Welcome to our North Coast Trail Guide! This resource includes information and tips to help plan your adventure in Cape Scott Provincial Park. To skip to a specific topic of interest, use the quick links below for easier navigation.
- Guide Book
- Cape Scott Water Taxi
- North Coast Trail Shuttle
- Gear List
- Trip Reports
- Guided Trips
- Remote wilderness. Fewer people hike the North Coast Trail than the world-famous West Coast Trail. The rewards of this lesser-known trip are more feelings of solitude and abundant wildlife viewing opportunities.
- Wolves and whales. We’ve seen so many whales close to shore that we lost count. Grey wolves live here too; you will notice tracks on low tide mornings. Chances are good that you will see a wolf or a bear foraging on the beach.
- Old growth forest and upland bogs. There are some really big old trees in this park, including Sitka spruce and Western Red Cedar over 3 metres in diameter. Boardwalks protect the sensitive ecosystems that hikers encounter along the way.
- Stunning bights and beaches. The North Coast Trail has several magnificent bights (large curved beaches). They are reminiscent of Long Beach in Pacific Rim National Park Reserve. These sandy stretches make for glorious hiking and camping. The whales love to come in close on high tide.
- First Nations and Danish settlers. Cape Scott Provincial Park has a fascinating history. First Nations people have called this area home for thousands of years. More recently, Europeans attempted to settle in the area by farming the land. Poor weather and broken promises by the government to build a road made for a tough life. After two failed attempts, they left for good. Artifacts of that era are scattered throughout the park.
- Location: North Coast of Vancouver Island, British Columbia, Canada
- Park: Cape Scott Provincial Park
- First Nations: Tlatlasikwala, Nakumgilisala, Yutlinuk
- Distance: Then official North Coast Trail is 43 km (Shushartie Bay to Nissen Bight) plus a mandatory 15 km exit on the Cape Scott Trail (Nissen Bight to Cape Scott Trailhead). The round-trip distance from the Nels Bight-Nissen Bight trail junction to Cape Scott is about 20 km.
- Duration: Typically completed in 5-8 days, depending on fitness and route plan
- Difficulty: Complex coastal and rainforest terrain (experienced backpackers only)
- Open: Year-round
- Permit: Required May 1 to September 30
- Fees: $10 per person per night ($5 for children six to 15 years old). Collected from May 1 to September 30 only.
- Reservations: Required for Cape Scott Water Taxi and North Coast Trail Shuttle
- Pets: Prohibited
- Trailheads: Shushartie Bay, Cape Scott Trailhead
- Cable car crossings: Two rivers (Nahwitti, Stranby)
- Camping: Seven designated sites (water sources, food lockers, and pit toilets)
- Structures: Cable cars, boardwalks, ropes, bridges, stairs
- Geologic features: Rocky headlands, sea stacks, sea caves, tombolos, blowhole
- Wildlife: Gray whales, humpback whales, orcas, seals, sea lions, black bears, wolves, cougars, eagles, ravens, sea birds, river otters, slugs, intertidal animals
- Weather: Heavy rain, cool temperatures, high winds, damp fog, hot sun
- Hazards: Slippery roots, deep mud, steep slopes, washouts, blowdowns, fallen logs, tide problems, deep sand, pebbles, boulders, rocky shorelines, impassible headlands, creek crossings, tidal rivers, tsunamis, rouge waves, floods, landslides, broken structures
- Emergency help: There is no cell phone service in Cape Scott Provincial Park (we carry a marine VHF radio and satellite phone). The Cape Scott Lighthouse can provide emergency assistance.
Our favourite paper map for navigation is John Baldwin’s North Coast Trail 1:50,000. He has done a great job annotating this water-resistant map with North Coast Trail highlights including terrain features, campsites, and even whales!
