In my last blog post, part 2 of this series, I wrote about the middle part of the journey of my 3-day, 75km solo backpacking trip on the West Coast Trail. In today's post, part 3 will cover the last leg of my trip from Camper Bay to Gordon River.
Camper Bay Campfire Shenanigans
After exploring the area and getting my camp set up, I took a walk around to look for like-minded people with whom to share some company and perhaps a fire. I spotted a few women who were there in a group. I remembered passing a few of them at various times on the trail, but here they were all together. I was curious what the situation was, thinking perhaps they were there with a guided group. This was exactly the situation. I chatted with the guides first, sensing that they were the leaders. It didn’t take long for them to invite me back to join them once they got their dinner made and a fire going. I went back and made my own dinner, bringing it back to their fire so I could join them while they ate.
They were a group of 9 women, mostly from Canada and the US, but there was also one woman from Ireland. They were of all ages and experience levels. They ranged from mid-20s to early 70s. For some, it was their first time backpacking. Others had prior experience, but didn’t have anyone to go with and they wanted the security of a group. We chatted about our experiences on the trail and backpacking in general. I couldn’t help but be impressed by the 71-year-old woman. She had turned her ankle close to the start, but somehow she was able to push through and keep going. That wouldn’t be easy for anyone at any age, and with a heavy pack to boot. She just took her time with it and went at her own pace, even if that meant lagging behind the rest of the group.
As the women all finished up their dinners, I asked the leader if it would be kosher for me to offer to share my newly procured bourbon, thinking it could be a liability issue. She told me she thought that they would probably appreciate the offer, but that her and her assistant would have to abstain. I immediately turned back to the group, and asked: “Alright, who wants bourbon?”
Enter “The Bourbon Mermaid”
A few of the women were super keen. One of them remarked that it would replace the allergy medication she was taking, not for allergies per se, but to help her sleep. Another joked that she might not have to take ibuprofen. Everyone imbibing relaxed just a little bit more. We chatted about what we did for work, and my stunt career came up, as well as my work on Siren as a mermaid stunt double. One woman chortled, “I guess that makes you our bourbon mermaid.” As such, I offered another round, and while some readily held out their cups, others hesitated saying they didn’t want to drink my entire supply. I then told them to go for it because it was a gift from the trail gods and I rather share it out if they want it, than leave any left. In the end, there was some bourbon left, mostly because we all crashed hard from the encroaching tiredness of the day. I retired to my tarp at 8:30pm and quickly fell into a deep sleep.
An Exchange in Hiker Advice
Day 4: Camper Bay to Gordon River, 13km in 6 hours
The next morning I woke up at 6:30am, feeling quite refreshed. I made my usual morning cold trail coffee and started to pack up. I chatted a little with some camp neighbours who arrived later the evening prior. It was an adult family of brothers and sons/nephews who had flown in from Calgary to hike the WCT. The youngest in the group, a fellow in his 20s asked for tips on ultralight gear for future excursions. I was happy to oblige. They passed along a few tips for great backpacking trips on their side of the Rockies. They even helped me fold up my tarp since one of them had some free hands. We all finished packing around the same time and headed onward to the trail at around 8:15am. I soon left them behind with their huge packs. One of them had gone ahead of there group to make some ground to account for his bum knee which slows him down, a sensible way of coping in the interests of not slowing down the group. I soon caught up with him at the next set of ladders. I wished him well as I continued on, passing a weird little stuffed animal with a nail through its crotch at the top, which I even pointed out to him by calling back down, lest he miss that little nugget of weirdness.
Entering Another World
I had left early with the goal of getting to the beach section of the trail between Camper Bay and Thrasher Cove during low tide. I mainly wanted to see the sea caves at Owen Point, but it turned out that the whole coastal area leading up to it was stunning. When I first got there, I remarked how it looked like another world, like I had landed on a completely different planet with unusual rock formations making up the land where the island met the sea, rock formations that would be completely under water during higher tides. It was clear that it was all volcanic rock formations, giving it that other-worldly look.
Some sections had little waterways carved through the rock through which the tidal flows rushed in and out. I had to climb over or around some of these, making the hiking a bit more technical in parts, but nothing overly challenging for me and my ultralight pack, which was at the time, even ultra-lighter (if that’s a word).
Owen Point Sea Caves
If there is one sight on the West Coast Trail that you absolutely must not miss, the sea caves near Owen Point would be it. Since they are completely engulfed by the ocean at higher tides, you have to make sure you time your entrance onto that beach access point as the tide is close to its lowest, giving you the most amount of time to work your way to it and back around to the forest trail on the other side safely. Be sure to consult your tide charts to nail this down. Trust me, it’s worth it. I got there at the same time as a German fellow who was there, taking his time taking tons of photos, and exploring every nook and cranny. I allowed myself to linger there a while too, taking my own shots of the gloriously sunny sky framed from within the cave. It’s extra-beautiful when backlit with the sun’s rays and a clear blue sky, a photographer’s dream.
Tackling the Beach Boulder Field
Continuing on after the sea caves leads you to a massive field of rocks, boulders and logs, which, for many, is one of the most challenging sections of the trail. But at first, it looks like no big deal. You might think to yourself that the claims about the challenges of this section are widely exaggerated, as I did. I gets harder.
While your trekking poles might be useful at first for testing the stability of rocks before stepping, or by sinking them into features in rocks that might be able to hold your weight enough for stability, at some point you'll want to ditch the poles and use your hands, particularly when you need to actually boulder over massive rocks and logs to get through.
