Humor, Humility & Other Things I Learned Hiking the West Coast Trail
To paraphrase Trails.com, backcountry hiking is all about human-powered travel in remote or difficult to access areas. You carry it all on your back and keep an avid watch for bears, wolves, cougars, etc. In other words… you’re on your own.
This isn’t a triumphant story of coming through obstacles to emerge victorious - it’s one about eating a heaping pile of humble pie, and how those 6 days forced me to face a side of myself I would have loved to keep hidden.
How Hard is the West Coast Trail?
The answer to this varies depending on physical fitness and hiking experience. One of the variables that make this hike so notoriously tough is the danger involved in such a wet, wild and unpredictable place.
Here are a few things that can shorten your lifespan on the WCT, according to Parks Canada’s official safety warning list.
- Hypothermia - we were there in the rainy season
- Bears, cougars and wolves
- The ocean - Tsunamis, high tides and storms
- Regular water - surge channels, not boiling your drinking water
- Falling down - everything’s wet. One slip and you knock your head/break a bone/twist an ankle - no cabs in the wilderness
- Bridges - sometimes all you have to cross a 100-foot drop full of jagged rocks is a damp, moss-covered, rickety split log set at a downward 30-degree angle toward the other side of the trail - handrail? What’s that?
- Ladders with near-busted rungs
The lovely Parks Canada staff do their best to maintain the trail, but this is a rainforest - soggy things rot faster, and that’s part of the un-bubble-wrapped adventure.
On top of the conditions, remoteness and sheer physical ability needed to complete this trip, a successful adventure will depend on your ability to keep your mind in the game.
In How Not to Die on the West Coast Trail, CBC News’ Andrew Chang describes the trail with ‘the ability to wear you down,’ and that’s exactly how it felt in the really low points. An erosion of my mental fortitude.
“What’s the big deal?” you might ask, “It’s just walking.”
That’s what I said.
Hitting a Mental Wall
Day 1 was a delightful 6-hour, 8km hike. We were fresh, excited to finally be on our long-planned adventure - and with no clue what to expect. It was beautiful, harder than I thought, but totally manageable. We had a fire before heading off to bed and it was cool to see how close the tide had washed up to our tent in the morning.
Then, I hit the wall.
Day 2 and 3 still blend together in a weary nightmare of the same scenery, turn after treed turn, bog after wet, sludgy bog.
Most people can comfortably walk at an average of 5km/hr, so Day 2 looked promising - the shortest day of all at 6km. Eight weary, wet and cold hours later, we ended up at camp - last to the party - with no hope of a fire. At that point, knowing how much more there was to go just stunted me.
Facing 4 identical days left a black cloud over my head. I was so far out of my comfort zone, with no reprieve, and giving up was not an option. I only had one thing to look forward to and that was getting out of here. So I focused on that to get myself through it.
What Did I Learn on West Coast Trail?
Mother Nature is Beautiful - and Powerful
Having a bad day? Not her problem.
It’s easily one of the most beautiful places I’ve ever been. There were quiet moments in the forest where we wouldn’t see another living soul for hours, and I’d pretend we were on some kind of magical boreal quest.
The best moments were when we did get to have a campfire after a full day’s hike. I don’t remember what we talked about, but I do remember feeling safer than I ever did in my downtown condo, and the waves crashing not far away from us soothed me into the best slumbers of my life.
Bathing in Tsusiat Falls’ freezing waterfall after a gruelling 17km hike with no fresh water and ever-increasing body aroma was amazing. Day 4’s rock jumping pools at the edge of the Pacific Ocean was my favorite day - it was dry!! That was the only day I walked in the lead of the group and we saw all kinds of urchins, fish, kelp and seaweed throughout the day.
But this was also the first time I ever actually faced death in my life.
The brightest memory of this was when we had a to cross a 100-meter channel to get to the next leg of the trail. No problem right? Except the undercurrent was so strong, it could sweep you out to sea. Japan was your next stop, but you’d have drowned long before that.
We had to take off our hiking boots to keep them dry, so all we had was our flip flops. You also had to unfasten the clips hugging your 50-pound backpack to you in case you did fall. Better the pack fall off and sail to Tokyo Disney than you.
Of course, we all made it across safely, but knowing how quickly Mother Nature could steal everything from us in a heartbeat never left my mind.
