There are hundreds of moments spent evaluating risk in the outdoors: bears, cougars, rising tides, slippery ladders, kelp-covered rocks, hand-pulled cable cars, strangers, nights alone, inclement weather. As a soloist, there are no second opinions. Your choices are yours, alone, to own.
But to me, the most jarring solo-moment occurred while I was spending an evening alone, surrounded from afar by couples and groups of friends engrossed in their evening routines. I was overcome with sorrow, realizing that as a soloist, “my person” will not ever say to me: “remember that time we sat watching the waves crash onto the beach, where all we could see on the horizon was tonight’s darkness, and tomorrow’s light?”
Oh how easy it is to be lonely, sitting alone with my own soul.
But oh, how thankful I am, that this treasure of a coastline afforded me an affirmation of self that I’ve never possessed before. A confidence that I am brave, courageous, audacious, honest, gritty, witty. That I am worth listening to and worthy of being believed in—by myself, first and foremost—always.
DAY 1 // GORDON RIVER TO THRASHER COVE: 6KM
I looked at my feet dangling over the seat’s edge, calves brushing against the almost-too-hot heater. Thighs sweaty, sticking to the soft, grey plastic. I was first aboard the bus, and naturally, greeted with an abundance of potential seat selections. Nervous of my ability to hold down breakfast along the 2-hour dirt road to the trail head, I sat in the front row.
My pack had already been thrust into the back of the bus, my name checked off on the driver’s list of trekkers that would start today. I watched, deep in thought, as couples and trekking partners filled the bus. Their laughter, their shared excitement filled the air. I felt my own excitement bubbling up, twisting through my body like shivers on a cold day.
Here I was. Alone.
My first solo trek. Ever.
You see, over the past few weeks, I had longed for time on my own. Time in the wild, with only my two feet to guide me. It was an inexplicable urge, but even just the thought of doing so filled me with apprehension. There was no doubt in my mind that I was physically capable—after all, sleeping bag nights are my thing and I eat 10KM trail runs for breakfast. But sitting here, on this sticky bus seat, I was reminded of the grief-ridden horrors of my last trek and every run and race since then. My trepidation toward this trail stemmed from knowing that the outcome of this adventure would be entirely at the mercy of my ever-changing emotions.
But yet, here I was despite it all, alone.
Because two weeks ago, I happened to ask myself: if not now, when?
If I did not have the courage to step into the unknown, by myself, now, after all was seemingly lost—would I ever? And, if I stayed home would I be forfeiting this indelible bravery? Would I be wasting her death? Letting it fester in vain? Disappointing and failing her, again?
And with this, the decision was made.
Onto the trail I would go.
The white hair of the driver whisked through the doors as he pulled his lanky, weathered limbs underneath the wheel and stretched his feet onto the pedals. He looked at me, a crooked smile revealing his well-worn teeth.
“Are we ready?” He asked me, as if we shared a secret unknown and unnoticed by my fellow passengers.
“We’re ready.” I retorted, with defiant confidence.
My smile was full-brim. Contagious. I was wide-eyed as he pulled the lever that slammed the bus doors shut. The engine grumbled and we were off.
Two hours later, fervently holding my breakfast down (two pieces of rye toast with butter) in an oh-thank-goodness-I-can-see-our-destination-from-here kind-of way, the bus came to a halt. We made it. Step one complete. Vomit avoided. Thank goodness, because my credibility as a hiker was clearly already in question (in my own mind, at least!).
Today, I was sporting turquoise and pink trail runners, a pink down jacket, and black running short-shorts. The last thing I needed was to be THAT girl puking on the side of the road, holding up the adventure train.
The hikers lined up behind the bus as backpacks were lifted out, delicately handed to their respective owners—as if being afforded one last ceremonial moment of care before the upcoming, inevitable thrashing against boulders, dirt, and sand. I stood patient, stomach grumbling. My bag was the last to unload, effortlessly lifted out by the driver, a crease of skepticism furrowed into his brow. Smiling, I proudly strapped on my little pack—I had worked hard to shed off the pack-pounds over the past few months. I walked over to the orientation centre and rested my small (but mighty) bag against its wood-paneled wall, lined up beside my bus-mates’.
It’s size was immediately apparent. Nearly half that of the other bags.
I was so proud.
Side-eyes abound, I knew what they were thinking.
Yes. I looked a little unconventional. My bag was tiny. I was a little well-groomed. And no doubt, entirely “girly”. Potentially even incapable. Perhaps I would be an “amusing” one to watch on the trail. Perhaps they were concerned for my safety, wondering how I could be so naive to embark on my own, fragility and all. After all, these were the thoughts that were whisping through my own mind.
But, perhaps they looked my way in awe—an option I all-too-often forget to consider in my flurry of self doubt and social anxiety. Maybe the women were proud of my bravery to step forth on my own and conquer. Maybe the men were intimidated by my nonchalant, confident demeanor.
But, maybe not.
I veered away from their gaze, nervous that their unspoken doubts would infiltrate my psyche. I knew that I was experienced and that this was all that mattered. I silently reminded myself that I had likely covered more distance and more tent nights in a single summer than some of the other trekkers had in their entire lives. Once I got onto that trail, I knew that I could handle it. Wildlife, weather, and whatever else would come my way.
Besides, being the unexpected victor is one of my most beloved roles to play.
With a now settled, but grumbling, stomach there was no sense sticking around for long. I scoured the area for a scrap of food and came upon a gold mine. Seriously! How had no one else found this little campground store yet? I gathered my treasures and headed to a sizable rock, ready to catch some rays in the morning sun before the orientation began.
There I was, sitting perched on top of the rock. Looking towards the sunshine, breathing in deep, golden rays and my eau-de-bugspray, devouring my snack-treasures: two bags of Cadbury Mini Eggs and All Dressed Potato Chips. The perfect last meal, a civilization delicacy.
The other hikers ate their protein bars while watching my otherworldly consumption of sodium and refined sugar from across the parking lot.
I couldn’t blame them, really, I would have stared, too.
“This here looks like one of the best weather-weeks of the entire summer.”
The Parks Canada representative declared this jovially, sharing the Weather Network Report as our Trail Orientation Group exhaled with relief. Here we were, ready to embark on the Wet Coast Trail, yet the forecast predicted less than 1mm of rain each day. What was this dream?
In the next hour, our Parks Canada Rep cycled through the obligatory safety information: recent wildlife sightings, differences between bear, cougar, and wolf tracks and scat, tidal charts, and emergency rescue procedures.
“We have a soloist in this here Orientation Group”
The group’s gaze shifted towards me. Long, straight, brown hair. Sunshine-yellow long sleeve shirt. Nails recently shellacked with dusty pink polish. “Yep, that’s me! Rock on. Thanks for the shout-out, but nothing to see here!”, I thought, nervously hoping their attention would head back to the front of the room.
“The safest group size is four. You can make it work with three. But being a soloist is not ideal. It will definitely be a bit dodgy, no doubt, if you need a rescue.”
“Yikes! Thanks for the vote of confidence!” I thought, while smiling a “haha-that’s-funny” kind of smile.
