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.

Scenes in Adventure Learning (Part I): Over, Under, Through

Arch

Aligning our departure from Chin Beach to the 8am low tide, our group of seventeen grade nine and ten students and four adult leaders set out around the rocky bluff at the western edge of the beach, walking in the shadow of towering sandstone cliffs. Groundwater drips down mossy walls and splatters on the slick boulders we navigate to the tune of clattering hiking poles and the gasps of narrowly avoided falls. To the west the bright blue sea is visible through the window of a dramatic granite arch extending from the forest.

One of our volunteer leaders and one of the grade tens ventures under the arch to assess the possibility of avoiding the abrupt headland interrupting our beach route, to no avail. Even with the low tide, the route under the arch runs out into shallow seawater and the threat of being surprised by rogue waves on the exposed point; we will have to go over.

It is the second morning we’ve woken up on the beach, having set out just after lunch from the China Beach parking lot at the eastern end of the Juan de Fuca Trail Saturday afternoon. We have hiked more than twenty kilometres with tents and food and water purification tablets, and as we set out onto the third day of the five-day trek, the most difficult sections of trail are behind us. Having surmounted the endless switchbacks and headlands of the merciless stretch between Bear Beach and Chin, the group is strong and confident, and sets about scaling the rocky archway without a break in collective stride. 

Arch BypassThe first few who make it up onto the bluff deposit their packs and hiking poles on the far side, and return to help others gain the ledge with encouraging words, outstretched hands, and assurances that what looms on the other side is “no worse than we’ve done so far.”

On the other side, the route descends sharply to the boulder-strewn beach over a five foot ledge that offers only an awkward bum-shuffle as a way down. Here, too, bags are shuttled briskly through helping hands; a guide line is set to balance reluctant shufflers;  encouragement and spotters collect on the beach to catch us as we resume the trail on the other side. A waist-height waterfall pours out of the sandstone onto the beach where we wet our faces and cool ourselves before continuing into the morning. A hundred other challenges will arise before the day is out, but no matter. The group is operating with a heightened focus on the goal at hand: to safely reach the end of the trail together.

Less than a kilometre down the rocky beach, we meet the buoys hanging in a tree that signal the trail ‘s shift inland, and clamour in a rough single file up and over the twisted roots of a sitka spruce hanging over the edge of a creek. For the next three days we will continue in this manner, immersed in the boundary between forest and sea, with everything we need to survive stowed away in brightly coloured packs and the awestruck glances of our teammates.

Twin Talons alumni Blog Abroad

Talons at Montague Harbour, Galiano Island 2010

Grade tens in the Talons program when we began our blogging experiment, Saskia and Ariana would be seniors at our school this year. Would be, of course, had they not each accepted scholarships and student-exchange opportunities in Belgium, and on Vancouver Island.

Luckily for those of us living and working back in the local Talons’ neighbourhood, they have continued to share their learning on a blog they began before either of them set sail this summer. And with the recent passing of Canadian Thanksgiving, each published reflections on their new lives and learning away from home.

Ariana, making a home on Vancouver Island, was able to make it back to the mainland for the holiday, and wrote about returning to her place in her home, as well as with her younger sister (current Talon, Bronwyn), and mother:

Today, while my three guests from Pearson explored Vancouver, I had a tea party with friends, picked beans with my mother, and chatted with my little sister. I discovered that, despite the shifted arrangement of my room, the deeper structures of my home – the connections between me and my friends and family – have stayed the same. I can still argue and laugh with my mother, be goofy with my friends, and laze on the couch with my little sister (after she scored two goals during her soccer game).   Before, I worried that as I began to belong at Pearson, Port Moody would feel less like home. I was wrong. It is comforting for me to know that, no matter, what, there is one place in the world that is mine. There is a room in a bright green house in the suburbs of Vancouver that I can count on to welcome me home.  

While Saskia, across the Atlantic:

…spent my first Thanksgiving away from home last week. While my family rolled out pumpkin pie dough and brought cranberry sauce to a simmer, I floated down the sluggish Meuse on a Rotary boat trip. Compared to rivers in British Columbia, the opaque brown water didn’t provide much scenic value. The three hours offered me plenty of time to chat with other exchanges students, however. My mind on Thanksgiving and home, we discussed clashing attitudes and ways of life.  

Because this is what the idea of exchange is about, is it not? To immerse oneself in a new culture, and find what it might have to teach us about ourselves.

But there is an added opportunity in an exchange that separates twins, I think (not being one, I can’t confirm), in that individuals who have shared nearly everything in their young lives set out on their own to discover not only a new place, but a new relationship with themselves, and a voice and perspective that isn’t as much shared as it is theirs alone:

The most challenging aspect of being an exchange student for me is not necessarily adjusting to the different attitudes and traditions themselves. What’s harder is the fact that people here can’t understand or appreciate where I come from. I have to be the one to justify my mismatched actions or ideas by underlining the disparities when I discover them. Otherwise, I quietly realize, accept and move on. When I wrote my Rotary application, I explained that I wanted a new view on home, to take another look at some of the realities I took for granted. It’s happening.

A Summer in Pictures

As a means of dusting off the blog after a long summer’s nap, I’ve embedded a collection of my Flickr photos from the last few months spent kayaking, concert-going, camping, hiking, and otherwise enjoying the peaks of a Pacific Coast summer. Above you’ll find the fruits of trips paddling in Port Moody’s Burrard Inlet, camping on Vancouver Island’s Sombrio Beach, Pemberton’s Blowdown Pass, and the Columbia River Valley for a Kings of Leon concert at the Gorge Amphitheatre.