Dispatches from the iPhone: The West Coast Trail

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The act of walking can become a mantra and a prayer. A warrior or a mystic might find his life’s path while on the literal path of a trail. He might also find nothing more than sore feet. Two weeks ago I set out on what would be the most physically challenging adventure of my lifetime: Canada’s West Coast Trail. The WCT is a 75 km hike through the western part of Vancouver Island, which is divided between both rainforest-type cedar forest and coastline beaches. The terrain is filled with steep ladder descents/ascents, bouldering along shorelines, rugged path filled with root and rut, and more than a few bridges of various lengths. Wet climate and a poorly repaired wooden pathway system (shame on Parks Canada and the Stephen Harper Government for their lack of investment in the national park) make this trail easy to fall prey to serious injury that might require immediate evacuation by boat. During our fifth night, at 11pm, we saw one young hiker media-vac’ed out by military helicopter due to a possible spinal injury. It is a path of heavy resistance. It is a walk that can change or end your life.

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While I have backpacked in Algonquin Park and day-hiked in both the Peruvian Amazon and the Atlas Mountains, nothing really prepared me for either the beauty of the West Coast Trail or the toll it can take on a human spirit. Certainly, many hike the trail with a light pack and a lighter heart, granola children from an era when the woods was all about peace, love and the great outdoors. Others get into deep water when they realize that for experienced backpackers only does not mean for those who like to watch The Discovery Channel. Still, we met couples, families and solo travellers along our time in the park, and most had a great awareness for both their surroundings and each other; it is a positive trail whereon people do respect their fortune and kindred adventurers. Perhaps we met more than one group of guided hikes whose leaders were outrageous and ridiculous. We definitely met one group of urbanhippycultlikeweareheretobeseenforourveganshirtlessbodies: we avoided them, not because we cared about their values, but rather because I felt they had none and did not actually respect their surroundings.

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The WCT is a trail that reminds one of a place wherein you might stumble across Indiana Jones or a long lost tribe of Haida warrior. It is a magical, spiritual, and ancient forest that tolerates the insignificant hiker as he passes beneath tree roots far older than his grandparents. The mists and rains foster rich mosses and ferns to grow throughout most of the southern end of the trail, and unlike other parts of the world to which I have journeyed, the WCT feels softly alive.

The act of carrying all of my week’s food on my back left in me awe of the pioneer. How could anyone walk through Canada’s wilderness, without trail, without clear destination, and only with what could be carried? How could a pioneer hope to survive with heavy food, heavy iron, heavy wool and heavy heart? With all of my Gore-Tex, titanium cookware, SmartWool socks and a perfect travelling partner, I still struggled with the simplest of movements. Fortunately, both spicy bean and rice dishes we dehydrated satiated my hunger and cravings for quality food; the crab, salmon and burger along the way may have also contributed to a happy digestive system.

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Rain would have made the trek miserable. I honestly do not understand how ladders and bridges could be safely crossed with rain making the wood slippery underfoot. Our luck held out so that we only felt rain for a morning’s hike and perhaps a few night showers as the tides changed. For the majority of the hike, the weather was perfect: cool air in the morning, sun for one hour of tanning, cool mists for film photography, dark nights for sleeping and campfires along the shoreline. At times the landscape became invisible for the fog and shadows, while at other moments it shimmered in deep blues and rich greens.

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Wildlife was rich in throughout our travels. Bald eagles, osprey, gulls, woodpeckers, ravens, hummingbirds, Stellar jays and ducks filled both sky and sea, while marten, mink, seal, grey whale, otter, and mouse roamed the beaches. We avoided the bear and cougar, and that was by choice, though other hikers did report sightings. Wildlife felt strong and contented along the trail. While logging, pollution and American over-fishing of salmon stock continue to take a toll on this region, the people in the area certainly appeared to understand the value of the land around them. The fact that they were not living in Toronto, Montreal or Vancouver was not lost on them. The people from Port Renfrew to Bamfield chose to live in this place, as did the creatures along the shoreline.

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What did I learn about myself from the West Coast Trail? While much remains to  reflect upon, as rolls of film are developed, I learned a great many things about myself while on the trail and even after its completion. Firstly, I learned that I am not a wildly experienced nor talented backpacker. I cannot start a fire with my toes and a stick. I cannot embrace shitting in the woods. I see the value of a hot bath and a warm meal while surrounded by my library of books. I am, and perhaps will always remain, a societal princess.

Secondly, I learned that I am much stronger, resilient and skilled in the outdoors than most anyone might give me credit for. I hiked 24km with a 45 pound pack on the last day, and 21km two days before. I started a fire with wet wood by shaving cedar into tinder. I dehydrated a week’s worth of food and jerky that tasted like a meal worth eating on any day of the week. I climbed serious ladders despite my fear of heights, and I made it through the entire week off-grid without any serious meltdowns or injury. I feel that these accomplishments perhaps makes me more of a warrior princess in status.

Thirdly, I truly came to understand the value of spending extended periods in the wilds of Canada. Perhaps seven days is my limit for being out there, but at the age of forty, and for a man not used to such a style of travel, I felt confident that such adventure could remain a part of my life for many years to come. I simply need to continue to practice yoga, lift weights, cycle to work, run four times a week, and eat less of everything – how hard can that be for a busy educator and photographer?

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To end this entry, I felt like sharing a quote from Werner Herzog. It is his reflection on the jungle and the great outdoors after filming Fitzcaraldo in the Peruvian Amazon for months on end. No matter how I did on the West Coast Trail, I feel like I have transcended Herzog’s vision of Nature.

“I don’t see [the jungle] so much erotic. I see it more full of obscenity. It’s just – Nature here is vile and base. I wouldn’t see anything erotical here. I would see fornication and asphyxiation and choking and fighting for survival and growing and just rotting away. Of course, there’s a lot of misery. But it is the same misery that is all around us. The trees here are in misery, and the birds are in misery. I don’t think they sing. They just screech in pain.” ~Werner Herzog

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