The West Coast Trail: Step up to the challenge

It started as a path for shipwreck survivors on Vancouver Island. Now, the West Coast Trail tests hikers from around the world. Peter Webb reports

A "once-in-a-lifetime experience", it is called - yet the West Coast Trail has the potential to be the last-in-a-lifetime. The words of warning when we set out to hike this world-class trail on Canada's staggeringly beautiful Vancouver Island were not merely ringing in our ears; they were positively deafening. Our small party comprised my friend, Ernie, and our two 15-year-old sons. We faced 75km of demanding terrain that - if the official West Coast Trail booklet and compulsory induction briefing were to be believed - would test a fully equipped expeditionary force to the limit.

The list of hazards includes rivers to be crossed on slippery logs, muddy or flooded forest paths, ladders that scale steep valley sides, paralytic shellfish poisoning and encounters with man-eating carnivores such a bears, cougars and wolves. A "friend" had also told us of the mice plagues that will eat tents if hidden food is suspected.

During the stroll to the trailhead, we tested ourselves on what to do in case of meeting with a hungry beast. For bears, one is supposed to look small and unthreatening, and to talk in a soft voice. With cougars, you are meant to look "big and scary". Wolves that hunt in packs will seek out the sick, lame or small, which didn't bode well for the less-bulky Spencer or Chris. We made our lunch-time picnic stop at the Pachena lighthouse in good spirits and still unscathed.

The trail was born from adversity. In 1906, the steamship Valencia was wrecked with the loss of 133 lives. She joined a long list of other vessels and human cargo that had come to grief on the then-inaccessible west coast. The Dominion Life Saving Trail was built to allow victims and rescuers to travel through the almost impenetrable forest.

Later in the 20th century, the trail fell into disrepair but was re-opened in the Seventies for both the adventurous and unwary. It is rated up there with some of the world's greatest hikes. While it only reaches a maximum altitude of 200m above sea level, it spends most of its life in the forest going up and down the various valleys, and then descending the cliffs by steep, slippery ladders to allow a welcome traverse of a beach section - subject to low tides and general sea conditions.

Every year, around 5,000 hikers attempt it and, of those, some 200 have to be flown or boated out due to incapacitating injury or illness; the Canadian taxpayer foots the bill. In fact, as befits a venture managed by Canadians, the trail is very tightly run. It is open between May and October. Only 30 hikers are allowed to set off each day from either end of the trail, with camping limited to designated beach sites.

We reached our first campsite at Michigan Beach, named after a steamship that was wrecked in 1893, rather than the Mascotte, lost in the same bay attempting the salvage of the Michigan. So our evening camping routine began, with the challenge of putting up the tents while exhausted, then fire-lighting with wet logs, preparing dinner before dark descended and, finally, finding some way of hiding the food and even clothes tainted with food smells from bears.

"Do not even keep toothpaste in your tent" was the warning. I'm not sure if this is because a bear will eat anything or whether it's partial to a scrub of the fangs after dining on you and your food. Anyway, a special bear-proof bin had been thoughtfully provided, sparing us the potential nightmare of rigging up our own rope-and-bag contraption, and allowing us a bear-free night's sleep.

The second day began with two barefoot river-wadings, then a long sandy beach before a climb up into the forest and our first cable-car crossing. After several hours of muddy forest, we finally descended long ladders to the next campsite at Tsusiat Falls, where a 15m-high waterfall pours on to the beach. Here we were rumbled clean in the washing machine of log debris and pummelled by the power of the warmish water. It was the scenic highlight of the trip.

The boys seemed unaffected by the day's exertions, but as an inexperienced hiker I was beginning to regret having ignored a piece of advice from a veteran of the trail: "Carrying anything more than 20kg is going to hurt." The luxuries contributing to my extra 5kg were a huge can of mosquito spray (no small ones are sold anymore), a paperback copy of Bill Bryson's A Walk in the Woods and pills for every middle-aged eventuality apart from lower-back pain caused by carrying pills for nearly every eventuality.

Whatever you carry is likely to get wet. Not just from rain - though we had plenty of that during the first four days; river, sea, swamp and sweat also contributed, and so we were indebted to my son, Chris, for suggesting we double-bag everything inside plastic bags to ensure that sleeping-gear and socks stayed dry and Bill Bryson remained readable. By some strange quirk of fate, he (Chris, not Bryson) was the only one to immerse almost totally when falling off a submerged boardwalk over a flooded meadow. At least his backpack's contents emerged nice and dry.

