Preparing for our first trek after my sister’s death, I was under the romanticized impression that whisking myself into the Sunshine Coast’s mountainous solitude would resolve my grief. I was naively embarking on the search for a single ‘moment’ where I would begin to accept our harrowing story. Maybe what I found, instead, was that this trek was only one, painful piece of the puzzle—there would still be many pieces to gather before the picture will become clear enough to hold on to, and to move forward with. But maybe, just maybe, this piece afforded me somewhere to start, a beginning to my tumultuous journey with grief.
Growing up in the outdoors, I became enthralled by the ocean and the mountains. Together, they provided a warm, welcoming embrace. They were my place of refuge, reflection, and release—the place where I always stumbled-upon or scrounged-up wholehearted happiness.
When Rachel’s death stripped me of everything I supposedly knew about life, I reverted back to my only truth left. The oceans. The mountains. If I could not find happiness in the outdoors, how could I ever start to trickle it down into the other areas of my life that were desperately searching for it?
I needed to rebuild. The only thing I knew with even a semblance of clarity was that the outdoors would need to be my foundation.
So, just like that, the first adventure was on the horizon. I would start with the Sunshine Coast Trail. Enough distance to test myself in the wild, but close enough to home that I could abandon the trek at a moment’s notice. I considered embarking solo, but with my entirely unpredictable frenzy of emotions, we decided it would be best for my husband to join as well.
DAY 0 | GETTING THERE | 0 KM / 194 KM
Doddling through our morning routine, we packed the final items into our bags, picked up iced coffee and super-icy ice water, and headed to the ferry. We had timed our trip perfectly with the long weekend, and consequently, with ferry delays—alright, so we’d be there a little bit later than expected, but no sweat right?
Not at this moment at least.
All we would have to do in the last few hours of the day was drive up the coast, get onto another ferry, purchase four more lunches for our trek, drop our food bag at the mid-point of our trek, find some dinner, and then settle into our hotel for the night. *deep breath in*
Piece of cake, right?
I suppose as of now, the race was officially on.
I needed this trip, and I was convinced that this trip needed me, maybe a little too desperately. There was nothing that would stop me from getting onto that trail and getting to the end of it with some sort of revelation. So, with relentless positivity and spirits as high as they could be given the mess of what our lives currently were, we rushed onward.
STEP ONE: Drive up the coast, get onto another ferry, fend for some almost-enough-dinner. No problemo. We opted to let our stomachs stay on hungry-mode. The next ferry had much smaller vehicle capacity, and if we didn’t make it onto the 8:00 PM sailing, we would definitely be jeopardizing a calm start tomorrow morning. Good thing we forewent eating, because the ferry was jam-packed with <20 vehicles (lol). We headed to the teeny cafeteria to purchase some soup and crackers, and watched the sunset in solitude on the upstairs seating deck.
STEP TWO: Purchase four more lunches, drop our food bag at the pub. I am unsure if I am as effective of a planner as I claim to be, mostly due to my “oh we can definitely do this later” naivety. So when we didn’t actually have all of our food packed for the trip, it was no surprise that the Save-On-Foods in Powell River was closed, as well as every other grocery establishment. So we grabbed some gas, cleaned out the gas station of all its Cliff Bars, moved the lunches we did have into the first three days’ food bags, and headed onwards. We arrived at the Shingle Mill Pub at 9:50 PM, right on time for the hostess to be completely perplexed at Marshall’s declaration as he entered: “we’ve got a bag of food to store here”. After a few confused looks, the Shingle Mill Pub happily held onto our food drop bag (we had called ahead to let them know our intentions), which we would pick up three days into our trip.
STEP THREE: Settle into our hotel for the night. We knew that there was a 0% chance we would arrive at our hotel at a reasonable hour. We called ahead, and the staff at The Lund Resort placed our room key in a lock box near the lobby. This would be our final bed, shower, and flush toilet for the next eight days (Think about that! A moment of silence is much deserved for all of the taken-for-granted amenities in our lives…). We plugged in our power banks and quickly dozed into anticipatory slumber.
This was it.
DAY 1 | SARAH POINT TO MANZANITA HUT | 26 KM
We awoke to the sound of Jack Johnson’s “Banana Pancakes” two hours prior to the departure of our water taxi. We quickly showered (mmmm… last warm shower), packed up our remaining gear, and filled up the back of our VW Golf (a.k.a. “Wolfgang”) with all of the goodies that would greet us upon our return. An abundance of time spent in the wilderness has taught me that stashing some clean clothes and fun treats in your vehicle is the best gift you can give your future, finished-trek self.
We headed across the only street in this little seaside town to Nancy’s Bakery for a breakfast sandwich and cinnamon bun, as I had seen raving reviews online. To preface my next comment, I would like you to know that Marshall and I are self-proclaimed cinnamon bun aficionados. Anywhere and everywhere, we are consistently drawn in by the tantalizing scent of fresh baked buns.
The buns at Nancy’s Bakery were 3/10 on our cinna-scale, and we didn’t even eat the whole thing.
We were, however, still grateful to have a warm, cozy breakfast location for our last civilization-touchpoint.
Our next step was to park Wolfgang (that’s our VW Golf, previously my sister’s), at Lund Parking, which provides $5/day parking. A great rate, for a little sketchy, but a-ok lot. We left our keys with the lot attendant, and rushed down the road to make it on time to the water taxi.
This was IT!
This would be GREAT! Right?
We climbed aboard, headed for Sarah Point—the official, north-end starting point of the Sunshine Coast Trail. In the 15-minute water taxi ride, we became acquainted with the others aboard. A trio of elderly friends would be day-hiking from Sarah Point to Malaspina Bluffs; a young couple wearing all-black (so moody, so intimidating) would be thru-hiking the trail, another couple who had just completed a three-day trail section were water-taxi-ing back to their vehicle, and Taya, a brave, just-finished-first-year university student had mustered the courage to thru-hike solo.
In these moments, the love of the outdoors consumes us—Marshall and I are introverts, but we can’t escape our curiosity for learning about others who are undertaking their own journey, their own transformation. We yap-yap-yap’d the whole way, soaking in as much knowledge as we could, sharing our smiles, and cultivating our badass-but-ultra-friendly trail couple brand.
The water taxi dropped us off at Sarah Point. We clamored up the ocean-side rocks, grabbed our bags, let others start first, and then took a few pictures to remember the start of the trek. My proudest moment of the day (which would continue to be pride-inducing throughout the entire trip) was the small size of our backpacks. We’d been intently focused on reducing our pack weight after some less than comfortable experiences on previous trips.
My best piece of advice to lighten your load? Buy a smaller pack. You will always fill it to the brim. That’s exactly what we did. Myself, an Ultimate Direction 30L and Marshall, an Osprey 38L. These lighter bags meant we could wear our beloved Salomon Trail Runners, which allowed us to have a spring in our step for the entire trek.
After the wave of initial excitement and anticipation had subsided, I began to recognize that despite this lighter pack, my heart was the heaviest it had ever been. So heavy it had sunk deep into my abdomen, weighing down each step like a cinder block. I had nothing but the unending company of my own mind, which was intent on cycling through sadness repeatedly.
But I had many more steps to take.
And it was only Day One.
I could get through this.
“I need to get through this”
I told myself as tears began to silently roll down my cheeks.
My sheer will to be positive was enough for today. I managed to muster up the strength to keep a smile on for all 26 KM (Yes that is correct. NOT the 16 KM that was promised on the trail website).
Much to our surprise (and to others on the trail), there were discrepancies between our actual distances and the map distances for the duration of the trip. No problemo, we thought. Possibly comedic at this time, on Day One. We had covered much longer distances in our trail running excursions so we were confident that we could move through our planned distances despite this unexpected issue.
We arrived at our first hut with plenty of time to rest our feet, eat dinner, hang our food, and exchange pleasantries with our hut-mate Taya.
Watching the sun set against the deep blue ocean from our Manzanita Bluff vantage point, the reality I would wrestle with for the remainder of the trip became unequivocally apparent. Life was happening to me. I was sitting here, engulfed by beauty, but entirely detached. I was unable to let the beauty fill me with gratitude, with solace.
Maybe I could snap myself out of it, I thought.
Only time would tell.
With that, it was off to bed. Just us, our sleeping bags, Thermarests, and the wood-beam open-hut loft. We wanted to try-out the authentic hut-experience, so had decided to forgo our tent this evening.
DAY 2 | MANZANITA HUT TO RIEVELY HUT | 24 KM
What kept me awake during the hilarity of our first ‘hut’ night, you ask?:
- The buzz-buzz of mosquitos, followed by their silence when they found a juicy spot to land on our warm, exposed flesh.
- Mice scurrying along my hands and hair, and the thud-thud of the one that Marshall launched across the room after it landed on his face.
- Paranoia of a bear climbing up the ladder, opening up the loft hatch, and salivating at the sight of us sleeping soundly—his tasty dessert.
- Hot sweats—I seem to get these during late night panic attacks—as I pinned my sleeping bag to the floor to protect against spider-invaders.
- ‘Someone’ releasing their bladder out the second floor window of the hut—questionably appropriate, but a smidgen humorous in hindsight.
The entire night I tossed and turned, exhausted and struck by the thought, “there is NO way we can get through this trip on this little sleep each night”.
Tonight, we unanimously decided, we would set up the tent in the hut loft.
We awoke (can you awake from fake-almost-sleeping-sleep? Or are you simply already awake?) to the sweet pitter-patter of light rain on the hut roof. It wasn’t pouring, which meant we would grin-and-bear-it, gearing up in our rain attire. It drizzled for the majority of the morning but without the hot sun to slow us down, we made quick time sauntering through the forest.
Surrounded by the foliage of birch trees, my Sister’s words relentless cycled, like a broken record, through my mind today:
Look to the trees who brave new seasonsRachel Millsip
With the same branches
Who live new seasons
With fresh leaves.
I couldn’t help but respond in my mind, defeated, to her words: But what about those moments when the tree’s branches are bare, before the new leaves emerge? The ones where wind and rain thrash against bark, shredding it off and exposing soft, green, delicate wood?
No one mentioned these.
No one prepared me for these searingly painful moments of in-between.
My heart was heavy as I trudged forward, saddened that this hiking, this adventure, was not relieving any pain. Maybe it was making it worse.
The cloud-covered day meant that darkness would close in on us much faster than yesterday. With our GPS not aligning to the map, our nerves were abound, and we began questioning whether we had missed the hut. It’s always a wee bit nerve-wracking when you cannot find your intended destination for the evening. To quell these nerves, I often repeat un-contestable facts to myself:
“You have everything you need to survive on your back. So, you don’t reaaaaally need a campsite, do you? Sure, it may feel like you are a little bit more protected from wildlife, but how many hundreds of nights have you spent in your defenselessly thin, nylon-walled tent without any wildlife issues whatsoever? That’s right, all those nights. you’ve got this, you tough lady.”
Exhausted, we decided to press onward for another 15 minutes before letting our worries get the best of us.
Low and behold, we turned a corner and there was our solo-hiking-friend Taya who was just as confused as we were about the location of the next hut. After filtering 5 more litres of water and making it over the next ridge, we saw it: a newly renovated, three-walled-hut welcoming us right beside Rievely Pond.
