Sunday, 4 November 2012

Looking to the Future: The Appalachian Trail

For several years now I have been planning to hike the Appalachian Trail.  I'm at a point in my life where I think I have a window of opportunity to do it that I might never have again.  I've decided to take advantage of that opportunity and hike the trail, starting in February of 2013.

For those who are not aware, the Appalachian Trail is a 2180 mile trail that goes from Springer Mountain in Georgia to Katahdin Mountain in Maine.  Most hikers on the trail will hike sections of it, but every year a couple thousand hikers attempt to hike the entire thing.  There is something like a 20% success rate among thru-hikers with many hikers dropping out pretty early.

I don't want to dedicate a blog post to describing the trail since I haven't been on it yet, so if my followers (also known as imaginary friends) are curious, there is lots of good information here.

The fact that I will be doing this hike is the main reason I have started this blog.  While I'm gone I want to be able to keep my friends and family updated, though I don't want to commit to a trail journal.  While I'm gone I will try to post brief updates every few weeks and I'll try to write a proper account when I return (hopefully I won't be part of the 80%).

I also want to document some of the planning and preparation that I am doing.  Whether I succeed or fail, I can look back at my planning and see what I did right and what I did wrong.  If I try to do another long trip in the future, this will be incredibly helpful.  Also, other people considering a thru-hike can see my successes and failures as early as the planning stage, so maybe I can help others avoid my (presumably embarassing) mistakes.

As of right now I have accumulated pretty much all of the gear I think I will need.  I've also purchased plane tickets, and will be departing for Atlanta on February 19 (I will be hiking north).  I'm starting a little earlier than normal as I want to have lots of time to finish before University.  I'll have more time constraints than most hikers since I'm not an American citizen and can only spend 6 months in the USA.  I'll also have to deal with winter conditions (and this year looks like it'll be harsh), so I expect to have some difficulty in the early going.

If anyone with thru-hiking experience happens to stumble upon my blog, I definitely welcome any feedback.  I want to do everything I can to make my hike successful.

Sunday, 30 September 2012

West Coast Trail: Day 5

When we woke up we were pleasantly surprised to find that the rain had stopped.  Everything was still be muddy and slippery from the rain on day 4, but at least we were able to dry out a little.  We got away earlier than we had on any other day (around 7:45) and began making good progress right away.  The trail was still incredibly difficult, but we got a bit of a boost knowing that we were almost finished.  In a sort of funny twist we saw that there was an excellent camping area just before the bridge for 150 yard creek, which would have required only about an extra quarter of a kilometer of hiking.

Also, I had decided to hike in the sweatpants my dad had loaned me since my hiking pants were pretty soaked.  However, since I had put them on at night, I had somehow put them on backwards and didn't notice it.  I didn't feel like taking the time to fix that, so I ended up hiking the last 9 km of the West Coast Trail in backwards sweatpants.  I don't think anyone else noticed, but I did feel really, really stupid.

At one point it seemed like we were getting rained on which was odd because the sky was completely clear.  I was beginning to wonder if the trail hated me when I realized that it was water on the trees falling down.  It was actually heavy enough for a few mintues that I put my pack cover on, but it didn't last for very long.

It didn't seem to take too long before we were at the junction where the trail to Thrasher Cove split off.  Getting here was one of the happiest moments of the trip for me because I knew the hardest part of the trail was over.  There is no way to describe how gruelling and rough the hike from Camper to Thrasher is.  It is easily the hardest bit of hiking I've ever done.  I was very happy that we were able to split this section into 2 days.  Next time I do the West Coast Trail I'll definitely plan on splitting it up like that again.

Also, for as much as I've whined about how hard that section of the trail was, apparently it is harder (though its also more scenic) to take the beach route around Owen Point.  After hearing a few accounts from hikers who travelled around the point, I looked at my glass as being half full since I knew it could have been a lot more difficult.  Then I got a little sad because I had thought about water which made me thirsty for a glass of water without the taste of iodine.

The last kilometers of the trail felt like the longest ones.  I had had good energy up to the junction, but after we started hiking again I felt like I had nothing left in the tank.  My pace slowed to a crawl, but I wasn't really worried about time at that point.  We knew we would finish the trail that day, so we took our time.

The last few kilometers of the trail had a lot of PUDs. It was kind of like a roller coaster, minus the joy of getting your delicate area squashed by safety restraints. There wasn't a lot to see, though we did encounter one last piece of shipwreck debris.

