Hiking the Juan de Fuca Trail
on Vancouver Island

Lillith Foxx

© Copyright 2020 by Lillith Foxx

Photo of Lillith's tent and campsite.

The Juan de Fuca is a 47 km trail on the West Coast of Vancouver Island. Popular as a long-weekend trip for hikers from the mainland, the challenging trail meanders through wild coastal terrain. It's notoriously muddy, with knee-swelling climbs and descents to cross the many streams that lead into the ocean. It includes an ankle-breaking beach and boulder walk that turns a single kilometer of distance into a 30-minute balancing act. It rewards these efforts with expansive views of the Juan de Fuca Strait, tidal pools, and waterfalls.
Most people take four or five days to complete the trail; some ultrarunners do it in a single day. My friend Emily and I landed somewhere in the middle. The plan was to begin on the Friday of a long weekend. We would complete nearly half of the trail the first day and spend the night at Chin Beach. The second day would include another 19 kilometers, landing us at Payzant Creek campsite. Sunday would be the shortest day, finishing the last seven kilometers and leaving us plenty of time to get home that evening.
Since the JDF is a one-way excursion, most people take a pair of vehicles. They drop one car at the end of the trail, in Port Renfrew, and drive back to the start at China Beach in their other vehicle. This way, when they reach Port Renfrew on foot, they have a way to get back home. The issue is that taking your car on the ferry from Vancouver to Vancouver Island is frustratingly expensive. Taking two cars costs a few hundred dollars. It was unjustifiable for us to spend that much on transportation to take part in a more or less free activity.
So after work on Thursday, our friend Jen drove us to the ferry in Tsawwassen where we walked on to the 6 pm sailing. We were among families heading out for the long weekend, and part-time city workers returning home at the end of their week. We shrugged off our 40-pound packs and sat on the deck. The sun led the way as we headed west, blinding us with its setting light.
In Victoria, we stayed with a friend of mine who lived in the city. He had a bachelor suite right downtown with exposed brick walls and a view of nearby cobblestone lanes. Cigarette smoke drifted up from the bar below and convinced us to step out for a couple of drinks.
We ordered a round of ciders and headed for the billiards. Victoria is a University town, and most of the schooling was complete for the summer. It wasn’t hard to find a free pool table in the uncrowded bar. A nearby group of guys nodded hello to Braeden. The tallest one was missing an arm, and in its stead had a special prosthetic for playing pool.
He had it specially made.” Braeden explained, “He’s really good.”
I watched as the guy made a perfect break, and made a mental note not to accept any challenges from that table.
Emily and I still casually smoked at the time, and outside the bar later, we met a few of the guys from the other group. They did not care for our upcoming plans.
"You're doing what tomorrow?" One guy asked, "and you're out here drinking and smoking tonight?" He laughed and shook his head.
It wasn't the first time our plan had been doubted, men especially seemed to think it was doomed. I thought of the people who first wanted to climb Everest. The amount of skepticism and judgment they faced must have been overwhelming. To be fair, they probably weren't out smoking and drinking the night before, but then again, we weren't climbing Everest.
We excused ourselves before it got too late and retired upstairs for the evening. Braeden is a wonderful musician and, at our request, played us a couple of songs before bed. He's not the type to pull out his guitar and force his music on you, but even if he did, you wouldn't be mad. Emily and I thanked him for his hospitality that night and fell asleep quickly.
The next day, Braeden had to leave early for work. He left us his key which we took with us and dropped off at a nearby cafe for him to pick up later. We enjoyed one last good coffee before we had to meet our ride to the trailhead.
Emily had found him on craigslist. Some guy with a car who charged 20 bucks a head for rides from Victoria to China Beach. We were necessarily wary as we waited at the street corner where we were supposed to be meeting up. A sagging four-door sedan pulled up, and out stepped a large man with a skullcap and very small, very fast looking sunglasses.
"Emily?" He asked.
He popped the trunk and placed our bags in, lifting them easily. I had the brief thought that neither of us weighed that much more than both of the bags. We clambered into the back and settled into the hot cloth seats. It was an hour’s drive to China Beach from the city.
