Safety on the North Coast Trail

By November 28, 2017Fresh Air Blog

Words by Peter Vooys | Photos by Peter Vooys & Blaire Ryan

In preparation for the North Coast Trail – and any backcountry expedition – it is prudent to do a little research into the area that you are soon to be travelling. Doing a quick internet search for the North Coast Trail reveals a trip report published by a pair of hikers with the title, “Don’t hike the North Coast Trail.” Only one group’s opinion, but still, not a promising start. Further research into what to expect on the North Coast Trail – the first step of any risk management plan – revealed an interesting list of challenges specific to the region and trail.

Cougars, wolves, and bears – oh my. These three large land mammals at the top of their food chains happen to populate and enjoy the remoteness of the north coast of Vancouver Island. Then there are the tides to consider, as parts of the trail disappear at high tide. There are steep climbs that necessitate ladders or ropes, knee-deep mud, and stretches of cobblestone beach that wreak havoc on the ankles. Not to mention the real possibility of a very wet week as the NCT lies in the middle of a coastal temperate RAINforest. Add to this…banana slugs – bleh.

In managing risk for our hike, it was important to take into consideration these factors, plus the usual expedition considerations of physical and psychological well being, proper gear and equipment, enough and nutritious food, potential evacuation points, emergency response protocol -and of course managing diabetes in the wilderness. Since the definition of adventure includes “unknown outcomes”, the remainder of risk management is about preparation and precaution. So, let’s look at some of those P &P’s.

Preparations & Precautions

Community

One of the most important pieces to keeping safe on the trail is establishing a community of trust and openness among participants. The ideal trip community is one that watches out for each other’s well being and recognises that success depends on a collaborative effort rather than individual successes. In this regard, the NCT team excelled. Early video conferences and constant internet group chatter over the internet help establish a familial feel to the group long before we met face to face in Vancouver. And of course, the longer we knew each other, and the more challenges we faced together, only made our sense of community stronger.

Animals

What about the trifecta of large Canadian mammals with sharp teeth that live on Vancouver Island -bears, wolves, and cougars? With images from movies like The Revenant and The Grey it can be easy to be carried away with the idea of predatory animals. While all have been known to attack humans, the statistics on animal attacks are low compared to the number of people enjoying the woods. The numbers go down further when considering large groups. 

Bears

The bears we would encounter were black bears – not Grizzly bears. Black bears are typically shy and more concerned with berries and fish than human flesh. We encountered two black bears on the trail in the middle of the day, but they ran off when shouts and rocks were thrown in their general direction.

Wolves

Wolves are also a secretive animal, more likely to come out and beachcomb at night for tasty ocean treats than send a pack to hunt you down. We saw plenty of wolf tracks, but never did we see the actual beings.

Mountain Lions

Not a typical concern anymore in the eastern side of the continent, however, Vancouver Island boasts a healthy cougar population. In fact, it has the most cougars per capita than the rest of BC. Cougars are also predatory animals and they say…that if you see a cougar, it’s likely been watching you for a while…and it’s too late!!! However, cougars have probably heard how endangered they are and are notoriously shy and hate large crowds.

So again, we find there is safety in numbers, skewing the odds in favour of the 13 chatty and singing hikers. And bear spray. There’s safety in bear spray, but you hope they don’t get that close.

Food

The real concern with animals is their insistence that hikers share their delicious food with them. And animals have a funny definition of food, as you’ve no doubt noticed from city raccoons and your dog in the garbage. 

Anything that smells – deodorant, shampoo, toothpaste – can be considered food and is a potential attractant to animals. At night, it is necessary to collect all of the food, ‘smellies’ and garbage and put it inside the metal food lockers provided at each campsite. These are a more foolproof and convenient system than hanging your food in a tree method.

Tides

Tides come and go, and at two spots the NCT is impassable due to high tides. A mistimed approach can leave hikers stranded on one side for hours – pushing their arrival at their next campsite by hours, potentially into the middle of the night. Though night hikes are fun for stargazing, a full pack stumbling through the woods does not make for a good experience. 

This was only a matter of timing, and lucky for us, low tide during our visit to the coast occurred during the middle of the day. Without much of a push, we were able to pass the pinch points without difficulty. Low tide during the day also allowed us some spectacular beach hikes and rock walks that would have been underwater otherwise.

Communication

Communication with the outside world is kept to a blissful minimum while on adventure expeditions with one exception – the ability to contact emergency personnel if things take a turn for the worse. CIM carries a SPOT device that has a couple of features – one, the ability to track and broadcast our position to the internet for fans, and two, to be able to contact EMS. Because we always had “ocean on the right, woods on the left” during our hike, potential evac points were plenty. The coast guard – our primary means of evacuation – could use any number of the beaches for patient extraction using a Zodiac. This was never even close to an issue, but evacuation plans are a necessary thought experiment for anyone heading into the backcountry.

Training

Communication with the outside world is kept to a blissful minimum while on adventure expeditions with one exception – the ability to contact emergency personnel if things take a turn for the worse. CIM carries a SPOT device that has a couple of features – one, the ability to track and broadcast our position to the internet for fans, and two, to be able to contact EMS. Because we always had “ocean on the right, woods on the left” during our hike, potential evac points were plenty. The coast guard – our primary means of evacuation – could use any number of the beaches for patient extraction using a Zodiac. This was never even close to an issue, but evacuation plans are a necessary thought experiment for anyone heading into the backcountry.

Check out Anissa’s training tips here.

Slugs

That leaves us with banana slugs. Not a little slug that feasts on bananas – these primordial creatures are the size of bananas – at least. In colour they resemble a banana you should’ve eaten yesterday, and are perfectly camouflaged in their rainforest habitat. They leave a visible stream of goo as they ever so slowly make their way through the forest. Fond of damp logs, they have a penchant for perching themselves at just the right spot on the tree trunk that would make a good hand hold. Bleh! Against these silent, slimy sneaky villains there is no precaution except to be hyper-vigilant with your hand placement and barefoot stepping.

About Peter Vooys

Peter lives in Kingston, Ontario and has been guiding with CIM since 2015. His distrust of slugs comes from a previous expedition when he nearly drank a boiled one that had slimed its way to the bottom of his mug prior to the morning pour.