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Trial by trail

The trail is the perfect means of moving yourself to a place thought impossible. This summer, load up a pack, feel wobbly, sweat, stumble, but over time, trail goodness will overcome fear and feel your soul become energized from being grounded in Canada

A path through the forest on the West Coast Trail in Vancouver Island's Pacific Rim National Park. (Getty Images/iStockphoto)

Canada’s West Coast Trail beckons.

It is not easy to get here, on the far left side – some say the forgotten side – of Vancouver Island. Your stomach revolts from the hours in the shuttle van, twisting down dirt roads with bumps and holes jack-hammered in by 100 years of logging trucks, where majestic and spiritual trees once stood, but are gone now. You arrive, awake to a better place, where big trees still stand and salty goodness permeates the fuzzy air as you unpack, ready to succumb to the dirt. This is not the time for letting thoughts of “I can’t” ripple between your ears. You are here for the trail, which will take you through a treasured wilderness.

The journey begins from Pachena Bay. The writer, Matt Mosteller, is on the far right. (James Coles)

At the beginning – at Pachena Bay, the northern trailhead – you get weighed in and listen to Parks Canada staff share safety tips and trail information. Gathering around the uniformed leader, each member of the group, dressed in the latest colours fresh from the outdoor-store window display, is handed a trail permit. Hold it tightly, for what comes forth will change you.

Pacific Rim National Park’s West Coast Trail is a path of renewal and rejuvenation, and a mud bath with millions of years of history, a trail built first for rescuing shipwreck survivors, then hippie escapes and now your own spirit quest. No Hollywood blockbuster or Instagram feed could do justice to the surreal beauty that explodes all around you – nature puts on magic here that you will want to hug, covet and love. The historic 75-kilometre trail is not easy.

The West Coast Trail features a whole gamut of walkways, from sandy beaches, rocky shorelines, ladders and stairways, newly-built boardwalks, and more minimal ‘paths’ such as this. (Scott Munn / Parks Canada)

Deep into Canada’s green jungle, you start clean. Every step you squish deeper, a change happens; you become dirty. Many never see the sun in this place famed for coastal deluges, monsoons fit for ferns and giant cedar trees, wicked wet ladders, soaked, rickety, toothpick-size boardwalks of split and cracked sticks and bathtub-size holes that suck you in and scrub you up and down, with ancient goo – a thick, squishy mixture – filling every skin crack. The soil here is rich, and the ocean is never muted, never far from the trail. Every glimpse is a treat, and once your feet step down, ever so slowly, off the slippery bluffs, you marvel, refreshed by the life-rich sea. You dismount from your leather workhorses and plug your toes into a grainy, rough, cleansing power that charges you up.

Hiking great distances is all about mind control, deeply connecting with simple pleasures provided by nature and powering through, one step at a time, when you feel like grinding to a halt. Not only will you be physically challenged, but your mind will face your best friends: fear and doubt.

Can I cross that slimy stick, 10 feet in the air, with a fern-filled abyss below, a dark and scary horror-movie-like hole? Don’t focus on it, keep your eyes ahead, the 20-kilogram friend on your back that you nicknamed Wild Thing doing its very best to take you down at every step. The last time you climbed the monkey bars, you were 6, did not have a rubber tire around your waist and had no boss filling your mind with demands even when you are far away. It’s like snakes and ladders, the snakes in this case being super-slick boards the size of rulers barely big enough for your boot to caress, and the flimsy, pliable ladders – well, you wouldn’t want to climb them even if they were dry and deemed safe by your local fire department.

This cable car at Carmanah Creek is typical of the many creek crossings encountered along the West Coast Trail. (Scott Munn / Parks Canada)

If that was not enough, prepare for a mighty tug of war, as the only way across some of the rivers is via hand-powered cable car – go hard pulling, don’t let it slip or you will be stranded, only a little wire holding you, high above a swollen green river with tall, prickly giants on each side. Your team of one needs all its might to make it; the platform on the other side awaits. You and your pack weight make the first half an easy zip-line slide but once you reach the middle, you trickle to a stop; Mount Everest waits. Gravity becomes your foe as you pull the rope and stretch your bicep into a nasty knot, and your shoulder binds and screams, “Let go!” You fight the internal squabble and make it to the other side. Sweat brings more mud down your face into your mouth. Ancient dirt seeps into you; your system becomes immersed in it.

Exhausted, your perception of time slowed; you hit trail’s end at Gordon River; a boat slices through the wind-chopped estuary; you stare down at your clunky leather boots; pride sets in as your adrenalin slows down; a calm sets in as you reflect on this spirited mud and its power to refresh you.

All you, baby. You’ve got this power inside you that you never imagined. Take a long walk this summer on good old Mother Earth for renewal.

For more information on the West Coast Trail visit or


Tips for a trail-worthy summer

Food lockers offer hikers a safe place to store their supplies to avoid it becoming an attractant to wildlife. (Scott Munn / Parks Canada)

Do your homework in advance of any hike. For beach hikes it is vital to know in advance where fresh-water sources are. Walking on the beach is always enjoyable but make sure you’ve checked the local tide tables so you do not get stuck in a dangerous situation.

Check the weather on the horizon regularly and plan camp set-up accordingly. Don’t forget to file your trip plans with friends and family.

Sweet camping spots

In buggy regions make sure to find a spot away from wet areas and preferably where there is a breeze. Sunny days are great, but shady campsites will be appreciated to keep you energized. Don’t sleep where animals play. Before setting up your tent, check the area for animal tracks to be safe.

Comfort is king

Get yourself good gear to make each step even better. Don’t skimp on outerwear, as this is your first protection from the storm, and make sure you have a wool or polypropylene base layer next to the skin in cooler climates to stay warm. Your feet will thank you for taking the time to test boots out in the store with a heavy load. Lightweight camp food has gotten much better so don’t skimp here, since a tasty meal and good coffee make a difference.

Lastly, put some weight in your backpack in advance and get it properly adjusted; also make sure you don’t have a skimpy hip belt as this can lead to major trail discomfort for some body types.


Multi-day trails across Canada

A bridge, built over a massive log, spans a small creek on a trail at Pacific Rim National Park. (Getty Images/iStockphoto)

British Columbia

The Sunshine Coast Trail is a new classic through old-growth forest; enjoy ocean views and stay in one of the 12 huts that dot this 180-kilometre epic trail, Canada’s longest hut-to-hut journey.

The North Coast Trail is 43 km with no people, just you and the wilderness of Cape Scott Provincial Park on the northern tip of Vancouver Island.

The Rockwall is a fitting name for a trail that clambers over 53 km under imposing cliff walls in Kootenay National Park.


The East Coast Trail lets you feel like a true explorer as you pick a section of this 540-km track that winds up and down the coast of Newfoundland’s Avalon Peninsula.


Skyline Trail, Jasper National Park, is a 44-km sweet treat to amaze your eyes, with most of the hiking above the treeline.


On Chilkoot Trail, you can step back in time to gold-rush days as you climb the arduous route from sea level to the infamous alpine pass, a 53-km sourdough grind.

Northern Ontario

Kabeyun Trail: The scenery changes with every step along this 40-km path, where you can enjoy a remote experience among the coves and beaches of Lake Superior.

The Coastal Trail is a five-day classic; explore the ups and downs of the Canadian Shield on steroids and sleep on the beach in Pukaskwa National Park, on the shores of Lake Superior.