Friday, August 19, 2011

Where's Butch? A West Coast Trail Tale

About 10 years ago, my dad, my uncle, and second cousin, or some iteration of cousin, set off to conquer the 75k West Coast Trail. With my 50 liter Khamsin loaded with food, sleeping gear, cooking gear, and clothes enough to last six long, wet days, we took the Lady Rose up Alberni Inlet to Bamfield, where we set off from Pacheena Bay toward Gordon River (Port Renfrew). Six days later we emerged from the dark, mucky forest smiling and proud, battered and bruised, and smelling like seven years on the street. That final boat ride was like Shangri-la as it meant pub food, hot showers, and our own beds.

At 9:2o pm, this past Saturday and 10 years later, I arrived back at the Gordon River again dreaming of pub food, that elusive shower, and my own bed. The day had been a long and incredible journey as the six of us had started from Pacheena Bay only that morning at 4:42 am. Dave, Ken, Rob, Adrian, Jackie, and myself woke to the beep! beep! beep! of a 3:45 a.m. alarm clock, went through our morning routines, and began running under headlamp light with only enough gear and grub for the day.
Spirits were high as a couple of us finished our business at the trailhead outhouse and we set off across the beach. The tide was out at that point so we gladly skipped the ladders that were part of those first few kilometers. From there the run to Pacheena Light house was dark and invigorating. Like any night run, your senses seem to come alive as you see less and hear and smell a lot more. Most of what I could smell unfortunately was that of one of my running mates. Evidently someone hadn't finished in the out house at the trail head. Our arrival at the light house coincided with daylight and our headlamps found their way to the bottom of our bags. After a quick look around and a snack we trotted on to Michigan, the first of many campsites. It was early and a few weary campers had poked their heads from their tents to see the six of us running through camp. I'm sure they thought we'd stolen something. Why else would people be running across a desolate West Coast beach at 6:00am. A few waves and smiles and we floated off down the beach, back into the trail, and back out again...kinda' the routine for the day. Although the beach was open and appeared to be an easy way to cover a lot of miles it was often very tough travel. If you've ever run along the beach you know exactly what I mean. Occasionally you find a hard patch that gives you excellent traction and purchase that propels you onward. For every step you take on that surface however, is an opposing piece of ground made of sand and gravel that fills your shoes and seemingly sucks you backward, like a dream in which you're being chased by some evil ghoul. After a few kilometers of this pesky terrain you start to crave the muck and roots of the forest again. And so the cycle begins, on the beach, off the beach, on the beach, off the beach...the forest's technical roots and mud become a pain too eventually.

As Adrian and I discussed on route, getting through something this massive and daunting takes some mental segmenting in which you break off manageable pieces to finish in your mind. Being quite fresh in the morning, I broke off my largest chunk of the day, from the start to Nitinat Narrows, our first boat crossing at kilometer 33. This too was our first short break at which we topped up our water, sucked back some Cokes and had a giggle with a few northbound hikers. The section immediately leaving the narrows is primarily boardwalk and makes for a few kilometers of nice running. With that in mind I ran off confidently thinking of Chez Moniques, my next mental segment, at Kilometer 44. Head held high and proud of the bit we'd completed, I made my way toward that boardwalk only to be attacked by a fallen tree branch. In my efforts to dance lightly over it, it caught my toe and quickly wrapped up the other leg like a boa constrictor. I went down like a sack of toys and fell in dog shit. Ironically, dogs aren't even allowed on the trail so perhaps wolf or some other. Thankfully it was that petrified kind that didn't stick and only made for a good chuckle.

Minus "eau de feces" and without injury, I trotted on toward Monique's dreaming of a burger and another Coke. It was on this stretch that I had my first low. It was early on, but I wanted to be alone, I was paying too much attention to my aches and pains, questioning whether I could make it, and getting a bit clumsy. I needed that 11km's to Monique's to hurry up and end. A bit of fighting and I arrived alongside Adrian, who was also feeling low and wanting skip the Carmanah Lighthouse. Down the ladder we went and flushed out on to the beach. Ahhh...Monique's - Chez Lean-to.Monique's is a strange little place that has become somewhat of a West Coast Trail icon. I don't know her story, but if I had to guess I might say she was hiding from the world. She's planted on reserve land with her First Nations husband in the heart of Pacific Rim National Park. Inside her plastic and tarp covered shelter the cans of pop are lined up neatly across from the cooking area, fresh baking, and potato chips. The floor, where the cat and two dogs roam freely, is sandy. A burger and bun is $15 and the fixin's are a bit more. Monique herself, who doesn't make eye contact, is quirky as hell and has plenty of stories, some of which are inaccurate and embellished. She was positive that the running record was 10 hrs 30 minutes and held by a triathlete who timed all the tides. Those of us who know Gary Robbins know he could never do a triathlon. I can't recall how it came up, but I believe this was about the point 10 years ago that my father and I discussed the 17 hour record that had been achieved back then. Believing that to be quite impossible, I never would have guessed I might be gunning for it myself one day.

I'm a cheap bugger (teacher on holidays) so passed on the burger and kept to carrot cake and Dr. Pepper. With a belly full of cream cheese icing off we went down the beach realizing that our 9:00pm boat ride across the Gordon River was becoming less realistic. With 31 of the hardest kilometers to go we needed to crank it up a notch or two. The "group doddle", as Ken so eloquently phrased it, was enjoyable as hell, but killing our chances of meeting Butch, who told us the night prior that he'd stay until 9:00pm for $250. No later.