We tumbled through a few more solo-hiker remarks before switching gears to Tsunami safety—a topic I have very little knowledge on, and was intrigued by. The presentation was full of important safety information, but similar to the solo-rescue topic, it went from intensity level 0-100 in 0.5 seconds:
“Once the earthquake has happened, you have 20 minutes to get to higher ground. So, you better know where the ladders are, and you better be able to beat the other hikers there. And guess what? You need to be prepared to survive multiple days on your own—in an emergency, rescue crews will come to the aid of metropolitan cities, not the 400 hikers on the West Coast Trail. And the chances of it happening in the daytime? Slim. Think about when you hear of earthquakes happening. That’s right, it’s very likely to happen at night.”
In that instant, I became convinced that daytime earthquakes simply did not exist. But, lacking any mental capacity to consider another catastrophe occurring in my life, I decided to leave the Orientation unafraid.
My first solo steps took me down the gravel road to the passenger ferry, which would soon be headed across the Gordon River to the trail head.
After excitedly tumbling off the passenger ferry, there were about 12 of us who were now standing at the trail head.
Here I was.
In a crowd, but all alone.
My adventure would begin with the inaugural, ultra steep West Coast Trail ladder. I let others take their ascent first, nervous to be singled-out as a “first mover” or “over-eager” hiker. Mostly, I didn’t want to slip, crash to the ground, and then end up stuck on my back, weighed down by my bag like a little helpless turtle, in front of everyone. When I look back I wonder why I cared, really. But even the slightest inkling of potential judgement always gets the best of me. (I’m working on this, I promise.) It seemed easy for the others to whip up the ladder, un-phased. But then it was my turn.
My hands were tingling as my legs said their goodbyes to steady ground. The ladder was at a 90-degree angle with the platform, and gravity betrayed me as it pulled heavy on my backpack, threatening me with visions of a horrid tumble into the warm embrace of the sand below.
The next rung.
The next rung.
Barely-there upward movement. I looked down and saw legs of jelly. Useless pieces of flesh! I was now halfway up, which to me was equivalent to a nightmare. But here, I had no choice but to ascend. Cool as a cucumber.
I pulled my body upward, eyes focused only on the rung directly in front of me. I rolled over onto my back as I reached the top of the platform. Phew. Solid ground. Only familiar, dirt ridden trails lay ahead.
My feet carried me along the trail in swift, formidable fashion. I made my way past the other hikers from the passenger ferry. As I caught up to each one, my soft, barely-there “excuse me” notified them of my presence before my well-trained legs placed distance between us.
There were no more hikers to pass.
It was just me. Alone.
Ahead of me and behind.
For the first time, this forest was mine.
And it was silent—as if the branches of the trees were filters, muffling all sounds as they traveled toward my ears. And as if the warm, summer air weighed all thoughts and all doubts downward, deep into the soft, soil-ridden ground. To be released. To be forgotten.
And as all my doubts slipped away, it was if the sticky film of grief that had ravenously built up on my skin since March shed off my body. As if my tender flesh was feeling crisp air brush against itself for the first time. Rejuvenated and refreshed. On one hand, I was mesmerized by my out-of-body, immense pride in my audacity and my bravery to be out here, but on the other, I became acutely aware that here I was alone, eerily exposed.
In anticipation of this moment, though, I had prepared. For the past few weeks (like a true over-planner) I had practiced my solo trekking by running through backcountry trails for entire days, all alone—learning how to tackle anything that would be thrown my way. As a result, I had already felt the discomfort of this exposure and had already experienced the two hemispheres of my brain internally debating my fate on a trail for hours on end. I was moderately well-conditioned for this eerie-aloneness—and although this did not alleviate the feeling, it gave me solace that I would be okay. That this would be okay. I think? I know.
I carried onward, tried to think less, and pretended this were just another day trip, solo on the trails.
With a kilometre-or-so left before reaching the first campsite, I had caught up with the group of hikers who had left on the earlier passenger ferry. We cheered each other along as we descended the last four ladders, breaking through the trees, and breathing in the salty ocean air of Thrasher Cove.
I looked down at my watch. 2PM. MUCH earlier than I had expected. I had heard the first portion of the trail (coming from the south terminus) was one of the most challenging. If this were true, it meant that I could handle the rest, no problem. I was relieved and ready. This would be okay.
There were A LOT more people at this campsite than I had imagined. By sunset, the number would reach about 35-40, strewn atop the sand alongside the edge of the bay. In retrospect, this made sense entirely. This campsite is often the first (north-bounders) or last (south-bounders) one that hikers stay at. Given the multi-directional intersection of hikers, there was a humorous, colourful mix of ultra-dirty and impeccably clean individuals. Ones with their stories already defined, and ones still hesitantly bracing themselves for the unknown.
I made my way down the beach, searching for a spot to set up camp—nerves akin to choosing a seat on the first day of class. Will this spot define the rest of my trip? Will I be a trail-outcast if I choose wrong? Will that group of trekkers think I am weird if I set up near to them? Who am I, even?
The choices were endless. If I were selecting using my Dad’s method, I would have set up my tent as far away from everyone as possible. But I was still a bit weary of my surroundings. Of being here alone. I decided to set up in this little nook 3/4 of the way down the beach, carefully guarded on three sides by driftwood logs and a massive boulder. There. In the crowd, but protected on all sides. Maybe this selection would define the rest of my trip. But if it did, I would be okay. After all, I wanted to come here alone. It was not my intention to find others to hike with—it was my intention to find a way to be content, just being with me.
I explored the beach, filtered some water and set up my camp. I looked at my watch. 2:45 PM. Hmm. Definitely too early for dinner. What to do. What to do.
I decided to sit against my boulder-tent-spot-barricade. In one spot. By myself. Doing nothing. For five hours. Unheard of, for me, really.
I sketched a picture into my journal, took a nap, and then here on this rock, I began to hiker-watch and reflect.
Years in the wild with my Dad taught me that there are three critical components for a successful outdoor adventure. All you need to be is: warm, dry, and well-fed. This has always been our outdoor-adventure golden rule—there is definitive fulfillment, inclusive of managing all hiccups, emergencies, and unexpected events, so long as these three needs are consistently met.
But here, poised against this rock, turquoise blue and dusty pink trucker’s hat covering my sun-kissed face, I couldn’t help but sift through and be thankful for the other “common sense” practices that had been infused into my outdoor-routine (courtesy of my adventuresome Dad, and our past wilderness experiences):
- Always address problems with your feet at the first sign of discomfort.
- Never pass a stream without re-filling your water.
- Push through your fatigue and set up camp as soon as you reach the site—then you can relax without concern if the weather turns.
- Always lay your gear on a log, not the beach. That sand shit gets into everything and wears down your gear quickly.
- Don’t ever put your germ-y, dirty hand into a bag of trail mix—instead, pour from the bag into your hand, and get your friends to, too. No one fairs well ingesting dirty camp germs.
- Set up your tent properly. Ensure the guy lines are taught, and that your tent fly will survive the rain. You don’t want to fix it at 2AM when the downpour begins.
- Pack your wet tent fly separate from your other gear, always. Bring a garbage bag specifically for this purpose. One piece of wet gear is better than all wet gear.
- When you wake up, pack up your sleeping bag, sleeping pad, and clothing before you leave your tent. You’ll always be ready for a quick getaway, if needed.
These were the common sense practices.
