Baby Goes Backpacking!



Story & photos by April Link

At thirteen months old, she was due for her first backpacking trip. With plenty of hiking, camping and canoeing experience plus a Calgary winter under her belt, we know she was up for it. After the wicked winter weather, returning to Vancouver Island with its mild climate, even in February, would be a blessing. Although we originally planned on doing the Juan de Fuca Trail, rain on the south of the island and sunshine up north quickly re-routed our plans to Cape Scott Provincial Park. This park on the north-westernmost point of Vancouver Island offered (we thought) greater solitude, wilderness and more trail options. It also requires a 16.8 km hike to our destination beach, but the sun was calling, we were optimistic and the baby didn’t have a say in the matter.

Prior to this trip, the longest hike we packed her on was 11 km in Lynn Valley in North Vancouver. She managed fine, with only two major stops for snacks, pees and nursing. She tolerates our wilderness activities, so while I knew this was a new limit for her, I felt confident that we would make it in one go. Three kilometers into the hike, hikers find a dock at the Eric Lake Campground (currently closed)that reveals an idyllic break from the forested trail over roots, snow, ice, water, rock, mud and boardwalk. Since we made a quick start in the morning, opting for granola bars for breakfast, we got some mileage down, but it was definitely mealtime when we got to the lake. With gear and food strewn across the dock, the sun bathed us as we ate and, reluctant to retreat to the shaded colder woods, an hour and a half burned up by the lakeside. This luxurious stop, while very enjoyable, would prove itself a not-so-wise management of time and baby-patience.

Back on the trail, we begin the 13.8 km to reach Nels Bight. The main Cape Scott Trail tests the hiker’s trail condition tolerance, but the pay-out is sweet. The challenges of this hike lie in staying on your feet and keeping your mind out of the mud. With additional boardwalk recently incorporated, some long mud-hole stretches became slick wood with snow and ice covering. On this stretch, the pain-in-the-ass factor shifts between bogged out-mud, huge, downed trees, iced over mud and slightly melting snow and ice over unlevel boardwalk. Which of these pleasures you encounter depends on the time of day and section of trail. The caution required differed greatly between myself and my partner. Since I pack the baby along with group gear, I naturally put more care into each step, but I found that footwear made a huge difference as well. I wore my La Sportiva Glacier mountain boots; stiff, suede ones, waterproofed and soled in Vibram Ice New rubber. While they work great kicking into crunchy snow, the hard soles slipped on every smooth-ish surface, particularly the boardwalks. One section where the boards slant toward the outside of a turn, paralleling the hillside down to valley floor, also lacks a handrail. Seeing it ahead, I prep to move quickly on the inside lane, weight directly over my feet and push through to the flat spot ahead. Coming into the home stretch, I linger a moment too long on one foot and start to slide for the edge, but in a kind of uncoordinated tap dance, keep my head above my feet. A fluttery stomach and shortness of breath make for a much more satisfactory result than Mama and Baby careening down the hill and through the trees. I measured barely enough caution for the possible consequence.

Between the extra luxe lunch break, slippery conditions, stops to feed, change and entertain the baby and ourselves, the hike stretches into ten hours (four to six hours longer than the other folks we encountered on the trail!) As we drag ourselves past Hansen Lagoon, the forest darkens. We are hungry for dinner, but pressured for time, so we pop sesame/chocolate snacks and continue. It’s easy enough to tell yourself to buck up, keep moving and eat your dinner later, but the little one can’t pass over food and comfort so easily. Therefore, I learned what it takes to appease the baby while trying to make foot progress: a progression from carrying her in the pack, singing, bouncing, distracting and finally pulling her out. When prepping for the trip, I knew we’d need a backup way to carry her for just such an occasion. Her Snuggly, a backpack-style carrier was getting small and we were too broke to dish out another $100 plus for a new one, so we opted to adapt it to accommodate her growing body. By enlarging the sides, I could carry her on my front while still carrying my weight in the pack on my back; it balanced out quite well. The system isn’t perfect, though. If we want to keep moving, I have to nurse her on-the-go, which worked easily when she was smaller, but now her body is so long that her legs dangle almost to my knees with her body facing mine. My own legs end up with limited extension, as a result. The inconvenience isn’t extreme, but carrying a pack on the back, breast-feeding a baby on the front while hiking a muddy, branchy trail by headlamp doesn’t make for the happiest mama you’ve ever seen, especially on an empty stomach.

