Hiking the Juan de Fuca Trail
on Vancouver Island
Copyright 2020 by Lillith Foxx
The Juan de Fuca is a 47 km trail on the
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
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
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
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
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
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
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
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
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,
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
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
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
The pick up was a man in his late sixties.
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
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
A lot of the campsites on the Juan de Fuca
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
I took a few photos of the trail map on my
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
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
"Well, you're gonna have a hell of a time
Emily and I thanked the men for their
advice. As we moved on we could still hear them talking, "they're
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
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
seriously concerned about our mental health. "That's almost 15
"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
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
Even if we had wanted to stay at Bear
Beach, it was
The 11 kilometers of trail between Bear and
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
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
We were cresting the seventh gulley when my
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
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
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
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
years later, with no cell service, in the middle of the Juan de Fuca
"Breathe, just breathe," Emily told me, she
knew what this sting could mean for me.
I leaned back against the dirt, clutching
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
"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
"I thought I was going to have to give you
tracheotomy!" She answered. We laughed hysterically, lightheaded
from the exercise and the adrenaline.
I was lucky things didn’t get to that
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
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
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
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
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.
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
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
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
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
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
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
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
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
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
We wandered through the camp that evening,
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
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
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
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
Well built wooden boardwalks, hidden coves,
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
The Botanical Beach sign at the end of the
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
Port Renfrew was nowhere to be seen.
A man was ambling along ahead of us. He was
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
"We're hoping to hitch a ride back to
Emily told him.
"Oh, sure! That'll be no problem in Port
Renfrew." He grinned, boasting more than a few gaps in his
"In Port Renfrew?" I barged in, "I
thought we were in Port Renfrew."
"You almost are! It's about seven klicks
the road." He nodded ahead of us.
I glared at him as if he had decided on the
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.
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
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
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
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
"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
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
of the message
won't know where to send it.)
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