But, we also always had a few camp rules:
- All burps and other bodily sounds are perfectly acceptable. This unruly noise must, however, cease when we arrive back at the car.
- The person who cooks doesn’t need to wash the dishes. (Helllloooo, you can call me Chef-Madeline—aka, not a fan of cold, wet hands!).
- Don’t pick the M&M’s out of the trail mix. Okay, still guilty of this. When I was little though, I would switch mine and Dad’s trail mix containers after sifting all the chocolate goodies out of my own…lol, not cool I know. I don’t do it now though).
- Have fun, always. We love to smile. Even when the rain poured down all weekend, or when our distance or circumstance stretched me well beyond my comfort zone. This laughter and love and happiness is what I always, and continue to treasure most about our adventures.
As I reflected here in solo-silence, I couldn’t help but grin at how fortunate I have been to be consumed by adventure right from the beginning.
But what I realize now, is that these (and many other practical lessons) are not simply outdoor-adventure-takeaways. Rather, they are the tools that fill my self-sufficiency toolkit. Out here alone, I trek with the confidence that I have an adequate amount of knowledge to make smart, safe decisions. What I would learn throughout this trip, though, is that this knowledge keeps me safe in another equally important, and unintended way. You see, with this toolkit, I never look nor feel helpless. I need not ask for advice about filtering water, setting up camp, or reading tide charts.
I am not a damsel in distress.
I am not vulnerable.
Or so I thought.
As I arose from my rock, ready to begin making dinner, a young adult hiker sauntered past my camp.
“Wow. That’s a massive tent for this trail”
“Ugh, thanks,” I thought. I was already self-conscious about it’s large size, compared to the single-person tents most others had chosen to bring along—I felt like this larger tent made me less gear-ready than I should be (despite every other piece of gear being top-of-the-line minimalist).
But then, his next words abruptly cut through the warm, previously unstained summer air: “I should have left mine at home and stayed with you in yours.”
YIIIIKES, I thought, as full-body shivers radiated through my bones. Sir, there is a whole lotta NOPE in that sentence.
This being my first inappropriate trail encounter, I half-chuckled and replied, “no”. That was the only word I could muster through my shock and nerves. His declaration rendered me immediately uncomfortable. Was I safe here, out in the wild? Not from the bears, wolves, broken limbs, and the elements, but from members of my own primate-pack? Other humans?
I had considered this before I embarked, but suddenly, it had become real.
Because here I was, alone.
Maybe his words slipped out in jest. In fact, I am 99% certain in retrospect that I was entirely safe. But the reality is, at the time, it didn’t matter. They were said. And as they hit me they became irrevocable. They had instantly eroded my sense of safety out here in the wild. Irrespective of his original intention, every interaction with this fellow thereafter was tainted: when he hurriedly packed his gear and followed close behind me while I was leaving camp the next morning; when I could see him catching up to me while I was waiting at impassable tidal zones; when he proclaimed how proud he was that he could keep up with me; when hikers coming the other direction noted that he had mentioned me to them.
And, when he asked me multiple times what campsites I was planning to stay at—and I felt like I needed to lie in response.
Let me repeat that: I felt like I needed to lie in response.
I had started altering my behaviour, as a result of this man’s actions. I felt I needed to say a campsite that was further than I planned. To throw him off my trail and to discourage his continued pursuit by declaring I was hiking unattainable, out-of-reach distances. Because it was uncomfortable to consider that we might be the only two campers at the next site. Because I had no way of knowing his intentions. Maybe it was my misinterpretation, heightened by the eeriness I felt out here, in the wild, alone.
But, maybe not.
The beauty of the outdoors is that it does not discriminate—age, gender, or other similar factors do not determine your fate, but rather, your preparedness, thoughtfulness, and experience are the factors that lead to success or failure. It is a fact that provides me solace out in the wild. But in this instance, what frightened and disappointed me most was that a single sentence from this young man had reversed this, temporarily shattering the comfort and refuge that the outdoors provided me. One. Sentence.
Thank goodness I would shake him off my tail before the end of day two. The final words he would say to me, when I would lie about my next campsite destination one final time were: “you’re crazy”.
Adieu to you, too!
I shakily shook off his self-invitation into my tent, then proceeded to eat my freeze-dried dinner, drink my tea, and savour some sour gummy snakes—all before watching the sun slide down the horizon on this first solo-trek night of mine.
In my room-y, two-person tent, I lay snuggled in my sleeping bag ready for sleep—and closely resembling a long, lumpy green caterpillar. Like a soft, uninvited whisper, the threats of my Parks Canada orientation leader began to echo through my mind. I began to toss and turn.
“death, death, death”
“earthquakes happen at night”
“twenty minutes to safety”; “search crews won’t look for hikers”
“you better beat others to the ladders”
Despite years of backcountry kayaking along the West Coast, tsunamis while asleep had never entered my fraidy-cat mind. But now that this possibility had been so eloquently splattered into my trail orientation, a deep slumber was out of the question. I could not go to bed guilt free, knowing that I would have made the choice to sleep in disregard of impending doom. This choice would be a definitive regret in an emergency and I owed it to my family to survive any catastrophe out here.
Because if I didn’t survive, they might not, either.
Post traumatic fear-levels were clearly at an all time high this evening.
So yup, you guessed it. I got up, packed my bag tight, filtered a few litres of water, and made sure all emergency supplies were ready-to-rock if a quick escape was necessary.
DAY 2 // THRASHER COVE TO BONILLA POINT: 25KM
The heat of the summer sunshine radiated through my nylon tent walls, waking me earlier than anticipated. My intention was to time the tides right in order to hike along the coastline (instead of in the forest). At home, most often I find myself amidst mountains and trees, so here I would opt for the beach route any chance that I would get. How special would it be to hike alongside ocean waves all day long? In order to pass Owen Point a few kilometers away, the tide would need to be at its lowest.
Patience is not my strong suit, and I craved solo quiet time void of other hikers. So I decided I would pack up my gear early and head out along the boulder-filled-beach, slowly progressing toward Owen Point following the tide as it lazily worked its way outward.
Honestly, what an adventurous BLAST this section was. The trail guide promised boulders and BOY did it ever deliver. WILD. They started off small (a little google research confirm “cobbles” as the correct terminology). I carefully danced to and fro, dodging slippery seaweed in favour of sharp, sturdy barnacles—cringing each and every time my heavy feet crushed these little, not-so-alive-anymore ocean creatures into a million shards of shell, wondering if their life-sacrifice was worth my quick cadence.
As I carried onward, the rocks quickly turned into boulders twice my height, requiring the involvement of all four limbs to conquer. Rounding a few smaller points, I crossed paths with two men, all the way from Boulder, Colorado (lol… fitting I would meet them here, amidst this boulder-field).
“Where’s the rest of your group?” One of them asked.
“Oh it’s just me,” I responded. Beaming with pride.
I mentioned I was from Vancouver, and they looked less concerned, as-if being from Vancouver lent itself certifiable permission to be a little more adventure-seeking than the average bear. We exchanged pleasantries and wished each other well before continuing on in opposite directions.
Quicker-than-expected (around 9:00 AM), I arrived at Owen Point. BUT, as expected, the tide was much too high to clamor through the caves just yet. I propped myself against the point, ready to rest in the sunshine for the next few hours. Not too long after, other hikers would start to come into view: six in total before the tide would reach its lowest.
