So I know a 5 part series about the North Coast Trail is probably a little indulgent, but I really love story telling so you’ll just have to bear with me (click here for Part I). As much as I love growing this blog and appreciate all my readers, I do write primarily for myself to document my adventures and give myself a writing outlet. So if you’ve made it this far in the series, thanks for sticking along! My subscribers have been increasing with every post, so I assume there are people out there somewhere reading my blogs – if you are I’d love to hear from you in the comments! As far as I know Carolyn and my Dad are my most dedicated readers – Lien pops by when I write about him, Brandon occasionally reads a post, and Seth and Emily never read anything I write. So to the rest of my readers – I appreciate you! If you read my blog for posts about the backcountry and trails in BC, please let me know what you like about them and anything you’d appreciate seeing added. I really am curious and like to encourage others to get out exploring. I see myself as a bit more of a storyteller than as a place to come for information on trails, but I do try and include both.
Day 5 is where it started to all go down hill. In my opinion Day 5 was the most beautiful part of the trail and we got excellent weather for it, but the trail got really hard. Our goal for Day 5 was to hike 13km to Nahwitti River. Cape Sutil was located at the 8km mark of the trail, so we figured that would be a good spot to reach for lunch. It was a mix of beaches and inland trails along the way. The morning started out great with some lovely walks along the beach. The trail would pass into the woods for short periods between beaches and nothing was too strenuous, so we were having a good time. Like I said in my previous post, this section of the trail is a lot less windy. The ocean topography must be different because there are no large waves, it’s just gentle beaches with shallow waves coming in. The sun had finally come out and it was really tempting to stop and swim, but we were still making a pretty slow pace so we figured we’d better not.
About halfway to Cape Sutil the trail got really difficult. We finished the longer beaches and did an inland trail followed by pocket beaches. All ‘pocket beaches’ really means is that you have to climb up and down a steep, technical trail to get from each small beach to the next across. In my opinion, this was the hardest section of the entire trail. The trail is both steep and has an inordinate number of obstacles along it. Instead of just battling mud and tree roots, there were a lot of large trees and branches we either had to climb over or crawl under. I literally did several parts of the trail on my hands and knees. At one section, I was crawling on my knees to go under a tree, but when I started to try and stand up again, there was a second tree that I hadn’t seen that literally knocked me right back down into the mud on my belly. In addition, Emily was really frustrated because there were a lot of really tall stumps to climb over and she is so short that she had to climb up most of them on her knees, which is obviously painful on the knees when you’re also wearing a huge pack. This was the one section where being smaller was somewhat beneficial though as I think Lien had a hard time navigating some of the obstacles with his large pack.
Day 5 was another bad day for Emily. I could tell she was starting to lose it from the repetitive obstacles. There was one really hard section up out of the gully from one of the pocket beaches and as she was trying to pull herself up I told her to just yell to express her frustrations and she let out a truly terrifying scream as she hauled herself up. For anyone who knew Emily as a child, we used to call her Shrieky after the character in care bears because she had such a high pitched scream, so you can imagine what that sounded like. Had I not just told her to scream and heard it I definitely would have come running!
When we finally finished the pocket beaches, Emily was ready to stop for lunch, but we all encouraged her to push through the last section to Cape Sutil where we could at least get more water at the same time. Cape Sutil is actually the most northerly point on Vancouver Island, but it’s also a sacred first nations site, so while you can camp at the beach, access to the cape is restricted. So the last section of the trail before the beach was an inland trail bypassing the cape. Fortunately the only obstacle along this trail was mud, which we had long ago made our peace with, so we pushed through faster than expected since it was at least flat. We all celebrated when we finally popped out on the beach, but it was a weary celebration because it was already 3pm and we still had 5km to go. We knew it would be a late night.
The one thing I liked about doing the NCT backwards was that since the water taxi hadn’t started running, there were few people on the trail. However, the taxi had started running the previous day and we’d heard that they were dropping off a whopping 40 people on the first day. Cape Sutil is when we finally encountered the crowds. Everyone seemed to be on the same track – they’d all hiked into Skinner Creek on the first day (9km) and then had hiked 7km to Cape Sutil, where they’d be spending the night. A lot of them were arriving at the same time as us, which wasn’t a great indicator for the condition of the rest of the trail. If I had my time back, I would have done the same thing, added an extra night and camped at Sutil and Skinner Creek. But when I’d planned, hiking 8km followed by 7km just seemed like too short a distance, so we’d instead planned to do the 13km to Nahwitti River, the campsite between the two.
Cape Sutil was beautiful and aside from the crowds, I would have loved to stay, but we already had a water taxi booked for the next afternoon, so we were committed to continuing on. Taking the water taxi at the end was the downside to doing the trail backwards because it left you less flexibility. If we’d been going the other way, we had enough food that we could easily have decided to stay another night if we’d wanted.
