In August of 2018 I went on a weeklong camping trip with a few others to Cape Scott Provincial Park on the northwest tip of Vancouver Island. The backcountry park encapsulates a pristine and wild stretch of coastal temperate rainforest known for its beautiful trails and stunning campsites on the beach.
We spent much of our time at a bay called Nissen Bight. At the far end of the beach was both the start and terminus of another hiking route known as the North Coast Trail. It’s a 43 kilometre path that tracks through the beaches and forests of the north island, linking Cape Scott’s trails with Shushartie Bay (where most people get dropped off by a Port Hardy water taxi to start the trek).
The North Coast Trail opened in May 2008 and still sees few crowds, partly because of its relative remoteness. The trail’s difficulty also dissuades a few would-be adventurers. At most times of the year the trail is a rugged, bushy, muddy, rain-besotted gauntlet, which although offering breathtaking scenery, can exact a toll in bumps, cuts and bruises – or worse if you’re not careful or sufficiently experienced.
While at Nissen Bight we met a few hikers who had completed the entire route and spoke of its challenges. We even spent half a day reconnoitering it. What little we experienced of it confirmed the route is tougher than any at Cape Scott (and the Nissen Bight side is the easier end of the trail).
After the trip, I became intrigued by the question of who built the North Coast Trail, and the story of how it came to be.
After a few enquiries I tracked down the trail’s creators and builders: Dave and Cathy Trebett from Port McNeill. I spoke to them about their experience creating the trail from conception to completion.
Where did the idea come from to build the North Coast Trail?
Cathy: The trail was born largely out of necessity. The Mount Waddington region on the British Columbia coast is made up of a number of communities that are very much resource-based. Fishing, logging and in the past, mining. Some years ago we took a really hard hit in both the forestry and fishing sectors. It was quite a blow to the region.
There wasn’t much tourism here outside of Cape Scott Provincial Park. A plan was drawn up around 25 years ago to create a trail that roughly followed the old Danish settler’s trail through some traditional First Nations territories on the north coast of Vancouver Island. Those settlers first came into Cape Scott in 1895 followed by another wave between 1910-1913.
When the downturn came in the resource economy, some money became available to develop the area. We got together a big group of people on the north island and decided to try and build up the tourism sector. We took that old trail plan off the shelf, blew the dust off of it, updated it, and started filling out grant applications to get it funded.
At the time I worked for a community development organization called Community Futures – and I developed the North Coast Trail project in conjunction with them. We applied for money from the federal and provincial governments – and other organizations – who had funding to help these communities that had been hit hard.
We hired a company called Strategic Forest Management who were really good at trail building. We also worked closely with the two First Nations that have traditional territories in there and jumped through the environmental assessment hoops. It took us four years – plus blood, sweat and tears – to get the North Coast Trail built.
Can you talk a little bit about the landscape, topography and ecosystem of North Vancouver Island, and the area where the trail is.
Dave: It’s a mix of coastal rainforest and wetlands, which, though not high in altitude, has the same geographical flavour as an alpine bog. The greatest elevation on the trail is about 200 feet. The climbs to get to those points can be pretty steep.
It’s a really wild, remote and rugged part of the island with lots of wildlife. The area is home to black bears, wolves, cougars, deer and elk. There are a lot of sea birds and marine wildlife.
How did you determine the exact route in this case? Was there something specific in mind you wanted to achieve in terms of creating an experience for the hiker?
Dave: Three quarters of the North Coast Trail follows the beach. That was the general concept: to stay close to the shore. In flagging out the trail we decided, in large part, not to use the old settler’s route because in some places there was a lot of old logs that were rotten, which could have created liability problems. It would have also created problems building a new trail on top of an old rotten one.
We did follow some of the settlers trail, which was more inland, just because it fit. But we kept most of the trail to the beach because that’s the greatest experience for hiking. You get to see more and feel it better in the open. If you’re in the bush you’re basically in thick tree-cover and wet, muddy ground, which is also more expensive from a trail-building and upgrade point of view. For the inland stretches we constantly have to put new boardwalk in because of the amount of degradation.
While building the trail did you find any old items or artefacts from the era of the settlers, as can be found today in Cape Scott Park?
Dave: We never did find any old pieces of machinery, like those you can see at Cape Scott. But we did find remnants of old settler cabins – things like cooking pots and parts of stoves. All the wooden buildings are gone. Over the years they disintegrated in the wet climate.
What were the biggest challenges you faced during this project? Firstly, out in the field.
