Sunday, May 11, 2008

North Coast Trail Run - May 10, 2008

This is the story of Jeff Hunt and Bob Wall's epic 60k Trail Run of the North Coast Trail. The run was completed on May 10th, 2008 (Opening Day), and it took them 11 hours to complete it.
Wow. What an adventure.

Before I begin this post, I know many people will be reading this report trying to gain information about the trail, either for hiking, camping or running purposes, so I will try and deliver all the information I know from my recent experience. I would also like to thank my family, Peninsula Runners , Prairie Inn Harriers Running Club , and Cape Scott Water Taxi for their support with this recent running adventure. Most importantly, I would like to thank both Strategic Forest Management and the Northern Vancouver Island Trails Society who spent the last 10 years fundraising and constructing the trail. Without their efforts, there would simply not be a trail.

The Adventure:
I left Victoria on the Friday at 7:20 am loaded with my gear. I wanted to get on the road before any sort of rushhour traffic would hit. I made very good time, and with Bob's directions, I found his place in Campbell River. Along the way, I had been eating and drinking as much as possible. By the time I got to his place, he was waiting outside, and greeted me with a large hug, as did his wife, Tammy. The first thing I said to them was "Where is your bathroom?" My bladder had been full since Parksville, and I was pushing it to make it to their house. After relieving myself, I helped Bob load up his gear, and before to long we were off. We made a quick stop at the local running store in Campbell River, so that Bob could pick up a pair of running shorts. Apparently his old ones had holes all in them, and he wasn't about to run in half a pair of shorts.
The drive up to Port Hardy took 2.5 hours. I actually could not believe how quick it was. The road was better and much straighter than I had imagined, and with no campers and logging trucks along the way, it was an easy trip.
The first thing we did was to check into our beautiful hotel in downtown Port Hardy, the Seagate Hotel. The lady at the check-in seemed to know that we were the runners coming into town.
Apparently, we were big news in the city. After picking up some dinner at the local cafe, Bob got on his phone and got in touch with George from Cape Scott Water Taxi . Bob had previously spoken with George, so all the arrangements had already been setup. George was also involved with the local newspaper up there, the North Island Gazette, so the first thing George did after the introductions, was to interview us. After the short interview, George told us that he would be taking us to the Shushartie Bay Trailhead for free. He also gave us 2 new maps of the trail, and 2 promo shirts of his business. What a guy. If everyone was as nice as George, I didn't mind hanging around in this city!
Then George said "Wait until you meet Babe, she wants to see what trailrunners look like."
I said, "Who is Babe?"
He replied, "She's my wife...and she is quite something."
So we hopped in George's truck and went to the local pub, called "Babe's".
I figured it out immediately - his wife owned the pub....boy, am I smart or what.
When we walked into the local pub, it was pretty easy to tell which one was Babe. She was the one who was about 40 years old, wearing a miniskirt so short that you would expect to see it on a 20 year old. After we were introduced, George gave us some beers on the house and we chatted for a small amount of time. The playoff hockey game was on at the time, so I was really only half focused in on the conversation.
By this time, it was getting late, so we double-checked our starting time and finishing time for the next day. George was probably as excited as we were to be doing the trail. He kept saying "This is so great you guys!"
We got back to the hotel, got our things ready for the big day, and went to bed at 8:40 pm. We had to be up at 5:30 am, and from experience, we both knew we would need all the rest we could get at this point.

