words & photography :: Danielle Baker.
In 1911, 18-year-old Maggie Symonds found herself deposited from a ship on the flat rocks five miles southeast of Pachena Point on Vancouver Island along what is now the world-renowned West Coast Trail. Years later when she recounted her first impression of the uninviting and harsh coastal landscape that would be her home for the next three decades, she remembered thinking, ‘my God, what have I come to?’
Maggie Symonds was my great grandmother and over the next 35 years she would marry twice and raise five children in this unforgiving and often brutal wilderness. Many of the stories I would hear about her as a child centered around her resourcefulness; putting out a house fire with wet laundry, clubbing a cougar to death when two shots from a 12-guage shotgun didn’t take it down, and sheltering her children under a sturdy kitchen table during an accidental dynamite explosion.
Much of her survival would come to depend on her extensive registered trapline that ran from Tsusiat Falls north to Pachena Bay and extended half a mile inland from the coast – all within what is now the Pacific Rim National Park. We were told a story as children about a cabin that Maggie hand built on a small lake in this area that locals had named for her husband William. The story was about a bear who got in the cabin and tore everything apart. Depending on who was doing the telling and how many ciders they’d had, the story would end there or include a part about Maggie surprising the bear and facing it down. The latter was not implausible. Having explored the West Coast Trail in search of our family’s homestead previously, my cousin Sarah and I became determined to find this cabin. In part, we were motivated to know this impressive woman who had passed before either of us were born. No living family member had ever seen the cabin, so we pieced together sections of old maps and guide books with details from the stories we’d been told. It became clear that the best way to access the small lake we were after would be through an old canoe and portage route.
In the only photo I have of her, she’s standing in front of Tsusiat falls—a day’s hike from her home—wearing a skirt and looking the exact opposite of how I felt now. I resolved to suck it up and keep going.
Traditionally a 38-kilometre trip, the Nitinat Triangle links together Nitinat, Hobiton, Tsusiat, and Little Tsusiat lakes with the final portage intersecting the West Coast Trail at Tsusiat Falls before finishing with an ocean paddle back through the Nitinat Narrows to the starting point. However, prepared with individual inflatable packrafts that compress down small enough to carry on our backpacks, we planned to deviate from the route to find the cabin and then to hike north from the falls and finish in Bamfield instead.
Over a century since Maggie first arrived here, Sarah and I, along with our partners Dane and Stu, set out to discover her legacy. Despite a torrential downpour, we launched our rafts at daybreak from the head of Nitinat Lake. A popular destination for kiteboarders, a reliable westerly wind quickly whips its placid surface into a steep chop by mid-morning—something we needed to avoid.
For two-and-a-half hours, the lake boiled around us as the rain doubled and then tripled in intensity. I was swimming in my raft as the water crept up around me. We all improvised as best we could, bailing with cans and bags—Dane simply paddled ashore and flipped his raft over. The rain continued, falling in sheets and blocking our starting point from view. Eventually we gave up on bailing and focused on finding out portage route.
Sarah was first to spot the small white buoy that marked the start of the trail along the shore. Already drenched to the core, we deflated our rafts and strapped them, along with our paddles and lifejackets, to our packs and began the hike. I was doubtful—the trail looked more like a healthy flowing river. While I didn’t love the extra weight my soggy raft added to my pack, the benefit was in not having to make two trips for each portage as is customary with canoes. I stopped for a minute, frustrated with my clumsy steps over slippery terrain, with my short legs, with the way my toque wouldn’t stay out of my eyes—and as I tried to adjust it, I felt more cold rain leaking in around my collar. There I was in my wool layers and Gore-Tex jacket, with waterproof hiking boots and a custom fit backpack. What would Maggie think if I were to complain now? She had been just 4’11 in cork boots she’d had custom made for her tiny feet. In the only photo I have of her, she’s standing in front of Tsusiat falls—a day’s hike from her home—wearing a skirt and looking the exact opposite of how I felt now. I resolved to suck it up and keep going.
Our intention that first day was to reach the end of Hobiton Lake. We had carefully designed our timeline in order to sandwich this trip into the only four days our busy schedules allowed. But once on the lake, we realized the camping areas described in all the reading we had done— three main sites with room for 10 or more tents—had disappeared under the rising, rain flooded lake. We paddled the shore looking for places to camp but even the boughs of the giant cedar trees dipped into the water and the tangle of undergrowth left nowhere to tent. Eventually we backtracked to a small, barely exposed, gravel spit we’d passed earlier and with just enough area for our two tents and a small fire, we set up camp.
