When we arrived in West-Canada I had no clue I would end up 24 hours later in Strathcona National Park next to my boyfriend … in a floating tent during a rainstorm. My shoes would be soaking wet five days straight. I would hang on for my life on some branches over a cliff. I would walk over a slippery metal bar 7 feet above a fierce river. I would climb rocks defying gravity. Tears ran down my cheeks because of the fear. Yes, I risked my life hiking to Della Falls, but at the same time I felt so alive!
Vancouver Island and the boat trip to Strathcona NP
We spent countless hours of research only to find out there was just one man, Ben Potter, who could take us to the start of the trail. You see, the Della Falls trailhead can only be reached by a 1h boat ride over the Great Central Lake. But first we take the ferry from Vancouver to the beautiful Vancouver Island. Up until then no one suspected the dangers that lay ahead.
With our rental car we drive up to the shores of the Great Central Lake. There are some small shivers running down my back when I get on the rinky dink boat that has to carry us over 28 miles on sloshing water and under increasingly blacker clouds. Ben Potter is having some second thoughts about safety. But we, 5 young adventurers, are here to see Della Falls no matter what!
He grimaces slightly right before his trademark big smile comes back and hands us some extra canvas to protect us from the cold rain. In three days time he will pick us up again on this exact same spot … or sound the alarm if we don’t show up. Reassuring to know.
When we see Ben Potter sail away, our only human contact for three days disappears from sight. There’s no one else on the trail and we have no signal whatsoever.
The hike up to Della Falls
The first hour on the trail we hardly see any rain. So with big strides and a happy feeling we put as much Della Falls Trail behind us. The surroundings are varied. We walk through a thick and wet canopy of leafs, cross rivers by climbing over fallen trees or skip from one boulder to the other. Sometimes there’s no other way than to cross the water barefooted. We enjoy ourselves tremendously and look forward to our three weeks of Canada.
After lunch the weather changes completely. All of a sudden we’re trapped in an ugly rain shower. There’s no place to hide or camp. So we do the only sensible thing we can do: walk on.
With our top-heavy backpacks it’s hard to balance the slippery stones in the rivers. The waters keep rising and those lovely rivers turn nasty, flooding parts of the trail. It doesn’t take very long for me to lose my balance completely and fill up my shoes with ice-cold water.
Cable rides and slippery bridges
When we reach the infamous cable rides of the Della Falls Trail the rains let up for a brief moment. The cable ride is a metal cart hanging 65 feet over a swirling river. There’s room for two, but with our large backpacks we go one by one pulling ourselves to the other side. The ride is quite stable and makes for a welcome change of pace after all the (wet) walking we did.
After that the torrents resume harder than ever. The trail under these conditions not only is physically challenging, but also mentally. Soon after the carts we, reach two small metal bars lying over that same swirling river. The railing is completely bent out of shape, so no handholds at all. And the surface is slippery as hell. We all know instantly that whoever falls the six feet down would be done for.
I keep my eyes firmly fixed on the other side and hold my breath when I cross. I’m lucky I have quite a good balance. The crossing is much harder for my companions. I’ve never before (or after) seen my partner afraid, but here. It takes a good while before everyone eventually steps on the little bridge. Time to move on.
Rocks, precipices and … Della Falls!
The trail becomes harder and harder. The rain makes every rocky surface slippery. At one point we have to vertically climb a rock wall where the river flooded the trail and I’m afraid I’ll lose my grip and fall backwards in the water. You see, I’m too small to reach for every safe grip. A good balance won’t help me here, I need longer arms!
Visibly shaken I resume the path along one of the many precipices and I lose my precious balance! Just in time I can reach for some roots to stop my rapid descent. My backpack cuts into my shoulders. Luckily my partner and his brother have lightning reflexes and manage to pull my up again before things take a turn for the worst. Disaster avoided.
The constant fear of falling is weighing heavy and I have to fight my demons every step. More often than not I want to turn back and flee for safety, but every time I muster the strength to go on. Step by step. Obstacle after obstacle. Even during these dark and dangerous moments I realise how special this hike to Della Falls is. I just know these moments are legend in the making, to be told around a campfire. I’m proud of myself and my companions for conquering our fears.
We reach the snowline and enter a winter wonderland. I’m the first one to notice. I’m the first one to stop in my tracks and cry out: DELLA FALLS! In the distance, covered in a layer of fog I see the outlines of two big waterfalls. We’re overwhelmed by joy!
Mudflows, irrigation canals and mortal fear
Soon after our discovery we find a place to put up our tents. And here the canvasses Ben Potter gave us turn out to be our saviours. We put them up between the trees to act as a roof for our tents and shelter for the rain. The quest for fire isn’t as successful, as every branch and twig is soaking wet. I crawl in my sleeping bag and fall into a dreamless sleep.
It’s four in the morning when both my partner and I wake up realising our tent is floating. He gets up from the tent and starts digging irrigation canals under our tent with his axe! Things you have to do to stay dry!
At 6AM we decide it’s no use to stay up at the falls and we decide to pack up and walk down again. The same way, the same obstacles. We’re just well up on our feet when my partner utters the ominous words: “Be careful, I don’t want anyone to die. Especially not Marijke!” The tension is nerve wrecking.
At the vertical climb over the water I get stuck and panic. Luckily my brother in law is nearby to avoid a big splash. The slippery bridges also add to the drama again. It’s a miracle everyone safely reaches the other side. A hastily packed backpack swings dangerously from one side to the other, almost throwing one of my companions out of balance. After this the hard part is over.
It gets continuously drier when we walk down. On top of the mountain we were trapped in a non-stop raincloud wanting to flush us down badly. But now we’re leaving it safely behind and we all start to relax. The hiking gets easier. We don’t bother to take of our shoes like before to reach the other side of rivers and we all start to laugh again. Gradually we come to realise what we just experienced and what kind of dangers we faced. But also the big adventure that’s settling in our minds. Everyone who’ll hear this story won’t be able to fully comprehend our hike through hell and back, not really.
The campfire sizzles at the lakeside and draws a constant crowd of five. Even though we were all there, the tales must be told again and again. To Ben Potter who was mightily relieved to see us alive and well. To my mother in law who could’t take the calamities her two sons experienced. To other travellers who we hope make the hike up to Della Falls themselves sometime. And to ourselves. To remind us of the strength we can find to overcome our obstacles when the need arises.
Disclaimer: we hiked the Della Falls Trail during a very bad time. In the summer of 2013 there was many flooding in Canada, because of the heavy rainfall combined with the profuse meltwater. This turned the Drinkwater Creek, the river you follow up to Della Falls, into a swirling river that regularly flooded the trail. When you do the trail during normal summer weather, there are little to no obstacles and you’ll have a great time strolling up to the falls!