When Tents Fail: A Cape Scott Provincial Park Story



Cape Scott Provincial Park sits 563-kilometres from Victoria on the northwestern tip of Vancouver Island. I heard of it a few years ago when I was getting ready to hike the West Coast Trail. Cape Scott forms a portion of the rival North Coast Trail and there is a debate among hiking enthusiasts about which trail is better (but I’ll leave that for a different post).

Back in August, my friend Lenya and I decided we needed to get outdoors, away from work and textbooks and the internet. We talked about doing the entire North Coast Trail but were short on time. Instead, we decided to hike to the lighthouse in Cape Scott and save the North Coast Trail for a future trip. Between school semesters and managing vacation days, we settled on four nights in the park, which would allow us to explore the different areas: San Josef Bay, Hansen Lagoon, the remnants of settlements, and the various beaches along the way.

Lenya and I have known each other for years and  have already done a couple of overnight hikes together so we’re familiar with each other’s hiking style. I’m a slow but curious hiker—I love to take pictures so I’m constantly stopping what sometimes seems like every 10 metres. Lenya, by comparison, is quicker and likes to tackle more challenging features.

But we hadn’t yet encountered challenges like the ones we experienced on this hike.

Part One: Getting to Cape Scott and Eric Lake

I had never driven past Campbell River before and 563 km is no easy feat (especially when you’re driving in a ’96 Camry car, maybe not the most suitable choice), but the long drive to the park was interesting, especially the 20 km/per hour drive along the logging road.

The road to Cape Scott takes you through Holberg, a tiny outpost on the west coast that’s home to just 35 year-round residents. We promised ourselves we would explore it on the way back and continued to the parking lot, arriving mid-afternoon. After changing into our gear, we headed out on our adventure.

From the parking lot, some people choose to push through to the coast but we decided to stop and set up camp at the Eric Lake tent pads, only a few kilometers from the parking lot and situated along an easy trail.

While attaching the poles to the tent, I heard an ominous snap…looking down, the pole had lost its curve. Strange… Did one of the pole sections get pulled apart? Nope. It turned out one of the poles was cracked and wouldn’t connect to hold its curved shape (see photo). Huh. Since duct tape solves everything, we tried that next. Still nothing. After trying various fixes, we still couldn’t get our tent to hold. With the thought of sleeping in nothing more than a glorified mosquito net, the hysterical laughter set in (because what else can you do when it’s getting dark, mosquitoes are swarming you and you haven’t yet eaten?).

Break time. We walked to Eric Lake to have a snack and some real talk. Should we pack it in and go back to the car and drive back home? Should we stay and try to make the tent work? We couldn’t (or rather, we didn’t want to) sleep outside without one. We wanted to make it work somehow. For two intelligent, capable people, we hoped a solution was not far off. Motivated once more, we headed back for attempt number two.

This time, we scoured our pack and surroundings for available resources (mostly ropes and trees). With a little ingenuity, we managed to erect a version of a tent. It wasn’t pretty, but it worked.

That night we hoped desperately that it wouldn’t rain on us and the tent would stay off our faces long enough to catch a few hours of sleep. The tent managed to stay up all night. Success.

Figure 2. (A) Broken pole prior to repair attempt (B) Tent setup on night one, (C) Tent setup on night two, (D) Tent setup on night three.

Part Two: Nels and Nissen Bights

The next day, feeling optimistic, we packed up and headed towards the coast. Our options for camping that night were between Nels and Nissen Bights. We choose Nissen particularly because it is a stop along the aforementioned North Coast Trail and you tend to meet people who are nearing the end of their trip. It is one of the reasons why I love doing a trip like this—the opportunity to chat with people you meet about their experience. At home, I never stop on the sidewalk to chat with a random stranger, but it’s different on the trail: a shared sense of place, the desire to challenge yourself in one of the most remote areas of Vancouver Island.

Here we met two people on a road trip from Washington State, another pair who had biked from Sooke and then hiked into the lighthouse, and two friends who were also challenged by Cape Scott’s roads (a flat tire was their downfall), among others.

On our second night we managed to improve our broken tent setup. The fly was able to cover most of the tent, while the sides of the tent were erected in a way that were up and away from our faces. The dirty socks we tied to the ends of the poles, in an attempt to save the fly, worked wonders.

But this time it rained. And despite the fly, we got damp. We weren’t soaked, but there were leaky spots. Still we decided to press on to the lighthouse. What’s a little water after we had come this far?

The weather quickly cleared and made the trip to the lighthouse one of the best hikes I’ve ever done: white sand beaches mingle with wild, old-growth forest, while the horizon disappears almost seamlessly into the glittery blue waters of the Pacific.

Dropping off our packs at Nels beach, we continued trekking up to the lighthouse. The keeper who greeted us was very kind about answering questions I’m sure he gets asked many times a day. We had our pictures taken at the top of the lighthouse overlooking the three small islands and the mighty Pacific Ocean.

Part Three: Heading Home

Our tent setup at Nels was our best by far. With our gear now dry, we were treated to a gorgeous sunset. We tried to ignore the dark clouds rolling in, hoping it wasn’t another night of rain. Despite our optimism it didn’t work out that way. It rained all night and all through the morning. Unlike the previous morning, the rain didn’t let up. We faced a choice: continue or hike back to the parking lot and head home.

With the thought of spending another night in a soggy jerry-rigged tent, we decided on the second option. San Josef Bay and Hansen Lagoon could have to wait for another trip.

The hike out didn’t go as planned either. Because of the relentless rain the trail became muddy and slippery. Even with my hiking poles I managed to slip on the boardwalk and tumble off to the side. I understand now how a turtle, turned up-side down feels. With 45 pounds of weight on my back, and my pole stuck under my leg, I struggled to right myself. Cue hysterical laughter once more. It could have been worse; a few feet on either side and I might have fallen in the mud or on a downed tree. Finally we made it to the parking lot.

Like many trips, our experiences were both good and bad. I had hoped to see more wildlife (not too closely though) but the most we saw was a squirrel and wolf tracks in the sand. Our broken tent could have ruined the trip but with some ingenuity we managed to work out a solution. The trail, while not overly difficult, was challenging at times.

In the end, I got what I wanted: to spend time outdoors with one of my closest friends and a chance to recharge and appreciate nature. And as a bonus, I now have hundreds of photos that I can look back on and reminisce.

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