We eventually reached the end of the trail.  I was overwhelmed with feelings which was kind of weird because I thought the trail was supposed to make me a man (and as everyone knows men don't have feelings).  A part of me was very happy to be finished.  I would be able to sleep in a bed again, eat real food, not worry about getting wet and muddy, and let my muscles rest.  However, I was also a little sad that it was all over.  I knew I was going to miss life on the trail.  It was a great experience, and even though it was very hard, it was one of the most rewarding things I've ever done.

Gordon River at the end of the trail
We took the ferry across Gordon River, and then took a shuttle into Port Renfrew.  We went to the Coastal Kitchen for dinner and it was just as great as all of the locals had said.  I would highly recommend it to anyone.

We had decided to stay in a hiker hut at Trailhead Resort.  We didn't have the energy to set up camp again, and we really wanted a chance to have some of our clothing and gear dry out.  The hut was very basic, but it was exactly what we wanted.  It was clean, the beds were nice, the heater kept us warm, it was close to the bus stop, and it was incredibly cost efficient.  The communal bathrooms were also quite nice.  They were very clean and private (there were two separate bathrooms, each with a shower).

The next day we took the bus to Pachena Bay and then began the long drive home.  The West Coast Trail had been a very exhausting experience, but it had also been a great experience that I know I will never forget.  I'm still in awe over some of the spectacular scenary we saw.  Everything from the jagged rocks, to the picturesque beaches, to the old growth forests was very special.  However, despite the great scenary, I think the highlight of the hike for me was the neat people I got to meet and hike with.  Everyone I talked to was friendly, and the few people that I hiked with were very awesome.

The West Coast Trail is probably the hardest trail I've ever done.  However, I would highly recommend it to anyone who enjoys backpacking.  I think it is one of the best backpacking experiences in Canada.

The West Coast Trail did this to me

West Coast Trail: Day 4

When we were at orientation we were told we wouldn't get rained on at all.  This had been a huge relief for me, as I knew that any amount of precipitation could make an already challenging trail miserable.  After two days of great weather and one day of okay weather, we were feeling really spoiled.  Even with the fog and moisture on day 3, the weather had been very manageable.  However, it wouldn't be a true West Coast Trail experience if we didn't get rained on...

It immediately became apparent that the trail would be completely different after Walbran Creek.  Before this point we had to deal with a moderate amount of challenges like mud, roots, ladders, and broken boardwalks.  The trail had been very difficult, but there were easy sections in between the hard parts.  There had been a lot of good boardwalks, the ladders were never too long, and there were always long dry patches of trail.  However, after Walbran Creek it seemed like the trail turned into a total obstacle course.  Every single step seemed to require thought.  The challenges like mud and roots were much more frequent than before, and there were many more places where we had to climb over fallen trees (I felt very fortunate to tall in these places) or under fallen trees (sometimes I hate being tall).  There were long stretches of log walks that would occasionally get high enough to be a little scary, and the trail got a little difficult to follow in some places.  This is where I began to understand why the West Coast Trail has the reputation it has.  I don't really know how to properly describe the experience of hiking from Walbran Creek to Gordon River, but I guess I could say that it's like a miserable sort of fun.

This was probably the nicest boardwalk we saw all day
After we had been hiking for about a half hour it began to rain.  At first it was a light drizzle that didn't really impact anything, but it got heavier and heavier as the day wore on.  This rain made everything much harder.  The few sections of the trail we encountered that would have been easy now required much caution and thought.

An example of a section of the trail that would be easy when it is dry, but becomes dangerous when it is wet

By the time we got to Logan Creek the rain was heavy enough that we had to put our pack covers on.  This was actually the first time I had used my pack cover, and I was quite impressed with how dry it kept my backpack.  My dad had a lot of things tied to his backpack and was a little worried that his cover wouldn't fit properly, but it ended up working really well (the tarp he had tied to his pack actually helped keep the cover in place).

At Logan Creek we saw the impressive suspension bridge we had heard about.  It was  a little narrow, but I felt incredibly safe when I was crossing it.  The ladders down to the bridge weren't any worse than anything we had encountered, but the ladders going back up to the trail were probably the scariest ladders on the trail.  They went up a cliff, and one of the ladders went up it at an angle.  That ladder was also tilted slightly and was incredibly awkward to climb.  I kind of regret not taking some closer pictures of the ladders, but I really just wanted to get to the top.

