North Coast Trail: Stories in the Sand

North Coast Trail Shuttleworth Bight

Shuttleworth Bight, North Coast Trail.

Most first visits to the North Coast Trail tend to have some element of drama to them. It’s just that kind of place, where adventure and the unexpected go hand in hand. But for Shaun Korman, his first visit was particularly memorable. 

“I flew in on a helicopter and landed at Nissen Bight and I was just blown away that we had these kinds of beaches in our backyard. I had been travelling all over Latin America beach-bumming it and it was like this epiphany – whoa, are you kidding me, this is right here,” he recalls.

Shaun’s visit was straight out from his home city of Vancouver, but his journey here has never really ended. He few into Nissen Bight back in 2005 to become project manager for the construction of the North Coast Trail, the 43-km extension to the Cape Scott Trail across the north end of Vancouver Island.

The construction took four years, and after four years of living in a tent, it had changed Shaun’s life.

“I spent four years tenting out there and literally never saw anyone. It almost started to feel like it was between us and the animals. It was kind of our secret little thing,” he says.

The opening in 2008 changed that.

“It was actually a bit emotional when I started to go out and there would be 25 people out there in one day,” he says.

It has also been an evolution in his own life. Korman started working on the North Coast Trail as the building project manager, a position that has since branched off into his own company. He and his partner Ben McGibbon now oversee maintenance on the trail plus other locations such as the outback in Strathcona Provincial Park.

That part of the business involves places like Paradise Meadows, Forbidden Plateau, Bedwell Lakes and the Elk River Valley.

It makes for a great work environment.

“We’ve got two of the most beautiful places on the island – the coastal stuff at Cape Scott and then all the sub-alpine and alpine in Strathcona. We’re pretty lucky that way,” Shaun says.

North Coast Trail Shushartie Bay

Water taxi departing at Sushartie Bight, North Coast Trail.

Shaun isn’t alone in moving a business forward following the opening of the North Coast Trail.

George Burroughs and his wife, Babe, happened to buy a water taxi business in Port Hardy just prior to the trail’s opening. The timing was perfect as the trail requires travel by water to reach the eastern trailhead, set about 35 kilometres by boat northwest of Port Hardy at the upper end of Goletas Channel.

“We didn’t buy the business with the trail in mind, but we did hear there was a trail going in and we wanted to be part of the transportation for it, so that’s why we decided on the name of the business,” George says. “We didn’t know what the name of the trail was going to be, so we picked Cape Scott Water Taxi as the name for advertising.”

Not long afterwards the pair also bought the shuttle service that takes hikers to and from the trailhead of the Cape Scott Trail at San Josef Bay. The combination has proven to be the necessary ingredient to transform the business, which started as mainly a transportation and freight service for the region’s logging camps and other industries.

“Now we’re probably doing the same moving hikers as we do our freight when we do trips up and down the coast to logging camps and such,” George says.

It’s a business case for how outdoor recreation can benefit an area’s economy, with often two water taxi trips required in peak season to ferry hikers. In addition there are accommodation services in Port Hardy catering to hikers and Shaun’s company employs a half dozen people for trail management in season.

North Coast Trail overland near Cape Sutil

North Coast Trail viewpoint near Cape Sutil.

If there is a business case for the trail’s success, it hasn’t filtered down to BC Parks yet. The statistics are encouraging – the number of hikers using the trail each year has doubled since the opening – but trail investment hasn’t kept up.

“We struggle with the given resources to keep it to existing standards much less to improve it,” Shaun says. “Unfortunately Cape Scott is an easy park to put lower on the priority list because it is so ‘out there.’”

The main casualty is the overland bog section, the first section of the trail from Shushartie Bay that leads through a stunted forest bog to reach the north Vancouver Island shore at Skinner Creek.

It is a source of criticism for those who brave the mud for an extended slog, but that was never the intention, Shaun says.

