I was so nervous to encounter my first bear. The anticipation that I’d built up in my mind threatened to overwhelm me when I saw its brown, furry head pop up from behind a tree trunk just metres away. The bear, nonplussed, simply carried on its way, becoming lost among the green and brown foliage of the thick forest.
Despite the bear, it was the rats that almost broke my partner Alistair’s resolve. On our second night on the Juan de Fuca, he awoke to the sound of snuffling and gnawing at the side of our tiny two-man tent. Shaking me awake, he told me there was something outside, trying to get in.
At first, I thought it was another bear. Having recently flown over from England, we weren’t exactly used to wildlife that could eat you. What was this, Jurassic Park?
"It's trying to get inside the tent," he said, nudging the side of the tent in retaliation, hitting the as-of-yet unknown animal, which squealed and threw its weight back at him. It proceeded to run up the side and over the top of the tent, horrendously silhouetted by the moonlight as it came to rest on the top of my pack. Peeking out through the zip, Alistair confirmed it was a rat. A rat that was, for whatever reason, going back to gnawing—not the tent, but my backpack. It was a restless night's sleep.
Alistair and I were completing the Juan de Fuca Marine Trail on Vancouver Island, a 47-kilometre trail snaking its way along Vancouver Island’s coast through luscious rainforest. It features stunning views across the Strait of Juan de Fuca right to the US, the snowy white peaks of Washington’s Mount Olympus visible on clear days.
This was Alistair’s first attempt at a thru-hike; it was also the first time I would complete a thru-hike with someone else. With Alistair more inclined towards weekend city breaks, this was certainly set to be an experience. “Is there a Starbucks along the way?” he half-joked as we set off on the first day. You know what they say, opposites attract.
We started from Botanical Beach at the northern end of the trail. This is the most common approach hikers take, and with a first-come, first-serve approach to camping spots on beaches along the trail, you can spend as little or as much time as you’d like to complete it.
The bus dropped us in Port Renfrew at the beginning of the access road to the trailhead, about a two-kilometre walk. Our approach would take us three nights and four days, finishing at China Beach where a return bus would pick us up. Buses can be chartered through West Coast Trail Express.
The actual trail starts just after the enormous “Botanial Beach Juan De Fuca Park” sign. At first, it’s a simple forest track. Having dropped our envelopes of cash to pay for camping into the red deposit box, marked with the campsites and dates we planned to camp, we headed down the trail. My hand was resting on the bear spray strapped to my chest, something I’d never really considered having to use, but on our walk along the access road we’d been warned of a mama bear and cubs spotted a little farther along.
Alistair’s face was hard to read, but mine? Well, I was grasping the bear spray for a reason.
We’d heard about the infamous mud on the trail but following a heatwave and unfortunate forest fires across BC, conditions were set to be dry. We were eager to get to the coastline and the fresh sea breeze.
Our first day saw us hiking over relatively flat ground rather than difficult terrain, so we took ample opportunities to stand in warm patches of sunlight breaking through the trees, staring out across the blue strait. We were surrounded by a canopy of green and brown foliage and wild forests, the only sounds of crashing waves and wind.
It wasn’t long into the day before that first bear encounter, and I was glad to have gotten it out of the way. A furry head popped up from behind a tree as we followed the path through the forest. It’s a strange feeling to know you're walking so close to these wild and gorgeous animals, and seeing one was both nerve-wracking and exhilarating.
Camp that first night was spent in the thick of the forest at Little Kuitsche Creek campsite. A bear cache stood on a raised platform overlooking a little creek below. Its metal hinges grated each time someone used it.
Setting off early the next morning, just as other campers were beginning to stir, we headed through the trees eager to catch a glimpse of the ocean. As we pushed through the green brush that encroached onto the path, little beads of morning dew soaked our skin. Another dry, clear day lay before us.
For many people, myself included, a true sense of adventure comes from thru-hiking solo. Meeting people along the way has its charms, but completing vast stretches alone is an individual achievement, and that sense of isolation can’t easily be replicated. But as we came across the first red buoy marking the entrance to the beach trail on our second day, I was content to be here with my partner. Alistair scrambled down the little embankment first, dropping his bag to explore the exposed tide pools.
It was just the two of us out in this raw landscape of grey rock and beautiful blue ocean, cut off from mainland civilization by miles of forest on one side and the entirety of the strait on the other. Stepping around the deep tide pools and inching through the fields of mussels clinging to the rock like a black and oily blanket, it felt special to share this moment and unique experience with him.
As we rounded a bluff, we could see the beginning of Chin Beach. Following advice we’d received from hikers headed in the opposite direction, we set up camp in the middle of the three campsites. We found a spot close to the tide line, water source and a short walk from the bear cache and facilities. Arriving around midday, we made the most of the sun and rested our sore feet, relishing the view across the strait, with the snowy caps of Mount Olympus and mountains of Olympic National Park visible in the distance. Our tent nestled beneath a tree, cordoned off by large tree trunks that we used to lay out our gear and little coffee press. We broke into our chocolate to celebrate another day completed and, along with our coffee, drank in the view.
The campsites are simply worn patches of ground on the upper sections of the sandy beaches, divided up by dry driftwood and tree roots, some near the high tide line. A large tree trunk lay across the beach as if it were longing to be in the sea, whitewashed and worn smooth from years spent weathering the elements. Stacks of stones have been placed all along it, little cairns left by previous hikers. It was a moment to feel connected to everyone who had previously walked in our very footsteps. We created our own cairns, right at the end.
Since the trail can be completed in a northerly or southerly direction, we found Chin Beach campsite acted as the halfway point for parties converging from either direction, resulting in a scramble for prime camping spots. We greeted others as they traipsed into camp, the crunching sound of pebbles beneath their feet drifting in front to announce their approach.
The sun arced over the Strait of Juan de Fuca, turning the blue sky yellow and then a deep orange as it dipped behind a bank of clouds. We could see the silhouette of someone standing at the top of an enormous boulder lunging out from the water.
It was here that we encountered the rats, keeping us awake and almost convincing Ali that thru-hiking was not for him, but we broke camp early, making time for a bowl of hot porridge and coffee. With the sun shining through the morning fog, it was easy for Ali to laugh about his previous night of terror, confessing to me that at that moment, he’d wanted to go home. “I just can't handle rats,” he said.
Our last couple of days on the trail involved some more strenuous switchbacks and suspension bridges spanning gaps from dizzying heights. Dense woodland, beautiful beaches and isolated forest tracks contributed to this feeling of isolation and inaccessibility that likely attracts many to thru-hiking in general, but especially to the Juan de Fuca, and something Ali specifically appreciated.
We walked away with memories of other hikers: a pair of brothers, a retired group of women. Hiking is for everyone. It was a reminder that the time to complete a trail can be taken at any point in your life, distilling my anxiety that I’m never quite achieving enough.
For me, the moments of stillness and calm left the deepest impression: getting up for sunrise on the isolated Kuitsche beach, watching a wild pod of orcas cruising powerfully through the ocean and herds of seals sunbathing on the various outcrops of rock just metres away. I had a deep connection with these moments; moments that neither of us will forget.
I remember watching Alistair as he rested for a moment on the crest of a ridgeline. A steep drop fell away to either side and a light sprinkle of rain fell from the clouds above. His eyes were closed, and his face angled up to the sky, a small content smile playing across his lips.
By the end of the trip, those 47 kilometres we'd battled through simply didn't matter. You forget the pain, and instead are left with a sense of accomplishment. And, as Alistair confessed, a desire to do it all over again.