Monday, June 14, 2010

Hiking the West Coast Trail - Vancouver Island

Kathy has always wanted to hike the West Coast Trail, so we put it on our calendar. Although we had picked out a date, we waited until a couple of days beforehand to actually make the decision to go in order to make sure that Kathy was finished with the work that she needed to do, and make sure the weather didn't suck.

I checked the weather last week, and although rain was forecast for Tuesday, Wednesday, Thursday, it was light rain and the skies cleared later in the week. Kathy finished her work. We green-lighted our plan to leave on Tuesday to drive to Port Renfrew, then catch the Wednesday morning shuttle over to Bamfield to start our trek. I booked our shuttle with West Coast Trail Express ( online, and reserved a spot on the Port Angeles to Victoria ferry. We can't make (and don't need) reservations for the WCT until June 15th, so we planned to get our permits when we arrived.

I had high hopes for fancy food-making opportunities on this backpacking trip, but with our last minute preparations, I fell back to the old standbys of couscous or macaroni&cheese for dinner, oatmeal for breakfast, and typical snack foods for lunch: nuts, cheese sticks, molasses cookies, bars, dried fruit, salty snacks, salami and naan. I had made some jerky, dried pasta sauce and dried veggies for my aborted kayak trip earlier in the year, so we brought those as well. I did mix up some hot and sour soup mix to have with dried mushrooms and hopefully some fresh kelp.

We arrived in Port Renfrew early on Tuesday evening and checked out the local hotels. We chose the West Coast Trail Hotel which has nice rooms and super extremely comfortable beds. They also let us leave our car at their hotel, which solved our last logistical problem.

We ate at the Coastal Cafe, which I cannot really recommend. Kathy tried to order the salda with salmon, at which point the waitress remembered that they were out of salad, salmon and steak. I had a burger, but they were out of buns. They did have a pasta salad which was really not very good. After dinner, we went back to the hotel and packed our packs, then listened to the huge downpour of rain that started. Better to get it out of the way now while we are sleeping inside, I thought. In the morning we ate a great breakfast at the Port Renfrew Hotel (same owner as West Coast Trail hotel), then caught the shuttle bus at 8:30 for our trip to Bamfield, along with 8 others.

The shuttle arrived in Bamfield at 12:30pm, and after we had all checked in, the park rangers gave us a presentation which included what to do in case of a tsunami and other barely useful information. Our permits were incredibly expensive - $125 or so, plus another $32 for the two ferry crossings. Paperwork all done, Kathy and I got onto the trail ahead of everyone else, except for one old guy who had skipped the presentation entirely as he had done the trail 16 times. The first section of trail to Michigan Creek is very easy and straightforward, and we averaged maybe 4 km/hr. We continued along the beach to Orange Juice Creek (KM 16), another couple kms further, and stopped at a small creek where we pitched camp. We had the whole beach to ourselves, and had not seen anyone except Old Guy who had camped at Darling Creek a KM further back. It had rained in the morning on the bus trip, but otherwise the weather was cloudy but fair.

The next morning, we woke up to a very light misty rain. We took our time and travelled to Tsusiat Falls (KM 25) by about 1pm, where we stopped to pump water (water is fairly clear and have just purification drops and no pump would have saved weight). We wanted to go further, but the ferry at Nitnat stopped running at 4pm, per the park ranger, and I didn't know where we'd go if we got there in time in any case. We could have gone a few KMs up the beach, but decided to relax and stay near Tsusiat, maybe a few hundred yards down the beach. We became very lethargic. We didn't even cross Tsusiat creek to properly look at the falls. We napped in the afternoon. We worked on a crossword puzzle. We decided to do a long day to Carmanah on Thursday, and went to bed early.

