Cape Scott Provincial Park

cape-scott-wave-crashingCape Scott Provincial Park is a 21,849 hectare, rugged coastal wilderness at the northwest tip of Vancouver Island.

Just under 600 kilometers from Victoria, the park was established in 1973, and is named for Cape Scott, site of a lighthouse that has guided mariners since 1960. Cape Scott was named in 1786 after David Scott by Captains Guise and Lowrie of the Experiment and the Captain Cook during their 1786 trading voyage to the area. Scott, a merchant of Bombay, was one of the principal backers of the voyage.

The park is characterized by 64 kilometers of spectacular ocean frontage, including about 23 kilometers of beaches, running from Nissen Bight in the north to San Josef Bay in the south. Rocky promontories and headlands intersperse wide sandy beaches. Nels Bight, about midway between the eastern boundary of the park near Nissen Bight and the Cape Scott Lighthouse, is a fine-textured white sand beach, 2,400 meters long and 210 meters wide and considered to be the most impressive of the nine beaches in the park.

Upland areas of the park are heavily forested with red and yellow cedar, lodgepole pine, hemlock and fir. Near Nissen Bight and Hansen Lagoon are concentrations of spruce. Undergrowth is mostly salal, salmonberry, evergreen huckleberry and fern. The highest point in Cape Scott Provincial Park is Mount St. Patrick which rises 415 meters above sea level. Eric Lake, 44 hectares, is the largest body of fresh water.

Hansen Lagoon is a stopping place for Canada geese and a variety of waterfowl traveling the Pacific Flyway. The ubiquitous gull and other sea birds frequent the shoreline. Deer, elk, black bear, otter, cougars and wolves are in evidence in the forested and open uplands, while seals and sea lions inhabit offshore islands.

The heavy rainfalls and violent windstorms of the Cape Scott area have shaped its history. Annual precipitation, almost totally in the form of rain, is between 375 and 500 centimeters. Even in summer, prolonged sunny periods are a rarity. High winds, rain and generally stormy conditions can be expected at any time of the year.

A combination of weather conditions, distance from markets, and lack of suitable access routes spelled the death knell of two settlement attempts. In 1897 and again in 1910, hardy Danish pioneers arrived at Hansen Lagoon to settle, raise corps and to fish. After several years of hardship, they were forced by the elements of nature and conditions beyond their control to give up their struggles and leave.

Today, little remains of the Danish settlement except the names – Nels Bight, Hansen Lagoon, Frederiksen Point – and a few fragile buildings and other man-made relics. The unrelenting forces of nature have exacted their retribution, but the memory of the pioneers’ ordeals lingers still.

Cape Scott Provincial Park is wilderness. It preserves truly magnificent areas of coastal British Columbia. Visitors can expect to find little development except trails. Anyone contemplating a visit should be prepared for adverse weather conditions which are the rule all year rather than the exception. There is no best time to visit the park, although mid-summer is generally preferred.

The Nahwitti-Shushartie coastal corridor has recently been added to the park. This 6,750 hectare strip is undeveloped. Some historic heritage trails exist within this new park area but these are not well defined. Access at this time is generally by boat at major river estuaries.

How to get There

Trails provide the only access into Cape Scott. A parking lot at the Cape Scott and San Josef Bay trailhead near the southeast corner of the park is on Western Forest Products’ land and is provided by the company for the convenience of parks users. The lot is reached by a combination of public highways and private, active logging roads from Port Hardy, a distance of approximately 70 kilometers. Port Hardy is the northern terminus of Highway 19 which connects with island communities south to Victoria and the southern summer terminus of the British Columbia Ferries service to Prince Rupert on the mainland. Port Hardy is also served by regularly scheduled air and bus lines.

The History of Cape Scott

Three native peoples – the Tlatlasikwala, Nakumgilisala and Yutlinuk – shared the Cape Scott area prior to white settlement. The Yutlinuk of the Cape Scott Islands died out in the early 1800s. The Nakumgilisala and Tlatasikwala amalgamated in the mid 1850s and moved to Hope Island where they remained until 1954. That year, numbering only 32, they joined with the Koskimo people and moved south to Quatsino Sound. Today they are known collectively as the Nahwitti, with six reserves, two within the boundaries of Cape Scott Provincial Park.

From 1897 to 1907, the first white settlement attempt was made at Cape Scott. The setters were Danes, mostly from Minnesota, Iowa, Nebraska and North Dakota looking to establish an ethnic community around Hansen Lagoon and Fisherman Bay. The colony hoped to subsist initially on fishing until the government followed through on its agreement to build a road from Fisherman Bay to San Josef River and on to Holberg. The road would provide the link necessary to get the beef and dairy products the settlers were to produce to market. Unfortunately, the road never materialized. The colony struggled to survive by fishing and trapping mink, river otter and beaver. Eventually, trapping petered out and the men were forced to leave to fish at Rivers Inlet on the mainland or to work in mines or logging camps. By 1907, the settlers had acknowledged the failure of their colony and plans were made for departure.

The population of the area between Cape Scott and Holberg numbered less than 60 in 1909. By 1913, another wave of settlers had arrived from Washington State, the prairie provinces, Eastern Canada and Europe to occupy land available for pre-emption. Many of these settlers established themselves in homes vacated by the Danes near Hansen Lagoon. Others took up land and built homes at Fisherman Bay and San Josef Bay. The population of the second settlement peaked at over 1,000 in 1913. Thereafter, it declined as the residents once again encountered the same hardships as the Danes had experienced. Conscription in 1917 for service in the First World War brought an end to the community for a second time and soon it was virtually deserted.