The Logan Creek Suspension Bridge

You can sort of see the angled ladder

We took a short break and then resumed hiking.  After a few kilometers we reached Cullite Creek where we encountered the biggest ladder set on the trail.  This ladder set was not nearly as big as I had been expecting.  There were only about 7 ladders each way which, despite being a workout, was not as exhausting as I thought it would be.

Shortly after Cullite Creek it really started to pour.  It wasn't the monsoon-like rain I had heard about other hikers encountering, but it was still easily the worst rain I've ever hiked in.  The kilometers seemed to wear on a bit more and I found myself getting incredibly mentally exhausted.  I had never really thought about it, but part of why I love hiking so much is because of the times when you stop thinking and lose track of time and kilometers.  I was susrprised that being mentally drained made hiking harder than being physically drained.  As I mentioned, every step required forethought and decision making, but after a while I stopped thinking and ended up making some really bad decisions.  It is very lucky that I only had one fall that day (actually, it was more like I tipped over; it wasn't really a proper fall).

Our plan had been to camp at Camper Creek, then hike to Thrasher Cove the next day, and then finish the trail.  However, we realized that we wouldn't have a low enough tide to hike around Owen Point on day 5 (one of the highlights of the trail), which would mean hiking one kilometer of the inland trail to get to Thrasher Cove.  Based on how hard every kilometer was on the trail we didn't like the idea of hiking one of them twice.  We were also a little concerned that it would continue raining, so we decided to hike a little further so we could finish the trail the next day.  We were taking a bit of a gamble since our experience with finding unofficial places to camp had been a little frustrating, but we decided to take the chance.

There were two beach accesses on the map.  One was at the 65 km mark (access A) and one was at the 66 km mark (access B).  When we got to the first beach access we saw a perfect area for camping.  The trees really sheltered the ground, so we would be able to set up our tent without getting rained on.  It was also very spacious and offered many areas we could set up.  However, we elected to press on, hoping to make the next day as "easy" as possible.  This gamble did not really pay off.  There were areas to camp at the second beach access, but they were more exposed to the rain.  As a result we had to set our tent up in the rain.  I'm not sure if it was from the rain while we set the tent up, or if it was from our wet clothing and gear, but we ended up with a fairly large puddle in the tent.  For whatever reason this puddle decided to make itself home on my side of the tent.  It was actually bad enough that I decided not to use my down sleeping bag, since there would be no way to avoid having it end up in the puddle.  Instead I bundled up in my driest clothing and my dad's sweat pants (he was awesome enough to let me borrow them).  Oddly enough I actually slept a little bit better than I had on any other night on the trail.

Tuesday, 25 September 2012

West Coast Trail: Day 3

It became very evident when we woke up that we wouldn't get the luxury of clear blue skies that we had enjoyed for the first two days.  Everything was covered with a very thick fog that limited visibility and filled the air with moisture.  It was obvious that we would have colder weather to contend with and it seemed like there was a possibility of rain.  Still, we didn't let this get us down.  We knew we wouldn't have a very long day as we were only trying to get as far as Walbran Creek at the 53 km mark (at orientation this was described as the halfway point time-wise).

Seagulls grounded by the fog

Since we knew we would have a lot of beach hiking that day, we elected to return to the inland trail which brought us within a half kilometer or so of Cribs Creek.  We filled up our water and continued on.  The beach from the Cribs Creek to Carmanah Point was incredibly rock, requiring a great deal of caution.  At first it wasn't too bad as it was just small rocks, but as we continued the rocks seemed to get bigger and bigger.

At one point I exhibited some terrible judgement, thinking it would be safer and easier to hike higher up where the rocks were larger and more continuous.  This ended up being incredibly stupid and I got some nice souvenirs on my right thumb and left arm as a result.

Soon we reached the ladders that went to the inland trail.  At the top we saw Carmanah Lighthouse which, like Pachena Lighthouse, was incredibly well maintained.

Just down from the lighthouse was Chez Moniques, the famous restaurant on the trail.  We didn't feel like having a meal and getting bloated, but we did get some drinks.  I was amazed (and disappointed) at how fast I made my orange juice disappear.

A few minutes later we got a real treat.  On the beach there was a very young sea lion returning to the ocean.  He didn't get startled by us and actually let us get fairly close.  It's the closest I've ever gotten to a sea lion in the wild.  This was definitely one of my favourite moments from the entire trip.

