Friday, July 31, 2009

Hiking the West Coast Trail

When my mother turned 60 this past year, I decided we needed to go on an adventure. The kind of adventure you are likely to only do once in your life. The older I get, the more I realize you have to go for it now or it may not happen later. So I suggested we hike the West Coast Trail [of Vancouver Island.] Just the two of us. Well, just the two of us plus 9 total strangers.

As soon as I started researching places to hike that were farther away than the Appalachian Trail, I started thinking about a small guided trip. That's when I found Sea to Sky Expeditions. This seemed perfect: trail experience and a bit of security to reassure my mother built into the trip, although it would lose the solitary nature of a trip the two of us took completely alone. But the more I thought about it, the better it sounded. I broached the subject with Mother, laying out what I saw as the pros and cons and let her decide. But, really, once I sent her the link for Sea to Sky Expeditions' photo essay of the West Coast Trail, it was a done deal.

Thus began our adventure last Spring. We paid our fees when the U.S. dollar was strong(er) and started reading up on all the literature they provided. By the fall, we were researching all our gear, clothing, and training in order to prepare for our June 2009 trip. First, we acquired our 70 liter (BIG!) packs in addition to our sleeping bags and Thermarest pads. In March we started training in earnest. We hiked a couple days a week with our packs and boots, adding weight and distance over the weeks. The only negative was that we were each doing this solo, she in Virginia and me in Austin. By the end of May, I was carrying nearly 40 lbs, hiking at least 3 days a week and cross-training on my off days. We were ready for the WCT!

We both flew into Dallas and then flew together directly to Vancouver where we spent 2 nights before meeting up with our group. We touched base with one of our guides the day before to confirm our meeting time and ask where the nearest MEC (Mountain Equiptment Co-op. That's Canadian for REI.) could be found as I managed to leave all my hiking socks drying on the deck back home in Austin! Better my socks than my boots!

Day 0: SATURDAY, 6 JUNE 2009

At 7:30 am we met up with our guides, Mark & Kelly, and most of our "team" (as Mark called us for the next 9 days.) Mark & Kelly warmly greeted us all, putting faces to names, and started loading our collective gear onto the roof of their big, white van. We also met Len, founder of Sea to Sky, who joined us for our first night's camp at the Port Renfrew trail head and would then take the van back to Vancouver when we started the hike the next morning. Meanwhile, the rest of us enthusiastically made introductions all around, taking pictures with each other's cameras, instantly setting the tone for our entire trek. Mother was first panicked, then relieved to find out that this obnoxious woman with dragon-lady nails we'd met the preceding day was not part of our group. (She checked in to our motel at the same time, with identical dates including our single-night-following-a-gap after we returned from the hike and she was clearly not your laid-back, roughing it type. At the time, it seemed likely that she'd be part of our group and we were a little worried.)

There were 8 of us, plus M, K & L. Turned out we had three doctors. John's a Canadian dermatologist with his 19-year old son, Carter, who's at University studying exactly what we're about to do -- Ecotourism & Leadership. Bill's an Ob/Gyn in Toronto with his 22-year old daughter, Lauren, who's a raft guide in Calgary. Sue's British and is a general practitioner, although semi-retired and is on her second Sea-to-Sky tour so she and Kelly are instant chums. Mike, the last Canadian of our group, was a last-minute addition as he'd planned to take a later trip but managed to fit ours in while traveling to Vancouver for an insurance conference. Our last hiker, Wenke, was a German journalist and we'd be picking her up outside Victoria, once we were on Vancouver Island.

Our first stop was the Tsawwassen Ferry Terminal, where we left the van in the queue to board the ferry while we all went foraging inside the terminal. Much to Mother's and my delight, there was a Starbucks inside. Not only did I get my last Chai-latte-extra-hot-no-water, but we spotted the sometimes-elusive city mugs, Vancouver edition, complete with the city's "Sea to Sky" slogan, perfect to commemorate our trip. (Yes, we were laughed at by most of our new buddies for purchasing ceramic mugs on the way to the trail- "How much weight will that add to your pack?" - despite the fact that we knew we could stash them in the van before Len departed in the morning. I suppose you might say that ruined our reputation right then and there.)

