the North Coast Trail, let that sink in a little while. It feels good to say that, finally. I have had my eye on doing this trail since it opened in 2008. Earlier in 2014, I made a resolution to stop talking about doing it, I would do it. I planned the trip, set a date and put an invitation out there for members of The Island Mountain Ramblers join me. I probably didn't give enough notice, only about 5 weeks before the hike date, as no one accepted my invitation. This was a bit unsettling. I questioned, was this trip so notoriously difficult that no one wanted to hike it with me, or was I just notoriously poor company.
Total Distance: 94 km
Total Elevation Change: 4000 metres
Backpack Weight: 25 pounds
I didn't let the lack of a partner dissuade me of my plans, I was determined to do the hike! My wife worried but I reassured here that although I would be hiking the trail alone, I would be hiking it alone with the 11 other people dropped off with me at the trailhead on the same day, plus the people dropped off in the days after I started; everyone hikes in the same direction. I reassured her that I would meet people on the trail and walk with them.
I prepared my gear and tested it for this trip for a few months. In earlier posts I related some of my preparations regarding gear testing( Wildside Trail and the Juan de Fuca Trail). My trip plan was to combine the North Coast Trail with the Cape Scott Trail. I am very familiar with the Cape Scott Trail, I've hike to the lighthouse 8 times so I very confident with my skill, equipment and knowledge of this portion of the trail but I had a lot of questions around the North Coast Trail. Fortunately I found a wide variety of resources about it online when I did my research.
Shuttle to Shushartie Bay and Home by North Coast Trail Shuttle
After testing my tarp system on the Juan de Fuca Trail and Wildside Trail, checking the weight of the setup and some of the pitfalls, I made a decision to buy a new tent, just a little more piece of mind on a longer hike. The Big Agnes Fly Creek UL2, a two person that weighs in at just two pounds, I strap the pegs onto my hiking poles. I was planing to take just a light 1 litre bottle for water and decided to try out a different water treating system, the SteriPen. The various research I did indicated that the areas for refilling water were often many kilometres apart. The SteriPen would allow me to quickly treat water and drink a few litres of water to avoid dehydration and avoid carying 2 or 3 litres of water.
a camera misfire captured this truly epic shot of my backpack, the tent is not mine
In planning for the trip, I also wanted to hike over Mt St Patrick to Lowrie Bay to see what it looked like. My trip was scheduled for 7 nights, this was one more night than I ideally wanted but with the North Coast Trail Shuttle schedule didn't work with what I wanted. Essentially I had a choice, hike out to the Cape Scott parking lot after 6 days or wait till day eight. I packed enough gear and food for 8 days.
I drove up to Port Hardy July 6th and stayed at the North Coast Trail Hostel, good value and clean. During dinner I met a German man who had finished the hike, not but two days earlier. He gave me some good advice for the trip and confirmed what I already knew about the hike, the first three days are the most challenging.
Day 1 -- Shushartie Bay to Nahwatti River (12 km)
Day one, July 7th the North Coast Trail shuttle picked me up at the North Coast Trail Hostel at 7:20, just enough time to get a muffin and a coffee at the cafe run by the hostel. I was shuttled to the water traxi office where I paid my taxi and shuttle fees and showed that I had paid my park fees. Before 8am I was loaded onto the boat with the 11 other passengers and the captain. We all rode inside the cabin of the boat, the railings of the boat had been removed because there were some kayaks on the top of the water taxi. Before too long, we arrived at the North Coast Trail trailhead at Shushartie Bay.
North Coast Trail Watertaxi
Arriving at the North Coast Trail trailhead is a bit of a surreal experience. It looks just like any park, the large British Columbia Parks Sign with the park name, a small signage board with a tide table and the park map and the park fee tube, a red hollow post in the ground with envelopes for payment of fees. The main difference of course, it is in the middle of nowhere, right on the edge of the forest on a rocky outcropping. This is where the water taxi dropped us
North Coast Trail trailhead at Shusharite Bay
The first section of the trail is Shushartie Bay to Skinner Creek. It is often considered to be the most challenging section. It rises quickly from the ocean to 160 meters, past the Shushartie tent pads and rolls along the landscape through section of old growth forest thick with dense mosses and along a bog. En though the conditions in July had been dry there was thick mud through most sections of the trail. Most of the the mud was thick with the dry conditions and plenty of sections of the traditional wet mud that has come to typify hiking on the west coast of Vancouver Island.