Humility - I Have a Lot to Work On
Whether you wake up in a really bad mood, you haven’t slept or you’re just hangry; we all have a place when we’re at our worst. Basically, when you get there, you’re done. You should probably lock yourself up in your room, have a bath, a glass of wine, etc. because the only way to come back from it is to find your comfort zone.
I lived in that mental head space for most of this trip. Yes, I was physically taxed as well, climbing hills, scrambling on tree roots and doing 70 ladders, 130 bridges and 4 cable cars, not to mention tripping over tree roots, feebly trying to parkour around yet another puddle to keep my poor feet dry, jumping across rock pools, scraping my hands. I remember just how mentally overwhelmed I was - and how unprepared.
It was devastating to learn that, despite all the success I’d experienced in my life, I didn’t have the mental stamina to draw from in this kind of challenge. Up to that point in my life, I’d been able to plow through anything I set my mind to.
I could think my way around a board room, but not out of this funk. I couldn’t get a handle on time - it was like hyper-mindfulness - I was only living in each minute, and the hours and days stretched so far ahead, it rendered me useless. I wasn’t even scared, but I couldn’t escape being so out of my element.
Sometimes, No One Cares When You’re Furious
Not having it. I’m done.
I’d like to apologize to that poor tree stump that bore the brunt of my Day 5 frustration, embarrassment and exhaustion. It waited patiently as I beat on it with my hiking pole, silently bearing my long rant of obscenities. It wasn’t that stump’s fault I’d just tripped and fallen for the 8th time, tweaking my neck and knee yet again.
The stump beating was one of the first times in my life I couldn’t carefully control myself - I didn’t have the mental fortitude to care. Despite being witness to my first adult tantrum, no one batted an eye. They silently waited for me to get it out of my system - and then we carried on. No judgment. Guess what, Sarah? No one else is thinking about you - so stop worrying about it.
I’m Tougher Than I Give Myself Credit For
Looking back on it now, I’m actually amazed I didn’t die. There were even glimmers of hope for me being brave. I wasn’t as scared as I thought I would be scaling a huge rock face from hell on a 30-degree sideways ladder to cross an Indiana Jones-shaky rope bridge over waters 500 feet down.
I wasn’t worried about the baby bear that cheerfully stumbled towards us as I had a private moment on a log. The baby bear followed us and we wondered where his mom was hanging out.
I even quit smoking while I was there.
It may have proved overwhelming at the time, but how easy is it for any of us to face our dark sides? We can all be kinder to ourselves, so I focus on the fact that I could have done a lot worse, and I should probably take some credit for that.
In Trying Moments, Think About Everyone Else
It would have helped everyone. Instead of getting stuck in my mental loop of frustration and childishness, I just had to take one look at my husband. HE WAS LOVING THIS. If I’d stopped to think about anyone but myself for even one second, I would have noticed:
- I wasn’t the only person having a hard time, I was just the most annoying
- At least 3 other people were living for this experience
- This would likely be the last time we’d all be together
- We were in a rainforest paradise
If I‘d looked up, I could have focused my desperation on cheering someone else up, on breaking tension with singing or stories, by sharing in the joy my husband was experiencing.
I chose to selfishly focus on the moments where I was miserable, just as much as I chose to celebrate my life and loved ones around the warm fire at the end of the day.
This gave me a measuring stick for who I do not ever want to be again. I can run a half-marathon, and I can hike one of the most difficult trails in North America. I did those things - but looking back, I did them without grace, patience or gratitude. I know I’m capable of anything I put my mind to - but it’s not always important what we accomplish, but how we carry ourselves that counts.
My WCT experience served to humbly remind me that there are some things in life I really suck at - but in a weird way, I’m lucky I was forced to face them. I’m not proud of my conduct, but it serves as a powerful reminder now when I feel mentally overwhelmed.
Even as I write this and look at other stories from people who have hiked this majestic Canadian trail - yes I was a sullen child for much of this trip, but I still did it - without even one blister.
I have a long way to go to find the strength, willpower and patience each of my 5 trailmates displayed, but I am humbled to have them in my life and am grateful they didn’t push me off one of those rickety rope bridges.
I spend way too much time in my own head.
Related article: A Meditation to Find Your Inner Happiness