After our obligatory caffeinated beverage stop, we wandered down to Kelly's favorite, Crepe Expectations, where we met up with Kelly (already scarfing down her delicious-looking crepe) and Mark. While Mother took photos of our crepes being made, I chatted with Mark while he ate his favorite - an ice cream cone. ("You can manage to take/make a lot of foods on the trail but ice cream isn't one of them.")

Unexpectedly, Mark asked me, "Do you have a blog?".

Caught completely off-guard, I slowly answered, "Yes, I do, actually."

He then asked if I'd written about our trip and I responded that I had, briefly. At this point I'm still thinking I'm going to skate by while Mother's at the crepes counter. No such luck. Enter my mom (who having taken about 20 pictures of our crepes and the crepe maker then walked up beside me within earshot), "You have what?"

Uhhh. I looked at Mark across the table and silently mouthed, "She doesn't know."

Mark made a "Doh!" face and I turned to my mother and said, "Um, well I have a blog, Mom." She looked both surprised and mildly affronted as I proceeded to tell her that I'd had this blog for a year or so and managed to write about every other month or so on some topic that interested me. I quickly said that no one knew about it. Which is true. Mostly. I mean, Rand knew but that hardly counted because a) he's my husband and b) after the first couple of posts, he didn't even read it anymore. And then my good friend, fellow blogger, and co-conspirator, who is my font-of-all-blogger-knowledge knew; she who prefers to remain Nameless. Lastly, my little sister knew, but only because she was here visiting last October and we had a couple of late-night heart-to-hearts about our writing desires and it just came out.

See, I wasn't really keeping it secret from you, Mother. It's just been something I've been doing for myself and haven't really shared with anyone.
(Okay, almost anyone. Envision me having an almost identical conversation with my best friend late one night shortly after returning home as I told her about the trip. I decided once my Mom knew, the cat was out of the bag and I'd better fess up to her too or I was really going to be in deep do-do. If I'm lucky, she might have forgiven me by now.)

[So, yes, I had to go to another country (albeit still in North America) for my blog to be outed! Which I think is pretty funny given that it's not like anyone I know has ever come up to me and said, "Hey, do you have a blog?" That's the power of The Oracle (or Google, to the uninformed): ask it a question, and it tells all. Turns out Mark was searching for West Coast Trail or Sea to Sky Expeditions and ran across it (since I mention both in my Adventures of a Lifetime post.) I tried to replicate the search to see how many tens of pages you had to scroll through to find it and let's just say...I never did. Suffice it to say, I'm content to still be writing in my little internet bubble of obscurity.]

Shortly thereafter, we were back in the van, and getting on Tsawwasen Ferry, and then up topside for the 2-hour ride over to Vancouver Island. We spent most of the ride, sitting together chatting and listening to Len or Mark tell hilarious stories about previous treks which included one about "the folks from Texas". (I tell you, living in Texas-- notice I don't say being a Texan as I wasn't born here-- makes you somewhat notorious. I mean, often it's great, like when people from the Northeast say how nice everyone is here. However, other times, like with the extreme version of Everything's Bigger [read: Better] In Texas it can just comes across as obnoxious. At least I no longer have to apologize for our president.) As for me, I think the worst I did for our collective Texan reputation is talk and eat a lot.

Once we got to Vancouver Island, we met up with our soon-to-be German friend, Wenke. Almost the first thing she asked was if there were any other Germans in our group. She made us chuckle when she was pleased to find out she was the only one. I think she just wanted to be meeting different people and practicing her English (which was already excellent.) We made one final stop before making the 3-hour van ride to Port Renfrew: Our last grocery store/coffee shop visit for the next 9 days!

Shortly before reaching Port Renfrew, we spotted a black bear along the road which seemed quite an auspicious beginning to our trip from a wildlife-viewing point of view. Ask me later how that progressed.

We arrived at our destination shortly after 2 pm and had about an hour to scope out the beach, unload the van, and assess our tent options before needing to be over at the trail head building by 3:30 for our Parks Canada orientation. The orientation included reviewing basic trail hiking & camping guidelines (If you pack it in, pack it out; Use the bear boxes or the bears will eat you while trying to get to the snickers bar under your pillow.) as well as providing us with trail maps, tide charts, and the most entertaining: the opportunity to recognize the difference between black bear, cougar, and wolf scat. We passed around rubber scat examples which made me chuckle [although I seemed to be the only one so I tried to keep it to myself. I guess no one else had prepubescent boys at home to imagine what they'd be saying right about then.] It did come in handy, though. We spotted plenty of wolf scat (smaller and with lots of hair in it.) and bear (big piles); the cougar scat was more elusive.