The skies cleared on Thursday (and stayed bluebird for the rest of the week!). We were up before 6am and walking by 7:30 am. We saw mink, oystercatchers and harlequin ducks. We arrived at Nitnat Narrows at 9:45am, where the Ferryman came over and picked us up in his skiff and brought us to the other side. We decided to stop at his dock for a bit and have a soda and share a salmon and baked potato breakfast - yum! Rejuvenated, we were ready for our push on to Carmanah Point where we would have another meal at Chez Monique this evening.

There are not very many camping spots after Nitnat, as the trail passes inland through several First Nation IR lands, and does not reach the beach again until after Clo-ose. Kathy and I were worried a little about the tides making beach travel more difficult, so we spent even more time inland after Cheewat River instead of on the beach. We wore ourselves out by the time we arrived at the Cribs beach, and so we had to take a short nap before continuing on. Our pace really slowed at the end as we climbed up over Carmanah Point. We descended the brand-new ladders to Carmanah beach and crossed paths with the two workmen who had just built them. They were coming back after a few beers at Monique's before heading home - they probably lived on one of the IR lands that we had passed through.

At Moniques, Kathy and I each had a cheeseburger and a beer, then another beer and another. Monique sure can talk. Old Guy showed up and they spent the time conversing while Kathy and I put on our listening ears. After dinner, we headed on to Carmanah Creek, which was completely deserted when we arrived, although another group did arrive just before dusk. This was our favorite spot. A group of harlequins played at the creek mouth.

Although Monique said it wasn't possible, and how she knew because of all the hiker's reports she got, we decided to try to hike to Campers Creek on Friday, 17km further on, through some of the toughest parts of the trail. We had the advantage of a morning low tide, so we cruised from Carmanah to Walbran along the exposed coastal shelves and along the beach, and we crossed Walbran Creek along the beach rather than hike inland to use the cable car. Walbran is a really nice spot too, so we soaked up some rays for a while before moving on.

From Walbran, the trail heads inland, but after a few initial ladders, the trail is not that heinous from there to Logan Creek. Logan Creek has a nice suspension bridge. Then comes more ladders, and then the infamous Mudpits of Despair.

In order to transcend the Mudpits of Despair, you must become One with the Mud. Kathy and I did our best to avoid the deep pools of shoe-sucking mud, but every five seconds we were hopping from one precarious perch to the next, and this went on for several KMs. We both had gortex socks on, which kept our feet clean and dry as long as we didn't submerge them more than 10 inches into watery mud; however, at least half the mudpits were bottomless watery pools of slime in which you might see the tip of a hat or backpack of previous hikers who had become succumbed to the murky depths after the slightest distraction. We were taking no chances.

Gortex socks, by the way, are absolutely necessary. With them, my wool socks stayed clean and only slightly damp. Without them, my feet would have been wet, dirty slabs of meat for the entire trip. There was a lot of mud, every day.

Our will shattered, Kathy and I stumbled out of the Mudpits and descended into Campers. There we found .. people. Lots of people. It was Saturday night, and everyone and their mother decided to camp at Campers. We found an alcove in the trees dirtied by old campfires and set up our tent, at dinner by the creek, and fell into bed. I'm sure that the party went on all night at the score of tents out on the beach, but we did not hear it, luckily. We decided to wake up early again so that we could catch the low tide at Owen Point.

Kathy stared me awake at 5am, and we both decided to get an even earlier start than usual. We rode our last cable car across Camper Creek just before 7am and headed out to Owen Point. The mud was much more pleasant today, the tides were favorable, and we were in high spirits. We arrived at Beach Access A and headed down onto the shelves exposed by the low tide. I promptly fell on my butt on the slick rock. And again. Maybe this wasn't so fun. After a couple false starts, we got out onto less slimy rock and cruised the shelves and tidepools on our way to Owen Point. And the surge channels. I now understand why people could die here. We approached one narrow channel in the rock which was less than 3 feet wide, and seemed quite jumpable if I hadn't just fallen on my ass a couple times already. However, looking down, I saw the ocean water 20 feet below us, and I realized that you were basically hosed if you slipped and fell into the channel. You'd basically be in the ocean with 20 foot walls on both sides, getting pummelled by the occasional wave before you succumbed to hypothermia or drowning. Luckily, a float in the trees above the beach marked a scrabbly path through the bush to get around the back of the channel, which cut deeply across the shelf all the way to where trees grew on the upper slope. We worked our way around other channels and gullies carved into the shelf, and we arrived at the "sea caves" of Owen Point proper. This is basically a couple tunnels/arches through the rock that are neat to explore when the tide is out.

