Then we round a bend and the real thing makes us gasp and gaze upward in awe. Old-growth spruce, hemlock, and cedar mostly, with an occasional fat-barked Douglas fir thrown in, show us what primeval really means. Because of quirks of topography and an abundance of big trees, loggers sometimes left scattered patches not worth the hassle of cutting down or transporting. I count the rings on two midsize blowdowns that trail-builders sliced through while laying our track: 400 years old-saplings when the Pilgrims landed on the far edge of the continent, giants in 1792 when Captain George Vancouver first circumnavigated this, his namesake island. And these fallen giants are merely the offspring of still-standing titans.
“What is it with this trail?” The voice is Scott’s, plaintively bringing me back to the present. He’s not far ahead, as the spotted owl flies, but it will take a few minutes for Kristin and me to catch up because of all the switchbacks between us.
A teasing edge comes into Scott’s voice. “John,” he needles, “have we reached the hard part yet?”
As the trip organizer, I prepared us for tough going. The park brochure labels the walking on our second day “Most Difficult,” which I interpreted to mean rough terrain, especially when that information was reinforced by a Canadian hiking magazine that spoke of 70 or so stream crossings and reported that the Juan de Fuca was more demanding than the West Coast Trail. Surprise, again. The rating, as it turns out, doesn’t mean the trail is actually tricky, just that it moves continuously up and down as it wanders from drainage to drainage. With the exception of an occasional glorious knife-edged ridgeline, our whole day’s hiking consists of gaining a few hundred feet of elevation only to immediately lose it-then regain it, then lose it. The pattern repeats itself nonstop all day long. But difficult? We chuckle. Each stream is either a step-across or is spanned by a steel-girdered bridge large and strong enough to support at once every hiker to walk this way during the coming decade. Mean-while, switchbacks tame the hillsides to comfortable standards.
Still, for all my smug expressions of superiority, by the time we pull onto the beach for the night’s camping my knees are sore and I’m ready to sit quietly beside our driftwood fire and gaze across the water. A seal stares back from a floating kelp bed, and a marten hunches along the beach with its peculiar weasel gait as crabs scuttle away. I can imagine no finer place to witness our planet’s daily fade to black.
During the next two days of hiking we alternate between loyally staying on the forest trail and gambling on following the coast. The tides are in our favor, being low both mornings and afternoons, and calm seas and good weather are also on our side. We simply can’t resist exploring the great rocky ledges that define most of the coastline as it nears the trail’s terminus at Botanical Bay.
We hike and scramble along the untrailed shore, stopping often to gawk at tidal pools that brim with salty life, until the inevitable cliff blocks our coastal passage. Then we bushwhack briefly inland to regain the trail until it grazes once more against the coast and we resume our iconoclastic wanderings.
Our strategy is not without risk, since if we foolishly allow ourselves to be trapped by tides the consequence could be deadly. Nowhere can a hiker bushwhack easily, and in some places a combination of cliffs and dense brush would make escape from incoming tides downright unthinkable. But we maintain our vigil and don’t mind the adventure-to us the occasional thrash through brush is minor penance for another hour along the coast.
There’s no one but us three and the occasional seal and bald eagle down on the rocks. No one, that is, until finally we see a swarm of upright ants on a distant point. We scramble around a low-tide passage and suddenly we’re among the crowds at Botanical Bay, the famed provincial park where intertidal life is on display minutes from the road. An older woman with a camera trained at a tidal pool is startled to see us appear so quickly with backpacks bulging large.
“Oh my,” she offers, “have you been out long?”
The midday sun glints brightly off the water, and I think back to giant trees to driftwood fires to bobbing seals and brightly colored starfish. “No,” I say, “not nearly long enough.”
The Juan de Fuca Marine Trail
The trail: This 29-mile-long route meanders between forest and shore, though most of its length is inland. Various beach and forest campsites are available; a typical three-night trip will include two nights next to the water and one in the woods. Most of the trail is in good condition, but come prepared for stretches of mud, even in sunny weather. Gaiters are highly recommended. Hike east to west to get the ups and downs over with early.
Getting there (and back): The Juan de Fuca is located on Vancouver Island, British Columbia. The near-end trailhead (China Beach) is about an hour by car west of Victoria. Allow an hour for the return drive from Botanical Beach, near Port Renfrew. Twice-daily pickup and return-to-car service can be arranged with the Pacheedaht First Nation bus service for C$8 (Canadian) per person with a four-person minimum: (250) 647-5521. Victoria is reached by ferry from Port Angeles, Washington, and Vancouver, British Columbia.
Camping: The C$6 per-night fee covers a group of four or a family of any size. Pay at a self-serve box at the beginning of the trail. There are no advance reservations for campsites, but you are required to stay in a designated site (no unauthorized coastal camping).
Maps and guidebooks: The West Coast Trail and Other Great Hikes, by Tim Leadem ($10.95, The Mountaineers Books; 800-553-4453) covers the Juan de Fuca Marine Trail in depth and includes a map. Current topos do not show the trail and are useless for travel. All you really need is the simple B.C. parks brochure (see address below), which will allow you to plan campsites and the occasional coastal passage that requires a low or midrange tide (these locations are listed on the brochure; a tidal chart is posted at the trailhead).
Special cautions: If you’re near the surf, beware of “rogue” waves larger and more powerful than the prevailing pattern. Hikers were recently swept to their deaths by such waves along the nearby West Coast Trail. Also, do not allow yourself to be trapped by rising tides in an exposed situation. In severe windstorms, the forest can become dangerous because of falling branches and trees; a sheltered spot on the coast is a better bet.
Seasons: Spring (mid-February through June) typically proffers mild temperatures and rain, though our trip in April was heavenly. Summer (July through September) is comfortably warm and often dry. Fall (October through November) can be wet and wintry. Winter (December through early February) tends toward cold, wet, and windy.
Contact: B.C. Parks, South Vancouver Island District, 2930 Trans Canada Highway, Victoria, BC, Canada V9E 1K3; (250) 391-2300; http://www.bcparks.gov.bc.ca. -J. Harlin