Sunday, March 30, 2014

Waitukubuli National Trail

March, 2014 - My brother Jim first became aware of the Waitukubuli National Trail (WNT) last year from some fellow runners. It sounded like a worthy adventure to him so he enlisted Marvin Hall and I to join him on the trek across the island of Dominica. The trail starts at the southern tip of the island at Scott’s Head and traverses the island a couple times, spending time inland in the rain forest and also along the Atlantic and Caribbean coasts, before ending at the bay of Portsmouth on the western coast. The web site for the trail lists it at 115 miles, but when you add up the mileages for each segment (there are 14 segments), it comes to 91 miles. This discrepancy would become an issue for us, but more on that later.

Our plan was to run the entire trail in 4 days, with mileages ranging from 15 to 27 miles per day (3 or 4 segments each day). We had lodging in guest houses lined up along the trail so when we finished our last segment each day we would be close to our lodging for the night. We would fly down to the island on Saturday, spend Sunday through Wednesday running, enjoy the beach Wednesday evening, and then fly back on Thursday. Jim had connected with a local taxi operator, Kurell Vidal, and she helped us make the necessary arrangements for lodging and food and would taxi us back and forth to the airport.

"Suitcase" for 6 days (along with the clothes on my back).
We planned to pack everything we would need in our hydration packs. Basically this included, a change of running clothes (shorts, shirt, socks), Body Glide, some first aid stuff, a lightweight shell top and bottom, water filter (to purify water from the island streams for drinking), a camera (and charger), cell phone (and charger), binoculars (just me), flashlight, toothbrush, passport, credit cards and money. My pack was completely full. We were going to pack one bag with a change of clothes and shoes for the trip home. We also had sunscreen and some other stuff in that bag. We packed so if the bag didn’t make it we would still be okay (one of our smarter moves).

Our flight plan took us from Philadelphia Airport to San Juan, Puerto Rico, on USAir, and then directly from there to Dominica on Iliat Airlines. Dominica does not have an international airport so only a prop plane will get you to the island. Sounds simple, right?

Then it all went to heck. The week before we were to fly out, I received an email that our flights had changed and we would now be connecting from San Juan to Antigua and then to Dominica. I thought, “no big deal.” We would still be on Dominica by 6pm on Saturday. We got to Philadelphia Airport on Saturday morning and there was the largest line to check-in I had ever seen (I had tried to check in the night before but USAir didn’t let me do it). We finally got through that and then had a huge line for security. As soon as I got my shoes back on, I ran to our gate, as it was just a few minutes before flight time. The USAir person was in the process of closing the ramp door. I got there first and tried to stall until Jim and Marvin could catch up. JIm came half a minute later but no Marvin. Finally, the lady told us we either needed to go down the ramp or miss the flight. Jim and I walked down the ramp, figuring that Marvin was going to miss it. As we were waiting, to actually step on the plane, Marvin finally comes up behind us. He had, of course, stopped to go to the bathroom. Needless to say he received an appropriate thrashing from us.
Marvin waiting in Antigua airport.

Then the airplane sat on the tarmac for 2 hours as the pilot was “waiting for paperwork.” We finally left, got in to San Juan, and once again had to run through the airport, hunting for the well-hidden terminal “A”. We finally found out and everyone else had already boarded, but the lady radioed out and then walked us to the plane so we just made it. We knew our bag had no chance of making the flight.

We got to Antigua and the long wait began. Our flight kept being delayed. It was supposed to leave at 5pm but finally at about 8:30pm we got word that they were bringing in another plane and it would be able to get us to Dominica by closing time, 10pm. As we lined up to board the plane at 9pm, they stopped the line two people in front of us and said there is no more room. Nice. They ended up putting us up in a motel on the island and said they would have us to Dominica by 8:30am the next morning. That is when Marvin suggested that Liat stands for “Left in Antigua Terminal.” When we got back to the airport at 4:30am the next morning all of their computers were down. They were handwriting board passes and had to rely on handwritten notes to know what to do with us. To make a long story somewhat shorter, the flight we were supposed to take was full (probably because of hand-writing boarding passes) so we got bumped again and had to fly to St. Lucia, then to Barbados, and finally back to Dominica. We did get into the Dominica Airport around noon. We put in a request to send our missing bag to our taxi driver and she loaded us up and drove us down towards Scott’s Head.
Start of the trail at Scotts Head (southern point).

We knew we wouldn’t get started running until about 2pm. Marvin decided to have her drop him off at our place of lodging for the night, and then he would run back on the trail and hope to meet up with us. Jim and I went on to Scott’s Head, and with about 4 hours of daylight left, were going to attempt to run 27 miles with 7,000 feet of climbing. I knew we would be finishing in the darkness and I was the only one who had brought a flashlight, so we borrowed one from our taxi driver. I was not ready to give up on the idea of running the whole trail, despite Liat Airlines conspiring against us.