Anyways, we had a late lunch at Cape Sutil and filtered some more drinking water. It was a hot day and we’d all drank a lot already. Unfortunately the filter decided to clog and it took forever to filter, so we didn’t treat quite as much water as we probably should have. It had taken us 5 hours to go 8km and we still had 5km left, so we needed to get going. There’s one tidal section on all of the North Coast Trail and we were approaching it. Shortly after Cape Sutil there’s a pinch point that can only be crossed around low tide. Fortunately, low tide was at 5pm, which is almost exactly when we got there. When we’d checked the tides in the morning we figured we’d probably be getting there around 2pm and if anything we’d have to wait for the tide to drop further, but that obviously ended up not being a problem. Even with the tide at it’s lowest though it was a pretty tight window. We were able to pass through this pretty neat area full of sea stacks, but it was still tight at the very end, so you really do need to get your timing right. There did look to be a high tide trail, but it pretty much involved scaling a vertical cliff with one rope, so I’m glad we didn’t have to do that with our packs on.
But that was the end of the beaches for the day. From there it was 4km of inland trail to the campsite at Nahwitti River. I do think the longer inland trails were slightly easier than the short ones to the pocket beaches, but the length of them really does wear you down. We started the inland section at 5pm and never arrived at Nahwitti River until 8:30pm, so it was a painstakingly slow pace. The inland section starts with a lengthy climb up stairs to the top of the bluff. Poor Lien hates the stairs and he was just so done at this point, I think everyone was. Like I said in one of my previous posts, we had the benefit of all breaking down on different days and Day 5 was my day to play the cheerleader. I was feeling generally tired, but overall it was definitely one of my better days on the trail and I did my best to propel the team through our longest day.
The rest of the trail was long and pretty unremarkable. Fortunately it was more mud obstacles than climbing obstacles, but it was still pretty bad. Unfortunately, Lien drinks like a packhorse and he ran out of water several kilometres in. There were a few water sources marked on the map, so when we did find one, we had to stop and refill again. By the end of the day Lien had drank 4 litres of water! Eventually the path starts to head down and then continues along Nahwitti River. The campsite is just across the river, but it’s not possible to cross it, so we had to follow the river back to our second and final cable car. We were faster on the second cable car and I was thrilled to see a black bear fishing upstream on the river while me and Emily were riding across.
There was one last easier section through the woods before we finally reached the Nahwitti River campsite. Based on the number of people at Cape Sutil, we were wondering what tenting options would be left to us at Nahwitti and we couldn’t believe it when we strolled in to a totally empty campsite. It’s a beautiful site with several tent pads in the woods and room for a few on the beach. Unlike Laura Creek and Irony Creek, the forest is much more airy at this location and you can see the beach from the trees. There was space on the beach, but it was still pretty close to the high tide line, so me and Emily decided to tent in the forest rather than take the risk since there wasn’t enough room for 2 tents. Brandon and Lien slept on the beach, they did have to build up another log wall, but they never got wet.
It was 8:30pm when we finally rolled into the camp, so our last night was more about surviving then thriving. The biggest concern was that we still had 11km to go the following day to catch our 4:30pm ferry, so we decided a 5am wakeup call would be required to give us enough time the following day. We skipped the campfire and I put the tent up while Emily immediately started on dinner and Brandon got water. We ate pretty quickly and spent the rest of the evening collecting enough water for the following day. There’s a water source at the Skinner Creek Campsite 2km away, but then there’s nothing for the remaining 9km, so we planned to bring 3 litres each with us.
Unfortunately the water source at Nahwitti River was not great. The river is a lot bigger than any of the other creeks and it flows into the ocean. The tide was up and Brandon commented that the treated water was tasting a little salty and we wondered how much tidal influence the ocean had on the river. Brandon’s assessment of “a little salty” was pretty tame – me and Emily struggled to drink it at all and decided to get more water in the morning when the tide would be on the way out.
Since we had an earlier morning, we hit the sack as early as possible. It was a little creepy in the woods with no one else around and we’d seen a lot of wolf tracks on the beach, so we agreed that everyone would take a bear horn on any nightly pee breaks and that if either tent heard a bear horn, we would all get up to check on it. We’d only been in the tent 10 minutes when we heard a horn from the boys tent. We’d been making fun of Lien the whole trip because he had accidentally set the horn off along the trail at least a dozen times, but we dutifully crawled out of the tent with our bear spray only to hear Brandon hollering up from the beach that “it was an accident! Abort!” We laughed and crawled back into the tent for the rest of the night.
I still have enough material for one more post (Part VI), so tune in for my final entry next week! I’ll finish with this excellent picture of Emily at her wit’s end on the trail: