Jen Segger: Running Canada’s Iconic West Coast Trail

IMG_4862Remote on Vancouver Island hides one of Canada’s most incredible treasures.   For decades, people from around the world have come to hike the rugged and challenging West Coast Trail, one of 3 parts of the Pacific Rim National Parks System, originally called The Dominion Lifesaving Trail. It was built in 1907 to facilitate the rescue of survivors of shipwrecks along the rugged coastline. Today, the 75km trail stretching between Bamfield and Port Renfrew is maintained by Parks Canada. In order to preserve the balance of visitor use and the environment, a permit to use the trail is required and merely obtaining one is difficult, as reservations sell out fast.

The West Coast Trail is rated as one of the world’s top hiking trails and is seen almost as a right of passage for backpackers, on average taking 7 days to complete the coastal trek. Over more recent years, long distance runners have taken an interest in the trail, and are taking up the challenge to complete it in one big day.

When my buddy Randy Richmond, from Nelson, BC, and mountain runners Warren and Ron Ellis, emailed me to ask if I was keen to join them on a West Coast adventure run, with barely a second thought, I was in. Our run together would be my 4th run on the trail. Besides running the land route, my partner, Norm Hann and I were the first people to SUP the trail via its parallel shores last summer. To me, any time spent exploring and having fun on our B. C. coast line, is gold!

We quickly sorted out a date and got to work planning the logistics. A point to point trail linked by logging roads and two small remote coastal communities makes running the West Coast Trail tricky. Add to this the tides, which either force you up into the trail or allow you to move along the beach, the two ferry crossings that only operate during certain hours and the weather, running the WCT requires some sound planning.

We were a strong group of runners so I knew we’d be able to move at a fairly good pace, assuming no injuries due to slick rocks and roots, mud holes up to our knees or flying off the ancient rotting board walk that exists on certain sections.   We rendezvoused in Port Renfrew, left 2 cars there, sat through the one hour long mandatory trail orientation with Parks Canada and then piled into Randy’s rental car for the 3-hour drive to Bamfield. After dinner at the only restaurant in town, a quick sleep and a drop off at the trailhead by Randy’s wife Cheryl, we were off and running just before 5am the following morning.
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We chose to start at the north end of the trail and run south, finishing in Port Renfrew, mainly to make sure that we could make the Nitnat River ferry crossing, which only operates between 9:30am and 4:30pm each day. The south trailhead in Port Renfrew requires a boat drop to access it while the north trailhead in Bamfield has a less complicated start. Starting from the south would mean that we wouldn’t be able to start until 11am and this would mean missing the crossing at Nitnat Narrows, 42km away. We decided the Bamfield end was the best option and set the goal of arriving at the Nitnat River right at 9:30am, when the ferry service started. However, our route would mean missing the river crossing into Port Renfrew at the opposite end of the trail. Our plan was to swim the gap at the mouth of Gordon River. It would be cold but dry clothes were waiting for us in our parked vehicles.

The Weather Gods were with us on Run Day! While large sections of the West Coast Trail never dry out, to have sunshine out there is a bonus. We had blue skies and light wind right from the start. The trail begins inland and is relatively fast. We embraced the first few sets of ladders but I warned the guys that there were epic ones ahead. With very little elevation gain and loss on the first 10km, we just cruised along comfortably, admiring the massive Douglas fir and cedar trees lining the trail. Eventually we dropped onto a rocky beach and with the low tide, we were able to run several stunning beach sections. Trying to focus on rock hopping while watching a pod of grey whales just off shore was no easy task! It was still early morning and we ran through three campsites where hikers were slowly waking up. As we watched them load their heavy packs onto their backs, I was reminded about the ease and simplicity of trail running. I was running with my Ultimate Direction PB pack on. I was light on water, refilling in streams as needed, in order to keep weight down. My UD lightweight jacket, a small first aid kit, an extra Icebreaker thermal, space blanket , headlamp and a variety of snacks was all that I carried.
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We followed the boat buoy markers that hung from trees to know where to enter and exit the beach. We trucked along, enjoying the ocean breeze, and arrived at the Nitnat ferry crossing right at 9:30am. With barely a blink, we were picked up quickly by the First Nations who operate the ferry service for the short shuttle across. We were right on track! However, we were fighting a rising tide all the way to the Carmanah Lighthouse. As we ran along the beaches, we barely made it around one of the rugged points on dry ground. It was almost impassable as we cleared the last few boulders and scrambled up a rope to a higher ledge. With that section behind us, we were now good with the tides for the remainder of the day. We stopped briefly at the Lighthouse to snap a few photos and sign the guest book. This is an iconic landmark on our coastline and seeing it never gets old.

