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October 1998

Juan Of A Kind: Vancouver’s Juan de Fuca Marine Trail

Vancouver's Juan de Fuca Marine Trail offers the best of both worlds in a challenging and surprising 29-mile ramble.

Along about the umpteenth time that our trail switchbacks between towering Sitka spruce, Kristin finally voices what we three have been thinking. “Odd, isn’t it, how the Juan de Fuca Marine Trail does everything it can to avoid the shore?”

I look to my left, where the surf should be pounding, and see nothing but forest. Beautiful forest. Lush, mossy ground. Hemlocks rising out of fallen logs like snakes from a charmer’s basket. Spruce so big my arms can’t span half around. Cedars with flared trunks and hollow cores. Lovely, really. But not why we came.

I laugh as I step onto a carved-log staircase that leads us even farther from the coast. Trail-builders here wielded chain saws like craftsmen, creating elaborate stairways like none we’ve ever seen. But not even such handiwork competes with my urge to walk the surf line.

“Heck with the trail,” I say. “Next time it takes us back to the coast let’s stick to the rocks.”

A few minutes later the beaten path drops to a bridge just a stone’s throw from the shore. We pause for a leisurely, sun-drenched lunch sprawled on a rock bench. A brook gurgles peacefully from pool to pool, waves lap against the rocky coast, seagulls squawk, and the sandman is just beginning to dust my eyes.

“Enough sitting around already, let’s go,” blurts Scott, obviously too caffeinated for his own good.

Instead of rejoining the Juan de Fuca, we stick to the coast, as per our new plan. But 200 or so yards of boulder-hopping and seaweed-slipping later, a deep inlet slices off the shoreline. To our left is ocean. Ahead, yards of sparkling, surging water. To the right, a 40-foot cliff capped by a head-high tangle of impenetrable greenery. We look sheepishly at one another, then turn tail. Back at our lunch spot we climb silently up to the bridge and resume walking down the forested trail. Nice trees, really. I wonder how old they are?

I have a confession to make. Though my professional careers have been mountain-guiding and chronicling exploits in high places, the most fascinating terrain that I’ve set foot on lies not at the crests of continents but at their margins. Ask me about a hike that stands above all others, and I’ll tell you about three days of shin-deep water-walking along coral reefs in Tahiti. The most dramatic backpack on this continent? Seventeen miles of climbing along the Olympic coast south of Third Beach. You could say I’m torn between my father, who was a professional climber when he died (on a mountain of course), and my mother, the marine biologist who introduced me to the wonders of tidal-pooling in Washington State. Which explains why I’ve settled down to raise my family in Oregon, where summits and seacoasts are equally within reach.

And so it is that on the morning of our second day on British Columbia’s new Juan de Fuca Marine Trail, nostalgia sweeps over me like a wave from the Pacific. Scott and Kristin are sipping coffee on a driftwood bench at our beachside campsite as I poke among the rocks and peer intently at tidal pools. Mist blankets the shoreline. Sun streaks flare across the moisture, which hangs lightly from damp boughs of coastal cedar. A foghorn bellows gently in the distance. My finger is stroking the soft flesh of a bright-orange, 18-armed starfish when my name floats faintly across the rocks, “Johnny…Johnny….” In my subconscious I figure that Mom has found something especially cool to show me-maybe even an octopus stranded in a watery crevice. I turn back toward the beach.

“John, look up!” It’s Scott.

I glance skyward. Gliding past on silent wings is a white-headed bald eagle flaunting its brilliant fan-shaped tail. Within seconds it vanishes into the fog, leaving behind only our fast-beating hearts.

The Juan de Fuca Marine Trail travels 29 miles along Vancouver Island’s southern coast. For much of this distance the trail is slightly inland, following the abandoned path of an old telegraph line installed for the safety of shipwrecked sailors. Although locals long have retraced sections of this route for their personal hiking pleasure, the official path we’re hiking was inaugurated just two years ago, making it one of the youngest backpacking trails in Canada. Since we’re hiking east to west, we’ll end our journey near Port Renfrew, the launch-point for British Columbia’s most famous hike, the 45-mile-long West Coast Trail.

Indeed, the WCT’s very popularity had much to do with establishing the Juan de Fuca. The WCT attracts large numbers of hikers from as far away as Germany and Japan-so many, in fact, that the park service established a quota of 52 hikers per day. The C$70 (Canadian) per-person cost (including reservation fee and required ferries) also is nothing to sneeze at. By contrast, our newfound walk requires nothing more than a trailhead payment of C$6 per night for camping privileges, good for a party of four. We meet just three or four parties per day, usually the same people we’ve been keeping pace with throughout the four-day trip. These few encounters, the distance markers every kilometer, outhouses at designated campsites, and occasional gravel roads conspire against a deep wilderness experience. But the merits of this trail are indisputable, even if they aren’t entirely marine.

While the tide is still low we pack up camp and head down the coast. From my long experience with other Pacific shoreline hikes, I figure we’ll spend the morning feeling the crunch of beach pebbles and hearing the dull thud of boots walking on driftwood logs. But in no time an orange “Scotchman’s ball” appears, hanging from a tree. These fisherman’s floats mark where the forest trail intersects the shoreline.

Not quite believing that we have to abandon the surf this soon, we explore briefly onward. Once again we don’t get far before we’re blocked, this time by a wall of brilliant green moss reflecting into shallow tidal pools. Carved into the mossy wall, a cave silently speaks of pounding waves and storm-tossed boulders. The detour rewards us richly but leads us nowhere, so we retreat to the woods-bound path.

As we wind among tall trees I’m fascinated by evidence of the forest’s logging history. Witness a recent clearcut and it’s easy to think of nothing but destruction. But the forest we’re now walking through feels downright primeval, with its rotting deadfall and trunks so large it takes four arms to reach around them. Still, there’s evidence there once was more. When we look closely among the trees we see massive stumps of the six-arms-reach variety. High on some of these we can see notches where planks were inserted by the old-time loggers, who stood on them to saw down the monstrous trees above their flaring trunks. At times we walk by fat, rusty cables the loggers left behind after dragging out the giant logs.

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