Mileage: 43.1k (26.8 miles), plus 20+ miles in Cape Scott Provincial Park (I made it 16k)
Elevation Gain/Highest: 810ft/810ft (most gain at the beginning, minimal up and down over the course of the trail)
Okay, this is long one. That is to say, a long trip report because I included the day before and day after my one day on the North Coast Trail. I hope you read the whole thing, but if you just came for the trail description, skip down to Aug 2nd. But trust me, you’ll be missing out. And if you manage to make it to the end, I have a video that captures the heart of my time on the trail!
I woke up at 3am after a restless night dreaming of the journey to come, not helped by the ruckus of a party across the street just after midnight. Why do these things seem to happen when you need your sleep the most? I begin to load the car and noticed a brick on the ground between my car and the neighbor’s. I thought to myself that someone was darn lucky that didn’t hit my car (I was guessing from the festivities). I glanced over to see that my neighbor had not been so lucky. I briefly gave another thought about what I would have done if I had come out to see MY windshield smashed, would it have been a trip ending event? Was it a sign of things to come? Who’s to say…
I had given myself more than enough time to catch the 7:45am ferry from Vancouver, BC, leaving the house a little after 4am and driving the 82 miles to the US/Canadian border. I wasn’t sure what kind of backup to expect at 5:30am but it turned out the biggest delay was just getting through the border agent’s billion questions. Having crossed the border multiple times before, this was a bit of a surprise. In the past, I could sail into my northern neighbor with just a brief interview and wave on but expect the inquisition from the US agents on my return. Not this time, quite the opposite. Maybe with the new administration and everyone’s promise to move north?
The gal was quite concerned with my plans to hike the North Coast Trail and her eyebrows hit the ceiling when I mentioned I would be doing it solo. Assessing me with skepticism through the booth window, “What is the last mid-length trail you hiked on?” What?!? “It’s a beast.” I know, kind of excited. She muttered snarkily, “Well, you know there will be lots of bears.” Yep, hoping to see a few. “Did you bring bear spray?” Is this a trick question? Not that I had any but I remember my brother-in-law getting the inquisition when he tried to cross with it so I wondered why she was asking. Not sure what it was about me that made her doubt my abilities, I can only guess she is afraid to hike by herself and thus doesn’t like it when another person (woman) isn’t afraid to do so. After another round of disdainful questions about whether or not I had reservations for the water taxi to the trailhead and how much it cost me, she reluctantly let me pass and I was on my way.
It had been quite the process of deciding how to get to Port Hardy, with the main options being whether not to come from the peninsula to Victoria or drive up to Vancouver and head over to Nanaimo. A shorter time in the car won out and I went with Nanaimo which also offered more ferry crossing times. I did end up arriving more than 1.5 hours early but it gave me time for a short nap in the car and no concern about missing the boat. However, I would not recommend being one of the first cars on the ship as you will end up with a windshield layered with salt spray and the winds during the trip will make accessing your car nearly impossible (the Strait of Georgia is a bit more rough than the Puget Sound).
Let me note here that any pain I had for paying almost $60 for a one way ticket on a BC ferry quickly dissipated once I was onboard. If you want to experience an inexpensive cruise-like trip, this is the way to go. These ships are NICE! These are nothing like the commuter ferries on the Puget Sound. Café tables, arcade, playroom, gift shop, work stations, and multiple dining options had me remembering my cruise from 2013 in the Caribbean. And my favorite part? Compostable liners on the garbage cans. Where do you see that kind of thing? Yay, Canada!
The trip was about 2 hours and the views along the strait were spectacular. The dreamy layers of blue undulating mountains on either side beckoned in the soft misty morning (no, no fires here). The steep shores and inlets of Tetrahedron and Cypress Provincial Parks on my right and snow peaked Mt. Arrowhead on Vancouver Island to my left. I attempted to get some pictures and video from the upper deck but it’s is kind of hard to use a camera and hold your skirt down at the same time. Lesson learned: pants for BC ferries.
Once off the boat, my first task was to find a gas station to clean off my windshield and top off the gas tank. The drive was fairly uneventful from here although there was a surprising amount of traffic from Nanaimo, mostly because there seemed to be a stoplight about every 20 minutes or so (no overpasses). On the plus side, there was a rest stop about every 20 minutes so I guess that evens things out.
