by Martin Nichols
So can anyone guess what my reaction was upon being asked to join a group that would include four paramedics and an ER nurse to do the Nootka Trail on Vancouver Island? Well, "That should be the first-aid taken care of," was one, obviously, but the overriding one of course was "Are you kidding? It's the West Coast, I'd be in even if Rob Sims was leading it!"
And so it was, a few weeks later, that team leader Rob Sims and the rest of the party assembled at Horseshoe Bay to begin the journey. A blur of ferry, cars, float planes later and there we were, knee-deep in Starfish Lagoon on the outer edge of Nootka Island, with a 37km total-wilderness trek in front of us. My pack had weighed in at exactly 50lb at the offices of Air Nootka and it was suddenly starting to dawn on me just how much mass that really is (32.5% of my body weight as it happened). Still, stuck with it at that point, and we moved off through heavy bush to confront our first problem. Which wasn't too long in coming as Team Leader ("I've done this hike twice before") Sims managed to lose the trail and plunge into the dense underbrush of the forest floor in the first 30 meters...surely some sort of record. No injuries though, and on we pressed to our first campsite at a place called Third Beach.
OK, now this is some beautiful part of the world, and one of the great things about this hike is the variety of landscape it encompasses. Long sandy beaches; long pebbly beaches; massive flat rock strata formations; thick and barely-penetratable forest; swamps; boulder-strewn stretches of coastline; seaweed-covered boulder-strewn stretches of coastline; beds of decomposing seaweed-covered stretches of coastline. As fascinating as it all is, the thing is you have to walk across all these things. Which makes the Nootka Trail one of the most demanding things I have ever done. An average of 5-6km a day doesn't sound that bad, but every step on every bit of terrain was a strength-sapping slog. But man is it all worth it.
Top left: Third Beach, early morning. Not a bad little spot for a first night. A long hike faced us this day: about 10km, including a will-sapping 3-4km soft-sand beach walk, ending at Calvin Falls (middle left) for nights two and three. Some of us went swimming in the ocean here on the "day off." Those who know the Pacific Ocean also know how effing cold it is. Standing in the falls right afterwards felt like a hot shower. I'll always remember Calvin Falls as being where I opened surely the worst dehydrated meal ever concocted (I can't remember if it was the Thai vegetable curry or the Himalayan lentils). Whatever, not a winner guys. A lone wolf wandered across the beach during our meal dinner that night; I felt like throwing it to him but, hey, they're persecuted enough already. I chucked the whole thing in the fire in the end and scarfed down some fruit leather and a large Scotch instead.
I digress. Our next stop was Beano Creek (picture of our camp there below). Long day getting there, with much spongy seaweed and seemingly endless sandy beach walking. We'd spread out a lot early on and I was pretty much alone all day; it was what it was...quiet contemplation of things like the Four Noble Truths and the music of Pearl Jam was helpful, indeed required at many points along the way.
It was a recurring theme throughout the week that the tides were always against us. This meant that many short-cut beaches were cut off and we always had to go through the forest trails instead, but also that we usually had to wait some hours before some of the creek estuaries were low enough to cross. Beano Creek was essentially a raging river when we got there, forcing us to camp on the north side, and start the next day off in water shoes, and laboriously drying off on the other side before getting going. The worst aspect of this is of course that even I can't blame Simsy for the lousy tides.
The next day's hike was mercifully short: only about 4km, and we were soon at one of the small pocket beaches, which we call Shower Beach (bottom left, and main picture at top) owing to a natural (ice-cold) shower at one end of it. Here we encountered the sand shrimp phenomenon. Millions of these tiny crustaceans feed on the kelp on the beach, and it seems that when the tide starts to come in they retreat up the beach to escape the crashing waves. This is some sight; the only thing I can liken it to is some of the aerial footage you see on TV of gigantic herds of wildebeeste making their way across the African plains. The trouble was that you literally could not walk anywhere without stepping on dozens of these poor little buggers. That was bad enough, but what was worse was watching yet hundreds more leaping into the fire.
Our camp at Beano Creek
Our last day of hiking took us through a lot more swampy forest and across another deep creek to our final beach camp about an hour out of Yuquot (Friendly Cove). Here we had a great evening at one of the funkiest fire pit areas I've seen. The next day we reached the comparative civilization of Yuquot itself, home of the Mowachaht/Muchalaht First Nations, which boasts a lighthouse (whose keeper is one of the coolest guys I've ever met), a Catholic church, and...well, that's about it really, but what a spot! All that was left to do was to wait for the splendid vessel, the Uchuck III, to load up and take us back to Gold River.
Many thanks to the whole group. Rob "I Know the Way" Sims, Erin, Terry, Karen (who will always be known to me as the Angel of Nootka for tending my wounds), Chris, and of course the "Sharkgirl." Love you all, what a team.