The year was 1945 and the Royal Canadian Air Force Canso 11007 bomber plane had just departed from the Tofino Airbase. On board were four bombs, fuel and twelve crew members. Moments after taking off, the plane, the crew and its explosives went down. The fuel spilled out and lit the wreck on fire where it had come to rest in the trees. Escaping the flames, the crew, all of whom had survived the crash, sat in wait of a rescue. Within twelve hours, help arrived and they quickly made their escape from the coastal rainforest. Rather than navigating the way out with explosives, the bombs were detonated just beyond the crash site. Years passed and the wreckage remained within the trees through powerful windstorms and torrential winter rains. Today, it is one of the top hikes out of Tofino and Ucluelet.
As the sun rose above the trees, kissing them in pink, I found myself being more thankful than usual for the sunny day. The last few had been rain-free as well, meaning that (hopefully) the “trail” to the bomber plane wouldn’t be as muddy as the rumours had it out to be. After reading about it, writing about it and seeing photo, after photo of it, today was the day I would see the Canso Bomber Plane Wreck myself. Half the beauty of the hike is that it is not an official trail of Parks Canada, despite being within the boundaries of the Pacific Rim National Park. In fact, “trail” is a fairly loose term for the mid-section of the route, which navigates its way through a spread of bog and coastal trees. That still hasn’t stopped everyone from catching on though –It is a World War II plane crash site after all. With a smoothie for the road, I had my fingers crossed I would beat the crowd.
Swinging into the lower Radar Hill parking lot, I breathed out a sigh of relief. A single car sat at the other end. I slipped on my hiking pack, which contained nothing more than a half-full water bottle and my camera, and headed back down the road to the highway. Leading the way, my foggy puffs of breath took to the air. I began counting telephone poles, listening to my gumboots thud evenly along the pavement.
“One… two… three…” I kept up a brisk pace with one ear trained for traffic approaching me from behind. My excitement picked up as I rounded a bend and continued, “thirteen… fourteen…. Fifteen!” A small piece of florescent green tape rippled gently in the wind. I scrutinized the pole despite the obvious gravel path and dip that lead into the forest. There, just below the tape, was a small drawing of an airplane. I smiled, happy to have not lost count – 9:03am… Just ten minutes to get to the trail head. The initial pathway was a breeze, following a clear section up a slight hill. It made me wonder if I would even need my gumboots after all. I bounced along to the thump of my backpack against my back, and the jingle of the keys I’d hooked to my hip-strap as an impromptu bear bell. Through the steady chime of the keys, another clear set of steps approached. A woman came around the bend and I smiled. She looked at my boots,
“I wish I’d worn a pair of those!” I gazed down at her feet and gave myself a mental pat on the back for my preparation. No matter what colour her hiking boots had been before, and socks for that matter, they were now the colour of thick, brown mud. The kind that seeps into everything and remains crusted on long after the hike has ended.
“Oh, is it muddy?” We laughed as we bypassed each other on our ways. The top of the incline was marked with a decrepit building, coated in years of vandalism, mud and moss. Up the stairs, to the left and out the back. I repeated the hike forum’s instructions in my head as I ascended the staircase and entered the dark. To my right, the long, dingy building was lit by a single, busted out door at its end. Creepy. I took my designated turns and emerged. Somehow, it seems fitting that a wreckage would be the gateway to another wreckage. From there, the downhill portion of the trail description took over, and I focused solely on the roots and rocks below my feet.
