Distance: 43 km
Time: 5 Days
Topographical Map: 92 E/8 & 92 E/10
Season: May - Sept
Comparisons between the Mid-Coast Trail and the West Coast Trail are inevitable. And while both largely follow the beach along the western fringes of Vancouver Island, the comparison stops there. The West Coast Trail has earned an international reputation over the years attracting as many as 9,359 hikers in a single season. Environmental degradation was inevitable. Litter and sewage and broad hiking avenues supplanted a once pristine wilderness. Foot traffic comparable to the Stanley Park Seawall forced indigenous wildlife away from the coast, forcing also Parks Canada to impose quotas for the first time in 1992.
The 43 km Mid-Coast Trail, by contrast, is a well-kept secret. Recently protected by the provincial government's Clayoquot Land Use decision, the Mid-Coast Trail remains a true coastal wilderness attracting only a handful of savvy purists every year. For the time being its relative remoteness is its best protection.
The Vanishing Wilds: Hiking along the intertidal fringe of the Mid-Coast Trail reveals virgin wilderness like beautiful Barchester Beach. Bears and wolves live here and just a few of that 'most dangerous game' ever passes through. These eco-tourists travelled all the way from the industrial wasteland of Japan just to experience what most local British Columbians take for granted.
Getting There is Half the Fun
Most hikers reach the trailhead from Tofino [See Getting to Tofino]. A few local bush pilots will land on Escalante beach. Though fast, this approach is not recommended for the faint of heart.
Alternately, hikers can contract the services of local guide and entrepreneur Peter Buckland who will arrange air or water transport from Tofino to his property at Boat Basin.
A third, more leisurely, route to the trailhead, relies on the expertise of local guide and fisherman Dave Ignace [see below]. The first leg of the adventure takes us over choppy waters to Hesquiat, site of a once thriving aboriginal village and Catholic mission. The name for the community is onomatopoeic, derived from the sound eel grass laden with herring roe makes as it slides through one's teeth. As the name-meister Captain John Walbran put it:
"At Hesquiaht village a saltwater grass called 'segmo' drifts on shore in large quantities, especially at the time of the herring spawning, which the Natives are in the habit of tearing asunder with their teeth to disengage from the grass or wee the spawn, which is esteemed by them a great delicacy."
A tsunami in 1964 and modern maladies like small pox and urbanization have reduced Hesquiat to just the Ignace family. This is the last outpost of hospitality on the central coast. Dave and his wife Diane have established a rustic camping area and, as an added bonus will host a lavish split-salmon and crab barbecue on the beach. Anticipation of the seafood, fresh garden salad, wild blackberry flan and bonfire potatoes will fortify hikers through days of backpackers' rations.
From Hesquiat, Dave's boat handling skills will be required to ferry hikers past the breakers of Estavan Point, over the rollers of the open Pacific, through myriad kelp beds, reefs and other hidden hazards. At Escalante Point near the mouth of Nootka Sound it's time to bid your worthy seaman farewell, wade ashore and set up a base camp before setting out to explore the beaches to the north.
Nature Mirrors Art
From Escalante set an easy pace following the coastline southwards. Sand soon gives way to a field of gigantic, voluptuous sandstone and conglomerate formations reminiscent of Henry Moore's wildest abstract imaginings. And if Moore sensuality is not your thing you'll find a hint of Salvadore Dali's jagged dreamscapes in the massive tectonic uplifts that follow.
Crusty Uplift: Hiking the Mid-Coast Trail is frequently called an uplifting experience: about every 200 million years.
At Split Cape you'll encounter the only real impediment to navigation though the surge channel here is easily overcome with a quick scramble through the bushes at all but the highest of tides.
That Old Sinking Feeling
Barchester Bay affords exquisite beach camping but step quickly when fording the river here as patches of quicksand are sure to surprise. This is not the Tarzan movie variety of quicksand, however, so mucky boots are the worst you'll endure.
Since the river at Barchester is brackish, wading upstream will be necessary to ensure fresh supplies. In fact, finding fresh water all along the Mid-Coast Trail can be a problem in the summer months with many creeks either dry or reduced to a trickle. Keep a sharp eye open for any wet spots at the forest edge. Usable sources will often disappear under the sand upon reaching the beach. Remember to top up whenever possible, tasting first for salt contamination.
Expect to encounter black bears scavenging on the beach. On one occasion we were able to watch and photograph, from a safe distance, a sow with two cubs for about ten minutes before being discovered. Wolves too are in abundance on this part of the coast though spotting these shy animals is no easy task. Imagine though, crawling out of your tent in the morning to discover fresh wolf tracks on top of your own!
Shelter Skelter: Peter Buckland’s homey cabin at Homais Cove was originally built to accommodate hikers who passed through his property at Boat Basin following the Escalante River down to the beach. It looks like they had a whale of a rib feast. Bronto burger anyone?
In 1774 the Spanish made contact with the original inhabitants of Hesquit at Estavan Point. Now you'll find the tallest lighthouse, 39 m, on Vancouver Island. Built in 1907, Estavan Point Light Station is one of the few remaining manned lighthouses on the west coast. This will be your closest link to the outside world. Estavan Point lighthouse was the only place in Canada to see action during WW II. A marauding Japanese submarine crew fired more than 25 shells at the beacon but missed every time. Maybe it is true, as the Japanese say "Tôdai moto kurashi - It's darkest at the foot of the lighthouse." Following the assault, lighthouses up and down the coast were very dark indeed: blacked out in fact, until the end of the war. For its part, the submarine was sunk a few months later off the coast of New Zealand. The beach prior to Estavan Point or the tiny one at Smokehouse Bay are perhaps the best spots for camping on the third night. If actually planning to sleep, the further from the Estavan Point fog horn the better.
A petroglyph can be found on one of the beach boulders just prior to Matlahaw Point. For those who intend to continue past Hesquiat to Boat Basin, you'll find ideal camping in the vicinity of Teahmit Indian Reserve. Perhaps it goes without saying but respect for the land should be paramount at all times. Hikers should be especially observant when crossing native lands.
At Hesquiat you will be greeted by Dave Ignace and family once again. From here he will ferry you on to Hot Springs Cove for a well-earned soak in the finest natural hot spring on the west coast.
For transportation to and from the trailhead contact Dave & Diane Ignace in Hesquiat:
Dave & Diane Ignace
PO Box 418
Tofino, B.C. V0R 2Z0