Tent pads at Shushartie Bay
Though this doesn't show, I'm standing at a 90 degree turn
First taste of mud
The trail meanders through the forest between the various hills not once touching the ocean until you exit at Skinner creek. The path has seen some work since the original construction in 2008 as there is significant sections of boardwalk that serve to keep hikers out of the mud and on the beaten path, to keep the hiker dry, speed progress and protect the sensitive ecosystems that we hike through. Interestingly throughout the trail there are large stacks of rough-cut 4x4 in large stacks, unused; one would guess that this is for future work or maybe work that was scheduled but didn't make the budget.
As promised through my research, water is not available along this section of the trail until Skinner Creek. Fortunately the morning was overcast and though I was hot from hiking it was not sweltering and the lire of water I brought with me was plenty, it lasted me until I reached Skinner Creek. The eight kilometer trail took me 3 and a half hours and when I reached the beach I took a break, treated some water, and took a look through the campsite. Though there are no tent pads here, the camping area is raised up off the beach, there is a pit toilet, bear cache and plenty of spots where one could put up tents in the trees. It was still quite early so I continued onto the next site at Nawahtii River.
The hike between Skinner Creek an Nahwatti River is quick, just over an hour. Half of that distance is inland and the other half over the beautiful beach. I was there with many hours of light left in my first day. I arrived at the location and set about finding water. Through the hike there is a common trend with the rivers that serve as the water sources, they have very shallow grades, and therefore the sea water flows quite far up the river. The easiest way to find water at this campsite is to follow the trail route almost to the cable car , one can find access to the river very easily here. Since I was the only person at the site I took the opportunity to rinse the day off me in the warm shallow water of the river and take my fill of water for the night. I camped on the tent pads in the shelter of the trees.
Cable Car Across Nahwatti River
Roosevelt Cabins at the Mouth of the Nahwitti River
I made a fire and sat to watch the sun set. I expected that some of the hikers that started the day with me would find their way to Nahwitti River campsite this evening but no one else arrived. I spent the evening, exploring the mouth of the river, the Roosevelt Cabins and planning the next day's agenda. I would need to wake up very early to hike the next section of trail to Cape Suitil, there is a rocky promontory that potentially gets cut off at high tide. Looking at the tide charts my opportunity to cross would be before 8:30 am or after 3 pm. I planned to hike in the morning to take advantage of the cooler weather and make the most of the day ahead. I set my watch for 5 am and enjoying watching the sun set as the fiery ball dipped into the ocean.
Day 2 -- Nahwatti River to Irony Creek (14 km)
I awoke late! Somehow I slept through my alarm and woke at 5:30 instead of 5! I skipped hot breakfast, struck camp as quick as possible and ate my lunch bars on the trail as I walked. This section cuts quickly into the forest and for nearly four kilometers has very little elevation gain, though there are the obligatory sections of mud. If I had more time I would send a bit more time exploring some of the older trails shooting off the main. However I was on a mission! I made it to the rocky promontory of Cape Sutil in about an hour and half.
Lets just say the trail has it's ups and downs
sometimes it's over, other times it's under
Once past the promontory I took my time and walked along my route. Because the tide was in I took the headland crossings. These crossings are unlike any I have traveled before. Most headland crossing take the hiker up and then requires some more hiking before heading back down. These unique features of the trail take the hiker up 30-50 meters and then immediately descend the opposing side. It is in this way that you might stand at the top of the headland and see both sides of the headland and the same time!
As I hiked the beach it was still early morning and I could see campers on the beach off in the distance, packing gear, frolicking on the beach and at least one site nursing an early morning fire. It is at the first of these sites that I introduced myself and asked if I could take a moment and join them at the fire. We talked congenially, I cooked my oatmeal and became familiar with my this group of 5 men that I will call the Courteous Gentlemen; A group of 5 men older than myself, fathers, working professionals, all around good guys and the most congenial of people I have ever had the pleasure to camp with.
When I arrived they were in the process of striking their own camp. I asked if I could impose and hike with them and of course being the Courteous Gentlemen, they couldn't refuse. I hiked the remainder of the days with these men, sharing the experience of being on the trail, including listening and sharing stories.
A surprise but welcomed water source
On the breaks, the Master of Games set up activities
The remainder of day two took us to Irony Creek on Shuttleworth Bight, putting the day's total hike at 15 kilometers over an 8 hour period. This section of the hike traverses many headlands and dozens of beaches of all variety, sand, gravel, cobble stone, kelp three feet thick and every permutation of the four substrates. The headland crossings are quick, requiring some fancy footwork at times but overall time spent in the trees is quite short. We arrived at the camp just before 3 pm, leaving many hours before sunset, to enjoy the excellent sandy beaches and various features of Shuttleworth Bight.
