Walk on the wild side

By Shanna Baker

This ancient route through pristine rainforest and across sandy beaches on Flores Island in Clayoquot Sound offers hikers a taste of First Nations history, and a double-dose of wild West Coast scenery.

Photo: Adam Gibbs

Those who look carefully at the rainforest floor along the Wild Side Trail might make out the contours of a cedar canoe. Abandoned before completion, the relic is now cloaked by a thick weave of moss and undergrowth, and is slowly transforming into mulch.

Charred cedars, other would-be canoes that carvers once hollowed out with fire and then left standing because of cracks or flaws, are tucked deeper into the woods.

The 11-kilometre Wild Side Trail, which follows the scalloped southern edge of Flores Island in Clayoquot Sound is remarkable enough for its beauty. It connects a chain of eight sandy beaches (depending on how you count)—one peppered with moonsnails, one stinking with rotting seaweed, one adorned with sand dollars—from the small First Nations village of Ahousaht (also “Ahousat”) to Cow Bay. Across the headlands, it jags into the fringes of a dense Sitka spruce and cedar forest, which spreads across the 150-square-kilometre island like a bearskin blanket. But as I squint at what could be a canoe, I realize there’s more here than raw West Coast scenery. History and mythology thrum just beneath the surface.

“When he was building a canoe my dad used to send us out to that island,” John Frank says as we rest against a driftwood log a few kilometres along the trail. He points to a small islet in Whitesand Cove. “Mom would build a fire. We’d pick mussels and chiton [a mollusk]and come back and put out two to three dozen mussels in the fire. We’d cook the chiton on sticks.

“Dad built great canoes,” he adds. “It was an awesome feeling to be able to see that magic at work.”

Frank, known as “Johnny O” to most, and his weary Saint Bernard, Axel, accompanied my hiking partner, Kris, and I along the first portion of trail. We met at the band office after arriving from Tofino, 45 minutes to the south along Vancouver Island’s west coast, on the Ahousaht Pride water taxi. Frank and Axel led us down a path hemmed with scotch broom and alders and cross-hatched with bear claw marks, then on to the first beach. According to local wisdom, a man once gained superhuman strength here after encountering a spiritual octopus.

In the forest, Frank pointed out middens and Culturally Modified Trees, cedars stripped of their bark for hats, nets, baskets, and other woven items. He explained the curative nature of ferns (good for ulcers). And he taught us to navigate by moss: “Moss grows to the east. It’s what I tell my people—if you’re lost, look for moss.”

The former fisherman and grandfather of 30 is generous with his stories. He tells us how his father would shape a log and then drag it into the ocean—only if it floated in a straight line would he complete it as a canoe. He explains that when the smallpox epidemic hit, the beaches of Flores were strewn with victims. He recounts various ways the Ahousaht outsmarted their enemies during war. And he tells us he is grateful that his grandchildren, typically plugged in to the digital world, have access to his “peace,” this wilderness.

“Nature is a gift of learning,” he adds.

At Kutcous Point I’m learning that sand fleas are tenacious.

They play a game of tiddlywinks around my feet, vying for a bite of my ankle. After parting ways with Frank we continued along the trail, then turned toward the shore. Our first surprise was seeing a trio of women who had stripped to their underwear to wade across a narrow inlet.

“We were just saying that we’d better hurry up and get dressed,” one of them offered, after buttoning up. They’d been on the island for days and had hardly seen anyone else, she explained.

Then Kris took one step too far up a sandy bank and yelped. I ran over just in time to see more than a dozen garter snakes uncoil from a writhing mass and dart off into the grass. When Kris finished his heebie-jeebies dance we distanced ourselves from the snake pit, turning a corner along Kutcous Point onto a small sheltered stretch of pebbly beach, and dropped our backpacks. It’s possible to hike all the way to Cow Bay in one day, but we’ve opted to stretch our trip over three.

After setting up camp, we settle back to gaze at the Pacific Ocean and scan for grey whales, which frequent these waters during summer months.

