Backpacking the Juan de Fuca Trail

Staring out over the Salish Sea as we backpack along the Juan de Fuca Trail on Vancouver Island.

“I got us into this mess and I promise I will get us out of it,” I said, feeling the cold chill of evening wafting in off the ocean waves. I could tell by the long look of discouragement on Mat’s face that his faith in my plan was dwindling. So too was mine.

We were feeling envigorated and accomplished, yet tired and weary, having spent the last two and a half days steadily hiking over 50 kilometres of undulating, wet coast trail, seesawing and switchbacking our way from the shorelines of the Juan de Fuca Strait up into the dense rainforest canopy and then back down again. 

Layering up for the forested portions of the Juan de Fuca Trail on the southwest coast of Vancouver Island.

Though we had been enamored with the Juan de Fuca Trail and our coastal backpacking experience, it’s in this deep fatigue that we sometimes find ourselves feeling less enthusiastic, less adventurous, less excited about stacking the unknowns.

One of the amazing hand-built bridges that spans coastal creeks that flow to the ocean.

It was proper spring; bone-chilling, shoulder season weather. Dank, dark mornings held the low costal mist while early afternoons were parsed with intermittent bouts of sun and light rain. The mud drenched trenches of the trail reminded us so. 

The understory of the forest bursted brillant gradients of green all around us. The electric mosses swept the forest floor while dark green fingers of ferns reached out from the brown ground, stacked one on another on another until you couldn’t tell where one began and another ended.

The full spectrum of spring greenery bursting in the understory along the Juan de Fuca Trail.

The pale green lichen strung long off every branch in abundance, the same way a child might tinsel a Christmas tree. Tall evergreens stood proudly in our midst, saved by the efforts of environmental stewards, they crowded over the sunny sky.

The thick green mosses and magnificent lichen locked onto every surface in the surroundings.

The mid canopy remained leafless, allowing us to peer through the bare branches out to the sparkling sea below. 

Peering out over the Juan de Fuca Strait between the big trees and thick brush.

The glitter of the sun’s rays speckled across the surface, teasing our eyes with a dance of psychedelic magnitude that only nature can perform. The ocean waters appeared blue-green in the sun and blue-grey under cloud. 

We watched bald eagles, curious seals and stark white gulls galavant with red chested robins, buzzing hummingbirds and hard-working woodpeckers. Their unique songs carried through the canopy.

Mat spotting our first seal in the Salish Sea.

We manuvered like ninjas over mud covered paths and paths around those paths. Our shoes, wet as they became, dried off in the frenzy of focused footsteps. 

Part of coastal hiking means getting muddy shoes and wet feet. If you’re lucky, the sun comes out.

As we walked along, the flickering light broke through the branches here and there, warming our skin and uplifting our spirits, reminding us yet again of the healing forces of the sun’s heat. 

For days, we carried on like this. Walking long stretches of low tide timed beaches, dancing from one soft, smooth, slippery rock to another, minxing along dry driftwood and freshly fallen nurse logs.

Long stretches of low tide timed beach walks broke up the forest traverses along the Juan de Fuca Trail.

We gazed out towards the snow-crusted range of the Olympic mountains and the northwesterly shores of Washington, seperated from us only by a stretch of Salish Sea and wild Juan de Fuca waters.

From forested trails to to ocean vista’s, looking across to the Olympic Mountains in the south.

We saw barely a soul as we traversed the trail, the hearty weather a certain deciding factor for timid travellers, doubled by the weight of a global pandemic. Those we did cross, we tipped a hat to, knowing their mornings were as dewy and dark as ours. 

Walking through the wet, west coast forest along the Juan de Fuca Trail.

Each day ended with a deepening sense of accomplishment and a healthy dose of calories, rejuvenating the energy stores of the effort put forth and fueling the furnace for a nights sleep in the dropping temps. We’d affix the poles, string up the tent and crawl inside for sheltered rest. 

We treated ourselves to soft, sandy beach camping along the Juan de Fuca Trail.

At the end of it all, we reached the northern tidal pools of Botanical Bay and poked around for signs of sea crustaceans, orange, purple and red starfish and eccentric sea anemones. We felt proud of our mission accomplished.