My friend tried to make small talk with the driver whose name I forgot the moment he said it. Fifteen minutes into the trip, he pulled over. "Do we need gas?" I asked.
"I have one more pick up."
Emily and I exchanged glances. There wasn't much space left in the car and we hadn't expected company, but the idea of having another witness if we got murdered was tempting. Then again, the pick up could be a planted accomplice, in which case we would be even worse off. In the end, it was out of our control so all I said was, "oh."
The pick up was a man in his late sixties. Sun leathered, with dirt so baked into his clothes and skin, he looked like he hadn't been truly clean in years. He was nice enough, quite talkative, and clearly an island regular. He said he was off to hike the West Coast Trail for something like the fifth time. We told him we were heading to hike the Juan de Fuca, and he commented on how late we were getting there.
By the time we got dropped off at the trailhead, it was 2:30 in the afternoon. We thanked the driver and handed him a couple of sweaty twenties. Our excitement was palpable, but starting so long into the day was less than ideal. It meant by the time we arrived at camp, there was a good chance all of the sites would be taken.
A lot of the campsites on the Juan de Fuca are beachfront. They are picturesque and free and fill up quickly. Most of the lots are also accessible from short hikes off of the highway. This means that at each beach site, while the backpackers have struggled in through the woods for hours, day-trippers have trotted down in the morning to get the best spots. They post up early, hogging all of the nicest views, the sandy pads, and the perfect hammock trees.
I took a few photos of the trail map on my phone. There's no service the entirety of the Juan de Fuca provincial park, so our cells were on airplane mode and could only be used for photos. "Are you girls doing the Juan de Fuca?" A pair of men asked as they emerged from the trail.
"In those shoes?"
We looked down. Emily and I were both wearing low profile trail runners. Mine in particular had seen better days. The creases at the front of the shoe were wide open holes.
"You're gonna need better shoes than that." He continued. The other man nodded, "Boots, you need boots."
"We don't have boots." I said, "We have these."
"Well, you're gonna have a hell of a time without boots."
Emily and I thanked the men for their unsolicited advice. As we moved on we could still hear them talking, "they're wearing runners!"
The beginning of the Juan de Fuca trail is deceptively nice. It's all wooden platforms and well-draining dirt leading in a gradual descent to Mystic Beach. We took a quick snack break on the shore before carrying on.
The next hour was easygoing. Coastal single track set back in the trees, with a few peekaboos of the ocean. We were at the five-kilometer mark when an oncoming group of young men asked how long it would take them to get to Mystic beach. We told them they would probably make it in an hour or so. In return, we asked them how long it would take to reach Chin Beach.
"You mean Bear Beach." The tallest guy in the group corrected.
Emily shook her head, "Chin Beach."
The group exchanged nervous looks like they were seriously concerned about our mental health. "That's almost 15 kilometers away."
"Yeah, how long did it take you?"
"We left at nine this morning." It was 4 pm. It had taken these young, fit guys, seven hours to make the trip that Emily and I planned to do in the next four. "I hate to say this," the tall guy said, "but you're never gonna make it.”
One more hour at a good pace and Bear Beach appeared. It was extremely busy. All of the campsites were occupied, with people overflowing onto the edge of the trail. People were making dinners and stoking fires. We said hi to a few of them as we moved past.
Even if we had wanted to stay at Bear Beach, it was full.
The 11 kilometers of trail between Bear and Chin beaches is probably my least favorite section of trail that I have ever encountered. The terrain is torturous and unrelenting. It involves twelve creek crossings, and each of these creeks lies at the bottom of a steep gulley. To ford each, you must descend a 50-foot section of dry, slippery trail, hit a patch of mud haphazardly covered with planks of wood, grasp ropes or flimsy railings, heave yourself across the water, and then clamber up the identically steep and slippery trail on the other side. You must do this a dozen times, with a 40-pound pack on and, in our case, without proper ankle support.
The previous week I had been out for a trail run and fell down a hill. Nothing too serious came of this, just a small sprained ankle. Nothing too serious unless, of course, you have a backpacking trip the next weekend. My ankle had been okay for the first ten kilometers, but once we hit those gullies, it began to flare up. It's not as though Emily was enjoying herself either, and we reached each peak of trail with many profanities and many, many regrets.