Next came the bouldering section. The beach gradually disappeared to be replaced by ever larger boulders, and required us to climb over boulders the size of Volkswagens to avoid the super-slippery sections down near the incoming tide. Most of the boulders, however, were a few feet across and generally non-slippery, so we could "boulder skip" through this section in a reasonably straightforward manner, albeit always wary about the possibility of a twisted ankle. In the boulder section, we met a film crew who was hiking the trail with helmet-cameras to record their trip and eventually do a DVD and a new guidebook. They gave Kathy a short interview. We're famous!

We took a short break at Thrasher Cove, which is a very pleasant spot when it is deserted, such as at mid-day. Thrasher Cove does not have much of a beach, however, and the only tent sites are back behind the beach logs during high tides. From here, it is a several hundred foot climb up ladders and steep trails to reach the intersection with the inland trail that heads back to Gordon River. Kathy and I still felt good, and so we headed out for what the guidebook described as "the most technical trail section".

It turned out not to be much more technical than any other section of trail, and was very hikeable. It did, however, have a lot more ups and downs than other sections of trail. Our packs, however, were light, and so we flew down the trail, passing dozens of people coming in on their first day. Most of them looked exhausted and unhappy and had huge packs that didn't fit right. One group said that they were travelling 1 KM/hr on this section. Kathy and I got to Gordon River in 3 hours 15 minutes and were quite happy with how easy this part of the trail was compared to our expectations of it. Your mileage may vary, however.

At Gordon River, we met a solo hiker who had gone back from Gordon River to resupply and was heading back to do the WCT again. What people will do to avoid having to pay for a shuttle, I guess, but I definitely did not want to think about traversing the Mudpits of Despair again, at least not for another 10 years or so. Another group of college students had recently gotten off the ferry and were taking a self-portrait at the trail sign with a ginormous SLR camera. Kathy and I raised the float to let the ferry operator know to come get us, and settled in for a well-deserved post-hike soak in the sunshine.

Sunday, June 6, 2010

Trioba Sprint Adventure Race in Capitol Forest

Saturday May 5th was National Trails Day. We celebrated by going to do the Trioba Sprint Adventure Race down in Oakville, WA. Glenn Rogers and the Trioba crew have put on a couple great local Adventure Races last year and we expected more of the same.

Andrew, Roger, Heather and I planned to drive down to Oakville Friday night and camp at the rodeo fairgrounds where the Trioba HQ was situated for the weekend. Packed and ready to go, I got a call from Roger that he had acute food poisoning and couldn't make it. I relayed Roger's predicament to Andrew and Heather. Heather was having a tough week and decided to stay home as well, as fame and fortune were only truly awarded to the four person co-ed teams that participated, and we would probably not have a full team. Andrew and I shuffled some gear and headed on down as a two person team, fame and fortune be darned.

We crawled out of our tents to a bluebird morning, and found that many teams had arrived during the night. There was now a sizable crowd for the race, about eighty people on two dozen teams. We picked up our maps at 6am and got to work planning our route, which was fairly straightforward. I copied a couple of road and trail names onto our Trioba maps from the Capitol
Forest map that I had brought with me before putting it back in the car. Outside maps were not allowed once we started the race, but we could use all of our resources ahead of time to help us plan our route and assist our future navigation.