- Baldwin J. North Coast Trail: A topographic route map for hiking the North Coast and Cape Scott Trails on Vancouver Island. Scale 1:50,000. John Baldwin. 2013. www.johnbaldwin.ca
We use three guidebooks to plan hiking trips on the North Coast Trail. We carry Maria Bremner’s guidebook in our pack. Her descriptions of each section are meticulous. The fascinating history of the area is well-researched. The guide is not waterproof, so keep it in a Ziplock bag!
- Bremner M. Cape Scott and the North Coast Trail: Hiking Vancouver Island’s Wildest Coast. Harbour Publishing. 2015. www.capescottandthenorthcoasttrail.com
- Leadem T. Hiking the West Coast of Vancouver Island: An updated and comprehensive guide to all major trails. Greystone Books. 2015. www.greystonebooks.com
- Stone P. Coastal Hikes: A Guide to West Coast Hiking in British Columbia and Washington State. 1st ed. Wild Isle Publications. 2007. www.wildisle.ca
BC Parks charges each person $10 per night to hike the North Coast Trail. Children from six to 15 years old are $5 per person per night. These overnight camping fees are only collected from May 1 to September 30 when backcountry services are provided. There are three ways to pay:
- Online. BC Parks Backcountry Registration System allows you to purchase a backcountry permit before leaving home. The system does not reserve a campsite, but eliminates the inconvenience of carrying cash.
- Cash. You can still pay the old fashioned way by depositing an exact amount of Canadian currency into self-registration envelopes at the trailheads.
- Cape Scott Water Taxi – North Coast Trail Shuttle. If you are using this service provider to access either trailhead, you can pay your permit fees at their office.
The North Coast Trail has two official trailheads: Shushartie Bay and Cape Scott Trailhead.
Trailhead transportation for the North Coast Trail must be reserved in advance. Access to the Shushartie Bay trailhead is by water taxi from Port Hardy. Access to the Cape Scott Trailhead is by logging road. The Cape Scott Water Taxi and the North Coast Trail Shuttle are owned and operated by George and Babe Burroughs. They are your one-stop land and water logistics between Port Hardy and the North Coast Trail.
Most hikers take the water taxi to the Shushartie Bay trailhead and hike westbound. After arriving at the Cape Scott Trailhead, the North Coast Trial Shuttle drives hikers back to Port Hardy.
Cape Scott Water Taxi
The Cape Scott Water Taxi provides seasonal service to hikers at the Shushartie Bay Trailhead (east). Time of departure is 0800h from the Quarterdeck Marina in Port Hardy. The per person trip cost depends on how many other passengers are booked that day because the water taxi is a charter. The trip takes approximately 60 minutes and drops you right into the wilderness. Hiker pick-up at Shushartie Bay for transport back to Port Hardy is usually 0900h.
Captain George can drop hikers off at different start points east of Shushartie (e.g. Nahwitti or Cape Sutil). These options skip significant overland sections and shorten the hike. The added service depends on tides and may increase the cost.
Here are a few extra tips to make your water taxi experience better:
- Have your backpack packed and “hike-ready” before boarding the water taxi.
- Stow trekking poles on or inside your pack.
- Carry full water bottles (there is no drinking water until Skinner Creek).
- Watch for whales and other marine mammals.
- Listen carefully to Captain George’s safety instructions. You will disembark from the bow of the bobbing Sea Legend 1 onto slippery rocks or drop onto a pebble beach while the motor is still running. We help each other unload backpacks.
North Coast Trail Shuttle
The North Coast Trail Shuttle van provides seasonal service to hikers at the Cape Scott Trailhead (west). Pickup time in the parking lot is between 1300h and 1400h. The shuttle trip from the trailhead to Port Hardy takes just under 2 hours, including a stop for lunch.
Here are a few extra tips to make your shuttle van experience better:
- If you have saved “cleaner” or “drier” clothes, there is a large picnic shelter at the Cape Scott Trailhead to change and organize gear.
- The shuttle stops for lunch at the Scarlet Ibis Restaurant and Pub in the little town of Holberg. We carry cards and cash in our backpacks for this treat. Reminisce about your experience with others, and have a look at photo albums of past finishers.