Well, we started Segment 1 and soon saw signs that Segment 1 was closed due to a landslide. Our taxi driver was already gone and we figured we could find a way around it. We soon came to the landslide and did have to do a little scrambling but were able to continue on the trail. Then near the top of that first climb, we had to cross the landslide again, and there was no hope of doing so. We just started climbing straight up the mountain and hoped we could cross at the top and pick up the trail again. It was some tricky climbing and at one point I kicked up a football-sized rock down at my brother. It missed him but then I heard it crashing down the mountain and getting louder and louder as it picked up more rocks. I was glad there was no one else beneath us. I was a little more careful until we finally crested the top. We were able to pick up the trail again and kept going.
Bridge on Segment 1 (landslide under bridge).

This first day we discovered that the trail was largely unrunnable, and I’m one who believes that about anything is runnable. I would say that more than 50% of the WNT is not runnable safely. This first day, near the Caribbean Ocean, it was because it was too steep up or down. As we moved inland into the rainforest, it was because it was too wet with moss-covered rocks and roots and was just too dangerous to do anything but hike for fear of slipping and cracking one’s head open. There are some sections, however, where you can open it up and there are a fair amount of road sections, although often very steep as well, where you can run.

Jim and I got to the end of Section 2 that first day and darkness was falling. We had about 14 miles in and knew we weren’t halfway yet, so we were seriously doubting the accuracy of the segment distances. We were looking at getting into our lodging very late, probably at least 11pm. The trail is decently marked from South to North (the other way is another story), but there are many places, especially in small towns, where it is tough to follow and the turns aren’t marked very well in many cases. The dream of doing the whole thing died hard with me so we set out down Segment 3. We turned on our flashlights and tried to find the markings. I thought that the night running would be good training for the Massanutten 100, which we are both signed up for, but I soon began to be worried that the trail would be harder to stay on than I hoped. Jim was trying to convince me of that fact, and soon I had to agree. We turned around and ran back to the little town at the start of the segment. We convinced two guys to taxi us to our lodging for the night (a 45 minute ride, as no car ride is short on this island). Marvin was not back yet (this was 7:30pm) so I decided to run down Segment 4 and see if I could find him. I said I would be back in 30 minutes and I didn’t run into him so I had to turn around. Our host wanted to call the Park Rangers to go find him but I figured he would probably find a way back so we waited. Soon he did pull in. He had waited for us for awhile, and then finally found someone to taxi him back.

Myself, Marvin, Jim, Carla Armour and
assistant at the Harmony Villa.
Our first night was spent at the Harmony Villa with our generous host Carla Armour. It is a nice place in the woods with a large porch that is perfect for hanging out on and where we ate our meals. It is about a half a mile from the end of Segment 4. We got up in the morning, ate a big delicious breakfast, Carla packed us some cheese sandwiches, and we were on our way by 8:30am.

Typical single-track. The maintainers of the WNT have a
constant battle against the encroaching jungle.
Segment 5 runs through the middle of the island in the rain forest and the footing is perilous. Wet rocks and roots with moss on them were the norm for most of this leg. There were some beautiful sections but very little of it was runnable because of it being so slippery. If it hadn’t been wet, we could have made pretty good time. Towards the end of this section, as we approached the Atlantic side of the island, it was much drier, but the heat started to come through. I was showing a temperature in the lower 90s on my watch and it certainly felt like it.

Marvin was struggling a little with the temperature and kept telling Jim and I to go on as he didn’t think he was going to be able to keep up a decent pace. We were reluctant to do so, but stubborn bugger that he is (you know it is true, Marvin), he finally sat down until we would continue without him. We moved on and figured he would probably eventually catch a ride to our next guest house.

We stopped at a little “restaurant/bar” (we saw many of these along the way and they were basically 15’x15’ simple buildings with some drinks and a few snacks) at the start of Segment 6 and split a soda that really hit the spot. One of the locals there tried to convince us to buy him a soda also but we had limited cash and resisted his badgering. Segment 6 had much more pavement in it as it mixed in trail sections with roads through little seaside villages. We lost the trail a couple times as the markings through the paved sections are a little sketchy.