We made dinner, tried hanging our food bag on three trees before achieving success, reviewed the trail maps for tomorrow, set up our tent in the loft (to avoid the mice and mosquitoes), and were lulled to sleep by the most WILD large-mammal groaning sound echoing to and fro around the lake.
DAY 3 | RIEVELY HUT TO INLAND LAKE HUT | 44 KM
I am a firm believer that the first few days of a trek are all about “finding your groove”. That is, identifying your comfortable speed and negotiating trail norms with your trekking partner (i.e. what does a “break” look like, how often do we need fresh water, how many photographs do we take, do we mention when the other one is starting to smell, etc.).
Marshall and I made it through days one and two with heavy hearts, aching despondence, and formidable positivity, but we knew that today would be the real test. It was supposed to be our longest day at 34 KM, but with the distance discrepancies, we would likely hike 40+ KMs today.
That’s cool, isn’t it?
That means Marshall would unintentionally travel his first one-day marathon distance! I was ecstatic for him.
I think he was “over-joyed” as well.
We were awoken bright and early by the same groaning sound from the night before. Deep, groaning BBBBRRROOOAAAAARRRs accompanied by THWACKS of (what sounded like) antlers against trees. The look on Marshall’s face was entirely worrisome (mine, too). We have encountered very few large mammals on our previous treks—it is difficult to convince yourself that all will be okay, if you have never had any safe animal encounters to lean back on.
Our daily oatmeal consumed, we packed our bags and started to slowly creep around the pond. A little embarrassing in hindsight, but our “slowly creep” was inclusive of wielding our bear spray at-the-ready, while loudly sing-song declaring, “heeeeeeey there, we’re just coming through, don’t want to bother you”. Taya, not yet having left the hut, must have thought it was hilarious.
Today was all about distance, which meant we would need to sacrifice “relaxation” time in favour of arriving at our destination before sunset.
I’ve often been questioned about our quick, determined hiking pace. On one occasion I noted to a man the number of days we would be taking for the trip, and he retorted that he and his wife “are taking double as many days, so that they can actually enjoy the trip”.
His words left an unpleasant aftertaste.
He did not know me, so how could bestow such a judgement?
I grew up with a Dad who LOVED spending the maximum possible number of days on a trip—with him, I’ve spent afternoons basking on beaches, days staring in tidal pools, and hours lollygagging along sea-life-rich coastlines. I understand how special it is to have these moments of silence, of still, of relaxation. But, becoming enveloped in the trail running world, I am now captivated by the thrill of moving quickly—challenging myself on technical downhills, sprinting through less-desirable, monotonous trail sections, and covering daily distances that are at the edge of my comfort zone. Right now, this is the aspect of the outdoors that provides me the utmost happiness. At the same time, I can still appreciate the validity of this man’s approach, and would not comment negatively on his choice to embark on a longer journey.
My interaction with this man prompted a steadfast reminder for both on and off the trails: never diminish another’s adventure, simply because they chose to complete it differently than you—for who are you to judge the way they’ve chosen to wake up fiercely, search for joy, or tackle their demons on the trail.
That being said, it would be dishonest if I claimed that there were 0 times where we wished we could have slowed down. There were two stand-out, gorgeous locations along the trail where we shoulda-coulda-woulda-slowed down if we had time on our side, and they were both today:
- Little Sliammon Lake. The lake was smooth, the sun was peaking through the clouds, and there was a canoe and paddle calling our names from the dock. Being only a few KMs into our day, we had no choice but to carry onward without the luxury of indulging.
- Tony Point. We would encounter this location later in the afternoon, as we hiked alongside the southern end of Powell Lake. As soon as we saw the Arbutus Trees and the smooth boulders plunging into the depths of the lake, we were salivating at the thought of a cliff-jump cool-off. Exhausted from the distance and the baking sun, but also behind schedule, we needed to keep moving.
We crested through the trees onto one of the rocky ridges of Scout Mountain, treated to the sight of Powell River and the Sunshine Coast Highway peaking in and out of the forest below. From this vantage, we could also see the mountainous landmass we had hiked since starting at Sarah Point 2.5 days earlier.
Seeing civilization from (what seemed like) a stone’s throw away was eerily unsettling. Here we were, covered in trekkers’ slime—that is, sunscreen, bug spray, and sweat, all fused together with relentless determination—but yet we could choose to walk down the mountain, back to the comfort of showers and beds at almost any moment. This was in stark contrast to previous treks, where we had been completely isolated.
The closeness of civilization’s hustle and bustle was a constant reminder that “normal life” (if I can call anything “normal” anymore), still existed—that there would always be an eventual return to “reality”.
This closeness to civilization also meant that it was just about time for a hearty Pub lunch. Warm, greasy food and beer. A cardinal rule of our trips is to ensure a pub, ice cream shop, or other food establishment is within close enough distance of our trail plan. Because really, if you are not trekking with the purpose of eating ALL the treats, are you really trekking?
Remember when we started our journey with only 3/7 lunches packed?
Today was also the day that we would fix this. Before heading to the pub, we took a three KM detour into Historic Powell River to fill this gap in our meal plan. The closest location to purchase groceries was Townsite Grocery, a Mom-and-Pop convenience store. It was unconventional, so we’d have to get a little bit creative. No problemo, we can manage that.
