Hiking The Nootka Island Trail
Story & Photos: Paddy O’Reilly
A 74 Year old proves he can still do it!
Day 1: From Starfish Lagoon to the first beach on the trail... who is in charge here anyway?
I was happy and surprised when my teenage son, Killian, agreed to accompany me on a back country trip after his graduation. Killian wasn’t noted for his love of the outdoors, most likely a reaction to family camping and hiking trips when he was younger. “Nootka Trail would be a nice challenge”, I mused, “if I can contemplate it at my age what difficulties could it pose to a healthy sporty 18 year old?” “Whatever” was the cryptic response. This trail had long been on my must-do list, so I’d studied the maps and route descriptions. Having done longer and more difficult treks, it seemed relatively straightforward. However, I’d only recently recovered from a bout of ‘walking pneumonia’ along with a ruptured spinal disk, both acquired in Nepal the previous year. And though I’d prepared for this trip, I was still uncertain about how I would perform carrying a 50 lbs+ pack in tough coastal wilderness for a whole week.
From Starfish Lagoon to the first campsite is about 1.5 km and generally takes about 40 minutes along a poorly defined trail through bush. I was unprepared for the reality; a relentless thrash through dense and dripping salal, carrying a veritable monkey on my back; crawling under and over multiple blowdowns, through unrelenting mud, snared by roots and snags; slithering and stumbling along, sweat pouring down my face, glasses fogged up or smeared with mud, trying to keep pace with my super-fit son who seemed to glide through all the difficulties with consummate ease. I rapidly felt I had taken on too much after all. So much for the wishful thinking of the aging armchair adventurer! But Killian quickly pitched in to haul this old man upright whenever my arthritic hips and knees failed; to offer a drink when I looked overheated; to lift my pack onto my back when I wasn’t able to manoeuver it up again after having to remove it to crawl under or over blown-down trees.
Our trail was elusive and we only spotted one trail marker – a small string of red tape lying in the mud – but it was my responsibility to route-find. After all, I was the experienced one. I was so exhausted that I missed a crucial junction and we ended up clambering over and under barricades of mossy blown-down ancient giants, following vague ghost trails with occasional marks of previous travelers before we stumbled out onto a small rocky cove choked with mounds of bleached logs thrown up on the foreshore.
We quickly established that we were about a kilometer further along the coast than planned, so Killian scouted out a grassy place to camp, collected water from the small trickle nearby and cooked dinner. As so often happens on the first night of any adventure, I slipped into my sleeping bag stiff and aching from the day’s exertions but full of questions and mounting doubts. Would my back hold out? What if the physical stress is too much for my poor old aging heart or lungs? Was it fair to drag my son into an environment that was so unfamiliar to him – especially if something does go badly wrong? Could we reach Yuquot in the time we had allowed?
Day 2 & 3: An encounter between First Beach and Calvin Falls
The black bear was about 20 meters away when I spotted him. Staring straight at us as we walked slowly towards him along the grassy fringes of the forest and the sandstone shelf to our left. My son was plodding along just ahead of me – head down and getting closer to the bear with every step. “Stop! Stop! Killian, STOP!” I called out. The first call was tentative, the last one loud and urgent when he failed to react to my warning. No more than 10 meters from the bear he turned around and pulled out his earbuds and looked quizzically at me.
“There’s a huge black bear just ahead.” “Where?” he said as nonchalantly as only an 18 year old could do. “Right there!” I hissed. And we both stared back at the bear who hadn’t moved, but continued to stare, motionless, at us. We dropped backwards together very slowly without making any sudden movements while I reached into my pocket for the Canadian Tire signal horn Klaxon that I had the foresight to purchase before leaving on the trip. So far this wasn’t a dangerous encounter but we were still at the start of our second day’s journey and we needed to pass this way. Our choice was to wait until the bear moved on, or take a detour out onto the sandstone shelf. However, the tide was still close in and we wouldn’t gain much by doing that and in fact we’d be more exposed.
Wilderness adventure means being really prepared.The staring match continued for what seemed to be a long time before I finally reached out and pointed the klaxon horn towards the bear and pressed the button. Worth a try, I thought. I’ve used these bear-scarers before and I swear to you they are deafeningly loud and scary. Honest. But the pathetic squeak that came out of the thing in my hand at that moment only caused us to collapse in stifling laughter and the bear, well, he just tossed his head and went back to eating berries as he was presumably doing before we ever came this way. And he left us sitting there awaiting his pleasure until a group of other hikers caught up with us, making so much noise that he took off in a quick rustle of leaves. “$20 wasted.” I thought as I put my pack back on.
Day 4: The meaning of the Nootka Trail
As we wait in Yuquot for the MV Uchuck III to arrive, I reflect on our journey and this special place, the point of ‘first contact’ between Europeans and the people of the Nuu-chah-nulth, erroneously called “Nootka” by Captain Cook and others after him. At our previous camp on the pea-shingle beach near Beano Creek, my son and I woke up to a joyous early-morning chorus of songbirds and we watched the fishing charters come within feet of the shore in their search for salmon.
Our route eastwards towards Yuquot takes us along rough bush trails to avoid the wave-washed headlands and tree-topped stacks at Maquinna Point. As we round the Point we marvel about the ancient tectonic forces that had metamorphosed the limestones into colourful marbles and twisted the layers of the rocks into fantastically contorted and spectacular shapes. The cliffs around Maquinna Point seem alive compared to the dull brown rocks of the sandstones we had been passing through. We finally reach the headland that allows us to see Yuquot in the distance. We know that this place is almost completely uninhabited. Nearly all of the surrounding country has been appropriated by settlers, its forests heavily logged, its harbours industrialized, its villages and towns urbanized.
From our headland, we’re separated from Yuquot only by the shallow tidal outlet from Tsa’sil. We wade across the water and make our way along the gravel and shingle beaches in a tired trudge under a blazing hot sun. Our final camp on the grassy site of the village of Yuquot is cooled by the brisk southerly wind off the Pacific. The long-houses and homes of those who once lived here have disappeared and the totems rest as they return to the forest.
When James Cook, the first European landed here 240 years ago, he met the inhabitants of Nootka Sound who had lived here for thousands of years. Cook’s visit was peaceful but brief, about a month. It was no more than a pit-stop on his long voyage. He needed to refit his ships before heading off on his search for a sea route to Hudson Bay or Baffin Bay. While he was here his crew traded small metal items for local curios and valuable sea-otter pelts. Within a year of his visit, the first fur-trading vessels had arrived in Nootka Sound and in 40 years, the sea otter was practically extinct.
This village that once housed a thriving community of proud, self-sufficient people is now little more than an area of green grass surrounded by remnant forest. There is one permanent habitation and a disused church now converted to a museum. Occasionally the green is a camping place for hikers and wilderness seekers, and comes alive again at an annual Spirit Summerfest of the Mowachaht/Muchalat people, who now mostly live In Gold River. Most visitors today spend even less time here than Cook did – a week or so at most and often no more than a few hours on the days when the Uchuck III stops. Our visits too are no more than ‘pit-stops’... a fill-up of ‘experiences’ ... cultural/wilderness/trekking fishing/beachcombing/surfing/kayaking, etc.
As we board The MV Uchuck III, I’m filled with a deep appreciation for the privilege of accessing this unforgettable place, and sadness for the devastating impact of colonialism. May our footsteps today be softer on these lands.