For some reason, we encountered a lot of bulls
tethered to the trail. It was a little unsettling. I always talked
to them to placate them and then carefully walked by them
while Jim bushwhacked a new trail out of their reach.
As we kept going and the miles piled up, we realized these two segments were going to be much longer than advertised. It was supposed to be 16.5 miles but I ended up with about 23 miles for the two segments. The fortunate thing was that we were supposed to run 3 sections today but Jim had made a mistake when he arranged the lodging and we were actually staying at the end of the second segment. This was good because we were hot and tired when we got to the Hibiscus Valley Lodge. Marvin was already there as he had dehydrated and eventually paid a local to take him to the lodge.

The Hibiscus Valley Lodge is a nice facility with numerous small duplex cabins. The three of us split a room with two beds. There is a nice covered balcony/bar where we relaxed and I pounded Coca-Colas with ice. There is little finer after a hot run. I also got some great pictures of a mama hummingbird feeding her baby about six feet away from the railing. It was amazing.

Marvin taking a break at Emerald Falls on day 2.
We decided to change our plans further to cut the next two days short, with our new-found knowledge of the lengths and toughness of the segments. After looking at the map, we canceled our reservations for the third night, which were in the middle of the island, and instead switched them to the Portsmouth Beach Hotel, where we were just supposed to spend the fourth night.

The jungle taking back the trail.
This is actually the "trail." It wasn't this way
too often, fortunately.
After breakfast the next morning, our host at Hibiscus Valley drove us to Portsmouth, a port city on the Caribbean side of the island, where we were able to check in for the next two nights. The plan was to run an out-and-back on segments 11 and 10 (reverse order). I wanted to get in at least 10 miles but I wasn’t sure what we would encounter. We knew there would be a good climb as the trail went up one of the highest peaks on the island. We got ready to run and then stopped at a local restaurant and had some pizza before we got going.

We started out from Portsmouth and had to cut through the woods a half mile or so on the edge of town to pick up the trail. After studying a map, I had convinced Marvin and Jim that this would be possible and they skeptically agreed with my plan. I was right, however, and soon we were beginning a punishing ascent of segment 11. The climb included a number of places where we had to use our hands to get up and it was clear that it was going to be slow going. Marvin again convinced us to go on ahead, so we did, and we eventually got to a more gradual uphill that we could run. This part was very wet and muddy jeep trail but we could make pretty good time. It was somewhat monotonous, however, with little change in scenery for awhile.

We finally got to the start of segment 11, and there was a pavilion there and parking area with some other people milling around. I didn’t have my 5 miles in yet (I needed another half mile) but Jim was content to wait for me there so I went running up the end of segment 10 through some kind of fruit orchard. When I came back through, he was talking with some people and it turns out that it was a group from Chicago and they had seen the Chicago Marathon shirt he was wearing so they had struck up a conversation. We hung out for a few minutes and chatted and then headed back to the beach. When we got back to Portsmouth we were so hungry and thirsty that we stopped at a grocery store before we were back and bought cold sodas and food to eat then as well as stuff for breakfast in the morning. We walked back to the motel eating and drinking our loot.

A Mardi Gras parade in one of the small towns. This week
was probably not the best time to be in Dominica
because much of the island was in Roseau for the party.
When we got back Marvin was already sitting on the beach drinking something under a beach umbrella. It was late afternoon. We showered and joined him and then ate supper at the restaurant/bar along the beach. The Portsmouth Beach Hotel sits beside Ross University, a medical school that attracts many from the United States and other western countries. Some of the university students have rooms at the hotel so there was always a group of them by the restaurant/bar on the beach. It was a great place to hang out and watch the sunset the next two evenings.

On Wednesday morning, we ate breakfast at the restaurant on the beach and then took a taxi to Cabrits National Park (about 3 miles away) and the Waitukubuli Trail’s northern terminus at Fort Shirley. The plan was to do most of segment 14 out-and-back and get in about 15 miles. We hiked around Fort Shirley a little and then decided to start down the trail. I wanted to run up one of the Cabrits, which wasn’t part of the WNT, just because I feel the need to run to the top of things, and I convinced Jim to go along, but not Marvin. Marvin started down the WNT. Jim and I ran up the single-track to the top of the western Cabrits, saw the cannon there, and then ran back down and started down the WNT.

Marvin studying the maps (a common sight) at
Hibiscus Valley.
This section was dry and started out flat (and hot). We made some good time at first but then we got into some steep road sections that slowed us down. The trail markings are really sketchy on this segment (in general, running segments in reverse order is not well-marked but even when we turned around this section wasn’t well-marked). We made some wrong turns, did some back-tracking, and consulted with the locals on a number of occasions. There was a nice section that went right out on the beach, but this was not runnable because the beach here consisted entirely of baseball-sized rocks.