For dinner we tried our luck at cooking bannock— a mixture of flour, salt, baking powder and water. Essentially fire-roasted paper maché dough, bannock had been a mainstay of our great grandmother’s when attending her trapline. As Sarah and I toasted our bread on sticks over the fire, Dane tried to dry out his wet clothing. We laughed as we took turns guessing whether it was steam or smoke rising from his shirt—frequently it was both. Stu drew a line in the gravel to monitor the lake levels and we watched the water creep towards it (and our tents) as we ate dinner. The levels continued to rise and by the time we crawled into our sleeping bags, the area we had used to cook dinner was entirely underwater.
Morning brought promising specks of blue sky as we paddled the remaining length of Hobiton Lake and began the portage connecting towards Tsusiat Lake. Although wrought with slippery log crossings over pits of mud, the
trail wound through towering old growth trees and a shimmering sea of deep green ground cover. It was as beautiful as it was challenging. At the edge of Tsusiat Lake the thick dark forest canopy gave way to squat crabapple trees. I recalled a description of my great grandma’s travels along her trapline and the difficulty she had maneuvering these thick sections of wild fruit trees. My heart lifted. We were getting close.
The sun shone through the open patches and warmed my face. I felt at home in the familiarity of this place that I only knew from stories. But as I turned the last corner and glimpsed the lake, the wind hit me. Our plan was to paddle half the length of the lake and search for an overgrown trail connecting us to William Lake. There, we would find what remained of Maggie’s cabin. As we inflated our rafts, the waves began to kick up on the lake’s surface. A couple hours into paddling with little progress, willing ourselves not to look at the seemingly static shoreline, all the delays began to catch up with us. The realization that we wouldn’t achieve our goal hit me. We had lost too much time with our unexpected challenges. Maggie’s cabin had slipped just out of our reach.
Each time I dropped my paddle to wipe away the tears, I lost any progress made. Only the necessity to drive forward and find our way back to civilization kept me from surrendering to bigger, snottier, more crippling sobs. I continued paddling into the wind and towards the fog bank that was now obscuring the end of the lake and Sarah and Dane with it.
By the time we regrouped in a protected lagoon, dusk was closing in overtop of the fog and once again we had nowhere to sleep. We searched for over an hour without luck. We considered padding blindly across the lake but suspected we wouldn’t find any options there either. Finally, we came upon a tiny island with a stunted patch of forest, and a small exposed rock area.
That night we huddled over our little campfire attempting to dry out our boots and giggling with exhaustion over the ridiculousness of it all until the thick fog rain drove us into our tents. Out of options, but to sleep in our smoky layers of soggy clothing we were each grateful for the comforts we had. Maggie’s nights in this area, as documented through interviews by author Richard E. Wells, had frequently been spent outdoors sleeping on reed mats and were accompanied by complaints of fleas and mice. We had air mattresses and down sleeping bags, and exhaustion fuelled a good night’s sleep.
The far edges of the lake were still obscured in the morning as we paddled to the end of Tsusiat Lake, crossed the rolling logs of a sprawling log jam with our packs and rafts, and navigated the final water crossing of our trip across Little Tsusiat Lake. After this we would intersect the West Coast Trail at Tsusiat Falls and take another day and a half to hike the final 25 kilometres into Bamfield.
On our last night, we camped at Tscowis Creek—this was where Maggie had spent her first night when she arrived here in 1911. Sarah and I walked to the stream at the end of the beach, and I felt the heaviness of disappointment creep in on me. We had failed. I had hoped somehow that by finding the cabin, I would find a connection to this woman who I’d come to admire so much. I sat for a moment at the edge of the water and thought about the story of our diminutive matriarch shoving her shotgun up the nose of an overly persistent suiter. She had promised him that if there was a next time the gun would be loaded. I thought about how she dove in the ocean to save a drowning child even though she couldn’t swim, and all the years she had survived this severe and sometimes cruel coastline.
Gathering water from a stream Maggie had undoubtedly used generations ago, I felt some of the connection we’d come looking for. Sure, we hadn’t killed a cougar or built our own canoe, but we had survived on her turf, and maybe the familiarity was in the challenge and not the location. Perhaps simply sharing this experience had made us more like her than finding the cabin ever could have.
The next day we would be back to the conveniences of our regular lives. We would be warm and dry and shopping for dinner. But for just a little while longer, I could live in Maggie’s world where the only choice is the one that keeps you moving forward. An existence that doesn’t have room for the luxury of feeling badly over missed opportunities. In that moment I knew the cabin didn’t matter. That over the last few days we had been as close to Maggie as we ever could be, and I hoped that we had made her proud. —ML