Cape Scott and North Coast Trail: Part III

The Saga continues – here’s Part 1 and Part 2 if you’re joining in the middle.

On Day 3 we finally started the North Coast Trail. As I mentioned before, most people start with the North Coast Trail and continue on to Cape Scott, but because of some conflicts with the water taxi dates due to Covid-19, we decided to do the trail backwards. So instead of starting with a water taxi from Port Hardy to Shushartie Bay, we had already hiked 37km and we still 43km to go. We hiked from Guise Bay to Nissen Bight before lunch and then continued from Nissen to Laura Creek, our first section on the North Coast Trail.

From the end of Nissen Bight, it’s about 5km in the woods, followed by another kilometre along the beach to reach the campsite. Our feet were already aching from pounding across so many beaches, so it actually felt like a bit of a relief to start climbing up into the woods. There was a noticeable change to the conditions of the trail as soon as we entered the forest. It started with a steep climb up towards Nahwitti Cone and then it was 5km of poorly maintained trail and mud.

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The North Coast Trail is a pretty bare bones trail, besides keeping the brush at bay, it seems that the trail is left pretty wild and it makes for a very technical hike. There’s a lot of mud to navigate around as well as tons of obstacles from the trees. You’re constantly climbing up and over logs, under branches, and jumping your way around mud pits. The Juan de Fuca was a similar experience for me and Emily, so we didn’t come across anything unexpected, but we definitely forgot just how challenging and slow these kind of hikes can be.

At first the obstacles were a welcome distraction from our aching feet. When you put your brain to work navigating the obstacles, it does distract from your other pains, but the forest paths make for REALLY slow progress and eventually you just get frustrated at how long it takes to make any kind of progress. This was Lien’s first real challenge. He’d never been on a technical coastal trail before and so he really had no frame of reference for what it would be like. When we first switched our plans from Mount Assiniboine to the North Coast Trail, his first response was, “well at least it will be an easier trail!” We all laughed at him and informed him it would actually be a lot harder, but I can see where the misconception comes in and I have made the same assumption in the past. Mountain trails appear to be harder because of the large elevation gain, but coastal trails often still have a ton of elevation gain hidden among the relentless up and down along the coastline, as well as they’re usually a lot more technical.

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There was a marked difference on Day 3 though in that we barely saw any people. We’d started hiking Cape Scott on the weekend, so it had been crawling with people, but it was now Tuesday and so even on our hike to Nissen Bight we didn’t see many people. After Nissen the trail really emptied out. We saw one hiker just as we were starting the climb to Laura Creek – he was returning from an overnight at Irony Creek (that’s a 19km hike!). After that the only other people we saw was one group of guys who were camping at Nissen and had day hiked out to Laura Creek and back. In mine and Emily’s opinion, it’s a waste of time trying to avoid the mud on a trail like the NCT, so we were both pretty muddy and had wet feet by the end of the day. We had wet feet the entire 4 days we hiked the Juan de Fuca, so in our opinion keeping our feet dry until Day 3 had been a pretty big success. But when we passed the guys coming back from Laura Creek and saw their completely mudless legs and boots, we had to conclude that they were clearly witches to stay so dry.

Lien struggled along this section, mostly from the repetitive uphill sections. I started stronger along the wooded stretch, but eventually it really got to me too. I was tracking the hike along my GPS and every 30-60 minutes I’d check in to see how much progress we were making and it was always a mistake. Your location barely moves and it really only serves to de-motivate you. What was more depressing was that I’d read in the trail book that this was one of the easier wooded sections of the trail, so it made me really apprehensive about what was to come later. So much of making it through these long hikes is mental and often you just have to focus on making it through one part at a time.

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Unlike the rest of us though, Day 3 was where Emily peaked. She had a rough Day 2, but she was in her element on this section. Despite her blistered feet, she was our cheerleader for the day and led us through the worst of it. One of the real saving graces of having 4 people in your group is that we didn’t all fall apart at the same time. There was always someone who was struggling, but when that happened, someone else would always step up to help motivate the group. The constant uphill was Lien’s mental block for the day, so we all cheered when we finally started heading downhill in earnest and could see the beach peaking out through the trees. We still had 1 more kilometre to go across the beach, which is it’s own kind of hell at the end of a long day, but at least you make a faster pace.