Before long, I noticed the ground getting softer. I had entered the promised bog and the bane of the trail’s winter existence. Navigating from log to log, some half submerged in the questionable depth, I became grateful for the lines of rope stringing their way through the trees and reflective markers that emerged from the muck. With my eyes on the ground for gumboot safety, keeping a steady course was near impossible. When I became too confident in the sturdiness of the ground and the agility of my feet, I was treated to a quick lesson. With an exaggerated slurp, my foot, shin and near entirety of my gumboot disappeared below the muck. Gasping, I lunged forward and latched onto a tree branch. With more effort than expected, I heaved on the (luckily) trustworthy branch and the mud relented, releasing my boot with the same, exaggerated gulp of its entrance. A false sense of “lesson learned” came over me. It happened at least twice more. Tracing along the rope, I finally made it through the worst of the mud, only to come to a confused halt. My flagged rope turned into an “Area Boundary” marker. Huh? Did I miss a turn? For anyone that knows me, directions have never been my strong suit. Minor deviations turn into hour-long accidental scenic detours, and my initial directional confidence is easily shattered. I headed to the right, but feared not finding my way back; I was alone after all. Then, I headed to the left. No, definitely not the way… Back? Well, unless that extra boggy, kind of circular section was the “small pond that is almost perfectly circular,” then it’s definitely not back. No, it must be the right. But maybe it isn’t? For half an hour, I walked back and forth. Was I on the right path? Of course. I had been the entire time.
Pulling up blog, after blog on my phone, I finally re-gained my confidence. “Parks Canada marked the trail to try and limit the number of hikers who get lost and need rescuing themselves! I began to pick out the little pink ribbons again where it branched to the right. Feeling stupid, I continued on my way flag by flag. By the time I emerged onto a flat, muddy section, my confidence was fully intact again. Marking the flat section was a sheared off piece of airplane and interrupting it was perfectly circular pond. So that’s the crater from the explosions. Now that I’d seen it, it would be impossible to mistaken the bog for the bomb crater. Oops. Beyond, a paint-tattooed tail rose into the sky with the rest of the trees. I trudged forwards jubilantly.
Approaching from below the tail, the Canso bomber was larger, and more impressive than I had expected. Then again, I’m always impressed when I find myself surrounded by a piece of history. Reveling in the few moments I had the plane to myself, a German family was close behind, I shrugged off my pack, pulled out my camera and began to climb. Fallen trees and ragged, weather-worn metal assisted my ascent to the nose. Like a kid at a playground, my not-so-bright yellow gumboots explored the plane. Stepping carefully into its tin-can center, I looked through the doorways and windows, imagining myself as one of the crew. What had it looked like in 1945 when it was brand new? Today, pools of dirty water rested in its gutted insides and various names, tags and stickers in different colours, fresh and faded, made up the interior and exterior décor. It somehow adds to the plane’s character, in a way, and I still managed to feel a bit humbled standing inside. From there, I carefully navigated my way to sit on top of the plane in the center of its wings. It tilted me forwards slightly as though I was balancing on top of a cylindrical slide. I sighed in the warming sunlight – beyond the treetops, a mountain range reached for the sky and hardly a cloud marred its beautiful blue. Content with my morning’s adventure, I made my way back to my bag and the pink-flagged trail. I had finally been to the Canso Bomber Plane! The return route to my car seemed like a cake walk, and my time was significantly better. It was before noon when I reached the highway again. The early morning departure had been well worth the brisk start – the number of “hellos,” “you’re almost there’s,” and “yes, you should have worn gumboots” I said on the way home was startling. With social media, word these days spreads like wildfire. Well, some of it anyways… I tried not to look sympathetic as I passed yet another lady in neon runners on the highway. She must have missed the mud memo on the Instagram posts.
Drive to the lower Radar Hill Parking lot and park there – it’s within the Pacific Rim National Park boundary, so you’ll need a park pass.
Walk back to the highway, and head south towards Ucluelet. Count 15 telephone poles. The 15th telephone pole will have a small drawing of an airplane, and a piece of tape. Follow the path that goes by a chain link fence.
The path follows a slight up-hill. At the top is an abandoned building. Walk up the concrete stairs and into the building. Take a left, then a right and emerge out the back end. Continue down the path, which gets a bit rougher and heads downhill.
Once you reach the bog, there will be rope, pink tape and reflector signs to mark the way. Follow those through the bog. When you reach the end of the bog, there will be an Area Boundary rope and a branch to the right. Head right and follow the tape and the rope.
The trail will become drier and the trees will thin out. A small, circular pond (like, unmistakably circular) will have a small path going around its left side. Beyond, you’ll be able to see the tail of the plane poking up through the trees.
For more great hikes in the Tofino area, check out the hiking page.
For hikes around Vancouver Island, check out Discover Vancouver Island’s hiking page!
Photos and Article by: Laurissa Cebryk