It was our first night on B.C.'s fabled Nootka Island and things were looking idyllic: a Robinson Crusoe-esque beach, clear July skies and a driftwood fire at dusk.
It seemed fine, then, to answer the call of nature. What I didn't anticipate was the horror show that awaited when I squatted at the water's edge. In the orange glow of the Pacific sunset, I was overrun -- literally -- by hordes of small, hopping, shrimp-like creatures that vaulted themselves menacingly across the sand toward my precarious position from all directions, advancing in swarms over my bare feet.
Looking back on my narrow escape from the "beach hoppers," it epitomized three key ingredients of my seven-day Nootka Trail adventure last year: gorgeous coastal vistas, close encounters with wildlife and the humbling awareness of one's physical and mental limits that comes with time spent on foot in true wilderness.
The 35-kilometre trail snakes down the spectacular west coast of Nootka Island, just west of Vancouver Island, separated by a slim finger of water. It's wilder, more remote and less crowded than its more famous counterpart, the West Coast Trail. It's also tougher and more dangerous. The unmaintained Nootka is less than half the length of the WCT, but takes almost the same time to navigate (six or seven days is recommended). There are no bridges, ladders or boardwalks in its rain forest -- just slippery logs, ropes and bogs -- and definitely no patrols by Parks Canada.
In case of injury on the WCT, evacuation is straightforward. If disaster strikes on the Nootka, according to the bush pilot who flew us to the trailhead, you can always "stand on the beach and do a line dance" to get the attention of a passing floatplane. It was a cute line, but the message was clear: Out here, you're pretty much on your own.
On Day 1, our party of six met at the tiny marina in Gold River, and loaded our backpacks into a single-engine Otter operated by Air Nootka for the 40-minute flight over the mountains and inlets of Nootka Sound, out to the open Pacific, and up the rocky coast of Nootka Island to the start of our trek. Through headsets, we were treated to an information-packed commentary from pilot Grant Howatt, complete with a report on the activities of Luna, the sociable orphaned killer whale that lived in the sound for five years until his death this past March.
After a smooth landing in the shallow waters of Louie Lagoon, we waded to shore amid purple and orange starfish, heaved on our packs, and within moments got a taste of what was to come: near-bushwhacking on a rough trail through towering old-growth trees, over and under enormous fallen logs, and through black muck.
Forty-five minutes later, we stepped out of the cool, dim forest onto the dazzling white curve of Third Beach. (A few days later, we would look back nostalgically on the perfection of this campsite.) We set up our tents and delighted in each discovery -- even the fresh bear scat near the water's edge.
On my lifetime list of "Perfect Days of Hiking," Days 2, 3 and 4 on the Nootka Trail rank very near the top. We spent them in a blue-and-green, glistening meditation of untamed beaches and surf, punctuated by brief forays into the dark forest. Under a hot sun, we negotiated beaches of every kind: sand, pea gravel and egg-sized rocks, beaches of crunchy mussel shells, and flat, seaweed-slick shale. We balanced on driftwood logs and picked our way across acres of marble bowling balls.
The Nootka Trail formula is simple: Hike during low tide and stay on the beaches unless driven into the forest by high water or rocky headlands. The beaches aren't always easy to navigate, but they are infinitely better than the dense and slippery forest.
Day 2 brought a black bear that dissolved into the forest when one of us rounded a corner. Later, my friend Judy realized a cherished dream when we spotted a pair of rare sea otters playing in the surf. (The mammals were hunted nearly to extinction by the late 1920s, and were reintroduced to the northwest coast of Vancouver Island in the late 1960s.) When we stopped that afternoon at Calvin Creek -- a long beach with a spectacular waterfall and swimming hole -- the sand was littered with fresh wolf tracks. After dinner, a pod of grey whales motored past. It seemed a great place to spend two nights, so Day 3 was a sun-splashed beach break.
On Day Four, we resumed hiking under an overcast sky. By the time we arrived at Beano Creek, about six hours later, the island's mood had darkened considerably. Shivering against wind and rain, we forded the thigh-deep creek, climbed a steep, gravelly beach and saw -- a kilometre away through the fog -- a black bear standing on top of a dead whale. The wind carried a sickly smell in our general direction. Avoiding the beach, our group scraped out small tent sites beside the creek.
At 3 a.m., a sharp howl outside the tents yanked everyone instantly awake. A wolf -- as if it had stumbled upon our campsite -- was sending out the alarm. We lay frozen in our sleeping bags until the guttural yowling was answered by a similar sound from across the creek. Then they were gone.
