Sunday, June 20, 2010

VI Spine Relay: North Coast Trail

June 6, 2010

Despite the "Relay" name, this was an event rather than a race. The VI Spine Relay was set up to help promote the concept of building a trail the entire length of Vancouver Island from Victoria to Cape Scott. This is a similar idea to the Trans-Canada trail and is a quite a large undertaking since it involves getting support from regional districts, municipalities, and land owners up and down the island. It is a fantastic idea though and I wanted to do my little bit to support the VI Spine Trail. Additionally, it was a personal opportunity to experience a part of the island that I have never visited and nearly brand new trail (it was opened only 2 years ago in 2008).

Not wanting to miss out on something new, Sonja decided to join in the adventure. The plan was to drive up to the Cape Scott Provincial Park parking lot on Sat (June 5). The trip took about 7 hours aided by the fact that the roads on the northern half of the island are very good and nearly empty. The last hour and a bit were on a gravel surface, however, making things a bit slower. From the parking area we hiked for 4 hours, covering the 15km into Nissen Bight with small packs holding just enough camping gear for one night. At Nissen Bight we met up with the 10 or so other hikers that had also completed this first section of the relay. The next morning, four of us (Sonja and I were joined by the relay organizer Andrew Pape-Salmon and Jenny Taylor) would tackle the 43km North Coast Trail, the remainder of the hikers would return to the parking area with our camping gear. A big thanks goes out to these hikers were had to carry 2 extra tents, 4 sleeping bags, 4 themarests, several day packs and other gear in additional to their own gear.

The start of the trail to Nissen Bight

We departed just after 7am in sunny conditions, estimating a 10 hour run time. We had a time estimate from some Club Fat Ass members who had recently run the trail and Jeff Hunt, who along with Bob Wall, were the first people to run the trail on the day it opened back in 2008. Jeff and Bob ran the trail in the opposite direction as we were going and traversed the full 43km NCT and the 15km Nissen Bight connector in 11 hours. It didn't sound like a particularly blazing time, but as were were to soon find out, this trail was not one that would be run easily.

Ready to go on the NTC! left to right: Jenny Taylor, myself, Sonja Yli-Kahila, Andrew Pape-Salmon

The first kilometer was on beautiful beach, but was officially not part of the NCT. As soon as we filled our water bladders and bottles up we were on the way. We almost immediately got a taste of what we would see for many many hours. The trail was very rough with many roots, little hillocks and twists, and was extremely muddy. It was tough to run for anyone, and it turned out that due to some injuries, Jenny was not able to run very much and was forced to power hike most the the trail. To her credit, she never stopped moving at a consistent rate for the whole day although it did effect our estimated finishing time. It was not a race, however, so the time didn't matter so much except for the fact that a water taxi was meeting us at Shushartie Bay around 6pm. They would wait, but we didn't want to be too far off schedule just in case.

Running on the beach (this was a nice section)

Do the the extreme roughness of the trail, it was slow going. It took us more than a hour and a half to traverse the first 5 km until the trail popped out on the beach near the Laura Creek Campsite. Naively thinking that was some of the worst the trail would offer, I thought we would be able to pick up some time on the beach and future trail sections. The relief of getting off the mucky trail soon faded though as we were treated to huge stretches of beach (the longest being over 10km) that was anything but easy. With just a few blissful exceptions which had packed sand, most of the rest of the beach was loose gravel and cobbles some on a steep angle. Not too bad to walk on, but very draining to run. Every step takes probably twice the normal energy as the stones under your feet sink and slide around.

Cable car crossing at Stranby River

The kilometers slowly ticked by on the beach and soon enough I was hoping to get back off the trail. There were a few trail sections, but for the most part these were not any easier to navigate than the first section. We got to pause for a bit while we crossed a creek via cable car. This was a fun change, but pulling yourself across is an arm burner. We passed the half way point at around 6 hours. This was behind our expected time, but we hoped that the trail would improve and we could make up some time. Despite how technical the first half was, the second half was more challenging yet. We were on the beach then off the beach so many times that they all blend together in my memory. I'm still not sure which was more difficult, but I was always wishing for whichever type we would currently not doing (I think I just had a short memory).

Down we go!

The weather was good for the morning and early afternoon, but the sky opened up soon after that and it rained steadily for an hour or more. It could have made things miserable, but fortunately it was pretty warm so it wasn't a big issue and it eventually cleared up. I was feeling good during the day as the pace was quite relaxed for me. I did spend some extra energy trying to see how much mud I could avoid. I manged to avoid getting my shoes fully submerged for over 10 hours, but had to do a heck of a lot of jumping, side stepping, and even clambering up and over trees.

For most of the day we stayed in the general vicinity of each other, but we often leapfrogged each other, with Jenny moving ahead while the rest took photos or took a break. We would then run for a bit and overtake her before stopping to let her catch up. Andrew had the most to carry with a full day pack loaded with a first aid kit, GPS beacon, and other safety gear, but he snowed no sign of difficulty.

Probably the most crazy portion of the trail was a section where the trail went on and off the beach in a rugged area. Some parts were so steep ropes were required to aid in the decent. One section in particular had a 15 meter climb nearly straight up. Once on top, you stood on a less than 1 meter wide flat space looking down on an equally steep decent and just across the way another such climb and decent was visible. It was kind of fun with a hydrapack, but this would have been work with a full backpack!

More beautiful runnable trail!

Sonja had been doing well, but after about 8 or 9 hours, she wasn't taking in enough energy. She started to fall behind and I didn't realize what the problem was until a bit later when she finally caught up, but was only moving at half the speed she should have been. Even though we were all getting sick of eating energy bars, I had her eat some more and soon enough she was moving well again. It was a good lesson about making sure you are well fueled - anyone can bonk if they are not careful.

After a second cable car, we were finally on the last trail section of the trail. The map stated a distance of 8km. Not too bad, I figured, even though we were mostly just hiking we were holding a decent pace. Despite this, the trail dragged on and on and really seemed endless. We crossed 5 or 6 swamps that had boardwalks that were thankfully runnable, but the rest was just and muddy and rough as the worst we had seen. Plus, there was also some climbing thrown in. Even though I honestly think that it was closer to 12km, I badly misjudged the time remaining, saying there was only 3km left and then hiking for another 2 hours!

Typical trail section

Sonja started to feel the effects of being out there for more than 10 hours and may have been getting low on energy again. To help us keep moving faster, I took her pack and wore it on the front of my body. It wasn't too bad although it did put a bit of strain on my back after a few hours. The trail stretched on and on but we eventually descended into Shushartie Bay where thankfully the water taxi was still waiting. Andrew had run ahead and arrived 30min before the rest of us. The last section ended up taking a greuling 3.5 hours and the whole trail a full 14+ hours. It was a long day although I felt fairly decent due to the low intensity, my feet hurt from being on them for so long. I'm just not used to being upright for so long.

The NCT had some beautiful beaches and it was great to experience. I think it is more of a hiking trail though as its technical nature doesn't lead itself well to being a nicely runnable. While the Juan de Fuca trail boasts much more elevation gain and loss than the NCT, it is much more runnable and in my mind much easier because of that. In the future, I would like to try the West Coast Trail to complete the Vancouver Island coast trails to see how it compares to the other two.

Andrew's photos can be viewed here.


Keith Mills said...


Jeff Hunt said...

WCT in 2011. Bank on it!
Nice write-up on an epic adventure.


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