For those of you who have been along with me for a while, you know I am a sucker for a hitchhiker with a backpack (a legit backpack). So, you will not be surprised to hear that after passing the town of Campbell River, I saw a young lady with a sign for Port McNeill on the side of the road and picked her up. I wasn’t sure this was a great plan, mostly because I had brought along some good books on CD to listen to in the car and this pretty much guaranteed that wasn’t going to happen. But I am all about trail karma, so I had company for the next 2 hours or so.
Her name was Anita and let’s just say she was one of the chattiest hikers I have picked up (yep, not my first). She lives in Vancouver (the Mainland) as a nursing student but hails from the world abroad. Her mom is from China and dad from Germany and she left home at a young age to travel. And she had stories to tell. Oh, to be young and in love with life. But the best part of offering a ride to Anita? She was eventually going to Cape Scott but was stopping to visit friends in Port McNeill first. Friends who happen to be PARK RANGERS IN CAPE SCOTT!!! She asked if I wanted to hang with them for a while and I said of course. What better way to get firsthand knowledge of current conditions and ask about hammocking on the trail? I most definitely had some time for that.
So, that is how I ended up at the home of Ranger Addison and Ranger Frank and got the total lowdown on the trail. I could most definitely hammock, I didn’t need more than basic rain gear and the trail was dry enough to leave gaiters in the car. I found out Guise beach was the best if I wanted to stay near the lighthouse and there was a second beach at San Josef that most people don’t walk far enough to inhabit. They also shared that if I had time, Mt. Patrick was a great little hike (albeit not maintained) that I could do before heading to the trailhead for the shuttle out. Frank showed me some pics on his laptop to whet my appetite. We also talked trail maintenance, water filters and wildlife, which was pretty cool. My kind of peeps! They also told me their friend, Ranger Ben, should be stationed at Camp Sutil where I planned to stay the first night. After a short while, however, I got the vibe that Anita was ready to be the center of attention, so I said thanks and goodbye and made my way on to Port Hardy and the hostel.
Port Hardy sits at the end of HWY 19 and is the most northern town you can drive to on Vancouver Island. It’s a quaint little place of about 4,500 people but sees more tourists than you would think as it has a marina and airport allowing it to be a kickoff point to destinations further up the coast of BC like the Inside Passage to Prince Rupert.
Arriving in town I checked into the hostel and drove over to where the water taxi was so I would be able to find it in the morning. Then I pretty much spent the next few hours preparing my backpack and except for my food in the cooler, I was ready to go for the morning. I was happy because I had managed to get everything in my smaller, lighter pack (I had brought a larger one just in case heavy rain gear was called for but the rangers assured me it was not).
After such an early start to make the ferry, I was in bed by 7pm hoping to get a few extra hours of sleep. There were two other gals in the dorm room and it wasn’t until close to midnight that I realized I had made the fatal sleeping mistake of having my only pair of earplugs be buried deep within my backpack in the car (in the pocket of my sleeping bag). That’s right; inevitably there will be at least one snorer in a hostel. I went out to the shared room and pondered life for an hour or so and then returned to a slightly quieter buzz and managed to drift off for a few more hours before the alarm at 5am.
There were several of us in the hostel up early to catch the 8am water taxi, another solo gal and two guys. I made myself busy with eating breakfast and adding my food to my pack. A last minute check on the taxi website reminded me I needed cash for the camping permits so I quickly headed over to the convenience store across from the hostel and went through my plastic until the ATM accepted a card I knew the PIN for. Yes, I was sweating it there for a minute.
Leaving for the marina a little about 7:15, I saw the two guys (Mark and Arthur) from the hostel walking to the marina so I offered them a ride. We were the first ones to the office so I snagged a parking spot in the shuttle’s lot and we waited for someone to come and open up for the day. The weather was warming up quickly and the boats in the marina rocked gently with the promise of nautical adventure. There was a raven up on the roof calling down to us, or more likely the sandwich that Arthur was eating for breakfast, and he kept us intrigued while we waited. His call was unique, possibly a mimic of ship horns as they come in.