With a lot of very focused work, a couple cable cars, an increasing number of ladders and bridges, the trail just seemed to pass by for us. There seemed to be less talk and more "get there" mentality. This is not to say we weren't enjoying ourselves. In fact, quite the opposite. It just seemed there was an awareness in everyone that arriving at Gordon River by 9:00 pm was slightly urgent or we'd be swimming. I spent a fair bit of time running this section alone between Rob and Adrian out front, and Ken, Dave, and Jackie behind. My feet were starting to get messy about kilometer 58 and cursing and frustration set in. A few lonely, but out loud "f" bombs became part of my rhythm. I wanted to move faster, but the terrain in some places didn't allow it. Besides, some of our team was currently behind me so why bother anyway?, I thought. The tide was at its lowest by now and our plan was to drop through the 62km beach access out onto the shelf that would carry us quickly around Owen Point, where we'd hop through wet caves and watch the seals bask in the evening light on the rocks. The relief of running across the the shelf was immense. We were actually able to run with a normal gait again while hopping over tidal surges and volcanic stone work. Rounding Owen Point was like heaven and hell. The caves were spectacular but ahead I could see the next few kilometers of travel would be rough.It was 7:00pm as we embarked on a two kilometer bouldering expedition through to Thrasher Cove and the 70 km marker. With little chat, we climbed up and down the rocks and drift wood toward the campers at Thrasher who were a sight for sore eyes. They gave us an abundance of positive energy, exactly what we needed to get it done. It was like running through an aid station with all you can eat cheering. Their "oohs and aahs" brought to mind the breadth of what we had done already and just how close we were to actually achieving the goal. Sometimes that outside perspective is all it takes.

Laughing and smiling our way up the climb from Thrasher Cove back to the main trail, it was rapidly becoming headlamp time again-especially in the forest. Dave and Adrian had dropped us by now and were laying down serious efforts to reach Gordon River by 9:00pm and stall Butch until the rest of us arrived. It was about 8:00pm at the 70Km post and we figured 5 km per hour was reasonable. Perpetual motion in mind, heads were down, lights were on, and the trail began to undulate more and get more technical than it had been all day. Needless to say, we slowed up. My body was tired and feeling amazing, but mentally I was beat up. Night running just added to that. The kilometers ticked away incredibly slowly through here and the sounds of children playing by the water began to creep through the dark. The chatter of people around fires and the purr of vehicles was all I needed to finish this thing off. At 9:20 pm I was late, but certain Butch wouldn't have left us there.


There was no boat, no Butch, and absolutely no compassion from those on the civilization side of Gordon River. Butch's monopoly on the ferry service had the locals scared to even talk to us. To be quite honest they were rude, inconsiderate and I'm ashamed to call them fellow human beings. This could be a letter to the editor so I'll let go here and finish the tale.

There we stood, the six of us, looking across the darkness to the other side where there would be pub food, showers, and a clean bed. How fast was the current? How far was the swim? How deep was the water? What would we do if 16 hours of fatigue dragged somebody under? If we made it to the other side we'd be wet and how long before we found our way to Port Renfrew, 5 kilometers away? I strongly advocated for a fire and a bivvy night as I felt the risks were too high. It just seemed like one of those situations that could end a brilliant day really badly. Some humming and hawing and a lot of shivering led to just that - a warm, sparking fire and six tired little bodies wrapped in silver space blankets. It was quite hysterical in the end and just added to the journey.

This lasted until low tide and sun up the next morning when we filled our hydration bag bladders with air, sealed the important stuff up and made the swim in daylight. It was a fabulous way to wake up and start the day with fresh legs before we jumped on our boat back to Bamfield, which we had to meet at 8:00am. Ken, Rob, Adrian, and myself swam the river and the other two, not naming any names, got a last second pick up by some incredibly generous soul who cared less about Butch's little boat mafia.

Four pairs of wet shoes, and two dry, ran the long road to showers and coffee before an unforgettable trip up the coast to Bamfield. The almost four hour trip took us to two species of Orcas, Gray Whales, Humpbacks, and Sea Lions. The Serengeti of the sea I tell you. Our captain just happened to have some research privileges that brought us extremely close to these creatures. What a way to bring the trip to a close before the dirt road back to Port Alberni.Although I remembered the West Coast Trail like I'd been there yesterday, it was a very different experience. Most of the folks we met out there were encouraging and genuinely interested, but I'm certain after our departure they must've commented on us not really having the time to enjoy the trail. To that I say yes and no. Running is a very different way to enjoy a trail. You may experience less in terms of time, but the runner takes it all in fast and overwhelms his senses. It's very draining as you haven't got time to reflect on things. Instead you run through it and experience it later. Almost a week later I'm still in the high of it all and continue to recall the bits and pieces.


  1. Decent adventure... too bad about gouging by national park and natives

  2. I felt the same about $125 park fee at first, but thinking about the cost of my last race put it into perspective. Sure, our tax dollars should take care of parks fees, but they don't. As for the first nations making a buck off every traveler who crosses reserve land, what can I say...opportunity knocks and capitalism.

    You're uber correct about the decent adventure though. Wish you had come. It was right up your alley.

  3. sounds fantastic! jealous I didn't get to join. Hope to be there next time.

  4. Love the read, great adventure you had, and made me laugh too!

  5. I can't believe I am just reading about this now! I want to hike or run whatever the West Coast Trail even MORE now! What a great adventure!

  6. If you had simply run the trail and caught the boat, you would have remembered a great run on the West Coast Trail...

    But you missed the boat - Ha...that's awesome!

    ...and that makes this an epic run that you'll talk about for the rest of your days..."Did I ever tell you about that time when I mised the boat..." - loved it. Great read Tom!