Here is my story of our hike to Cape Scott this past July, a truly incredible adventure to say the least, one of our best. I know it maybe a bit long winded, but, I write for myself first, and hopefully, give you a sense of the wilderness that is still out there, specially for those of you who never may have a chance to get out to these type of places.
The pictures too, of which we took over almost 1,000 of, will give you a sense of the remoteness. And, when it comes to the wolf....what is our saying.."If there are NO pictures it did not happen!" Well..read on.....
On Wolves and Wilderness
The large Vancouver Island wolf made a purposeful beeline towards us, his huge feet not making a sound on the rocks. We were about to have a very close encounter with one of the rarer species of animal on Vancouver Island, one that we will never forget.
Last year, my son Matt and I decided we would do a wilderness backpack trip out to the Cape Scott Lighthouse, another place I had not been back to for forty years. This was long before the trendy, outdoor crowd existed, showing up still sipping Starbucks, brand new everything, and driving a nice shiny Subaru Forester. My brother and I hiked in then; the trail was all mud for the whole distance, some sixty five kilometers for the round trip. It was made into a park in 1973 and we wanted to see it in all its pristine wilderness form. It took us a whole day to hike in, fighting the knee high mud, which tried to suck our boots off in every step.
Even now it takes a day of traveling just to get to the trail head, the last two hours on a brute of a logging road, where the very road bed threatens to tear your tires to shreds. There is also the specter, which if you have ever traveled on the coastal logging areas, of meeting active logging trucks. They obey their own rules, they CANNOT stop, and they CANNOT move over, they own the road. We were to encounter one on the way back, its load towering over the vehicles.
We stayed at my brother’s place on Thursday night, thus letting us get an early start on Friday, arriving at the trail head at 9:30 in the morning. As part of our planning for the trip, we had decided to travel as light as possible, making good choices for clothing and food. Today's quick dry material makes hiking in warm weather a treat, as the moisture is wicked away, so there is no chaffing at all. For food we decided on high calorie items, oatmeal on the morning, with raisins, and Sidekick rice dishes for dinner. During the day we snacked on trail mix and beef jerky for some fat and protein. The Sidekick rice dishes are great, as they require very little cooking, thus saving stove fuel, and more weight. I ended up cooking for the 4 days on one tank of fuel in my old school stove.
We started out onto the trail under a foggy overcast sky, which made the temperature prefect for hiking with a pack on. Our destination for base camp was 17.4 kilometers away. My pack weighed in at 30 lbs, Matt's was just over 38 lbs, as he had the tent and his larger camera gear. The trail starts off with an uphill climb, into the lush green North Coast jungle of foliage and old growth forest. Pictures do not do it justice, the scale of the trees is hard to visualize, and the lush plant life almost makes the air green too. I felt pretty good on the first climb, the padding on my pack is old now, nothing like the new packs of today. I wonder how many miles are on my pack, after 40 years of hiking and mountain climbing. It was new in 1972, state of art then, external aluminum frame, hip belt, waterproof, and light. Today's packs are heavy right off the bat, so many straps and stuff; it is quite silly in some ways. The difference in weight could be likened to one more day’s food that could be carried, or another liter of water.
The 6 kilometer mark was to be our first snack stop, as we knocked off the trail. Picture taking was first and foremost, wanting to document this trip as much as possible. Too many times we get back and find we hardly took any pictures. In 1973 film and developing was expensive, so I have few pictures documenting the trip then. We were covering a kilometer every fifteen minutes or so at the start, so we had the 12 kilometer mark as our lunch stop, roughly three hours into the hike, with another two hours after that. Snack was some trail mix and chocolate, dropping our packs for a nice breather from the weight. The sound of birds in the forest is amazing, so many different calls, some echoing off into the green canopy of tree cover. Occasionally we could hear the screech of an eagle high above the tree tops.
The trail now is a mix of board walk, corduroy, and natural foot path. The Parks people have tried to cover the swampier parts to both minimize trail damage, and obviously just make the hiking experience easier. I must admit I like the boardwalk stuff, it makes keeping your stride steady and the distance went by faster on that. As it had not rained for 3 weeks previous; everything was dry other than the swampiest sections. At the 8 kilometer point we were starting to feel the weight of the packs, so with another 4 kilometers to go before lunch we pressed on. The moss and ferns were incredible on this stretch, with the huge broad leaves of the skunk cabbage lending an almost tropical feel to the trail.