Thanks to our fearless leaders, we didn't have to focus on the banal and somewhat long-winded spiel because they either trained/informed us more effectively or handled it themselves. (low tide schedule.) Still, if there was a zombie attack I wanted to be able to successfully traverse Owen Point at low tide, my not-quite-mortally-wounded mother behind me on a drift-wood litter I'd fashioned and attached to my pack. (Apparently the zombies were busy elsewhere so not only was my mother never wounded, mortally-or-otherwise, but I never got to test either my litter-making skills or my low-tide calculating. Damn.) Clearly, there's some DNA at work here because shortly before the trip, Will asked my mom on the phone if she'd shoot a bear if we were attacked on our trip. When she balked at the likelihood of being attacked by bears, let alone having a gun, he responded with something very close to: "Gram, the scenario is your guides are dead, you do have a gun and you're being attacked by bears. What do you do?" [This last line, of course, I hear in Dennis Hopper's voice from Speed when he's mocking Keanu Reeves about what you do if an armed terrorist is standing in front of you holding a hostage. In case you don't know: Shoot the hostage.] In reality, Will's tone was more of a just-roll-with-it-Gram. So my mother rolled and told him even if she'd been wounded, she'd grab the gun, stand in front of me to protect me and... "fill it full o' lead". He loved that, of course. Especially because he knew she was just playing along. My mother edges me out as the most animal-protecting person I know. I may free trapped snakes caught in gardening mesh in my yard and pull over to rescue errant turtles on the road, but Mother puts dry cat food out for the foxes in the woods near her house and has been known to purchase a deer lick for the backyard. She is single-handedly feeding all the song birds in a 30 mile radius of her house, I'm convinced. But, I digress.

Back at camp, we all tried out the various tent options and Mother and I settled on the smallest option (less roomy = less weight) which put us literally shoulder to shoulder when lying down and with only a foot to spare from head to toe. Still the idea of splitting 5 lbs vs. 8 lbs won over, especially once Kelly came along and ruthlessly suggested we leave all of the following:

  • 3rd pair of pants
  • any underwear beyond 2 pairs (Ask my Mother if she thought 2 pairs were sufficient!)
  • everything in our first aid kits except band aids (they said everything else was redundant given what they carried or useless.)
  • my painstakingly chosen book (See Shogun post.) A Walk Across America, by Peter Jenkins. (Kelly's exact words: "That's a big book.") 10 ounces -- but still, 7 ounces less than Shogun!)
  • 2nd insulating vest
  • 3rd & 4th t-shirts

Although our individual quart ziplocs of heavy, homemade granola were looked at with raised eyebrows by all three guides, there was no way we were leaving it behind. (Come on, we made it through customs and everything with that stuff. We'd been prepared to force-feed ourselves right there in the customs queue if they tried to confiscate it. No way we were leaving it now. And it was damn good, if I do say so myself. Rand found the recipe and I made it on a whim the night before I left. He was lucky to get one tiny bite! As it turns out, it was hugely popular and much of our group wanted the recipe. Wenke mentioned more than once that she wasn't much of a cook and maybe we should just mail her some!)

We purged almost everything Kelly suggested including the book (but only because we each had our journals and she made the excellent point that any down time we had wouldn't we most likely spend it writing? She was completely accurate; there's just not that much down time on a hiking trip like this. [Whereas their canoe trips include a traveling library and even more ambitious food since you aren't carrying everything on your back the entire time and there is more down time while floating down the river. Note to self: try one of Sea to Sky Expeditions' canoe trips.] Even if we made camp at 3:30 or 4, it took quite a bit of time to set up tents, unpack packs, bathe, scope out the facilities, prep for dinner, etc. And by the time we sat around the campfire to have our evening hot beverages (Mine was always hot chocolate but most of the group had coffee or tea) and await/assist with dinner, we were beat and just wanted to chill. Plus, writing is a solitary act so even though we'd want to carve out time to write, we also wanted to be with the group, not be antisocial. And though we were often one of the first to retire to our tent, it was hard to stay awake to write. We usually managed a game or two of gin rummy before either writing or crashing by 10-11 pm.

