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.

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