Scenes in Adventure Learning (Part II): Reconnaissance

Juan de Fuca Recon w/ DSIt is the second day of spring, earlier the same year, and a colleague and I are shivering in soaking clothes in a damp ring of protective salal and cedar above Chin Beach. We are conducting reconnaissance on the Juan de Fuca Trail, assessing its relative difficulty, subjective and objective risks and hazards, and gauging the potential for the route to serve as a challenging option for the annual TALONS Adventure Trip.

Despite arriving on Vancouver Island in full sunshine yesterday, and beginning our hike under clear skies, the rain moved in on us last night and has yet to let up through the day’s first ten kilometres. We left Bear Beach at just before ten this morning and arrived at the emergency shelter above Chin Beach on the afternoon high tide, cutting us off from where the trail resumes at the western end. With an hour of slack tide to wait out we’ve hung our wet shirts on the lines in the front of the shelter to drip dry in the spring humidity and make warm lunches of hummus, bagels, and multiple cups of tea. We laugh at the accumulated years of graffiti adorning the walls.

Eventually we shudder back into our shirts and make our way down to the beach, where we’re waiting now for the tide to recede enough that we might gain the rocky bluff back up into the woods where the trail continues. Mist hangs in the air between the trees and gusts up the beach as the waves crash and rinse between the rocks. A group of five or six sea lions slithers toward the horizon beyond the breakers, and we wait, jogging on the spot, stepping up and down from a log by a sodden fire circle, and wandering through the prospective campsite.

When the tide falls we head back into the woods, tackling the second 10K section of steep, muddy, and root-laden walking between Chin and Sombrio Beach. The trail climbs, then descends, crosses swollen creeks that soak our boots and gaiters, then climbs again. All throughout the afternoon the rain continues to fall, but we don’t wear our rain gear because with our exertion the insides would be as wet as the outside; besides, we will surely need them come the evening.

The lightheartedness of our adventure yesterday has evapourated, or perhaps more appropriately been washed away, and we hike in relative silence: grunting, breathing heavily, laughing incredulously at the ferocity of the weather and the roughness of the trail. We are out here two months before the hiking season has properly begun, and many of the winter’s deadfall sitka spruces, calamitous landslides, and broken boardwalks have yet to be cleared or repaired. Later in the day we are ankle deep in muddy bogs on the ridgeline above Sombrio Point and the forest canopy blocks out the five o’clock light, making it horror-movie dark as the rain increases above our heads. In the next moment it is hailing angrily down through the cedar boughs and we are resigned to digging through our packs for jackets as the pellets sting our shoulders and frigid forearms.

Juan de Fuca Recon w/ DS

On Sombrio we fight back the first effects of hypothermia while we attempt to set the tarp and pitch our tent. My sleeping bag is soggy and our fingers ache working with the lightweight tarpline. We are on pace to complete the trail in three days – two days faster than our prospective trip with the teens later in the spring – and we are each unbelievably spent.

Tomorrow we will shuffle off the western terminus of the trail in Port Renfrew and ravenously inhale chicken wings and two beers before hitchhiking back to our car at China Beach before dark. I am almost thirty five and no stranger to challenging adventures in the woods, nor is Dave: even with our aching feet and blistering toe-nail beds, soaked gear and thousand-yard stares as we sit over ferry burgers on our way home, we are giddy and proud of our adventure.

But tonight, shivering in my sleeping bag while the rain blasts at the salal and sitka shelter beyond our tent, and throughout our encounters with knee-deep bogs, hundred metre cliffs above the Pacific, and the perilously slick log bridges and creek beds (one of which claims my sunglasses on the second morning of our adventure), I am struck with the magnitude of the trip seen through the eyes of my grade nine students. The thought that the trip may be beyond the capabilities of our group – or for one reason or another one or more of our student group will not complete the trail – becomes a focal point of the preparations to come.

“Let’s think about it,” Dave says sometime the next day while we take water and a break deep in the woods west of Sombrio Beach. “What are the snags, injuries or anxieties – reasons you’d need to stop or evacuate someone – and where are they going to happen out here?”

“If and when they walk off the end of this trail,” he adds. “They are going to be hardened warriors.”

We climb through the soaking rainforest, sweating in our rotten, muddy clothes, brainstorming various emergencies and evacuation procedures, as well as how to minimize our risks.

“Exactly,” I tell him, and set about making plans for the coming months and making that potential a reality.