“It was a calculated move to put that part of the trail through what they call the upland bog. The upland bog system is one of the primary reasons that park was set aside for protection, because that ecosystem is so unique,” he says.

“We wanted to expose people to that. We also like the way that trail unfolds. It starts off difficult, really challenging, and then it kind of unfolds in front of you,” Shaun adds.

“It gets more and more beautiful and probably easier and easier until the point you reach the Cape Scott Trail. By then a lot of people are jogging it, it’s such a piece of cake.”

The trail opened with several kilometres of boardwalk across select sections of the bog.

“The plan was that we would continue to improve that section, ideally with boardwalks,” Shaun says.

But except for maybe an additional 500 or so metres since the trail opening, the majority of that 8.6-km stretch remains on the ground, making it easily churned up by foot and turned into a channel for water to collect. The result is what could best be described as a mudbath. It doesn’t help that well into the slog – at about the time you think you might be getting near Skinner Creek – there’s a sign that marks the halfway point.

It is the perfect way to deflate the morale.

North Coast Trail overland bog

The inevitable mess from hiking the overland bog, North Coast Trail.

Helping hikers avoid the mud has become a large part of Cape Scott Water Taxi’s agenda. They offer a choice of points to start the trail: the full trail from Shushartie Bay or a choice of shorter routes that involves dropping off hikers farther up the trail at either Nahwitti River or Cape Sutil.

“If you get off at Cape Sutil it makes for a pretty civilized hike and it cuts a day or two off a trip. They miss a lot of the tougher stuff that a lot of people can’t do,” George says.

Not all hikers are equal, naturally, and many come determined to do the full trail no matter what. Some are more determined than others, and the honour of most determined has to go to the Club Fat Ass pair of runners Jeff Hunt and Bob Wall, who chose to run the full 58 km of the trail on opening day on May 10, 2008.

“We mucked along at a reasonable pace, but we were slightly behind a 10 min/km pace by the time we finally found Skinner Creek,” they write in a blog.

The pace slowed even more when they lost the trail at Nahwitti River and were forced to bushwhack through salal for a half hour.

Even so, they managed to complete the trail in 11 hours.

North Coast Trail overland bog boardwalk

The North Coast Trail's overland bog route at its prettiest and least muddy.

Naturally not everyone can be that fast, and possibly the slowest record goes to ‘Old Mike,’ one of the more memorable hikers that George can recall – a fellow in his 70s who set off on a solo hike.

“We were concerned but he wasn’t concerned about himself,” George recalls.

“We had a ‘Mike Watch’ for hikers going the other way. We‘d pick them up and ask, ‘Where’s Mike?’ and they’d tell us, ‘You’re worrying about the wrong guy.’

“This guy was just a rock,” George says. “When he came out he looked fresher than most of the young hikers do.”

There are also the non-hikers who attempt the trail.

“We get a lot of interest from people who hike hardly at all. Once they start doing their homework they either get training or back out. We have to be honest with them and let them know how tough it is just so they’re not stranded out there. Once you get past Cape Sutil and you get a northwest wind blowing it’s not easy to get people off the beach,” George says.

Still, some of the non-hikers do show up, including one memorable group of three.

“The one guy didn’t look like a hiker and his buddy didn’t look like a strong hiker. The wife looked like a hiker as she had all the top gear and was fit. The two guys looked like they had been drinking beer all their life. They looked kind of like me,” George says.

“So I drop them off and the one guy says to me that he doesn’t know how they talked him into this. The next morning when I go to drop off the next group of hikers, there’s one guy on the beach and it’s the buddy of the couple.

“He got on. I said, ‘what’s going on?’ He said, ‘Take me back to Hardy.’”

George had previously told him the trip to Skinner Creek was straight up and five to eight hours.

“The lady turned right and after 45 minutes they were standing on a cliff looking down at a rocky shore and she says this is Skinner Creek. He said, ‘no, no, George said it was five to eight hours to get to a beach.’ So they turn around, get back to the start and he says, ‘Hey, if you can’t find the first beach I’m sure as hell not going with you the rest of the way.’”

