Three years ago, Nick and I backpacked the West Coast Trail, a remote, strenuous 75 km (50-mile) trail located on British Columbia’s Vancouver Island. The biggest problem in attempting the trail isn’t the condition of the trail itself, which can range from dry to oh-my-god-I’m-sinking-and-my-shoes-are-gone muddy, the high tides that can entirely stop any forward progress, the 70 ladders, 130 bridges, and four cable cars, a 7-kilometer deep sand beach section, or the rotting planks, mud pits, and massive root systems that require crouching, ducking, scrambling, and balancing. No, the hardest part in tackling the West Coast Trail is just getting there in the first place.
But part of what makes this trail so appealing is its isolation. From Bellingham, WA where we currently live, it’s an hour drive across the border to the ferry terminal, a two hour ferry to Vancouver Island, and another three hour drive to the southern or northern trailheads, depending on where you begin. This isolation is also what gives the trail its eerie, wild feel. The trail, originally built in 1907 as an emergency rescue route for shipwrecked sailors, follows the Graveyard of the Pacific where more than two dozen ships have crashed on the rocky shores. Hundreds of years before this, the trail was used as a trading path between the various First Nations communities that call this area home, including the Huu-ay-aht, the Ditidaht, and the Pacheedaht First Nations. The weather fluctuates between mild and dry, to wet and cold, and then there’s the nine months of the year where it’s so stormy and dangerous that the trail is closed. Low lying fog hovers over the beaches and your imagination tricks you into thinking you might just see a wolf or bear emerge from the forest and walk out in front of you. If you’re lucky, you just might: the area is home to the densest population of cougars in North America, and black bears are frequently seen on the trail and beach alike.
We’ve yet to see any of these large mammals, but we’ve lucked out with the weather both times we traversed the trail. The first time we backpacked the route in three and a half days and found out that schlepping 30-40 pounds of gear on our backs and living off of dried lentil soups isn’t nearly as fun as feeling like you can fly through the forest in running shoes and a tiny vest. So, our question wasn’t if we would be back to run the West Coast Trail, but when?
That day turned out to be August 16th, when we could secure a date through the permitting system. I feel like most of my races and runs tend to coincide with nasty weather (for example, the R2R2R attempt this past May, where it snowed at the South Kaibab trailhead and down the first few miles of the trail, but was 80° and sunny both the day before and after) so we were surprised and grateful that the forecast called for sunshine both leading up to and the day of our run.
Using Gary Robbins’ report from his Fastest Known Time (FKT) in 2010 (Matt Cecil bested it by 30-something minutes a few years later) and Jen Segger’s report (Jen previously held the FKT), we decided that starting at Pachena Bay in the north and finishing at Gordon River in the south made more sense, both to be in line with previous FKT attempts and to begin in the early morning. The southern trailhead can only be accessed by a quick boat ride, but since the ferry doesn’t start running until 9 a.m., that means running into the night—which neither Nick or I wanted to do with bears on our mind. So, in order to make it happen, we drove two vehicles out to Vancouver Island, parked one at the southern trailhead (where we also took our mandatory orientation and picked up our permit), then drove the additional three and a half hours to the northern trailhead where we slept in the back of our car overnight.
I slept in fits, with both gratitude and fear leaking into my dreams: I was grateful that Nick and I were here at all; in a way, this run marked our first big adventure together in the Pacific Northwest and since Nick’s open heart surgery back in January. On the other hand, I was nervous about poor conditions, falsely read tide charts, angry mother bears with frightened little cubs, and the cold swim awaiting us at the finish.
Our plan was to start at 6 a.m., but when we woke up the forest was still dark. Without much of a fight, we crawled back into our sleeping bags a little longer. A while later, after trying to down some oatmeal, at exactly 6:34 a.m., one hand touching the marker for the West Coast Trail, we began.
The first few miles of the trail are the easiest, which means taking advantage of relatively smooth, root-free trails. I didn’t have much of a plan going in, except to take note of where we could fill up water at the several streams and river crossings in order to stay hydrated. The morning was still cool, and I wore a light windbreaker as soaked ferns brushed against my legs—even when sunshine stretches for days, the forest never completely dries. We took turns leading, sometimes me at the front setting a good pace up a climb and then sometimes Nick running ahead as I hurriedly tried to keep up on the descents. I’d kept my nutrition strategy simple—Spring energy gels (I’ve never had an issue with flavor fatigue)—and aimed to take one every 30 minutes. The one worry that clouded the first few hours of the run was the ferry: Nitinaht Narrows had to be crossed by ferry; there was no way around it. The catch was that the ferry didn’t begin operating until 9:30 a.m., so you wanted to time your run no later and certainly not earlier. Arriving too early would mean wasting precious minutes waiting for the ferry to arrive and just like in a race, every minute matters.