Port Hardy is the staging area for the North Coast Trail. Accommodations in town are limited and book up quickly in the high season. Reservations are recommended.
C&N Backpackers Hostels Port Hardy
Phone: 1-855 673 3030
We study the weather before our trip using a few different resources. On trip we check weather channels daily with a marine VHF radio. You will be hiking in a temperate marine climate. Be prepared for all kinds of weather!
- Central Coast from McInnes Island to Pine Island – South Coast – Environment Canada
- West Coast Vancouver Island North – South Coast – Environment Canada
There is only one significant tide problem along the North Coast Coast Trail involving a rocky cliff cut-off. It is always easier to hike any beach section on low tide. Plan accordingly by carrying tide tables and know how to use them. We use Cape Scott (#8790) tide tables.
- Tripod Beach (16 km). Passable at low to mid tides.
Reference: John Baldwin’s North Coast Trail Map 1:50,000.
View updated tide tables for your trip dates:
The North Coast Trail is a challenging and strenuous coastal experience. The beach sections contain: logs, deep sand, wet sand, pea gravel, pebbles, sloped surfaces, seaweed, algae, boulders, creeks, rocky headlands, tide problems, and tidal rivers.
The rainforest sections have their own challenges: steep overland sections, blowdowns to crawl over or under, knee-deep mud, and slippery roots. There are also man-made wooden structures such as ropes and boardwalks in various states of decay. Forest entrances and campsites are marked with hanging floats.
We have only hiked the North Coast Trail westbound. The advantage of the westbound direction is flexibility should an emergency exit or amended route plan be required. It is easier to get a ride at the Cape Scott Trailhead versus waiting at the Shushartie Bay for the water taxi.
The North Coast Trail officially ends at Nissen Bight. An extension to the Cape Scott Lighthouse is highly recommended if you have the time.
Here are some tips to help you move more efficiently through the terrain:
- Keep your pack weight as light as possible.
- Hike the beach sections on low tides.
- Use trekking poles.
- Hold tightly to ropes as they may be muddy.
- Start longer-distance days early so you can can pace yourself.
- Take lots of breaks. We like to lie on the beach and elevate our feet at rest stops!
There are seven designated campsites and some primitive campsites on the official North Coast Trail. All designated sites have food lockers and outhouses. Hikers may extend their North Coast Trail hike with side trips in the Cape Scott Trail core area.
North Coast Trail (km from Shushartie)
Shushartie Bay (0 km)
Westbound hikers don’t typically stay at Shushartie Bay Camp. It is a gloomy forest site about 50 metres from the trailhead with tent pads. Fresh water is difficult to obtain here, so water should be packed in. Hikers usually only camp here if they have hiked eastbound and are getting picked up by the Cape Scott Water Taxi in the morning.
Skinner Creek (9 km)
Scenic Skinner Creek Camp marks the happy end to the forest overland section for westbound hikers. The sand and pebble beach is an excellent campsite with a great water source.
Nahwitti River (11 km)
Nahwitti River Camp has forest tent pads, or you can camp on the beach. The estuary is a great place to watch for birds and other wildlife. Because the river is tidal, drinking water must be collected upstream at high tide. A short hike along the North Coast Trail behind the forest campsites leads to a gravel bar where fresh water can be collected. The cable car will be in sight.
Tripod Beach (16 km)
Tripod Beach is an undesignated, primitive campsite. It has a water source about 50 m from the base of the access staircase, but no outhouse or food locker. It’s useful spot to wait if you can’t solve the Tripod tide problem until the tides are lower.
Cape Sutil (17 km)
Cape Sutil is the most northern point on Vancouver Island and a culturally important area for First Nations. The beach camping is excellent. Sutil Bight is a fine place to swim and wash off the rainforest mud. The fresh water source is a bit of a hunt…look for a path into the forest from the beach. There is a BC Parks Facility Officer cabin (yurt) at this location.