There was some confusion about where the water source was, so we spent a bit of time poking around for it at the end of the beach, before a closer read revealed that it was actually located right at the campsite. I’d read Laura Creek only had 4 tent pads, so despite seeing no one else on the trail, I was still a little concerned about availability. Me and Emily were anxious to get off our weary feet, so we took off towards the campsite. Fortunately there was only 1 other group of 5 guys at the campsite and they were only using 2 of the tent pads, so there were 2 more left for us.

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I have to admit, as relieved as I was to sit down, the tent pads were a little gloomy after the beautiful campsite the previous night. The trees were extremely thick and didn’t let a lot of light in, plus everything felt damp. Fortunately Brandon is much more determined than me or Emily and when he showed up, he dropped off his backpack and declared there was no way we were camping in the woods and he would find us a spot on the beach.

There’s no where to camp on the beach near the tent pads because it’s a steep cobble beach, but if you continue another 200m to the water source, Laura Creek, there’s a small sandy beach with enough room for 3 tents. There was one couple set up there already and they kindly moved their tent to the side so that we could set up our two tents next to them. It was extremely windy, but a definite improvement over the wooded tent pads! So much thanks to Brandon for that!

We put up the tents as fast as we could and chucked all our gear inside to keep them from blowing away. We changed right away because it was cool with the wind in our sweaty clothes. Once I bundled up with a few layers though, I forgot about the wind and was thrilled when the sun finally came out for the first time since we’d started the trail!

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The weather on these trails really is wild – it’d been overcast most of the day, but within a half hour the wind completely blew the clouds away and we found ourselves with a gorgeous sunny beach view – so that helped with the chill as well. It was somewhere around 7pm at this point. It ended up taking us about 4 hours to go the 6km from Nissen to Laura, so we knew we were in for some longer days.

By Day 3 we’d started to get into a bit of a routine. Lien got water from the creek to start filtering, Brandon started working on getting a fire going, and me and Emily started boiling water for hot drinks/soup and started making dinner. Emily was the chef for day 3 and served us a cheesy pasta that we’d made from a backpacking website. It was vegan so it used coconut milk powder and nutritional yeast to get the creamy cheesy flavour – it was my first time using either ingredient and it was actually pretty good.

The only downside to our beach campsite was that it was a 200m walk back to the outhouse and bear cache, but definitely still worth it and we ended up having a great night relaxing on the beach by our fire. Laura Creek definitely had the best sunset of the trip; when the clouds cleared out we had an excellent view of the sun as it dipped below the horizon and filled the sky with its orange-yellow glow. We were zonked from the long hike, but relieved that our biggest day was now behind us. Over the next 3 days we’d be averaging about 12km a day, so we were optimistic that though the hiking wouldn’t get easier, the days would at least get shorter. It was an incorrect assumption, but more on that in the next entry, Part IV!

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Road Trip to Steamboat Rock

Steamboat Rock is a little bit further than I normally venture on the weekend, but we decided to visit on a random weekend in May last year and ended up having a great trip! Spring is always rough because the weather gets super nice in Vancouver, but it still takes several months for the snow to melt in the mountains. I was itching to take my hiking boots out, so we decided to head in search of less snowy trails.

It’s about a 6 hour drive to Steamboat Rock, which is a state park in Washington on the other side of the cascades. It’s a long distance for a single weekend, so we decided to get a head start and drove halfway there on Friday night, crossing the border in Abbotsford and camping in the cascades south of Manning Park and Ross Lake. It was after 10pm by the time we pulled into the campsite, so we didn’t do much Friday night except set up camp and get some sleep. We were still in the mountains, so it was pretty cold overnight and I was glad I had packed my winter bag. Emily was sweating in her homemade down sleeping bag, but the rest of our poor friends, Lien, Kevin, and Yuka, were all pretty cold as it was a first time experience for them camping in the mountains in May.