I had a good night's sleep, as did Bob. We triple-checked we had all the gear we would need. I had the 1.5L camelbak, bear whistle, running gloves, 2 Cliff Bars, and 7 gels. I didn't bring my cell phone, as I was told that it had no chance of working on the trail. I ate a last minute banana, and then we were off to the dock.
We arrived to the water taxi dock at 6 am. George had the engine already fired up. He was keen. When we were ready to go, George informed us that we would be having 4 more people on the boat.
The four people were from Strategic Forest Management, and these were the people who actually built much of the trail over the last 2 years. They took one look at us and said "You guys are the runners, eh?" We then introduced ourselves.
The 45 minute water taxi to the start of the trail was filled with questions back and forth between us and the four guests. We learned that they were going to the trail for the opening ceremony. They had a BBQ, fruit platter, etc. and were going to be transported to Cape Sutil (at the 17k mark), for a grand opening of the trail. Apparently dignitaries were being flown in later that day. With any luck, we would actually be running right through their ceremony.
We tried to find out as much info about the trail as possible from the trailbuilders, but all I remember hearing is them saying "It's a harder trail than the West Coast Trail." They were also in disbelief that we were actually going to be running it. They called us crazy. The comment didn't even register.
We finally got to Shushartie Bay after a smooth ride on the boat. The conditions seemed excellent. Overcast skies, not too hot, not too cold, no rain, and no wind. I looked around at the bay and said "Where is the dock?". One of the trailbuilders said "It hasn't been built yet."
George navigated the boat up to a big rock, where Bob and I jumped out of the boat. We went up to the NCT Trailhead sign and took the ceremonial photo. We waved goodbye to our friends, and then the run began.

Shushartie Bay to Skinner Creek (0k-9k)
The run didn't actually start with a run however. The first 1k of the trail was basically straight up, climbing in elevation about 200m. There were ropes to assist us climb up the steep embankments. We didn't use all of them, but in some circumstances, they were necessary.
The trail was definitely mucky. It took all of about 10 minutes to get my feet wet. Much of the first section went through bogs. I think there were at least 8 of them. Oh and another thing: bear scat everywhere. Some of it fresh, some of it not.
Some of this bog portion was boardwalked, but it was evident that much more boardwalk was definitely required. The trailbuilders clearly still have much work to do.
The trail was definitely new. Trail running along moss, salad stems, and vertical pointy sticks made it slow going. It also was not flat, and not straight. 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.

Skinner Creek to Nahwitti River (9k-12k)
It was a welcome change to find the beach. To our surprise, we saw the water taxi ahead in the ocean, and as we ran by it, the people on the boat cheered like we were finishing a race. Unfortunately, this was not the case. We had really just begun.
The beach stretch did not last long, and at the end of the beach we saw the orange buoy, indicating where the trail access was. We stopped for a moment, had our first Cliff Bar, and then used the rope to climb back onto the inland trail.
It wasn't too long before we were on the beach again, and this time, we found the beach not runnable. The beach was like pea-gravel, and everytime I took a step, I would like down 6 inches. It was clearly just a waste of energy to try and spin through this beach stretch.
However, we made it to the Nahwitti River in good time, and I felt that our pace had definitely sped up. There was only one problem now: how to cross the river?
Nahwitti River to Cape Sutil (12k-17k)
We had heard the day before coming up to Port Hardy that one of the cable cars had actually not been erected yet. So here we were, at the river, and it looked pretty deep. Bob and I spent some time figuring out how to ford the river, and where exactly would be the best spot. Without any further discussion on the matter, I said "Screw it", and then started walking through the river with a pole in hand. It wasn't too deep (up to the lower thigh), but the water was ice cold, and Bob started shrieking like a little girl saying how cold it was.
After crossing the river, we then had the next arduous task of actually finding the trail again. We saw no flagging tape, and no buoy to lead us the right way. I took the map out and had a good look at it. It seemed a little unclear to us where the cable car was going to go exactly, so after some discussion, we began to bushwack inland to find the trail. This really was our only option, as the creek bank was extremely difficult to travel along.
The bushwacking experience made me think of the trailbuilders. It would have been a nightmare trying to carve a trail through the rainforest. Salal, 8 feet high; rotten and wet logs; deep, spongy moss made the bushwacking awful. After a while, I questioned whether we were actually headed the right direction at all. After 30 minutes, and almost turning around, Bob found the trail. Thank God. We had just been slowed down majorly, but we were on the right track.
The next section of the trail was much of the same. Some beach (not runnable), and some trail. The trail was a real scramble, and the map actually marks this section at the most difficult on the trail. There were many high headlands to cross, and it reminded me of the Juan de Fuca Trail...except steeper. At one point, the trail was so steep, that it seemed it was a 90 degree climb and drop. I took a photo of Bob coming down one of these slopes.
After a while, we eventually saw the white sandy beach of Cape Sutil, and again, the water taxi was out there with more people on the boat. Again, they cheer us on when they saw us. The white sandy beach was runnable, and it was stunningly beautiful. I joked to Bob that we were now in least for a few minutes.

