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A Reclusive Hermit of a Trail: Finding The Clayoquot Witness...

All but faded away, the secluded witness trail represents a rare class of adventure. Intact Ecology, Biodiversity, rugged mountains and scenic lakes in an Ancient Forest Landscape.

The old boardwalk is being repatriated into the Soil and mats of moss...

In Late Summer of 2022, myself and my friend William found ourselves in Clayoquot Sound, trying our stability surfing, visiting and making friends, and hiking in the rainforest while sleeping in my car. This was a welcome return to companionship and familiar, familial lands after spending several weeks in the remote wilds of Haida Gwaii and the inland temperate rainforest southeast of Prince George.. My love of being alone in the forest with my non-human relatives was stronger than ever, but getting to road trip through the south island with one of my childhood best friends and fellow free spirits, was too good an opportunity to keep me away any longer.

Clayoquot Sound, a true coastal paradise, known for beaches, the lovely and popular surf towns/fishing villages of Tofino and Ucluelet, and large swaths of protected wilderness guarded by the Tla-o-qui-aht people's tribal parks.

So What / Where is the Clayoquot Witness Trail? during the Blockades and Protests led by the Tla-o-qui-aht people in the early 90's, the Wilderness Committee partnered with the First Nation and cut a trail into the imminently threatened Clayoquot River drainage, a completely unlogged dramatic valley that feeds Kennedy Lake from the northeast, brimming with ancient forest from the River's mouth to the headwaters. The trail runs from the lower Clayoquot River, up to a small chain of subalpine lakes that divides the Clayoquot and Kennedy River valleys and forms a portion of each of their headwaters, the trail descends into the upper Kennedy River Valley (also full of intact unlogged forest) and ends past Snag Lake... We decided to Hike from the Northern Terminus, to experience the Kennedy Valley portion of the hike, our goal was to make it into the high country to see the Solstice and Murrelet Lakes, and return some other time to reach the Gem of the trail that winds along the lower Clayoquot river through groves of ancient giants.

Middle Earth... The diffused light gently illuminates the intact forest. our trail would take us up and to the left, on to Higher Ground.

One person who really inspired my visit to the Clayoquot Witness trail, is the legendary Randy Stoltmann, the late famed wilderness adventurer, author, conservationist and founder of the BC Big Tree Registry, who wrote about his adventure on this rugged trail in his book, Hiking the Ancient Forests of British Columbia and Washington, where he had this to say about the trail. “ It provides access to an astounding variety of lakes, forests, waterfalls and canyons – one of the finest and most easily accessible rainforest trail hikes on Vancouver Island.” His vivid descriptions of the diversity and secluded beauty of the trail tempted me for 2 years before I was able to get out there myself for a walk...

One of my biggest human inspirations in the bush, if Randy Stoltmann recommends the place, you know it's gonna be a wild and awe inspiring adventure... He was a true visionary of conservation and a real lover of all ancient forest landscapes... his legacy lives on today.

Photo Credit to the Wilderness Committee

Times have changed on the logging road going up the kennedy river to the mysterious trailhead since Randy walked this trail in the late 90's, seasonal flooding has washed away portions of the deteriorated road, after navigating multiple washout sections in my 98’ Sienna, we finally reached one that made the road completely impassable for my modest Bushmobile, it would have taken a much more rugged 4wd vehicle to attempt to go further. So we treacherously, slowly, turned around on the narrow road and drove back to the nearest pull off where we could park. Our walk began as so many epic journeys do here in BC. Trudging on the blast rock, watching the logging road transform from something relatively resembling a forest road.. To literally turning into a young forest on top of the faint glimmer of a road of the past. Alder is a masterful ally, closing up the old loggers routes, shrouding the path in a light green, difficult to penetrate veil, so that only the most determined and religious bush lover will do what it takes to get into the undisturbed heartland. The Whip of the Alder branches hitting us reminds us that these lands are free and sovereign, they will not tame themselves for us, indeed it is us who must become wild again to truly understand and enjoy these bushwacking adventures…

The Walk into the trailhead was punctuated by beautiful contrasts, cold water creeks flowed beside the old logging road, the Kennedy river revealed a mixture of old growth forest and vintage clearcuts slowly restoring themselves, and eventually we managed to find the old covered map marking the beginning of the trail.... only one problem, no visible trail or markers could we see from this start point... this was the first sign of the adventure we were getting into, so we opted to just bushwhack towards Snag Lake, where we could camp and hopefully pick up the trail in the morning.