Water...water is an issue this far north on the Island. The entire end is low land, very swampy with stagnant water. While you likely could drink it with no problem and I have back then, we elected to take some AQUATABS, a small water treatment pill you drop into two litres of water. I packed an extra litre of fresh water in my pack, so we would have water ready to go for dinner. Boiling water uses a lot of fuel, as you have to boil for 5 minutes. We each carried a litre bottle for the hike in, which did us just fine, as it was not too hot.
At the third hour we reached the 12 kilometer mark, which was on a board walk section. It sure felt good to get the boots and packs off; my shoulders were feeling the lack of good padding. The feet were good, no blisters, which is so important on a long hike. Blisters are a killer on a hike like this; your mind will become totally focused on the pain, thus ruining the hike. We stopped for half an hour, the sun was out, laying on the board walk, marveling at the absolute silence, something few of us experience in our modern world.
With packs back on we now had 5 and a bit kilometers to go to base camp, at Nels Bight, a 2.5 kilometer long beach, with the Pacific Ocean lapping in, and our source of water for the weekend. This beach looks due west, so we were hoping for some spectacular sunsets. The history of this region had the Danish people trying to farm up here at the turn of the century, in a brutal environment of both weather and distance. They gave it a good shot, but had to abandon it. The remnants of their village and farms are all but gone now, the steel from the school seats now laying at the trail side. When I was there 40 years ago, the floor of the school was still there, the desks still in place, trees growing up through the floor. We stopped to take some pictures of some graves, crosses in the middle of the forest, signs of life long lived and gone. One was a marble grave site, dated 1908, with the 12 year old passing away. One can only imagine the storms that come in there, fierce winds and huge waves. The wave buoy off the Cape registered a 90 foot wave a few years ago.
Arriving at Hanson Lagoon had us down to 3 kilometers to go, our feet and lower backs ready for the hike to end. The Danes built a dyke system here, to try to farm the fields, with some success. The last section of trail skirted the lagoon for the last 3 kilometers, finally popping out onto the beach, the tide was out, and gentle waves washing in. That was good, as we did not want to have to deal with wind off the water. I knew the fog would come back, and there would be enough dampness in that alone. There was a high pressure ridge over the south of the province, which is why we went this weekend, at least in good faith on the weather. The problem with that is the fog just sits over the north end of the Island, burning off maybe by noon, and coming back in by 4:00 pm, or not leaving at all. We went east on the beach a bit, and picked a place to set up camp, always aware of firewood supplies around.
With packs off and bare feet in the sand, we started to recover from the hike. I got a fire going right away, just to warm up tired muscles and get some nice coals for sitting around during dinner time. We pulled a log across the sand to flatten the area were we set up the tent, which Matt had it up in ten minutes. We always get the Thermarests in and sleeping bags out right away, so everything can puff itself back up after being squished for two days. We would slowly build a small fort around our fire pit, to both give us a wind break, and keep the heat from the fire in. It is amazing how the sand warmed up around the fire, so that even when the real damp fog came back, we were toasty warm. Matt's wind break was perfect, and hopefully others will use it over the summer, before the winter storms blow it to pieces again. I looked at the high tide line also, making sure we would be ok. The moon was to be full, so we never underestimate how high the tide could be. As it turned out, one night the waves sounded really close, so I got up to check, the waves were 24 feet from the tent, safe but that's getting close.
With camp set up we hiked half a kilometer to the water source, which was an eye opener. The sea grass was very close to where the water supply was, so the smell of rotting vegetation did not help the fact that the water was as brown as could be. It took us a minute rooting though the trees to find the small depression with the water flowing out. It was a bit of a mind game to drink the water, even with the Aquatab in there, which has to be left for half an hour to have done its job. Both there and back, we could see lots of bear and wolf tracks in the sand.
As it was the dinner hour and we were sure hungry after the long hike, it was time to pull out my trusty backpacker stove. Now, a word about my stove. It is 40 years old also and is as old school as it gets. The thing is, it has been DEAD reliable, nothing fancy about it, no pumps, shaker jets and other things that tend to fail on today’s trendy stoves. On the last two trips Matt has done, the people's stoves who have been with him have all failed, so he ended up cooking for everybody on our old stove. The stove was made by a Swedish company, OPTIMUS, which was founded in the late 1800's. It is self pressurizing, so there is no worry about pumps and "0" rings to fail. A tank of fuel lasted us for the whole weekend and that even included a full on boil of a litre of water for 5 minutes. Another great feature is that it simmers wonderfully, which is something of a yardstick for stoves. Its one thing to go nuclear to boil water, but, another thing to get low enough heat to not burn your dinner. Most back pack cook sets are very thin, so the heat transference is fast and intense. Matt had our rice dish ready in 5 minutes, supplementing it with some beef jerky and a sesame snap for desert.