Cape Sutil to Irony Creek (17k-24k)
This stretch of trail never seemed to end. Although only about 7k, it was now getting psychologically difficult to maintain excited about the trail. This section of the trail, on the North end, was more exposed, and by this point, some wind had developed, and it was now raining. The few times when we did stop, I got cold.
In this section, you hit about 10 different beaches, all not runnable. The beaches ranged from the pea-gravel type to the large boulders type. The rocks were all coated with a black algae, which made some sections very slippery.
On top of the difficult conditions, Bob and I were almost out of water. With the exception of Skinner Creek and the Nahwitti River (which was tidal anyways), there was no water at all. We tried desperately to maintain a solid pace, running when we were able, in order to get to Irony Creek. This was one of the few times I saw Bob struggle somewhat. I could tell he was genuinely concerned about his water supply, and I think he was slowing down a little. I have rarely seen this before from him.
It was hard to tell where exactly we were on the trail too. There were no markers to tell you how far you had travelled. A few times we pulled out the map and estimated where we were. In all cases, we thought we had gone further than we had.
At last, we rounded a point, and heard the sound of a rushing river. This was good news.

Irony Creek to Laura Creek (24k-35k)
We made a full stop at Irony, taking on Powerbars, gels and reloading our Camelbaks. It was evident from the river why it was called Irony Creek. The river was brown, not from being dirty, but from being high in iron. We drank til it hurt and Bob seemed like a new man after that river.
We got on our horse again. There was a nice hard-packed beach following Irony and we nailed the 1k stretch in about 5 minutes. Before too long, we hit Strandby River. This would be the second cable car crossing, but unlike the first time, there actually was a cable car in place. Bob and I pushed away a sign that read "Under Construction, Do Not Use", and we reeled in the cable car. The blue rope was brand new, and the pulled system had not been broken in yet. Needless to say, there was a great deal of friction. Our shoulders got a real workout, just pulling the thing up. We hopped in, and then expected a fun ride across. However, this was no Disneyland. The blue rope was bulky and sticky, and we had to pull ourselves the entire distance. It was hard work; especially when you consider how much upper body strength I have (or don't have!).
On the other side of the river, a nice trail awaited us. By nice, I mean not too steep. It was still not terribly runnable. As usual however, the trail did not last long, and eventually we found ourselves on the longest stretch of beach on the NCT.
We had 7k of straight beach, and absolutely none of it was runnable, in spite of our efforts to find any sign of hard-packed beach. In hindsight, this ended up begin the most difficult part of our adventure. 2 hours straight of trying to run on a beach that was not designed for runners. The only excitement in this stretch were the bald eagles that flew overhead, and the dead sea-lion that Bob nearly ran over. This was definitely a low-point in the run for the two of us, and we were now popping gels whenever we could.
When we did eventually come to Laura Creek, I felt like crying I was so excited. I knew that the end of the NCT portion was near, and this meant that the easy Cape Scott Section was just around the corner.

