We arrived in Cape Scott, located on the northwestern tip of Vancouver Island. Alicia, Amy and I had hoped it was the westernmost point in Canada, but when we got to the lighthouse, we saw an island just off the coast. It’s good we didn’t bring any champagne to celebrate because apparently we weren’t even close. A quick look at a map after we came home showed us that there is a lot more west to go. On some flat maps it may look like this tip of Vancouver Island is the country’s westernmost point, but that’s only because of the distortion of latitude and longitude; on a round globe, the Yukon extends much farther past this point. The Haida Gwaii islands? Farther west. Whitehorse? Even farther west. We were so wrong.
Even if we weren’t as far west as we imagined we were, we still enjoyed the remoteness and beauty of the area. This year has been abnormally dry and hot, even here in the deep rainforest. The path getting here was described as “muddy” and but we had few problems. It’s a relatively short hike, only 17 kilometres from the trailhead to our camp at Nels Bight, plus another 6.5 kilometres from Nels to the lighthouse at Cape Scott. The trail is not steep, either; it’s a mostly flat surface with stretches of wooden boardwalks over the muddiest sections.
When we arrived, one of the lighthouse keepers came out onto the porch and told us it was about 28 degrees Celsius. The two lighthouse keepers live on the property in a small house located right next to the tower, and the one who was speaking to us stood on his small front porch in just his swimsuit trunks. They’ve been here for 16 years, he told us, and this was the hottest year they’ve ever had. Last winter was warmer than usual, too. There were only three days when it went from zero to -1 and back to zero; usually the water freezes.
We ventured up the lighthouse. It didn’t look, actually, like much of a lighthouse—no, it was more of a light station. Grey and white concrete blocks at the bottom support four metal posts that rise a couple storeys above. Steps steep enough to find themselves somewhere between stairs and ladder link to a red platform, which is a metal grate and open to the ground below. At the centre, surrounded by the red metal platform, is the almighty light, protected by a bank of windows that give it its 360 degree view. Another ladder takes the keepers up higher, but that was beyond where we were allowed to go. While the light station is not directly on the coast (there’s a steep forest-covered slope in the way), a collection of buoys remind you of where you are. If it had been windy, the large wind chime hanging from the platform below the light would have serenaded us. As it was, it stood quietly, patiently, waiting to burst into song.
I inquired about the forecast: was it going to rain? No rain in the forecast, he said. The coast here should be covered in fog by now; instead, the sky looked bright, even from my view at the top of the tower. It was sunny and felt hot if we left the shade.
The second light station keeper came out onto the porch and called out to us: “They caught the two men who had escaped from jail three or four weeks ago!” Alicia doesn’t follow the news and hadn’t heard the story, so we had to give her the backstory. He seemed very eager to tell us—strangers—this news, so we gossiped about how it could have been possible that these men were able to escape from a high security prison and elude the police for so long.
The light station keepers attended to new arrivals: a group of three twenty-something Dutch guys. Their conversation began much like ours had: a hello, some small talk about the weather, a sale of some chips, the invitation to sign the guest book. I wondered if the keepers were tired of having the same conversation for 16 years, if they preferred the isolation, if they felt like hikers like us were invading their lazy Sunday when all he wanted to do was lounge outside in his swimsuit.
Cape Scott’s remote location means that only 5000 people visit this light station a year. If it’s not the threat of muddy trails that intimidates people, it’s the roads. The trailhead is 64 kilometres west of Port Hardy—itself a relatively remote town of only about 4000—and the road in between is a potentially rough dirt road. Signs along the hiking trails indicate that this area has always been isolated—too isolated, in fact, for settlement despite two attempts.
The first was in 1897. As described in a report written in the early 1900s, “the Danes built good houses, good roads; they cleared and cultivated their land, and they put cattle on the reclaimed land, and formed a successful colony.” In addition to the troubles with tremendous rainfalls and storms, there wasn’t a good harbor and the government refused to build roads to the Danish settlement, which meant that the settlers had difficulty accessing markets. “So little by little the settlement dwindled until there were only two or three of the old settlers left. The grass was good and the cattle were thriving, but there was no way to ship out the beef.” They gave up. Settlers came in 1910 to try it again, but they encountered the same problems. Almost unbelievably, it wasn’t until 1979 that a highway was finally built to Part Hardy.
Another blog describes Cape Scott as “one of the wildest, windiest, most woebegone locales in the province for human habitation” and suggests that a trip to “Cape Scott is only for those whose mettle has been tested by repeated exposure to the bellows and blast-furnace of nature in the raw.” We got lucky that our visit coincided with an abnormally hot year, making our journey a little easier.
Cape Scott can be reached by car. Drive hours via Highway 19 on Vancouver Island from Nanaimo north to Port Hardy. From there, turn west towards Holberg on Holberg Road; of the 2 hour drive, the last hour or so is a dirt logging road. After passing through the very small town of Holberg, turn right onto San Josef Main/San Joseph Road to reach the park's parking lot.
Be prepared for extreme weather at any time of year. You can find water sources at campsites, but you must treat the water. Pay attention to tides. There are bears in the park, so you must put hang your food or store it in provided bins.
Get yourself a drink at the Scarlet Ibis Pub in Holberg on your way out to celebrate your hike.