Juan de Fuca Trail

This summer, my roommate Leslie, her fiancé Kevin and I hiked the coastal Juan de Fuca Trail.  The trail is 44km long and is located roughly 80km West of our hometown Victoria on Vancouver Island, BC.  If you’re on the Island, I highly recommend this four-day hike along the beautiful and breathtaking Northwest Coast.

We hiked 11-14 km per day, carrying roughly 20 lbs. on our backs for roughly five to six hours a day.  This was definitely a highlight of my summer!

Day 1: to China Beach to Mystic Beach to Bear Beach

From the parking lot at China Beach, you hike 2km outland to Mystic Beach.  As its name suggests, Mystic is, well, mystic!  Seriously!  The pebbled beach is squished between rising cliffs and tall evergreens on the East side and wide ocean expanse on the West.  Mystic is one of the camp-ready beaches on the Trail.  We took a small break to snack, then picked up again.

A long way down to Mystic Beach

We continued onwards to Bear Beach where we quickly found a campsite, sheltered under the trees and hidden from the beach.  We pitched the tent, started a fire and ate dinner.

After the first day. From left: Leslie and I.

The weather on the first day was perfect: not too warm, but not too cold either.  Also, the trails between the beaches on this first were not too difficult despite our heavy backpacks.

Day 2: Bear Beach to Chin Beach

In the little guidebook, lent to us by my dear aunt, the Bear to Chin section was considered the most difficult section of the Trail.  Luckily for us, the sky was clear and not a drop of rain fell on us!

Me. Heading out, start of Day 2.

This section , although beginning on the beach, is spent in the forest hiking up and down hills.  Many, many hills.  To be exact, we counted 17 hills, each taking anywhere from 20 to 45  minutes to ascend and descend.

But do not be discouraged!

After the first ten up-and-downs, you get used to it.  Also, the sections spent in the forest are worth it.  Intermittent cracks through the branches and foliage give a sneak peak of the ocean scenery to come.

Beautiful day on Day 2

Arrived at Chin Beach, we set up camp and ate dinner.  I had Mac n Cheese.  Gross.

Day 3: Chin Beach to Little Kuitshe Creek via Sombrio Beach

The rain had started to fall early the night before and had left the hikers with pools of mud on the trail.  We were discover that mud sucks.  It can turn a ‘moderate’ hike into a ‘challenging’ hike.  Good thing my aunt lent me her gators.

Mud, mud and logs

We were lucky to have patches of sunshine during the first half of the day.  The third day of the Trail was spent zig-zagging between the forest and pebble-beached shoreline on Sombrio Beach.

Sombrio Beach on Day 3

We walked a few kilometers along Sombrio before passing a small group of children, aged between ten and twelve years, by accompanied by two young leaders.  They were Camp Thunderbird kids here to hike from Sombrio to Parkinson Creek, via one night in Little Kuitshe Creek.

As we were also planning on staying the night at Little Kuitshe Creek, we hurried the last few kilometers to snag a campsite before they arrived.  The Little Kuitshe Creek Campsite is one of two campsites located deep in the forest, far from the beach.  At the campsite, we met John from Newfoundland, who would later join us for dinner.

An hour or so later, the kids from Camp Thunderbird arrived and set up their camp, which consisted of hanging tarps from trees.  Not the best shelter from the West Coast Rainforest.

Day 4: Little Kiutshe Creek to Botanical Beach

The rain continued throughout the night and we awoke to puddles here-and-there in the campsite.  Thankfully, we were dry.  The Camp Thunderbird kids, on the other hand, were not so lucky, or dry.  They appeared to be having fun, nevertheless.

Along with our new friend John the Newfie, we set off early to conquer our last leg of the Trail.

This leg, according to the guidebook, was the flattest and therefore the easiest.  The mud, aka a hiker’s worst enemy, made this last leg a struggle.  Luckily, we each had a good pair of hiking boots, rain pants and gators.  A word to anyone willing to undertake any West Coast hiking trail: take these three items with you!

Every few hundred meters was met with knee-deep puddles (or pools) of mud so thick and sticky you could easily lose a shoe in one of them.

At a given opportunity, we took a “shortcut” along the beach.  For almost a kilometer, we hiked along the misty shoreline on the reef shelves.

