The West Coast Trail (WCT), a pristine and rugged 75km route along the southwestern edge of Vancouver Island, is fickle and demanding. It also has something of a shoe fetish, as muddy puddles frequently try to steal the hikers' boots as they squelch through the muck.
As the trail winds along the craggy coastline, through cliffside forest and by the beach, the topography constantly changes. Hikers climb up and down many ladders along the route, some several stories high, balancing precariously on the rungs with a heavy back pack of gear. Rain is always just over the horizon. And the ominous waters off the shoreline are known as the Graveyard of the Pacific, due to the many shipwrecks in them throughout the 20th Century. In fact, the trail, originally constructed to build a telegraph line along the coast, became a lifeline for marooned sailors and was known as the Life Saving Trail in the early 1900s.
These are some of the reasons why the West Coast Trail is considered one of the most challenging backpacking trips in North America. On the up side, you do not have to be an expert outdoorsman to undertake the trek. With the proper gear and preparation, and a minimal amount of training, even the occasional weekend hiker can successfully complete the route.
The group I travelled with last autumn included one novice who made it through with just some pack rash and a boot that melted while drying it out by the campfire. We lucked out with only one stormy day, but every hiker should have equipment and clothing suitable for sustained periods of rain. The hiking season lasts from May to September, and even at the height of summer the weather can turn in an instant.
The WCT is located in one of the most beautiful, unspoiled and remote regions on the continent, the home of Canada's First Nations peoples. The trail follows the coastline of the Pacific Rim National Park through lush forest laced with emerald green ferns and gigantic coniferous trees. The felled trees lying on the forest floor expose enormous root systems that tower over passing hikers. Every few kilometres, a panorama of wild ocean crashing against jagged rocks appears through the treeline, in stark contrast to the forest's cool twilight embrace.
Along the portions of the trail that skirt the beach, the tide can be a factor. One stretch near the southern end involves several kilometres of scrambling over massive boulders covered by the sea at high tide, making a tidal chart essential. Hiking on sand is tiresome, but fortunately there is a beach shack called Chez Monique about halfway through the trail where you can stop and have a well-deserved burger and beer.
The mostly well-groomed trail can be hiked at a moderate, even pace in five to seven days, although weather can affect timing. Some sections require careful up and downhill climbing, an especially tricky task when it is raining, and others are in total disrepair. In particularly swampy areas, there are wooden walkways that take you over the worst of the mire.
As intimidating as all this may sound, any hiker in good health and a modest degree of outdoor experience can handle this challenging and beautiful trail. This is not to say that the WCT should be taken lightly, as its dangers are real, but it is well worth the planning and exertion.
At the end of a long day of hiking, the experience of gazing at the stars next to a roaring campfire among the driftwood, the only soundtrack of the crashing waves, is serene and gratifying. Whether it is the intense physical exhaustion, or the nip from that flask of whiskey you remembered to stash in your pack, moments like this allow a hiker to ponder the mundane and mystical, a luxury our hectic lives rarely allow.
Hiking the West Coast Trail: A Pocket Guide by Tim Leadem (Greystone Books)
Blisters & Bliss: The Trekker's Guide to the West Coast Trail by David Foster (Heritage House Publishing Co. Ltd.)