Though we were moving at a good clip, based on Gary’s time it was obvious that we wouldn’t arrive on time (and we had aimed for being an hour behind him at this point), but stressing about that wouldn’t help our situation. The morning was still mild and we passed several backpackers who were on their way out.
“Have a nice run,” one man remarked as he stepped aside, his brow furrowed and his forehead sweaty. A huge pack pressed against his back and I remembered the feeling of hips rubbed raw when we were last on the trail. I was glad to have backpacked the trail once before because I didn’t feel an ounce of guilt for now running with the UD Adventure Vesta. Inside was a 0.5L water bottle, another 0.6L Katadyn water filtration bottle, an emergency blanket, a few medical supplies, an iPhone (that worked throughout the beach sections of the trail since I have an American provider), a jacket, our West Coast Trail permits, car keys, some cash, and calories for the day.
Each new turn of the trail brought back memories from our past trip— hiking out of the park on the last day as the sky opened up, soaking us from head to toe, the campsite at Tsusiat Falls where we watched orcas feed just meters offshore, an eagle perched on a lone Doug fir, dreaming of food other than more dried lentils…
While we had prepared for the adventure, we hadn’t looked very closely at the map. As such, we expected to reach Nitinaht Narrows at kilometer 23. But where was the water? The trail began to get more technical, with roots strewn across the trail, threatening to twist an ankle. Where was the ferry? Where was Nitinaht!? At a marked stream, which was honestly more of a small pond, we filled our bottles with yellow-tinged water and pulled out the map. Nitinaht wasn’t until kilometer 32. We groaned and I felt my shoulders rise with tension: I had spent the last hour calculating our splits to the ferry and now we’d be an hour off of what I expected.
Just before 11 a.m., I saw a clearing through the forest ahead. Water! We jogged down the steep path and popped out at the edge of the trail where two groups of backpackers were waiting for the ferry. We had missed the first run of the ferry by more than an hour, but as luck would have it, the backpackers had been there a while and they’d already whistled for the boat…which meant that yes, there was the ferry, headed our way! We stepped onboard and the group of us headed to the other side to reconnect with the trail. Once at the trail, it was hard to keep running. Nitinaht Narrows is also home to one of two “restaurants” on the trail and this one, casually setup on the dock, serves fresh crab or wild salmon, caught almost directly from where we now stood. Three years ago I had scarfed down the most delicious meal I’ve ever had right here, and I still don’t know if it was because the baked potato served alongside had the most butter I’ve ever eaten in one go or if it was because I was, once again, done with lentils.
Sadly, we pushed on, running up several cedar planks that gave way to rotted, much older planks. From kilometer 32 to kilometer 44, it’s possible to run on the beach at certain sections, but due to the deep sand, we figured it might be easier to stay in the forest. Ladders broke up more difficult sections that had us using our hands to lower ourselves off large roots or muddy, oil-slick rocks, but the downside was how high our heart rates would skyrocket, making our first few steps back to running awkward and slow. Finally, we reached kilometer 44, which felt a bit like the halfway point despite being well over the halfway point in distance. I had recalled reading Gary’s splits to this point; he’d reached it in five hours, ten minutes but we were pushing just over six and a half. Still, we had much to look forward to, the first being a quick stop at Chez Monique’s, the second of the West Coast Trail’s “restaurants.” As we found ourselves back on the beach, the trail marked by a few buoys at the edge of the forest, we saw more than a dozen backpackers lounging around an un-lit fire pit, mowing down burgers, chips, and soda. “I think we have time for a burger,” Nick joked. Instead, Nick found himself a Mars bar and a coke and I finished off a banana; there was still plenty of food in my pack and I wasn’t all that hungry.
Back on the beach, we struggled to find the easiest path. Was it the running over the large boulders? The deeper sand? The hard-packed sand at the edge of the shore that was so off-camber my left hip was several inches higher than my right? Was it the rocks that had been revealed in low tide’s recession, left slippery with bright green algae? We decided that none of the options were ideal, but that running off-camber on the slightly harder packed sand was better than risking a fall and a potentially run-ending injury on the barnacle-encrusted rocks.