Laura Creek to Nissen Bight (35-43k)
The was still 8k to go. It was too premature to get excited about completing the difficult NCT portion. However, Bob had estimated that we were 2k further than we really were, so this last stretch seemed longer than it was. Shocker.
To my delight, however, the trail finally was a little easier in this part. We had kissed the beach goodbye for good, and we were back onto semi-decent trails. It was now evident as well, that a few other people had been though this section, likely doing overnight hikes from the West end of the trail over the past year. Having said that, we never did see anyone on the entire trail.
In addition, as we got closer to the finish of the NCT portion, more boardwalk surfaced, which quickened our pace. We eventually made our way down some stairs and dropped into Nissen Bight. I saw the back of a large sign, so I thought this was it. As it turns out, it wasn't...quite.
We took a rest on the beach and pulled the map out. We saw that we had to get to the other side of the beach (800m) to officially finish the NCT extension. Again, we took some water, some gels, and then sped across the hard-packed beach to the signpost. We now had the NCT trail done. The sign indicated 15.2k to go. Easy. Piece of cake. Yeah, right...

Nissen Bight to San Josef Bay Trailhead (43k-59k)
I was hoping that this trail would be like the yellow-brick road from the Wizard of Oz, and it actually started out this way. The trail was fairly flat, and dead straight. I joked with Bob that this trail was just like Elk/Beaver back at home.
Bob by this point was in strong condition. He wad been waiting for hours to finally get his legs going. On the other hand, I was now starting to struggle with keeping my pace. On a couple of occassions, I felt dizzy (low blood sugar), so I took a gel and walked for a few minutes before I was able to continue.
I was actually impressed however, that I held it all together. My experience of knowing myself and what my body is like under extreme distance supremely paid off this day. The clock now showed over 10 hours of running, so this was going to be some accomplishment.
The trail deteriorated somewhat after 49k, and I had to dig deep to find the courage to battle through. But I did.
There were kilometer markers along the Cape Scott Stretch. Every 8-9 minutes, we would count down the kilometers, and by the time we saw the number 3, I knew it was all over very soon.
A short while, it was all over. Bob and I broke through the trail at the same time, exaclty at 11 hours of running. My fist was up in the air as we took the last stride. I looked at Bob and we shook hands. Another adventure complete.
By this point, George was in his truck honking his horn. He ran out of the truck and hugged us. He said, "I can't believe you guys just did that."
Babe was with him as well, and she was also smiling ear to ear. Bob asked them if they had been waiting long, and they said "not really". I then said, "I hope you didn't get bored waiting for us."
George then looked at Babe and said, "we found something to do while we waited." Babe kinda smirked at him and hit him cutely, with a look of guilt all over her face.

The Trail Conditions:
The trail is about 50% beach and about 50% trail.
The beach sections range from white, hard-packed sand, to large boulders, and everything inbetween. The two white sand beaches that you cross (Cape Sutil and just South of Laura Creek), and the one beach at Skinner Creek are hard-packed and were very runnable. The rest of the beach sections were not runnable at all. They were all pea-gravel or small boulder beaches, and often, had black algae on the top which made the conditions extremely slippery.
The trail sections were, in two words, mucky and spongy. Much of the trail goes through bogs. I would hazard a guess and say that there are about 20 in total. When not going through the bog, the trail is either a mucky, messy scramble up or down. Scrambling through the trails would be the best way to describe how you would get through much of it; backpack or not. This trail will introduce you to ropes. There are probably about 50 ropes on the trail to help you with the extreme elevation change. Not all of them we used; but in some sections, it is the only way up or down.
The trails are brand new, so that comes along with many pros and conns. The plus side of the new trail is that there is not as much mud as there will be after a year or two. And although there is a fair bit of mud on the trail, it is forseeable that eventually the mud on this trail will make the mud on the West Coast Trail look like a walk in the park. In addition, the new trail offers more traction than one that gets worn out. The downside of the new trail is that it was slightly harder to figure out exactly where to go. The flagging tape helped us greatly, as did the buoys in the trees along the beach sections. We actually only got lost once, which means that the trail is very well-marked.