Requirements of national security during World War II led to the construction of a small radar station at Cape Scott in 1942. It remained in operation until 1945.

Today remnants of human activity can be seen throughout Cape Scott Provincial Park. Be careful when exploring historical sites. Rusting tools and implements, dilapidated buildings and old wells can be hazardous. Do no remove any artifacts.

Cape Scott Trails

Many sections of the trails in Cape Scott Provincial Park are extremely muddy and difficult to traverse. Visitors should be equipped for wet weather. High-topped leather or rubber boots should be carried and proper hiking boots should be worn. There are boardwalk sections on the trails. These can be extremely slippery when wet. Use caution.

The park offers some short hikes, taking less than an hour. To reach the lighthouse, eight hours are recommended. Most people, however, spend two to three days exploring the park. Below are approximate good-weather hiking times, with the starting point being the parking lot:

San Josef Bay 2.5 km 3/4 hr
Eric Lake 3 km 1 hr
Fisherman River 9.3 km 3 hrs
Hansen Lagoon* 14.7 km 5 hrs
Nissen Bight 15 km 5.5 hrs
Nels Bight 16.8 kms 6 hrs
Experiment Bight 18.9 kms 6.5 hrs
Guise Bay 20.7 kms 7 hrs
Cape Scott Lighthouse 23.6 kms 8 hrs
* Hansen Lagoon should be crossed by using the bridge at the eastern end of the meadow and then proceeding on the high-tide trails located on the northern edge of Hansen Lagoon to Nels Bight. From San Josef Bay, trails lead to Sea Otter Cove via the summit of Mount St. Patrick. The 10-kilometer hike takes about five hours. The beach at Sea Otter Cove is only passable at mid to low tide. It is about two kilometers from the cove to Lowrie Bay.

NOTE: Hiking times may be considerably longer in inclement weather or when trails are muddy.

Some Points of Interest
  • Henry Ohlsen home, store and post office (1908-1944). Follow the trail to San Josef Bay. Only a few rotting planks and rusting relics remain.
  • Sea stacks and sea caves. Accessible at low tide. Located between First and Second beach on San Josef Bay.
  • Remnant of the 1908 corduroy road which connected the south end of Eric Lake with the San Josef store and post office.
  • The wharf on Eric Lake. Served as a transportation link during peak years of population.
  • Giant Sitka spruce. On the east side of the trail, 20 minutes north of the Eric Lake camping area. The tree measures over seven meters in circumference.
  • Telegraph line. The federal government ran a telegraph line into Cape Scott in 1913. The old line may be seen in open areas along the trail.
  • Remains of the Donaldson farm and youth crew cabin used by BC Parks youth crews during trail improvements in 1979.
  • The remains of an old sailing vessel sunk as a breakwater.
  • Boiler lodged in a riverbank. The boiler was used in either a milk condensery or sawmill.
  • Tractor. The first motorized machine used at Cape Scott is lodged between two trees on the north side of the trail.
  • Cougar trap. In the sandneck is a wood A-frame structure used as a cougar trap by the Jensen children. A cougar was captured and held for 10 minutes.
  • Native midden. Bleached shell and bone mark the remnants of a native food fishing site at the west end of Experiment Bight.
  • Cape Scott lighthouse. Built in 1960.
A Warning Before You Go

Anyone contemplating a visit to Cape Scott Provincial Park should note that the park is a wilderness area without supplies or equipment of any kind. Most trails are primitive and very muddy. Holberg, a tiny village to the east on the road from Port Hardy, is the nearest settlement. All park visitors should have suitable maps.

You need to be prepared for adverse weather conditions. A good tent with a waterproof fly is imperative. Clothing, sleeping bags and food should be kept in waterproof bags. A small primus-type stove should be carried for cooking since suitable firewood is in short supply. Wear sealed, broken-in hiking boots that provide good traction and support. Proper rain-gear must be carried. Torrential rains can be expected at any time and may last for days. A basic first-aid kit should be carried and insect repellent is recommended. A hiking stick should be carried to probe quagmires and mud.

Please be careful with fire. Primus-type stoves should be used for all cooking. Campfires should be made from driftwood ONLY, kept small and confined to existing sites.

Boil or treat all drinking water. Fresh water is available at San Josef Bay, Nels Bight, Nissen Bight and Guise Bay. Drinking water IS NOT available at the lighthouse. While it is recommended that you camp on the beach whenever feasible, be careful of incoming tides and contamination of drinking water.

If you plan to take your dog, remember that pets must be on a leash and under control at all times when in a provincial park. Roaming pets may aggravate wildlife, including black bears, into an attack.

Don’t litter. Pack out all garbage. Do not wash food, clean fish, dishes or clothing in streams, as they are sources of drinking water. Use the ocean for all washing. Bury human waste. If you choose to erect a temporary shelter from the elements, dismantle it entirely when you are through and return the site to its natural state.

If you plan to fish, be aware that a licence must be obtained before entering the park. Periodically, ‘red tide’ contaminates shellfish with a potentially fatal poison. Check with the Department of Fisheries and Oceans in Port Hardy to ensure there is no red tide occurrence.

Hiking along the coast is dangerous and not recommended unless you follow designated beach routes. When hiking along beach routes watch for suspended floats and buoys indicating access to trails. No attempt should be made to traverse undesignated coastal areas at high tide or when tides are incoming. Carry and know how to use an area tide book.