Irony Creek (24 km)
Irony Creek Camp is probably the most premium site on the North Coast Trail. Shuttleworth Bight is a massive beach that beckons hikers to stay an extra day. John Baldwin’s map indicates that whales hang out here…and they do! There are tent pads in the forest or sandy spots on the beach. Irony Creek is an excellent water source.
Laura Creek (37 km)
Laura Creek Camp is a welcome sight after a hard day of beach slogging. There are tent pads available in the sheltered forest or you may camp on the sand. We see a lot of wolf tracks here in the mornings. It’s not the nicest beach on the trail, but it is a logical place to stop on westbound itineraries.
Nissen Bight (43 km)
Nissen Bight marks the official western end of the North Coast Trail. The zone is a gorgeous beach about 1 km in length. Water is located at the east side, close to where the trail exits the forest. There is a food locker here as well. The west side has a food locker and the outhouse. We usually set up camp on the west end to be close to the “facilities” and make a trip for water afterwards.
Cape Scott Core Area (km from Cape Scott Trailhead)
San Josef Bay (2.5 km)
The two camping areas at San Josef Bay have outhouses and food lockers. The more western zone has fresh water. There is a tide problem between the two camps, so take this into consideration when trip planning. San Josef Camp is very popular due to trailhead proximity.
Eric Lake (3 km)
Eric Lake Camp is a reasonably large forest site with 11 tent pads and boardwalk connections. Hikers accessing the North Coast Trail from the Cape Scott Trailhead may opt to stay here if they get a late start to the day.
Fisherman River (9 km)
Fisherman River Camp is not the prettiest spot, but there is plenty of water. There are two new tent pads and an outhouse. We are not sure if there is a food locker here yet.
Nels Bight (17 km)
Nels Bight is similar to Nissen Bight, but is larger, sandier, and better situated for sunset viewing. Water is a more convenient here as well. It is a popular weekend spot, as hikers can access it from the Cape Scott Trailhead. Nels makes a great basecamp if you want to add the Cape Scott Lighthouse to your North Coast Trail adventure. There is also a ranger cabin at this spot.
Guise Bay (20 km)
You will probably have Guise Bay Camp all to yourself if you decide to stay here. There is a food locker, outhouse, and water source.
Here are some tips to enhance your camping experience:
- There is usually no need to camp of top of each other! We like to spread out to create space and solitude for ourselves and others.
- All fresh water should be treated before consumption. We collect as far upstream as possible. Even if a creek is not tidal, seagulls seem to love bathing near the mouth. Avoid this zone!
- Irony Creek Camp (Shuttleworth Bight) is a wonderful place to spend an extra day for a mid-trip rest. There are great tide pools here…once we saw a massive pool filled with trapped jellyfish!
- Rehydrate fully at camp. Water sources between camps may be sparse during dry summers.
- Cape Sutil to Cape Scott Trailhead – May 27-31, 2016
- Nahwitti River to Cape Scott Trailhead – July 19-25, 2015
Cape Sutil to Cape Scott Trailhead – May 27-31, 2016
Distance: 64 km
Duration: 5 days
Peak: 86 m
Gain: 1043 m
- Day 1: Cape Sutil to Irony Creek
- Day 2: Irony Creek to Laura Creek
- Day 3: Laura Creek to Nels Bight
- Day 4: Nels Bight to Cape Scott Lighthouse (return day-trip)
- Day 5: Nels Bight to Cape Scott Trailhead
Day 1: Cape Sutil to Irony Creek
Weather: overcast skies, no precipitation, temperature 10 C, barometer 1021 hPa.
Excited to start the North Coast Trail, we boarded the Cape Scott Water Taxi at 0634 h at the Port Hardy marina and motored to Cape Sutil. Captain George loaded our packs and commented on how light they were. The wildlife viewing started right away! We saw eagles, porpoises, and a black bear foraging on the beach. Our team arrived to Cape Sutil at 0758 h. Two hikers from Holland were waiting for the water taxi to take them back to Port Hardy. They would be the only other humans we would see for three days!
