Nitinat Triangle canoe circuit
There was little information available from BC Parks or the paddling clubs I know of, and even less
time to make a decision as my
intended paddle into Cape Scott, now seemed unlikely. Just days before we were to
leave for the extreme North Coast of Vancouver Island the weather had taken a
turn for the worse so we scrambled
for an alternative destination on short notice and, while weary of the likely crowds
in mid-August, the decision was made to paddle the Nitinat Triangle after discovering
how little is known about this area from a canoer’s perspective.
It didn’t take long to discover why so little information is available as the horrendous portages acted like a buffer between the adventurous and the insane however, for those determined enough... a virtual paradise of solitude and isolation is the reward for blistered hands and aching muscles.
We set out on the evening of Sunday August 10th 2003 with just enough time to get to Vancouver Island and find a campsite at Qualicum beach. During the passage to Duke Point earlier I had browsed the BC Ferry’s bookstore to check out the latest knickknacks and literature our tourists were being sold these days and stumbled upon Robert Shelton’s second bear book entitled “Bear Attacks II”. I read Shelton’s first bear book two years ago and found it to be an interesting if not gruesome account of the bear encounters that had turned bad over the past ten or so years then thought to myself , what ugly thoughts to plant in the minds of our newcomers to Beautiful British Columbia. I snapped up a copy and read the first three chapters aloud to my bow paddler from France by lantern light that night in the tent.
We ended up having to put in at the Dididat Nations Reserve on the North Eastern side of Nitinat Lake, the Knob Point put-in that was recommended by BC Parks on the West side of the lake no longer had road access, this would be only the first of many inconsistencies we would encounter between the truth on the ground and the scant information available about this circuit. The native peoples of this land were very accommodating, allowing us to park our car at their only local store for the duration of our trip. They told us they had never known anyone to request this causing me to wonder why while graciously accepting their offer. Talking with one youth who was manning the entrance to a paid campground for the many windsurfers who frequent the lake, we overheard a conversation he had with an elder on his VHF radio. Apparently they had shot a bear the day before, after it had wandered into the Reserve area, but had only wounded the animal and were now concerned for the safety of this young fellow manning the quiet stretch of logging road alone. The boy was not worried but I was and began to fall victim to my own practical joke of the night before and decided that in the future, I’ll leave the rest of my bear book recitals until I’m safe at home. We loaded our Prospector late in the afternoon, upset with how much time we’d wasted trying to follow out-of-date instructions and set out under a partially clouded sky in strong winds. As we paddled across Nitinat Lake a double rainbow appeared off the East bank, which I took that as a good sign, and we made our camp that night not far from the entrance to our first portage.
The following morning we loaded our canoe once more and paddled the 800 meters from our camp site to the beginning of the Hobiton Lake trail. The trail greeted us with a posted warning by Parks Canada, bright yellow and looking suspiciously shiny: it read “Caution! Bear in area.” We left the canoe on shore and made our first journey along this trail with our packs loaded with water and only some of the gear. I don’t know why it is that the first portage always seems so tough, because it wasn’t. We made that leg in almost an hour then stowed our dry bags and returned for a rest. I was anxious by the time we got back to the canoe and didn’t want to make a third crossing so, after some discussion, we agreed to take the rest of the gear AND canoe in one shot. That thought lasted ‘til about the mid way point where a deadfall only 16 meters across began to feel like an ECO challenge exercise, this convinced us to stow the canoe and continue humping dry bags only.
It took us five hours to get our gear and Prospector just 1.03 kilometers on this first portage and be back on the water. I can tell you now that this was not the worst trail we’d face before completing this circuit, but in its own way it was the critical balancing of the mental checkbook for what lay ahead if we wanted the rewards of untouched lakes.
We paddled only until the first beach we found, and it was a nice one by a creek so we set camp (just around the left point in the above picture). We were out of shape and tired after the journey and I in particular did not feel well so we both just lay down for the evening. I didn’t sleep for a while with fatigue and all the things running through my mind and two hours after entering the tent I could hear what sounded like a family of otters involved in a mild domestic dispute, it echoed off the mountains and across the dark and hollow emptiness above Hobiton Lake. I listened to this chatter until I fell asleep.
The next morning I felt much better and hungry which I took as a good sign. I realize we shouldn’t talk about movements in our trip reports but I hadn’t had one in two days and a bit of a paranoia set in after several failed endeavors. Our conversation somehow eventually turned to this topic, as life and laughter are different out there, and soon we began to synchronize our deposits with celebrations for accuracy in the form of dried fruit treats (prunes). It was 10 am on Wednesday morning and with no luck fishing for an hour, we set out for the far end of Hobiton in search of the trailhead for Tsusiat Lake.