Here is a recount of the loot we scored:
- 1x Ichiban Soybean Paste Noodles
- 1x Annie’s Mac and Cheese
- 1x Package of Lipton Chicken Noodle Soup
- 1x Chicken Fried Rice Sidekick
- 6x Cliff Bars
- 1x Cold Bottle of Lemonade
- 1x Hershey’s Cookies & Cream Bar
With our snacks packed into our bags and sunscreen applied, we headed back to the Shingle Mill Pub and did some serious damage. I, the two-piece cod fish and chips, and Marshall, the Russian Sandwich and a beer (both meals with french fries, of course).
We would also retrieve our food drop bag from the pub at the end of the meal, packing the remaining 4 days of food into our already-pretty-stuffed backpacks. Quickly getting back onto the trail, we hiked 2-3 KMs along logging sites before finding the jackpot of trail amenities, a public washroom at Mowat Bay Park.
A flush toilet and sink with clean water that we could use to freshen up.
Ah! So lovely!
It was now mid-afternoon, and we were about 25 KMs into today’s hike. We left the park and continued up the switchbacks along Powell Lake, dodging garter snakes and toads. This is where we started to hike silently and without photos. It was as if we were preserving every ounce of energy for the hike itself, neither of us willing to ask the question, “will we be able to make it all the way to Inland Lake”.
Along this section of the trail, we also fell victim to a serious hiking no-no. We were almost out of water and did not stop at the first stream we saw. Let me tell you now, you are never on such short time that you cannot stop for water. It’s a necessity. Seriously. A phrase as old as time repeated in my mind, taunting me as we hiked along the cliff side, “water, water, all around, but not a drop to drink“. Tired, thirsty, and ready for a break, we found water just before reaching the Powell Lake Outdoor Learning Centre.
Water bags full, we continued in silence, overwhelmed by—now vocalized—will-we-get-to-this-campsite-in-time-worry. We made our way past the learning centre and into the trees. Just beyond Lost Lake (where we once again heard our groaning mammal friends), we entered into the shadow of the mountain. A little bit darker than we’d like, we hustled through the forest, fretting while pushing through the 1-2 KMs in the trees.
After hustling through uncomfortable almost-darkness, we (rather abruptly) broke through the trees onto the gravel path that circumnavigated the lake.
There was a moment of celebratory relief, “we made it”
We had five more KMs on the lake trail, but it was entirely flat, so it would be smooth sailing from here. All smiles.
With the pressure off, and the nerves gone, my celebration was whisked away almost as immediately as it had arrived.
Inland Lake is definitively gorgeous. Towering mountains surrounding its deep-green waters, the Lake’s beauty was elevated by the Golden Hour of the setting sun. I paused, looked up to the mountains against the radiant blue sky, and burst into tears. I knew this beauty was a fact, but I could not feel it. The view did not whisk me into unparalleled happiness. The mountains were just there, stretched out, an irrelevant backdrop, like a piece of faded, dusty wallpaper—once loved, but no more.
In less than an instant, I was overcome with spinning thoughts:
“I have traveled the world and have embarked on un-countable adventures, but I never took her with me. Why didn’t I? What if she had seen more? Would she have found the happiness she so desperately sought? Why didn’t I see that she needed these adventures, just as much as I needed them, too.”
“Oh how selfish I have been. Spending all my time on these adventures, without her. If I had only spent more time at home, I would have more of her. What I wouldn’t give to have more days, memories, laughter, tears, and love, with her. Maybe more time would have left a deeper hole in my heart, but at least I could have given her more of this beautiful planet to take with her, to hold on to.”
The tears continued to pour down my sun-kissed cheeks, as the permanence of death punched me in my gut, leaving me breathless.
We continued onward, and I was horrified at myself. Here I was, red-faced and eyelids filled to the brim with tears. No doubt, the many people passing us on this well-traveled park trail thought that I was this soft lady who couldn’t handle her husband pushing her to go further on the trail.
Head down, I pushed forward, holding back tears and turning my face away from all passersby. Right before the campsite, Marshall accidentally stepped on a mouse that scooted out across the trail. I was devastated at the sight of the poor guy, who did not get stepped on quite hard enough to be put out of his misery. I’d seen enough suffering already, and didn’t need this.
I became frazzled and my emotions were building, like a tea kettle ready to bubble over—I was going to explode.
We arrived at the Inland Lake Hut about half an hour before sunset. I had read that this was one of the smallest huts on the trail, but that it was also one of the disability-accessible huts.
How nice, I thought. That will be a great hut, I thought.
Oh how wrong I was!
If the hut didn’t look spooky enough from the outside, there was no way you could contest the dreary, horror-scene reality of its innards. And to think! This is the hut that was saved for those who are disabled!? I burst into tears at the thought of staying here tonight after this roller-coaster day. This feeling became even more overwhelming upon seeing the chains that were secured into the ground right where we were going to set up our tent:
“WHAT ARE THOSE FOR? WHY ARE THOSE HERE?”
(Yup… there it is… boom… the explosion)
In my exasperated, panicked state, it seemed perfectly reasonable that the only use of these chains were as modern torture devices borrowed from medieval times. Shout-out to poor, caring Marshall, who always navigates my pendulum of emotions with such bravery and class.
Nervous to be staying here alone, we moved swiftly to set up camp, eat dinner, hang our food, ignore the yet-again-groaning-mammal sounds, and hide away in our tent, just holding on until morning.
DAY 4 | INLAND LAKE HUT TO TIN HAT HUT | 34 KM
After my breakdown yesterday, I was relieved to wake this morning with an absence of tears, a twinge of contentment, and a beautiful sunrise lighting up the smooth-as-glass Inland Lake. Today was all climb, all the time. 23 KM (actually, 34 KM) up two mountains before we would reach Tin Hat Hut (one of the most coveted huts along the trail).
