Near the end of May, I quit my job and fled to Canada for two and a half weeks. The first week was spent sight-seeing with Erika. The second week involved backpacking down the West Coast Trail. The last few days were spent riding the Amtrak down the coast to L.A. This entry will focus on Week Two.
I fumble around in the twilight. My hand finds the zipper. I squeeze through the tight space between the tent opening and the adjacent rock face and into the cold sand. Before me are the remnants of our failed fire. I stand, squeeze past the tent, and inspect the clothesline. Our quick-dry clothing is still drenched. The air is too damp for anything to dry. Oh well. I exit the cave and step down onto the beach. The rain has ceased for the time being. The sky is still overcast, but the rising Sun is strong enough to illuminate a gray haze. A light mist rolls across my skin. I stare out into the ocean for a bit. It’s cold. My body tends to run warm, except in the morning. No point in lollygagging. The sooner I get moving, the sooner my core temperature will increase. I hike down the beach to a small cove where I stashed my bear canister. Still safe. The bell sits atop it unmolested. Steven slides out of the cave. Time for breakfast. We sit in the sand huddled around my tiny stove and watch the ocean. The world is waking up. Birds fly past, waves roll in, the Sun fights to be seen, and perched on a rock yards away sits a bald eagle. It watches us as we eat our modest breakfast. We laugh. In America, it is Memorial Day. As we share breakfast with a bald eagle, we realize we are having the most patriotic Memorial Day of our lives. We are in Canada. It’s day three on the West Coast Trail.
A few years ago I realized my life wasn’t headed in the direction I wanted. I was coasting. I had become complacent. When I imagined my life had I lived in centuries past, I liked to think I would have been an explorer boldly trekking across newly discovered wild lands. Yet, little in my present life leant credence to that thought. Other than moving across country, struggling to find a living, and taking public transportation around Los Angeles, there hadn’t been much adventure in my life for years. At least not the kind I longed for. I knew I needed to make some big changes and I struggled to decide what those changes should be. Suddenly, fate intervened. My greatest fear came to pass—my great grandmother died. She was an old Cuban lady who spoke very little English, yet somehow communicated with everyone. Everyone called her ‘Mima’ which essentially means ‘mother.’ It was a very apt name. My family had lost its collective maternal figure. Nothing makes life seem more precious than death. It was time for change and I couldn’t wait any longer. Shortly after, I instituted several changes in my life including ending an eight year relationship with my then girlfriend that was being held together by familiarity and convenience. It was time for big changes and time to evaluate my life. Much changed over the next couple of years. As I became more proactive in my choices, I found myself finding more successes in all aspects of life—business and personal. One of the decisions I had made was to integrate adventure back into my life. Hiking, backpacking, climbing, rafting, and other outdoor pursuits became a priority. The more time I spent in nature, the more I learned about myself. It was making me stronger—physically, emotionally, and psychologically. When I read about the West Coast Trail in British Columbia, I knew it was a chance to push myself further.
The West Coast Trail runs 75km—that’s roughly 48 miles—down the Western coast of Vancouver Island from Pachena Bay to Port Renfrew. It is known for brutal storms and a history of disastrous shipwrecks. An early version of the trail was known as the “Life-saving Trail.” Its purpose was to give survivors washed ashore a solid chance of making it to civilization alive. Now, it is a week-long backpacking challenge for those who want to experience beauty and hardship in the Canadian wilderness. The descriptions I read of the WCT excited the adventurer inside me: suspension bridges, miles of mud pits, hand-operated cable cars, surging tides, river crossings, dozens of tall ladders, rocky beaches, and unpredictable weather. I knew I wanted in.
The last few years had been going well, but the time for drastic change was coming again. I decided to quit my job and embark on the path of full-time self-employment. But, first, I would go to Canada. What better way to baptize a new path than the West Coast Trail? My friend and coworker, Steven, was also quitting for similar reasons and agreed to meet me in Victoria, Canada. Together we would face the WCT before putting our individual professional lives back together. I knew the trail would be both fun and miserable. I expected both. My secret hope, although, was for an epiphany along the way.