It wasn’t long before I had paid for the taxi, parking and permits and we were loading the boat. The ship was full today, 12 of us heading out to start the trail. I was the only American; everyone else was from Canada and shared which town they were from. The talk was mostly about the fires and how dry it was, except for a gal from Ottawa who says they have been dealing with flooding in their nation’s capital. I sat next to a mom and son duo from the island, which was pretty cool since my mom is a hiker, too. Not that I could imagine taking her on this trail! Our captain, Ron, kept us entertained with stories as we made the 1 hour trip up Queen Charlotte Strait to Shushartie Bay and our trailhead. We didn’t see any whales but a few porpoises broke the surface off in the distance as we cruised up the coastline.
I first noticed the buoy when we pulled into the bay and then you could see the Cape Scott TH sign tucked in the trees at the trailhead. After studying and planning for this hike for so long, it was surreal to finally be here myself! Ron let us know that he would be pulling up to the rocky shoreline and we would be lowering ourselves down over the bow of the boat. This would be only the beginning of watching our step, the rocks were covered with green kelp and crusty barnacles just waiting test us.
I took a few minutes to snap some pictures, including the estuary nestled in the bay before starting up the trail about 9:10am.
Walking through a bit of overgrown fireweed and bramble, the first obstacle presented itself as the trail headed straight up over some roots and a rock slab. There was a rope hanging down from a stump above but it wasn’t really necessary if you have some scrambling experience. However, I can totally see how it would be helpful if the conditions were wet in any way, especially if you were toting a 50-60lb backpack.
The trail went up similar to a forest climber’s route to about 160ft and came to the campsite for the trailhead. Those going westbound wouldn’t use these but anyone ending here and waiting for the water taxi to come the next morning would appreciate the platforms and bear box.
There were several paths to follow but the rangers the day before had told me to go around the bear box and to the left (there were orange triangles, too), so it wasn’t long before I was continuing on from here. This section is 8.6k long and would take me to the first real water source. My goal today was to make it to Cape Sutil which sits about 16k in on the trail (10.3miles).
The trail had about 800ft of elevation gain before leveling out inland as I made my way over mud pits, roots, boardwalks, stairs and marsh. From here, it simply rotates between the open boardwalks over bogland with its lodgepole pines and peat moss and the inner jungle of the rainforest with worn cedar and hemlock root wads, steps cut into downed trees, skunk cabbage layered as sacrifice over the mud, sticky spider webs, mossy old growth and foliage like elderberry and sedges.
As someone who helps clear trails, I noticed the difference right away that when they cut up a log across the trail here, they don’t through them off the trail but add them to the path at a vain attempt of helping keep footfall above the muck and mire. I have never seen such a patchwork of trail design in my life.
I know sometimes my friends think I don’t take time to appreciate the trails because I am making a fair amount of miles each day. Au contraire! I had so much fun noticing the details like the mint colored patina on the rocks or the whispy hair of the grasses along the boardwalk. I even had fun with some videos, including some time-lapse footage. I really wanted to try and capture not only the beauty but how much fun I have while hiking.
Two hours in, however, I felt the despair begin to rise. If you are old enough to have watched Atreyu crawl through the muck of the Swamps of Sadness in the Neverending Story in search of advisor Morla the Ancient One, you have an idea of how it will feel as the mud just goes on and on. I don’t know how many times I said to myself, “Will it ever end???” And then I saw it, the halfway marker. Sigh.
The only thing that kept me going was the belief that eventually I would be hearing the crashing of waves against the sand as I approached the first beach. Like holding a conch shell up to my ear, I strained to hear it at every bend in the trail. I hoped that glimpse of blue sky up in the trees ahead meant coming out to a beautiful sandy shoreline. I want to see the SEA! I stopped a few times to drink and eat a snack, as well as admire how well I had done at avoiding getting my pants TOO dirty. I was glad I went with the black ones, though.
With the same emotion that I’m sure Lewis and Clark felt when finally reaching the Pacific Ocean, it was about 1:20pm when I came out to the first beach and second campsite of the trail: Skinner Creek.
The path ran along the shallow, tannin tinted creek toward the beach, and over and under bleached driftwood logs stacked up from prior storms at the outlet for the creek. Buoys hung like ornaments to let me know where the intended route was and I could soon see the marker for the campsites on the other side of the creek. There was a father and young son over on the right hand side, drying out clothes, and after waving I made my way over to an area in the shade to set my pack down.