Walking on kelp, in many sections one metre thick
I set my tent up on tent pad inside the trees, collected wood and got a fire going before enjoy the exceptional view of the lengthy beach. Like most of the beaches on the trail it slopes gently into the water providing a chance fore the water to become quite warm. Several member of the group swam in the sea while other soaked in Irony Creek, washing the aches and pains of the day off and refreshing ourselves for the evening.
sandy beach at the lengthy Shuttleworth Bight
As any group of rag tag guys should do, before too long we got up to no-good. One of the Courteous Gentlemen noticed that very near the campsite was a half buried crab trap. In no time we had unearthed the remainder of the trap and discover it had a length of rope and a bait box contained within it. Three of us walked out to a rocky outcropping just off the beach, filled the baitbox with crushed mussels and tossed the trap into a deep area within the rocks. I tied off the lenght of rope around a section of the rocks and we returned to the beach. We waited a few hours before returning to the trap. Unfortunately the tide was coming in and we could see the rope tied off to the rock several feet below the surface of the rought waters. We wouldnt be able to access the trap until the next morning. Unfortunately it contained nothing more than sunstars and starfish. We were all disapointed not to have fresh crab!
Day 3 -- Irony Creek to Nissen Bight (20 km)
I awoke at 7 am to the sounds of rocks tumbling in the distance. I roused myself quickly, I hoped the sound was an animal on the beach! Most of the literature and trip reports I read for this trail indicated there would be a lot of wildlife sightings on the trail; bear, elk, wolf and/or whale! I was hoping for any and or all of these, it is why I lugged a 5 pound camera on the hike. Unfortunately it was not wild animals, just two of the Courteous Gentlemen on the beach. Even at this early hour the wind was kicking up a fuss, creating white caps on the ocean. The sky was blue early in the morning but before long clouds rolled in from the east.
The rough evening seas left us a surprise on the beach. In my Wildside Trail trip report post I posted a photograph of a Vallella, it was the first I had ever found. This morning there were thousands upon thousands of the creatures washed up on the shore. Piled so thick on the beach they could easily be confused for sea foam or seaweed if not for the bright cobalt blue colour.
Thousands upon thousands on the beach
The days hike promised to be long, more than 18 kilometers between our campsite and Nissen Bight. The park map and trip information provided by the parks literature and various maps indicated that it would be a much easier day of hiking than the first 2, the reports are correct. The route follows the coast, traversing the many different types of beaches. A large portion of which include flat slab rock close to the waters edge, while the tide was out.
The final section before Nissen Bight requires a big detour up Long Leg Hill, climbing up and up, sustaining between 50 and 80 meters of elevation. At its apex the trail meandered once again through familiar landscapes populated by stunted pine and hemlock and copious amounts of moss, walking on multiple sections of boardwalk and up a good deal of stairs.
starting up Long-Leg Hill
Boardwalk through the gorgeous stunted trees
my favourite tree in the park, a bonsai fir
Though this section is well developed and there are numerous sections of the old settlers road, the obligatory mud was still evident in many sections of the trail. Eventually the route follows around the North Coast Trail's only lake, Laughing Look Lake.
The long kilometers on this day gave us a hiking time of close to 9 hours. When we arrived at Nissen bight it was all I could do not not simply collapse. We made our campsite on the east end of the beach to be nearer the water source
wide shot of Nissen Bight
View from the east end of Nissen Bight
Nissen Bight is not my favorite beach, when the tide is out there are long sections of sand but when the tide is in hiking is only possible on the cobble. Further, the east end of the beach hosts the water supply and the pit toilets and bear cache is on the opposite end of the beach, about a kilometer away on the west end of the beach. Camping is possible on Nissen Bight but there are no tent pads or designated camping areas, care was taken to insure the tents were put up well beyond the high tide markings on the beach. All in all the view was excellent and the evening relaxing.
Today marked the final sections of the trail that I have never hiked, the final 15 kilometer section of the 63 km North Coast Trail is comprised of the more commonly traversed an much easier sections of the Cape Scott trail. I enjoyed the time I spend on the unfamiliar portions of the trail but looked forward to the familiar sections of the Cape Scott Trail.
