On Saturday, July 31 at 6:15 am our journey began by shuttle bus in Victoria to the trail head at China Beach. Finally, after months of planning, a big investment in equipment, and 4 bear barrels weighted down with enough food for 8 people for five days, we hit the trail. This was going to be a nice flat beach hike with a few headlands to climb over, or so we thought.
Lesson #1: Read the trail book and look very closely at the contour lines on the map!
Hey, we were busy and my husband’s previous beach hike on the Olympic Peninsula in Washington State, south down the coast, had been just that. So…we assumed that the trail would be similar. Not.
The Juan de Fuca Trail is described as a strenuous multi-day hike that tests the abilities of experienced backpackers. We planned to complete the trail in five days ending up at Botanical Beach just outside of Port Renfrew. We had the return trip on the West Coast Shuttle booked to pick us up on Wednesday, August 4 at 5pm beside the Port Renfrew Hotel. Little did we know what challenges lay ahead over the next five days!
After a moderate 9 km hike, we camped at Bear Beach for the first night. A wee nap before dinner after a day of hiking became the norm for most of us. Then it was picture taking time, dinner and a game of Hearts.
I made wonderful use of my wide angle lens for the beach shots. My husband was jealous! But I didn’t get as many ‘on the trail’ photos mostly because I was focused on the trail.
Kids never get tired of exploring the beach…rocks, driftwood, water, mussels. We even saw some whales in the distance. Nice campsite and a quite delicious meal of rehydrated beef rotini and instant mashed potatoes.
Day 2 was our real test. This 11 km portion is rated as most difficult. As we discovered, there is an enormous difference between moderate and most difficult. We renamed this portion of the trail ‘for masochists only’! It consists of 12 headlands to ascend and descend resulting in approximately 3000ft of elevation. There are some switchbacks to ease the pain but also a surprising number of vertical scrambles up the headlands that require grabbing onto tree roots and negotiating quite a lot of mud. After 6km of this we had lunch… I wasn’t sure I was going to make it to the next campsite.
Lesson #2: On the trail, as is often in life, there is no turning back…you have no other option but to continue to move forward.
We arrived at Chin Beach exhausted and nabbed the last campsite big enough for our group. Unfortunately it was beside a very smelly outhouse…we named it ‘the ensuite’ and it became a running joke for the entire trip when choosing a campsite.
Many of the other hikers we met at Chin were equally surprised by the difficulty of the trail between Bear Beach and Chin Beach. We were tired but relieved that tomorrow’s hike was only rated ‘difficult’. We had made it through the tough part.
Chin is a small beach. We ate dinner, made a fire, chatted with other hikers and my son Michael left a small inuksuk on some driftwood as a reminder of our visit.
Fog had rolled in the morning of the third day. It added to the feeling of somewhat anxious anticipation about what this day’s hike would be like. We hiked down the beach to find the trailhead into the forest. It appeared that the trail began about 15-20 ft or so above us on a rocky outcropping over the sand below, before continuing on into the forest. Hmm! Some of us climbed up with our packs on but I opted for sending my pack up first and then not very gracefully, clambering up after.
A few nasty steep bits at the beginning but definitely a reprieve from yesterday’s punishment, we hiked 8 km to beautiful Sombrio beach. There is one tricky spot where the trail skirts the edge of the cliff around picturesque Sombrio Point before you descend to the beach below. One slip on this narrow foot wide trail and you would fall to the waves or rocks below. We were glad to leave that part of the trail behind us.
Sombrio Beach is a lovely wide sandy beach, very popular with day-trippers and surfers. It is very different from the isolation of Chin beach and Bear beach as there is no day use area with parking at these other beaches.
One couple brought their two very active dogs with them. A friendly but poorly trained Lab mix stole 2 socks from our group.We were then entertained while sipping our hot tea by his owner’s antics as the owner tried to retrieve the socks unsuccessfully with treats before finally leaping from a rock onto the dog and scaring him into dropping the socks!
We also learned the story of the history of Sombrio Beach from another hiker. Apparently Sombrio was home to a year round community of ‘hippies’ for about 20 years from the 1970’s to the 90’s before the BC government bought the land and turned it into a park.