Andrew and I went to stage our kayak gear at the kayak put-in a mile down the road, and our bikes at the kayak take-out 7 miles after that. The Chehalis was flowing at several times its normal volume, but was still a reasonably mild river with only class 1 rapids and a few snags. We made it back just in time for the pre-race meeting. Glenn informed us that teams would get bonus time for picking up aluminum cans (30 seconds each) and shotgun shells (5 seconds each). I salivated at the thought of getting a BONUS for picking up cans. I have a somewhat compulsive tendency to pick up aluminum cans, so I definitely have been training for this particular skill set, and I was ready to go. I am glad I brought my larger backpack along.

At the start, we followed a horseback rider out of the rodeo grounds and ran a mile down the road to our kayaks. Andrew and I reached the kayaks near the front, and with our well-placed boat, we were second on the water. Andrew set the tone for the day by running into the water up to his knees while getting in the boat. Let's not worry about getting our shoes wet, shall we? We quickly passed the only boat - a canoe - in front of us, and we had the Chehalis to ourselves.

The water was moving at a reasonable speed, and we kept a steady pace as we tried to stay in the faster current around the occasional gravel bar and snagged tree in the water. I discovered that my kayak paddle was feathered at 100 degrees instead of the usual 60, but the wing paddle has some funny locking mechanism that was hard to get undone while we were cruising down the water, so I just decided to go with it. At one point, the current took a strong left around a large log pile in the middle of the river. We almost went right, but Andrew warned me to go left, which was the better choice. I heard that at least a couple other teams flipped while on the water, and I imagined that this log pile might have taken a bite out of some of them if they weren't paying close attention.

Andrew and I got off the water at the Porter boat landing ahead of the crowd and attempted to transition to our bikes. Andrew accidentally yanked his pants down while taking off his spray skirt, to the shock of the spectators. After a quick apology, he joined me as we yanked our bike shoes/helmet out of the bin, threw the kayak gear in, grabbed our bikes and were off.

From Porter, we followed the Porter road and C-line up, up, up to the Mima Porter trailhead. I was a little faster than Andrew on this part; however, instead of employing the traditional bike tow to help even out our pace, I rode a little bit ahead and looked for cans. When I found one, I jumped off my bike, grabbed and smashed it, hopped back on my bike as I slid the can into a side pocket on my pack. At this point I was a little behind Andrew and then raced to catch up, as our team was required to stay within 30 meters of each other. We were still in the lead, but Castelli was slowly closing in on us.

At the Mima Porter trailhead, we transitioned to singletrack. The trailhead was at a "road end" blocked by a downed log, and the singletrack initially headed the wrong direction for 50 yards or so. I was confused about which way to go for a few seconds before we headed up the singletrack. Apparently, the first four teams went the correct way, but many other teams continued on the decommissioned road, heading who-knows-where.

Along the Mima Porter trail, the CPs were fairly straightforward. I hadn't spent too much time looking at the map ahead of the race, although apparently I should have. Verve followed a short road section and got ahead of us, whereas we crossed the road on the singletrack, continued a few hundred yards, then crossed back across the road. Forest roads are much faster on bike than dirt trails. We caught up with Verve and passed them. Verve passed us again when they stayed on a road whereas I got back on the singletrack a little early. Peteris is a great map reader and knows how to squeeze out small gains by optimal route choices.

To make matters worse, the map board mounted on my bicycle loosened up. Mounted on my handlebars, the board normally stands straight up and allows me to read my map while biking. However, now it occasionally wobbled during heavy bumps and rotated sideways. I decided not to stop to deal with it, as it was still somewhat functional.

We caught up with Verve again at the Transition Area before the trekking section, and we all set out on the trek together as a "super team" of 6 people. Andrew and I stayed with Team Verve until we got out of the singletrack trails system and back on the road. Then we moved about 100 yards ahead of them so that we could pick up the occasional can that we saw. Feeling a little guilty, I pitched a couple cans back on the road for Verve to pick up, but by and large, we came out well ahead on the bonus time by being just a little bit in front here.