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We got up early on Saturday and had the most beautiful drive through the rest of the cascades. The most interesting part about driving to Steamboat Rock is that you pass through almost every landscape you can think of on the way there. We were below the snow line at the campsite and the rivers were flowing fast from snow melt. But as we continued, we drove back up past the snow line and were surrounded by gorgeous snowy mountain vistas. It was a little jarring to see that there were still a ton of snowshoers and skiers out in May when we were all anxiously awaiting the next season.

We left the cascades and entered the flatlands that slowly turned into desert. It’s a really different kind of landscape, but beautiful in it’s own way. We passed several dams and reservoirs before eventually coming to Steamboat Rock State Park. The old river has carved out canyon like features at Steamboat Rock and the river bed has since been impounded for use as a reservoir, so it makes for a dramatic view looking at the rock canyon and the still water below.

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We got a campsite right next to the hiking trail. All the campsites were car camping and it was primarily RV’s at the park. Not really my preferred kind of camping, but it was easy and we had a gorgeous view of Steamboat from our campsite. It differed from a lot of campsites I’ve stayed in in that there were pretty much no trees around, just grassy fields running into the lake, Not ideal for privacy, but great for stargazing, which was one of our other motivations for visiting the park.

I really liked the hike, although I wasn’t super impressed with the maintenance of the trail going up the canyon. The campsite is located next to the lake, so you start the trail by hiking about 200 metres up to the top of the canyon. From there it’s a pretty flat hike around the edge of the canyon, with some great views of the lake and surrounding area. But the hike up to the canyon is pretty sketchy. I’ve done my fair share of sketchy hikes, but this one is located right next to a 300 site campground filled with RV’s, so it’s a pretty high trafficked walk and I saw a lot of inappropriate footwear and preparedness that I thought warranted the park investing some more work in the trail. You’re mostly hiking up scree and some sections where the rock has all worn away on the sides and it’s a steep, slippery trek. It’s not too bad on the way up, but really dangerous coming down as it’s super easy to dislodge rock that could hit those below you. I personally fell twice and scrapped up my hands a lot.

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But once you get to the top, it’s pretty easy going! We hiked the entire trail around the rim of the canyon and I really liked it. The topography is so different from what we’re used to seeing and it was fun to explore something new. What was surprising though, was that we saw a lot of people on the hike up, but once we started hiking the rim, we didn’t see a single other person! So I think a lot of people just hike to the top for the view and then go back down (more reason to invest in the trail).

I have barely spent any time in the desert, but between this trip and my trip to Vegas (which was only a few weeks before), I went on two desert hikes in the same month! We joked on our hike to Valley of Fire State Park in Neveda that we would freak out if we saw any rattlesnakes or scorpions. Well we had that opportunity at Steamboat Rock State Park! We actually ended up seeing an impressive amount of wildlife on the trip. We saw one deer on the road driving through the cascades, as well as 3 more deer hanging out on top of Steamboat Rock. We also saw a ton of marmots of all sizes on Steamboat Rock and the whole park was filled with all different kinds of birds, from small songbirds and blackbirds, to eagles and dozens of vultures.

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But the most jarring was definitely seeing a rattlesnake for the first time. Or more accurately, hearing a rattlesnake for the first time. Me, Emily, and Lien were hiking ahead when we heard a rattle and frantically started looking around, immediately spotting a rattlesnake staring at us to our right. We backed away, but evidently he was just as afraid of us and turned on his heel and slithered away into the bushes, shaking his tail at us. About 10 minutes later, Lien came across another snake, this time directly on the trail. This one didn’t have a rattle in it’s tail, but after a bit of research, we think it was a baby rattlesnake, because it definitely wasn’t a garter snake. Kevin (who missed out on both snake sightings) thought it would be funny to secretly shake a bottle of pills later on the trail and watch the three of us freak out, but he got a stern talking to about how traumatic it was for the rest of us.

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Snake trauma aside, it was a super fun trip. It was really hot out and even though it was only May 4th when we went, me, Emily, and Lien decided to take a quick dip in the lake when we finished the hike. It was the earliest I’ve ever been swimming and while it was cold, it really wasn’t that bad and had nothing on some of the glacial lakes I’ve swam in. It felt great to wash all the dirt off and the cold water feels so good on aching muscles.