I spent a week in B.C. with my girlfriend before starting the trail. The weather had been typical for the region—wet. No day passed without some rain. Weather reports expected the rain to continue. The WCT is a maintained trail composed of many man-made bridges and walkways in various stages of decay. Some portions look as if they had been erected only hours before, other portions are so rotten and beaten they actually make the trail more dangerous. It is easy to assume the WCT is an easy hike because of the various structures along the way. Many people make this mistake each season and are evacuated. A whiteboard in the Ranger Station displayed the current number at all times in red marker. During orientation it is repeatedly stressed that the trail is an advanced trail intended only for experienced backpackers. The WCT is well-known throughout B.C. Every time I mentioned I was there to do the trail to locals, they became excited and relayed their own experiences or desire to do it themselves. One forewarned “if it keeps raining like this, it’ll be the toughest trail in North America.” Rain continued to fall as Steven and I rode the shuttle bus five hours down logging roads into the seclusion of Western Vancouver Island. It became very clear how far we would be from help if trouble arose. We hoped for the best and prepared ourselves for the possibility of non-stop showers. We were here to test ourselves after all.
When we reached the trailhead, Nature decided to toy with us. The Sun broke free of the clouds. The day grew hot. The first 12 km were a joy. We began in the woods of Pachena Bay, the lush foliage looked like something from a primordial forest in a dinosaur story. Our spirits were high. We climbed ladders, strode across bridges, and trampled through shallow mud pits while joking and admiring the majesty of the forest around us. Along the way, we visited a lighthouse and watched sea lions sun on a huge rock just offshore. The night was spent camping on the beach with others from the shuttle bus. We shared a fire with two friendly couples and reveled beneath the enormous blood-red full moon and clear star-filled sky. Even sitting in the outhouse staring out its window down onto the beach was spectacular. The West Coast Trail was a paradise. Mother Nature had given us everything we could ask for. Now, she would make us truly appreciate it all by taking it away.
The next four days would be filled with rain. On occasion, we would be blessed with light sprinkles, but the rain would rarely cease. Having begun in Pachena Bay, we knowingly started at the easier part of the trail. It would grow harder each day and the rain would compound some difficulties. Everything on the WCT is slippery—the rocks, the walkways, the blow downs. Day 2 brought our first batch of beach hikes. The sand was strenuous, the wind was strong, and the air had grown cold. As we scrambled across a rocky piece of beach, Steven slipped. His full-weight and 50lbs. pack landed directly on his wrist. We were horrified. Was he okay? Would we have to turn back? Would we become a number on the whiteboard in the Ranger Station? Steven lay on the ground for a bit gritting his teeth. I waited. I helped him up. He massaged his arm. It hurt, but it was okay—at worst, a sprain. We could continue. The rain fell. We walked on. Late in the day, we climbed down several ladders to the beach at Tsusiat falls. A tall waterfall poured into a small stream parallel to the coast. We found a small cave and set up camp. Everything was soaked. Despite our best efforts, no wood we could find was dry enough to burn. We crawled into the tent and slept hoping for better weather in the morning.
Day 3. Memorial Day. The breakfast with the bald eagle rose our spirits. As a running gag, throughout the day, we sang patriotic songs often laughing at how difficult it was to recall some of the lyrics. We didn’t know it yet, but this day would be the most important of all. The trail was growing tougher and the weather was not improving. We would occasionally meet hikers coming from the opposite direction—those who started from the tougher end—our ultimate destination. They were rarely smiling and often ranting or cursing their soaked Gortex. Our first great surprise of the day was an enormous tree trunk where a bridge should be, the river rushing past it on either side. We forded it carefully and continued. Later we would lose time on a nearly impassable rocky outcropping on the beach when I insisted we continue because I was trusting the map over my own eyes. Steven nearly lost his pack in a surge channel. The rain continued. We arrived at Nitinat. The Nitinat Narrows is a wide, deep river falling around kilometer marker 33. The only way to continue is to catch a small boat that operates specifically for ferrying hikers across. It is a chance to relax near a wood-burning stove, purchase a fresh salmon or crab dinner, and share stories with fellow hikers—stories of broken stoves, a bear running wild after swallowing a case of Coca-Cola, and endless damp. It also allows for one other opportunity—one all hikers know about. If you’ve had enough and have the money to spare, Nitinat is your only opportunity to leave the trail. We encountered a dozen hikers while we ate our salmon—nine were leaving. One ranted, “I’m not having any fun.” I suspected he was making the right decision. The WCT is not an amusement park. If your sole reason for hiking it is fun, you will be very disappointed. The trail was only going to get tougher. The weather was not likely to improve. Despite all of its obstacles and the pack on my back, I knew I could handle the trail ahead. Although he had been struggling, I knew Steven could do it as well. He was getting noticeably stronger each day. It was the unpredictable weather that worried me. It could get worse. The rain could become a storm. Having grown up in the South and witnessed a few hurricanes in my life, I knew how powerful rain and wind can get. Although neither of us spoke, I knew Steven and I were both considering the option.