I couldn’t help but wonder if this were the same feeling contestants on the Amazing Race tv show experienced—you know, when they reach the airport first, and then find out that their flight isn’t for another two hours, and that all teams will catch up to them just in time to be on the same flight.
I mean, not like this is a race or anything—but I couldn’t help but consider the similarity, sans all competitive stress and a million dollar finisher prize.
Myself and the others hauled ourselves and our bags through the caves and around the point the moment that low tide hit. Past the point, we found ourselves hiking along massive tidal shelves jutting out from the old-as-time forest, surge channels weaving through the rock. To label it as ‘stunning’ would be the most magnificent understatement. Four hikers hurried along, and I found myself wandering slowly, aimlessly with the two remaining: a couple from Germany. It was as if my legs decided, without my knowledge, that we would savour this abundance, this otherworldly coastline for a a few moments more. That we would have all day to hurry along, so for now, we would saunter and explore.
Our silent hiking was disrupted by a SPLOOOOOOOOOOOSH-BOOOOM reverberating through the air.
Like a perfectly coordinated routine, the three of us looked outward to the ocean, to see a humpback’s tail flipping upward through the air and then diving back into the deep blue sea. We exchanged wide-eyed glances before picking up our speed, running with exhilaration toward the ocean shelf edge; claiming our front row seats to this morning’s whale-cinema.
With each breach of the whale from the water, about 30 feet from where we stood, the three of us became giddy, squealing and bouncing around in child-like wonder. As the humpback continued to feed and play onward, for nearly 45 minutes we raced across the shelf, zig-zagging and jumping between little surge channels (safely, I will add) to keep up, hearts beating wildly, cherishing every second with this prehistoric beast.
After the whale’s final descent, we slowed our pace, headed back into the trees, and popped out onto the final below-tide shelf of this stretch of the trail. The excitement subsided, we bid farewell to each other, and I carried on ahead, on this extra long, extra wide ocean shelf.
In this moment, all alone, engrossed by the high of my humpback encounter, the entire world was mine. And I was beaming.
I felt good.
And this feeling of good was momentarily unobstructed by the horrific days of my past. I felt privileged to be out here, alone. Joyously exploring tidal shelves and basking in sunshine, with not a care in the world except for the next step I would take. Because right here, hand-in-hand with the ocean swells. I had time. A concept that had previously been ripped and torn from the fibres of my existence. A concept I felt betrayed by. For the first time since March, time was not racing past me, slipping through my fingers. Here, time stopped, and the frozen suspension of the world was all mine.
As I stood gazing at the ocean, hiking onward with intention, the salty sea breeze whirled around me. And I let my body, finally, breathe it in.
I felt full.
I knew that I was privileged to obtain this feeling for more than a moment, here on the West Coast Trail, despite the heartbreaking, life-altering chaos that had led me here. This was my first fleeting moment of fullness since my Sister’s death.
A feeling I have not felt since.
I couldn’t help but wish that Marshall were here, convincing myself that if he were here it would redeem all of the excruciating pain we had endured together on the Sunshine Coast Trail, just a few months earlier.
But at the same time, as guilt-ridden as it is to admit,
I selfishly wanted this pure, moment of full to remain all mine.
I reached the buoy that denoted the entrance of the forest trail head, where I was required to bid adieu to this ocean shelf. Having spent much longer than anticipated on this stretch, it was time to put my head down, and get my feet moving. Over the next 20 kilometers, I would encounter:
- The section of the trail with the most concentrated number of ladders. Up, down, up, down, up, down, my arms and legs blasted (a little shakily, I will admit) through this section.
- The longest bridge on the entire trail—a suspension bridge that was only 8 inches wide, high above a river below, moving sideways, back and forth by the coastal winds. My dislike of heights was exceptionally apparent here, as I slowly shuffled across, heart racing, recognizing there was no other choice, and taking a video so that Marshall would fully understand how brave I was, once I got home.
- A fellow solo hiker, travelling in the opposite direction who was kind enough to share the weather report posted at Carmanah Lighthouse (…rain to come?…only time would tell…)
- A section of flat marshland, sparsely wooded, that cut through the typical forest routine. Through this section, along the well-maintained boardwalk, I flew quickly, afraid that the exposed forest would lead to a bear encounter.
Weary, but still determined, I arrived at Walbran Creek Campsite at 6:00 PM. High tide would be at about 8:30 PM, and I still had 2.5 KM on the beach before reaching my planned campsite. Decision time. Would I stay at Walbran? Or carry onward? There were a few factors to consider:
- Tides: I had ample time, so long as I moved quickly. Okay. Check. Safety confirmed.
- Impact on trip schedule: I knew it would be nice to reach Tsusiat Falls by tomorrow, one of the most popular campsites. Stopping early today may prevent me from doing so. Okay. Fine. Not the highest priority, but a reasonable consideration.
- Other hikers. I didn’t know where the young man from the first night would have stopped. It made me nervous to consider an encounter here. Also, this campsite was PACKED again. Maybe there would be more space at the next one?
Alright. Onward it is.
I cruised through Walbran campsite, laser focused on forward progress as I traipsed down the beach, heading toward the point. From the corner of my eye, I could see people watching as I hiked off into the beachy horizon, no doubt thinking, “what the heck is that girl doing, hiking through dinner”. I laughed a little to myself, picking my legs up extra high with each step, as they sunk deep into the sand. I knew I would make it, so, no problem.
The tide line was much lower than expected, giving me comfort that this was indeed a safe decision. As I rounded another point, there it came:
A boisterous clap of thunder reverberated through the air. To my right, I could see dark, monstrous storm clouds hanging over the forest. Come on, Maddie, keep your feet moving. But the clouds never crossed my path, they simply floated past about half a kilometer away. Nice.
Before I knew it, I had arrived at Bonilla Point. Or, at least, I thought I had? Without my glasses, I couldn’t really tell—and was a little bit nervous that I hadn’t reached the campsite yet. I squinted my eyes and could not see any tents. Fingers crossed, I continued closer to find two fellows with Bivvy sacks set up. They were surprised to see me this late. They didn’t know it, but I was overflowing with gratitude to see them.
The three of us sat huddled around the fire pit, eating our dinners. I would learn that this was a father-and-son duo, who were completing a section of the trail for the son’s 50th birthday. The two of them had hiked its entire length for his 25th birthday. The father (who I estimated to be mid-70s) grinned a weathered glow, sharing that his first time on this trail was over 50 years ago, when—get a load of this—they used a hand-drawn map to navigate. Wild. I could only imagine that as the reminiscent words fell from his mouth, that visions of adventures past and cherished, flashed vividly through his mind.
I sipped the rest of my tea before retiring to my tent. As I lay, being lulled to sleep by the sound of soft, almost nonexistent drops of rain falling on its fly, there were a few thoughts that floated in and out of my mind:
#1. Thank goodness for my two-person tent. With this much room, I could easily ensure each item of gear was stored dry without interfering with my sleeping space. (Even though I had been mightily embarrassed of it Day One) If the weather report was correct, this little 1.2 M x 2.0 M pocket of dryness would be essential over the coming days.
