The West Coast Trail

» Posted by on Sep 28, 2011 in Blog | 35 comments

“Art is the elimination of the unnecessary. ” Pablo Picasso

I board the early morning West Coast Trail bus feeling half naked – clad in running gear and carrying a fanny pack with gels for the day, a water bottle, cash for dinner and bed for the night and my i-pod with Adele playing on repeat. My travel companions on the bus are all hiking the trail. They have large packs, heavy jackets and rain gear, food for the week – a set-up that would feel reassuring as we progress through the torrential down pour on the winding road leading to Bamfield, the northern starting point of the West Coast Trail (WCT). The driver is getting reports from the park rangers on the radio of horrendous trail conditions – deep mud, fallen trees and branches, high winds and tides. With genuine concern, he tells me I’ve picked the absolute worst time to run the trail and that he’d gladly offer me a ride back to Victoria at no charge, if I had a change of heart. I appreciate the generous offer but at this point the only thing that would make me truly reconsider would be if the water was so high that sections would be impassable meaning I’d need to spend the night out on the trail. I’m prepared to bivy in my space blanket in case of an emergency but wouldn’t start the run so light if I knew sleeping outside was inevitable. The trail closes next week for the season, only to reopen next May so it’s now or never if I want to do it this year.
When we reach the visitor center to collect our permits and go through the mandatory orientation, I chat with a few hikers that have just finished the trail going south to north. They confirm the apocalyptic conditions but also reassure me that everything is passable with a bit of luck and proper timing – good enough for me. In the orientation, we learn how to use the tidal charts, go over various potentially dangerous trail sections and are reminded of safety precautions if confronted with a bear, wolf or cougar. One of the workers states that it’s a great time to see them right now and cracks a joke about the big chops of the cat in the picture. I don’t joke about cats any more.
Few people run the WCT in a day and I’m beginning to understand why. I don’t think it’s so much because of the difficulty of the trail itself rather it’s the complicated logistics involved to have a successful run at it. There’s getting to and from the start/finish as it’s a point to point trail, in a rather remote wilderness setting, there’s only one true bail out point about half way and it’s not very accessible even if you do choose to exit there, there are two ferry crossings to coordinate that you can’t miss, tides to skirt and time right and with all that it’s actually quite hard to find information online. Luckily, Gary Robbins who first got me interested in doing the trail this summer and holds the current fastest known time of 10hrs08mins, was very helpful in filling me in with the logistical details.
At dinner, looking over my map with still a good amount of question marks as what to expect on various sections, listening to the wind howl and the rain slash against the windows, I start thinking that this whole endeavour is pretty committed and can’t help feeling a little intimidated by the unknown. That’s until a guy sits down at the table next to me and introduces himself as Bob Wall. He so happens to be running the trail tomorrow as well. What a crazy coincidence. He’s ran the WCT 4 years ago with his buddy Jeff Hunt, whose report I happen to have read in preparation for this. We’re both happy to have company particularly for the early miles in the dark. Bob had planned for an earlier start time than me of 4:30am, instead of 5:30am. This sounds reasonable given the conditions and that the trail will most likely be slower going. We agree that if one of us is feeling good and moving quicker then we’d separate but that it would still be nice to know that we’re both out there getting after it. It’s funny how that simple thought can be so incredibly reassuring. There’s nothing quite like being alone in the wilderness. It’s raw, challenging at times and makes me feel constantly aware and on edge. I love that feeling. That said, I also truly appreciate the value of companionship and after my experience on the Wonderland Trail, I welcome the comfort of having a partner along.
The morning winds are warm and the rain has given place to the customary Pacific Northwest drizzle. The first 30kms or so to the Nitinat Narrows ferry crossing, are said to be the easiest. The early start, thick canopy and dense fog make for poor visibility even with both of our headlamps. The trail is littered with debris and swampy mud which slows us further and provides for a good introduction to what lies ahead. We make our first mini stop at the Pachena Lighthouse, sign the register and experience first hand some of the areas fascinating history. Several signs indicate the location of past shipwrecks which where the catalysts for the decision to build the WCT back in the early 1900s as a way to evacuate survivors. Due to advances in technology the trail was rarely used for that purpose but was preserved as part of the Pacific Rim National Park. This part of coast has been inhabited by the Pacheedaht, Ditidaht and Huu-ay-aht peoples for thousands of years and their cultural heritage remains very present to this day.