With high spirits we commenced our first climb toward Confederation Lake. The dew was still glistening in the morning light as we passed through the fern-covered trail— the sun had not yet graced this side of the mountain with its presence. Spider-web-destroying-stick in-hand, I forged onward and we climbed, climbed, climbed to the top of the mountain.
We arrived at Confederation Lake with time to lunch, laundry, and lounge before hitting the trail again. On today’s menu? Half of the Annie’s Mac and Cheese, as well as the package of Ichiban noodles. A well-rounded meal to fuel us for the second climb. The Confederation Lake Hut (the first winterized hut we had come across) welcomed us with its shady porch, and also gave us confidence that the Hut we would arrive at tonight would NOT be the same as Inland Lake.
We met our second climb with almost-the-same positive energy as our first. Bellies as full as they could reasonably be, we began to climb, learning that we would need to ration our snacks to make it through the remainder of the day. We made quick progress of the climb, the resulting downhill, and the long-grass-turned-apple-orchard, before reaching the base of Tin Hat Mountain.
Here it was.
Right smack in the afternoon heat.
The final climb of our day. It would be tough, but there was a fully winterized cabin up on that peak, calling our names. With limited water, and not a stream in sight, we began our trek upward. Shuffle-shuffle, our feet kept us moving through trails overgrown with Salal, alongside logging cut blocks. All the while we wondered where our next water source would be. Our unwarranted fears slowly convinced us that we had already passed the last one, and we began to imagine ourselves condemned to a parched evening at Tin Hat.
In hindsight, I do not know what was more humourous:
01. The fact that we thought we were even remotely close to Tin Hat Hut already — or —
02. That I forged onward with almost-unbearable thirst, refusing to drink any water after we saw a seasons-old “Pest Management Area” ribbon tied to a fallen log.
Exhaustion, hunger, and thirst clearly clouded the logical reasoning portion of my grey matter.
On this final climb of the day, I met my darkness.
The past eight weeks of grieving had left my soul barren; a wasteland without a scrap, not even a morsel to feed a starving vulture. I was trudging up the mountain switchbacks, one small, defeated step at a time.
I began asking myself frightening questions. Could I even move forward within this new reality of mine? Why was this tragedy bestowed upon me, my family, and my sister? What did we do for the universe to decide that this would now be our horrific story?
I started to visualize other tragedies that paralleled the permanence I, now, all-too-well understood: that my Marshall could fall down the mountain’s edge, and he would be gone, and it would be my fault. All because of my selfish need to find “something” out here, something I was not even sure existed anymore.
Why was I here, punishing myself? Punishing us?
I reminded Marshall that I was grateful for his presence, and that if I had embarked on this journey alone, I would have already quit. He responded, “maybe we need to”.
His words were heavy.
I kept hiking. We kept hiking.
You see, before this trip, my mind had conjured up this romanticized idea that if I went out and searched for it, the light and I would meet. We would meet on this trail and I would consume every ounce of it.
I would be full again.
But maybe the gift that the mountain gave me this day was to be face-to-face with my darkness, to have it stare right back at me; reveal itself; and show me all it had left.
Because at this depth, in the outdoors where I was stripped of everything, I had to make the choice to acknowledge this darkness and save myself.
I had to conquer this mountain alone, even though it felt like I had nothing else to give.
So I did.
And in this unintentional way, I gained a definitive power over my darkness.
I scrambled up the final ascent, cresting atop the last boulders to see the Tin Hat Hut and its wealth of occupants for this evening. With people in sight (as well as the relief of making it to the top in one piece), I was all smiles. A trio of hikers sat at a picnic table, watching our approach and offering celebratory “hello’s”. Their first question was posed while we were still out-of-breath from the climb,
“Where ya comin’ from today?”
“Oh, we came from Inland Lake”
And there it was, the reply that finally made me realize how much we had conquered, despite our unending grief:
“holy SHIT, seriously?!”.
I laughed. We all laughed.
It was a little bit ridiculous, now that he mentioned it.
The Tin Hat Hut was completely full of hikers, so we opted to tent-it-out tucked in-between some trees, away from the wind. Tonight’s dinner was Good-To-Go Thai Curry with Coconut Milk, ample amounts of Nuun water, and a delicious dessert of (my fave!) Backpacker’s Pantry Dark Chocolate Cheesecake. A hearty meal for mountain champions. While gorging on dinner, we listened to our campmates whisper and chuckle with each other about the hilarity of our journey today. We were proud this day (at the very least!) could reinforce our badass-but-ultra-friendly trail couple brand.
After conversations with our camp-mates, learning about their trail travels and tales, Marshall and I grabbed the maps and hid away in our tent to begin more serious discussions.
Let me be clear, I am not one to alter plans.
When I commit to a challenge, I fully intend to see it through.
It rips apart my pride to quit. Always.
But tonight the truth had hit us like a pile of bricks. We had toughed it out with heavy packs and hearts through 128 KM in just four days, and STILL managed to keep some semblance of a smile on our faces. Even by trail running standards, that distance would be a large undertaking. The map-to-GPS distance discrepancies were starting to catch up to us, and we needed to figure out a solution to salvage any potential “happiness” (can you even call it that?) remaining in this trek. Pouring over the maps, we realized that we would need to have a similar KM-load for three more days to complete the Sunshine Coast Trail in our allotted time frame. We could likely accomplish this in normal circumstances, but with grief weighing us down, we started to ask ourselves “why” it was so important to make it to the end at all costs.
The reality was that, it wasn’t.
It was nonsensical to push ourselves further, especially under our grief-ridden circumstances. The only fact that made this realization easier to swallow, was that the distance issues were entirely out of our control. It was not lack of planning, capabilities, or backpacking-ignorance that led to this decision. It was an external factor that we needed to respond to responsibly, in order to ensure our safety as well as our enjoyment of the rest of the trip. Our pride could, therefore, be set aside.
