We awoke to the sound of the waves in the distance, dampened by the surrounding forest. I was hoping to see some sunshine, but when I emerged from the tent I could see the sky was cloudy. Venturing out onto the sand, I walked back to collect our food bags from the cache and found a nearby log to set up breakfast. The morning was cool but dry – always our main concern – and it was wonderfully relaxing to sit and sip my morning coffee on a sandy log.
Packing up, the tent fly was nice and dry which made a welcome change! We took our time getting things packed and arranged as we were now facing the long 17-km hike in to the northern coast. Even so, we were ready to go by 10 am, and set off across the soft sand, leaving a trail of footprints in our wake, to rejoin the forest trail. By now the clouds were beginning to break and the sun appeared. Retracing our route from yesterday, the forest was bright and cheery. We passed our plaited trees, our giant sitka spruce and red cedars, our turnoff with the mouse encounters, and within 35 min were back at the T-junction from the trailhead.
The trail began to climb gradually and switched from dirt to boardwalk and old corduroy road. At first it was OK walking across those old timbers, but we soon found that the spacing was awkward and prevented us from maintaining our natural stride. With a full pack I was losing patience quickly and had to clear my head a couple of times. We encountered a couple of enormous fallen logs that had been turned into trail features, with steps cut into them for an easier crossing. The final step down off one was far longer than my legs and I had to sit down and drop down carefully – that was going to be interesting on the return!
The path was lined with salal, fading skunk cabbage, and patches of bunchberry. We dealt with our first minor mud patches and rejoined the old corduroy road. All the while I’d been pondering the question of whether this road was driven with vehicles, or used as a cart track. I couldn’t see it being good enough for vehicles, but then it has been the better part of a century since much of it was laid.
Before long we reached the spur trail that led to the shore of Eric Lake and followed it to its end. The old government dock mentioned in the BC Parks pamphlet was a couple of old logs jutting into the water – distinctly underwhelming, but it set the scene for looking for clues to the human history of the area. A chatty group of day hikers asked us about getting to the northern beaches. They looked fit enough, but they admitted that one of them liked to stop and take lots of photos, and another was already tired. I’m always a bit incredulous when hikers ask questions about the trail that betray such a lack of understanding. It took us to spell out the distance and time requirements noting that it would be a 30+ km day, and – given the time of day – they’d be returning in the dark. Did they have headlamps? I don’t know. In any case, we didn’t see them again after Eric Lake, so they must have turned back. But seriously – please do your trip research ahead of time!
We rejoined the trail and followed the mix of boardwalk and corduroy through some wonderful old-growth forest. Alas we could see the park boundary all too clearly, with glaring open space visible through the trees to the barren clearcut beyond. Time to refocus and enjoy our immediate surroundings once more. We crossed a creek on a huge log bridge which had railings on only one side. Since it was quite a drop down to the water I voiced my thoughts about not wanting to “bounce” off the railing and lose balance. Unfortunately that had the effect of magnifying the risk in my head and the crossing was trickier than it perhaps should have been. Oops. Maria was fine though :-)
A short time later we passed the first tent pads at the Eric Lake campground. The main creek was low, but the lake was only 100 m away. The tent pads looked really nice (as tent pads go), yet the campground was completely empty. To be honest, I didn’t see the point of camping here given that we had the time to get through to the coast, but it is a well-situated site. A bit buggy though: a small but voracious cloud of mosquitoes descended on me as I paused to look around.
We ventured out to the lake shore and had a snack and comfort break. The lake was quite pretty especially reflecting the now-blue sky, if not very dramatic, and by now we were about half way along it. An osprey was calling constantly from a tree on the opposite side – perhaps a chick demanding to be fed. Back on the boardwalk, we passed the outhouse where a park ranger was performing some maintenance: a spray bottle with a bleach solution and a few cans of paint! The rangers have my utmost admiration and support – it sounds like such a romantic job, but really you’re a backcountry janitor with too much time spent cleaning up other people’s mess. And I can live without cleaning up that kind of mess (I had a cleaning job as a student, so I appreciate what goes into it).
We continued on our way, leaving the boardwalk and making the sharp left turn out of the campground to continue our northwards plod. This was the section I was not looking forward to: 10 km of muddy, buggy forest. Or at least so I’d been led to believe. We passed a few more big sitka spruce, including one giant right next to the trail, easily the biggest we’d seen so far.
Now the trail began to traverse a fairly steep slope and this is where it got muddy. At one point we were following a narrow wet trench which I could imagine being a mud bath at other times of year. We crossed a few muddy and rooty patches which required a bit of care, but that was about it. The famous mud didn’t materialize, for which we were extremely grateful. We still made good time though, and paced ourselves well despite our heavy loads.