Day 4 -Nissen Bight to Cape Scott Lighthouse & Back to Nels Bight (23 km)
Day four promised to be another long day, we intended to hit the Cape Scott Lighthouse and return to Nels Bight. As we hiked the trails to Nels Bight I took many opportunities to point out the various cultural relics left by the various settlement attempts of the Cape Scott region: grave sites, town site, tractor in the trees, etc. Several of the group would comment later in the day that they were blown away by several sections of the days trip, namely the field of grass at Hanson Lagoon and the Sand Neck between Guise Bay and Experiement Bight. The route for the day was great, rarely any mud and for the most part the trail is even, with only a one or two real hills.
the long level trails of Cape Scott Provincial Park
We reached Nels Bight in 2.5 hours, because the weather remained overcast we set up our tents and ate lunch. After our break we left heavy backpacks behind as forged ahead to Experiment Bight and the Lighthouse. Once at the lighthouse Todd, the principal Keeper, was kind enough to sell us some sodas and bags of chips, a very enjoyable treat after the long days of hiking without refined sugars. Though the lighthouse is the regular destination for this section of the trail, it is a bit of a letdown. The lighthouse is a contemporary steel structure with the giant light on top. However, the view from the flatdeck of the structure is phenomenal, you can see far and wide in every direction, obviously why this location was chosen for the home of the lighthouse.
Arriving at Nels Bight
Approaching the Lighthouse Property
For me the lighthouse is not the final destination, I head down the backside of the property toward the ocean. (Note taking this route will also take you past one of the oldest Geocaches on Vancouver TIsland) As with many sections of the North Coast Trail and the Cape Scott Trail the formations of rock at the beach are very unique to this region, the northern most tip of Vancouver Island. No other rock formations in the park are of the same style and colour! The tide was out so it was easy to wander between the different sections of beach, climb out to the rocky islets and even possible to climb up to the sea stacks.
sometimes you just have to take a nap
sometimes you have to kick off your shoes
After 30 minutes of enjoying the beach in our own individual ways, we hiked back up to the lighthouse and down to the sand neck between the Guise Bay Beach and Experiment Bight. Upon consulting the tide charts I suggested that we hike the beach-route back to Nels Bight. I enjoy doing this section of the hike because it turns the trip out to the lighthouse into more of a loop, rather than just an out and back. The beach route to the final headland crossing is amazing! There are sections that take you practically under nature, as you duck bellow logs that are serving as nurse logs.
Once back at the camp, I changed into my camp clothes and recorded my thoughts for the day in my journal before taking a walk down the beach to check out the New Ranger Cabin! The old ranger cabin was on the west end of the beach, very close to the water source and the headland crossing heading out to the light house. The cabin was slowly rotting because it was seldom exposed to sunlight. The new cabin is east of the trail head that brings you to Nels bight. It is easy to see it as you hit the beach because there is a Canada flag flying in front. The Park Facility Operators were kind enough to tour me through the building. It is a beautiful cedar plank construction with two rooms outfitted with bunk beds and a giant loft. The water is gathered from a rain collection system and stored in a giant cistern by the house. Apparently the building will remain open in the off season, I look forward to a night snuggled up in the new cabin!
New Rangers Cabin, bathing in sunlight
How long does it take a soccer ball to grow this much life?
Day 5 Nels Bight to San Joseph Bay (19km)
I reluctantly woke early in the morning, we faced another long haul today, Nels Bight to San Joseph Bay. I have done this hike so many times with friends and student groups that I knew we were in for a 6 hour day at least. Fortunately this leg was made easy by the condition of the trail, very dry compared to the previous 4 days. Further our packs were light as we had eaten most of our food. The route to San Joseph Bay is very easy, there is very little elevation change and though there can be sections of mud, there is quite a lot of boardwalk to help you avoid mud. However, given the dry conditions, I left my gators in my backpack.
We took lunch at Fisherman River, about the halfway point for the day. We refilled water and enjoyed the weather as the sun came out to keep the bugs at bay. After taking a leisurely lunch, we were back on the trail and didn't stop again until we reached Eric Lake. Eric Lake, as beautiful as the campsite is was infested as ever by insects, no-see-ums, mosquito and even horse flies. Several of the Courteous Gentleman took a moment at the lake to strip down and bath/swim in the lake; a common practice by hikers. The temperature was warm and clean skin and hair is always a welcome treat.
The final 3 km from Eric Lake to the trailhead are the worst sections of the Cape Scott Trail but the trail condition was nothing compared to what was hiked on the North Coast Trail. The entire hike of the Cape Scott Trail is a veritable highway compared to that of the North Coast Trail.