I had come to the West Coast Trail for adventure, for a challenge, and maybe for an epiphany. I had found the first two. The third was ever elusive. Would I still respect myself if I quit? I had planned this trip for months. It was the perfect time in my life to do it. If I quit now, would I ever return to finish it? What would I gain by quitting? Only immediate psychological security and an opportunity for warmth, for dryness, for comfort. That was not why I had come to the WCT. Steven and I never mentioned quitting to each other. It was as if speaking the words would imbue them with a power we couldn’t defeat. To openly consider quitting was inviting failure. To make it the remaining 40+ km would require a fortitude we could not muster if we considered defeat. What lay ahead was unsure and that was why we needed to face it. We left the dock and disappeared into the swamp. Quitting was never really an option.
That night was both blessing and curse. We shared a campsite and fire with a young group of energetic hikers whose zeal reminded us why we were on the trail. We retired to our tents as rain began to threaten the fire. I awoke an hour later unable to stop shivering. I stripped and slid into whatever dry clothing I had remaining. I wrapped myself in my sleeping bag and waited. Eventually, my body began to warm. In the morning I would learn that Steven had also fought the early stages of hypothermia that night. We donned our wet clothing and moved on.
It was time to see if we had made the right choice at Nitinat. We were not rewarded. The day consisted of never-ending rain and hiking predominately on open, cold beaches. It was demoralizing. We did have a brief respite at Chez Monique—a small home on the trail where a family lives seasonally and sells huge burgers to hikers. Rarely have I enjoyed a burger so much. When we arrived at Walbran Creek, our destination for the night, we met high tide and the river was swollen. Our only option was to take shelter under some large pieces of driftwood while we waited for the tide to fall. Even with the arrival of low tide the river was too deep and strong to wade, one misstep and we’d be washed into the ocean. Ahead in the woods was a cable car. We decided to skirt along the slick, rocky rock face alongside the river until we could reach the woods. It was with a great sense of achievement and relief that we pulled the cable car across the river. We slid into our tent just in time for a torrential downpour to begin. It continued throughout the night and into the morning. I was dreading the day ahead. We had not been dry in days and it seemed likely we’d only get more drenched as we were to tackle what had been reported to be the toughest part of the trail.
I awoke just before the Sun, rain was still pouring. I unzipped the fly, aimed into the rain and emptied my bladder. No point getting soaked before I had to. I slid back into my mummy bag and closed my eyes. Each time I awoke, I hoped the rain had stopped. It hadn’t. Eventually, I fell into a deep sleep. I was floating down a dark Los Angeles street, the only light from street lamps. Apparently, my girlfriend, Erika was floating alongside me because I could hear her speaking. We spoke of a number of unimportant things I can’t recall. There was a break in the conversation. The sound of the rain from reality was audible in my dream. My mind was aware I was on the WCT, but not that I was dreaming. My dream mind seemed to believe I had somehow teleported back to L.A. I had escaped the trail in mind, since I no longer could in body. Then, something strange happened. We continued floating down the street. The silence ended. Erika asked me, “You aren’t going back, are you?” My response was immediate. “I have to. I haven’t finished it.” My eyes shot open and a chill ran through my body. I felt a weird sensation as if a secret of the universe had been revealed to me. My mind had tried to escape, but my subconscious forced it to return. There had been a battle in my head… and I had won. It wasn’t the sort of epiphany I was hoping for. I was hoping for a surge of brilliance to wash over me and illuminate the best choices for my life ahead, some sort of roadmap to the future. This was something different. It was something better.
I pulled off my sleeping bag. I was tired of being trapped inside of it. I didn’t want to wait any longer. I no longer feared the weather or the challenges ahead. I had found an acceptance. I could not control my environment or predict it. I needed only to accept it and embrace its wiles. That was why it was worth doing in the first place. I was filled with optimism and determination. I was on the WCT, there was only one way out—walking.
Day 5 was the most physically demanding. The ladders were the tallest yet—one pair was over 20 stories. The mud was at its deepest. The rivers had grown so swollen they lapped at the base of some bridges. A small waterfall had formed over one set of ladders. It was my happiest day on the trail. As we reached camp for the night, the Sun broke free. We encountered our young friends from before and made new friends at the site. It felt like that first night on the trail. It felt like I had passed a test and was now being rewarded.