Comparing it to the West Coast Trail (WCT) and the Juan de Fuca Trail (JdF):
I have completed the WCT 3 times, and the JDF 2 times, so I have the unique position to compare the trails, and give you my opinion.
- The JDF is 47k and the WCT is 77k (ladders included), so this 60k trail is pretty much inbetween in terms of distance.
- The JDF has its scenic points along the tops of headlands, and across two amazing suspension bridges. The WCT is unbeliewvable in terms of scenrey, and no wonder it has been named the worlds #1 hike. The NCT has some viewpoints, but is not much of a scenic trail. It is a hikers' trail, rather than a tourist trail (if that makes any sense).
- The WCT is an easier hiking trail compared to the other two. I know the ladders and mud are hard, but the other two trails are harder with the continuous elevation changes. The NCT is actually just like a longer JDF trail, with some extreme slopes that are not seen on either of the other two trails.
- The JDF is often wet, the WCT is usually wet, and it is forseeable that the NCT will always be wet. I know I did the NCT in May, but I cannot possibly see this trail ever being dry; any part of it.
- In terms of running the trails: The WCT is still the hardest, due to its length, but the NCT is pretty darn close. The JDF is definitely easier than the other two.
- It was extremely surprising to me that there were virtually no bridges on the NCT (in spite of it being very wet). There were also no ladders, and there were very few rivers. I think in total there were only about 8 rivers we saw. The issue of lack of potable water resembles that of the WCT, and finding decent water in the late summer could be hard.

Extra Information:
1. For those of you looking to plan a hike or run on the North Coast Trail, you should contact WildCoast Magazine and buy a detailed map for $8. You can also buy these maps in Port Hardy. There are a couple of Internet sites that have maps, but the online maps are very poor compared to the $8 one. It is definitely worth the money.

2. You will need a water taxi at the East end. You should either phone Cape Scott Water Taxi and pre-arrange a charter, or you should phone them for their schedule. For 2008, they have a regular schedule to leave Port Hardy at 8 am every morning for the months of July and August. Their rates are $80 per person. A group of 6 or more will drop the price. This price may sound expensive, but it is a 45 minute ride. It is actually a good deal, especially compared to the $185 to do the West Coast Trail.

3. Cell phones do not work on the trail. They do not work at the San Josef Bay Trailhead either, and I don't remember seeing a pay phone there. Plan accordingly.

4. At the San Josef Bay Trailhead, you will either need a ride to or from there. I am 90% sure that there is a shuttle system setup for July and August. I do not know who is in charge of the shuttle system, but again, the guy at Cape Scott Water Taxi did know more information. You can probably phone the Information at Port Hardy and get some details.

5. At the time of our run, there were no kilometre markers. This disappointed me tremendously. That is one of the great things I liked about the JDF and the WCT. The website said that the kilometre markers were in place, but they weren't. It was hard, at times, to know exactly where we were.

6. There is an overnight fee of $5 per night on the trail. They have boxes at the two trailheads, and I think this payment is done on the honor system. I would strongly encourage all hikers, kayakers and nutbar runners to support the trail in whatever way possible.

7. There are two ways to hike the trail: East to West, or West to East. It doesn't matter which way you go, as both ends have great campsites. However, if you are planning on running it as an ultra, there is only 1 way to do it: East to West. This is because it only makes sense to start with the water taxi, as finishing with it means that you have a very good chance of missing any scheduled time.


Jarhead said...

A great detailed description of your adventure! Thanks!!!

Michael said...

Congratulations on the run, nice write-up! So, what is next?

Chris said...

Nice work...

The Jackal said...

Bob has a pair of short like mine!
The rope accent looks real scary...

Becky said...

My girlfriend, who is turning 50, has chosen this hike as her birthday present. There will be three mature women hiking this soon. I was happy to see your blog, but now a little leery. It has me wondering what we'll do for her 60!

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