Here and there the trail opened up as the terrain levelled out, and we passed through areas of boggy muskeg filled with moss, peat, as well as stunted pines and cedars. To my amazement we encountered a few flowers – including some blue gentian, carnivorous sundew, and a white one we hadn’t seen before. For some reason the name “swamp gentian” came to mind, and sure enough when I looked it up that’s exactly what it was. (I can thank time spent idly flicking through our flower ID book for that inspiration!) It’s a beautiful little star-shaped flower with mauve dots on the petals forming a ring around the centre. We encountered more of it and I sought out good examples to photograph.
We re-entered dense forest and by the time we reached our next landmark – Fisherman River – we were beginning to tire. We crossed the river on its big log bridge and waved to a couple of park rangers fishing in the river before scrambling down some old steps to a par of big logs by the water’s edge. Time for a delicious lunch of cheese and fresh tomato wraps. The river reminded me of the rivers and streams in the New Forest near where I grew up in southern England – it had that same tea-brown colour from the tannins in the peat.
Rested, fed and watered, we hoisted our packs onto our backs and set off once more. We left the forest lining the river and came to the bogs again. Thankfully there was plenty of boardwalk to keep our feet mud-free, but even where there was mud, it was either easily avoided or mostly dried out and crossed in a few steps. Here we came across more and more swamp gentian as well as the tall violet and indigo flowers of blue or king gentian. We had never seen so much blue gentian in our lives and I have to admit I stopped frequently to try and get the perfect photo. There was always that doubt about whether I’d captured it effectively, so I kept taking more photos…
The hiking was now much easier going with a mix of dry trail and boardwalk. The blue sky from earlier had been replaced by a solid grey and it began to drizzle lightly on us. Despite that, I think this section was my favourite so far, which I think I can attribute to the scent: it was exactly like that of the New Forest mentioned above, where I spent many hours as a kid. I inhaled as much as I could, and was transported back 30 or more years. It was so relaxing, and so peaceful. Since leaving Eric Lake we’d hardly seen anyone, passing only a few pairs of hikers. We saw more artefacts from the farming settlements – a fragment of chain, cartwheel rims, cross-cut saw, fencing – though none corresponded to the numbers on the BC Parks pamphlet. A few tantalizing tiny side-trails led off either side but my mind was set on our goal of getting to the beach.
I’d been sporadically checking the GPS to keep an eye on our progress, but I was taken by surprise when we entered a patch of second-growth cedars and came to the T-junction marking the turnoff to Nels and Nissen Bights. We dropped our packs for a quick rest before continuing straight ahead for the last 2 km to Nissen Bight. The way was easy now: soft grass or earth with occasional shallow (and mostly dry) mud. It looked like the rangers had been through here recently as the vegetation at the sides of the trail was cut back with a strimmer (aka weed whacker).
It wasn’t long before we could hear the ocean again, the waves crashing on the shore. Feeling near, we picked up our pace and soon came to the outhouse and food storage area just a few metres short of the beach. We passed between a couple of logs and emerged onto the sand. Nissen Bight. It was just before 5 pm: it had taken 7 hours for us to walk the 17 km. We walked out into the bright (albeit cloudy) daylight and surveyed the sweeping arc of the beach. A few tents were set up near this point, and we opted to continue further down to find our spot.
We found a level-ish area of sand well above the high-tide line and dropped our packs. Our plan was to spend two days here just relaxing, so we took a very leisurely approach to setting up. With our home established, we had a cup of tea before making dinner. We sat back on the sand (or on logs) and took in our view. Not a bad place to be!
Feeling well rested we stowed our food bags and ventured east along the beach in search of water. We chatted with a few hikers at the end of the beach, all of whom had been hiking the North Coast Trail. A carved float pointed us in the direction of the water supply – beyond the sand, over some rocks, and past huge piles of stinky seaweed dotted with bear poop.
We reached the creek and once again my heart sank. A brown trickle emerged from the forest, forming a few unappealing pools linked by the tiniest of cascades. We set about filtering as much water as possible, again regretting the fact that our water bladders were transparent! The water did not look in the least bit drinkable, but it was all we had. I imagined it would taste beyond terrible, but I was pleasantly surprised. The water had flavour for sure, but it was not at all unpleasant. I grew to quite like it by the end of the trip!
With ten litres of water filtered and treated, we trudged back along the beach to our tent. We made our usual evening cup of Sleepytime tea before putting our food bags in the metal cache and crawling into our tent. A fine drizzly mist was now blowing in off the ocean, soaking everything so we were quite happy to settle down for the night. The sand was just firm enough to be comfortable without being too hard, the temperature was cool but pleasant and the sound of the waves lulled us to sleep in no time.