We made the crossing of Hobiton Lake in an easy paddle despite the high winds by hugging the spectacular North shore, although I’m sure the South shore was at least it's equal the winds were hitting that bank hard . This is the home of the giant redwood cedars and everywhere along the shore were trees that had blown down during winter storms. They jutted out into the lake and where they were still exposed above water, thick moss would create rich green carpets for wild gardens to grow brightly coloured flowers in that I only wish I could name.
This all too short paddle that was Hobiton Lake lasted only two hours despite the time we purposely wasted. When we reached the South end of the lake it was difficult to spot the trailhead and once we did, log jams blocked our every access. I stepped out of the canoe and onto the trunk of one floating giant to look around for a possible way into shore; there was none. Eventually I found a floating 14 inch birch I could saw through to make a path to shore and without leaving the seat of my canoe. This wasn’t the only time our saw would prove invaluable on this trip.
One last look back down Hobiton Lake after reaching the end.
There was still enough light left in the day to make the first crossing to Tsusiat Lake with at least one load of gear and then make it back in time to set up our tent so we could finish the rest of this 1.6 km portage in the morning. We each loaded a dry bag into our backpacks and set out on what was to be our most difficult portage of the trip. The trail took us straight up for the first fifteen minutes or so then through a few mud bogs where the mosquitoes were on the attack, our bug jackets did their job though. That evening and the next day were hot and with our water in short supply we began to ration ourselves painfully as we climbed over and under the deadfalls.
On the way back to where our gear and canoe were on Hobiton Lake it was getting dark but I couldn’t help stopping once or twice to take a few shots of plant life along the way.
The following day was another hot one and while making the final trip with the canoe, our water ration was looking slim. In an amazing stroke of luck we came across an old sign nailed into the moss-covered trunk of a huge tree that read “Silver Spring 75 yd” with an arrow pointing straight up the side of a small mountain. We dropped our packs and the canoe and unloaded our many empty water bottles with renewed energy and a sense of hope, then started bushwhacking up the mountain. We then found another rusty sign pointing us in yet a different direction. We finally came upon a giant cedar tree with a hollowed out center, when I walked around to the other side, my heart fell into my stomach. There inside I found a large rusted out spring nailed to the inside of the trunk. I thought out loud what a cruel joke this was to play on us so far from fresh water, then I remembered the sign read “silver spring” not “silver springS”.
After this waste of time and energy we continued on our way settling for a snack of huckleberries we found instead of a refreshing drink of water then continued towards Tsusiat Lake with the rest of our gear.
Tsusiat Lake is approximately the same size as Hobiton Lake but is far more spectacular. It has a large sheltered inlet and several islands with plant life growing out of the shallows on every shore. This has to be one of the best lake paddles I’ve ever done and from our campsite that night, I looked out across this lonely lake and marveled that I could find no sign of humans having been there in years. Even the mountains surrounding this lake were free of any visible clear cuts and with the gentle evening winds on our beach, we were guaranteed a mosquito free nights rest. Please dont tell anyone how perfect this place is.
Our first night on Tsusiat Lake was spent with a near full moon accompanied by the Planet Mars at its side.
The next morning we could see a dense fog rolling in at the other end of the lake, it was coming from the direction of the Pacific Ocean which was where we were headed. We were actually grateful to feel how much cooler it was as thoughts of another portage in the same blazing heat we’d experienced the days before were anything but palatable. This fog would stick with us for the rest of our trip and it was amazing to watch how it hovered over the ocean, constantly rolling in then evaporating as it reached in land.
We made camp at the end of Tsusiat Lake, or the beginning of Little Tsusiat Lake, and were eager to get this last big portage out of the way the following morning. Little Tsusiat Lake should really be named Little Tsusiat Pond and after exploring the river mouth we were disappointed to find no way we could paddle down it to Tsusiat Falls because of the endless fallen trees that blocked all access so once again, we began another portage. It was very difficult to find the trailhead from the lake and there were no markers whatsoever so after some exploring I tied a large piece of surveyor’s tape around a tree for the next poor slobs who wanted to try this workout. Determined to only make two trips for this portage I'm not sure if we felt stronger or our gear somehow got lighter because after loading our packs, we elected to carry the remaining dry bags by hand as well: it was horrible. The trail leading from Tsusiat Falls to Tsusiat Lake was the most overgrown, narrow and winding trail we had encountered to date and three times I had to saw down trees in order to fit our canoe through the barely visible path. We were constantly being whipped in the face by branches and the dense wet underbrush soaked our clothes completely through adding to the weight, but cooling us off. When we finally reached the West Coast Trail the first thing we saw was the fancy bridge that had been built for hikers to cross the Tsusiat River. There was a couple of hikers on the bridge taking a rest and they were the first souls we’d seen since our journey began.
The West Coast Trail.