13 km remained. Most people completed this stretch in two days. We decided to push through in one. Our camping friends were a bit skeptical but encouraging. The shuttle back to civilization ran only on odd days. If we missed that shuttle, Steven would likely miss his flight home. There was one catch. To exit the trail at Port Renfrew requires catching a small ferry that closes precisely at 4:30. The ranger at orientation had warned us the ferryman was a stickler for time. If we missed it, we’d be forced to stay on the trail an additional night regardless. We had been warned that some portions on the trial would eat an hour per kilometer. We had assumed this was an exaggeration. It was not. Inching along innumerable wet fallen trees swallows a lot of time. My only worry was Steven. I had my weird dream and now was fueled by some ethereal subconscious drive. I had noticed he had grown stronger along the trail, but he was still struggling. The elevation gain and obstacles ahead were among his weaknesses. The only way we could make the 4:30 deadline was to leave with the rising Sun and push through as hard as possible. No extended rests. He agreed.
The weather improved. It rarely sprinkled. I tried to keep us on schedule—constantly running math through my head as we passed each km marker. I pushed Steven as hard as I could, but hopefully not so hard as to be discouraging. We spent hours traversing endless blow downs, rock-hopping, and encountering more of what we’d seen before. Then, the terrain sloped upwards and the march up into the woods began. As we passed each marker, I was amazed to see we were perfectly on schedule. If we kept the same pace, we could make it just in time. The elevation continued to increase. We were getting close. Then, I heard it. A sound I’d heard a few times each day—the sound of Steven slipping. This time it was ominous. As I turned I saw him contort into a pretzel as he landed amongst rocks and directly onto the wrist he’d injured days before. He let out a howl. We had gotten so close.
I felt guilty. Had I pushed too hard? I felt concerned. Was he okay? I felt anxious. Could we still make it in time? “Are you okay?” “Give me a minute.” He lay twisted into an odd shape lying face-first on the ground for what seemed like eternity. He too felt concern, anxiety, and guilt. He didn’t want to be the reason we failed—especially not 2 km from the end. He slid out of his pack and massaged his forearm. I watched. He gritted his teeth and shook his arm. I waited. He screwed up a smile. “I think it’s okay.” We had developed a shorthand for communicating that day. I would ask how he was doing. He would reply “good” or “step-by-step.” I looked at his arm. I watched him put on his pack. “How are you doing?” “Step-by-step.”
Time was running out. Our only hope of making the deadline was for me to hike ahead. I could make it in time and maybe convince the ferry to wait. I was worried about leaving Steven behind. We agreed it was our only chance. I was off. Every few minutes I would scream into the woods, calling his name or “How are you doing?” “Good” or “step-by-step” would echo back. I could assure myself he was okay and gauge his distance. The final kilometer seemed to continue indefinitely. Finally, around a bend, I saw it—the beach. I ran to a tree at the edge, grabbed the rope, and yanked the buoy into the air to alert the ferry on the other shore. It was 4:28. I had made it. I stared at the river triumphant. Then I noticed a small boat receding from me. The ferry had left early. The captain never looked back.
I sat dejected awaiting Steven, growing furious at the fickle attitude of the ferryman. Moments later Steven jogged down to the beach and I delivered the bad news. We had pushed through two days in one and succeeded at the final moment only to lose in the end. We could see the exit just out of reach—mocking us. We waved at people on the other shore hoping someone could help. One person yelled back at us. He ran down to the ferry dock, no one was there. Minutes passed. I opened my bear canister and began snacking. We discussed our options. We cursed the ferryman. We ate. We accepted our fate. A small object appeared on the water approaching us. It grew larger. It was a boat. It was 5:00 P.M. The ferryman had left the dock earlier to help some children at a nearby school and decided to check back afterwards to see if any hikers were waiting. The boat I had seen earlier was not the ferry. We were ecstatic. Within thirty minutes, victory had been stolen from us only long enough that we could truly appreciate it. As we arrived on the other shore, another surprise awaited us. The shuttle back to Victoria was still there. It was behind schedule because of a new driver. As we unloaded the bus in Victoria, some familiar voices called out to us. We had often wondered about the fate of the two couples we had shared the first night with. Here they were, coincidentally passing the bus depot just as we’d arrived. The West Coast Trail was still surprising us even hours after we had left it. When I think back to the wretched weather we had on the trail, I am thankful. Others have done this trail and been welcomed with a week of sunshine and good times. But, I can’t help but think Steven and I gained so much more because Nature pushed us nearly to our breaking points and taught us lessons you can’t learn in a city.