Pan-fried Fish on the West Coast Trail

In August I hiked the West Coast Trail on Vancouver Island. I took a few pictures and made no notes—I couldn’t spare the attention. For the first three days, I talked to myself in the vocative case: “Stay focused. Step there, onto that slippery root. Pay attention! Aim for that rhomboid of dirt between those roots. Use your pole. Put your hand on that rock. Heave!”

The thing about the West Coast Trail is that footing is precarious. There are a hundred ways to have a bad accident, and rescue is difficult. Your body is your vehicle—your only way out—and you have to keep it working (pulled Achilles tendons, sore IT bands and strained knees notwithstanding). Only your legs will get you up those ladders; only your back can carry that pack.

We were eight women and one guide. Our guide, Matt, said, “Forget everything you know about time and distance. This is not Banff.” On the first day, it took us eight hours to hike six kilometers. Our average pack weight was 35 pounds. We clambered up hills of tree roots, inched across rock faces and slithered down muddy slopes. We arrived at our first camp in the rain and learned the joy of wet sand in our tents, in our boots, between our teeth.

We traveled from Gordon River, north to Pachena Bay, to get the worst part of the trail over with first. And it was bad. Deep mud, broken boardwalks, boulder fields. On day 4, things got easier—a long beach walk amongst tidal pools harbouring starfish, anemones and purple sea urchins. Sun and a cool breeze. Pelicans diving for fish. But even during the difficult days, the rewards were immense—the feeling of accomplishment after negotiating slippery boulders for two kilometers. The sight of a thousand gulls lifting, all at once, white and gold in the sun. Purple sky, as the sun went down and the moon rose.

We all had hard days; days our bodies failed us. On day 2, my friend Marg didn’t drink enough water and stumbled into camp with a raging headache and a complete inability to care for herself. Her niece helped her.

That same day, my tentmate Susan had an equipment fail: the soles fell off her boots. She and Matt jerry-rigged a system of cord and duct tape to keep her boots together. Other hikers donated duct tape and, on day 4, life-saving zip ties. Susan coped by leading the pack, not talking much, staying alone and focused. I can only imagine the strength of mind it took for her to keep going.

My bad day came on day 5, a 17-K day with a big treat in the middle, a stop at the Crab Shack, at Nitinaht Narrows, for crab and pan-fried fish and maybe even a beer. I woke up with everything hurting and a churning gut from five days of reconstituted dried food. Now, Matt was a fine and careful cook; he made all our meals from scratch and dried them himself. But dried food is dried food, and after five days, I couldn’t face breakfast. Bad mistake.

I was the last turtle in the herd that day, suffering a thousand small humiliations that nobody saw—slipping, stumbling, getting stuck under a log. By the time we reached the crab shack, I was exhausted, close to tears and completely without appetite.

I ordered a baked potato, downed an orange Gatorade and sat stunned on a stump while everyone else cracked beers and celebrated: Susan had found new boots. Shelley of the Crab Shack offered to sell her the brand-new size-8 Salomons, right off her feet (the fourth time this summer she’d rescued a hiker that way). Susan wept, and everyone cheered.

Helped by Gatorade, a baked potato and tidbits of crab and pan-fried haddock from other people’s plates, my spirits rose and my legs miraculously stopped hurting. Then Susan did me a great kindness. Uplifted by her new boots, she offered to carry our tent. Then it was my turn to weep.

Pan-cooked Salmon Filets
Yield: 6

Crab Shack-inspired Pan-cooked Salmon Filets with Brown Butter, Lemon and Capers


  • 1.5 lbs filet of sockeye salmon, skin on, sliced into six 4-oz servings
  • 1 Tbsp olive oil
  • 5 Tbsp butter, divided
  • 1 tsp grated lemon zest
  • 2 Tbsp lemon juice
  • 2 Tbsp capers


  1. Pat filets dry with a paper towel and sprinkle it with salt and pepper.        
  2. Heat oil and 1 tablespoon butter in a medium-sized cast-iron frying pan, over medium heat. When butter is sizzling, place filets in pan, skin-side down. Cook for 4     minutes.        
  3. Flip filets over and cook another 2 to 3 minutes, until flesh is golden brown.    
  4. Remove salmon filets to a serving plate, where it will continue cooking. Add remaining butter to the frying pan and cook for 2 to 3 minutes, until butter is browned, being careful not to burn the butter.    
  5. Remove pan from heat and add lemon juice, zest and capers, stirring to combine.        
  6. Pour evenly over salmon filets and serve immediately, accompanied by roasted root vegetables or stuffed baked potatoes and green salad.
Stuffed Baked Potatoes
Yield: 8

Stuffed Baked Potatoes


  • 4 large baking potatoes
  • 1 Tbsp olive oil
  • 4 Tbsp butter
  • 1 cup grated cheddar or parmesan cheese
  • 1/2 cup milk
  • 2 green onions, chopped
  • 2 slices of bacon, cooked and chopped


  1. Preheat oven to 425℉. Wash potatoes and dry them with paper towel. Coat potatoes with olive oil—the easiest way to do this is with your hands, rubbing oil over each one. Sprinkle with kosher salt. Prick skins two or three times with a fork.    
  2. Place potatoes directly on a rack set in the middle of the oven. Bake for about 1 hour, until the insides are thoroughly cooked, testing by poking with a fork. If the fork slides in easily, they’re done.    
  3. Remove potatoes from the oven and let rest for 10 to 15 minutes. Slice each one in half lengthwise. When cool enough to handle, scoop the insides into a bowl, leaving a     shell about 1/4-inch thick.    
  4. Mix butter and milk thoroughly into the potato. Stir in cheese, onions and bacon. Spoon the mixture back into the shells, return to the oven and bake until the tops are just beginning to brown. Remove from the oven and serve.

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