Winging it on the Sunshine Coast Trail
I furiously slung my poles on the ground and unshouldered my bag. It flopped dejectedly. Cold mist steamed up my glasses as I sat and cried bitterly on an uncomfortable, mossy log. I had covered twenty kilometres so far that day – twenty hailstoned, heavy bagged, wet-socked, exhausted, steep kilometres- and I had just one more to go. I was on my first-ever backpacking trip on the Sunshine Coast Trail in British Columbia, and despite moments like this- I was loving it.
I’d come to Canada the previous year on a working holiday visa and spent the last months working, volunteering, and exploring Nova Scotia and Alberta. I was awed daily by the space and the mountains. I’d become interested in the idea of doing a multi-day hiking trip. When summer came, I decided to go for it on the Sunshine Coast Trail a couple of hours north of Vancouver. I would start in Powell River, the main jump-off point.
I ordered a simple-but-adequate guidebook online and made a slightly frantic, expensive trip to MEC – the Canadian Mecca for hiking gear. I took a few bus rides, ferry rides, and an overnight in Vancouver to finally get to Powell River. In a sweet little hostel run by a slightly eccentric manager, I attempted to fit six days’ worth of food in with my gear.
After a lot of huffing, puffing, and swearing, I’d packed most of what I wanted and left the rest on the free food rack. I walked to the ocean, where I had a little cry from nerves. Did I know what I was doing? Luckily, I felt better later when I met a wonderful, adventurous French lady who decided she might do the trail, too, after looking at my guidebook.
On day one, I woke lacking confidence after a fitful night’s sleep. An older chap in the dorm had shouted and sworn alarmingly in his sleep all night. I got going anyway. The trail runs from Sarah Point to Saltery Bay, but I was doing six days on the middle part between Powell River and Lang Bay. After some slight confusion getting to the trail along back roads out of Powell River, I made it onto the mossy old-growth forest trail and followed the orange blazes helpfully adorning the trees ahead of me.
I had no GPS and relied on my phone with maps.me. (I know, it was foolish!) Luckily, the waymarking was mostly great the entire way. I wasn’t used to carrying my rucksack for long periods, so I found it quite challenging and often chastised myself for being ‘weak.’ I learned that I needed to quiet the negative thoughts and be kind to myself if I wanted to have a good experience.
The first day I made it to Inland Lake feeling sore but happy and found I was alone at the little cabin. I’d barely seen anyone all day. Feeling suddenly a little scared (cougars and bears were a new fear for this little Brit!), I decided to go for a cold water swim to cheer myself up. Obviously, as I had a nude dunk, a group of walkers turned up.
It was lovely to have company, and although I enjoyed the solitude on this trail, it was a real boost to know there were people on the same route I would see in the evenings. The French lady named Carine arrived around 5 p.m., and I was very happy to see her! We would become good friends over the next few days and had some good chats on the small sections we walked together. She was very fast and would easily catch up to me even though I left before her each morning.
I quickly learned I get bad toe blisters when hiking with a big rucksack. A kind first aider in the other group sanitized and popped them for me and I bandaged them. Throughout the trip, I reflected on these kindnesses that made a huge difference. Walking would be uncomfortable the next few days, but by taking a step at a time, I knew I would make it. After this trip, I learned to wrap my toes in tape before setting off on any long walks.
I grew to realise I’d chosen an interesting route with challenging climbs and few options for getting off-trail in an emergency for my first big hike. Surrounded by dense forest overlooking the lake the first evening, I felt a sense of calm as I listened to eerie loon calls.
The second day brought a steep, roped uphill section on the way to Confederation Lake. I was learning how to carefully balance with the full weight of my pack and finally understood the incredible necessity for poles on tricky trails like this. For all the immense ways I was unprepared for the route, I was glad I’d bought my poles. After a pleasant lunch rest with a guest appearance from the sun by Confederation Lake hut, I kept going.
I wound through the dark forest with mossy floors and an abundance of tree roots to trip over. I arrived at Fiddlehead Landing hut mid-afternoon and enjoyed the views over the inlet with Carine in some old camping chairs we found.
Some loud men arrived on a boat and noisily hassled us for a bit while they drank tequila. The intrusion felt abrupt in the previous stillness of the forest. They left shortly, and we saw them clip the side of a log boom with the boat on their way out – idiots. The rest of the evening was mostly peacefu,l and we slept in the dirty hut while some others put their tents outside.