There were lots of areas to explore and take photos in particular a lovely hidden waterfall cascading from the rock cliffs above. It was accessed via a short path up the shallow stream that served as our fresh water source.
This was our last beach campsite of the trip. The sand was warm and soft for sleeping and that evening we were treated to a beautiful sunset.
Day 4 was rated as a moderate 13 km hike to Paysant Creek, a campsite in the forest. We could have stopped at Little Kuitshe Creek for the night but we wanted to make sure we arrived at Botanical Beach early the next morning to enjoy the tide pools at low tide.
The trail started on the sandy beach and then through a boulder field along the water’s edge which was quite manageable and not strewn with car sized boulders as I has imagined! We really had followed the trail from the most difficult hiking to progressively easier and easier hiking. Or maybe we were just getting used to it.
At this point the trail veered out from the forest onto the beach at times… not a sand beach but crusty black slabs of rock stretching out into the sea.
Moderate hiking but a long day none the less. We saw lots of fresh bear scat on the trail and a cougar paw print in the mud along the trail. We had made use of the metal bear boxes at the campsites when available and carefully stored any attractants in our bear barrels at night.
Paysant Creek is in the valley below and the campsites are among the trees up on the ridge. It is different from the beach…very still and quiet…filled with tall trees and ferns. The bear cache is 2 tall poles with a hook and pulley system to hang your food at a distance from the campsites. We reminded the kids, that for safety, to use the buddy system for any midnight trips to the outhouse as it is very close to the bear cache. At about 4 am my husband ducked out behind the tent for a minute. Soon after he returned I heard a metallic clanking noise from in the direction of the bear cache. Three times…jangle, jangle jangle. I listened for any other sounds but it seemed our late night visitor had given up and left.
Our last morning my oldest son pushed us to get moving early, forgo making lunches, and hustle on to Botanical Beach. He has loved to explore tide pools ever since he was a little boy living in Washington State. Ottawa has its charms, but no tide pools.
An easy 8 km hike much of it on boardwalks with some wooden stairs to climb up and down and we arrived at our destination before lunch. We had done it! We had travelled 47 km over terrain of varying degrees of difficulty for 5 days and had all made it to the end of the trail with a few bruises and blisters but no real injuries. Along the way a lot of ibuprofen was required to combat sore muscles and middle aged hip joints. My husband’s big toe nails were black from pressing into the toe of his boots on the descents and he may still lose those nails. But we made it!
And that reminds me of lesson #3: Don’t forget your hiking poles! These should be required equipment along with your boots… a perfect match… like peanut butter and jelly or ham and cheese. My husband forgot his in the rush to leave Victoria and paid for it with blackened toe nails. I brought mine and I could not have made it up and down all those headlands without them. They give you stability going down and extra push going up.
Botanical Beach had it’s own rocky terrain unlike that of the other beaches we had visited. It appeared somewhat like a vast moonscape with sunken pools of water in warm ochre rock. Lots of purple sea urchins populated the pools but we didn’t see many sea anemones or starfish. It was not a day for the ‘lowest tide’ so perhaps they were farther out.
Our final stop before the 2 1/2 km hike out to Port Renfrew was Botany Bay. My husband and I sat on the beach while the kids explored yet more tide pools. A family of 6 or so stopped to chat. They were just about to start out on the West Coast Trail and noticed our packs on the beach. Were we just starting our hike or finishing? How did it go?
It went well. Everyone pitched in to help cook, wash up and pump water for drinking. When my pack was too heavy with camera gear and a tent, my 18 year old son carried the tent for me. The older boys made sure that my husbands’ bear barrel was the lightest…they have young legs and backs! The younger boys, 12 and 14, did remarkably well carrying 27-30lbs on their backs. And my son’s girlfriend wasn’t scared off after roughing it for 5 days on the trail with his entire family. Yeah, my husband and I lagged 10-20 minutes behind the others on the ascents but we made it. And it is possible for a woman to go 5 days without washing her hair!
As Ralph Waldo Emerson so famously said,
“Life is a journey, not a destination.”
Lunch on the deck at the Port Renfrew Hotel was a wonderful feast of calamari and halibut washed down with a few glasses of beer to celebrate!