Leaving the forest, we emerge onto the first stretch of beach. The sand is harder than I expected and makes for good running. We’re greeted by the first glimmer of light, shimmering in a silvery tint on the high surf, piercing through a slight opening in the clouds of an otherwise overcast sky. We pass our first campers who are just rising from their tent nestled under the cliff side. A fresh water creek runs by their site and remains of a campfire suggest a pleasant place to spend the night. We observe tracks of sea otters and cougars and before long are back in the old growth. I round a bend on the trail and a bear scampers off ahead. His paw marks are big, about the size of my hand but we don’t see him again. The place has an enchanted, magical feel to it – a certain aura that is hard to describe. The ocean and forest meld into one, time warps and I feel as if I’m entering a deep chasm of wet, dense foliage, of soothing sounds and colors and brush sides with the ancient.
The spell wears off with the beastly effort it takes to haul Bob and I over the first channel in the cable car. The little metallic cart seats both of us and is connected to a zipline type contraption. When it reaches the middle of the channel, you need to tug on the rope hand over hand to get to the other side. This really shouldn’t be that hard but my weak distance runner muscles are pumped after a few pulls. I make a note to self that I need to get back into good climbing shape to complement some of this type of stuff. The trail is now a mix of boardwalk and mud holes. Many of the boards are rotting or falling apart making foot placement somewhat dicey. I tore the front of my shoe off on the first beach section and while it’s not too much of a hindrance every time I pull my foot out of the mud, it sucks down on the flap. It’s somewhat comical to be running such a technical trail in what is now basically just a pair of 9 gram socks.
We reach Nitinat in four and half hours, about an hour slower than Gary when he set the record. The ferry man is there waiting and offers us fresh water. The place is beautiful and peaceful and I wish we could stay longer but I want to press on to ensure that we’ll make the final ferry crossing at 4:30pm over the Gordon River to Port Renfrew, our final destination. Over the next few kilometers, I gradually drift ahead of Bob and we organically part ways. There is now the option of either running on the beach or staying on the trail. While the latter is said to be slower, I’d decided that anytime I’d have the option I’d stay in the woods for fear of being shut out by the high tide. The bushes are so thick that I can’t see the path in front of me. I spread my arms and charge blindly like a child with reckless abandon. Before long, I reach the miracle cafe that is Monique’s – a wooden and tarp tent beach shack with a small garden, offering refreshments, snacks and even burgers. I stop just for water and a brief chat with the fellow tending to the place. Another good spot that would be nice to spend a minute at a later date if I ever come back to hike the trail.
It’s about 10:30am now and I’m approximately 44kms in. I feel confident that I’ll make the last ferry without too much trouble moving at this rate but any thoughts of records are futile. Less than a kilometer past Monique’s and I’m back in a cable car, again cursing my lack of upper body strength. The tidal surge below was too strong and deep to attempt a safe crossing and since I’m struggling with this rope, I’d rather not battle the power of the sea. One more short stretch of beach with soft sand this time so slow going that opting to stay on the piles of bull whip is nearly more efficient albeit less pleasant with thousands of flies swarming the stinky mess. Once I reach Bonita Point, I regain the trail for good now all the way to end with about only 25kms to go. The conditions go from bad to worse and running is reduced to an awkward mud dance, often sinking to my thighs, the shoe flop catching roots, having rolling over trees. It takes my full body to move me forward. I find the whole process much more entertaining than frustrating. I’ve felt really good all day, high energy and am accepting of anything that comes my way – save the cable car. For this third one the water looks deep but calm so I clip my fanny pack around my neck, a gesture that sends a shudder down my spine as I reminisce on last time I did this, and start swimming. I have a quick moment of triumph as I reach the other bank, mainly because adding a swimming component to the run is something different, introducing a new skill set in the act of self-propelled adventure.
I get through the endless ladder section as efficiently as I can, finally reaching the “5km to Gordon River” sign. I have an hour and ten minutes before the last ferry but recall Gary’s report about how the last 5kms is really closer to 10. The trail is the best I’ve run all day and I’m happy to find a spring in my step and I can finally open up my stride. It still takes me a full 50 minutes to reach the river, where I raise the buoy and catch the last boat back to shore. Deanne and dog are waiting for me, as well as a hot shower, fish and chips, pumpkin pie and ice cream – I’d run across anything for that. Bob cruised in a couple hours after me and swam across the Gordon River to meet his wife and kids waiting for him.
This was a very unique experience from the profound and intimate relationship that is rapidly formed with the place, which despite its popularity has managed to keep its character and wildness and sucks the traveler into its diverse and complex world. I hope to be back some day, not necessarily to run but simply to spend more time out there as I only scratched the surface of what there is to be learned on this rugged coast.