The fog was rolling in and out, giving us a fine cool mist at times, and then lifting. Way out to the west, a clear band was opening up in the clouds, promising us a very spectacular and colorful sunset. Camping on the beach has another bonus, no bugs, as we sat around the campfire and wandered to pick up more wood. As we waited for the sun to break though, we set about building our shelter up some more. Matt spotted a big black bear that came down to the beach, did something at the ocean edge, and then disappeared back into the undergrowth.
Finally the sun appeared blood red and flame orange, turning the beach into a glorious scene of colour and shadow. This time of year the sun does not set till 10:00 pm this far north. We snapped some pictures, and then hunkered down around the fire to warm up before bed. I knew we had a full moon above us, so it really never did get totally dark all night.
The next morning did not really have a dawn in the classic sense, it just flowed into being, another shade of grey, with a very misty fog surrounding us, making our toques wet on one side and dry on the other. I knew it should lift off once the heat from the sun built up, usually about 10:00 AM.. We had a put a big fire log on the night before, so with some small kindling carefully applied to the hot coals under the sand, we had a fire going without even using a match. Matt had our small amount of cereal water boiled in a few minutes and breakfast was done inside of 10 minutes. Our plan for the day was to knock off another 14 kilometers and do a day hike out to the actual Cape Scott lighthouse, one of the last manned stations on our coast. We put together a days snacks, stashed our food in the cache, and headed off down the beach, with one pack we would share. We had decided to try filling our water bottles at the next water source, which turned out to be no better then the one at our beach. One must drink enough to stay hydrated and avoid the lethargy that can happen if you do not drink enough.
The trail entrances are all marked with the colourful washed up fishing net buoys’, hung in the trees.. While you can walk the beaches for some stretches, one must be aware of rising tides and not get trapped below some headland, which is very dangerous. Our first trail took us up over a headland, some two hundred feet above the rocks, then down to the next wonderful beach, Experiment Bight. Each vista as we came out was different, logs, sea scape, and wind blown coastal trees. There is really no transition from the beach to the trees, as the winter storms cut a defined line. We walked the next beach, looking for interesting shells and whatnot. The next trail I knew cut overland to Guise Bay, another beautiful sandy beach. It was an old corduroy road that the R.C.A.F put in during WW2. Unkownst to anyone, the air force installed a super secret radar station where the lighthouse is today, to watch for invading Japanese forces. The entire B.C. coast is littered with long lost fortresses and bunkers, remnants from another time. The trail wound through the jungle again, lush with green, and in some areas dark, due to the huge old growth canopy.
Arriving at the next beach we found two sea kayakers had come in to camp for the night, resting their weary shoulders I’m sure. The trip around the Cape in an ocean kayak is not for the beginner, as waves and currents are fierce, let alone trying to get into a beach. There is no help out here, and one must be totally self sufficient in all ways. They had the full on survival suits hanging drying in the trees. The sun was out now, giving us wonderful warmth in the air, and turning the ocean and sky a brilliant blue. We went to the water access, which was up a small gully on the headland. We were greeted by a small, brown pool, just enough to dip my water bottle into. I added an Aquatab and hoped for the best. We had to traverse back down the beach, climbing over a huge pile of bleached logs and driftwood, looking like a huge pile of dinosaur bones. The final trail to the Cape is again part of the old corduroy road, the planks all but rotted away, the large steel nails still protruding in some places. As we were now away from the ocean, other than the odd bird call, it was quiet. We stopped moving a few times, and, just listened to........ nothing.
The lighthouse is an oasis, you suddenly pop out of the trees, into a yard, complete with grass lawns, three houses and an out building…..and a deer feeding on the grass. The weary hiker has the use of a couple of picnic tables, and, as a bonus round, we could fill our water bottles with rain water, from their cistern. We took turns climbing up the actual light, which was slowly turning, the huge lens magnifying the light into a blinding beam. After taking some pictures and having our lunch, we headed back down the trail, 7 kilometers to go back to camp. A cool wind had blown up, chilling us down fast, reminding us how quickly the weather can change.
