Prior to the pandemic, my friends and I had already decided we were going to take a week off to do a road trip to the Rockies to hike Mount Assiniboine. I booked the sites back in early March and we were all set to go. Then Covid-19 happened and we weren’t sure what would become of the trip. BC Parks re-opened in June and we were thrilled that the trip would still be going ahead, until about 2 weeks before when BC Parks cancelled our reservation with no explanation. I suspect it was cancelled because they weren’t operating the park at full capacity, but we could never track down anyone to get an explanation and we were frustrated that they waited until mid June to cancel the reservation, meaning that we missed out on any opportunity to try and book something different because everything was booked up. So overall, really not impressed with BC Parks, but that seems to be the general consensus with their new booking system this year.
Anyways, we were determined to do something else instead and we landed on the North Coast Trail. Brandon had already done it once and was trying to convince me to do it again with him at the end of the summer, so we decided to move it up to replace our Assiniboine Trip. We managed to work out all the details and spent the first week of July hiking through Cape Scott Provincial Park.
Cape Scott is a super well known and popular park, but the North Coast Trail is a relatively new addition that was added to the park in 2008. It was extended as an extension to the Cape Scott Trail and continues up along the entire North Coast of Vancouver Island. The two trail entrances are at San Josef Bay, which is the main entrance for Cape Scott and lies at the end of a 65km gravel road, and at Shushartie Bay, which is only accessible by water taxi from Port Hardy. Most people hiking the NCT start with the water taxi from Shushartie Bay and hike west, but in our case, the water taxi wasn’t re-opening until July 1 and we wanted to start hiking earlier then that, so we decided to do the trail backwards. There were some benefits to this in that the North Coast Trail is much harder than the Cape Scott Trail and so your pack is lighter by the time you reach the NCT, but overall I would definitely recommend you do it the traditional way. It gives you more time to enjoy the less crowded and more technical NCT. We didn’t realize just how slow we would be on the NCT and slightly underestimated how much time we would need to complete the trail, resulting in a pretty rushed final two days.
But let’s start from the beginning. My hiking companions on this trip would be Brandon, Emily, and Lien. Me and Brandon have done lots of backpacking together and he has done lots of multi-day trails, including the North Coast Trail. Likewise me and Emily have done lots of backpacking together, including the Juan de Fuca Trail, which was our reference trail for what to expect on the NCT. Lien was our rookie wildcard. We’ve done lots of day hiking together, but the North Coast Trail was a big jump for him and he was super stoked about it!
We spent a lot of time working on our kit list for the trail and me and Emily were determined to keep our pack weight down. I’ve never done a trail longer than 3 nights and this one was going to be 6 nights, so food was a major consideration. We planned to share dinners, but plan our own breakfasts and lunches. Oatmeal and instant mash potato are my go-to’s for breakfast because they’re already dried, so we spent a lot of time dehydrating food for our dinners, lunches, and snacks – I’ll include our meal plan below for anyone interested in what we brought on our 6 day trip. Food is really one of the most important considerations because it will be the heaviest thing in your pack. My food bag weighed in at about 11-12 lbs, resulting in a total pack weight of ~43lbs with water. This was a lot heavier then I wanted (was hoping to ring in around 36-38lbs), but we really only brought the bare minimum and after having completed the trip, there’s not a whole lot I would have changed. The only way I can figure to reduce my pack weight would be with a lighter tent and that costs a lot of money.
We had a packing party at my house before the trip and then took off bright and early on a saturday morning to catch the ferry to Nanaimo. It was the first weekend after the Phase 3 re-opening, so it was pretty bumping at the ferry terminal. We spent the boat ride napping in the cars and then hit the road for the 4 hour drive to Port Hardy. It went by relatively quickly and we met up with some of Brandon’s friends in Port Hardy for an early dinner. By the time we hit the road again, it was around 4:30pm, which left 90 mins for the drive to the trailhead and enough time to hike an hour in to San Josef Bay to camp for the first night.
It was an admirable plan, but unfortunately it was quickly derailed. The road to San Jo is all dirt and gravel. As far as gravel roads go, I didn’t think it was that bad and have definitely driven on a lot worse. But it seems that the road had recently been graded and the grader had not been back out to remove all the larger rocks from the road. About 30km in Brandon’s tire pressure dropped all of sudden and we got out to discover we had a very flat tire. We didn’t feel any bumps and didn’t seem to have hit a pothole, so all we can figure is a very sharp rock must have punctured the tire. It was a bad flat, but no problem for Brandon who lives for off-roading and has a full spare tire in his 4runner.
Over the past few years I’ve had quite a lot of bad luck with flat tires. Me and Carolyn went out to Sloquet hot spring one year and the guy we were driving with got a flat on the way back and didn’t have the lug nut key for his tires – so we ended up having to abandon the truck on the service road for a tow. I joked when we got out that Brandon better have the right lug nut key for his tires and he reassured me he wasn’t so fool-hardy. But wouldn’t you know, while Brandon’s a pro, his mechanic is not. He had the car serviced just before the trip and the mechanic had put a very slightly different version of Brandon’s lug nuts on the tires. They were the same shape, but Brandon’s key had a curved edge, while the lug nuts had a pointed edge. The key didn’t work and for the second time I found myself stranded on a forestry road with a flat tire that should have been an easy fix.