We were cresting the seventh gulley when my sprained ankle was hit with such a severe pain that I immediately thought, "snake bite!” I leaped forward a few steps and grabbed at my leg. Driven into my skin was a struggling mud wasp. I pinched it off and flung it into the woods. Emily held my arm and guided me to the top of the valley, away from the wasps. She stood staring at me as I began hyperventilating, and then dropped to the dirt. At that moment we both wished that it had been a snake bite instead.
When I was five years old I was attacked by a swarm of wasps. I had been running through a small garden of shrubs outside of my sister's high school. Unbeknownst to me, a horde of recently homeless wasps were taking refuge there. Their nest had been destroyed by some teenagers a few days earlier, and they were not happy about it.
My sister says she can still hear my scream as I emerged from the woods. The wasps were in my clothes, in my hair, stuck between my sandals and the bottom of my feet, stinging and stinging and stinging. We ripped my clothes off, pulling the bugs out of my scalp and swatting them away from my skin. In the ride to the hospital afterward, my tears were as hot as my welts.
I was stung over thirty times. The doctor who examined me said that the amount of venom in my body could cause me to become deathly allergic to wasps. Next time I was stung I could have an anaphylactic reaction and would need to get to a hospital as soon as possible.
The next time I was stung just happened to be twenty years later, with no cell service, in the middle of the Juan de Fuca trail.
"Breathe, just breathe," Emily told me, she knew what this sting could mean for me.
I leaned back against the dirt, clutching my ankle tightly like I could stop the reaction from spreading to my throat. I was possibly about to die in the middle of the woods because of a bug. I tried to concentrate on breathing and not on that thought.
My friend stood solid in front of me, "How do you feel?"
"I feel... okay." About two minutes had passed since the sting and I could still breathe. My throat wasn't closing. "I think I'll live."
Emily nodded, relieved. I took my shoe off to look at my ankle, "I thought it was a snake bite," I said, slightly embarrassed.
"I thought I was going to have to give you a tracheotomy!" She answered. We laughed hysterically, lightheaded from the exercise and the adrenaline.
I was lucky things didn’t get to that point, but if anyone could have saved my life, it was Emily. She was, at the time, the toughest person I knew, and since then has become an Infantry Officer in the Canadian army, making her the toughest person many people know.
While I wasn't dying, my already injured ankle was starting to swell even more. I found out the hard way that I have 'severe localized reactions' which means that stings are agonizing and balloon up quickly. This could potentially kill me if I was stung on the face or throat, but luckily I haven’t had to deal with that yet. If I ever do, I hope Emily is there.
We reached Chin Beach at 8:00 pm; it was a beautiful slice of ocean. Waves broke madly upon the rocky shores, casting the whole beach into a salty cloud. One empty campsite sat back upon the sand, far enough away from the high tide that we wouldn't get washed away overnight. We slumped off our packs and sat on the earth, soaked from sweat, ocean spray, and, in my case, a few tears.
Emily set our cooking pot out under the cliffs along the beach, collecting water that dripped down from the mossy walls. We peeled off our soggy hiking clothes and draped them on a log so they could dry out for the morning. I set up the tent and waved to a young couple cooking dinner nearby.
"See the orcas?" They pointed to the water.
"Emily!" I called over to her, "Orcas!"
Just past the serrated tidal shelf was a small pod of killer whales. They took turns cresting and diving, their bladed fins cutting through the surface of the ocean. It's impossible not to get caught up in the rhythm of the whales. Loping and lolling, somehow graceful and cumbersome all at once. I counted four of them. We watched until they moved out of our vision, heading south.
"That kind of makes all this other stuff worth it," I said. Emily nodded in agreement and zipped her puffy jacket up around her chin.
"Let's eat, I'm friggin' starving."
That night we slept as well as we could. Inside the tent was hot, and we had to strip to our underwear to bear it. The ocean continued its violent siege upon the shore, and as the tide rose so did the volume. I awoke a few times in a panic. Surely the water was upon us, the waves were so loud. But a quick peek outside the tent would confirm that the large high tide logs were protecting us, and we stayed dry.