Reef Shelves and mist on Day 4

It was along these gorgeous reef shelves that we encountered a small black bear.  He (or she) had been following us for the last few hundred meters, but had eventually caught up with us.  We hadn’t taken much of a fright from it.  In fact, we ignored it most of the time, until it began to approach us, head on.  I couldn’t manage to get my bear spray in time, but John already had his bear-banger (a small pen-shaped device that makes a loud “Bang!”) ready.  The bear was less than twenty feet from us when John shot off his bear-banger.  A loud shotgun sound burst  and the bear turned and ran to the forest.  We all breathed a major sigh of relief.

Regardless of our near-encounter, we had to eventually return to the forest as the tide was too hide to continue along reef.  Unfortunately, we had long passed the trail head back into the forest.  Our quickest solution was to bushwack our way back to the trail.  Oddly enough, this part wasn’t as hard as I would’ve imagine.  Within two hundred meters or so, we found ourselves in the Payzant Creek campsite.  The hard part proved to be finding our way back to the Trail from the campsite.  It’s a maze!

After going round in circles for nearly ten minutes in the campsite, we found the Trail again.  From the Payzant Creek campsite, we counted down the last seven kilometers back to Botanical Beach.

Two hours later, we finally arrived at Botanical (aka the END)!

Done! From left: Leslie, Kevin and I.

Four days, three nights and 44km later, we had completed the Juan de Fuca Trail!  What an experience!  If ever you should be on Vancouver Island have four days and lots of energy to spare, I highly recommend this purely West Coast adventure!

Until the next adventure,

🙂 Julie

WWOOF-ing 101

It’s been almost a year since I got back from Europe and I’m still receiving e-mails from people who want to try WWOOF-ing.  A lot of people want to know the name of that WWOOF #5 (I’ll never tell, so stop asking).  But most people want to know how it works and what to expect.  And so, I’ve written this post, “WWOOF-ing 101” for anyone who’s curious about WWOOFing.

So let’s start from the beginning, shall we?

What is WWOOF-ing?

If the description on the official website (click here) wasn’t descriptive enough, here it is again!

WWOOF is an exchange – In return for volunteer help, WWOOF hosts offer food, accommodation and opportunities to learn about organic lifestyles.

If that’s still not registering, here’s the simplest possible description:  you (prospective WWOOFer) will go work on a farm in exchange for food and housing.  You will sleep in their homes (or their garages/chicken coops/tents/ caravans/ kid’s room/ home offices).  You eat their delicious/disgusting/bland/culturally-typical food.  You will learn about life, love and yourself.  (Okay, I’m stretching it with that last bit, but it’s not far off…)

Working in the vines in Italy

But please, here are some guidelines…

In my travels, I came across some mixed reviews about WWOOF-ing.  I’ve lived my share of bad experiences and heard some more.  But most bad experiences can be avoided if you (the prospective WWOOFer) follow these guidelines.

1.  Expect the unexpected.

No matter how many details are listed in the WWOOF postings, the farms you will go to will never be anything like what you were expecting.  This can be good and this can be bad.  But don’t fret!  WWOOF-ing is about adventure!  So you’re shacking up in a rotting cabin with hundreds of mosquitos.  It’s all part of the fun!  If you can rough it, it’ll make for an interesting story later on.  If you can’t, go find yourself a five-star, Michelin-rated bungalow and stop complaining!

True story: I worked on a farm in France and the farmer asked me to translate an e-mail he had received from a couple in New York.  The e-mail read like an e-Harmony questionnaire.  They wanted to know how far from Toulouse the farm was situated (in miles and in hours by train), what the accommodation was like, what they’d be eating, when they’d be working, what kind of work was expected, if they’d get days off, etc.  Midway through translation, the French farmer stopped me.  He asked to reply to their e-mail.  He was rejecting them because of their lack of adventure.  While these were all valid questions to ask, I had to agree with the farmer’s position on the matter.  These people clearly were expecting one thing for their summer vacation.  And if they didn’t get it (which they probably weren’t), they wouldn’t be happy.  And neither would the French farmer.  I digress.

It’s normal for you to be excited and nervous about your first WWOOF experience, and that’s okay.  As you go on and work more farms, you’ll learn to loosen up and take whatever is coming your way with a positive and adventurous attitude.  It makes for very attractive personality traits as well.

