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Rotted West Coast Trail not a risk, park says

Sep 08 2012
Letter-writers have complained that parts of the West Coast Trail boardwalk are rotting and broken. 

Letter-writers have complained that parts of the West Coast Trail boardwalk are rotting and broken.

Photograph by: Darren Stone, Times Colonist , Times Colonist

Broken-down wooden boardwalks on Vancouver Island's famed West Coast Trail go with the territory when Pacific Rim National Park gets soaked with three metres of rain every year.

The deterioration does not pose undue danger, says a park manager, in response to letters sent to parks administration as well as the Times Colonist.

In one letter, Susan Jacobs of Victoria describes parts of the trail as "appalling," while Calgary physician David Swann called the boardwalk "treacherous, rotted, shifting and broken."

Renee Wissink, manager of resource conservation, says it's "fairly obvious" which sections hikers should just walk around. He considers a "bad bridge and no other option to cross" a far more serious problem.

Still, there is "definitely boardwalk that we're aware of that needs to be removed and we're working on that - including removing anything that's considered dangerous and then identifying areas for the work plan for next year that we need to concentrate on."

Swann said the trail should be closed until the problem is dealt with, in an effort to protect unsuspecting hikers.

His group included people who broke through parts of the boardwalk or fell due to crosspieces that only appeared to be intact.

This year, about 88 people have been rescued from the trail but only 37 of those were injured, mostly knee problems, twisted ankles, falls on roots and rocks.

Only five rescues could be attributed to slipping off a boardwalk or something similar, Wissink said.

The park employs five workers full-time on trail repairs. "Hopefully by the end of this season, our crews are going to have removed most of the worst of the boardwalk - At this point, no, we don't feel that there's any need to close the West Coast Trail."

Since the trail opened in 1973, much of boardwalk has been replaced, but 20 or 30 years of heavy rain has caused a lot of boardwalk laid in the 1970s and '80s to break down at the same time, which Wissink acknowledges is "a significant challenge."

The annual maintenance budget has gone up slightly to $1.28 million since 2000.

The climate makes it difficult to maintain wooden structures, and all supplies have to be helicoptered in between April and October when the work can still be done, Wissink said.

In 2010, a review of the trail asked tour companies, individuals and groups for their expectations of the trail. The main desire was for a certain standard of infrastructure, but a wild and rugged trail. The park tries to strike a balance.

It has been the busiest July in a decade, up three per cent from last year, when about 5,600 visitors visited the trail from May 1 to Sept. 30.

New approaches are under consideration for boardwalks. A narrower width could allow more walkway to be installed or replaced each year but still allow for a safe wilderness experience.

Most of the boardwalks are built over bogs or sensitive plant areas that can be trampled by people avoiding worn-out boardwalks.

The trail runs from Port Renfrew to Bamfield in the north. When workers or First Nations members encounter boardwalk that looks dangerous, they are supposed to remove it and identify the area for work.

Victoria's Wayne Aitken, co-author of Blisters and Bliss: A Trekker's Guide to the West Coast Trail, respects the opinion of trail detractors, but says he's more likely to hear hardcore hikers complain about conditions being "too good."

For anyone, "this is a very difficult back-country trek and you need to be aware of it." Many people see deteriorating boardwalks as a challenge, similar to slimy rocks, downed trees and crevasses, he says. "People come off that trail not saying, 'Gee you should have seen the boardwalk' - but, 'That was incredible.' "

kdedyna@timescolonist.com

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