by: Jenny Schmitz
EDITOR'S NOTE: This article is reprinted, with permission from the author, from Wheelchair Wandering. Jenny lives in Seattle because of its unique offering of mountains, water, culture, and cool weather. She spends as much time as possible enjoying the outdoors. Her passion is travel, which has become a multi-adventure experience since her MS required a transition into a wheelchair.
Backpacking was a big part of life in my twenties. It was also what threw me into an existential crisis when—after I got my first wheelchair—somebody asked, "Do you like backpacking?" How do you answer that question, if you really like something, but you can't actually do it? Ever since I started wheelchair hiking, I have wanted to go wheelchair backpacking. I think I may have finally accomplished that goal.
I have to qualify this with "I think," because we hiked on a well-maintained trail to a small group of campsites. Still, we did have backpacks: Ted had a huge one on his back, and I had a much smaller one on the back of my wheelchair. Moreover, getting to the campsite involved a significant hike of 3 km through a magical rainforest.
The trail to San Josef Bay starts in a parking lot in Cape Scott Provincial Park, about 64 km of mainly unpaved logging roads from Port Hardy (about 1 1/2 hours) on the northern tip of Vancouver Island. The trail is a miracle! It is well-maintained, mostly medium-to-hard-packed gravel, with a boardwalk in some areas. It was advertised as wheelchair accessible with assistance, and it really was. "Some assistance" was advised, because there were some steep hills. The trail meanders through a coastal rainforest with large, mossy trees and even old-growth trees, lowland bogs, and mushrooms.
At the end of the trail was San Josef Bay and the campsites at First Beach. The ground was a bit sandy for wheelchair ease, but the view made the discomfort worth it. The more difficult challenge was getting to the sites themselves, since the paths are quite narrow and overgrown, requiring serious assistance. There is no water source. Water can be obtained about 1 km away at the stream at Second Beach, but it must be filtered or boiled before drinking, and Second Beach is only accessible by a narrow path.
Although the outhouses at the trailhead in the parking lot were fully wheelchair accessible, the outhouse at the end of the trail, at the campground, wasn't. Oh, it was labelled with a wheelchair sign on the door, and it was bigger than usual. It even had grab bars inside. But it was situated on a concrete platform that was about 4" off of the ground. What were they thinking?
My biggest asset was a former Eagle Scout, who pushed me up hills, helped me brake down hills, refilled water bottles from the Second Beach stream, and made an extra trip to carry all of our camping gear—a double air mattress about 20" high, a large tent that fits this air mattress plus a wheelchair, a commode wheelchair, and a privacy tent that houses the wheelchair and serves as an outhouse.
Like most campsites, ours was on the edge of the rainforest, in big, beautiful trees. It was also right next to—and looking out at—the gorgeous San Josef Beach and Bay. There was one other group there the first night, but nobody else was there the second night. We had our own, private, beach-front campground.
We camped two nights, which gave us a full day to hike on the beach as far as we could go. We started a couple of hours before low tide and ended a couple of hours after it, so the water was way out, and there was sandy beach around the rocks for a long ways. With the Freedom Chair, I was able to go on most of the beach—including the rippled sand and even in the water. When the sand got soft and deep, however, the chair started sinking, and I needed help getting out. In fact, where the sand was too soft and deep, Ted had to drag me by the front wheel. I have since received a new pneumatic front wheel (thanks, Alex!), and hope to avoid this scenario in the future.
The biggest surprise were the sea stacks—tall rocks stacked in different shapes, which are usually seen sticking out of the water. Because it was low tide and the water was out, the rocks were coming out of the sand. In fact, the end of beach looked like a museum, and the rocks were the exhibits on display. We were able to wander through, enjoying them both close up and as a whole from afar.
Then it was back to our campsite in the trees. On the way out the next day, we were accompanied by a light, misty rain, allowing us to see the rainforest in its full glory. Despite the challenges, this may have been the best wheelchair hike yet!