The morning didn't break as much as seep through the fog. The ocean spray seemed to be a constant feature of the beach, and the clothes we had laid out to dry were even wetter than the night before. We boiled more cliff water for our instant coffees, and, as if smelling the weak brew, a few seals poked their heads out of the sea foam curiously. Emily and I raised our mugs to them and they bobbed around in return. Their presence seemed to be the promise of a better day.
I popped a couple of Benadryl that Emily had in her first aid kit, and coaxed my ankle back into my trail runners. On the one hand, it was nice to have low cut shoes because my ankle was so swollen, but on the other hand, if I had been wearing boots, I might not have been stung in the first place.
We grunted and groaned and heaved our packs back up onto our shoulders. Our bodies were not happy with the situation; I could practically hear my back screaming at the prospect of another day on trail. We loaded up and pushed on anyway. The worst of the route was behind us.
From Chin Beach to Payzant Creek is a moderately difficult length of the Juan de Fuca. The beginning of the day consisted of picking our way across a small boulder field that someone was trying to masquerade as a beach. 
Here we passed more day-trippers who perfumed the entire shoreline with a rancid mixture of patchouli, weed, and coconut oil. At the north end of the stretch, we encountered a dog in a showdown with a particularly nasty mink. It took some convincing, but the dog eventually abandoned his chase and let us reunite him with his mom. We pushed as she pulled, and together we hoisted him up a steep wall of clay that led to the next section of trail.
Even with my ankle protesting, we kept up a steady pace and overtook dozens of groups. We also passed strips of yellow hazard tape every few kilometers. A flailing piece would be tied around a tree branch or arcing root, indicating mud wasps in the area. These zones were crossed quickly and with the lightest footfalls we could manage.
We reached Payzant Creek in the early afternoon. A lot of the campsites were already taken, but we pushed past the people who had settled desperately and made our way towards the ocean. Just as we thought all of the viable sleeping terrain was behind us, the path flattened into a small clearing big enough for a tent. The bushes in front of it parted to reveal a view of the bay below. The now-familiar sound of crashing waves would lull us to sleep that night, but first, we were desperate for a rinse.
Below our campsite was a collection of colorful tidal pools. The shallow water was warmed from the day, but the salt left you feeling sticky. Still, it was refreshing to swap the sweat for seawater, and we submerged gratefully.
Dinner consisted of rehydrated Pad Thai and Beef Stroganoff. We also broke out the rest of our liquor stores from the night before. Emily had brought the better part of a bag of wine, and I found out that a 2-6 fits perfectly in a Gatorade bottle. After a few sips I regretted my choice of Southern Comfort, but it was the first thing I thought of that I could drink straight and warm without damaging myself.
We wandered through the camp that evening, chatting with some groups and making friends. Most of them traveled in threes or fours, with very few twos and only one solo. She was about 110 pounds and in her late 30's. She was friendly and clearly at ease in the woods. Emily and I warmed to her quickly, and we told her so.
"Well, you two are just as cool!" She said, "I didn't start doing anything like this until I was 30."
Our chat continued for an hour before we left her alone to set up camp. She had a single person tent and her pack was well used. She was what I one day aspired to be.
That night was bittersweet. We were exhausted, but we were already on the last leg of our trip. I laid in the tent, slightly drunk and listening to the hypnotic waves. As people all around us slept in their canvas homes, Emily’s breathing was steady next to me. The forest critters ran about and a determined fly collided with the wall of our tent, over and over again. Constant was the sound of the coast, a heartbeat in ocean waves. I felt like a killer whale; dipping, rising, somehow graceful, and cumbersome all at once. Sleep came for me like a tide to the shore.
We woke early, and surprisingly without hangovers. After breakfast we packed up and worked our way through the campers, whispering in their tents. The solo hiker was still sleeping, and I had the brief thought to leave her a note. Instead, I hoped she could feel my passing admiration. There were only seven kilometers left ahead.