The beach hiking was a lot easier than the rocky section we had endured earlier.  It was still difficult and draining given how much you sink into the sand with a pack on.  I tried to walk in other peoples' footprints since the sand was semi-compressed in them, but I have a longer stride than most people so this didn't work too well (I was kind of walking like a penguin for a while).

Carmanah Lighthouse from a distance

The fog eventually started to lift which was really nice.  After it had been gone for a while it also warmed up, and it was starting to look like we would get to Walbran Creek without getting rained on.  Soon after the fog lifted, we stopped for lunch at Bonila Point where there was a nice little waterfall.

The last few kilometers from Bonila Point seemed to go by fairly quickly, though hiking in the sand was still pretty tiring.  We got to Walbran Creek at a very reasonable time.  It was nice to not be setting up camp as it got dark, and to actually have time to enjoy camping.  It would turn out to be the only official campsite we would stay at on our hike.

Walbran Creek

I ate lots of food that night.  I wanted to have lots of energy (and a lighter pack) for the next day.  From what I had heard, the "real hiking" started after Walbran Creek.  I was dreading what I knew would be a real grind, but I was also looking forward to testing myself and seeing how well I could fare against the infamous parts of the trail.

Wednesday, 19 September 2012

West Coast Trail: Day 2

We woke up just before sunrise, ready to pack up and try to make big mileage again (on the West Coast Trail 20 km feels like big mileage).  We were hoping to make it to the camp at Cribs Creek (just before 42 km), so we knew it would be a long day.  The benefit of doing two big days was that we would have a shorter third day, allowing us to rest up for the roughest part of the trail (though the part we had hiked felt pretty rough on its own).

We had a short 2 km beach hike to Kanawa River where we encountered our first cable car.  There are 5 cable cars on the West Coast Trail, though because of the time of year we hiked it, this was the only one we had to use.  At first it looked kind of fun, but it quickly became apparent how much work it would involve.  There was barely enough room for both of us and our backpacks, but somehow we made it work.  A group on the other side helped pull us across which made it a lot easier, though the trip was still very time consuming.

After crossing the river we got back on the inland trail.  The trail was mostly boardwalk which was nice on the sections where it was well maintained, but very challenging on the sections where the boardwalk was slippery or broken.

There were a lot of ups and downs with little payoff, though the trail did occasionally got high enough to offer some nice glimpses of the ocean.

After a while we got to the ladders that went down to Tsusiat Falls.  There were only four ladders, but it was still a big set compared to what we had encountered so far.  Shortly after we got to the bottom, we saw a trail maintenance crew removing a ladder so they could replace it.  We considered ourselves very lucky, since if we were a few minutes later we would have probably missed out on seeing the falls.

Since it was September, there wasn't a lot of water on the falls, but it was still a nice place to have a break.  We filled up all of our water bottles, since there would be no drinkable water for about 10 km.


After the falls we planned to get back on the inland trail at the next beach access.  We had a short beach walk before we got to what appeared to be the beach access, as well as an arch.  We were able to walk through the arch and explore it.  It was incredibly windy, so it gave our clothing an opportunity to dry out.

We left the arch and returned to the trail which had a fairly steep ascent followed by an equally steep descent before it brought us back to the beach.  We were a little confused since the map made it look like you could get back on the main trail, but apparently it was just a bypass trail.  We continued along the beach looking for the floats that indicate a beach access.  We eventually found one, though we had to climb over a lot of logs to get to it.  I have pretty terrible balance, so I'm very surprised I didn't fall.

Looking back down the coast

The inland trail was still mostly boardwalk, though it was a welcome change after hiking in the sand.  The old growth forest hadn't lost its charm to me yet, though I still really enjoyed getting the odd glimpse of the ocean.

We eventually got to Nitinat Narrows where we would need to take a ferry.  We ended up waiting for a little bit, but it was a very welcome break.  We didn't have time to eat the crab or salmon they sell across the narrows which was definitely disappointing.  I did get a soda which, after two hard days of hiking, was easily one of the best sodas I've ever had.

The ferry landing

From the ferry landing the trail seemed to be a little better maintained.  The boardwalks were drier and they weren't broken very often.  It almost felt like a freeway after some of the boardwalks we had encountered.  We made pretty good time on this section, getting to the Cheewhat River just before we ran out of water.  At orientation they mentioned you can fill up at a spring here, though the spring turned out to look a little iffy (it was almost more like a puddle).  I was a bit reluctant to drink the water, but I did, and I didn't get sick.