We left Tofino in a full-scale deluge, but now the late afternoon August sun warms our backs. Around the bend, the wind lifts sand and sweeps it across the hard-packed ground with a ssssss. Waves rear up, then splinter into foam against the shore.

It’s idyllic now, but as is common on the Wild Side Trail, there’s more to this beach than meets the eye. During a 14-year war between the Ahousaht and their enemies, the Otsosaht, this is where war captives were relieved of their heads.

The Ahousaht, part of the larger Nuu-chah-nulth group, have travelled the Wild Side path for nearly 200 years, since acquiring Flores in battle, and other native peoples walked it for centuries prior. Only a few years ago, with the help of a passionate newcomer, did they choose to open it to outsiders.

Susan Jones arrived on Flores Island in 1993 from Calgary, Alberta, with a big city perspective and her husband, who had been hired by the band to establish a grocery store (no longer operating). “When I hit the dock, I looked around and thought, ‘Wow, condos!’” recalls the former commercial property manager, who now lives in Victoria. In those early days of discovering the island, she hiked the pristine beaches and realized her first impulse was not the right one. But she began to see the trail’s potential to create jobs and economic growth in the community of roughly 1,000. On a blustery March day that year, she put a call out over the VHF radio and 15 volunteers arrived to help clear the trail of debris and overgrowth. Local women designed flyers and plastered them around Tofino, promoting “The Walk the Wild Side Heritage Trail.”

The venture was an immediate success, resulting in $19,000 worth of art sales, water taxi fees, and trail guide wages within the first season. Visitation has since lagged, but an estimated 8,000 hikers and paddlers flocked to the beaches in the early years. Elders grew concerned about the damage that too many boots were causing to the forest floor. With Jones’s help, the Ahousaht connected with the Western Canada Wilderness Committee and together organized a work crew. Over seven months in 1996, a team of 25 constructed three kilometres of boardwalk to protect sensitive areas. They also erected bridges and otherwise fixed up and extended the trail, which traverses two marine provincial parks (Flores Island and Gibson), Crown land, and Ahousaht reserve land.

Locals such as Frank say the trail has been a boon to the community.

“Economically, it’s good,” he says. “Also, our story will be told to more people, they’ll realize what First Nations are all about, how we survive here. It’s a good thing to be able to tell our stories.”

Despite the violent history of Kutcous Point, tortured souls don’t keep me awake the first night—mice scurrying across our plastic ground sheet do. Eventually I give up on sleep and go sit on the sand. The local wisdom, Jones told me, is that you attract animals that best match your character. Though I try my best to will a cougar, wolf, bear, otter, or murrelet, I see nothing but bare beach. Flores guards its secrets.

In the morning Kris and I drain the last drops from our water bottles and agree it’s time to move on. At the far end of the bay we pause at an inlet coursing with frigid coffee-coloured water. Here, according to my copy of the Ahousaht Wild Side Heritage Trail Guidebook, an Otsosaht sharpshooter once tormented the Ahousaht who tried to cross. Our options are to hike back through the forest to a bridge, or save an hour and wade across, as the three women we met yesterday had.

We choose the latter, and on the other side pick across rocks encrusted with barnacles and rockweed to reconnect with the trail. The boardwalk is slick from the recent rains and the moss attempting to reclaim it for the forest. Our feet twist if we don’t step carefully. The farther we go, the fewer stretches of boardwalk there are, until eventually it runs out, leaving us to step over slippery root piles and across mud pits. Spiders’ silk threads lace across the path, and the forest closes in, branches snatching at our bags and clothes. Then, just as we begin to take it personally, we’re out of the forest and onto another extraordinary beach.

Despite the muck and occasional pick-pocketing branch, the forest, fresh and fragrant, is the perfect complement to the beaches, which become progressively more spectacular as we go. Towering Sitkas draped in lichen overlook blankets of moss, fields of false lily-of-the-valley, and clusters of perky ferns. Decaying cedars crumble into the earth and nurture new growth. We hear ravens clucking, the hammering of a woodpecker, and the shrill wheep wheep of an oystercatcher. My favourite moments are when we step out of the cool forest and get the first uninterrupted view of the next stretch of shoreline arcing in front of us.