Brandon really beat himself up about it, though none of the rest of us found any fault with him since it should have been an easy fix. Fortunately another car drove by just as we were having this realization and we asked them to call a mechanic or a tow for us (there was no cell service on the road). They took some notes before offering to take one of us back to Port Hardy with them, which was very kind, especially during Covid, so I jumped in the back with them. They dropped me at Lien’s car, which we had left at the end point, and I got on the phone to BCAA immediately to try and find a solution. Ideally we just needed someone with the master set of lug nut keys, but it was 6pm on a saturday night in a tiny town, so our options were pretty limited. Almost everything was closed and it was an hour and a half before BCAA finally found a tow truck that was willing to come get the car the next morning. The only problem of course was that it was going to cost an arm and a leg to get a tow truck up the service road. Either way, the car wasn’t going anywhere that night, so I headed back up the road in Lien’s car to pick everyone up.
Just before this trip I invested in an InReach so that I could get emergency assistance on the trail if needed, and I have to say that as expensive as it was, it was worth every penny. I left the inreach with Emily when I went back to Port Hardy, so I was at least able to communicate with them while I was away. They ended up sitting on the service road for 4 hours before I finally returned, so I can only imagine how bored they all were. Apparently they tried flagging down every car that passed in an attempt to find a matching lug key! The ride back to them was the most intense part for me though because it was dusk and if I broke down, I really had no way to communicate with anyone. So I took my time and fortunately made it back to them without incident. There happened to be a rec site about 2 kms down the road, so we ended up just crashing there for the night since there wasn’t anything else we could do for Brandon’s car.
The next morning we got up early and went straight back to Port Hardy. Everything was still listed as closed until Monday, but we decided to try our chances. The tow truck said it could go out later that morning, but in the meantime we called around to any mechanic we could find. Eventually one mechanic told us to drive over to the OK Tire, which has an emergency number listed on the door. We had gathered OK Tire was our best bet at getting the tire off, but they weren’t open until Tuesday, so our original plan had been to get it towed to the OK Tire and leave it there and drive Lien’s car out. Fortunately, the emergency line came through and the nicest mechanic came and met us to save our asses. He found a bunch of similar keys and then drove back out to the car with Brandon where they finally got the nuts off and replaced the tire. In the meantime, the rest of us chilled in Port Hardy and spent some time soaking in the sun along the waterfront. It wasn’t quite what we pictured for our first day, but the weather was gorgeous, so we made the best of it.
Brandon made it back in no time and by noon, he had a full spare tire replaced and we were back on the road to San Jo. This time we made it the full hour and a half without incident. The trailhead was absolutely hopping when we finally rolled in. There were a ton of people day tripping to San Josef Bay, as well as a bunch of people backpacking to Cape Scott. There were a few people doing the whole NCT like us, but they were few and far between and we didn’t meet any of them until later in the trip. The way the trail is, there’s a 2km off-shoot to San Jo Bay. We were sad to have to skip it, but we planned to stay there at the end when we returned for Brandon’s car. We had a quick lunch in the parking lot and then started the trail around 2pm, skiping San Jo and heading up towards Cape Scott.
Had we starting hiking in the morning, we probably would have been aiming to make it to Nel’s Bight, a super popular beach about 17km in. Brandon was still super optimistic we could make it to Nel’s Bight, but me and Emily were a little more realistic. The mud started almost as soon as we started hiking (as expected), but otherwise the trail wasn’t too bad. It was a little technical, but there was limited elevation gain and we made a pretty good pace along the trail. The first campsite is Eric Lake at 3km. We had lots of jokes about Eric Lake because Lien had tried to hike to Cape Scott about 10 years ago and had never made it past Eric Lake because his party was so unprepared. So we kept joking that we were going to leave him there and that he was the reason we’d never made it to San Jo Bay, because he was cursed.
Eric Lake sounds like a nice place, but there was really no lake access and the whole campsite was in the trees and very buggy. I was glad we weren’t staying there and we continued on. Eventually we rolled into Fisherman River around 6pm. The whole first part of the trail is straight north and inland towards the coast. So we didn’t see any coastline on our first day. I’m not sure if Fisherman River is an official campsite, it has an outhouse and bear cache, but only has 2 tent pads. We were about 9km in (of the desired 17km) and we all knew it was unrealistic to try and go any further, so we were thrilled to find both tent pads empty. There’s really not much room to camp outside of the tent pads and we were concerned about there being room for us. 2 other groups did show up afterwards and managed to squeeze in along the river and on the side of the bushes. It wasn’t a beautiful beach, but we had an enjoyable evening cooking along the river. Brandon made his infamous thai chicken curry and we had a lazy evening recovering from the first day.
I think that’s enough for one blog post, more to come in Part II!
Maria’s Meal Plan
. Breakfast Lunch Supper
Day 1 Potato and bacon bits Egg salad wrap Brandon’s thai chicken curry
Day 2 Oatmeal and trail mix Egg salad wrap Lien’s dehydrated chili
Day 3 Potato and bacon bits Salami and cheese wrap Emily’s dehydrated veggie pasta
Day 4 Oatmeal and trail mix Salami and cheese wrap Maria’s dehydrated chickpea curry
Day 5 Potato and bacon bits Salami and cheese wrap Emily’s thai PB pasta and Brandon’s Paella
Day 6 Oatmeal and trail mix PB and jam wrap
Snacks: Fig bars, kind bars, apple chips, banana chips, energy bites, fruit leather, granola, trail mix, chocolate