West Coast Wild

November 2019: 4 days on the Juan de Fuca Trail

Packing the last of my belongings and preparing to leave Tofino the day before I was due to hit the trail, I felt nervous. The rain was relentless and with more scheduled for the coming days I was concerned. A fair weather walker, I had barely camped in rain before but the Juan de Fuca trail had been on my bucket list since I’d arrived on Vancouver island. As I was leaving Canada ten days later there was no time like the present.

A fun car share journey to Victoria and a restless night in a hostel later (never assume a female dorm won’t have snorers) I was up at 6 am and ready to walk. The shuttle to the trail-head leaves Victoria at 6.45 am and it seemed that everyone else heading out that day were tough looking men setting out for the West Coast trail (Juan de Fuca north terminus and West Coast trail south terminus meet in Port Renfrew). I was glad I’d be starting out alone that morning.

Getting off the bus by the side of the road, I felt that initial high of being cut off from civilisation. I strode down to the trail-head clacking my poles on the tarmac and worked out how to pay my fees in the envelope provided before going into the woods. The rain held off on the 9 km to Bear beach and I even saw a little sunshine. Passing a few tricky steep sections I began to feel the weight of my rucksack which I hadn’t packed too well. I always struggle with carrying several days worth of food. After an early morning start I made it to a gorgeous beach side campsite by about 2 pm.

The beach was rocky and small but I felt safe in the wooded area and was pleased that it seemed well maintained with a pit toilet and bear box to store food. After setting up I relaxed and wrote in my journal by the sea - what a peaceful treat! It’s moments like these that I cherish during life’s more bustling and stressful times. After a while the stillness was uncomfortable - I began to wonder if anyone else would arrive or if i’d be camped out with the cougars alone. Solitude isn’t quite as welcome as usual when you are in a predator zone!

Luckily a group of four middle aged women turned up and set up nearby. Four younger women who I'd met on a hiking forum also came along and then a group of ten military personnel on a training trip. I had a few pleasant social hours admiring the sunset before retiring to read my book. My tent was very cosy and I slept pretty well aside from my usual terrifying middle of the night toilet trip.

The next morning I was up and out early. As a slow hiker I enjoy starting at my own pace. This day was billed as the toughest day - and it was. My shoulders ached as I climbed in and out of one valley after another, with a lot of loose soil and a distinct lack of love and attention given to the trail at some sections. Some kilometre markers were missing which is always psychologically damaging, though I did enjoy one marker that someone had written ‘you’ve got this’ with a Sharpie on.

I had to laugh at one point where a rope was slung casually between two huge and slippery boulders, suggesting that I go down one side and up the other with my rucksack on. At a lot of points over the next couple of days I had to stand still and make a plan on how I was going to tackle the obstacle in front of me - it took a lot of concentration but the sense of accomplishment on reaching camp was great. I was glad to know there were others behind me who’d be coming past if I broke my ankle (not that you should rely on others, of course).

As I hauled my behemoth of a bag up the side of yet another valley I came to an almost vertical section (well, it felt vertical) of pure mud. Mud that you had to get your hands into to pull yourself up on tree roots. I knelt on a muddy ledge and after this realised I was on the wrong path anyway which meant I had to slide on my bum to get down.

The icing on this mud cake was a very fit couple walking past as I was sliding and waving joyfully as they joked that i'd 'taken the scenic route'. They had not a speck of mud on them and I had no idea why, but I breathed and remembered to be kind to myself, to 'hike my own hike'. I later fell completely into some more mud and had to walk the next two days with a very muddy behind. I was grateful that the rain was still holding off.

I was exhausted but delighted to reach another lovely beach camp at Chin beach. I rested and watched the distant view of the Olympic mountains before spending the evening with some other hikers. We were in awe of the starry night above the waves and we enjoyed a beach fire over our boil in the bag meals.

The next morning felt like a long traipse along the annoying pebbly beach that i’d loved so much the night before and it took a while to find the hefty rock i’d climb on to rejoin the trail. There are some sections that get cut off by tides and as I couldn’t always work out where they were (though I knew the tide times) it made me a bit anxious. The hike to Sombrio beach was still very difficult, though I was glad my blister prevention technique was holding up, and I was happy to lie on the beach under moody skies with my instant noodles at lunch time. Sombrio is a point that can be driven to and surfed and it was a shock to see so many day visitors in the midst of the quiet.

Finding my way out of Sombrio I continued a few more kilometres to Little Kuitshe Creek campground which is up in the forest and quite creepy - a very different vibe to the beach sites. Fortunately the older ladies stayed too and we ate together and a friendly Israeli hiker I met made me a delicious coffee. A freezing cold dip in a stream cleansed me and I slept well.

The next morning I met some pleasantly flat ground and chatted to some men who were putting in missing trail markers. An incredible rocky coastal landscape opened up and huge waves pounded the rocks. I rested at a campsite briefly and after being so lucky with weather, the sky finally fell. The last 7 km were a downpour and I could barely see through my glasses. I climbed over giant stacks of slippery driftwood on small beaches and eventually made it to a hazardous boardwalk for the last section.

I made it to the car park at Botanical beach and sacked off the last couple of sodden kilometres in favour of accepting a ride with a German couple into Port Renfrew. At the glorious Wild Renfrew pub I spent a cosy afternoon in soft dry clothes; eating, drinking and catching up with others who’d finished walking. Following this, I was on a rowdy bus ride involving some whisky being passed around and I was glad to collapse into the hot tub at my friends house back in Victoria.

The Juan de Fuca trail is a challenging yet stunning coastal journey of rocks, forests and earth that will stay in my mind for a long time. Now, a few months down the line, I'm still coming to terms with how different this year has turned out from the original ideas I had planned. Daydreaming about better times and planning future hiking trips is helping me stay sane at this weird time (and the sunshine is welcome too!).

Written by Emma Sawyer: Emma is a happy and quiet hiking enthusiast trying to find balance in this funny life. She appreciates the sea, solitude and stretching. She currently lives with family in beautiful Shropshire due to a change of plans for this crazy year but is looking forward to seeing what happens next.

Instagram: @emmasawyer24