Despite our excessive clothing and repeated shopping trips to REI, we still managed to misidentify a key item: an "insulating warm top". Somehow we thought the fleece vests we had would do the job. [That's what I get for listening to REI salespeople who live in Central Texas and forget that it actually gets cold in exotic, faraway lands like...Canada.] Thankfully, Sea-to-Sky keeps a varied stash of gear for just such a situation and both of us were lent a pillowy, Primaloft zip-up top. We weren't the only ones requiring augmentation, however; Sue and Mike both borrowed trekking polls and I think Mike's entire food-kit (mug, bowl, spoon) was what Len brought to use while camping overnight with us.

We slashed a full 10 lbs a piece which was substantial as we ended up carrying over 45 lbs the entire trip as it was. Once everyone's gear was diplomatically streamlined (some more than others, I might add.) and we'd chosen our tents, we had our first real Team meal and meeting. M & K provided yummy hors d'oeuvres (Kelly's homemade salsa & chips and a veggie tray) while they trained us on some of the basic routines of setting up/taking down camp.

Some of the more enlightening:

We discussed the right way to pack your pack. First, you don't actually roll up your sleeping bag and painstakingly slide it into the stuff sack like the printed directions instruct. You shove it unceremoniously inside, using your fist; but only after lining the stuff sack with a large garbage bag for water-proofing. Duh. (After learning this, it seemed so obvious and I felt silly to have ever thought I actually needed to roll my sleeping bag up. Never again.) In addition you use another garbage bag inside the bottom of your pack to put the now-compressed sleeping bag/stuff sack. You want no spaces inside your backpack so you learn to cram and cajole everything into the inner crevices, in an effort to make your pack as compressed as possible. If your bag won't balance and stand on it's base without holding it, then you don't have it evenly packed. Heavy things are supposed to go towards the bottom and close to your back (usually). Food goes on top. Fuel always goes below (even though we didn't have to carry) so that if it leaks, you aren't risking your food. After only a few days, we quickly became skilled at this task.

We learned how to correctly put on a 40+ lbs BAP (Big Ass Pack) by yourself rather than the more popular hoist-it-on-with-no-consideration-of-your-back approach. Using your knee as a platform, you rest the pack there, then reach your arm through and pivot your hip to turn your shoulder into the bag. After slipping your other arm in, you lean far forward to adjust the weight, clipping and tightening your lower straps first. Of course, as Kelly pointed out, with a group of 11, there's no need to muscle packs on solo. Instead you hoist up someone else's while they slip into it and vice versa. Funny thing is, the tendency was to just do it yourself. Silly things like I don't want to bother someone else (who's only 5 feet away) or occasionally the male ego, quick to assist us females but unless you were very fast and already hefting its pack, brushed off any offer of help. Like many things, it took a few days to shed the rhythms of our normal lives and embrace those of the trail. The team did get better about accepting help (The offering of help was never a question.) [We also mastered speed tent take-down and peeing in close proximity to each other. -- At first, you had to be out of ear shot, then it was just behind their backs. Finally, as long as your back was turned, that was good enough. You know, like when toddlers cover their eyes and think you can't seem them? I'm just kidding. Mostly. ]

We also learned about proper food and Smellies storage. Smellies are any personal items that are flavored or have a scent which includes chapstick, toothpaste, lotion, soap, etc. Although the bears and cougars aren't stalking your every step, they do live on and around the WCT and the reason there are so few animal incidents is because most hikers have a healthy respect for said wildlife. Which means, when you camp, you don't leave any food/smellies in your tent and before retiring from the kitchen (translation = in the vicinity of the campfire), all food/smellies are stored in bear boxes or a bear hang. Most of the WCT campsites have one, sometimes two, bear boxes. These are raised metal storage containers that are bolted into the ground and can be locked with a carabiner. Our group of 11, however, could fill that up pretty fast so often times we made a bear hang instead. We tied all the food bags together and hoisted them up with rope into a tall tree. To be out of reach of the bears, it needs to be 15 ft off the ground and 10 ft out from the trunk and it's important to choose a tree that is far enough away from the tents so that if a bear does decide to come check it out, he's not lumbering through your sleeping bag to get there. Incidentally, my mother was notorious for leaving small, forgotten, bear-friendly items in her pockets, namely granola bars and chapstick. Despite my repeatedly teasing her that she was making us bear-bait, I guess the bears had already dined. (And don't ask me how the bear can smell the forgotten tube of chapstick in your cargo pants' pocket but can't smell it applied to your lips, not to mention your body or clothes that haven't really been washed for 9 days and surely smell tasty.)