Seven hours since our last meal, I badly want to get to Nels Bight and a Ranger’s Cabin that’s absent of rangers this time of year. Knowing that the cabin technically serves as an emergency hut, we don’t want to count on the shelter, but it definitely served as bait along the trail. We finally break onto the beach with a pink and orange horizon. We relax on the easy walk westward to the cabin, crossing a shallow creek and onto the porch only to open the door and find packs and gear scattered everywhere. The trail had footprints, so we knew others were in the park, but with only a couple of cars in the parking lot, we didn’t estimate there were enough people to carry this much gear. Before we remove our boots the owners return: eleven friends from Vancouver staying a few more nights! So much for our relief. They plan a party for the evening, so we pick ourselves up again and move to the beach. The night is cold and wet out of the forest’s shelter, but also too dark to search for a better site. Besides, we’re too tired. I fall asleep putting the baby down in our double bivy, while my partner diligently stokes a fire. He wakes me up to join him, but the wood is wet and the fire unable to throw much heat. Energy is low, same with hunger, so we abandon everything for our sleeping bags.

The next morning frost covers everything so we grab breakfast’s makings and crash the hangovers of the cabin crew. My partner sets to blazing the wood stove while I boil water on the Whisperlite. The warmth and sustenance perk us up as we start to dry out all of the diapers and clothes that our daughter got dirty and wet on the hike. We experimented on a new diaper for this trip and totally underestimated the number needed, so it turned out that the wood stove was a necessity considering our inability to get a decent drying fire going outside. Perhaps in the middle of summer it would be easier to dry on a beach fire, but if I know the North Island, even that gets no guarantee. The fact that we didn’t get a drop over the whole trip (in the middle of February!) still astounds me. As it was, it took a whole day to dry out the baby gear. I wonder how pleased our 13 month-old (or I, for that matter) would have been with the adventure if it rained each day.


Fortunately for us, the clear, cold weather really showcased the environment. In the shade, the beach stayed frosty, but the sun beat the foreshore gloriously. Nels Bight, one of the long, gradually-curved bays that characterize the shore of Cape Scott Provincial Park, served as our base camp for the trip and if we never ventured further, I couldn’t have complained. It has the kind of view that appears on religious cards, as though straight out of heaven. The sand is compact, making for an easy afternoon of exploration, but approaching Frederiksen Point dark rock protrudes from and then overcomes the sand. It makes for fun, simple scrambling, but runs into a number of surge channels which need careful monitoring it you intend to cross. We crossed one with the tide low enough that it only required a couple of stone hops to complete but as the tide came up, we didn’t risk another crossing with the baby on the back. We were told of a blowhole at the point that really shoots when water levels are right, but unfortunately had to skip out because we weren’t willing to wait out the tide change. The return trip took us into many a tidepool with a barefooted baby. With the heat of the sun, more than a few people turned skinny dippers.

The hike out to the lighthouse passes through two other large-scale beaches at Experiment Bight and Guise Bay. There are sea stacks that become islands and silhouetted or well lit, they form a vision of Pacific perfection. The trail through Guise Bay passes through a surprising, desert micro-climate with dunes that form the neck of the cape where First Nations people portaged their canoes when the weather on the outside was too rough. Be ready for the most outrageously beautiful beach views you’ve ever seen outside of a postcard. There is also a secret beach on one of the Nahwitti Indian Reserves on the cape where anyone planning to stay would need permission, but if you manage to find a trail buried in a rhododendron thicket and follow it until it opens up, you will hit a pebbled, steeper beach that produces backlit sunset photos you won’t belief you took yourself. In clear weather, Cape Scott is full of photo-ops that even the most novice photographer can’t screw up.

Our trip from these big-time beaches back to the trailhead finished up in about six hours, a welcomed improvement from the exhausting hike in. We left early in the morning so that the ground remained frozen, saving us from the muck. Both my partner and myself switched to Chacos with Stealth soles (used also in climbing shoes) and while our toes got a bit wet and cold, those sensations passed quickly and the better grip allowed for much easier and rapid movement. So, choose your footwear carefully! We struck some lucky weather, giving us an ideal vision of Cape Scott, which you may not walk away with under different conditions. The promontory sticks out into the ocean and the mean precipitation over thirty years sits at 255 mm in February, according to The Weather Network. However, the scale of the beaches should draw you out there even in less-than-ideal weather; hopefully you can appreciate the shoreline regardless of the sloppy hike in and possible rainfall. Whatever your experience (remember me nursing while hiking in the dark on a grumbling stomach?) it is worth the work to see this extreme of Vancouver Island.


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