The decision to alter our route was finalized and I sent a message to my parents. We would have a rest day at Tin Hat Hat tomorrow. Over the remaining two days we would hike to the Southern End of Lois Lake. At this location, the trail crossed a road about 2-3 KM away from the highway—an easily accessible pick-up spot.
With a plan in place, it was much needed sweet dreams for us.
DAY 5 | TIN HAT HUT REST DAY | 6 KM
“Rest day” is not typically found in my vocabulary, let alone my trip plans. I am slowly learning how rejuvenating these can be, with each one that unintentionally slips into a trek.
Today would be one of these days. We woke up perfectly on time (aka, much later than usual), after all other hikers had left the mountain. It was just me, Marshall, and Tin Hat Hut. We leisurely ate our oats, avoided the bugs, and soaked in some rays.
Since we have a little extra time on this rest day of ours, I will share with you the verdict on some of our new gear, fully tested on the SCT:
- JetBoil MiniMo Regulated Cooking System. What an EXCEPTIONAL MACHINE. Until this trip, we had been users of the O.G. MSR Whisperlite setup. Realizing that we only reeeally boil water, we decided to give the JetBoil a go. Tried and timed, it lights with the flick of the igniter and boils 500 ML in <2 min at sea level. It also packs away nice and small, and includes a pot and small bowl (which covers the thermal plate). Marshall and I eat from the same pot (because we love each other and we HATE dishes) so it works well for us as a couple (and is not too heavy for a soloist). The piezo igniter broke on our first trip (yikes!), but it starts just as well with a regular lighter.
- Ultimate Direction Fastpack30. I managed to scoop up this pack from a previous season off of Craigslist for only $80 (seriously, what a steal!! Cha CHING! Dolla-bills back into the adventure-fund). The one I’ve linked is similar, albeit newer and a little smaller. It is slender with a low profile and just-enough pockets—absent of fancy bells and whistles, it keeps you feeling light and agile all day long. It does not have a hip belt, so if you’ve got it filled to the brim you will definitely feel it on your shoulders on longer days. My only qualm was that the water bladder is difficult to get in and out of the water-bladder-pouch in a pinch when the bag is full—but hey, if that’s the biggest problem in my day, I am super cool with it.
- MSR Trail Base Water Filter 4L. Shout-out to my Brother who bought this for us from our wedding registry, and took the liberty to get us the 4L bag instead of (our requested) 2L bag. I am too much of a trail-diva to use water purification tablets (although always carry them in our first aid kit), so have always preferred filtration systems. I also find peace in knowing that I have not made any human error—once my water is filtered, I am good-to-go. No waiting. No dis-colouration. No water-floaties. The system took a bit of fandangling to get the hang of, but worked well once we understood how to rid the air bubbles from the tubes. The 4L bag came in handy, too. If our water source was many KMs away from camp, we could fill up the four litres, carry it back to camp, and have plenty of water to filter as needed. No need to return to the stream, and no need to ration water incessantly.
Alright, back to our day on the mountain.
Under the blazing sun and now atop the final summit of Tin Hat Mountain, I found myself angry for the first time. Until now, I had taken genuine pride in myself for not experiencing the “anger” side of grief. I knew I would be burdened with deep sorrow and sadness for the remainder of my life, but I would not be mad. I refused to be mad.
I did not want to resent her. I did not want to blame her.
Because she was beautiful, and she would always be beautiful to me.
But on this mountain, I wanted to scream. I felt nothing. The world, again, was happening to me.
The 360-degree mountain view was just there.
The anger flushed over me and I realized that I was not mad at her, I was mad at this situation. Of having to experience the permanence of death. And I was afraid. Desperately afraid that I would not be able to feel again—how could I bare to live life without gratitude, laughter, and whole-hearted happiness? I was scared that this situation, this tragedy, had condemned me to a life of indifference.
Marshall and I sat on the mountain, first in conversation, then in silence. We knew all-too-well that more words would not make these feelings subside. We allowed ourselves to wallow for a while, before finding a way to keep moving on with our day. We snapped some pictures and headed back down the mountain to the “last water” stream—a 6 KM round-trip hike that would be much easier without our packs today.
When we returned to the Hut, our rest day’s precious downtime afforded us the opportunity to rearrange our food. We decided we would have a grand feast today. Why? Because (1) our packs will be lighter, and (2) everyone loves a good feast (especially the dehydrated, salt-and-flavour-packed, backpacking variety). In hindsight, this was one of our best decisions, as we seemed to have cumulative hiking hunger lurking just below the surface.
We were well satiated when the first hikers of the day crested the Tin Hat Mountain. It was a trio from Colorado with their skiddish rescue dog (a more-than-welcome-visitor, of course!). As I sat with my Nuun water on the Hut veranda, soaking in more rays and watching the group play cards, I heard an intriguing sentence:
“Hey, you guys, should we have Reese Puffs?”
In my mind, I was like, “what? no way”.
Another in the group retorted, “only if you brought milk, too”.
Ah, I got it now, it was just backpacker-jokes, the name-which-food-you-wish-you-had game. This is what I thought, at least, until she walked over to her bag and pulled out a whole box of Reese Puffs Cereal. (no milk though.)
Wild! I was obviously jealous.
A little while later, up over the hill comes Taya! Our solo-thru-hiker friend we hadn’t seen since the start of Day 3. She was surprised to see us on a rest day, and we spent the better part of the evening sharing our stories from the past days. We savoured the sunset as best we could.
