By Norm Hann
A fleeting look at a secluded whitesand beach with rolling surf on a bluebird day.
That’s what set the hook and became the vision of inspiration for my desire to stand-up paddleboard along the West Coast Trail on Vancouver Island, British Columbia. It was 2006, and my partner, Jen Segger, and I were on a different expedition, trying to cover the entire 750-kilometre length of Vancouver Island by bicycle and foot within a four-day timeframe. Last summer—nine years later—that groggy, sleep-deprived view, plus our love for the rugged West Coast and the history of this trail, brought us back to attempt to paddle the WCT.
The Huu-ay-aht, Ditidaht and Pacheedaht First Nations have always lived along Vancouver Island’s west coast and used the trails and paddling routes of the area for trade and travel long before the first foreign sailing ships showed up. Late in the 1800s, a telegraph line was erected along the coastline, connecting lighthouses and villages in hopes of saving the lives of mariners. Eventually, the telegraph route became a life-saving trail for shipwreck victims and their rescuers, which, in turn, became Pacific Rim National Park and hiking the popular West Coast Trail became a BC rite of passage. Now, we were about to paddle it—an area known as the “Graveyard of the Pacific.”
We awoke from our beautiful beachside campsite at Pachena Bay to a calm and grey June morning. Travelling north-to-south along the trail was a logical route, as we would be able to take advantage of the fair-weather Westerlies that would build throughout the day. With our touring boards loaded up, we hitched a ride with the ebbing tide as it pulled us out of the bay and into our West Coast adventure.
Almost immediately, we encountered a huge number of grey whales. We paddled with so many that on a number of occasions we had to alter our course just to avoid them as they hugged the shoreline and scoured sand-bottomed areas to feed.
Passing Pachena Bay Lighthouse in the company of whales and sea lions, we travelled to Tsuquadra Point, 30 kilometres along the trail, where we landed on a protected beach for lunch. Shane, a local Ditidaht Watchman, was there to meet us. He was a little surprised to see a couple of stand-up paddleboarders on his beach. Shane was a great host and showed us sea caves and traditional burial sites. He also took us on a tour of a 5,500-year-old warrior camp and pointed out where the old longhouses once stood.
“On the water early, off the water early.” This is solid advice for safe travel on the West Coast, helping paddlers avoid the predictably strong midday Westerlies. Even I was impressed with the sudden strength of the winds that built during our short time on the beach with Shane. Knowing we had another 12 kilometres to our campsite at Coal Creek, just north of Carmanah Lighthouse, and confident in our ability to use the wind with a fully loaded touring board, we said goodbye to Shane and cautiously headed into the 15- to 20-knot Westerly.
This is where we saw the real advantage to coastal travel on a stand-up paddleboard, using the wind and swell to cover ground quickly. With the wind pushing onshore, we took a wider berth, passing Nitnat Narrows and using the three-to-four-foot wind-swell to surf our way south.
In between swells, I briefly looked to the shoreline to see a group of hikers trudging along the trail. I smiled, realizing how efficient it was to travel our way, versus slowly walking along the trail.
As quickly as the wind came up, it shut off, right in time for us to land on a secluded section of beach. We fired up the stove, set camp and enjoyed one of the most beautiful sunsets I have seen on the coast. We relived the day’s amazing encounters, confident in the knowledge we had completed this first leg safely and efficiently.
In 2006, during our Island traverse, I remember having the best $18 burger ever at Chez Monique’s. With her café located midway along the West Coast Trail, Monique has been serving burgers, snacks and coffee to weary trail-travellers for 25 years and she has become a legend. Even though Jen and I had just eaten and were minutes into our day’s paddle, I persuaded her to stop for a coffee at Monique’s. We made our way around the Carmanah Lighthouse and landed at a protected place the Ditidaht called, “Canoes Landing in Front of Village.” Monique was surprised to see how we had arrived. She shared stories from her time on the trail while we chatted about coastal travel on a SUP. I didn’t buy a $25 burger—today’s price—but I grabbed some licorice and gummy bears for the remainder of the trip.
Leaving Monique and Carmanah Point behind, it was a short paddle south to where we ran into that dreamy beach years ago. As Jen carried on, I stopped to catch a few glassy waves. I could have stayed there all day, but we still had a good chunk of paddling to do. I picked up the pace to catch Jen, letting the current pull me along the kelp beds.
Soon, the sandy beaches were replaced with rugged, slabby shorelines with few take-out spots. The sea conditions allowed us to hug the shoreline. I kept thinking about how terrifying this shoreline would be in a massive winter storm. We spent the rest of the day making our way south, while stopping to explore sea caves and passing rivers like Walbran, Logan and Cuillite.
Paddleboards provide a unique perspective of this part of the island. Fog-shrouded forest, coastal waterfalls and remote shorelines made it almost impossible not to stop every kilometre of the trip. We finished the day at Camper Creek, 62 kilometres along the trail, and set up our camp close to the ocean and away from the tent city. With ideal weather, we had covered 20 kilometres of coastline—which gave us a free afternoon to explore the shores of Camper Creek.
We awoke to fog, common on this part of the coast, but soon it cleared, unveiling another ideal day for the final section of our journey. The highlight of the morning was Owen Point, where the coastline morphs into Port San Juan. Monique had told us this was an essential stop—at the right tide you could take a boat through a hole in the rock. When we arrived, the tide was too low; we landed and explored the massive cave and towering sea stacks. Back on our boards, under a brilliant sun, we picked up the inflow wind, which moved us quickly to our finish at the Gordon Creek trailhead.
With a beachside hug, Jen and I celebrated our fulfilling trip. Our final stop was Renfrew Pub to meet Jen’s dad and commemorate our safe coastal passage with a cold beer. Although short, it was one of the best adventures we had done together. Knowing that we had run this trail years earlier and now had completed it by paddleboard left us content and inspired for more. The beauty, remoteness, ruggedness and unique perspective on this coastal classic will stay with us for a long time.