At the next CP, we had to double back and then bushwhack up the hill to a higher forest road. Perhaps I should have been watching the terrain more closely as we came in and paying less attention to cans. In any case, I decided to pick an animal trail up the ridge through salal early on. Team Verve continued further back to a mudslide section that was very steep at first, but fairly clear up to the higher road. Andrew and I foundered a bit and lost a couple minutes to Verve.

At the next CP, I made a navigational choice that cost more time. We went a ways down a logging road in order to bushwhack up a steep hill to the CP, whereas we could have done a smaller bushwhack up to a trail that went up the ridge. As running on the road was really no faster than running on a trail, but bushwhacking is far more difficult than running up a trail, we should have gone for the ridge trail. We also overshot the CP a little bit and had to double back. Verve was somewhere ahead of us.

When we arrived at the TA where we had left our bikes, a special task was awaiting us. We were instructed to carry a 70 lb bucket of gravel up a trail to a mud pit and dump it, then come back. I like the idea of doing trail work in the middle of an adventure race. Andrew and I shared carrying the bucket up the trail and dumped it. Team Castelli was fairly close behind us, heading up with their bucket as we were coming down, maybe a few minutes behind us.

Transitioning onto bikes again, we now had a lot of fast downhill on forest roads as we headed back out of Capitol Forest. Andrew was faster than I on downhills, as I started to get scared above 30mph on gravelly roads. At one point, Andrew asked me which way to go. Which way? I didn't know there was a route choice here. My map did not show the intersection, so I picked a road (the correct one) based on a general idea of the geography. Castelli apparently picked the other road, then got confused as to where they were, and spent an extra half hour reorienting themselves, leaving them lost in the weeds, so to speak.

At the next CP on a hilltop, I punched the CP while Andrew picked up cans. Then we did another quick search of the area and found a few more cans. Don't throw away those "can" minutes! My backpack was getting full, though. We raced down the logging road to the next CP, and saw Verve exiting as we turned onto the spur road to the CP. They were only a few minutes ahead of us - sweet! More cans. Double sweet!

I made a bad navigation choice by switching my map board to the next map before we were done with the previous one. We just head west, double back to the east, then head west again on a main road, and we're onto the next map. How hard could that be? It wasn't hard at all; however, when we got to the main road, I started to track us on the new map, not realizing that we still needed to go at least another mile before we got onto the new map. When we arrived at a campground at a curve in the road, I thought that we were at a turn off at the further curve in the road, and we spent a few minutes being confused before I figured it out. Duh. Adventure racing is not always about going fast. It's about going to the right place.

We found the correct turn off down the road, and crossed a bridge over the stream to find the second-to-last CP. A trail supposedly continued on from here, but heinous brush covered a grassy sapling-filled decommissioned road, with an occasional tank trap thrown in. We pushed our bikes up the road while I rechecked the map. It sure looked like the right way on the map, but did not feel very fun at all. We came to a mud slope with a rope up it. I crawled up the slope as I carried my bike one handed, then helped Andrew up the incline. After a quarter mile or so (which felt like far longer), we got through the fun forest and back onto a real road again.

Down to the forest boundary and the last CP we sped, then through a couple neighborhoods on paved roads and back into Oakville. We crossed the finish line back at the rodeo fairgrounds only 6 1/2 minutes behind Verve. We pulled cans out of our backpacks and shotgun shells out of our shorts as Glenn counted out our bonus time. We had collected 16 more cans than Verve did, so got an extra 8 minute bonus, pulling us ahead by half a six-pack. We win! Verve won the four person co-ed, however (the real prizes only go to 4 person co-ed teams) and did an amazing job of navigating and keeping their four person co-ed team on target. Peteris wrote up a few good notes about the navigation. Glenn and his Trioba friends did a really great job of putting on a quality race. Congrats to everyone!

Food, beer and bonfire followed. Andrew and I couldn't stay for too long, and had to leave when the party was only just starting to get going. I'll definitely be back next year, though for another excellent race and an excellent time.