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Shipwrecks of the West Coast Trail

Shipwrecks                                                                           The West Coast Trail

When shipping in and out of the Juan de Fuca strait rapidly increased in the 1800's a startling number of ships were lost. There are a few reasons.  First, the west coast of Vancouver Island is a lee shore, which means that with engine failure, ships will quickly drift toward the rocky and ship shredding shore.

AnchorThe second reason is far more obvious, especially to anyone that has encountered the brutally stormy winters along the west coast.  The storms are so bad that even today the West Coast Trail is closed from September to May.  This isn't for any bureaucratic paranoia over safety.  It's just too stormy.  Too windy, too rainy, the horrible mud that bogs you down in the summer becomes close to impassible in the winter.  It is so bad that the Tofino to Ucluelet region advertises storm watching.

The third reason is much less obvious and really quite sinister and malicious.  The current.  It moves north.  And in stormy weather ships move north fast, very fast.  So fast as to throw off navigation considerably.

Imagine you are the captain of a ship in a storm, approaching the Strait of Juan de Fuca in 1906, with your 1906 maps and navigational aids, unfamiliar with this coastline and far off course.  Expecting at any moment to see the calm, sheltering waters of the Juan de Fuca strait, only to see the jagged teeth of the Vancouver Island, an instant before they rip into your ship.  Your ship is 60 miles north of where you though you were.  In the next few hours your ship will be pounded to death by the relentless waves.

Now, over a century later, you stumble along the beach halfway along the West Coast Trail and nearly trip over one of the anchors the Skagit left after it disintegrated in 1906.

This is why the West Coast Trail is so spectacular.  Sure it is brutally challenging, wild and breathtaking at every turn.  But the fact that you can stumble upon an incredible artifact of history just laying on the beach for anyone to stumble upon is just, well, fantastic.  Then to sit next to it, marvel at the huge, rusting mass and think of the rest of the ship, just a few metres away, hidden under the massive, crashing waves, on another breathtaking beach.

Darling Falls & the Uzbekistan Shipwreck

Day 1 and already mesmerized by the beauty, history, reality  and brutality of the shipwrecks of the West Coast Trail

When this part of word came to be called the Graveyard Of The Pacific because of the shockingly frequent shipwrecks.  To get that name.  To earn such a horrible name, a stretch of land had to have claimed a lot of ships.  It did.  And the reason it did is because of a unique set of circumstances.  In short, if you were to design a part of the world to devour ships.  To pull them into an inescapable death.  Well, you'd do well to design it very much like the Strait of Juan de Fuca.

Step 1: have a major port of trade centre itself in a place like Vancouver.  Or better yet, create two cities, one like Vancouver, and another like Victoria.

Step 2: have them located at the edge of a relatively unknown continent in the biggest ocean in the world.

Step 3: have these major cities accessed by entering a strait with a fast moving current and brutal weather half of the year.

Step 4: and this is the master stroke.  Have the entrance to the straight be a lee shore with a brutally hostile, rocky shoreline, and as one last brutal stroke of evil.  Make the current in the strait move northward toward the destructive coast.  And make the current move faster as the weather gets worse, which it is a lot.

The Strait of Juan de Fuca is all of these.  It is a testament to how wonderful the cities of Vancouver and Victoria are.  Not only did they rise out of such a brutal history of shipwreck disaster.  But more importantly.  More amazingly.  They led to the creation of the West Coast Trail.  This fact may not sink in with suitable gravity with the average person.  But walk the West Coast Trail and it will resonate.  The purpose of the trail sticks in the back of your mind as you hike it.  It has to.  There are shipwrecks at every beach.  This is surely impossible, an exaggeration.  But it's not.

As you walk you are constantly reminded that it's a life saving trail.  But it's too hard.  Even with the deluxe, IKEA looking ladders and bridges it's hard.  How could survivors crawl off the beach and walk this trail.  The sobering answer is simple.  They did.  They had to.  They survived.  They crashed onto Vancouver Island.  These shores.  As their ship was bashed into the rocks, the made their way to the shore.  Some died, some lived.  We have an unbelievably detailed history of who did and didn't.  Then they set off on the Dominion Life Saving Trail.

The Uzbekistan Shipwreck (13.6k)

I notice a jagged piece of rusted metal, out of place on the cleanly rounded rocks.  I pick it up as I would a McDonald's bag.  It looked like a piece of trash a bit out of place.  I would read later that this beach is strewn with the wreckage of the Uzbekistan.  In April 1943 it was on it's way to Russia.  Everyone survived that wreck.  I look up, still holding the jagged piece of ship.  What a shitty beach.  Rocky, littered with logs.  The Uzbekistan.  Holding a piece of history.  And just laying on the beach.  Is it really part of a shipwreck?  It seems so ordinary.  A rusted triangle of metal, no longer than my arm.  But it's here.  In the middle of nowhere.  Not really though.  Far from anything, but the map says that this is where the Uzbekistan, a WWII cargo ship on its way to Russia met its end.  Disintegrated on this shore in 1943.  The rusted piece of metal seems so much like garbage.  It has no defining look.  It doesn't feel like anything special.  Like a piece of history, like a shipwreck should.  I drop the piece of shipwreck and at the same instant hear it.