By day three, we'd settled into a routine: a look at the tide tables over breakfast and then, wherever possible, taking a beach route despite the threat of high tides, surge channels, large, slippery boulders and long sections of painful sloping shingle. This was nearly always preferable to the muddy, root-strewn forest sections with slippery trees cut down and fashioned as bridges across valleys and streams, and definitely not for the less agile and vertigo-sufferers. While most ladders and bridges were well maintained, that cannot be said for sections of boardwalk that were always slippery, often dangerously inclined and sometimes broken.

This was the day we met Julia, who had badly ripped tendons in her knee and had to be evacuated by helicopter, which arrived more promptly than a British ambulance relying on GPS. Even though few walkers are on the trail at any one time, you always seem to meet up with the same groups of hikers, despite often travelling on a different route and pace. There's great camaraderie between walkers each evening, and Chris's fire-kindling skills were a magnet. While we referred to Julia and her friends, Ali and Mere, as "The Girls", and another young, fair-haired Victorian couple as "The Blondies", we later found out that we were known as "The Old Men and the Boys". How unkind people can be.

Another group consisted of a French guy, his wife and his mother-in-law, who were apparently making the hike for the second time. We saw him of an evening, smoking cigars and practising his swing with a club that he carried as a walking aide. Very Gallic. I still wonder if I may have misinterpreted his muttered word for "mother-in-law".

After a wet middle section, the two final days - six and seven - were beautiful, with clear views across the Juan De Fuca Strait to America's Mount Olympia.

Furthermore, we were comforted to realise that not one of the party had been devoured. Although the wildlife was always around, it remained at a decent distance: we saw a bear on a distant beach, eagles in the trees, fresh cougar tracks along with a half-eaten seal meal, lots of sea otters and seals, and countless migrating whales. But above all, joy of joys, there were no mosquitoes. I'd like to think it was the mere threat of my huge and weighty aerosol that kept them away and kept the ozone layer undamaged. And also, despite a little toe being nibbled by a small mouse, there was no tent-eating mice plague.

We completed the 75km survival course without any significant injuries - and, disappointingly, without much loss of weight. I'd like to think it was due to flab turning to heavier muscle, but then ample water allowed us to live well from the wide selection of dehydrated food that is now available, unlike the old Vesta meals from my Scouting days.

Nor did the liver and kidneys get the rest that they were promised and deserved, thanks to Monique. She is an enterprising, highly opinionated Irish wife of an Indian chief, who runs a profitable and not-to-be-missed tent café on Carmanah beach, selling huge burgers and beer - just one of many surprises on our remote, demanding and immensely rewarding hike.

TRAVELLER'S GUIDE

GETTING THERE

Vancouver is served by British Airways (0870 850 9850; www.ba.com) and Air Canada (0871 220 1111; www.aircanada.ca) from Heathrow, Zoom Airlines (0870 240 0055; www.flyzoom.com) from Gatwick, Manchester, Glasgow, Belfast and Cardiff and Air Transat (08705 561 522; www.airtransat.com) from Gatwick, Manchester and Glasgow.

To reduce the impact on the environment, you can buy an "offset" from Climate Care (01865 207 000; www.climate care.org). The environmental cost of a return flight from London to Vancouver is £16.10. The money funds sustainable energy and reforestation projects.

Victoria, on Vancouver Island, can be reached by coach and ferry from Vancouver airport with Pacific Coach Lines (001 604 662 7575; www.pacificcoach.com). The West Coast Trail Express bus from Victoria to the trail heads runs daily (001 250 477 8700; www.trailbus.com).

HIKING THERE

The West Coast Trail (001 250 387 1642; www.westcoasttrailbc.com) can only be reserved 90 days in advance for a fee of C$25 (£13), which gives you a starting date and point, a weatherproof map and hike preparation guide. An overnight user fee of C$110 (£54) is also payable.

MORE DETAILS

Pacific Rim National Park, Vancouver Island: 001 250 726 7721; www.pc.gc.ca

Tourism British Columbia: 001 800 435 5622; www.hellobc.com

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