Scenes like this make me know so directly that this world is a truly great place. The most mystical of all. To be here, on Earth, which is heaven. With 2 legs capable of walking up the mountain, and 2 eyes that see the magic of nature enveloping my soul, these are already 2 blameless sources of happiness to take refuge in every day... How easy it is to take life for granted when we live far apart from the intact ecosystems that make life possible. We all need wild places, and all deserve to experience the truth that the Earth is our Ancient Mother, holding, nurturing, healing, providing selflessly and generously for all her children… How rich are we who are in touch with the Bush person inside of us, and the bush god who lives in all intact lands remaining of the planet.

The full moon rises slowly over the mountains, illuminating the ancient forest that grows defiantly next to the massive landslide, we feel her energy tonight. This is a defining moment of our lives, we are fully present beside the lake, the campfire, the moon, the darkness and silence, an A+ Rewilding experience for sure.

The Mountain Speaks.... We listen.

The landslide that created this boulder field, also created the snag lake, when the slide occurred it naturally dammed this section of the upper kennedy river, flooding out the surrounding lowland forest and creating this stunning lake full of drowned trees. This reminds us that the rugged wilderness operates in mysterious, elemental ways. It is neither happy nor sad, neither right nor wrong, that the mountain collapsed, altering the landscape here dramatically. It is just the way of things, we marvel at the beauty of the young lake, perhaps the most unique and haunting of all lakes we have ever seen… already we feel that the trip has been worth it. The view up the intact valley, with dramatic peaks forming the headwaters of the Kennedy, is a priceless experience already. But now the real adventure was set to begin, we knew where we should go to find the trail, time to go deeper..

Cold and exceptionally clean creeks flow into the lake, the water flowing from within these mountains is some of the purest, and it is a joy to be able to drink it untreated with our hands as our cup, or to bend right down and lap it up like our animal friends do. Snag Lake has a higher sediment load, more tannins from the standing dead trees and logs, and is fed by a much larger system, so we drink from the lake with our trusty Life Straw.

The Trail:

Quickly the trail revealed its reputation. It is a faded, secret trail of yesterday. Seldom walked as far as trails go… the boardwalks were awesome, having collapsed and partially decayed, covered in moss, they added such a special feeling to the place.. This was not a trail that was all shiny and new.. It really matches the ancient energy of the place. The feeling we had the entire time was that we had entered a very rare class of journey, the type that evokes a sense of true adventure, going to a place that few humans know of in the big picture.. How many tens of thousand of people drive past the kennedy every summer on their way to Tofino and Ukee, and how few think to turn off onto the quiet logging road, and find this faded trail deep in the mountains. It’s not that we don’t equally enjoy hiking trails more frequently used. But there is undeniably a special feeling to being on a “forgotten” trail, or in this case one that never got very popular at all...

The Kennedy Valley portion of the trail ascends through a spectacular mid elevation ancient forest to reach the Solstice Lakes, full of elder trees, the majesty of this place combined with the cool sunny weather made for the perfect conditions to bathe in the forest's energy as we walked... The understory here is very lush and diverse...

A recent historical element added to our experience, knowing of the valiant (and successful) efforts that occurred in the 90’s to protect these lands. The Nuu Chah Nulth resistance to the destruction of their land, lead to the community blockades dubbed "the war in the woods" with 900 arrests by the federal police, one very epic concert in a clearcut, a family of likeminded humans formed, and eventually to the creation of the Tla-o-qui-aht tribal parks, the first of their kind in the country. That wound up protecting the Clayoquot River from clearcutting, and other nearby ancient forest landscapes like Flores and Meares Island.. All this adds to the depth of our gratitude as we walk on the upper portion of the trail. Knowing that the First Nation and the community that loves the ancient forest put blood, sweat and tears into protecting this area makes sense, it is absolutely sacred and spectacular, and certainly worth infinitely more standing than on the back of a truck headed to the sawmill.