The waves crash loud.  I hadn't noticed as I considered the piece of wreckage, but the waves are loud.  Loud and relentless.  Looking up, my back at the distant crashing of a waterfall.  I see the open ocean.  The loud, crashing waves.  I look at the piece of rusted metal.  More closely.  Turning in to see it in different angles.  It feels more real now.  As if I could find my way into how this piece of rusted metal came to be here.  Sixty years later, rusting on day one of the West Coast Trail.

The first indication of the horror to come that they had on the Uzbekistan that night was the penetrating horror of mangling metal on the brutal rocky coast that I saw before me now.  Not so long ago, I tried to imagine, a massive WWII era ship, in total darkness, lumbering into these rocks.  The crushing sound of mangling metal.  The panic.  As dawn broke the 50 on board made their way ashore with the help of the low tide.  Rescue came for all 50 of the Uzbekistan.  But the ship itself was crushed repeatedly until it disintegrated into the rocks forever. Not really forever though.  As I looked at the rusted piece of metal with the crushing waves beyond.  It came to me in a flash.  The importance of this thing in my hand.  Like some ultra real museum, the West Coast Trail is a jaw dropping journey through history.  To pick up a piece of the Uzbekistan, look out on the ocean where 50 people clamoured for the shore.  This place is amazing.  The warmth of excitement came over me.  Of knowing that you are in the midst of something real.  And as if day one of the West Coast Trail couldn't get any better, it did.

It's a sound I would come to hear a lot on the West Coast Trail.  But this was the first time I'd heard it.  Loud, rushing water.  I felt tired.  I'd hiked a long way.  I felt like I was grubby.  I had started the trail lots of energy and excitement, but so far the West Coast Trail was a bit tame.  I followed the sound of water.  It was loud.  I could see it came Darling River Falls on the West Coast Trailfrom where a river came out of trees.  A massive, slow moving river, clear, wide, and slow moving, snaked out of the forest.  I followed it into the trees.  The river bed was full of rainforest wreckage.  Massive trees strewn all around as the clear, beautiful emerald water flowed around.  The loud, water crashing sound became louder.  It must be a waterfall, but I couldn't see it.  Then suddenly it came into view. Like a scene out of a movie.  A perfect waterfall.  A perfect pool.

Darling River in this instant became the standard in which I would judge the West Coast Trail forever.  So wild.  So unexpected.  So exciting.  As I carefully made my way as close to the waterfall as I could, I couldn't believe how clear the water was.  So impossibly green the rocks at the bottom were.  So clear the water was.  In seconds I dove in.  It was amazing.  The perfect waterfall.  As the wash of the falls pushed me away I fought the current of Darling Creek as it flowed out of this amazing green pool toward the ocean.  I let the water carry me even as I swam with the river current toward the ocean.

Darling River Falls on the West Coast TrailThe sun broke through the clouds in one of those bizarre moments of rain and sunshine.  I swam with the current as it snaked through a wasteland of enormous logs.  Ducking under a massive tree, rolling onto my back, staring up to the sun surrounded by a small patch of blue sky in an otherwise cloudy sky.  Pushed with the current I watched the trees above move slowly.  Incredibly, the perfect day.  How exciting.  So far the West Coast Trail couldn't be better.  But it seems everything can get better.  Or at least more bizarre, and this moment did.

The trees above widened and I realized I was passing through the beach and into the ocean.  I twisted against the current as the Darling River opened up into the ocean.  Moving faster I thought in an instant that I'd be pushed into the ocean, then it hit me.  A huge wave crashed against me.  In an instant I wasn't moving either way.  I'd hit the point where Darling River met the ocean waves.  Bashing currents and waves made me stumble, feet sinking into the sand and gravel quicksand.  I fell forward against the current and with waves crashing over my back and suddenly saw it.  The piece of metal.  The piece of Uzbekistan that I held a few minutes ago moving amongst the rocks and waves.  I suddenly felt cold.  The water was freezing despite the warmth of June.  I stumbled toward the piece of wreckage pulling it from the waves.  Holding it I suddenly felt some sort of connection.  Crawling out of the ocean, looking on the same shore and trees they looked at 58 years ago.  I felt connected to them.  Like the 50 survivors of the Uzbekistan I was crawling out of the ocean.  In a surreal moment I picked up the piece of Uzbekistan and held it up to the shoreline.  What a place this is.  My first day on the trail and I've found a piece of shipwreck and a waterfall.