I spent about 40 minutes on the beach eating lunch and washing the bottom half of my pants in the surf (mistakenly believing I had made it through the worst of the mud).
The waves glistened and the salty ocean breeze was a welcome contrast to the life-sucking humidity of the rainforest. About this time some of my fellow hikers started to arrive and I decided to move on. I had a goal of 16k today and I was only half way there. Plus, I had to think about the tide. There were two pinch points (places impassible at high tide) and low tide was at 4:30pm. If I kept my current pace, I would arrive at them about 5:30, plenty of time. If I didn’t, I would have to camp before them and not pass until around 9-10am the next day.
So, at 2:15 or so I was walking westbound looking for a trail back into the forest on the other side of the beach. I could see the father and son following behind me and wondered if they were going as far as I was. There was another campsite between here and Cape Sutil and my guess is that was where they planned to be tonight. Ron, the captain on the boat had mentioned them on the way in and said the dad had told him he did not have an itinerary and had brought lots of extra food so they could go as slow as they needed to. Sounds like a good plan with a 9 year old.
From here, the rest of the trail basically went up and down around headlands, alternating between beach and forest. Most of the elevation gain was 20-30 feet or so as I took a climber’s path off the beach and straight up to level ground and more mud. Most of the entrances/exits had a rope and a few had stairs. Some of the beaches were soft and sandy and others were loose cobblestone but all gloriously cool and breathtaking.
I walked the 2.3k to Nahwitti River in about an hour and took the trail back in the woods past the tent platforms and along the river where I knew it would come to a cable car crossing. If the timing had been right, this camp would have been great for hammocking; there were plenty of nice trees with a good diameter for straps.
It was interesting to see how burled the trees were. I imagine that must be from storms that come raging through during the winter.
It took about 10 minutes along the river to arrive at the platform for the cable car. I glanced down to see one lone boot propped up against the platform. How does that happen? How do you not notice you have lost a boot? Why would you leave just one boot? There has got to be a story there…
The cable car was over on the other side so I first had to pull and bring it back over to me. Contemplating how to do this solo, I stuck my foot on the floor of the cable car to keep it in place and then dropped my pack in front. I then laid my poles across the floor of the car so I wouldn’t have to worry about dropping them on the ride over. Next, I got my camera ready to take a video; I wanted to show the fun! Of course, it wasn’t quite a zipline experience but still a spirit-lifting change from the muck of the trail.
It only took me part way over so I had to pull the car the rest of the way to the platform. Holding the car in place on this side was a bit more challenging solo. I threw my pack, poles and phone onto the floor of the platform while holding onto the cable and then stood on the edge with one foot trying to get the chain off the entrance. After a few tries I managed to free it and take my other foot off the car. Once on deck, I decided to be nice and pulled the car back over to the other side figuring the odds were someone would be coming from that side before this side (and who knew it would be my last upper body workout for a while?). Then, it was down a tall ladder to the forest floor and back along the river towards the ocean again.
This walk was actually very pretty, the bright green algae wrapped on the round stones along its bank offered a distinct contrast with the blue water and sky above.
Some of the trail was open and easily followed but I did end up losing it a bit through a marshy spot but I just kept the river on my right until I took it back up again close to a stream that fed out into the river. I was pretty sure the book had said this was good water, but it looked like the outlet from a laundry mat so I passed it up and hoped there would be a better source further upstream. I wasn’t too worried; I had enough to get me to camp.
At this point there was about 5k left in my day and it was 4pm. I was on schedule and although the trip had been fairly tiring so far, I felt like I had it in me to make the last bit. So, I braced myself for more of the up and down and continued on towards Cape Sutil.
About 1.5 hours later when I got to Long Leg Hill and the steep set of stairs that take you once again down to sea level and the last stretch before camp, I realized there were two other hikers in front of me. It looked like I would have company at camp tonight. My guess was they had come in on the same boat as the dad and son and were timing their hike with the tide like I was. Well, it would be fun to talk about surviving the trail with them and see what they thought about all the obstacles!