Encountering some Douglas Firs on the trail made me smile, though not nearly the largest I have met in the province, these sweet, columnar elders were a real treat to encounter, as previously in the Clayoquot region my adventures were limited to the lowland coastal forests where Cedar, Hemlock, True Fir and Spruce dominate, and Douglas Fir is not a significant component. In coming to really know a place, i love to meet all the forest types, species of trees and other flowering plants, and other living beings who compose the biodiversity of the landscape. So getting into higher elevation forests in the upper Kennedy was a blessing for me.. These stands are quite productive with many large Red Cedars, Hemlock, Yellow Cedar and Fir, both True Fir and Douglas Fir. Yet this area is not holding the biggest trees on the trail, those are found deeper, in the Clayoquot river valley where there are lower elevation benches with much larger cedar and spruce. Alas i will have to return another day to see those secluded, remote giants.

The solstice lakes really blew our minds. Our walk had been so enchanting already, every curve and bend in the trail revealed more biodiversity, deeper silence, and abundant peace. Now we had entered the high country, and seeing the scrubby yellow cedar mountain hemlock forest, the sprawling views of the surrounding mountains, and the little cold headwater lakes, never logged, never roaded, and seldom visited. I felt connected to the great mountain wanderers who have long expounded the magic of the high country, like Randy Stoltmann who also viewed this same scenic chain of lakes with awe and amazement as we do. I was reminded of my favourite musings of John Muir, the simple joy of becoming friends with plants as we walk in the mountains and take in the ever changing cloudscape... And I found myself singing along to Soldier Blue, when Buffy sings “ Yes this is my country, ripe and bearing miracles in every pond and tree.. Her spirit walks the High Country, giving free wild samples, and setting an example how to give.”

This little wetland next to Solace Lake was a highlight to encounter, it's not always the "biggest water" that is the most serene to witness. This small pond communicated a very peaceful message, and was one of the many little details that made our experience so rich and memorable.

All the inspiration was alive in this moment, we swam naked in the cold lake, and dried out on the sun soaked warm rocks, the brisk wind quickly air drying us. Refreshed and Re energized, we eventually had to depart, to descend back to our camp at snag lake. Our walk back was deeply satisfying, yet I couldn't help feeling the call of the big trees and Clayoquot river valley on my back, as we walked through the Cedars in the late afternoon, I promised myself to certainly return with more time to get into the Clayoquot valley itself. And indeed I will, next time I will canoe the kennedy arm to the mouth of the clayoquot river, and attempt to traverse the entirety of the watershed on foot, meeting whatever is left of the trail somewhere along the way…

High elevation old growth, equally splendid as the valley bottom in my eyes, I feel admiration and inspiration from these resilient trees who weather deep snow and wicked storms to grow here looking over this valley of the gods...

William admires an ancient Western Red Cedar fused with a smaller double stemmed hemlock on the trail, in the ancient forest, the false line humans perceive between life and death does not exist. Life is death and death brings life in the forest, growth and decay are inseparable, everything is impermanent and totally interdependent, there is no separate self entity. experiencing this delivers us into the light, practicing like that is our true deepest potential. The ancient forest is the temple to practice mindfulness and communicate with our non human relatives...

We spent another immersive night in the comforting darkness of the wilderness, enjoying the moonlight, the warmth of the campfire and the Reishi tea we made. We reflected on the epic hike and slept well exhausted from a solid day of movement and discovery. We left the next day and made the gorgeous alder filled bushwack back to the car, sipping on the pristine waters flowing down the mountainside the entire time.

Of all the trails I've been on, this one certainly had the most reclusive personality, an old hermit like Yoda or Obi-Wan, like a trail that is all too happy to fade away, only our trusting footsteps keep the small single tracked path worn in the otherwise pathless wilderness. As we follow the whispers of our fellow Rainforest People. A true silent paradise, the Witness trail certainly represents one of the best challenging adventures in the region, very distinct from the abundant coastal hikes that make most people fall in love with this the Ucluelet/Tofino area. Complete with diverse intact ecosystems all the way through, and a depth of immersion hard to rival in the more popular parks and roadside stops like Cathedral Grove. There is nothing domesticated or tame about this place, and that is exactly how I hope it remains, Wilderness... Forever...

complexity, light and layers of the Intact Earth

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