Canada Day & Our Country's Parks

Last week I received an early-morning phone call

informing me that a friend of a friend had passed away over the weekend along the lengths of the Yellowhead Highway’s western flank, in Smithers, BC. Weary of the drive through the Fraser’s canyon and the sheer distance involved in traversing the province’s northern shoulder – some two thousand kilometers in all – I offered to provide vehicle and pilot to the expedition (this is where it can help to have vacationing teachers as friends) so long as we could round out the trip by cycling through the northern edges of the Rockies on the return trip. And at 11pm on the last day of June – last Tuesday – we resolved to leave the next morning for Smithers, and the funeral slated for Friday. The next morning, Canada Day, we stopped at Canadian Tire for a stove and several propane canisters, and lit out for the north.

In Chilliwack, we stopped at the Provincial Information Center by the Trans Canada, and procured nearly the entirety of the resources required for a 2500km road trip over five days: BC Parks & Road map, Camp Free BC guidebook, and regional parks descriptions for the Caribou, the Skeena, the Rockies, the North (yeah, simply, the North), as well as Lower Mainland and Coast. Aside from spending a night in Smithers in a hotel (whose drapes helped us sleep through a night that saw a mere three hours of night), we would live out of the car, making living rooms in campsites around the province.

I have made such voyages before, but never on such short notice. My sister and I have driven the country from Toronto to Vancouver, and spent a month in the wilds of Haida Gwaii, and yet even on a smaller scale, the ease our provincial parks put such explorations of our country’s natural beauty before our fingertips is a remarkable testament to that which we hold to be self-evident: that,

“as a public trust, [our parks] protect representative and special natural places within the Province’s Protected Areas System for world class conservation, outdoor recreation, education and scientific study.”

A. and I left for our trip on Canada Day, our national holiday, and set up tent, fire, sunset and the Tragically Hip on a perch above the Trans Canada Highway and Lac Le Hache. Far from a wilderness venture, our site was raked gravel, and came with sturdy picnic table, fire pit (and achingly dry pine that split and burned too easily), and also included waterfront view at $15 a night. From past experience, I knew that in driving aroundacross our country, the use of a Parks Road map will point out such overnight accommodations at two-to-three hundred kilometer intervals along Highway 1, but also many ulterior routes. But I had not truly contemplated how easy, how reachable, and how inexpensive such experiences could be, and realized that it showed an incredible amount of foresight for our legislators had written it into law that such plots, freckled across our highways and the natural expanses they lead to, be set aside to put future generations in touch with who they are, as citizens of Canada. To enjoy our parks is to view the country’s natural and human history in the spirit of the adventurous present, we thought that night, retiring to a sleep rock-a-byed by the rumbling of 18-wheelers on their night drives, winding through the capillaries of the Caribou.

The next morning we set our sights on the western reaches of the Yellowhead, to Smithers and the head of the Skeena Valley. With 700km to travel, and a date with a hotel that evening, we spanned our day around highway rest stops and campgrounds for meals and swims across the high country. Two years ago my sister and I followed the Yellowhead to its termination in Naikoon Provincial Park, on the Queen Charlotte Islands. But we misread the date of our sailing from Prince Rupert, and spent four days exploring the valley of the Seven Sisters, and the lakes along the Pacific Trunk Railway. Though not as awe inspiring as other corners of the Province, it felt on both trips as though I were exercising some patriotic duty to see and experience as much of my home as possible. Thoreau alluded to traveling in one’s home as important to that accomplished abroad, and while I don’t believe he imagined a sense of home reaching the lengths of BC’s farthest borders, I feel like these excursions make manifest this purpose.

With the funeral behind us on Friday afternoon we drove away from the afternoon sun, bound for Beaumont Provincial Park near Vanderhoof (the Geographical Center of British Columbia). But with the sun still high and the promise of the Rockies not far off, we drove through the northern capital of Prince George and found a Campsite Full sign outside Lake Pruden. Cause for momentary panic – as the long twilight had begun and Mt. Robson was more than an hour’s drive to our next such lodgings – we found that “overflow campers” had been diverted to the picnic area behind the beach. At the same cost ($15), we found ourselves baffled in the July moonrise accompanied by crying loons and the North’s trademark mosquitoes, black flies and noseeums, and retired to an early rest.

The next morning, still in the sun, the eastern border of the province barreled on toward us, opening the highway up into its cursive-writing dive into Mount Robson and the western Rockies. Mount Terry Fox reared up, bald and rounded at the edge of the highway, striking that chord that Douglas Coupland has spent a while tuning in each of our appreciation of the quintessential Canadian Hero. Looking up through the free steel binoculars in the rest area, I remembered standing at the foot of the man-made monument to Terry at the western tip of Lake Superior, and the furthest point reached during his Marathon of Hope. As a graduate of Coquitlam’s schools (just like Terry Fox), I didn’t feel myself a stranger to the mythology of the young man’s courage, inspiration, and the call to rise above, beyond and to become a symbol. But to be twenty two at the time and to see my young countryman in marble looking out at the greatest of the lakes was a Canadian moment rivaling any I have yet experienced.