Bridge at Fisherman River
We took another short break at the junction between the trailhead, San Joseph Bay and the remainder of the Cape Scott Trail. We hiked this final section of trail to the bay very quickly as the trail is packed gravel with no steps at all, it is wheelchair accessible (albeit an electric wheel chair or a chair pushed by someone with the muscle to get the chair up the rolling sections). I have definitely taken a wheel barrow and wagons from the trailhead to the beach.
One of two wildlife sightings on the trip.
Once at the beach we met a Parks Facility Operator. I asked her about the final section of the trail that I intended to do, San Joseph Bay over Mt. St. Patrick and down to Lowrie Bay. She indicated that the trail to the summit of Mt. St. Patrick was very rough and that beyond that her boss told her there wasn't a trail anymore, it would require bushwhacking. This was disturbing news. I had intended to do this section as my last days. My plan was to use the sixth day to go up and over and camp at the cabin reported to be there, day seven to hike back to San Joseph Bay and day 8 to return to the trailhead for pickup by the shuttle. The information she provided changed things.
San Joseph Bay is my favourite beach on Vancouver Island. The west end hosts a variety of natural features
I collected water and thought about my options. Ultimately I decided that tonight would be my final night and that I would hike out with the group the following day. Although I started the North Coast Trail alone, my assessment of the risk was, there are people coming on the trail behind me. In the way I was not really alone on the trail. Further, once meeting the Courteous Gentlemen I wasn't alone at all. Choosing to go up and over would mean walking/bushwhacking into an area where absolutely no one was coming behind me. Not worth the risk. I'll organize a group of friends and come up for three days to do the hike, a special trip. I really want to know what's back there!
I announced my intentions to the group and one of them joked that, "I couldn't stand to hike without them". That may be truth in that statement too. Heading out together would mean sharing a drink at the Scarlet Ibis and sharing more stories.
This being the final night I joined their evening food ritual. They normally cooked 4 freeze dried dinners between the five of them. I contributed two dinners and we ate through the remainder of everyone's snacks and chocolate. What a great night!
the only photograph of me!
boccie on the beach
When it came time to retire for the evening I had my first and only wildlife experience of the trip but that's a story for another post.
Day 6, San Joseph Bay to the Trailhead 2.5 km.
On our final day we could not have asked for better weather! The whole trip the mornings were overcast, which is great for hiking but today we had pure sunshine and a light breeze. It provided opportunity to air out sleeping bags, dry off condensation from tents, have a leisurely morning breakfast with time on the beach to explore and take a final long walk of the beach. We departed the camp at noon and made it to the parking lot in about 45 minutes.
The driver for the North Coast Trail Shuttle Bus met us, took our photograph and gave us a guest sign in book to record our experiences, in brief. We also voted and it was decided that we would stop at the Scarlet Ibis for fish and chips and the all important after hike beer. It was all so perfect! Once back in Port Hardy I offered a ride to one of the Courteous Gentlemen. It is preferable for me to drive with passenger, someone to talk to so I don't fall asleep on the long drive home.
Resolution & Recommendations
I loved my experience hiking this trail. I had it up on a pedestal as a serious hike. It didn't disappoint. For those interested in hiking it, pack light, pack water treatment suitable for the group size, bring gators, hike through the mud rather than dodging back and forth and take your time.
I hiked the trail quickly, I was happy for the company. However, the next time I do this hike I will skip the Cape Scott Lighthouse. I would give myself lots of extra time on the less familiar beaches of the North Coast Trail. I feel as though the 8 trips out to the Cape Scott Lighthouse are adequate, though I would be happy to hike to the lighthouse as its own trip.
Overall the weather conditions were excellent, not one drop of rain in the entire trip! I gather there had been quite a stretch of time without rain as the conditions of the trail seemed quite ideal and once on the beaches all the small - medium pieces of wood were near bone dry! Be sure to take adequate waterproof gear, you may not be as lucky. In general mornings were overcast until about noon, perfect for hiking. At noon the sun would break through the cloud and burn off everything, everything! So many days without a cloud in the sky and a clear line of site to the flat horizon, no islands, nothing.
I can't wait to do this hike again!
For more Photographs you can see the entire collection inside the GPS Route or this album
Starting Weight: 196 pounds
Starting Backpack: 24 pounds
Finishing Weight: 190 pounds
Finishing Backpack: 16 pounds
Every piece of food I carried for 8 days of hiking
one of the many sections of boardwalk
sometimes you need a 90 degree turn in the boardwalk