Life Lessons from the West Coast Trail
Back in 2014, when I was working full time in hospice, a colleague of mine who is a palliative care social worker started talking about her desire to do the infamous West Coast Trail on Vancouver Island in BC. It is one of the most stunning, yet challenging wilderness hikes in North America. I had heard of it before and love being in and connected to nature so when she said she was looking for someone to do it with I readily agreed. Honestly had no idea what I was getting myself into!!! Had never done a wilderness hike before. In preparation began training at a local canyon that has old growth trees, a clear mountain river and pathways to hike up the steep inclines. This allowed me to slowly build my endurance while adding weight in my pack to prepare for the minimal equipment and dried food we would need to carry on our backs to survive. I am strong but slight in build so any added weight in the backpack would need to be accommodated for.
When we finally arrived and fully committed to the experience, we were reminded by the park rangers that there is no cell phone reception and no clear way off the trail unless by rescue helicopter or sea access at specific locations. Thus, we were left alone with the elements and our own tenacity and wit to make it through. More than mere physical strength our mental attitudes and beliefs were faced and invited to be refined. There are black bears (we did come across one, but he was not threatening!) and the cougar sightings were unusually high on the trail that year. They tell you about the ladders you will encounter but once in the forest depths we came to realize they could be multiple stories high, narrow, wooden, with no safety harness to tether to. Often leaning against a cliff or rock wall our peripheral vision was on alert reminding us that with one wrong move and we could fall to death or injury while scaling their heights. If our boots were wet or muddy (especially when raining) each step either up or down had to be taken carefully. The ladders became my greatest source of both fear and accomplishment. It was the same within the forest trails, either crossing a slippery log, deep muddy patches that we could sink into or gnarly tree roots. Like complex puzzles at times, we had to traverse around or strategize our way through safely to avoid injury.
Some people were hurt throughout the week we were there, though few in number. Pushing themselves too hard, a fluke wrong move, slip of a boot and down they would go resulting in various injuries. Yet somehow other hikers seemed to show up just at the right time for added help and encouragement. Like the doctor and nurse from Germany who were hiking and just happened to arrive moments after a woman ahead of me slipped on a muddy patch while placing her poles against a rock wall. This caused her to lose her balance and the weight of her pack then forced her to fall backwards over a small but significant ledge by the ocean beach. The serendipitous arrival of the doctor and nurse was rather miraculous! Luckily the thick bushes, brambles and backpack softened her fall! They were able to reach her by a beach access further down the trail and attend to her well being. She did have a few scrapes and bruises but luckily no major injuries and went on to complete the hike! Then there was the young female rugby team we had met at one of the campsites the night before, who also happened to arrive just as I froze in fear and exhaustion, ready to give up, discouraged looking down at the endless ladders and rungs ahead. We were mid-point through the trail and I thought; “I just can’t do this anymore!!” Especially with the added weight of the backpack! The young women were amazing when they heard of my dilemma. Some of the team members went to the bottom, the others stayed with me at the top and cheered me on with lively, enthusiastic words as I descended rung by rung (with the pack!). Their energy helped me get through that patch of doubt and lifted my spirits re-igniting my determination to keep going. A gift indeed!! At another point my girl friend and I arrived at a beach location where a younger man with a knee injury was waiting for the search and rescue craft to arrive to pick him up. He had made his way from the forest depths (Brave soul!) to the seaside with the injury becoming more aggravated with increased pain. He was sitting alone, exhausted, discouraged and was too weak to carry his pack anymore. Could barely walk let alone stand. We were able to offer help, encouragement and get him into the rescue boat to get medical attention.
As we went deeper into the experience on the trail my internal mantras became; “slow and steady wins the race” and “you are not done until it is done”. Knowing that at any point something unexpected could happen it was important to focus attentively to each moment. Each step (or rung) led to another and slowly progress was made on this unique but fascinating journey of discovery and growth. Breaking it down that way, to simple steps in the moment, was much easier than thinking about the distance still ahead when tired and weary.
At the same time the grandeur of nature was all around. Stunning and so varied. With no outer distractions her magnificence became even more amplified. From the sound of the ocean waves to the starry night skies, brilliant moon, colourful sun rises and sunsets. The trees: strong, life giving in the breath and exchange of air they share with us. Have always loved trees! They somehow ground and comfort me. The smells in the forest and by the sea were rich to the senses. We could not help but be aware of the array of wildlife around us and the beautiful messages offered both individually and collectively through the mere presence of the animals. A reminder that in the most subtle there is untold beauty, depth, insight, and wisdom to be found. Nature was teaching us about life, survival, creativity, beauty, and connection to each other as well as something greater than ourselves in every moment. My dreams became heightened in the night providing much insight and healing as well. The beacon of a light house near the end of the trail reminded us all of the gift of a guiding presence even in stormy times. The experience changed me, and I continue to reflect on all that it taught me which still has influence now.
This story is shared for those facing illness, loss, or death which are all a distinct part of life itself. Slow and steady wins the race. Day at a time, breath at a time, baby steps. Open to the help all around. Lean into the subtle, to listen for the whispers of wisdom that will guide you. Try to remember that within each moment, despite the hardships, there is beauty at play if we can open our eyes and hearts to see. Love, connection and support can also be found, in unexpected ways, if we open to receive it. Even if cure does not take place, deep healing can occur. In this amazing journey we call life, take gentle care of your hearts, and remember to celebrate its gifts.