Purple-throated Carib mama hummingbird feeding its baby.
At one point when we got back on the road, we passed one of the small bars and asked them if they had cold Coke. They said yes so we told them we would be back. We kept running and eventually couldn’t find trail markings again. We knew we were near the beginning of the segment and we already had in almost 9 miles so we decided to turn around. We got back to the bar and asked for two Cokes and the lady had put them in the freezer anticipating our return! How nice! They were good and cold.

Portsmouth Beach Hotel.
We finally made it back to Fort Shirley and then ran the three miles back to the Portsmouth Beach Hotel. We were really hungry so we stopped at a little strip of restaurants that catered to the med students and had some pizza and a really cold milkshake/smoothy concoction. We walked back to the Hotel and found a recently-returned Marvin relaxing in his room. We decided we must have passed him when we were on the beach because he had not seen the markings and stayed on the road. We were probably close to connecting but had just missed each other. Jim and I ended up putting in over 18 miles in hot weather so it felt like a good day. We ate supper on the beach again and watched the sun set, hoping we would be able to actually get back home the next day. The good news of the day had been that Marvin’s luggage had actually arrived and Kurell had brought it to our Hotel so we actually had clean stuff to change into for the trip home on Thursday.

Thursday morning Kurell picked us up early and drove us to the airport at Melville Hall. Our flight left relatively on time, although there was some confusion and nervous moments in the small terminal as they were loading two flights at the same time and somehow we got in the back of the line again. We had no problems on the way back and eventually got into Philadelphia and drove home.

Filtering water out of a stream.
Portsmouth Bay with the Cabrits in the back left.
I ended up getting in about 70 miles with 12,936 feet of ascent over the 4 days. Our average pace was slow, in the 15-16 minute/mile range, but that included all breaks as I don't stop my watch until I am finished for the day.

So what did we learn? The WNT is a nice trail that will show you many of the great features of the island of Dominica. I enjoyed the journey. There are, however, issues with the marketing of this trail. The distances and elevation change listed for each segment are just wrong. They just need to get someone out on it with a good GPS and do it right. We also found two different printed maps that show wildly different routes for the trail. The online one seems to at least have the general location correct, to the best of our knowledge. Also, they have descriptions of each segment online and some of them say “easy, family hike.” There is no segment that is an easy, family hike. There are some small parts of segments that would qualify but you really can’t trust the descriptions.

Trail markings are another problem. If you are traveling from South to North, the way that the segments are numbered from 1 to 14, the markings on the single-track parts of the trail are often okay. When you get to wider sections of trail, small towns and roads, however, it is very easy to lose the trail. Markings are sporadic or non-existent and turns are poorly marked. We relied on locals many times to help us, and sometimes they were wrong. If you want to travel from North to South, just count on getting lost a lot. The markings are generally on the south side of trees. I don’t think they planned on anyone hiking from North to South. Also, it would be very difficult to not get lost if you tried to hike any of it at night. I wouldn’t recommend it unless you had 3 or 4 people with good headlamps that were keeping vigilant. Even then it is probably a bad idea.

View of sunset from restaurant at Portsmouth Beach Hotel.
The trail is largely a hiking trail. While there are many runnable parts, it is slow going compared to most trails that I have ever been on. We should have planned for more days to cover it. It could be done in four days but you would have to use all available daylight and keep pushing to get it done. The lack of accurate distances make it tough to decide how to break up the segments for a multi-day trek. I would probably count on just adding 25% more to the segment distances, as listed on the web site, and also increase the elevation gain while you are at it.

Very blue water and blue sky. This was a nice break
from the Pennsylvania winter.
There are a lot of freshwater streams on the island (365 they say). I carried a water filter in my pack and we used it many times. This is definitely a necessity as the availability of water from taps is limited on sections of the trail and it would be difficult to carry enough on your back.

Dominica is difficult to get to. There isn’t an international airport so you will need a connection on a small plane from somewhere. Liat Airlines, the largest Caribbean airline, is unreliable so don’t plan on getting there when you are supposed to get there. Island time is a little more relaxed to begin with. Our North American obsession with punctuality needed to be stretched a little.

Definitely a non-runnable section of the trail.
All in all, this was a great adventure and the airline problems, trail issues and everything else that we encountered just added to the experience. My two main regrets are not getting to do all of the trail and not seeing a boa constrictor on the trail. I really did want to see a boa, although not up really close. The people on the island were friendly and helpful. One of the best parts of these trips is the opportunity to get out and experience a different culture and the people there. The island itself is beautiful (certainly the jewel of all the islands we were on), and we had great weather and even more importantly, no insect issues (I believe this is a good time of the year to make the trek). This is definitely worth doing if you enjoy hiking/running in new places and I'm glad we were able to experience it.

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