Wrapping up our adventure along the Juan de Fuca Trail was bittersweet.

The day was getting on and with the parking lot slowly losing patrons, I decided the time to leave was nigh. Mat, on the other hand, suggested we hunker down until morning, which, in retrospect, was the move.

Our bikes were stashed at the south end of the Juan De Fuca Trail, buried behind two old growth trees and a pile of mixed deadfall in a vacant campsite on the shorelines of China Beach.

Bikes stashed under leafy green deadfall so as not to get stolen as we traversed the trail.

Our plan was to reunite with our steel steeds and continue our pedal-based travels veering inland towards a remote backroads route and heading up for the North Island.

Originally, our thought was to trace back along the trail, but as mud would have it, we decided it would be more amusing (and energy saving) to catch a ride back south with some fellows travellers instead.

Some of the milder sections of mud that we traversed along the trail.

Hence, here we were, at the tiny town of Port Renfrew, watching the sun set in the west and clambering to insulate ourselves in the extra layers of clothing we brought for the brisk nights. 

Car after car brushed by my outstretched arm and hopeful thumb, veering into the opposing lane on the road or waving with a shrug to suggest there was no more room in their ride. 

“Hitchhiking in the time of COVID,” Mat reminded me, his spirits sinking with the temperature.

I held my head high and waved back with a smile, but each passing opportunity weighed heavy on my heart and both of our minds.

The traffic had come to such a slow trickle at the end of the road that it seemed our window of possibility had closed. As night fell quicker, desperation set in and I crossed the street to the pub for advice. I felt torn to leave the roadside in case that one perfect person drove past, but our options were narrowing.

“We have one room left in town,” said the waitress, “and it’s $200 for the night.” I thanked her for her help and walked back to discuss matters with Mat. As I did, I caught eyes with a young man walking towards the take-out window with a nonchalance in his step and a Lucky Lager in his hand.

“Excuse me,” I said, trying to hide my distress, “What are the chances you are heading south towards China Beach this evening?”

It was far past eight o’clock on Saturday night and well beyond most people’s time of leisure travel. 

“Where’s China Beach?” he asked. If he didn’t know, I thought to myself, chances are he wasn’t going. My heart sank.

“South towards Sooke.” I replied.

“Oh ya,” he said as if suddenly remembering the spot. “Well,” he continued, glancing at his watch, “I am going to Sooke tonight, in about a half hour.”

My face lit up. I wanted to throw my arms around him in celebration even though I hadn’t even asked yet. 

“Would you be willing to give my partner and I a ride that way?” I asked, with hope-filled anxiousness oozing out of my being

He stopped to think. “Well, I have some tools in the backseat,” he replied, “might not be a very comfortable ride.”

“We don’t care about comfort,” I admitted. 

“Well then,” he said, “yes I can. I’ll come get you in half an hour.”

I couldn’t stop myself from thanking him until I was tripping over myself. His continued casualness reminded me that he had no idea how much of a hero in our story he was being. It was nothing out of the way for him, he assured.

Half an hour later we climbed our shivering selves into the backseat of his lifted monster truck and sped off down the windy, west coast highway in the pitch black of night. He blasted the heat in our direction while his co-pilot regaled us with stories of being a long-time local, an ex-commercial logger and the son of a logger’s son who was a logger’s son. 

Their insights were entertaining and we connected despite our vastly different lives. We plied them with questions of the area while they handed us cold cans of Lucky Lager that warmed us from the inside out.

It was well into the night when they pulled over to drop us off at our predetermined destination. I could have kissed their feet, but instead I thanked them another hundred times and reminded them of the heroes they had been. They shrugged it off as common island hospitality and made nothing of it.

We stumbled into the darkness, high-fiving to our success and finding a perfect pitch of soft, flat ground to lay our tent and make home for the night. We couldn’t stop reiterating that we couldn’t believe we were here.

My nasty ass feet at the end of our three day trek on the Juan de Fuca Trail.

Less than 60 hours after embarking along the scenic, stunning and challenging majesty of the Juan De Fuca Marine Trail on the southwestern shores of Vancouver Island, we were back where we started. 

Nestled next to our bicycles in the thick brush of the dense coastal rainforest we were ready for a good night’s rest and another chapter of adventure to commence. 

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