West Coast Trail born out of tragedy

The government decided that something must be done about the ever-mounting death toll of the 'Graveyard of the Pacific'

After the tragic sinking of the Valencia in January 1906 and the loss of 136 souls, the Canadian government decided that something must be done about the ever-mounting death toll of the area known as the Graveyard of the Pacific.

This patch of stormy water extends from the north of Oregon up to and including the west coast of Vancouver Island.

It is hard to know exactly how many ships have been lost to its frigid depths, but estimates for the number of wrecks along the coast of Vancouver Island alone hover in the region of 475.

One of the most brutal parts of the graveyard is at the entrance to the Strait of Juan de Fuca along Vancouver Island’s southwest coast, between Bamfield and Port Renfrew.  This was the exact, inaccessible coastline where the Valencia had met her doom.

Survivors who made it to shore after the ship was wrecked on a reef during a storm faced sheer, 30-metre cliffs which they had to climb, shivering and soaked, only to find themselves in a dense forest, alone with the howling winds and unseen predators.

There was a rickety telegraph line that cut through the dense temperate rainforest, and this they followed until they found a small linesman’s shack where they finally were able to communicate with the Carmanah Lighthouse Station to get help.

The rescue ships that eventually arrived could do little when they approached from the water lest they too be wrecked, and the area was so remote that it was impossible to approach quickly by land.

The intense tragedy and human drama of the story hit headlines across North America and prompted a public outcry to ameliorate the situation.

Vancouver Island was still remote and wild, yet there was a busy shipping corridor through the Strait of Juan de Fuca which brought hundreds of boats into the busy harbours of Victoria, Vancouver and Seattle.

In response, the Canadian government conceived the “Dominion Life-Saving Trail” which is known as the West Coast Trail today.  They embarked on a two-year plan to upgrade the rickety line of telegraph wires into a life-saving system.

Along this 74-kilometre route between Bamfield and Port Renfrew they first built the Pachena Point Lighthouse in 1908 to warn ships that approached too close to the jagged reefs along the coastline.

Then, the narrow path had been cleared for the telegraph lines was widened and made more accessible for rescuers and survivors alike.

Signposts were added to help survivors determine just where they were.  Small shacks were also constructed at eight-kilometre intervals along the trail and equipped with multi-lingual maps and directions for navigating the trail, rations, blankets and the basics for survival.

The Bamfield Lifeboat Station was also built and equipped with a state-of-the-art 36-foot motorized lifeboat. It was the height of modernity when it was commissioned in 1908, and hundreds of these boats came to be used in coastal communities across North America.

By the 1950s, the Dominion Lifesaving Trail had fallen into disrepair.  The first half of the 20th century had brought some rapid changes in technology which led to a corresponding decrease in the number of shipwrecks along Vancouver Island.

Radar came into common use in the late 1930s, and during the course of the Second World War the U.S. perfected the  Long Range Navigation System (Loran), which uses pulsed radio transmissions between ‘master’ and ‘slave’ stations to form hyperbola (called loran lines) which intersect to show the position of the ship.

Then, of course, in the 1970s the global positioning system began to supersede other navigational systems.  Though there are still ships and souls lost in the area, today the number is minimal.

The last major shipwreck along the West Coast Trail was of the Russian tanker Uzbekistan in 1943.  Though the ship was destroyed, all souls aboard the vessel were saved.

Today, hikers regularly encounter the remnants of the many lost ships which litter the shore along the trail.  Boilers, anchors, boxes, splintered bits of decking, even pieces of steam funnels protrude from the sea or lie abandoned on the sand.  This wreckage is protected by law; it is illegal for anyone to remove the debris of ship wrecked more than two years ago.

In 1973 the West Coast Trail became part of Pacific Rim National Park Reserve and was upgraded.

Today it is used for recreational hiking and camping, though anyone who has travelled its length will testify that it is still a treacherous route.  Approximately two per cent of those who attempt the trail will require emergency rescue services to get them out.

It is consistently rated as one of the finest hikes in the world, but the West Coast Trail remains a visible testament to the powerful hand of Vancouver Island’s natural forces and to the lives lost to, and saved from, its unrelenting grip.

•••

Kate Humble is an historian and the education curator for the Maritime Museum of British Columbia. Questions can be sent to: khumble@mmbc.bc.ca

 

 

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