#2. I could have been at this campsite, alone. If this father-and-son had made a slightly different decision, I would have arrived at this campsite, in the rainy, foggy mist, alone. Just me, the trees, and the ocean breeze, AND the cougars, and bears, and tsunamis, and darkness. ALL ME. I have never been courageous enough to truly have a solo night in the wild, but as I lay here, I realized that if I had been thrust into this situation unintended, I would have been perfectly capable. Sometimes, the best way to learn to breathe is to simply be a fish out of water.
#3. How wild it was, to have this beach to ourselves. A few kilometers in either direction, the campsites were packed, yet by odd chance the three of us happened upon this special, unexpected moment of quiet. A temporary break from the trail’s social expectations, just for us.
DAY 3 // BONILLA POINT TO TSUSIAT FALLS: 25KM
My vision was fuzzy as I turned over and strained to see my clock: 6:12 AM. Okay. So you planned to be up this early. To get a head start on this longest day. Maybe if you sleep longer, the rain will subside?
Yea, probably. My eyes closed.
It was now 9:02 AM. I needed to leave.
And here it was: The Wet Coast Trail. My Dad’s words echoed in my mind: warm, dry, well-fed. That’s it. That’s all you need. You can do this.
Bring. It. On. H2O.
I lit my stove in my vestibule, carefully dodging rain drops as I ate my oatmeal. I lightly chuckled at this fogged in, rainy backdrop to my day. If this was my solo-trek test, I knew I could conquer it. I decided to begin the way any true adventurer would: additional sustenance. I decided to eat a whole chocolate bar to wash down the oatmeal and lighten the mood.
I donned extra layers for warmth, covered by my cutesy, well-worn turquoise rain jacket (inclusive of a massive yellow-brown stain where I put it through the washing machine with a package of Halls cough drops still in the pocket). I tucked my super cheap rain pants into my mini Salomon gaiters, pulled on my lululemon running gloves, and thrust the hood of my jacket over my braided hair. Warm. Dry. WELL fed.
I launched myself out of the tent, my 3/4-packed backpack in tow. I needed to keep this bag dry, just in case the rain continued all day and all night. But it was POURING. And I still needed to disassemble the tent before I could seal it up, watertight. How could I possibly solve this conundrum?
Ding Ding! My definitive genius moment had arisen. I grabbed my pack and rushed across the campsite to the outhouse which had, YOU GUESSED IT, a small wooden awning. The ONLY 2 foot by 3 foot dry spot on this entire wet, soggy, beach. A gift from the trail-heavens. Knowing with certainty that my pack would be dry, I hastily took the tent down, wrapping the fly in a black garbage bag before shoving it into my pack. Warm AND dry.
As I started on my way, I laughed. So hard. One of those big, full belly laughs. The ones where you are laughing at yourself, mostly. At the absurdity of finding yourself in the wildest, inconceivable situations.
How did I get here?
Where was I even going?
It was all hilarious, really.
Thank goodness for relentless positivity.
The world around me was misty-white as my feet trudged through the deep, loose sand. This would be the longest beach-stretch, the downpour muffling the boom of the surf waves as they crashed along the soggy sand.
I was proud of diligently keeping my feet dry, avoiding all tidal-pool, rainy day, and ocean-wave puddles. But as I approached Carmanah Creek, it was clear that a choice would need to be made. There was no evident way to get across the creek dry—the rain had swelled its width and depth and size. I almost said “ugh fuck it,” planning to wade through the shin deep water. But then I heard my Dad. Again. “Well-fed. Warm. DRY.”
UGH. Okaaaaay, Dad.
I looked to my right. There, about 100 meters away, suspended over the river, was the hand-pulled cable car that connected the trail from one side of the creek to the other. I had avoided all cable cars on the trail until now: they were typically easier to operate with at least two people and most of the creeks were completely dried up—so they just weren’t necessary. But, here I was. Endeavoring to keep my feet dry.
I climbed to the top of the cable car platform, and looked at this hand-powered beast. From the platform I could see about six people huddled away from the rain underneath a big blue tarp on the other side of the river.
“Great, spectators to my first cable car experiment catastrophe,” my brain instantly thought. Vivid visions of my poor little helpless self, stuck in the cable car in the middle of the ~30M crossing, unable to pull myself up the incline to reach the other side, raced through my mind.
Well, I thought, here we go. No choice but to try.
And also, surely in this rainstorm, one of these six people would give me a hand to get across this river? You know, lend a helping hand by pulling the cable from the other side. You know, silent-hiker-courtesy?
I hauled myself and my pack into the cable car and pushed off the slippery wooden platform. Weeeooooo! Like a short, uneventful roller coaster, I soared about three feet before my arms needed to get into the action. My little dangling limbs now raised, my soaking wet hands grasped the thick, metal cable, as my whole body engaged in movement.
With each triumphant full-body pull, the car moved about 12 inches. I side-eyed toward the group under the tarp, down below. They were now sitting, watching me like the morning’s entertainment as my arms slowly propelled me across the river, now soaked by the rain from head to toe. Now recognizing that this would be a solo endeavour, the thoughts in my mind quickly transitioned from “hmm I wish someone would give me a hand with this,” to “Don’t you dare get up on that platform now that I’m 3/4 of the way across! I do not need assistance! This is my triumph now, folks!”
Funny how our perspective can change so quickly.
I reached the platform on the other side, arms jelly, but aware of the feat completed. Two of the six hikers were at the base of platform, ready to hike in the opposite direction, their arrival at the platform perfectly timed to avoid helping me cross the creek.
I continued onward along the beach and then tidal shelves, consumed by the vast white-grey-rainy backdrop as before. As I marched defiantly away from the campsite, it was once again, serenely quiet.
Not a soul to be seen. Or heard.
For the first time on this trail, it was truly all me.
And I wouldn’t see another soul for the next ten kilometers.
I was alone.
I thought I would see another trekker while passing through Cribs Creek campsite, but it was eerily-abandoned. Moving off the beach and into the lush, broad-leaved campground, I was greeted by about one hundred colourful buoys strung from the trees. Almost ghost-like reminders of those who had been here before, but had since departed. I looked around, extremely nervous of a wildlife encounter.
I was mostly fearful of coming face-to-face with a cougar, as I was now close to the location of last week’s west coast trail cougar sighting, and my wildlife-response had not yet been tested in a truly vulnerable scenario. If I may add a small observation: it’s odd how my brain subconsciously convinces itself that a rainy, drizzly day dramatically multiplies the probability of a wildlife encounter. Rather irrational, really.
I had to use the washroom, so decided to haul my pack up the ladder to the outhouse. This action was taken under the thoughtful realization that if I peered out the door, and saw a cougar or other predatory mammal, I would have my bear spray and knife and communication device within arms reach. Maybe a little over-cautious, BUT, better safe than sorry.
Waves crashed along the tidal shelves as I slipped and slopped along the lichen covered rocks. I had timed the tides perfectly, but again, this drizzly day seemed to irrationally amplify the potential for danger. Or maaaaaybe, its the actually the sunny days that irrationally lull us trekkers into a sunshine-filled-false-sense-of-security? Just a thought.