Dave: The biggest difficulties we had were having to go out and work in the winter months of January, February and March – in order to have the money spent by the end of the fiscal deadline. The weather at that time of year is terrible. Helicopters can only operate in acceptable weather. When you get fogged-in, or storm force winds, you’re pretty well stuck there. It was short days and ugly weather.
Getting supplies in was also a nightmare. Because it’s a park jurisdiction we couldn’t use the trees and resources on location. We once had to get lumber dropped in by boat which was a pretty rough experience.
We had about eight people in camp who did everything from digging, to cutting and hammering, to blazing trail. We’d all come back to camp and work together to cook and clean. It was all pretty organized. In spite of the difficult conditions no one was hurt beyond cuts and scratches.
Were there bureaucratic issues, or problems with people not wanting you to do this? How much did politics play into the project?
Cathy: The environmental issues were a real challenge. I was in Port McNeill dealing with someone in the Canadian Government in Ottawa who’s never been to the coast and didn’t know the reality on the ground. That was a real struggle.
Some people in the region also didn’t think the North Coast Trail was the best project to undertake for the region. There were some naysayers including, eventually, my employer. After a couple of years collaborating with them, they decided that they didn’t want to work on the project anymore. I was convinced that this was the most important project we could do for the north island. But they wanted to drop it mid-way and they ordered me to stop. I couldn’t really do that, so I quit my job.
And you also worked with some of the First Nations in the area?
Cathy: Yes. The two First Nations that have traditional territory in that area are the Quatsino First Nation based in the Port Hardy-Coal Harbour area, and the Hope Island First Nation. We worked very closely with the chiefs of those organizations. It wasn’t an easy process at first, but we did eventually get their support.
The First Nations came in to do their own environmental site studies to see if there was any indigenous burial grounds or village sites. Though necessary, it was very expensive and time consuming.
The community of Port Hardy, which is the largest community in this region, gave us a lot of support. Out of the North Coast Trail project came a hospital, a water taxi business to one of the trailheads, and a clothing store.
Some of the smaller communities like Sointula, which is on Malcolm Island, or Alert Bay, were just a little too far away to see any direct benefits.
What were some of most interesting experiences, or discoveries you made, while working on this?
Cathy: What was really neat was figuring out the different construction techniques to deal with the landscape and weather. What do we use to make sure the boardwalk doesn’t get slippery? How do we design something to get around various obstacles? That was a really fun process of learning.
It was pretty cool to come across some of the old historical stuff. We got a few letters from people whose family were settlers in the area. We heard some really interesting stories related to that.
The completion of the trail was also a big event. We organized an inaugural hike in November 2007, a year before the trail officially opened. On the opening day of the trail two runners came and ran the trail in 11.5 hours. They didn’t get to see anything because they were looking at where they were stepping the whole time. Some of the people who lived in the area when they were young children, and who contacted us, came out to see the project on opening day. That was so lovely to have them there, and to honour them.
What is your relationship to the North Coast Trail now? How tied to the area do you remain?
David: We’ve been working at Cape Scott for the last 14 years. We set-up the ranger cabin in the park every season for the team that works out there for the summer. Clearing trees from the trail, and doing other heavy work, is also part of our job.
We put in a small grant application to do a feasibility study on doing a hut-to-hut on the North Coast Trail. So, we’re waiting to see what happens with that.
What does it feel like to be a literal trailblazer – to have created this route, which so many people have since followed?
Cathy: Out of all the different projects that I’ve done – and I’ve done quite a few – this is the highlight for me. It’s put North Vancouver Island on the map and has created interest in the area’s history. It’s like the West Coast Trail in the 1970s: there’s no reservation system – you just go. I love that freedom about it.
When I’m out there at work and talk to people who’ve just come off the trail I love hearing how much they’ve enjoyed their experience. Some urge us not to touch it, or change it. Others tell us it needs this, or it needs that. We listen to all the feedback.
How serious of an undertaking is it to hike the whole trail? What would you say to people who want to do it?
Dave: Be prepared for really bad weather. Remember that ten kilometres a day is a really good day. And don’t over-pack, because you’ll kick yourself later.
Cathy: To hike the North Coast Trail I think you have to be prepared to be in the backcountry for several days and be comfortable with that. If you’re a beginner you might want to start by hiking the Cape Scott Trail system first. That way you get a bit of a sense of what may come on a longer, tougher, outing in that same environment.
Cathy and Dave Trebett are the creators and builders of the the North Coast Trail, at Cape Scott Provincial Park, on Vancouver Island. They live in Port McNeill.