renfrew fire station where there is a “Y” junction. Cross bridge. Go left at the next “Y”. The trail office is the red building. Neither “Y” junction is signed.

From Pachena Bay (3.5-4hrs, highway and semi-private logging roads): Follow signs to Port Alberni/ Lake Cowichan. Turn into Carmanah-Walbran provincial park, and then again follow signs for Lake Cowichan. At the “T” junction with a big sign to Ditidaht, go left to Lake Cowichan (not marked). Go through town, take exits to Honeymoon Bay. Follow B.C. highway signs for Pachena Bay/ “Marine Trail” and the road will lead you into the reserve and directly to the trail office.

Getting to Pachena Bay trailhead.

  • Nearest town: Bamfield (5km)
  • Nearest campground: Pachena Bay Campground, 1km from trail office on the road
  • Directions: From Gordon River: (3.5-4hrs): Follow signs to Lake Cowichan, then Carmanah-Walbran, then Pachena Bay. Turn in at the Pacific Rim National Park sign. Please read:

http://www.bamfieldchamber.com/getting.html  and http://www.bamfieldchamber.com/graphics/maps/pacrim.html

DO NOT RELY ON GPS. From Victoria (3-4hrs): Please read: http://www.bamfieldchamber.com/getting.html

Other options for transport between trailheads:

  • West Coast Trail Express shuttle runs once daily between trail access points and towns
  • Fishing charter
  • Passenger ferry from Port Alberni or Ucluelet

 

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