The final stretch of beach before Nitinat Narrows—the halfway point of the trail, with another passenger ferry—was a wildlife-protected area. Hikers are not permitted to camp within this 2KM stretch due to high wildlife activity. But what does that reaaaaally mean? Well! As soon as I reached the beach, I knew. There were wolf and cougar tracks everywhere. Moving to and fro in every single direction, pressed gently and recently into the sand. It made me so uncomfortably nervous to be reminded of their presence, that I moved onto the forest trail for the final kilometre (I know, Dad! It’s better to encounter wildlife out in the open, but I just couldn’t handle it anymore). I reached Nitinat Narrows sans wildlife, just 35 minutes before the last passenger ferry of the day. Phew. Good push.
The last 6 KMs of the day felt like a bit of a race against the clock, to reach camp with ample time before sunset. It was, to say the least, a beautiful blur of events:
- At Nitinat Narrows I scarfed down a deep fried halibut, baked potato, two bags of chips, and a Mountain Dew.
- I received a private 2-minute passenger ferry ride, like a true queen, across Nitinat Narrows, operated by the Huu-ay-aht First Nations.
- I saw my first official bear scat in a heavily wooded section of the trail.
- The sunshine came out!! Seriously. How incredibly privileged am I?
- I ran, full-sprint into the end of a massive log (and received an awesome battle-bruise to boot!) while trying to get back onto the beach to see humpback whales.
- I juuuuuuuuuust squeaked through the “hole in the wall”—a massive sea arch near Tsusiat Point, before high tide.
Reaching the Tsusiat Falls campsite, I paced up and down the almost KM-long beach, searching for a place to set up camp. It. was. packed. Hikers clearly had their trekking-group enclaves set up, and I did not want to intrude on anyone’s space, uninvited. I decided to settle for a location about 20M from the bear cache and exit ladders (helloooooo tsunami!), void of any other trekkers. My self-conscious self (ugh I know, let’s get rid of her!) figured it would be easiest to let others make the choice to set up beside me.
The ones who eventually did were a group of 10 lovely women, all between the ages of 40-50. They invited me to join their campfire, but something kept me glued to my driftwood log. Maybe it was again the fear of intrusion. Of being invited only by one of the women. Because who knew if the others would be offended by my presence? Maybe it was pride in doing this trip “alone”, just me, the trees, and the sea. Maybe, in a worst case scenario, it was self-pity—some weird conclusion that I should punish myself to loneliness. There was a piece inside of me, thought, I know, that craved attention and connection, for someone to like me enough to invite me into their “group”, in order to satisfy some romanticized impression of what a trek “should be”. Or maybe to satisfy some deep-rooted lack of self confidence. But MAYBE it was just because I needed to be alone. Maybe I found myself glued to this log because what I actually needed was space for quiet and contemplation.
After all, that’s why I came here, wasn’t it?
As I sat alone this evening, I was surrounded by couples, groups of friends, and trekking-mates engrossed in their evening routines. They were cuddled up by the fire, sharing laughter over their meals, and pouring themselves over trail maps. I sat on this log, in front of remnants of campfires past, gazing into the horizon as it ever-so-gently hugged itself against the ocean’s deep, unforgiving blues. Tears quietly rolled down my sun-kissed cheeks.
Because, here I was, alone.
This solitude echoed an alarming truth that I was not yet ready to face. Here, on this log, alone, I was overcome with intense sorrow, realizing that as a soloist, “my person” would not ever say to me:
“Remember that time we sat watching the waves crash onto the beach? where all we could see on the horizon was tonight’s darkness and tomorrow’s light?”
This solo journey of mine would be condemned to fade over time, betrayed by the limitations of my own memory. This was the consequence of embarking on a solo journey. The smiles, joy, laughter, challenge, and triumph, would never be a shared experience. My heart ached as it dropped into the pit of agony that was my stomach. I decided I would finish my dinner and resolve myself to an early evening. If I could just manage to sleep through this pain, maybe tomorrow would be different.
Maybe I could start anew.
Maybe I wouldn’t feel lonely, sitting alone with my own soul.
In the moments that followed, it was as if the trail gods bestowed upon me their gift of mercy. A welcome distraction, a remedy to sooth the truths that had just unveiled themselves to me. A solo hiker clamored down the ladders in the smokey, almost-darkness of dusk. We will call him ‘B’.
“Is that your tent?”
“Yes.” (oh no, here we go again.)
“Cool. I have the same one. It’s a wicked tent.”
Despite there being hundreds of metres of beach space in each direction, B set up his tent in an area near mine and began prepping his dinner.
“Okay, universe“—I let my eyes gaze toward the cloudless sky, silently speaking to someone or something, I am not sure who or what—”I will embrace this aptly timed series of events. Any company is good company?”
“Are you planning on having a fire?”
“No. I don’t usually make a fire for one.”
“Well, how about a fire for two?”
Suave. Well played, Sir.
We scrounged the picked-over piles of driftwood, gathering enough for a small but mighty fire. There is nothing quite as comforting, quite as warm and home-y, as a campfire to steal the night away in the wilderness. Across my adventures, this warmth has often come from the fire itself—a blazing heat that cuts through wet and soggy, frigid cold days. Tonight though, this fire emitted its most treasured warmth—the conversation and laughter and stories that build shared experience.
B and I sat across the fire, each on our own logs. Solo, but together. He was 35 and completing the trail in three days. Today was his first. He was a forestry consultant with a love for shredding down snowy mountains. I distinctly remember his rather melancholic curiosity about my childhood adventures with my Dad. B’s Dad was now 92. Time to explore the outdoors together had passed him by even before his birth.
I don’t remember telling him my name. It didn’t matter, really. The fire reduced to embers while our conversation came to a close. As our eyes lifted from its amber glow, we noticed that the campsite was in silence, not a fire remained along the beach. Hikers were already tucked away in their sleeping bags, collecting much needed rest before early starts tomorrow. Sitting here, we had been too consumed by our conversation to notice the rising tide or the passing time. We put out the fire and each headed on our own way.
In the silence that followed I wandered to the edge of the beach and looked out toward the darkness to where I knew the ocean lay asleep. As the waves pattered lightly against the sandy shore, my lungs filled with fresh, salty air.
Such a clean breathe.
I retreated to my tent, pulled in my almost-dry clothes off the logs, and was ready for sleep. Tonight, I didn’t pack my bag for a tsunami.
Because I was content.
And also, fuck it.
DAY 4 // TSUSIAT FALLS TO DARLING RIVER: 12KM
Ready to embark on the next stretch, I thrust my pack onto my back and began to ascend the Tsusiat Beach ladders, placing myself deep into the forest. Today’s experience would include a number of trail types, as I watched the boardwalk transform from well-maintained to ultra-rough:
As I weaved in and out, between the forest and beaches this morning, I would have two encounters of note:
#1: At about the 22KM marker, walking along the ocean shelf, tide slowly creeping outwards, I could see a few hikers in front of me. One of them turned around, and the next thing I heard was “BEAR”. Low and behold, my first trail bear-encounter. There was a little black bear walking beside the shoreline—we were not sure if and where Momma Bear was, so we placed further distance between us and the bear. Waiting for the bear to move ahead doing its business, the seven of us slowly crept along the rocks for about two hours. There were three couples total: two from Saskatchewan and one from Germany, who had found themselves hiking together on Day One. They asked question upon question upon question, curious to know more about me, my gear, my experience, and why I was out here on this trail. We exchanged laughter, jokes, and pleasantries before the bear retreated into the forest. As I clamored to the front of the group, picking up my speed as the trail headed back into the woods, I heard a voice shouting out from behind me:
“Maddie! Two questions before you go!” One of the husbands asserted, “What size tent do you have? and what type of food are you eating?