This last little section before Cape Sutil was reported to be extra difficult as it is simply a rollercoaster up and over the headlands with brief interludes on secluded pocket beaches. At one point, you are literally going up one side and rappelling down another only to head straight up another on the other side. I wish the lighting could have been better for pictures but hitting these tiny glimpses of the sea during the day with time to stop for lunch would be a great respite from the hike.
I also made it past both pinch points without any problems but I could see how a high tide would prevent you from continuing on. It was interesting to walk the beach between the towering sea stacks, coastal hikes have an allure all their own. I have walked many a beach but there was something special about doing it as part of a backpacking adventure.
I stepped down onto the final beach at Cape Sutil and could see the shore stretch out before me. This had to be it. I was so ready to stop and set up camp. I could see my fellow hikers, two gals, sitting on logs front of me and they waved when they saw me. I walked over and chatted with them for a few minutes. They were also tired and hoped the camp was right there. I told them I thought it was further up the beach and there should be a ranger station with a bear box and outhouse. They didn’t like my thought so much but I told them I would see them over there if they opted to move further down.
Just like the other two campsites, it was well marked with a kiosk and I could see the yurt for the ranger station with some wood structures built around it. I dropped my pack here and went in search of the bear box, outhouse and water that were supposed to be behind the yurt (but hard to find). I had expected a ranger to be here (yesterday’s rangers had mentioned a Ben would be on duty) but the yurt was locked and no one was around.
I walked around to the back and saw several paths but none seemed to go anywhere. I came back to the front (being careful on the sawn log pavers being used as stepping stones on the path, those things will get you every time) and checked out the kiosk but it was not very helpful. I could see the two gals coming up the beach and I walked back around the yurt again to investigate further after looking at my information pages I had in my pack that confirmed that yes, there should be a water source back behind the yurt.
After a few more minutes and no more luck finding water, I once again walked towards the front of the station. This time, however, as I neared the front of the yurt my feet went right out behind me and I stuck out my hand to catch myself on a rain barrel attached to the side of the yurt. Unfortunately, this did not stop my fall and the next thing I knew I was laying on the ground in excruciating pain and my right arm laying uselessly out beside me. For about 3 seconds my thoughts were, “You can shake this off, Shannon.” But then it was clear that was not the case and I spent about 10 minutes lying there stomping my feet in anger at how STUPID this was. I just survived 10.3 miles of trail hell to slip and fall RIGHT NEXT TO THE RANGER STATION. Seriously?!?
Eventually I calmed down and realized a few things. One, I was slightly downhill and needed to at least rotate myself so my head was above my feet. This took a few minutes as I slowly brought my feet around to the front of the yurt. God, my arm hurt like nothing I have ever experienced. All I could do was move my hand in some limp gesture. At least that was a good sign, right? But there was definitely something wrong and I was not going to be able to carry my pack or hike out on my own. Where was that Ranger Ben, anyway?? He was supposed to be here!
But first things first. I started to call out to the girls on the beach and they soon came up to find me lying on the ground. I explained to them what had happened and that I was not going to be able to hike out on my own. I asked them to bring me my pack (I still don’t even like to think about what I would have to have done to get to my pack myself even if it wasn’t that far away). It wouldn’t have been quite like 127 Hours but close. At least to me, anyway. I felt along my arm to see if I could tell what was wrong but there didn’t seem to be anything broken, it was just not quite where it should be. And good gravy, did I mention how much it hurt?
Kristina and Kora, two recent high school graduates from Germany, turned out to be very helpful and I asked them to help get my sleeping pad underneath me (along with my pillow) and lay my sleeping bag on top along with my puffy jacket. My arm was a different story because even getting something underneath it hurt something fierce but I did have Kristina help me put a glove on and cover it with my rain jacket. Every time I had them pull something out of my pack they would look at each other and say, “You are so prepared!” She wanted to know why I was carrying gloves, was it for if I got cold at night? It left me to wonder what these gals weren’t carrying in their packs. I took some (ineffective) pain medication and ate some snacks and drank water.
The girls wondered out loud what we would do if Ranger Ben did not show up and I told them I wasn’t worried, I had an emergency button to push, “What?! You have a button? Why don’t we push it now? At least tell us where it is just in case!” I showed them where it was in my pack and they pulled out the instructions that I always keep with it (it’s not like you use it all the time!). It took me about 30 minutes to finally give up on the notion that the ranger would be returning to the yurt for the night and I reluctantly pushed the button on my SPOT device, I’m guessing shortly before 8pm.