Guise Bay, named after Capt. Guise, in 1786, has a narrow sandy windswept slice of land, separating the extreme north part of the Pacific, from the more southerly section of ocean. Matt and I walked up the dunes, to take some pictures. The plant life was almost desert like in the sand and rocks. In looking back at my pictures from 1973, we could sure see how much it had blown away over the 40 years, and totally rearranged itself from the forces of nature. At one spot I found the steel remnants of the telegraph line that ran from the R.C.A.F. barracks to the radar station. The wind had changed; it was warm again, as we plunged back into the trail, heading back to Experiment Bight, named after Capt. Guises’ ship.
Matt was ahead of me as we popped out on the rocky beach, the sun reflecting off the waves, sparkling diamonds. He instantly cried; “WOLF!” I almost ran into him as he stopped so fast. Sure enough, there was a wolf on the beach horizon, heading bobbing up and down, as he was obviously feeding on something between some logs. We froze, just watching, then, on the third time his head came up, and he spotted us! As the sea breeze was brisk, you could see him trying to get a scent of us. We stood there in awe that a Vancouver Island Wolf ( canis lupus crassadon ) was within 100 meters of us. The island wolf is its own sub species of the grey wolf, and runs up to 60kg in weight. It’s hard to describe what we felt in that few minutes, as Matt started to fire off pictures. We slowly walked out onto the beach gravel, figuring he would run away. Then, much to our surprise and shock, he started to make a purposeful beeline right towards us! He strode very deliberately towards us, and this is when it got a tad disconcerting. The very creature we have been told is shy, can be viscous, all the movie scenarios running through our heads, is now within 10 meters. He stopped. I had two things running though my head, snap LOTS of pictures, and get a BIG stick. As we have had many close encounters over the years, with other major carnivores, we have learned to stand our ground. Last thing you ever do is run. That triggers every predatory response in most animals. I had Matt’s back at this point, and picked up a very large piece of driftwood as a club. I figured if he lunged, as he was now 3 meters away from us, I would just start swinging with all my might. Matt stayed low at first, then, so as not to be that close to the ground, he stood up next to me. The wolf seemed fixed on Matt’s camera bag, which he had set on the ground. As Matt stood up, the wolf flinched back, which was a good sign, that he too was afraid of us. That was a very good signal as far as I was concerned, still wary of humans. I’m glad there was not a pack of them! He walked by us, turned and tried to go for the pack again, we moved and he backed off. He then started to head towards the trail we had just come out of, then, turned and came back. I shot some pictures with Matt in the foreground, figuring no one would believe us without pictures! He got within a few meters again, my club at the ready, then, he just turned away and headed up the trail we had come out of. We just stood there with our jaws hanging down! What a lifetime experience to have a wolf like that walk up to you; make no menacing gestures at all, virtually posing for pictures. I’m still in wonderment. The biggest thing that stood out was the eyes, a very distinct look, and intelligence in them. In retrospect now, we should have scared the bejezus out of him! As our so called wild animals have these human encounters now, they slowly become habitualized to our presence, which usually means they end up DEAD! We were just so in awe, that the reality of the situation got lost. The last time I saw a wolf was back in the 70’s, a grey ghost at the end of a misty sub alpine meadow, almost lost in the evening twilight, and if had not been for the others seeing it also, I would have thought that it was my imagination.
We left that beach, still in amazement of our experience, not believing that it really happened. The sun was warming our backs when we got back to camp, ready for a nice dinner around the fire, the days growlies setting in. We were treated to another sunset again, just before the wisps of deep grey fog rolled back in over the headlands. We rolled into the tent about 10:00 again, marveling at the days’ adventure and the beauty we saw. I did treat myself to a new piece of equipment for this trip, a lightweight sleeping bag. My 40 year old down bag is still amazing, in excellent shape, Canadian made, 5 lbs of real goose eider down, but quite bulky. It was made long before the Chinese stuff we get now, which is of dubious quality at the best of times, in terms of what feathers are really used. I have yet to be cold in it, having slept in -20 a few times. In checking on the Net, just curious as to what a maybe comparable bag would be today, this would be a $1,000.00 bag today! For this trip, as we were traveling light, and the nights are only dipping to maybe 10C., I bought a 2 lbs down bag from MEC. I was pleasantly surprised that I was very warm, and it compressed down to a very small package with my compression sack. We lay there for awhile, wide awake, the ever present sound of the surf crashing not far from the tent.