This section, though certainly not the longest at 7 km, dragged on forever. At long last we found ourselves back in the forest, climbing more ladders up to a high point that led to increasingly more treacherous terrain. Clustered in this section are three of the four cable cars on the trail, but we opted to take only two of them as the river was low enough on the first to simply cross it by foot. The cable cars that we did take, however, were a fun reprieve from the run itself. We threw ourselves and our tiny packs onto the cable car and were surprised when it felt like we were zip lining across the river. “We’re gonna hit it!” I screamed but we slowed down at the end just enough to grab hold of the rope and carefully clamber out. A few backpackers camped at the edge of the river pointed at us and laughed, and I briefly wondered how odd we must look, our gear weighing no more than 3 or 4 pounds.
At the last cable car, at kilometer 62, the trail cuts inland (there is an option to run on the beach, but high tide was coming in and we had had enough of deep sand running.) What in fresh hell, I thought as we cursed gnarly roots and logs and huge mud pits where the only option was to go straight through. I was tired; we both were. My legs felt heavy and when I stopped to calm my breathing my legs quivered.
At some point in the run, Nick reminded me of one of his favorite quotes (which I actually can’t stand, but I call that wife privileges after hearing it so many times over the last six years!) This comes from the 1999 movie “Any Given Sunday.” Also, cue Nick paraphrasing this in a super thick accent:
You know when you get old in life
things get taken from you.
That’s, that’s part of life.
you only learn that when you start losing stuff.
You find out that life is just a game of inches.
So is football.
Because in either game
life or football
the margin for error is so small.
one half step too late or to early
you don’t quite make it.
One half second too slow or too fast
and you don’t quite catch it.
The inches we need are everywhere around us.
They are in ever break of the game
every minute, every second.
Even though the quote has a lot more to do with football, a sport that Nick or I have never watched (shh…don’t tell on us), it was actually useful on the trail. It’s even more relevant when going for a FKT, when the difference between success and failure is often down to the inches spent adjusting a pack or hiking a climb. So, between gasps of air as we climbed up more ladders or traversed our way along rotten planks or tried to move efficiently over fallen trees the diameter of my height, Nick whispered, “inches.” And, slowly by slowly, the inches added up.
As the kilometers ticked by slowly (20 minute-miles were very common in this final section due to the technicality of the terrain), we started to notice the light dim. Was it just us or was it actually starting to get dark? About this time, we noticed very large amounts of blue, berry-studded scat all over the trail: bears. The ferry had stopped shuttling people over from Gordon River to the south trailhead at 3:30 p.m., which meant that we wouldn’t see anyone else from here on out. The last thing we wanted was to run into a bear at the end of our run, so we talked loudly about anything we could think of to give the bears a warning. Finally, tired of talking, I asked the unspeakable: what if I played some music?
I cringe when I hear hikers blasting music from their phones on local hiking trails—after all, trails are the sacred space where you don’t have to listen to the latest pop song and can instead tune into bird and rushing water and the empty silence of the forest—but we wouldn’t run into anyone else and I really didn’t want to see a bear in the approaching dark. Music might give them a head’s up that we were running their way, a chance to dart into the brush before we ran straight into them on the trail.
So, I played the only sensible thing one can play while running the West Coast Trail: the entire soundtrack from the Broadway hit, Hamilton.
Unexpectedly, it was about the time Aaron Burr (sir!) was introduced into the scene that, somehow, everything felt easier. Logs that I wouldn’t otherwise run up felt smooth and secure, mud pits that blocked my path I comfortably hopped across, and steep climbs that had required power hiking felt like an easy job. For the next few kilometers, whether it was the fatigue of the run or Hamilton writing 51 essays of the Federalist Papers, I was in a flow state.
And just as quickly as the flow state had started, it ended. At kilometer-marker 70, a yellow sign marked 5km to Gordon River, the finish. But by all accounts these last three miles were some of the hardest of the run with long ascents and steep descents that only lead to more rocky, root-covered ascents. The river is down at the bottom, I thought, but once again the trail went down only to go back up. When my watch beeped for the 50th mile, I felt despair. Where was the finish!? All of a sudden the trail dead-ended at a ladder that went straight down to a beach…and a trailhead!