Be open to surprises.  They can be good.  They can be bad.  They can be surprisingly awesome!

2. Be a good house-guest.

If I had to choose two words to describe a WWOOF-er, they’d be: laborer and house-guest.  While the earlier is a given, the latter isn’t always so obvious.  But being a good house-guest is just as important, if not more, to maintaining a good relationship between WWOOFer and host.

After receiving strangers in their homes week-in and week-out, many hosts have certain expectations of their WWOOF-ers.  There’s the obvious: don’t hog the couch/shower/food/whatever; be polite; pick-up after yourself.  Also, on all of the farms I’ve worked on, I was asked to do the dishes after dinner.  These are all expected of you as a house-guest, so don’t whine about their house rules.  They did make you dinner after all!

But it’s not just about chores.   Be social!  I’ll admit that on my first ever WWOOF, I was a complete anti-social brat.  After dinner, I’d do the dishes then head straight to the caravan (my accommodation) and watch Planet Earth with the headphones on.  Big no-no.  Stay and chat!  My favorite memories of WWOOF-ing are the post-dinner political chats, cultural teachings and all around celebrations of life.  Don’t be shy!  Make friends!  Be social!

3. Work

This is obvious.

Because there is no exchange of money, WWOOF (as in the organization) has set up guidelines for both workers and hosts to follow.  Hosts may ask their WWOOFers to work a maximum of six hours of labor per day, six days a week.

For many big-city westerners, working in the country may sound bucolic, but it’s a lot harder than many imagine.  But if the hosts are accommodating you nicely and feeding you full every night, you have to do your part.  Fair is fair.  If you don’t meet their working expectations, they may speak up.  If they do, this makes for awkward dinner conversation.

Working away in France

Not only that, but most of the farms posted depend on WWOOFers to make ends meat.  This may be your vacation, but it’s their work (and their life) you’re helping support.

In short: don’t be a freeloading traveler and put in your hours!

That said, I have worked on a farm where the host has juiced me for more than my WWOOF-ing hours worth.  If this happens to you, speak up to your host first.  Tell him/her that you’ve worked over six hours today.  If they nod but continue to work you overtime day after day, report them (HONESTLY* and OBJECTIVELY*) to WWOOF.org.

* One WWOOF host I worked for contacted me a year later to act as a witness on his behalf.  Apparently, one WWOOFer he hosted barely put in her hours and he confronted her about it.  She left the farm the next day.  A few weeks later, his WWOOF Host membership was revoked because of false claims this lazy WWOOFer had made about him.  Because of an injury he had suffered while I was there, he can’t do farm work alone.  Not only that, but he depends on WWOOFers to help maintain his farm and his crop. Luckily, previous WWOOFers, who are now good friends of his, have decided to help him out.  *

Why WWOOF-ing?

1. It’s cheap!  No kidding.  As a (lazy) student traveller on a budget, WWOOF-ing was perfect for me.  I’d stay put (geographically speaking) for two weeks at a time and not spend a dime.  Jumping from hostel-to-hostel was, in my opinion, way more exhausting than hard labour in the (picturesque) field.

2.  You’re totally immersed in the culture.  I learned way more about Italy living with an Italian family, speaking Italian, eating Italian food, watching Italian television than I ever would in my Italian hotel room reading my Italian guidebook with my non-Italian travel buddies.

3. It’s so much fun!  The hosts are awesome!  You eat amazing food.  There are other WWOOFers on the same farm; you make friends.  You watch a baby deer being born.  You go for a hike in the nearby woods.  You play with the house cat.  You make wine! You go to the market.  Sell some jams.  Buy some pattiseries.  You take pictures.  Show your family.  What’s not to love?!

Bonus: street cred.  “So you took cooking lessons taught by Jamie Oliver?  Pst! I was taught by Italian gypsies in a 12th-Century shack in the Tuscan countryside how to make real Italian sugo di pomodoro fresco al basilico, senza electrical devices.”

Hopefully, this answered all your questions you may have had about WWOOF-ing.  But from the bottom of my heart, I think it’s something everyone who loves a good adventure should try.

Safe travels!

🙂 Julie