Tales From the Trail

A self-affirming adventure in the midst of Vancouver Island magic.

Last year, I had a love affair with British Columbia. Fittingly, in September, I found myself unexpectedly tackling the biggest physical challenge I’ve yet to conquer along Vancouver Island’s West Coast Trail (WCT). One quick “like” clicked on a friend’s Facebook status, and I was soon signed up for a weeklong hike on this famously rugged coastal path.

Ultimately, I spent Sept. 3–10 under the care of two wonderful guides from BCA Tours, with seven fellow hikers who soon felt like family. While traversing ancient paths once used by First Nations for trade and travel, we ventured blissfully off the grid and deep into Canadian nature.

The Stats

What they don’t tell you about trails such as this, is that although the route measures 75K as the crow flies (about 47 miles), the actual terrain traversed can factor some 30 additional miles. Since each day’s route must be carefully mapped in real-time, according to tidal charts and Mother Nature’s whims, our movement sometimes fluctuated between beach walking and forest tromping more than initially planned.

Additionally, progress on the WCT can be painfully slow, since the route is uniquely marked by steep ladder systems, tidal rock shelves, mud bog obstacle courses, slick log crossings, a couple self-propelled cable car crossings, and an abundance of tangled “root scrambles.” In an especially challenging section, our group progressed 1 kilometer per hour.

One thing’s for certain: Nothing about this trek is dull, and absolute presence is required each step of the way. On our last morning, as we exhaled with bittersweet pride and relief, our guide Ryan revealed his final calculations. Over seven days, our group had hiked 77 miles and clocked 56 hours and 15 minutes of movement. I had begun with 46 whopping pounds on my back.

So — spoiler alert — what did I learn from backpacking the wildly exquisite West Coast Trail? Namely that attitude is everything, any fear can be conquered, and we are all so much stronger than we can possibly imagine.

The Lead-Up

Summer sneakily slipped away, as I managed only a few proper trail trainings. Yet all season long, I frequented high-intensity yoga classes with a focus on legs and often could be found marching up Seattle’s inclines with a weighted pack strapped to my back. I also spent August intentionally surrounded by my wisest outdoors mentors and loudest life cheerleaders. My confidence ramped up as the anticipation grew.

The night before meeting the group in Victoria, the charming British Columbia capital, I stayed at the luxurious Inn at Laurel Point. My stomach aflutter with excitement and nerves, I soaked in a fiery harbor sunset from the comfort of my plush hotel bed. The next day, I powered down my phone, as our newly acquainted crew hopped in a shuttle van and headed toward the coast. (Our driver talked about Sasquatch and UFOs much of the ride.)

That afternoon, we attended a mandatory orientation at the trailhead ranger station, where we learned about potential hazards, from tsunamis to bears. We ogled photos of the beauty waiting ahead and congratulated dusty, bedraggled, and beaming hikers exiting the trail. (While they had traveled south to north, our journey would take us the opposite way.) One woman stopped us in the parking lot, commenting, “A word to the wise: Have fun, and enjoy every moment.”

West Coast Trail

Trail Life

Each of our seven days proved a brand-new adventure — some miles centered around sun-soaked beach walking; others were spent in the forest balancing on fallen logs and mangled boardwalks. We passed time with bouts of silence mixed with incessant chatter about topics surface and profound. Somehow, by the first afternoon, we had already delved into food-craving banter (sushi, burgers, mango smoothies, an ice-cold shandy). I had plenty of hours to walk with my own thoughts, too, allowing me to steep in awe and gratitude as I considered the many life steps that had led to this opportunity.

The group naturally fell into a self-assigned order, a rhythm based on each person’s speed, energy, and skill. We became each other’s supports and spotters, passing useful tips down the chain: “Use this root as a handhold,” or, “Careful; this boardwalk is extra wobbly!” With his easygoing nature and strong confidence, our guide, Ryan, blazed the trail ahead, consistently answering our, “How much farther?” pleas with the good-natured refrain: “Just a few more switchbacks!” Guide Georgia, the team “foot doctor” who kindly tended to our blisters each morning, was our steady caboose, rounding things up with a megawatt smile and unflinching optimism. (Her contagious enthusiasm when glimpsing whales off the coast was perhaps as exciting as the spottings themselves.)

Very quickly, I learned that life on the trail gets boiled down to the basics. A comforting routine develops, anchored by survival necessities (fueling oneself, hydrating oneself, resting oneself in a shelter that gets assembled each evening and broken down the next dawn). When exhaustion set in — especially on never-ending day three, when we stumbled into camp past 8 p.m. — I sought energy from the people around me, the exquisite nature in our midst, and by digging deep to find reserves I didn’t even know I had.

In this setting, simple comforts felt like massive rewards, like the indulgent day I could retire sweaty T-shirt number one, or the evening our campsite featured a new, “modern” compostable outhouse. I came to cherish the sight of steaming coffee mugs and bowls of granola greeting us each misty morning, plus the nightly ritual of my sweet French tentmate passing out Belgian chocolates she had lugged across an ocean to share.

“We’re from the trail now,” became a refrain in our more delirious moments, comradery ringing in our collective laughter. In a strange way, everything felt easy and straightforward, with minimal decisions, no outside distractions, and the sole duty of steadily placing one foot in front of the other.

The Takeaways

Along the trail, you bond with fellow hikers — if only through a fleeting exchange. Early in the journey, a woman in the outhouse queue mused, “The trail doesn’t get easier; you get tougher.” We became friendly with an older Canadian couple, whom we encountered each evening around the crackling campfire. One evening the ruddy-cheeked husband described his attitude toward the trek — and, I suspect, his life beyond. “I’d rather be happy than sad,” he said, grinning, “It’s a lot easier to be happy.”

It’s tricky to summarize the magic-tinged moments from our week among the trees. I loved eating a hummus lunch next to blubbery neighbors lazing on Seal Rock and enjoying a warming jambalaya dinner on a creekside log. I’ll always remember taking a euphoric waterfall dip one rose-hued evening, drying our boots around the fire after very muddy days, and falling asleep on soft sand beneath a sky of dancing constellations.

Yet I’ll mostly hold on to how it felt to carry everything I needed on my own back — and to overcome fears by approaching it all rung by rung, step by step. I’ll remember the importance of pausing to feel such immense gratitude — and smallness — in our vast, beautiful world.

The WCT is open from May 1 to Sept. 30. Make reservations via reservation.pc.gc.ca or 1–877–737–3783, or sign up via bcatours.com.

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