13 hours, 18 minutes, and 21 seconds: we had finished the West Coast Trail and I had claimed the new female FKT (following Vancouver Island-native Jen Segger’s 2016 time of 13:48.)
Unfortunately, we weren’t ready to celebrate just yet—the worst was still to come.
The previous night, at the insistence of our orientation leader, we had scouted the beach from the other side of the channel. Our plan was to catch a ride from a local fisherman (as Gary Robbins and Jen Segger had done) and, if that didn’t work, swim the 200m of freezing ocean to the other side.
We weren’t hopeful about our plan, though. It was just before 8 p.m. and most of the fishermen had returned to the marina. The one we did wave down told us to wait at a buoy that we scrambled to find, slipping into icy water as we skirted around the shore. When we finally found the buoy, after ultimately climbing back up the ladder and thrashing about in the woods, there was no one in sight. We prepared ourselves for a cold, cold finish.
Nick and I waded into the water and we were up to our thighs when a voice shouted from across the water.
“DON’T ENTER THE WATER! WE WILL COME GET YOU!”
Come get us? Rescue us? It was Parks Canada’s Rescue Team and we felt equal parts relief and guilt to watch as they pulled a boat from the docks and headed our way.
The team was welcoming and asked us what we were doing. Unbeknownst to us, picking up stranded West Coast Trail runners or hikers was illegal outside of ferry operating hours, and more recently Parks Canada had cracked down and were now fining those who did so. No one could pick us up even if they had wanted to. Additionally, swimming across in the dusk was dangerous as speeding boaters might not see us in the water. It was far safer for us to have been rescued.
We thanked the kind people at Parks Canada for their amazing help and promised we wouldn’t try it again. Also, because they suggested we spread the word for future runners who may try to tackle the trail, take note it’s a better idea to finish the run between 9 a.m. and 3:30 p.m. when the ferry is running (though that guarantees running into the deep night, which can be equally dangerous with wild animals) or camp out on the beach until the following morning when the ferry is operating again. I would think a third option is to stash a canoe or kayak the day before that you can then paddle out. Either way, I wouldn’t do what we did again!
By the time we had finished speaking with Parks Canada, it was 9 p.m. and we were cold, tired, and hungry. We quickly changed into dry clothes in the car then headed over to Port Renfrew to grab a bite to eat. The only place open was the Port Renfrew pub but we had missed the last kitchen call by 10 minutes—no food for us. Some locals invited us to share in their freshly butchered moose meat but we declined, eager to find a place to sleep. As luck would have it, all of the motels were full which meant our celebratory finish was some half-finished kombucha, a drive-thru bagel at Tim Horton’s, and a long drive back to our second vehicle parked all the way back in Bamfield where we slept, still covered in mud, sweat, and seawater from our 50-mile adventure (and yes, as a Canadian I realize just how Canadian all of that sounded.)
All in all, this was a fantastic adventure with the added bonus of snagging the female FKT!
- Think carefully about starting at either end of the trail. Beginning in Pachena Bay (the north) means crossing the Nitinat ferry earlier in the day and potentially being stranded once you reach Gordon River in the south. Beginning in Gordon River means starting no earlier than 9 a.m. (when the first ferry leaves) and thus finishing at dusk or in the dark depending on your speed.
- The trail is super remote. A small first aid kit is pretty necessary as there are plenty of hazards on the trail. Nick and I also brought epipens and Benadryl since we’re both allergic to bee stings; we were lucky to have them as we passed four sites warning of hornet nests directly next to the trail.
- Never run this trail alone unless you’re very, very experienced in the backcountry (and even then you’re taking a risk.)
- Be prepared to spend a night on the trail if something happens.
- Check the tides. Many of the beach routes are impassable, and extremely hazardous, during high tides and can completely stop your progress.
Lastly, consider backpacking this trip before you begin to think about running it! Running is a blast, but the isolation of the trail leaves little time to linger and there’s a lot of stunning scenery to be seen (most people take 5-7 days to complete the route.) The Carmanah Lighthouse, Tsusiat Falls, Nitinat Narrows salmon, Chez Monique’s, and several tide pools are just a few of the treasures to be explored and enjoyed along the route.
Thank you to the amazing people and communities that maintain this wild trail, Parks Canada for getting us back to shore safely, and the Canadian government for recognizing what a special place the West Coast Trail (and Pacific Rim National Park) is for locals and visitors alike.