Well built wooden boardwalks, hidden coves, and soft sand beaches peppered the rest of the trail. Our packs were considerably lighter without all of the food and liquor from the previous two days, and our steps came easier with each mile. I forced Emily to take a few triumphant selfies as we cruised through the last leg of our journey. It had been an adventure, and we were about to complete it.
The Botanical Beach sign at the end of the Juan de Fuca is a little underwhelming. It's a good enough sign, and it does a great job of letting visitors from Port Renfrew know that there's a beach there. It does a terrible job of validating the suffering of everyone completing the Juan de Fuca. Nevertheless, we asked a beach-goer to take our photo below it, and we shared a quick, sweaty hug. It was 11 am and we were ready for our ride back to Victoria.
"How far is Port Renfrew?" I asked the family that had taken our photo.
"Oh it's up the road a ways," they pointed up the winding asphalt away from the parking lot. We waved thanks and trotted onward, happy to be near our destination.
Fifteen minutes later, the road flattened out and Port Renfrew was nowhere to be seen.
A man was ambling along ahead of us. He was not so different from our old companion in the sedan on the way out here. Simple, friendly, and with dirt clogged pores, he asked what we were looking for.
"We're hoping to hitch a ride back to Victoria," Emily told him.
"Oh, sure! That'll be no problem in Port Renfrew." He grinned, boasting more than a few gaps in his smile.
"In Port Renfrew?" I barged in, "I thought we were in Port Renfrew."
"You almost are! It's about seven klicks down the road." He nodded ahead of us.
I glared at him as if he had decided on the location of the town and the trail. "Seriously?"
Emily took over the conversation again, but I was too frustrated to hear it. I stomped ahead, my feet slapping the pavement, each step flaring up through my swollen ankle. Seven more miserable kilometers. I had not expected that.
Emily walked behind me, decidedly calmer. She pointed to something shining in the ditch, it was an empty can of Palm Bay, "What I wouldn't kill for one of those."
I laughed. My pace let up and we chatted the rest of the way to Port Renfrew. Eventually, we arrived at the gas station where the toothless man had said we would have the best chance of catching a ride. We had braced ourselves to wait a few hours to catch one, but the moment we dropped our packs and stuck out our thumbs, a camper van pulled over.
Emily glanced at me in disbelief. I shrugged and approached the van.
"Where are you guys headed?" A couple, early thirties and smiling, leaned out of the passenger side window to hear my reply.
"The ferry!" I said, "Or as close as you can get us!"
"We can get you to Victoria."
"That's perfect!" Emily and I scrambled to grab our bags and jump in the van before they rescinded the offer.
The couple shared the same shade of blonde hair, and they were clearly in love. "You're lucky!” The man said cheerfully, “The Tall Tree music festival was this weekend, otherwise it would have been a lot harder to catch a ride."
"Thank you so much," we settled into a pair of cushioned armchairs, "and I'm sorry for the smell." I tucked my arms into my body to trap any escaping scents.
The woman laughed, "Believe me, we're not much better!" She spun around in the passenger seat to look at us, "Do you guys want a drink?"

We couldn't hide our excitement. The woman got up and went to the fridge at the back of the van. She bent over and grabbed a few cans out of it, and when she turned around, she was holding two Palm Bays.
"What's wrong?" She looked between Emily and me, confused at our sudden outburst of laughter.
"It's nothing," I said, taking the drinks from her. "These are perfect, really perfect."
Her husband took the beer she handed him and cracked it as he picked a song on his phone for the drive. "Do you guys like folk music?" He asked, pressing play before we could answer. "My parents gave us this camper last year, we didn't know how much work it would be!"
Emily and I nodded along politely, but neither of us heard a word after that. The van rocked gently side to side. The seats hugged us, irresistibly soft. Warm light streamed through the window, catching the hairs on my arm. Condensation from the cooler ran in beads onto my palms. I pressed the cold can into my ankle, soothing the heat from the wasp sting. Across from me, my best friend looked at me and smiled.
We were going home.

Lillith Foxx is an aspiring Freelance Writer located in Vancouver, British Columbia. She is most passionate about using adventures in the physical world to understand the complexities of our inner worlds. She has a passion for creating and hopes to turn it into a full-time career this year

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