Our days took on a new and rigorous rhythm: clamber up a cliff into the forest; navigate a slippery obstacle course; slide down a cliff out of the forest onto a small pocket beach; cross the beach. Eat lunch in a sea cave; repeat. For six or seven hours at a time.
As with many wilderness trips, we had our share of bodily annoyances. But a decent first-aid kit took care of a few painful blisters and a trip-threatening muscle spasm. A repair kit patched a leak in a brand-new inflatable sleeping pad. And in the end, the rotting whale carcass didn't smell half as bad as our swampy socks, although maybe that was because, unlike our socks, we left it behind.
There was nothing to be done, however, about the tent that leaked. Nothing, that is, except cringe in embarrassment -- and at the end of Day 6, in the pouring rain, rent a cabin from the Mowachaht Indians at Friendly Cove. Thanks to a wood stove, we were warm and dry by the next morning, and spent our last two hours at Yuquot, a formerly thriving native village with a rich and bloody history.
In 1778, Captain James Cook was the first European to land in Nootka Sound, with George Vancouver and William Bligh, of the infamous mutiny on the Bounty, among his crew members. He spent a month refitting his ships and exploring the area, trading furs with Chief Maquinna and the welcoming residents at Yuquot.
Twenty-five years later, however, Maquinna beheaded 25 crew members of another fur-trading ship, the Boston, over a misunderstanding, keeping two white men alive as slaves. One of them, John Jewitt, recounts his ordeal in the book White Slaves of the Nootka.
By 1967, smallpox and other illnesses had ravaged the population and most of Yuquot's 250 residents accepted a government offer to move to Vancouver Island. Today, an old Catholic church in Yuquot serves as a museum of the native band, and is a pleasing juxtaposition of European-style stained-glass windows, colourful totem poles and history displays. The nearby red-and-white lighthouse, built in 1911, is one of the few remaining staffed lighthouses in Canada.
From Yuquot, most Nootka Trail hikers take a ferry back to Gold River. But we opted to spend a few days exploring nearby Nootka Sound by water. From the dock at Friendly Cove, we hopped on a prearranged water taxi to nearby Utopia Bay Lodge, where we dumped our smelly hiking gear and rented sea kayaks.
The next five days offered a lazy contrast to the rigours of the trail. A couple of hours of paddling each day, followed by lots of lounging on sun-baked beaches. Beachcombing, reading and crossword puzzles. Drinking beer and slurping oysters freshly pried off the rocks. Whales and seals and eagles and sea otters.
And not a beach-hopper in sight.
Pack your bags
WHEN TO GO
The best months for hiking and kayaking, by far, are July through September, which will offer more dry and warm days, although it's almost guaranteed to rain some of the time. GETTING THERE
Air Nootka: . Pilot Grant Howatt's running commentary during the 40-minute Otter float plane trip from Gold River to the start of the trail at Louie Lagoon was a highlight of the trip.
Maxi's Water Taxi: www.yuquot.ca/maxiswatertaxi.html. The "First Citizen" is a 12-passenger water taxi that picked us up at the end of the trail and took us a few kilometres to Utopia Bay Lodge, where we rented kayaks. Later, we met the water taxi at Utopia Bay for the trip back to Gold River and our waiting cars.
M.V. Uchuck III: mvuchuck.com. A colourful alternative to the water taxi is the Uchuck, a minesweeper converted to a 100-passenger ferry that makes the round trip between Gold River and Friendly Cove from mid-July through mid-September.
WHAT TO BRING
The Federation of Mountain Clubs of British Columbia ( ) offers a helpful Nootka Trail map and brochure.
A guidebook published last year, Hiking the West Coast of Vancouver Island, devotes a chapter to the Nootka Trail. Just as good, if not better, are trekkers' accounts on the Internet. Two of the most helpful trip descriptions are at , and www.andromeda.ab.ca/personal/index.html.
It's essential to carry a tide table to plan stream crossings and as much hiking as possible during low tide. Available at the Gold River tourist information centre and Air Nootka.
There's no cell coverage in Nootka Sound, so bring a satellite phone or marine radio for dire emergencies.
WHERE TO STAY
Yuquot/Friendly Cove: . The Mowachaht/Muchalaht Indians charge $40 per person to cross their territory. Good tent sites are available at $20 for six people. You can also rent one of six rustic waterfront cabins for about $100 a night.
Utopia Bay Lodge: island.net/~kayak/index.html. Fishermen and kayakers trade stories on the deck of this rustic floating lodge. Here you can rent kayaks and all necessary gear, including a marine radio, for $60 (for doubles). The lodge has bunk rooms and cooking facilities, and provides gear storage and pick-up services.
Midnight Sun Adventure Travel: midnightsuntravel.com. Round-trip from Victoria for about $1,400 a person.