There was, after all, rain pouring down on all of the peaks around us—except for ours. It was a little bit of weather-mercy, meant to be savoured, even if the circumstances made it difficult to do so.
A 5 AM start to conquer a long day tomorrow meant that we would retire to our tent early, with our fellow camp mates not too far behind us. But an hour or so into our slumber, with the dark of the night upon us, we heard the words, distance at first, but clearer and clearer as they approached:
“Okay guys, this is the moment of truth”
“There’s a bunch of gear in the hut, but NO ONE is here”
I lay in the tent awoken from the chaos and bewildered by these words. What was happening? I will tell you what was happening! This was the arrival of the HOOLIGANS! We heard their boisterous chit chat as they romped around the camp site (which had three tents and someone sleeping in the hut… not too difficult to find us, either). There had to be five or maybe six distinct voices in the crowd, accompanied by a barking dog. My deepest worry was that they would drink our water that was in the hut—I would be SO hangry tomorrow if I didn’t have water to make my oatmeal.
They continued to light a sizeable fire, situated perfectly to blow all its smoke directly onto our tent. As I covered my face with my sleeping-bag-smoke-mask, they began spilling their best raunchy nursing stories around the fire. Surely they knew we were here? Our tents truly couldn’t be missed.
“THESE FUCKERS AREN’T SLEEPING TONIGHT”
Yup. Okay. They knew we were here. In true Marshall fashion, monstrously irritated and ferociously passive, he got out of the tent. He walked towards the fire: “nice fire you got there”. Ooooo good one Marshall, I thought, it’s always good to start with compliments.
“Oh hey, do you want a smokie?” one of the Hooligans said.
This may have been the most disappointing moment in mine and Marshall’s relationship. The question hung for what felt like a lifetime. All I could think of is how much I could SO go for a smokie right now. Mmmm. So, so juicy and warm. But if we took this peace offering, would it mean that we condoned their tomfoolery? Or worse, that we would become their accomplices? Gah!
But then it came, Marshall’s almost-slow-motion, disappointing reply:
“Neeeeeoooooooooooooo, thaaaaaaank yooooooou”.
AGH. NO MARSHALL! At least get a smokie for our troubles!
The group did not get Marshall’s way-too-subtle hint. He wandered around to the outhouse and back, and we tolerated a half-party-esque-type-smokey-slumber.
DAY 6 | TIN HAT HUT TO WALT HILL HUT | 38 KM
We were tired, but ready to rock.
To our surprise, within minutes of us waking we heard the Hooligans’ alarms. What was going on? We hear them rush out of the Hut, still half-drunk from the night before, stumbling up to watch the sunrise. Marshall and I went about our typical morning routine, dodging a sea of sleeping bags and pillows scattered across the bottom floor of the hut, and accompanied by the garbage and beer cans they had left strewn across the mountain ridge. There was a half full bag of salt and vinegar chips on the counter. My favourite. I looked at them, salivating. Surely the Hooligans wouldn’t notice if these seemingly “disappeared”.
But at the same time, I heard the wise words of my Dad echoing in my head, “one of the greatest causes of getting sick on the trail is eating food from a bag that others have put their hands into”.
Agh. I guess you’re right, Dad.
As they came back, they spotted us.
We were those “fuckers”, now in the flesh, that didn’t get any sleep.
Heads hanging low and avoiding all eye contact, they continued their walk of shame through the camp site. Ooooooooo yes. The guilt had settled in. One girl said good morning to me. I just looked at her, sliced through her soul with my disappointment-eyes, and walked away in silence.
Ambiguous judgment is the best weapon in my tool kit.
We silently packed up and headed down the mountain.
What a hilarious way to start our day.
Heading down the mountain, we saw two pickup trucks parked about 3 KM away from the hut. It was clear that the Hooligans had driven the logging roads and scrambled up only the final crest of the trail. What an easily accessible, gorgeous weekend-trip destination for those living close to Powell River.
(I also want to be clear: Marshall and I love a good party. Laughter, drinking, fun—we are all for it and encourage it. But, we are also of the opinion that all parties can be executed in a courteous, polite, and clean manner. But, I digress.)
Today we opted to take the logging roads in favour of a shorter route. There was a more traditional trail we could have taken down the Eastern side of Tin Hat Mountain, but we had heard from other hikers that the distance was MUCH longer than what the map indicated. Knowing this, we headed down the roads, hiking through an inversion layer that separated two worlds—atop the mountain a sun-filled, golden hour. Below it, a misty mystery, with whisps of clouds twisting between the trees.
We would revel in this magic, just the two of us.
It was in this location that we would begin the longest stretch of our trek without seeing another person on the trail: 22KM.
We made quick progress up, down, over, and around logging cut blocks, while the sounds of large machinery echoed in the distance. It’s interesting isn’t it, that just over the ridge, no longer in plain view of the cities and the highways, entire mountainsides of trees had been felled.
Out of sight. Out of mind.
Debris scattered in all directions, roots unearthed, and wildlife un-sustained. The “deadness” of these cut blocks created an eerie hiking graveyard for the entirety of our morning.
We arrived at Elk Lake in high spirits, breathing the freshness of forest air deep into our lungs. This would be our lunch stop, a beautiful smooth-as-glass lake, cozily hugged by its surrounding trees, protected from the open wind that we previously experienced on Tin Hat Mountain. A canoe was tucked underneath the hut, an always-inviting but poorly-timed encounter. I have this habit when I see canoes like this. I envision Marshall and I, all The Notebook- or Little Mermaid-style paddling the canoe out into the middle of the lake.
Love. Laughter. Romance.
You know, all the good stuff.