I have to throw in the following thoughts on the WCT as I’d hiked its length several times in the late 70’s and early 80’s. I don’t know if my perspective was jaded at the time because of the quality of trails I’d just come out of but I was awe struck at how much had changed since I had last done the trail. I remember a rugged and difficult hike along a trail that was both dangerous and challenging in my youth. I now see the West Coast Trail has been modified to the point of a walk in Stanley Park for day tripping. The sheer volume of people I saw camped at Tsusiat Falls gave testament to the reality that now, the WCT is very accessible. Widened sections of trail, boardwalks stretching for two kilometers and heavy framed bridges have transformed this once rugged paradise into something almost everyone can enjoy (and apparently everyone was). All of this trail work is great for safety purposes but comes with the unfortunate price that its no longer the rugged escape from the crowds it once was. I made up my mind that I’ll never hike the WCT during summer again.
Now forget everything I have just said and know that the coastline of the WCT is spectacular in the extreme with raging ocean waves and winds, tidal pools teaming with life and beaches of sandstone, driftwood and seaweed galore. This is also a very dense rainforest that supports the greatest amount of living matter per acre of any terrestrial ecosystem on Earth.
Getting down to the Falls.
We must have been a sight to see coming out of the West Coast mountains pulling a canoe behind us as every WCT hiker looked at us with dumbfounded consternation and all of them had to ask, “How did you get that canoe in here?”. After spending the night at Tsusiat Falls we were extremely short on time, it was now Sunday morning and my bow paddler had to be at work the following day, and myself on Tuesday. Faced with either a risky ocean crossing to get passed the Nitinat Narrows or a frightening 8km portage along the trail to the Narrows, we were seriously hoping for calm seas conditions on this morning so we could make the paddle instead of the portage. Almost everything worked out and in the morning the waves breaking on the beach had a manageable three foot crest and the low winds also raised our spirits, there was one problem however, the dense fog. If we paddled far enough out, past the cresting waves on shore and into the deep swells 300 meters out, there would be no way to see the shore and certainly not the opening of the Nitinat Narrows, not through such dense fog. After waiting some time for the fog to lift it became obvious it wasn't going anywhere so by 11:00am we decided to quickly hike up to the Narrows and ask the Dididat Nations if we could pay them to pick us up at Tsusiat Falls and take us through the Narrows in a boat large enough to carry our canoe. We had barely made it to the top of the Tsusiat beach ladders when we happened across a Dididat Nations parks employee who was able to contact some friends on his VHF and arrange for a skiff to pick us up off shore in one hour for $25.00 apiece. We couldn’t believe our good fortune and raced back down to the beach to break camp and dry bag our gear.
When the boat finally arrived the winds had come back up and because of the high surf and jagged rock reefs there was no way our taxi could make a beach landing for us so, we would have to paddle out to them. Launching the canoe into the breaking waves was looking increasingly impossible, as the winds grew stronger late in the day, but there was little chance our skiff would return for a second trip later in the day, we decided to proceed. A small group of WCT hikers had gathered on shore to watch our attempts and see if we’d make it out to this boat that we were assured was there, but could not see. I placed the bow at the very edge of the breaking wave's reach and loaded the dry bags. I then pushed the Prospector another ten feet towards the water. The first breaker smashed into our bow and sent the canoe reeling sideways, flooding it to the gunnels. The crowd on shore grew more interested in our efforts and began shouting cheers and unwanted advice as I bailed out the freezing cold water as fast as I possibly could before another wave could turn us completely over. On the second attempt I approached more cautiously but the canoe was too heavy to move without water under its hull so I waited for the tide to send us another wave high enough up to lift the canoe a few precious inches so I could drag it back into the surf. On the next few occasions, as my intended launching waves hit, I heaved upwards on the bow with all my might to lift it above the breakers to avoid another swamping. It almost worked too.
It took us four tries to successfully time our launch between the intervals of breaking waves then get out far enough into the deep swells where, to our spectators on shore, we had disappeared into the mist but to our delight, we found our waiting taxi. When we finally reached the side of the aluminum boat I looked up at the five occupants and said “You guys need a lift?” The only reply I got was a pair of hands reaching down to grab the back of my life jacket then being hurled onto the deck of the skiff followed by our gear and lastly the canoe. As the pilot gunned the engine he looked down at his soaking wet passengers and asked if we’d just paddled the Nitinat Triangle, “you bet!” I said with a broad grin, he shook his head and replied “You guys are #$%@#&# crazy..”
When we arrived at the Nitinat Narrows they unloaded us at the crossing point for WCT hikers, the Nitinat Narrows. They also now serve beer and BBQ’d salmon there and I don’t have to tell you how good that was. The scene was like something out of a fantasy novel with that dense fog rolling in from the open ocean then disappearing at the entrance to the Narrows where it was sunny and blue. Sunrays were piercing the mist right through to the emerald green swirls of the Nitinat Narrows with huge salmon leaping out of the water all around us. We promised ourselves at that moment we’d return to paddle this magnificent waterway soon.
Andrew (Monster) firstname.lastname@example.org