Day three taught me how slow I can go with a heavy pack and steep mountainous uphill to climb. I think it took me 7 hours to tackle 11 km. I trudged up Tin Hat mountain determinedly and laughed as I hauled myself over a giant boulder in the path. I threw my poles to the other side and clambered on my hands and knees, exhausted, to reach the other side of the trail. Eventually, I came over the brow of a hill and saw the gorgeous hut at the top. Carine was standing on the porch cheering me on.
The huts on this trail are incredible. Helicopters brought the materials in, and volunteers built the structures. As a first-timer, it made a difference not having to bring a tent (though it is still recommended) as I had no room for it anyway. Sadly, the weather wasmisty, so no views for us, but we filled our pots with rainwater and got cozy when we finally got the pellet stove going. The sleeping loft was warm, and I slept well.
I was anxious for day four. It was a dreaded long day, and I was worried after having several long days before it. I calculated I would need ten hours, so I got up and left at 7 a.m. I made my way off Tin Hat mountain in chilly mist as the others in the hut began to stir.
Hail and rain made the day really tough, and I didn’t realise how cold I was until I got to Elk Lake following a mini-breakdown after 9 hours of walking. The hut was open to the elements, a disappointment after the luxurious hut on Tin Hat.
Early summer in British Columbia can be unreliable. As the others arrived, there were a few tears and one poor German girl with a twisted ankle. Luckily, she was a nurse, and her boyfriend (a soldier) was on hand to help with her bag.
It seemed like a tough one for everyone. Luckily more kindness kept me safe, and I was forced to eat my hot food before I huddled with another hiker in her tent for the night, narrowly avoiding hypothermia. Another lesson learned – always change out of wet clothes and don’t persevere if your choices could be life-threatening.
I was really going for the baptism-by-fire approach by being here. I realised my lack of planning was dangerous and could have affected others too. I was lucky there were other, more competent people on-trail with satellite phones and experience. I reflected on this as I walked.
On the morning of day five, the mood changed, and the sun was burning the mist off the lake as we rose to drink coffee and enjoy rays on our faces. It felt like bliss. My clothes hadn’t dried, but there was nothing to do but walk. As the first one out again, I got a face full of spiderwebs every few minutes. I saw some fresh bear scat, so I sang loudly and clacked my poles together to warn my little friend that I was there. I saw no other signs of the bear. Despite minimal planning, I remembered to bring bear spray. Unfortunately, it was in a side pocket in my pack, which rendered it useless.
It was a glorious day for a climb to Walt Hill, and plenty of sun made it a real contrast to the previous day. I walked a lot with Carine. That night’s hut was beautiful and new, and we rejoiced as everyone trickled in at the end of the day’s walk. The views of mountains and inlets were fantastic.
We watched the sunset before retiring to the hut to chat and be together for our last night as a group. Carine and I were getting off-trail the next day, and I believe the Germans were considering getting out too because of the bad ankle.
On the last morning, I was sad to be leaving this epic trail and the peace of walking. I was also excited for a shower and lots of food. I’d underestimated my food needs (another lesson!) and was ready for some serious calories.
Descending through more enchanting forests, I noticed clashes with civilization as I passed logging areas. There were forestry roads and more signs of humans than I’d seen the previous days. These ugly areas broke my heart a little. I was glad Carine walked with me, and we kept our spirits up.
Just before we joined the track that would take us off the trail, we bumped into a lovely lady from our group and got to say a final goodbye. A hot slog along the road finally dropped us by the small grocery store in Lang Bay, where we joyously munched on crisps, icecream, everything!
We hitchhiked with a lovely couple into Powell River. They were very understanding about our terrible stench! I had a relaxing afternoon lying on my hostel bed, feeling clean and well-fed as I listened to the rain pour on the skylight above me.
Looking back to this 2018 trip, I am proud of that crazy version of me who went out into nature like that (despite cringing at how underprepared I was). Then-me encouraged the sense of adventure I hold onto now and took the leap from solo travel to solo hiking (even though the friends I made meant I wasn’t really alone).
The solitude interspersed with the quick connections on this trip got me hooked on multi-day walks and gave me a sense of achievement I’d never had before. Just writing this now is making me ache to get back out there into the simple world of putting one foot in front of the other.
About the writer
Emma is a happy and quiet hiking enthusiast trying to find balance in this funny life. She currently lives with family in beautiful Shropshire, UK, working for a small charity and waiting for things to settle before hitting the trails again. So far, she’s enjoyed hiking in beautiful Canada, Portugal, Spain, Nepal, Guatemala as well as at home in the UK. You can follow her adventures on Instagram.