Apparently it was a trick to make the trail seem easy so she’d have some hiking company. It didn’t work for the friend.

“He sat on the bar stool for six days in Port Hardy and had a hell of a good time.”

North Coast Trail Cape Sutil

Staking one's territory, Cape Sutil, the North Coast Trail.

On some other trips the relationship dynamics seem to work out better – as they did for Drew Foster and his soon-to-be extended family.

“It was the first time my girlfriend [Mel] and I hiked with her parents,” he recalls. “I think we all had our breaking points along the trail but everyone came out the other side a little different, very happy we accomplished what we set out to, and energized to plan the next.”

His plan was to propose along the trail at a beautiful spot with a beautiful sunset. That place turned out to be Irony Creek on Shuttleworth Bight.

“I really wanted a beautiful beach that faced the setting sun... And I got it,” he says.

The logistics were tough, and tougher still on the nerves, which involved carrying a secretly packed ring.

“Anyway, we arrived to find the perfect beach and began clearing driftwood up behind a huge pile to set up our tents. Somehow in doing so my fiancé’s mom struck her head on a large piece of wood, giving her a cut near her eye and a concussion I’m sure. In my professional life I’m a paramedic so I grabbed the huge first aid kit I had been carrying and leapt over logs to patch her up. She had quite the nice head dressing, complete with head strap, when I was done,” he says.

“With that all that said, I decided it wouldn’t be today as it wasn’t fair her mom would be under the weather. As the day went on she improved and the beach was setting up for an amazing sunset right in front of us. Her dad was in on this whole plan of mine and just as we were getting dinner ready he commented on the nice beach and perfect sunset. I agreed, and we had an awkward conversation about getting cameras ready in front of the others who had no idea what was about to happen.”

Long johns with no pockets didn’t help the odds of carrying a ring unseen.

“I had to backtrack for my sweater, leaving Mel a little confused. I put the ring and a shell I had found on the beach in my pocket and went back to the group. I then asked Mel to grab her camera because I wanted to take some pictures. As she reluctantly went for it I ran to the beach and wrote “will u marry me” in the sand.

“The only problem was she saw me half way through but couldn’t read my message upside down from the driftwood. She came down to the beach, she read the message. I knelt down and put the ring in the shell I had found (I was shaking terribly and thought I was going to shake the ring out of the shell). She took it out and said yes. I put it on her finger and then had a wonderful celebration on the beach!”

Writing in the sand was popular that trip, and included an NCT bowling lane, a recommendation for a swim and the good news regarding one of the most engaging moments in the history of the North Coast Trail.
North Coast Trail's end, Nissen Bight

North Coast Trail's end, Nissen Bight.

Wildlife encounters are a given on any North Coast Trail hike, and chances are you’ll have met a few locals just on the water taxi ride. George estimates the odds of seeing a sea otter are around 50 percent now that they established themselves across the north end of Vancouver Island (having been reintroduced to Checleset Bay on the other side of the island in the 1970s). Plus usually there are black bears foraging in the intertidal areas of the estuary in Shushartie Bay near the drop-off point – a reminder the odds are good you’ll be near some wildlife you might just as soon stay well away from.

And then there will be eagles. Though probably not like this.

It had been an unusual day for the trail-building team to begin, as one of the crew developed pneumonia during an unusually cold spell in April and had to be airlifted out. The crew found themselves back at the campsite at Nahwitti River. Shaun remembers it for the distinctive burls in the trees there.

“We were sitting there and all of a sudden this bald eagle flew right into the trees at full speed right over top of us and another bald eagle flew through at the same time and smashed into the other one,” Shaun recalls. “He went tumbling through the air right into our wall tent and completely collapsed our wall tent literally a foot over our head.”

And even that wasn’t the end of it.

“They got into a scuffle and the bald eagle that got smashed flew off and the other one, the one that was the aggressor, turned around and flew right up to us and hovered right in front of us, swooped its wings a couple of times, just stared at us all then flew away,” Shaun says. “It was such a cool power-of-nature experience.”