One of the pros of spring camping is that the fire ban hasn’t yet kicked it! So we spent the rest of the evening roasting hot dogs and enjoying a campfire. Yuka impressed us all with her wood chopping skills and Lien was ecstatic about finally getting to try out his tent for the first time. Once the stars came out we all spent about an hour making some attempts at night photography. They weren’t some of my best photos, but I had fun messing around with the camera and actually having a tripod for once (thanks Kevin!).┬áThe only downside to the campsite was the sandflies. It wasn’t bad during the day, but once the sun went down they came out in swarms. Fortunately they don’t bite, but it was really annoying and a ton snuck into our tent somehow.

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We rolled out around 10am the next morning and had a long drive back to Vancouver. It wasn’t too bad on the way there because we broke up the drive between two days, but it definitely made for a long drive back. We stopped in this cute little town called Leavenworth on the way back for lunch. It’s in the middle of the cascades and the whole town is German. It’s a total tourist trap with all kinds of German restaurants and attractions. We had schnitzel burgers and ice cream before hitting the road again. We hit some pretty bad traffic after that, but we found an old CD case in the car with all of Lien and Kevin’s angsty teenage music from the early 2000’s and had a great laugh seeing what kind of music they used to like. Apparently Kevin had a penchant for angry German screamo and techno tv show theme songs, while Lien had a secret love for country music and Avril Lavigne.

So overall I had a lot of fun on this trip. I do think it would probably work better with an extra day to explore through the cascades a little more, but it was really fun to get out of Vancouver and explore something totally new!

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Artist Point Snow Camping

Well it’s that time of year again! Time for my annual snow camping trip with Carolyn and Brandon! It’s a new hobby for us, so we’ve been trying to get out at least once a year to work on our snow camp skills. Carolyn broke her ankle back in July last year and it’s been a really long time healing, so this was our first time out together since last Spring. We have a few snow camps on our bucket list, but we wanted a shorter one for her first snowshoe since breaking her ankle, so we decided to try Artist Point in Washington. It has a fair bit of elevation gain, but it’s not very long – only 6km round trip.

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Our first discovery though was that camping across the border sucks. I made a few trips down to Washington this year with Lien for day hikes, but when you’re trying to pack for an overnight trip, it’s a big hassle. We had to leave snacks like jerky, dried mango, cheese, and trail mix behind, and modify our normal camp dinner. Brandon makes a mouth watering backcountry thai curry chicken that we eat on almost every adventure, but we couldn’t bring the chicken or veggies across, so we opted for my dehydrated vegetarian chili and macaroni instead. The chili is fine, it’s just not quite as rewarding as thai curry chicken (okay A LOT less rewarding).

So crossing the border was definitely a pain, but I have to admit, we’ll probably keep on doing it because there are some really great hikes in the Baker-Snoqualmie National Forest. The actual border crossing was quick because we crossed in Abby at the Sumas Crossing and drove to Mount Baker from there. I snowshoed to Artist Point last year, which was what inspired me to try snow camping there this year. In the summer you can drive most of the way up to Artist Point, but the road and parking lots aren’t plowed in the winter. There’s a ton of open space at the top for the parking lots, which is why I thought it would be a great place to snow camp!

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We started hiking up sometime around noon. The last time I’d hiked up there it was a bluebird day and there was a million other people on the trail, but it was a bit overcast when we went, so there was definitely less people around, which was nice. The area had also received a massive dump of snow the night before (60 cms!), so the entire area was covered with a fresh blanket of shimmering powder. It was definitely a snowshoe day (as opposed to spikes). We had nice views hiking up, though the occasional clouds moved through, sometimes obscuring our view of the mountains, but not our visibility.

That changed a bit when we reached the top. You come up a pretty steep slope before getting to a large flatish base area where the parking lot(s) are located in the summer. The area attracts a lot of backcountry skiers and from there some hike up to Artist Point (another ~15-20mins), while others continue on to table mountain or down into the bowl going back towards the (base) parking lot. We didn’t want to camp right on Artist Point because it’s pretty exposed, but planned to find a somewhat sheltered spot around the parking area. Once we crested the last slope though, the fog moved in and it became harder to see where we were going. Plus in the winter it’s really hard to tell what is actually the parking lot. We wanted somewhere sheltered, but also with a good view. We ended up picking a spot looking out towards Table Mountain and Mount Baker that had a few banks sheltering it on either side.