Could this REALLY be? People were curious about my trail-trekking knowledge? Really???! I was ecstatic to share, beaming with pride, as I was considered an experience trekker that others could learn from. This. Was. The. BEST.
#2. Sitting with a granola bar at Tsocowis Creek, I crossed paths with another female, Ashley. She was also trekking solo, but for many more days than I. As creepy as it sounds, I had been lurking around on WCT facebook groups and had seen that she was starting the trail solo, in the opposite direction, a few days earlier than me. I thought I may run into her at some point, but realized that the chances of this would be pretty slim—that the universe would pretty much need to will this to happen. So it was WILD when I did (and lol Ashley if you read this, my apologies that this is so hilariously weird.) Ashley was a single Mom, and seemed like she needed this adventure just as much as me—I wouldn’t know just how true this was, until we later connected after both completing the trail.
I sat on the beach near Darling Creek East, mixed up a protein smoothie, intending to carry onward to my planned Darling Creek West campsite. The three couples caught up with me here, sharing their own snacks on a neighbouring log. I overheard them discussing the potential to stay here instead of Darling Creek West. In an instant, I was disappointed.
There was something about the final night of my trek, that made me not want to spend it alone. Like I craved a triumphant, connection-filled final evening. Like I had already satisfied the necessary solo-reflection requirement on Tsusiat Beach the evening before. That I had officially trekked solo, and that spending an evening with others would not diminish the “solo-ness” of this journey. I just didn’t want to spend this night alone.
But at the same time, it would be obvious to this group if I altered my plans now. They knew I had intended to reach Darling River. If I stayed, uninvited, would they think I was weird? That I was needy? That I had glommed onto their group, incapable of continuing on solo? I would spend the entire night worried of their judgment. I had no choice. And then, like some other fearless, self confident being had infiltrated my body, I watched from afar as the words shakily tumbled out of my mouth:
“Hey, do you mind if I tag along with you guys?”
“Oh! Of course, we’d love to have you around,” one of them replied.
Sometimes. Our own brains are our worst enemy.
All seven of us napped for an hour on the beach, hats pulled over our eyes, before doddling the last few KMs to the Darling Creek campsite.
Standing in a short line for the outhouse, I found myself in conversation with an older gentleman who had brought three generations of his family out onto the trail. They were on day one. I noted to him that it was so special for him to bring his loved ones out here, for this shared experience.
“I’ve been considering this a lot lately,” He responded, like the words needed to be let go from his conscious: “I am afraid that by embarking on adventures like this, I am setting up my grandson for unbearable pain, when I die. To have these memories that he must sift through and reflect upon. I was thinking that maybe there would be a benefit to being a grandparent who was not around—to spare him of the inevitable, a permanent hole in his heart. Do you think he will have a hole in his heart? My good friends just lost their twenty year old granddaughter, and as a result, I can’t help but consider.”
Internally, I thought: Yikes. What a time to hear this assertion. This thought about the impact of death, in the wake of my Sister’s. How coincidental that this man’s candid honesty would land into our conversation.
“Yes, but wouldn’t it be better to have a permanent hole, than to have nothing in your heart at all?” I replied, maybe telling myself, instead of him.
To back up my claim, I shared with him the wild outdoor adventures I had with my Dad growing up—how they are imprinted on me for the remainder of my lifetime.
“Has your Dad passed away?” he asked abruptly, in response.
“No, he hasn’t,” I replied, as my heart dropped into the pit of my stomach, now acutely understanding what it would mean to answer that question with “Yes”. And in that moment, all I wanted was to be with my Dad, on this adventure, together.
I thought about mentioning the death of my sister, as if sharing these details would add definitive credibility to my statements. But I didn’t. It didn’t quite feel right, because I hadn’t shared it with anyone on this trail yet—surely this haphazard moment of word vomit would lend itself to this discussion.
Back around the fire with the three couples, we shared laughter as questions and stories were exchanged over freeze-dried dinner. I, like my usual self, was reservedly quiet save for a well-timed quip or two. And then it came. THE question: “Maddie, do you have any siblings?”
Before I left on the trip, I had considered this question on multiple occasions. What would I say? Well, I would tell the truth, right? That’s my M.O., so why would I veer away from this? I felt that if told people the truth, they would understand why I was out here, solo, with more clarity. Some like, Cheryl Strayed in Wild kind-of shit. Yet here it was. And what I came to realize as the question was posed on this trip for the third time, was that in actuality I didn’t always tell the truth, I didn’t always crave for others to know my “why”:
To the young man who made me uneasy for days one and two: I told him I did not have any siblings. He did not deserve to know my Sister.
To B on the evening of our late-night fire and laughter: I told him that I had lost my Sister five months ago. That was it. He didn’t need to know the details.
To this group of six strangers, tonight: I blurted out the truth, because they were warm, and welcoming, and thoughtful. “I have an older brother, and my younger sister died five months ago, suicide.”
I looked around to sees eyes wide, mouths gaping. As if a nuclear bomb had detonated. As if the air between us was held hostage. There was an awkwardly long silence, the one you wait for before someone says, “just kidding!” at the end of an unpleasant story. I made eye contact with one of the women across the fire. She instantly burst into tears. I would later learn that she lost both of her parents last summer. Together, we moved away from the group to speak (i.e. cry) of our grief, our memories, our journeys, before hiding away into our tents for the evening.
Laying awake, I regretted my decision to share. To dampen the jovial air around the fire, to re-bring up this woman’s pain and suffering. I felt like this group now looked at me differently. Like I was damaged. Like the joyous, charismatic, adventurous individual they spent the day with was nothing but a facade.
But it wasn’t. That was me.
It’s still me, right?
DAY 5 // DARLING RIVER TO PACHENA BAY: 15 KM
The brown-grey colour of my tent fly blurred against its mesh inner lining, slowly becoming clear as I squinted through my puffy, i-cried-last-night-eyelids. I could hear the three couples packing up their gear. I decided to lay awake listening to their camp-packing-shuffle-and-departure, rather than emerging for an awkward, second-goodbye. After last night, there were no more words that needed to be said.
After their departure, in the serene, solo solitude of my final day on the West Coast Trail, I walked down the beach, looking to where the vivid blue skies touched the deep blue ocean. To where the bright rays of sunshine sparkled against the playful ocean waves. As if I were desperately soaking in every last moment of this paradise. And I began to notice that there was a definitive warmth flooding through my body, pulsing through my limbs, radiating through my mind, curling my lips into an irrevocable smile.
In this moment, I realized that out here on this trail, I had finally fallen in love with myself.
To understand the importance of this statement, you need to understand that finding this love for myself, this beautiful, assured feeling of worthiness, had been a challenge I have always faced. One that transcended the soul-shredding five-month journey with grief.
Because in reality, I have never before loved myself.