While one of the girls waited with me, the other one went down and started a fire on the beach. They came up with some great ideas, “Do you think we could use your hammock to carry you down to the beach? We don’t want to leave you alone.” I told them thank you, I was warm and comfy right where I was and only wanted to move once if I had to. They were worried about things like bears and wolves, which were the least of my worries at the moment. We chatted about how they had ended up on the trail (Kristina is in Canada on a visa and Kora came to visit her) and I gave them my contact information so I could thank them when everything was said and done.
The sun had set and we were donning headlamps when I thought I spotted a light in the trees on the other side of the yurt and then someone yelled out. Kristina and Kora ran down to the beach to confirm help was needed and soon I was crying from the overwhelming emotion at the sight of the coast guard there to rescue me. I told him (Craig) what was wrong and then he said he would be right back to take care of me. It wasn’t long before things were being shoved back in my pack, I had my good arm around Craig’s neck and I was making my way down to the shore where a large zodiak was waiting to approach. Then, we were wading into the surf and I was being lifted over the side of the boat. Mind you, I was not the best subject. I was in so much pain I refused to let them touch my arm or immobilize it. I was on my own to do that so it hung limp at my side.
Standing there on the boat as we tried to assess if I had all my things before leaving the beach, I could see on the scanner screen it was about 11:15pm. I’m guessing they arrived about 10:45pm or so, not bad considering I had mentally prepared myself to be there until at least morning. I had to keep telling the girls when they would ask how I knew someone was coming, “The light is green, right? Don’t worry, these things take time.” I’m sure after we left the girls were talking about what THEY would do if one of them got hurt on the rest of their hike.
This small boat then took us over to a larger ship where I changed out of my ocean filled shoes, sat with a tank of laughing gas and was distracted from the pain by Craig and Dale. Another hour and half later and it was back into Port Hardy where I had started my journey just that morning. A lot can happen in one day, I guess.
I could go on in detail about the rest of August 3rd, but it pretty much involved some time at the ER in Port Hardy where they woke up the X-ray tech to assess I had a dislocated and broken shoulder. The looks on the ER staff faces changed dramatically after the X-rays to sympathy and then I was finally offered morphine. But it was nothing short of sedation for the “reduction” AKA putting my shoulder back in. Who knew a dislocated shoulder would hurt SO much more than a broken one?
It also involved some time in town waiting for my brother to fly in and drive me home. There was pharmacist who didn’t blink an eye when I turned in the prescription the ER doc had given me and asked her to add a large bottle of Tylenol 1’s to the order (I get a bottle every time I come to Canada). I ran into Bridget, the ER nurse, later that day at Café Guido in town, where she asked how I was and was glad to hear that my brother was coming to get me instead of my driving home.
I was sitting in the diner of Captain Hardy enjoying a FiLoMi burger when Dale from the Coast Guard pulls up in a green pickup to carry out his lunch and after a short chat invited me to come down and visit the crew at the station. Craig would later tell me that FiLoMi stood for Fishing-Logging-Mining, the town’s main industries. I got a tour of the new station, retrieved my SAM splint and snapped a few pics with my rescuers.
And if you want proof of how friendly Canadians are, we stopped in Campbell River for the night on the way off the island and the hotel front desk clerk had so much sympathy for me, “It’s too bad you don’t live here, I have the best orthopedic surgeon. I’ve had two shoulder surgeries.” And “I have the best shoulder brace; I should give it to you. I can call my husband and see if he’ll bring it for you.”
But nothing beats the US border agent who asked what brought us to Canada. I leaned forward and said to hike the North Coast Trail. He asked, “How’d that work out for you?” I shifted to show him my broken wing and he just waved us on through. That pretty much sums this trip up.
See my page North Coast Trail and Cape Scott Provincial Park for more information about this hike, including permits and transportation to the trailheads. I wrote a little bit more about this trip on my blog post, You Can’t Always Get What You Want and more about the time in the ER on Curious About My Canadian Healthcare Experience? You can also hear me share my story over on Cascade Hiker Podcast!
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