We disembarked the Sea Legend I and began our hike. Our group caught the low tide route the entire way to Irony Creek. The boulders, pebbles, and tide pools along this stretch were spectacular. We surprised a lone wolf feeding in the intertidal zone east of the tombolo. He ran off into the woods when he noticed we were on his beach!
After 7.8 km we arrived at Irony Creek Camp. We sighted our second lone wolf at Shuttleworth Bight. The wolf chased a deer into the woods, across Irony Creek, and back out onto the beach. The deer jumped into the ocean and swam across the bay. We watched the wolf wait for the deer to return to shore, but the deer was smarter.
Light showers turned the cool evening damp, signalling an end to the evening entertainment. We spent some time learning to rig the group tarp. Before dinner, we had a stove operation lesson and after dinner we had a food storage lesson. By 2100 h, the temperature was back to 10 C and the pressure dropped slightly to 1019 hPa. We happily retreated to the sheltered Irony Creek tent pads for the night.
Day 2: Irony Creek to Laura Creek
Weather: overcast skies, light rain, temperature 9 C, barometer 1016 hPa.
After a leisurely breakfast and camp breakdown, we packed up and hiked Shuttleworth Bight by 1000 h. The skies started to clear and we enjoyed cruising the wide open flat sand towards the west end of the beach.
We arrived at the Stranby River cable car crossing at 1130 h. Cable car rides are highlights of the trail! They offer great views down the river banks from the middle of the span. We took a break at the first pocket beach to dry our gear in the sun. As always, the sand was peppered with wolf tracks. Osprey and sea lions made appearances while we rested.
After a long beach slog, we arrived at Christensen Point and spotted camp 3 km away. We arrived at our destination, exhausted from hours of slogging along the coastal route. Our team enjoyed dinner at Laura Creek and retired to our tents.
Day 3: Laura Creek to Nels Bight
Weather: overcast skies, light rain, temperature 10 C, barometer 1022 hPa.
Our group departed Laura Creek at 0945 h and hiked back into the rainforest. A flight of stairs made the ascent much easier. The big tree that fell years ago across the trail was still there…a project low on the BC Parks maintenance list! We arrived at Dakota Creek at 1050 h and stopped to fill our bottles with clear fresh water.
The extensive boardwalks of Laughing Loon Lake made a perfect spot for a long lunch. We dried our gear under sunny skies in the clearing beside the lake. We cruised through more easy boardwalk over the upland bog, checking out the bonsai ponderosa pine (a.k.a. broccoli trees) and Nahwitti Cone above the ocean below.
We descended to Nissen Bight by 1314 h and enjoyed watching whales off the beach. This spot marked the end of the official North Coast Trail. Now we were in the Cape Scott Trail network. After hiking Nissen Bight, we entered the forest again. Artifacts near Fisherman Bay included the remains of an old wharf where the Danes tried (and failed) to ship supplies. We also passed the Community Hall ruins and an old well. There’s a lot of artifacts leftover from the settlement attempts and these make for great history interpretation.
After hiking through the meadows at Hansen Lagoon, we arrived at Nels Bight by 1540 h. Twelve school kids and two teachers from White Rock were camping there. The weather was clear and calm, making for an excellent sunset dinner by the sea. Our team was beat and fell asleep to the surf crashing on sand.
Day 4: Nels Bight to Cape Scott Lighthouse (return day-trip)
Weather: broken skies, no precipitation, temperature 11 C, barometer 1029 hPa.
Today we left our backpacking gear at Nels Bight Camp and hiked out to the Cape Scott Lighthouse. We departed camp at 1018 h and enjoyed sunny white sand beaches and passed only one other hiker. Beautiful areas included Bowen’s Beach, Experiment Bight, and the sand dunes of Guise Bay. The First Nations crossed this narrow peninsula, portaging canoes to avoid treacherous waters around the cape.