To understand the meaning of this statement, you need to understand that my first trauma was borderline invisible. So hidden that only a pocketful of my closest family have any idea of what I went through. Why, you ask? Why would I hide another trauma I’ve experienced when I am seemingly so confident at sharing my current journey of grief and suicide?
Because my first trauma was cloaked entirely by shame. I felt like this trauma was my fault. Like I had let it play out for so long, intentionally. Like I was simply too weak to end it, to move on, to be better, to deserve more. It didn’t just happen to me, I let it happen to me.
So here it goes.
From grade nine to grade eleven, the formative years of my almost-young-adulthood, I was in a verbally and psychologically abusive relationship.
There. I said it. It is now officially in writing. Eternally etched into unforgiving internet-land, to be tossed and consumed by all onlookers who have made it this far, to this reflection on my final day on the West Coast Trail. And as I read, and re-read, and edit, over and over again, I almost delete this section every time. But then I remind myself, that this is vulnerability. This fear. This fear, that when I hit “publish” ,will transform into courage. For better or for worse.
I’m not yet ready to share the details. Other than that his manipulative, obsessive acts isolated me from the ones I loved, from my dreams, and most detrimentally, from my self confidence and self worth. I was an island, slowly drowning at the mercy of his rising tides. I coped by obtaining stellar academic and athletic performance. These outlets were my desperate attempts to prove to myself that I was worthy of something, of anything. I thought they would prove it to him, too. But we all know that he already knew I was worthy, it was his intention to make sure I never did.
The end was messy. There were death threats. Police. My parents’ car spray painted multiple times. Myself being threatened with a tire iron by him and a pack of his buddies. I was no longer safe walking the streets of my own, childhood neighbourhood, alone. There were horrific nightmares when I went away to university—that he would somehow find me, living alone, sneak into my apartment on the ground floor, and hurt me.
How did it all end?
And for the first time in five years, I breathed.
And then I felt disgustingly inhumane, for breathing after someone’s death.
And even now, I am entirely conflicted. Conflicted because I am wasting valuable space in this post, breathing life into him when he has since been long put to rest. And I am also fearful. Fearful that someone he knows may read this and say that I am “tarnishing his memory” or “that wasn’t how that happened”, as if they have some omnipresent claim to assert what they believe, in the face of what I know to be fact. And I am distressed, because I have worked so hard to extinguish my fervent questioning of whether what happened was as I perceived it—because it did, and I know that now.
Since then, my family (knowingly) and my friends (unknowingly) have been slowly rebuilding my confidence. One little, frustrating sliver at a time. Carefully chipping away at the concrete walls of my existence.
But here, on my final day of the West Coast Trail, I had finally fallen in love with myself. The suffocating weight of my teenage trauma released itself, carried off by the warm summer winds. Never to be seen again.
I had not just found a piece of my grief journey; but of my entire journey.
Because it was here where I realized that this treasure of a coastline had afforded me a sense of self affirmation that I have never possessed before. A confidence that I am brave, courageous, audacious, honest, gritty, witty. I am worth listening to and worthy of being believed in—by myself, first and foremost—always.
But my heart and body curdled as my sadness began to surface. My dearest sister was not here to see it. This moment. The one where I finally found love for myself. Not just because she was my sister. But because she was the one who climbed into my bottom bunk bed and held my hand when I wept each night before I slept. My light amidst darkness. She was my treasure. The one whispering in my ear, reminding me that I would survive, even before we knew how seriously dire the situation was.
And the tears rolled down my cheeks, as I realized that in our story together, we were not given the chance to see each other survive.
I slowly packed up my tent.
Wandered back to the water to wash my dishes.
Carefully tucked my gear, my learnings, and my self-love into my pack.
It was time to leave.
But my feet wouldn’t move.
Because my heart yearned to stay.
In this forest and along these beaches.
Showered in sunshine.
Where it was momentarily “okay”.
I stared out toward the ocean longingly, desperately soaking in one last view, as if one more second would allow this warmth to become permanently etched into my memory, forever.
As I was leaving, the older gentleman from the outhouse lineup walked over to me, my guess was to wish me well on my final day.
“Good morning. I wanted to apologize for the discussion that I brought up last night. As I ruminated on in, I realized that it was inappropriate to bring up such dark conversation like that,” He said, to my surprise.
“Oh, it’s entirely okay. I think sometimes, our words come at the perfectly correct moment. My little Sister died five months ago. Your words were, in fact, a little bit comforting, serendipitous,” I replied, one or two tears releasing from my eyes, before adding:
“And you’re right, there will be a permanent hole”
As my words tumbled out, I could see the horror in his eyes. When I remember it now, I can still feel his pain of learning that he discussed death, by accident, with me. Without knowing that death had been looming over my life, a dark, oozing, inescapable cloud for the past five months.
He profusely apologized. And I wish I had found the words for him to sincerely believe that it was okay. Because it was. I was so thankful to be asked about death, to feel like my experience could be shared.
I started on the trail, heading home. Pleased that I had survived. I had thought countless times over these past five days that my family would be worried about me, out here, all alone. But today, I would send them a message confirming my triumph. Putting their minds and worries at rest.
And then it donned on me.
There was no guarantee that THEY had survived.
Because I knew now, all-too-well, that it takes only a few moments for everything to change. to shatter. to flip upside down. inside out.
I switched my phone off airplane mode, hiking uncharacteristically quickly, as if getting to bad news faster would make it easier. About fifteen minutes later, I heard a “DING!” There it was. The first message. I held my breath as I read, fearing the worst. It was my Mom, letting me know that my Dad and Husband had missed their intended ferry, and that they would be late to pick me up. (lol typical).
Check. Check. Check. 3/4 are safe.
There was no message from my Brother, but him and I didn’t typically message. I considered no news, good news. Check. He too, was safe.
Now with extra time, I slowly sauntered through the salal-covered trails, resting and laughing for a long while watching sea lions bark at each other near Pachena Point. Such, animals!
My heart fluttered as I walked out of the trail, onto the final beach section, toward the north-terminus orientation centre. Here I was. Different. But still me. Still. Me. Here, on the other side of this adventure. Carrying all of my pain, but no longer weighed down.
My Dad and Husband arrived to pick me up for our motorcycle ride home. As soon as they arrived, I word-vomited my tales from the trail, jumping up and down, slurring sentences and ideas and thoughts and moments with my contagious excitement. It was not until the next morning over breakfast that they would share that my Brother was experiencing another trauma. One that I hope to never understand, and one that is not mine to share.
When asked why they waited until the morning to share, my Husband and Dad said they couldn’t bear to tell me the night before. Because, for the first time since March, since my Sister’s death,
They saw me happy.
They saw me full.
They saw, me.
Oh, how thankful I am, that as a direct result of tragedy and trauma, this treasure of a coastline was able to afford me an affirmation of self that I’ve never possessed before. A confidence that I am brave, courageous, audacious, honest, gritty, witty. That I am worth listening to and worthy of being believed in—by myself, first and foremost—always.
If you are experiencing distressing or suicidal thoughts, I urge you please, to close your eyes. To breathe. To just get through this moment, to just get through today. You are loved. You are important. Behind the storm clouds, the sun still shines, and you will too. Please call the BC Suicide Hotline: 1-800-784-2433 or a friend, or a family member, or anyone.