All Pictures were taken after the run in the area not on the WCT itself.


  1. Man Frogger… you get thru’ a day with more gusto than most, and I know that feeling of njust having to go for it. Super perseverence. Great writing. Incredible running. You’re always such a source of inspiration. You, wife and Dog are always invited to come and run the Issaquah Alps (in WA ), with us… challenging and beautiful are our many mountain trails. If you ever need a chill place while you’re visiting the great North West let us know. Keep up the sweet details about your travels and the pumpkin pie. Awesome reading (especially when injured, just ripped the shit outta my Plantaris Tendon; an older runner injury. Good news is I didn’t need it in the first place, bad news; I got one more to go on the other leg!) . Thanks man.

    Jamey Bilyeu

    • Thanks, Jamey! Deanne, Dog and I will gladly hit you up if we’re in the area. Any place with “Alps” in the name has to be nice 🙂
      Hope your plantar heals up quick and you can get back out there soon!

  2. Well, looks like I’m adding another run to my to-do list. Thanks for the great write up!

  3. Yeah jig, welcome back to the NW brother. 🙂

  4. Keep the adventures coming…..always simple & epic.

    BTW, I know at some point my once-a-week weight/core workouts will pay off. 🙂 I agree with Patrick T…..another run to add to the “to do” list.


  5. Welcome to Canada Joe. Nice effort and great report.

    Endless exploration in the area awaits…


  6. Looks like you took a page out of the Clark Spandex Playbook. Good stuff, Joe.

    • You just hatin’ cause I’m sylin’ on you clarkie.

  7. One adventure after another, love reading your stuff and checking out the always impressive pics.

  8. The WCT remains one of my favorite runs. Definitely a magical place. Making the last ferry is harder than expected, isn’t it?

  9. Wow, that was great. The WCT site makes it sound pretty daunting, must be pretty satisfying to complete — safely!

    Stellar photos as usual. Water and its effects in evidence everywhere. Beautiful. And a world away from (semi-)arid Colorado.

  10. Nice pics, love it ! That was a great race, thanks for sharing this to us. Looking forward always.

  11. I spent some time in the Cascades and Olympic one summer and the area instantly became my favorite mystical daydream destination. Those woods and coastlines are enchanting to say the least. I look forward to your adventures and tales each time. If I may, one man’s opinion: these adventures are far more timeless, inspiring and nature-connected than any race report. Competition is good and age-old but these pursuits conjure the deep childhood adventurer in us all. Bravo!

    If you happen to catch the feeling, “The Golden Spruce” and “Walking Home” are both great tales with history and adventure taking place in your locale.

    • Thanks, Trevor. I’ll definitely check out the book suggestions.

  12. Another real gutsy episode, Joe. Totally fascinating reading as always, backed up with photographs of the highest quality and imagination, which allow us to join your travels.

    Quite a year so far….

    Gramps with Nans

  13. As usual – a great commentary. Love reading about your adventures; you bring out the intimacy with your surroundings very well.

  14. Wow – that sounds like so much fun! Thanks for the words and pics!

  15. Wow, what an epic journey Joe. Thanks for all the inspiring tales, keep up the beautiful writings and photos. I hope Nike replaces those shoes of yours.

  16. wonderful and inspiring.

  17. Way to embrace your new home! That trail is on my list and I think this report may have made it move up a couple spots. Thanks for the thoughts and the beautiful photos.

  18. Really interesting read and beautiful photos as always. So glad you do this blog!

  19. Thanks for the share!

  20. Joe, I love visiting your site and seeing your photographs. You are a truly an awesome photographer. I admire your passion for this sport and look forward to so many more amazing photo’s and adventures from you.

    • Thanks man. None of this would have been possible without you my friend.

  21. Joe…absolute quality effort mate, I can’t believe we even saw you on the Saturday! after hiking that first 13k to the campsite I can honestly say that was the hardest 13k I’ve ever traveled. To see you bouncing through on Saturday afternoon was awesome. I’m gonna be kicking around the Victoria area for the month of October, drop us a mail, would be great to hear your tale 1st hand. Nice1
    Blake (jokers from the UK on bus to Trail)

  22. awesome effort joe, good to catch you on the wct, amazing ….. all about timing that trail! we put in a big final day to get off it as the rain went torrential….

    good luck in your next attempt too

    tristan – uk

    • Blake and Tristan – thanks for the kind words. It gave me a great boost to see you guys out there. Glad you skirted the downpour at the end and made it Bamfield dry..yeah right! Hope to connect with you both before you leave town.

  23. Good memories… did it back in 2001! one day I’ll do it again

  24. Hi Joe! My friend and I were on the bus with you. I’m the one from Mn. and you helped me with the tidal charts. We wondered and worried about you. We even asked rangers if they saw you. Disappointedly, Kary and I turned back after one day/night. Packs too heavy, soaking wet, I fell off a bridge and we were hearing not good weather for the next 5days.I’ll do it another time. So nice to read about your experience and see your beautiful pictures! April

    • Thanks, April. Bummer it didn’t work out for you guys and I hope you didn’t hurt yourself too bad falling off the bridge. There were some pretty treacherous little sections and I can’t imagine going up and down those ladders with a huge pack…

  25. Great story. I love the Pacific NW and especially Canada.

  26. Awesome. I did the trail with my first girlfriend 20 years ago over 3 days after hitchhiking across Canada. What an amazing, magical place. Not sure if you remember the river crossing where the water drops off into the void. After a bit I realized what was happening and we circled back to the beach to see the massive waterfall. All I had were a pair of Jack Purcells and they turned out to be the perfect minimal shoe for the journey. Thanks for writing about your trip. It reminds me to go back with my son.

  27. Congrats man! It is an amazing accomplishment to do this. Wish I was fast enough to make the last ferry the day I did it, but looks like you beat my 14:25 time. Nice work dude.
    If you wanna go again sometime, Bob and I might be game for a group effort.

  28. A great article and an astonishing run. I lived in Bamfield in 1970-71 and was a 'trail ranger" on a works grant- this was before the parks people took it over. Sounds like it hasn't changed much. Your article brought back some wonderful memories for me of a time when the world was young and so was I…if you ever have the time there is much in the way of magic to be found out there. 

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