We wrapped up our team pow-wow in time for 7 pm dinner reservations at the Port Renfrew Hotel & Restaurant. We walked around the bend and down the road to a modest building by the water for a delicious, home-cooked-tasting meal and an opportunity to get to know one another a bit better. We had your typical first-day-of-school round-robin where we each told why we were going on this trip. Mother got choked up saying that it was an opportunity for some serious mother/daughter bonding while I tried not to, as I said it was in honor of her birthday. In vain, I made an effort to explain why this trip was so important to me and to my mother. Looking back, I should have just quoted the first quote I wrote in my journal, by Henry David Thoreau:

"I went to the woods because I wished to live deliberately, to front
only the
essential facts of life and see if I could not learn what it had
to teach, and not,
when I came to die, discover that I had not lived."

Not that it was some sappy group therapy moment. Far from it. We enjoyed our last beers and sodas, John's fried calamari, covered a few more key topics and mostly talked and laughed. At Len. (Love you, Len!)

After our comfortably drawn out meal (followed by a less-comfortably-drawn-out wait for the bills to be sorted out.) we headed back to camp amongst the many weekend campers there with their trucks, campers, and dogs. (In a very real way, the busy, noisy beach was our last sense of civilization.) We had our first of many campfires but given that it was after 10 pm, we'd been on the road since 7 am, and Mark told us our wake up time would be 5am, Mother and I made our goodnights and headed to our little yellow tent. Too tired to write in our journals, our exhaustion won out over our excitement and we passed out. I wish I could say I dreamed some lovely, meaningful dream about the ocean and the trees and my feet growing into the sandy earth where I felt more content than ever before, but alas, I just slept like the dead.
[To keep reading, here's Day 1, Day 2]


  1. Awesome post! I can't wait to read about the rest of the trip!

    And I DO like to be named! It's Rae Ann! My blog is Critical Mass at! How was that for a shameless plug!

  2. What a great idea! i'm really enjoying your account of the trip and can't wait to read some more and try the granola!!

  3. Borderline outdoorsy but highly geeky folks (read: me) would be more inclined to do this sort of thing if there were more of Will & Jen's survival scenarios in effect. I totally want to do this to prove to myself I have the skills to rough it in case of Armageddon scenarios or zombie attacks.

    Sounds I just need to stick with Mom & Jen. :)

    More, more!

  4. You have really brought our trip to life, Jen. I have found it so hard to describe to people in a way that truly gives a feel for our amazing adventure. Your writing style brings together all the elements to make the story come alive and your sense of humor links all the facts together. Thanks, I can't wait to read all the way to the last day!! I love you "Big Much." Mamma

  5. OK... now I'm hooked. When is "the rest of the story" to be published?


  6. Next installment coming soon...maybe by August 19th. Thanks!

  7. What a great story teller you are! I love that the blog is colored Soft Sky and Buckaroo Blue. I love your humourous side comments - they really make it awesome! Thanks for enriching our lives with your blog!

  8. Hey Jen - came across your blog by accident - love it. Len

    Should be far more focus on me though. Remember - celebrity sells.

    Did the Tatshenshini rafting trip this past summer. Doesn't get any better than this.

    I'm entering blogisphere myself - little bits of everything related to my background and promotion of my new company. Call it Wilderness Grapevine

    Say hello to mom for me.

  9. At the Bamfield end of the West Coast Trail there is a unique annual music festival - Music By the Sea (from July 9th to July 17 this year)

    It features young virtuoso musicians from all over North America and beyond, who spend two weeks together rehearsing, improvising and composing. Then they give concerts in the afternoon and evening at a beautiful auditorium overlooking the Pacific .

    Details are at

  10. So do you have a escape plan if Zombies attack Austin? Lovely writing, I feel like I am there!