I had told my companions all about Chez Monique’s – little burger and beer stand at the 43km mark on the trail. All supplies are boated in. As crazy as it sounds, yes, there really is a burger joint remote on the coast! We’d brought cash with us and there was no way that Ron and Warren were going to pass by without purchasing a $20 burger. Fair enough I thought – this was their first time on the trail and it’s a pretty unique experience, as are the characters that operate the joint. While the brothers ordered burgers, Randy and I bought some butter tarts and cokes and carried on at a walking pace. Not wanting our legs to seize up, we thought it best to kept moving while we ate and digested. The sugar rush came at a great time as we needed a little pick-me-up. The brothers inhaled their burgers and chased us down.

Once back as a group, we charged onwards. The beaches became steep and off camber, making running awkward. Running inland was welcomed for several kilometers, until we hit the 55km mark. Then, for 10km, we jumped roots and mud -the going was slow and tough. It was a matter keeping our heads down and focusing. Complaining wouldn’t help. While this part of the trail is never fun, I was grateful to be a runner and not have to plod through at hiking pace. We worked hard to move through the mud and then willed our legs to climb up and down the never ending vertical ladders to cross the streams below. Luckily, we never had to use the cable cars that exist over some of the deeper rivers as we ran the beaches instead.

The final 10km south bound is where the majority of the elevation on the trail happens. Driven to finish up, yet dreading the swim at the end, we joked and talked about what we’d eat the Port Renfrew pub when we arrived. With confidence, in fact, we’d set a goal of completing the trail before the pub closed.   And, if we could make last call at the pub, it would also be a new women’s FKT for me. Double motivation! With just a few KM’s to go, Randy and I apparently stepped on a wasps’ nest! Poor Warren and Ron got the bad end of it!

Keeping focused and moving well despite sore feet and tired legs, we finally arrived at the southern terminus. Completing the trail had never felt better! It really was a great day on the trails, incredibly fun, with awesome company. A new Women’s FKT at 13:44 (from a previous 15:02) was simply icing on the cake.

As we sat down on the rocky beach, removing running shoes and preparing to water proof our bags and phones, a local fisherman went cruising by in a zodiac. Without thinking twice, I leapt up, waving my hands to flag him over. He was more then happy to help shuttle us across the gap and refused to take any money for his kind gesture. Boy did we get lucky! Not only did we have a solid run with zero injuries, we escaped a cold water dousing finale!
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Forty-five minutes later, we had donned clean clothes and were clinking glasses of cold Fat Tug IPA at the Renfrew pub! I had something else to celebrate besides a new FKT. This was the first time I’d run the West Coast Trail 100% pain free. With no Achilles issues anymore, I was able to enjoy pretty much every step of the trail.

For me, running the West Coast Trail is a wondrous experience, one that I will return to time and time again, yearly if my schedule allows. With my roots on Vancouver Island, this trail feels like home and is in my blood. Joining friends on such a stunning and challenging coastal adventure is, in a word, incredible!

Call for Comments!

Do you have any questions for Jen about her adventure?

Has anyone else run this trail? If so, how was your experience?

Is anyone planning on running this trail after reading Jen’s post?

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