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Fortunately the fog moved out again and our visibility improved a lot while we were setting up camp. We always dig out tent hole too small, so Carolyn outlined a truly massive site for us to shovel out this time. It was clearly too big, but for some reason none of us argued with her and just got to work shoveling! It took quite a while because there had been so much snow the night before and we had to dig down about a metre before we could finally start stomping it down and compacting the snow. Eventually we got enough space for the tent and realized we’d kind of over-shoveled a bit if we still wanted a snow wall to provide some shelter for the tent, so we built up a snow counter on the last side and made a pretty slapdash kitchen that actually ended up being pretty good.

The later it got, the fewer people around, but one giant group showed up in the middle of the afternoon – it must have had 40 people! We think it was an avalanche safety course because there seemed to be one guide and they started digging some shelters themselves. It was obvious from their packs they weren’t staying overnight, so we kept joking they should come dig out our hole for us since they weren’t going to use theirs anyways!

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The temperature was around -5 degrees, which in my opinion is perfect for snow camping because you don’t want the snow to be wet at all. It continued to snow on and off as we were setting up our shelter, but the wind kept down and we didn’t have any problems. I love snow camping, but it is definitely a lot more work. It was pretty late in the afternoon by the time we finished the shelter and we decided we wanted to start melting snow for water right away since it takes forever and it gets dark early. It did take a long time, but fortunately the snow was all very clean and it tasted a lot better to drink than the snow on some of our previous trips. We started dinner before dark, but it was definitely dark by the time we finished and started cleaning up.

We puttered around camp for a bit with our headlamps, cleaning up and sharing Carolyn’s flask. Eventually we climbed into the tent because we always look forward to getting into our sleeping bags on a cold winter night. By the time we were all geared up and ready for bed, Carolyn asked me to check the time and I turned on my phone to see 7:30pm staring back at me! I couldn’t believe it! We all knew the sun sets early, but we had a good laugh at ourselves all set up and ready for bed that early! At Elfin Lakes I’d set up and done some star photography, which kept us up a bit later, but the clouds were moving around a lot and it wasn’t really a great night for star photos, though we did catch a great view of Orion at one point.

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We read for a little bit, but it’s cold with your hands and arms out of your sleeping back, so it was probably still only 8:30pm when we turned off the lights and went to bed. Carolyn was thrilled about it because she loves to go to bed early without anyone making fun of her for it! As usual, it was a fair bit of work to keep warm overnight, but we all managed it and it was 7:30am before we finally got up.

It was a big change from the previous night when we crawled out of the tent. It was a gorgeous bluebird day with the sun shining down on us! We wanted to make first tracks up to Artist Point, so we grabbed some snacks and postponed breakfast to hike up to the point. It was definitely a good way to warm up! We were all sweating by the time we reached the top and we stayed up there for a while taking photos and goofing around in the snow. The landscape looked much the same as the last time I’d snowshoed up there, which was also a bluebird day, but the big difference was that we were the only people on the mountain.

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The point gives a great view of Mount Shuksan, but the Baker side stole my attention on this trip because there were a ton of clouds sitting in the valley around it and it felt really cool to be up above the clouds. While we were up there we noticed the fog was starting to creep up the valley on both sides and we decided to trek back to the campsite for breakfast. By the time we got back the fog had totally moved in and within 30 minutes you couldn’t see any of the view any more! I felt bad for all the day hikers and skiers coming up later, but lucky that we got to enjoy the nice weather before the clouds moved it. It wasn’t snowing, but visibility was pretty bad and I can see how it would be easy to get lost in those conditions. So it was a good reminder of how fast things can change in the backcountry.

Otherwise it was a pretty uneventful climb down. Snowshoes definitely aren’t as fun going downhill, so we had a few stumbles on the way down, but no more injured ankles! I think we can definitely call this trip another success!