Cheewhat Bridge

After crossing the Cheewhat Bridge we realized that we wouldn't be able to make it to Cribs Creek.  We decided to camp at one of the beach accesses, hoping it would be easier to find a campsite this time.  We got to the beach access at 38 km and it looked incredibly unpromising, so we moved on.  The next one didn't look good either, so again, we moved on.  We were getting worried since it was looking like we would have to go to Cribs Creek (which would mean hiking in the dark), but when we got to the access at the 40 km mark it was all sand.  This was a huge relief, allowing us to set up our tent just before it got dark.  After two very long days I slept soundly, looking forward to what I was hoping would be an easier day on day 3.

Friday, 14 September 2012

West Coast Trail: Day 1

We managed to start the trail around 8:00 which would be our usually starting time each day.  It was a little cold that morning, but we knew that we would at least have good weather.  At orientation we were told that there would be no rain until the 16th, which had been a relief to hear given the trail's reputation for being agonizing in the rain.

The Registration Centre

Me back in the good old days when my clothing was free of mud

We managed to bypass one of the larger sets of ladders on the trail by hiking on the beach.  As it was fairly rocky, this portion of hiking was pretty easy in comparison to some of the later beach sections.  We returned to the inland trail which had a lot of ups and downs, but wasn't very difficult overall.  There were lots of obstacles to climb over, but nothing that required any extraordinary effort.  However, as we progressed we encountered what would be the main theme for the day: mud.

We heard from some northbound hikers that this section was currently the muddiest section on the trail.  Even with a dry July and August there was enough mud to make me sink in past my ankles a couple of times.  As the day progressed this became a bit of a challenge, with some of the longer muddy sections slowing us down to a snail's pace.  Occasionally the trail flattened out and got fairly dry.  If it wasn't for these sections we probably would have been hiking at 1 km/h all day.

I found the old growth forest to be very fascinating.  At times the growth was so thick that it seemed like a jungle.  The area was so full of life, almost seeming to come from a fantasy world.  There were some interesting plants, and at one point we came to a place where many of the trees were distorted into bizarre shapes.

We continued through the forest and I soon learned a very important lesson about the mud.  At one of the many mud pits on the trail I thought the mud looked pretty shallow, so I assumed I didn't have to worry about walking on sticks and roots to get through it.  I took one step and sank in to my knee.  Luckily my boots stayed dry, but I felt like an idiot.  This is where I realized that I should check the depth of the mud with my hiking poles.  This technique definitely cut down on similar incidents, though I would be lying if I said it didn't happen again.

At around the 9 km mark we reached a side trail to a lookout of some sea lion rocks.  We saw a family of sea lions in the distance, but we didn't see any on the rocks.  Still, it was a very picturesque area.

We returned to the trail, stopping again at the 10 km to see Pachena Lighthouse.  The lighthouse seemed to be in remarkably good shape, though the highlight for me was this sign:

Pachena Lighthouse
We stopped for lunch at Michigan Creek.  Twelve km into the trail this is the first or last campsite for many hikers.  This is where we appreciated getting an early start, since we knew we could make at least 20 km.

The beach at Michigan Creek

As we shifted to beach hiking, we realized how draining this kind of hiking was.  Every step made you sink into the sand, and the ground was almost always slanted.  The most tolerable ways of getting through it were hiking on the wet sand or on the kelp (though that could be very slippery).  This was very exhausting hiking, but it was very scenic.  It is also where we saw our first bit of shipwreck debris (this is the graveyard of the Pacific after all).

We returned to the inland trail where I really appreciated having solid bridges and ladders to hike on.  Even the mud was nice after hiking in the sand and gravel.

We saw a couple of other bits of shipwreck debris on the trail.  The donkey engine made a pretty nice (dry) seat.

We got to the beach access at the 20 km mark hoping to camp there.  We knew from our tide tables that we wouldn't be able to make it any further, but 20 km was still pretty good.  However, we were very disappointed when we got to the beach and saw that it was very rocky.  It seemed like our choices were camping on uneven gravel (with lots of large rocks in the mix), or camping on the rock shelves which were covered with ants.  We decided to go down the beach a little ways, and we got very lucky, finding a nice, flat, sandy camping area.  We set up our tent and watched the stunning sunset before going to bed.  We had done over a quarter of the trail, and were very optimistic that we could make big mileage again on the second day.