Editor’s note: Thanks to our regular travel correspondent Don Enright for this lively account of his recent adventure on Vancouver Island’s North Coast Trail. We’re happy to have you back on our pages, Mr. Enright!
Q: How did you get to this remote hike and who were you with?
A: We drove to Port Hardy and took a boat to the trailhead. The North Coast Trail is in two parts: the newer North Coast Trail which eventually connects with the older Cape Scott Trail. It’s all part of Cape Scott Provincial Park.
We were eight hikers, led by two guides from BCA Tours. Our head guide was Jesica (yes, only one “s”) Hanemayer, a kickass outdoorswoman. Our backup leader was Lenny Christianson, who’s had a long career as a skiing and hiking guide. They were both confident, prepared, laid-back, attentive and genuinely fun to hang out with.
Q: What drew you to the North Coast Trail?
A: Northern Vancouver Island is home to a wildness that I wanted to experience. I hiked the West Coast Trail a few years ago and it was unforgettable. There’s a feeling you get on the outer coast of Vancouver Island that I’ve only experienced in northern Norway and southern Chile, where it’s like you’re outside of time, an explorer on the edge of the world.
Q: Was this adventure what you expected?
A: I was anticipating the West Coast Trail with fewer people, but this landscape is different. The first couple of days take you through little rocky coves that create magical, framed vignettes around you. I also wasn’t expecting to be engaged by colonial history; traces of early Danish settlements are everywhere around Cape Scott.
Q: Were there challenges along the way?
A: Some of the rocky beaches were tough. We’re talking baseball-sized rocks that shift and slide on a slope as you move — an excellent leg workout and a great way to break in new boots, but not easy.
Plus, I swore I’d take a lighter pack on this trip and I failed. Too much weight on my aging back. Why do I do this?
And the terrain was gnarly, especially during the first few days. A lot of ups and downs through the woods, assisted by ropes. Wet tree roots. Slippery banks. Mud. Lots and lots of mud.
I broke a brand-new hiking pole when I hit a muddy patch and fell flat on my face. Later, I took my pole back to the store and they were like “Whoah, this never happens. Hey guys, look at this!” Yup, that’s me.
Q: What resonated with you most about this experience?
A: The ocean. The tides were unusually high when we were there. We camped on narrow stretches of beach just above the high tide line and the surf just thundered in. When you’re that close to the ocean, you start to learn from it, tune into it, feel its strength and understand its rhythms.
I’ve been so busy with work and daily life expectations that dropping out of my usual world — getting offline and walking along the shore carrying nothing but my food and my bed on my back — was an exercise in clarity.
Walk. Think. Dream. Listen to the waves. Smell the ocean. Feel the earth under my feet. Focus.
Q: How about a few highlights you won’t soon forget?
A: Hiking in and out of the trail’s isolated coves was like walking from one movie set into the next. At one point, we stopped for a rest and heard a strange mewing sound coming from the ocean. I was stymied until I pulled out my binoculars and spotted a mother and baby sea otter doing the backstroke through a kelp bed. I’d never heard them vocalize like that!
Another day, I woke up early and walked alone into the sunrise. A low tide offered an endless expanse of wet beach until the tide changed and the surf started rolling in. Flocks of California gulls glided in to rest after a night’s migration. The September temperature was cool. Pacific wrens called from the forest. After snacking on a few salal berries, I returned to join our group just in time for morning coffee.
Q: Describe the area’s nature and wildlife.
A: There are western sandpipers, barely bigger than sparrows, that wheel in and poke about in the sand along the coastline. Loons and cormorants, too. Giant Sitka spruce in the forest. Bog gentians still blooming, an impossible blue. Weird autumn mushrooms everywhere. Tide pools full of hermit crabs and green anemones.
Then you have the cougars, wolves and bears. Big fat mama bears sending their babies up the trees so we could go by. Giant daddy bears digging through the intertidal zone. We were cautious around them, giving them lots of space.
It was great to see wildlife behave like wildlife, with no habituation behaviours that I could see. We didn’t actually see the wolves and cougars, but they were around us. Fresh tracks all over.
Q: Any cultural moments to share with us?
A: When we made our way back south, we took a side trip to the Indigenous community of Alert Bay and its U’mista Cultural Centre.
At the centre’s origin, the on-site educator explained to me, were sacred objects stolen from the local people during a period when the potlatch was outlawed by the Canadian government. (Potlatches were banned between 1885 and 1951).
They sued for their objects, got them back from museums and private collections around the world, and then created this place to ensure “the survival of all aspects of cultural heritage” belonging to the Kwakwa̱ka̱ʼwakw.
The centre offers a really bold, first-rate storytelling experience. “U’mista” — for the record — translates into “the return of something important.”
Q: Who should do this trip and why?
A: This hike is for anyone who is ready for a challenge, but wanting the company and support of a professional hiking company. It’s for anyone who loves waves, birds, tide pools, trees and wild, salty wind. Best of all, it’s a chance to explore a wilderness that’s off the beaten track.
Q: You’ve hiked most of your life. What’s the attraction?
A: There’s a yin and yang to hiking that has sustained me through forty years of wilderness walking.
I hike to push my body, feel my heartbeat, work up a sweat and then fold myself, fully spent, into my sleeping bag at the end of the day. But I also hike to dawdle along a creek, taking two hours to cover 300 metres.
I hike for solitude, just to absorb the silence around me. But I also hike to be with people, total strangers or old friends, and to delve into conversations that only happen when you spend hours together without distraction.
I hike to relax, to let go of the world and its worries, and to re-energize myself so I can meet life’s challenges again.
I think that’s really why I hike: few activities are deeply relaxing and fully energizing at the same time. Hiking is that.
Our writer was a guest of BCA Tours, which did not review or edit his story before publication. For more Don Enright stories, see his posts from Quebec (An icy “affaire de coeur”), Manitoba (Reeling with Memories in Manitoba), Nova Scotia (A Love Story), and British Columbia (A celebration of living culture, Mythic Messages, and Don Enright’s West Coast Trail Adventure.)