The cause was found later when they went to repair their ravaged camp: the carcass of a big rockfish had been dropped in the feud.

The most enduring story of north Vancouver Island is of the pioneers who settled here – or at least tried to – at the beginning of the last century. The Cape Scott Trail is dotted with reminders of a community destined to be defeated by distance and weather.

Particularly telling is that sections of the North Coast Trail follow parts of the trail used by the community to get goods by boat from Shushartie Bay. There was no safe anchorage closer to the cape and all attempts to come up with an alternative failed – notably the ship hulk brought into Fisherman Bay as a breakwater that was destroyed by a storm the night they celebrated getting it into place.

North Coast Trail stairs out at Long Leg Hill

Stairs out thanks to Mother Nature at Long Leg Hill.

Nature has a long history of reclaiming its intended state of affairs in the North Island, and aside from a few graves, rusting boilers and decaying shacks, the Cape Scott community has all but vanished into the earth and forest from which it was built. With nature such a powerful force here, the odds of having a trail stay in good shape seem slim. So it was no surprise that when a huge old tree decided to topple, it did so directly in the midst of the single largest trail aid built on the North Coast Trail, the steps down to the beach from Long Leg Hill.

That has meant diverting the trail around the huge trunk. Another incident was a debris torrent that took out the cable car across Nahwitti River. But otherwise, Shawn says nature has been remarkably benevolent.

“In terms of major failures, we see major failures a lot more often up in Strathcona,” he says. It’s been nice to see things holding up.”

North Coast Trail gnarly tree

A gnarly tree, North Coast Trail.

Lastly, there is the group from Germany that had to complete the trail... or else.

No, this isn’t the group that camped at Cape Sutil and was convinced they were hearing a monster all night, the monster that turned out to be the deep-sounding motion-activated buoy marking the entrance to Nahwitti Bar.

No, this is the group that pushed themselves through the trail in fear they might be stranded at the trailhead if they were late getting back. George says it was all a result of a misunderstanding.

“I told them be at other end at a certain time. They heard me say, ‘or else.’ All I meant was I won’t get them that day, I would get them the next day.”

They didn’t interpret it that way. All they caught was the doomsday phrase: ‘or else.’

“They weren’t all avid hikers,” George recalls. “They pushed on and pushed on late and for long days. They got to the end cut up bleeding and beat up and tired, but they made that van ... or else.”

Fortunately it just meant a good laugh. The group ended up staying an extra three days in Port Hardy with George and Babe as hosts, a stay that involved a pig roast, a prawn feast, crab traps and – in true German style – lots of beer.

It was their suggestion to create something to mark the completion of the trail.

“They said you need a shirt to tell people they survived that trail,” George says. “So we made the T-shirt that says you’re a North Coast Trail survivor.”

There’s also a sign at the San Josef Trailhead. When you’re picked up to take the shuttle back to Port Hardy, shuttle driver John Tidbury will take your picture alongside it and email it to you as a keepsake.

He’ll even stop at the Scarlet Ibis Pub in Holberg on the way back for a burger and beer if you request it (and naturally many hikers do). The road from San Josef across the northern tip of Vancouver Island back to Port Hardy is a rough one, but it’s almost certain to be a relaxing drive in comparison to the work spent hiking over the previous few days. Even if you didn’t jog along the relatively easy Cape Scott Trail to the parking lot, being driven home is a beautiful ending and a great way to decompress and filter through the memories of some wonderful sights and experiences of your time on the trail.

Assuming, of course, you survive it all.

North Coast Trail author John Kimantas

This article was originally published in the Summer 2016 issue of Wild Coast Magazine. Author John Kimantas has survived the North Coast several times by hiking and also by kayaking around North Vancouver Island. 

For full logistics involved in hiking the North Coast Trail, see the new North Coast Trail waterproof mapsheet, available online here.

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