The third day we had decided to just take it easy, do a full beach comb on our 2.5-km section of sand and driftwood, getting ready for our 17.4-kilometer hike back out. The day dawned really foggy, a West coast rain, which is just a mist really, at 8:00 am in the morning. I could see hints of blue straight up, so I knew it would clear again by 10:00A.M.. I made my Starbucks instant coffee, my concession to the outside world, and had a nice warm breakfast hunkered down on our log shelter. We set off down the beach, eyes down, looking at the sea marvels washed up over night. Sandhoppers, sea lice, shells, sand dollars, hermit crabs in colourful shells, the odd star fish, jelly fish, and on and on. The sea breeze washes fresh, light, smell of salt filling the air. We walked down to the far end, where Matt went out onto the rocky headland, I chose to save my bare feet and wait in the sun. I picked up some floats, of various size, I had a project in mind to leave at the trail entrance. Who knows what part of the world and journey they have come from, Japan, Indonesia, Russia....? I did find a 5 gallon water jug with Japanese writing in it, was it from a ship or the tsunami? There is a sign at the trail head, talking about the Japanese Tsunami debris that may be coming to our beaches. The most disconcerting warning was of human remains. That gave one a pause for consideration for sure. It did say it was unlikely, but, we did have a Harley Davidson wash up on our shores a few months ago, in an open container. Who would have guessed that? We walked the low tide line on the way, then came back along the upper tide and wind line, seeing what may have been blown or washed up during the winter storms. We found lots of sand dollars, which we were to bring home. We also saw quantities of the plastic bottles and floats that plague our oceans, along with a boat hull, a 12volt cooler body, fish net reels, and other flotsam and jetsam. It was still ok though, the beach was still very pristine in the scheme of things. We stopped at our camp for a snack, then, we walked the other way, heading out to the tide pools, which just bristle with sea life. You cannot believe the life in these pools, they never stop moving, so many creatures, let alone the different sea grasses, kelps and other underwater plants. We stopped to fill up our water bottles again, trying to ignore the rotting smell, and another 5 kilometers under our shoes. Sitting in our camp we were also treated to an osprey fishing, he was cruising about 50 feet in the air, then suddenly plummeted like a stone right into the waves, disappeared for second or two, then somehow managed to get into the air again, carrying some sort of fish. As he struggled to get some speed up, a whole flock of sea birds chased after him. Two eagles then started their mating dance in the air above us, one of them flipping upside down, to lock talons in mid air.
That evening, we had another sunset, breaking through the fog which rolled in again. We also had a full moon, which meant a severe high tide. I had looked at the high tide line, and knew we should be safe, but, at 2:30 in the morning, we woke up to waves that sounded like they were right at the tent. I got up, just to be sure, the waves were 24 feet from the tent, so we were safe, but, it sure was noisy with the crashing of the waves so close. Basically at some point in the night , we had maybe a 50 foot section of sand between us and the waves, and we had a PACK of maybe 5 - 6 wolves go by our tent in the middle of the night!
Our fourth day had us up early, as we wanted to be back at the vehicle by mid afternoon, 17.4 kilometers away. It looked to be a sunny day, as the fog had all but left the coast. I could not face instant oatmeal again, so I settled for some trail mix, raisins, a fruit bar, and a coffee. Our packs felt lighter, so we made a very good pace for the first 4 kilometers, knocking off one every fifteen minutes. The trail rolled by under our weary feet, which by the 12 kilometer mark were sure starting to let us know they were tired. The last 7 kilometers were tough; the trail is rough, so you make many more steps. We ran into a few people heading in, warning them of the wolves in the area.
Arriving at the parking lot in the afternoon heat had us done! We had hiked a total of around 57 kilometers, in some of the most beautiful and rugged area in the Province. Our wolf encounter will never be forgotten, nor will our other visual experiences. I was happy my body got me there and back, as one never knows. Matt’s and my planning was perfect, food and gear choices worked well, nothing let us down. The two best things of the weekend were that I got to spend four days with my son on another adventure, and, that after 40 years; this place is still as rugged and untouched as I remembered it.
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"Racing makes heroin addiction look like a vague wish for something salty" - Peter Egan
1973 2Door Slalom/hill climb/road race / canyon carver /Giant Killer 510
1968 Vintage 3HP Mini Bike
1971 Vintage 13' BOLER trailer