It was a hot summer day when a friend of mine and I pulled into the parking lot of Sombrio Beach, on the west coast of Vancouver Island in British Columbia. We planned to be there for the day and set up a shady spot on the sand to enjoy our ocean views. We were hoping to see some wildlife — a bald eagle, a sea lion, maybe even a breaching whale.

We saw none of those but did spot a different kind of creature altogether: hikers, carrying huge packs, looking thoroughly weather-beaten and worn out.

We chatted with a few of them. They were hiking the famous Juan de Fuca Trail, which crosses Sombrio Beach. They told us about the knee-deep mud, the bear encounters, the exhaustion, the struggles. I was filled with respect and admiration for these people and thought to myself how cool it would be to hike the Juan de Fuca one day.

The Juan de Fuca trail is 47 kilometre-long through-hike spanning ancient rainforest and rugged coastline on the west coast of Southern Vancouver Island. It can be hiked in either direction (north-to-south or south-to-north) and takes most hikers 3 to 5 days to complete. Booking the trip ahead of time is not necessary; it is sufficient for hikers to pay at any trailhead ($10 per night) using a self-registration envelope. 

Juan de Fuca on Vancouver Island. Marker zero
A long journey ahead from Marker 0. Photo: Sara Perillo

An opportunity to hike the Vancouver Island ‘s Juan de Fuca trail presented itself to me in September 2019. A good friend of mine — who happened to be an extremely adept backpacker — was putting together a group of hikers and invited me along. As keen as I was, accepting the invitation was daunting. I had never done an overnight hike before and lacked the proper equipment. I thought about my encounter with the hikers at Sombrio Beach and their exhaustion. I thought about the hiking experience I had accrued thus far and how difficult I knew the trail would be. But of course, I said yes anyway. 

We pulled into the trailhead at China Beach at around 9:00 AM feeling nervous, but excited, but really mostly nervous. I had been up until past midnight the night before, frantically (over)packing my brand new bag. We snapped a group photo and then set off. I had no idea what the days ahead of me would entail.

The first day of hiking was one of the most challenging physical experiences of my life. 

It was the distance: 21 kilometres that day to our campground at Chin Beach.

It was the time: roughly 11 hours spent hiking, as we arrived at Chin Beach around 8:00 PM, after nightfall. 

It was the elevation loss and gain: though the maximum elevation reached on the Juan de Fuca is less than 200 metres, the elevation lost and gained is extremely significant, estimated to be around two kilometres throughout the trail! I can’t express how demoralizing it was to struggle, struggle, struggle up a hill, only to descend it and immediately climb another one.

Dungeness Spit on Juan de Fuca

It was the heavy bag: I wasn’t used to its weight and felt off-balance all day, falling down in the mud multiple times.

It was my own psyche: we hiked silently for much of the day and my thoughts revolved around how hard it was, how dumb I was for signing up for this, how I couldn’t do it.

But what choice did I have? I could hardly turn around. Though I struggled, with one foot in front of the other, we eventually reached Chin Beach and could lay down to rest. 

When the second day began, it felt like just as much of a challenge as the first day. My muscles were stiff and sore and it seemed impossible that I could ever reach the end of the trail. I could hardly take in the beauty of the views in front of me. But at around noon my attitude started to change.

Was it difficult? Absolutely. But in time, I began to realize that it was not as difficult as the first day. We hiked a shorter distance, only 12 kilometres to the Little Kuitche Campground. The elevation fluctuation was not as significant. My bag was even a little lighter, given that I had eaten some of my food, and I was more used to its weight. I was surprised when we arrived at our campsite in time to watch the sunset. We sat around the fire until late and chatted and laughed. 

Sunset at Little Kuitche Campground on Vancouver Island. Photo: Sara Perillo
Sunset at Little Kuitche Campground. Photo: Sara Perillo

On the third day, I surprised myself by practically running the trail. I was filled with an energy I didn’t know I had. I think I wasn’t tired anymore because by the third day of hiking, I realized that I could do it. My thoughts were no longer self-defeating, but triumphant. 

We ended at Botanical Beach. I felt fantastic and ready to have a celebratory pint at the local pub. And when my friend — the one who had organized the whole adventure — revealed that we’d need to walk an additional 5km to reach that pub (something I’m sure he deliberately hid from me), I laughed, because I knew I could do it. 

These are the things that three days on the Vancouver Island ‘s Juan de Fuca trail taught me:

  • Pack light.
  • Familiarize yourself with the concept of “Leave no Trace”. Be a responsible hiker by packing out what you pack in and not leaving any trash behind.
  • Popular hikes can be more subject to erosion because people may make their own path skirting the trail. Try to avoid doing this. Remember that you’re walking through fragile ecosystems and stick to the trail.
  • If you are doing your first backpacking trip, consider sharing gear such as tents or camping stoves with your hiking buddies. It will make for less to purchase right off the cuff and will lighten your load as well.
  • Hike with people you trust.
  • Keep an eye on the tide tables! Part of the Juan de Fuca Trail becomes submerged by the tide.
  • If you see a bear on the trail, give it space and leave it be.
  • Never trust a mud puddle. It’s always deeper than you think.
  • A few days spent mindfully in nature is enough to completely reset your brain.
  • The things you allow your mind to think about are important. Think positive thoughts. You’ll go further that way.

Female-hiker

COVER: Rugged coastline along the Juan de Fuca Trail. Photo: Sara Perillo