After 6.6 km of easy hiking with light day packs, we arrived at Todd and Harvey’s place at 1237 h. We enjoyed a picnic and views off the lighthouse tower. Our weather was a hot and sunny 22 C now! On the way back, we passed a hiker who saw a bear at Nels Bight. Our group made lots of noise on the way back! Another beautiful sunset enhanced our dinner by the sea.
Day 5: Nels Bight to Cape Scott Trailhead
Weather: scattered clouds, no precipitation, temperature 7 C, barometer 1023 hPa.
An alarm was set for our final day to hike 17 km to the Cape Scott Trailhead on time to meet North Coast Trail Shuttle van. We departed Nels Bight at 0833 h and booted the easy route all the way to the trailhead in under 5 hours. Our group was a team of horses back to the barn…excited for pub food at the Scarlet Ibis and hot showers back in Port Hardy.
John Tidbury was waiting at the trailhead with his camera and we got a van tour of the big tree. Everyone stayed a final night at the North Coast Trail Backpackers Hostel with our gracious hosts Rob and Anne. One more pub dinner was eaten in Port Hardy over great conversation, reminiscing about the trip of course!
Nahwitti River to Cape Scott Trailhead – July 19-25, 2015
Distance: 49 km
Duration: 7 days
Peak: 123 m
Gain: 964 m
The wilderness is still in my eyes! Before I start a backpacking trip, I always wonder what the adventure will feel like. It’s a mixture of the physical and mental…both how my body will feel in new terrain and the emotions the wild place will generate. The North Coast Trail in Cape Scott Provincial Park was by far the best backpacking trip of my life. The experience felt challenging, rugged, free, spontaneous, and wild…remote, but not lonely. Who could feel lonely in the company of so many creatures: whales, wolves, bears, eagles, ravens. I felt alive, safe, young, strong, confident, humbled, lucky, awestruck. When I was a kid, I wanted to be a marine biologist. That dream didn’t happen, but last week I immersed myself in a rich coastal environment that felt like home. It was a real joy to show our two guests the wildest coast of Vancouver Island. Representing Spain and Germany, the ladies loved the frequent whale sightings best of all. We all enjoyed the wildlife, challenging terrain, fresh air, rope obstacles, mud puddles, pebble beaches, campsites, and tasty food. I packed along Maria I. Bremner’s excellent new guidebook: Cape Scott and the North Coast Trail: Hiking Vancouver Island’s Wildest Coast. (Note: the pages are not water-proof even though I thought they might be). Her descriptions of each trail section are very accurate and the fascinating history of the area is well-researched. I defer to this book for descriptive trail details.
- Day 1: Port Hardy to Nahwitti River
- Day 2: Nahwitti River to Cape Sutil
- Day 3: Cape Sutil to Irony Creek
- Day 4: Shuttleworth Bight Layover
- Day 5: Irony Creek to Laura Creek
- Day 6: Laura Creek to Nissen Bight
- Day 7: Nissen Bight to Cape Scott Trailhead
Day 1: Port Hardy to Nahwitti River
Today was all about being transported from the urban to the wilderness. There was the feeling of anticipation as we hung out near the dock, waiting to board the Cape Scott Water Taxi. The day was sunny and hot, eagles and ravens were talking to each other, and we were the cleanest we would be for a week. The boat trip was excellent, with blue skies and epic views of Vancouver Island’s northern coastline. We saw a pod of four brightly coloured kayakers paddling west, braving the rolling seas. George, the captain, was a total professional. He piloted the taxi right into the mouth of the Nahwitti River at high tide to drop us on the beach. The wind made the sea green and choppy, but once the boat was up the river a little, everything was calm. We jumped off the bow and helped each other off-load our full packs. After George motored away, the only sounds were croaking raven friends, wind in the trees, and crashing waves. We were now in a true wilderness, remote and pristine. Our group set up camp, shared our first meal, and relaxed for the rest of the day. Nahwitti Beach was pebbly and rough, with lots of wood thrown up from winter storms. Obtaining drinking water was a small adventure. Tidal sea water mixed with the river at the mouth, so we hiked upstream for fresh water. In the shadowy forest, we heard a tree snap, followed by a loud crash. We probably scared a bear, said the Parks Facility Operators that were camping there too.
