Wildlife and wilderness converge on Island’s North Coast Trail

The wolf ran along the beach, pausing to consider the black bear munching on bugs. It decided to give the larger animal a wide berth, then glanced up at the five of us watching, before running right past us.

It’s the kind of sight that’s apparently not uncommon on the North Coast Trail, a wild, multi-day backpacking route at the northern tip of Vancouver Island. The 43-kilometre trail, which stretches from Nissen Bight in the west to Shushartie Bay in the east, is an extension to the original Cape Scott Trail.

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In late spring, I hiked a short section of the trail as part of a trek to the Cape Scott lighthouse with my dad, two uncles and a cousin. We started from the Cape Scott trailhead, which connects to Nissen Bight, the trail’s first campsite coming from the west, after about 15 kilometres of flat, easy hiking. It’s a two-hour drive to the trailhead from Port Hardy, most of which is on a rough logging road with large trucks that kick up enough dust to engulf a car.

Although the empty beaches and endless ocean — the nearest land mass across the water is Japan or Russia — are stunning, it’s the people and animals you encounter along the way that set this trail apart.

Take the Czech ultrarunner we met, for example. On the day we met Brano Hrubsa, he was running a casual marathon from the start of the North Coast Trail at Nissen Bight to the Cape Scott lighthouse and back, then on to Laura Creek campsite on the North Coast Trail.

The Cape Scott Trail is relatively simple hiking. The 29-kilometre trail meanders along the beach and into the coastal forest before turning into an old, bumpy road that leads to the lighthouse.

The next day, Hrubsa joined us around our breakfast fire at Laura Creek. As he wolfed down gummy bears and figs for his morning fuel, he told us about his trip, his running plans for the day and the ultralight gear he travels with to keep his pack manageable.

I’m not sure he knew how to just walk. Even when travelling with all of his gear — his backpack, tent, sleeping mat, sleeping bag and chocolate-chip-granola bar stash — he ran. Despite trying to keep his pack light, he carried a full box of cookies with him.

“I guess you don’t worry about getting fat,” my dad joked to the man about to run more than a marathon for the second day in a row.

While we wandered leisurely along the beach near our campsite, Hrubsa took off at about noon for the day’s run: about 25 kilometres on the North Coast Trail from Laura Creek to around Nahwitti campsite, then back to Laura Creek. He was expecting the 50-plus kilometres to take him at least six and a half hours. He didn’t get back to the campsite until 7 a.m., 19 hours later.

After breezing through the Cape Scott route, Hrubsa had underestimated the challenge of the North Coast Trail, as we learned when we ran into him a third time. Hrubsa was a runner’s high embodied. He had a constant smile plastered across his face, even when he told us — through mouthfuls of Halloween-sized Oh Henry bars — about the 19 hours he had accidentally spent running.

He ran through the whole night, and covered almost the whole trail. I think we all felt a little inadequate next to him, but even though he covered way more ground than we did, he missed out on our wildlife sightings.

He didn’t see a wolf. He didn’t see a bear. And he didn’t see a wolf seeing a bear. It turns out that it’s tough to see bears and wolves while you’re running through the dark. I think that made us all feel better about taking it easy on the trail. The trail travels up and down and up some more in the forest along the coastline, dipping down to stretches of beach hiking. Fallen trees, swampy sections and a generally rough and wild trail make it slow going.

Every step requires attention to make sure you’re placing your foot in a stable and dry place. Both my dad and I hit our heads on trees as we crawled under fallen logs during the short section of the trail that we hiked.

The North Coast Trail is usually hiked from one end to other. When combined with a side-trip to the Cape Scott lighthouse, the total distance is about 60 kilometres.

Hikers can book a water taxi from Port Hardy to drop them off at Shushartie Bay. The boat leaves at 7 a.m. and takes an hour. You also have to arrange a van pick-up on the day you hike out at the Cape Scott parking lot, which leaves at 1 p.m. The transportation will add about $180 to your trip if booked through Cape Scott Water Taxi.

We decided against shelling out for the pickups and dropoffs, and instead hiked in from the Cape Scott trailhead and out the same way. That way, we could park our rental car in the gravel parking lot and return to it, which saved us staying a night in Port Hardy before starting the hike.

We hiked to the lighthouse on the Cape Scott Trail and then walked the first seven kilometres of the North Coast Trail east to the Laura Creek campsite.

We spent a day exploring the beach around the campsite before heading back out the way we came. All in, we walked about 60 kilometres over seven days on the trail.

The Cape Scott lighthouse is one of only a few lighthouses that is still staffed. Two men live in a Coast Guard house at the lighthouse year-round, working in shifts through the day and night. It’s a more than 20-kilometre hike from the parking lot to their home. Although they live in a wildly remote location, they can interact with dozens of people during the busy summer hiking season. Along the Cape Scott trail, signs tell the story of a stubborn attempt by the Danish to settle the inhospitable land. Prior to white settlement, the remote area was home to the Tlatlasikwala, Nakumgilisala and Yutlinuk people. The Yutlinuk in the area died out in the early 1800s and the Tlatlasikwala and Nakumgilisala moved to Hope Island in the mid-1850s.

In the late 1800s and early 1900s, when Canada was actively promoting immigration, new arrivals were encouraged to settle in uninhabited parts of the country. From 1896 to 1907, roughly 100 Danes established a small settlement at Fisherman Bay in the area.

They farmed the meadow at Hansen Lagoon and hoped to establish a self-governing and culturally distinct community. But the provincial government at the time decided against building a road to connect the remote community to nearby towns and revoked the settlers’ land lease. The uncertainty sent the small group of settlers packing.

By 1912, more than 600 people had come to Cape Scott trying to build a new home. They struggled with inadequate transportation connecting them to the rest of the Island and difficult weather conditions. After the outbreak of the First World War in 1914, many people left to look for employment in the resource industry. By 1917, most settlers had abandoned Cape Scott, leaving behind anything they couldn’t carry out.

Evidence of these settlement attempts still lingers on the trail in the form of fences, rusted tools and old telephone wires.

These days, however, the only people in the area are those passing through to enjoy one of the Island’s quietest and most remote multi-day hikes.

regan-elliott@timescolonist.com

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