Some few thousand miles west, into the promised land which Terry traveled as a picture of heroism which defies description, I looked up at the mountain bearing his name and thought about the land between these honoured points, and that it is the fabric of our country, our home, and diverse as the people who live upon it. But each of us is bound to this sense of distance,  and the immensity of our separation. In distance we are yet close.

At Mount Robson, we stayed in the spray of the Fraser headwaters as they begin their teeming glare out of the belly of the province to spill the land’s sediment into the Pacific. Here begins the highway that the Northwest Company would utilize in its efforts to reach the ocean; how much hope welled within those earliest explorers – Alexander MacKenzie, Simon Fraser & David Thompson, among others – when they sensed that these streams were to be the culmination of a continent, the end of the future? I waded into the freezing waters on Sunday morning, waited for the numbness to take my feet and shins (though in the meantime worried I would throw up from the pain of doing so) and submerged myself in the broiling eddy of the main current, stumbling and rolling against the riverbed before coming up.Later in the day, A. and I would each swim in the Thompson before stopping for a final night on the shores of Lac Le Jeune.

It may only be a Canadian ritual 1  to ceremonially immerse oneself in the waters of the various regions of one’s country, or in the least is exclusive to countries – where through frigid temperatures, dangerous currents or predatory animals – where rivers, lakes and the seas command human respect. Where the opportunity presents itself, I keep a tally in my mind of the local bodies of water I have swum in: from the Adriadic, Atlantic and Pacifics, to the Frasers, Thompsons Rivers, Cultas and Pure Lakes, among a host of others. I was raised a water child, swimming before I could walk, and to emerge from these waterways is to become a citizen of these places.

“I have been for a long period among the Rocky Mountains, but have never seen any thing equal to this country, for I cannot find words to describe our situation at times. We had to pass where no human being should venture. Yet in those places there is a regular footpath impressed, or rather indented, by frequent travelling upon the very rocks. And besides this, steps which are formed like a ladder, or the shrouds of a ship, by poles hangining onto one another anc crossed at certain distances with twigs and withes (tree boughts) suspended from the top to the foot of the precipices, and fastened at both ends to stones and trees furnished a safe and convenient passage to the Natives – but we, who had not the advantages of their experence, were often in imminent danger, when obliged to follow their example.”

Simon Fraser

Having journeyed north through Cache Creek and the Fraser Canyon, winding through Hell’s Gate and what must have seemed the apocalypse to Simon Fraser and his band of Norwesters, we spent Sunday passing through Valemount, Barrierre, Clearwater and the country north of Kamloops where Fraser first came south, along the Thompson. With the ghosts of the high country fading, we discarded the relics of the north en route back to life, civilization, and pavement.

We made it through Kamloops, filling up on what would be our trip’s final tank of gas, and stopped at Lac Le Jeune on the Coquillhalla Highway for our final night in the tent. RVs rumbled through the afternoon taking up sites, and

the moon rose on a cloudless, bugless night. We lit an early fire with a surplus of wood, and listened to a large family playing Wolf and the Townspeople up the hill from our site. Our fifth night out, we slept soundly amidst crickets in the surrounding grass.

Civilization came calling early the next morning however, with an industrial weed-whacker tackling deep swaths of the cricket-grass before the sounding of the dawn’s first rustling birds. Yawns and bed-headed tenters emerged quickly – checking watches, craning their necks to the overcast sky – and by 7:30 the camp was fully stirring, as the weed-whacking parks employee had continued his rounds through each of the campsite’s four concentric rings of sites. Our dusty wares were stowed and we stopped for coffees before arriving in Port Moody in the rain, 2512km under our tires in five days.


View Larger Map

  1. I say that this could be a Canadian phenomena based on two experiences: When my sister and I found ourselves within a stone’s throw of the St. Lawrence, in Montreal, grasping the history that had sailed that canal in the preceding four hundred years: as Canadians, something of us is born in rivers and lakes, as they meant the birth of our country. In BC, we are witness to not only the proximity to European and Native interaction with the land, but the millenia which have sculpted salmon’s relationship to the land within its waters. Such is this impulse in British Columbians that on a recent trip to Copenhagen with a large group of Canadians, several were instinctively drawn to diving from the corner of a busy downtown intersection into the channels of the Copenhagen River, yielding many inquisitive stares from the uninitiated European observers.