I am always a tad melancholic when we have to leave a canoe behind untouched, for this reason. Sometimes, I wonder if I just romanticize it all. In this instance, however, I was happy to leave the Elk Lake canoe behind. You see, we had not even reached the boiling point on our JetBoil (which you’ll remember is only 60 seconds!) when the notoriously shrill buzz of mosquitoes filled the air. We zipped up our clothing, hoods over our heads, and used our headbands as face masks. If we had access to Google, we would have been searching how to bite these mosquitoes back.
We walked in circles as we ate, passing our lunch back and forth, attempting to avoid consuming a mouthful of extra protein with every bite.
Yum. It was time to move on.
Rounding the corner to Walt Hill Hut, we were pleased to see the trio of hikers who had welcomed us to Tin Hat two days prior, sitting on the front steps.
“You two sure do like those long distances, hey?”
“Absolutely” I retorted with confidence.
We had just traveled from Tin Hat to Walt Hill, which this trio had completed over the course of two days. We will be the first to admit that it was a LONG day, but we were content that we had moved quickly through some of the more mundane logging and ATV roads after Elk Lake. We silently reveled in conquering another day at this distance. It was adventurous, it was challenging, and it was all for ourselves—no one else.
And it was in this moment, at Walt Hill Hut, where we finally felt a semblance of strength along this trail.
Sun shining down on us, relaxed at the picnic table on our final evening, our “lesson” from the Sunshine Coast Trail revealed itself.
Today we had felt relatively okay.
A strange occurrence.
We were close to the end of our journey, the worst (of the trek, at least) was behind us. We knew that this relief was not necessarily because we had “gotten over” something on the trail. In fact, it likely only stemmed from nothing more than knowing that every step today was a step closer to home, to family, to loved ones.
But there was a light, and it was finally shining on us, here at Walt Hill Hut.
In our discussions at the table, Marshall and I reflected about what we had wanted, and what we had received from this trek. It was in this discussion that Marshall mentioned the single-most significant conclusion to help me fight through this trek and the remainder of my grief journey.
This trek was never destined to conjure up an”a-ha” moment that would resolve my grief. It was a single piece of the puzzle. There were many more to gather before I would even begin to see a picture clear enough to move forward with.
There it was.
My sigh of relief.
I had put so much unrealistic pressure on this trip, alone, to save me.
In actuality, this trip was not meant for resolution. It was to provide the understanding that I would have so much more to fight through, and that I would need to take ownership of finding my ‘pieces’.
A weight had lifted off my heavy heart, at least for today.
We watched our final Sunshine Coast Trail sunset as the valley below breathed in the sun’s rays before consuming the night’s darkness. Hidden away in the Walt Hill Hut, wood pellet stove burning, we and the trio shared full-bellied laughter that can only be the result of the most ridiculous trail stories: hiking in circles for hours, running into a man with no pants on, and learning that one of these ladies worked with the Hooligans!
We finished our night with a game of Yaniv. It was a new-to-us-but-easy-to-learn card game that one of the women had been taught by her Israeli friends. To those of you reading this who know me well, I am certain you would jubilantly attest to the declaration that I am highly competitive. But, to the unsuspecting individual, I keep this a low-key, lesser-known fact. I bring an immense focus to card and board games, learning silently but surely, and starting as an unsuspecting, mediocre player. But within a few rounds I take a certain twisted delight at rapidly gaining on the leader board and crushing my opponents when they give in to their hiking fatigue. Tonight was no exception.
After all “crushing” was complete, we retired to the loft for the evening.
Good night, dearest Sunshine Coast Trail.
DAY 7 | WALT HILL HUT TO SOUTH LOIS LAKE | 15 KM
Here we were. Our final day.
We were ready to leave and to bid farewell to the Sunshine Coast Trail. We woke up late and lazily packed up all of our gear. Heading down the mountain we quickly lost sight of Walt Hill Hut and our friends from the previous night. We twisted and turned along the trail, moving swiftly. After just 15 KM—and hiking through an area called Suicide Pass (awesome. as if we needed insensitive-trail-names on this trip)—the trail crossed Dixon Road.
The end of our trek.
Here we were, just the two of us, standing in celebration on this quiet, barren road.
When I had pictured being picked up, I will admit, it was a little bit different. I pictured us frolicking triumphantly out of the trail and onto the road, my parents’ red Grand Caravan a welcome sight, and a large embrace from my Mom and Dad, wrapping me in endless comfort.
It was the greeting I felt like I needed after this trek.
But alas, some moments do not transpire as planned. Our pick-up entourage was not due to arrive for an hour and a half, so we continued down the road to the LangBay Store in search of snacks: Salt and Vinegar Pringles, Hershey’s Cookies and Cream, a Sandwich, and an Iced Tea.
We sat alongside the road in anticipation. We were so ready to see them. And you know what they did? They drove past us on purpose!
They thought it was H I L A R I O U S.
lol. They are hilarious.
We clamored into the van with warm hearts, picked up Wolfgang from Lund, and headed to our Powell River hotel for the evening.
We weren’t home.
The truth is, maybe we will never, ever be home again.
But in these moments, we were in the presence of the ones we loved, those that still existed. All four of us were hurting. But, we were here.
And the weight of our battle was lighter—its load spread across our collective shoulders. Tonight, at this little hotel near Powell River, we were each others’ refuge.
We sipped our beers, let the tide lap against our toes, and drenched ourselves in solemn conversation before the night gave way to silence.
Grief stretches your mind, body, heart, and soul in every direction—both numbing and earth shattering all at once. But grief is the price of love. With the conclusion of our Sunshine Coast Trail trek, we became 194 KM closer to our picture. Maybe tomorrow, that means it will be a little bit clearer.