At one point, I passed a couple who had struggled with that section from the other direction. The woman told me they had been given the suggestion to try and stay as close to the high areas next to land rather than the lower, wetter areas where the tide had recently receded, stating that the rocks are dangerously slippery out there. She had a weathered look that implored me to not make the same mistake they had made, meandering between low and high sections. I eventually saw what she had experienced and not wanting to risk slipping and falling, heeded her warning. In exchange, I assured them the that sea caves were gorgeous and worth all the toil and suffering. I also told them to make sure they leave time to enjoy a meal at The Crab Shack later on and that they even served beer if they would appreciate a drink. They thanked me, and I them and we continued on our separate ways.
I did slip once, but not because it was a slippery section, but because I had stepped in a puddle then stepped on a log, which made the log slippery as I was scaling over it. I slid down and almost completely bailed. Fortunately, I managed to catch myself with my hands on the boulders, preventing a worse fall. My pants on the butt side got the worst of it thankfully.
Picking your way through the boulder field was painstaking, even at the lowest of tides, which was when I went. Seriously, you absolutely MUST consult the tide table as it would have been way worse if the tide was coming in, forcing you to rush your way through in an already sketchy hiking route, and impassible at the highest tide times. It likely would have been a lot quicker to take the forest trail, but then I would have missed the caves. I can live with that though.
From Thrasher through the Forest
Thrasher Cove was a welcome site. Just when you start to wonder if maybe you missed the buoys indicating the trail, you pass Quarter Tide Rocks and see it there welcoming you back inland. I was relieved to see it and glad to be done with the bouldering.
It's a pretty intense climb right off the bat, climbing a few ladders, then a fairly aggressively sloped trail leading back up to the main inland trail. Your heart will definitely be pumping when you get there if you go at a steady pace without breaks as I did.
I knew there were a few afternoon schedule options for me to catch the Gordon River Ferry, 1:30, 2:30 and 3:30pm. I wasn't sure how long the forest section would take, but I decided to book it. As long as I made it by 3pm, I knew I would make my goal of hiking the whole West Coast Trail within 72 hours, but part of me just wanted to push. I knew there wasn't a lot left to see in this section of the trail, so why not give it a go and see if I could do it quicker. I decided I would try to make the 1:30pm ferry.
Once I rejoined the main inland trail, I started really booking it. I moved fast, using my trekking poles like a quadruped, deftly scaling through gnarly sections with loose rocks, fallen logs, and narrow passes next to steep drops. At one place, I lost the trail where a bridge had broken down and I missed a key trail marker, but I eventually figured it out, though it did cost me a few minutes.
I passed a few groups of people who were just starting their journeys, south to north, a eastern European woman and her 20-year-old son, a group of 20-somethings, and a 50-year old couple who decided to give it a shot after a decade of putting it off. I tried to remind myself that these interactions are an important part of the trail experience, and did my best not to rush through conversations, especially ones involving story-sharing. I even took the time to offer relevant advice, but part of me just wanted to keep moving. Once I set a goal, I get in a mentality of pushing hard toward it. This was very clear when I caught up to a couple who I had seen at Camper Bay who had left really early in the morning. Because we were moving in the same direction the woman asked me a lot of questions about my gear and where I got it. I didn't want to be rude, so I hiked with them temporarily so I could answer her questions politely, but eventually, I took my leave and just took off, redoubling my efforts and leaving them in my dust, doing so.
I kept looking at my watch, thinking that I might just be able to make it for 1:30pm. I started to run on downhill sections of the trail as my way of making up for lost time. I also became a little less cautious in picking my steps in sketchier sections. In my haste, I managed to slip and bang my knee on a rock really hard. It immediately started to bruise and swell up in a way that made moving painful. I berated myself for my carelessness but knew that the only solution was to keep moving. My throbbing knee did knock the wind out of my sails though. I decided to slow down and just aim for the 2:30pm ferry instead.
Greeting Gordon River
I got to the final ladder, climbed down to the beach and raised the buoy to signal my presence. I looked at my watch. It was 2pm. I gave myself a little mental pat on the back for hiking the WCT in 71 hours. I then took off my pack and waited by the river, watching for signs of the ferry.
While I waited, a group of 3 hikers came down. We got to talking as we waited. It was a woman who was celebrating her 60th birthday by hiking the West Coast Trail, a trail she had hiked decades ago, but this time with her two adult children. It was something she had always dreamed of doing with her kids eventually, and they both travelled across country to make her dream happen. She had seriously struggled to make it through the experience, even with their relaxed schedule of hiking it in 8 days (they had originally aimed for 7) and I could see that she had wished she had been able to perform better physically.
I did my best to alleviate that feeling by sharing my thoughts: "Honestly, I am in awe of what you have done. This is NOT an easy trail, even for people who are fit and in the prime of their lives. You did what you had to do to make your dream happen. You raised two fine human beings who love the outdoors and value their family ties enough to come and experience it with you. You should be so proud of what you have accomplished here."
She looked at me gratefully, eyes welling up, and said, "Oh... you're going to make me cry." And she did. She wept tears of joy, with her daughter and son hugging her and re-assuring her that she did awesome.
Soon after, the ferry arrived. We got on board and as we crossed the Gordon River, sun beaming on our shoulders, hair blowing in the ocean breeze, I looked back at the trail then at my final trail buddies and cried out gleefully, "We did it!!!!" We all cried out together, applauding and whooping unintelligbly. We docked, said our goodbyes and all went our separate ways.
This is where my hike ended, but I will be sharing a follow-up post, an epilogue covering my overall insights from this solo backpacking experience, as well as a video giving an overall snapshot of some of the things I went through. I will offer general advice for the trail based on my own meandering experience, as well as some of my own internal insights that I gleaned from the introspection of being more or less alone on the trail for 3 days. It won't be for a few days though, so keep an eye out for it.
In the meantime, please feel free to comment about your own experiences of the West Coast Trail. Every person's experience is different, providing different insights as to what to expect. I look forward to hearing your thoughts in the comments.