Day 2: Nahwitti River to Cape Sutil
On our warm and misty second day, we finally got our hike on. We took our first cable car of the trip across the Nahwitti River…the water level so low we could have forded it. Our group spent most of the day in the forest, bumping up and down over logs, single-track, and muddy roots. Mike experienced the trail during the exact same week in 2014, and noted how dry this year was in comparison (sorry Calgarian team). He graded the mud puddles as a “level 0.5 out of a possible 10”. The skunk cabbage carpeted the swampy parts with impossibly massive wet green leaves. Spirits were high and bodies were strong as we navigated several steep slopes with sturdy helper ropes. Eventually we descended a huge staircase to return to beach hiking, where we easily passed a tidal problem at Tripod Rock. The biggest obstacle of the day was a steep hill near Cape Sutil. A rope helped us climb up to a thin ridge where we had to immediately descend down again. Mike met us at the mid-point of our descent where we removed our packs for him to lower them down. When it was my turn, I did my best to confidently descend like I’d done it a million times before. Cape Sutil Camp (6 km) was located on a beautiful sandy beach. After we pitched our tents, a little splotchy gray whale swam close to shore, quietly spouting. This was a special moment for our Spanish guest who had never seen whales before. She became our expert spotter for the rest of the trip.
Day 3: Cape Sutil to Irony Creek
This day of hiking was the most joyful because of the varied terrain. There were showers overnight, but the drips stopped before we exited the tents. Our route comprised an endless series of small, gorgeous crescent beaches and short forest sections. Wolf tracks and bear tracks were frequent marks along the sandy shore. Stellar’s jays squawked at us as we travelled through their homes. Water was trickier to obtain that day; many of the creeks had dried up or had very low flow. The last stretch was the most difficult with beach-walking on cobbles and pebbles. The reward for our effort was the gorgeous Shuttleworth Bight…a huge and expansive sand beach similar to Long Beach on the west coast. John Baldwin’s map is so accurate that we saw whales exactly where he indicated! Our group watched constant spouts that afternoon, with a few whales coming right into the bight on high tide…rolling happily around in the waves. We liked Irony Creek Camp (13 km), with tent pads among pretty Sitka spruce trees and a good water source. Before dinner, the sun showed its yellow face and a few of us went swimming with the whales. It felt so good and cleansing to be in the cold ocean, body-surfing the waves, sand scouring my muddy skin. I felt happy like our cetacean friends. The sky was cloudy with no visible sunset, so we hit the sleeping bags early to read and rest.
Day 4: Shuttleworth Bight Layover
Shuttleworth Bight was so lovely that we decided to spend a sunny rest day here. Everyone got a chance to sleep in and have a leisurely coffee and breakfast. The tide was out, so I walked to a giant rocky area full of tide pools and surge channels. I saw a strange deep pool filled with a miniature kelp forest and hundreds of pale jellyfish. Sitting there for a while, I really started to feel this special place and completely relax into the wilderness. There was a lone cormorant (not the helicopter!) sitting on the rocks nearby. He sat there for the entire day, sometimes opening his wings, mostly just resting and watching. Some of us hiked up and down the entire length of the sand, watching the whales and the sandpipers. Others took naps on the beach or in the forest. I made it all the way to the Stranby River, noticing a huge quantity of sand and seaweed far upstream. After explorations, the group shared a late picnic lunch on the logs while a raven watched from the trees above. When the tide came in, we jumped into the cold ocean again, refreshing our bodies in the waves. The sky was clear and we enjoyed a spectacular sunset after dinner, slow and orange. I saw the cormorant sitting there still, watching the sea from his home. The tide dropped for a second time, revealing the rocky treasures below, and trapping the jellyfish once again.