The trail leads us past an emergency shelter and over a 33-metre-long fallen log. At the next beach, jumbled with rocky outcrops and tangles of kelp, we meet Ahousaht local Qaamina, leading a group of day hikers from Clayoquot Wilderness

Resort. His father, Stanley Sam Sr., worked with Susan Jones to create the guidebook I’m carrying, as well as the corresponding interpretive signs that teach visitors the historical significance of this territory. Qaamina helped paint the eye-catching artwork on the signs, some of which still stand. “I could only draw sticks before,” he jokes.

“A week ago the fog was thick on the branches,” he tells us before we turn to carry on down the trail. “It lifted a little and showed two wolves, just their heads. The fog descended and they disappeared. When it lifted again there were two smaller wolves… Then the fog just went straight up and cleared the BC Parks estimates that 500 to 1,000 visitors now use this trail annually, so it’s quite possible to hike most of it without seeing another person. But Qaamina’s story confirms my sense that we walk in the company of spirits and unseen wild things.

The trail reaches its muckiest point as we approach the end. I attempt to leap across a mud pit only to slide and smear dirt up to my hip. Finally we cut through a section of forest thickly veiled with old man’s beard, descend root steps, and push through a narrow tunnel of salal… and step onto the most breathtaking West Coast beach. It’s the kind of beauty that is almost too much for my nervous system, leaving me momentarily stupefied. I can hardly believe there are no beach umbrellas and jet skis, no concession stands, or volleyball nets, just a couple of campers milling about to my left, and a perfect two-kilometre expanse of bleached sand to my right.

We drop our packs above the high-tide line near a wooden shipwreck almost entombed with sand and set off to the end of the beach where the trail turns up Mount Flores. Nervous sandpipers scurry out of our way and a raven swoops overhead. Wolf tracks crisscross the ground. I follow a set until they grow faint and then disappear in the grass. When I look back, the wind has already begun to mask my own footprints.

To Know If You Go

Exploring the Wild Side Trail

The Wild Side Trail follows the southern edge of 150-square-kilometre Flores Island, within Clayoquot Sound. It traverses Gibson Marine Provincial Park, Crown land, Ahousaht reserve land, and Flores Island Marine Provincial Park.

Getting There

The Ahousaht Pride water taxi runs twice daily between Tofino on Vancouver Island (departing at 10:30 a.m. and 4 p.m.) and the village of Ahousaht (departing 8:30 a.m. and 1 p.m.). The trip takes 45 minutes and costs $20 per person each way. Due to recent development in Ahousaht, the first section of trail is being relocated. Contact the Wildside office (250-913-0022; wildsidetrail.com) or band office (250-670-9563; ahousaht.ca) for information on how to reach the trail. Visitors are asked to pay a $25 registration fee in Ahousaht.

Field Notes

Most hikers prefer to camp on Flores Island for at least two nights. It is possible to complete the trail in a day if you arrange to be picked up or dropped off at Cow Bay by charter; contact the Wildside office for info. This fairly moderate walking route can be completed in less than five hours. Most forest sections are marked with fishing floats, which can be difficult to pick out. Bring plenty of drinking water, as it can be hard to come by along the trail. Since my initial visit tent platforms, food caches, maps, and a couple of pit toilets were added; otherwise there are no facilities. Practice no-trace camping, and be aware that wolves, bears, and cougars may be in the area.

Info

  • Ahousaht Wild Side Heritage Trail Guidebook, by Stanley Sam Sr. of the Ahousaht First Nations, published by Western Canada Wilderness Committee, 1997. Limited copies available at the Wildside office.
  • BC Parks (bcparks.ca).
  • Tourism Vancouver Island (250-754-3500; tourismvi.ca).

About Author

Christine Ly

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