I stumbled forward, knee deep in the perfectly clear Darling River.  I jumped in a few minutes ago next to the waterfall surrounded by trees and cliffs.  Now I was out on the open beach.  Looking left and right I could see for a couple kilometres in both directions.  There was no one in sight, just as it would have looked for the survivors of the Uzbekistan .  Looking now, I couldn't believe how far I'd moved in the river.  There was a ways to go to get to my pack I left where I would spend my first night, at least a five minute walk.  Tired and cold now I walked faster.  What a crazy place this is.  Darling River.

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The Uzbekistan Shipwreck at Darling River - West Coast Trail

The shipwrecks I had passed already since the trailhead have very interesting histories.  At about 4k into the West Coast Trail from the Pachena trailhead look out to the ocean and you will spot the aptly named Seabird Rocks.  This almost island marks the final resting place of two West Coast Trail shipwrecks.  The Alaskan shipwreck lays at the bottom of the ocean about 300 metres to the right of the rocks and the Soquel shipwreck (misspelled Sequel on some WCT maps) lies under the water just past the rocks.

The Alaskan Shipwreck (4k)

The Alaskan was a small, wooden hulled steamship of 150 tons built in Oregon in 1886.  She was owned by a Vancouver freight company and was enroute to Barkley Sound with 100 tons of box shooks (metal fittings to construct wooden crates).  The Alaskan was last seen from Pachena Point apparently unable to round Cape Beale due to high winds she had turned back.  Though distress flares were seen, no one witnessed its destruction and she evidently sunk killing the entire crew of 11.  Three bodies washed ashore with considerable debris on the beaches west of Pachena Point.

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The Alaskan Shipwrecked Near Seabird Rocks - West Coast Trail

The Soquel Shipwreck (5k)

The Soquel shipwreck which lies just past the Seabird Rocks was a much larger ship then the Alaskan at 698 tons.  She was a four masted schooner built in San Francisco, California in 1902.  She was sailing with ballast from Callao, Peru, heading for Port Townsend (near Seattle), when bad weather and high seas carried her far off course.  The captains wife and daughter were killed by falling spars as two of the ships masts came crashing down.

The next morning daylight revealed the the Soquel on Seabird Rocks and a steam ship with a lifesaving crew from Bamfield was sent to rescue survivors.  The single ship was unable to help anyone until another steamer arrived and both ships working together managed to pull 5 people off the reefs before the daylight faded.  The next morning calmer seas enable the rescue the remaining survivors as well as the two dead bodies.

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The Soquel Shipwreck - Seabird Rocks - West Coast Trail

The Sarah Shipwreck (7k)

At about 7k into the West Coast Trail you will come to the shipwreck of the Sarah hidden under the waves near the shoreline.  This three masted barque of 1206 tons, built in Nova Scotia in 1874.  This British ship was sailing from the Philippines, heading for the Puget Sound.  The captain sighted the recently built Carmanah Point Lighthouse and mistook it for the Tatoosh Island Lighthouse.  The ocean current had moved the ship considerably far north and when unexpected breakers were heard, the ships anchors were dropped.  But it was too late, the Sarah ran aground on the shore of what is now the West Coast Trail.  Over the next two days the crew of 18 and the captain's wife and baby managed to get ashore safely with the exception of two crew drowning.

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The Sarah Shipwreck at Kilometre 7 - West Coast Trail

The Becherdass-Ambiadass Shipwreck (8k)

Built in New Brunswick in 1864 the 1376 ton 3 masted ship the Becherdass-Ambiadass was wrecked on the rocky shore only a half mile from Pachena Point.  This British ship was returning from Shanghai to Moodyville (now North Vancouver) when Cape Beale was sighted.  As she neared Vancouver Island early morning fog blinded her and under full sail collided with the abruptly rocky shore near the 8k mark of the West Coast Trail.  Amazingly no one was seriously hurt, but the ship was wrecked.  The crew used the lifeboats to save themselves.  The next day a local boat carried both the crew and their belongings to Victoria.  In the following weeks the ship disintegrated on the rocks.

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The Becherdass-Ambiadass Shipwreck at Kilometre 8 - West Coast Trail

The Michigan Shipwreck (12k)

The Michigan shipwreck on the West Coast Trail is the first one you can see and actually touch, which is incredible since it is well over a century old.  On January 21st, 1893 this 695 ton steam schooner was heading to Puget Sound from San Francisco.  The strong northerly current that prevails in this part of the Pacific and would eventually cause dozens of shipwrecks, caused the Michigan to massively overrun her position.  Instead of sailing into the Strait of Juan de Fuca, she collided with Vancouver Island in the middle of the night.  The 25 people on board managed to get ashore after daylight.  The the seas calmed the crew was able to retrieve a boat from the wreck and was able to get to Neah Bay for assistance.  A ship rescue was attempted, but was not successful.

One death resulted from the attempt to hike over the old telegraph trail to Carmanah Point.  A testament to how difficult it was then as compared to how relatively easy the now relatively easy West Coast Trail.

The Boiler From the Michigan Shipwreck on the West Coast Trail

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The Michigan Shipwreck at Kilometre 12 - West Coast Trail

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