Day 5: Irony Creek to Laura Creek
Today was a big day on challenging beach terrain, so we got an early start. After we left the flat sand of Shuttleworth Bight, we quickly arrived at our second cable car over the Stranby River. Once we were out of the forest, it was all about kilometres of beach, with cobbles, tide pools, sand, pebbles, bleached eelgrass, and rocky shelves. There were tons of opportunities for amazing photos. Showers sprinkled on and off all day, but the cool air was perfect for hiking. We followed the wolf tracks once again, and even saw a small black bear foraging in the sandy eelgrass. All of us rested on our poles for a while, excitedly watching him comb the beach before he saw us and ran into the forest. Whales spouted all the time now, in fact they became our most common wildlife sighting. Our tired legs and feet were relieved to finally arrive at the expansive Laura Creek Camp (25 km). The evening was misty and windy, so we claimed cozy tent pads in the forest rather than camp on the cold beach. Previous campers had erected a rustic kitchen area, complete with windbreak, log benches, and storm-debris sculptures. Our group gathered with other backpackers to share stories of the trail over a (legal fog-zone) campfire and hot dinner.
Day 6: Laura Creek to Nissen Bight
The raven alarm clocks woke us up. We heard tons of birds in the forest that morning: ravens, eagles, pacific wrens, hermit thrushes, and robins. More music than any other day on the trail. The highlight of today was the gorgeous, expansive, emerald upland bog we traversed through. Eventually, we descended to glittering Nissen Bight (32 km)…another beautiful sandy long beach. There were two camps, but we hiked west to the more sheltered one. There was lots of time for photos and relaxing. After setting up, Mike and I hiked the kilometre back to the water source near the eastern camp, collecting eight litres for our group. On the peaceful trip back, we saw a lone gray whale close to shore, rubbing herself on the bottom rocks. She was so close, we felt like we could touch her. This was the last whale we saw on our trip…and Mike and I saw her together. In a quiet moment doing a camp chore, crunching along the pebbles, we felt a connection with that lovely ocean being. During dinner that evening, a sea otter surfed the green waves. Sunset and mist made an incredible double rainbow that spanned the forest and the bight…a perfect end to our last evening on the North Coast Trail.
Day 7: Nissen Bight to Cape Scott Trailhead
On our last day we finally woke to real rain! Soon all our things were wet and sandy; Mike was the only one with the skills to keep his dry. We were real coastal hikers now, decked out in full rain gear, plodding and slipping along boardwalks, old corduroy road, and mud puddles. The spongy moss in the bog section popped green and vibrant. Historic rusty artifacts from Cape Scott’s Danish settlers were visible along this section. This was the real rainforest, bathing us in all the fresh molecules of nature. Our group performed bravely during the soaking 15 km exit. About 500 m from the trailhead, I experienced my powerful wave of happiness and gratitude that I always feel near the end of a trip. In that fuzzy place where you know you are almost done, almost back to a hot shower and a comfortable bed, I get a lump in my throat and tear up. The guests were motoring ahead, excited and eager. Mike noticed my familiar “just-before-the-trailhead” state. He hugged me and said, “The wilderness is in your eyes. Remember this feeling. Carry it with you as long as you can. Carry it back to the urban. You will feel it again soon on our next trip. As we keep going on trips together, that feeling will be with you all the time.” All the beauty and wonder of the week crystallized for me in that moment. We met John at the San Josef Trailhead (47 km), charismatic Port Hardy Councillor, driver of the North Coast Trail Shuttle, and passionate north islander. He took everyone’s pictures next to the trailhead sign for the scrapbook. After a comforting hot lunch at the Scarlet Ibis Pub in Holberg, we lurched along the soaked roads back to Port Hardy. We arrived fatigued, but humbled and excited from our shared wilderness experience. We’re still finding sand from the beach!