You might wonder what was going through my head when I decided to sign up to hike the famed West Coast Trail. This 75km hike (that's about 50 miles for my American friends) is reputed worldwide for it's beauty and it's difficulty. It's as psychologically challenging as it is physically demanding. With precarious ladders that have over 200 rungs testing your vertigo, root systems that scream sprained ankle, boulders covered in ocean spray that send you skating all while managing a 50lb pack on your back make for a memorable experience.
I had heard about this famous West Coast Trail several years ago when I was but a mere novice hiker and was intrigued by it, looked it up and thought there was no way I could ever do anything like that but as life went on, as it does, I forgot about the trail almost entirely and became consumed with school and work. A series of events got me back into hiking last summer where hiking quickly became a healthy escape. I joined a couple of hiking clubs and began trekking around with complete strangers doing hikes I never dreamed I'd be able to do. Then last August my sister hooked me up with some friends of hers who were hiking to my little bit of paradise, Garibaldi Lake. Talk came up about the West Coast Trail which some of them were going to be doing later that month and the seed was planted...could I do this? No, no... I put it out of my mind, an 8 day hike is just unreasonable! But when they posted their pictures it was decided in my mind that the West Coast Trail had to be done. Let the research and training begin.
The West Coast Trail is one of the least straightforward hikes. It's long, with no real opportunity to bail once you're on it. It's hard to get to the trailheads, you need a water taxi at one end and it's a very long logging road ride from the other end. You truly are in the wilderness. You also need a permit to hike the trail, and with less than 25 permits issued for each end of the trail each day and the trail being a world wide attraction for experienced backpackers you can imagine the logistical nightmare and difficulty of getting on the trail. In the end I opted to do it through Sea to Sky Expeditions which is an AMAZING company. It meant less logistical stress for me plus I'd have a guide who could impart their wisdom and experience on me, a complete newb to the concept of overnight hiking.
Getting ready for the trail was a lot of work. Getting the gear was time consuming not to mention expensive. Who knew a decent backpack costs so much? Aside from the gear I started hiking any opportunity I had and blogged a bit about my experience of getting ready and posted pictures from my hikes. I read as much literature on the trail as I could and talked to people who were experienced on the trail and obsessively sifted through photos on flickr. The common thread among all those was that the trail would test you mentally as much if not more than physically.
The countdown began and I was so excited and anxious to get started. I had that pre-concert type of uneasiness of just wanting to get started already. On departure day I got up before 5am and arrived in time for the 3:30 orientation in Port Renfrew. We were given the low down in the orientation, they covered the trail and what to expect, animals that were a threat, what not to do and what to do and how to read a tide table. It took about an hour, we signed our permits that would be our passes for the ferry at the mid way point of the trail and would be used in case of emergency and in an evacuation. After the orientation and assignment and construction of tents it was off for one last "real meal" before bed. I thoroughly enjoyed the meal and treated myself to a cider and then our guides took us to the bay across from the trailhead and showed us the distance we'd be covering our first day. A mere 6 km but it would take us 9.5 hours to complete.
I don't sleep well in crammed tent space and on roots and rocks I have learned but the next morning I still felt energized and raring to go. We packed our bags, ate our instant oatmeal breakfast and were on our way to catch the first water taxi crossing and hit the trail. Our guides gave us a few helpful hints to keep in mind to help preserve energy and avoid injury as well as warned us to not get too discouraged at the slow progress of the first few days on the trail.
Day 1 on the trail was slow going. Averaging a km every hour and a half, it took nearly 9.5 hours to make it to the set of ladders that led down into camp. I was exhausted. We had been warned about a swell in the tide and did our best to find room for our tents close to the forest edge so as to avoid being awoken by the tide joining our sleep. The waves came within only a foot or so of my tent and splashed enthusiastically on one of the other tents during the night but all remained relatively dry. The sunset and sunrise at this camp were breathtaking and I was feeling confident in my abilities heading into the 2nd day of hiking.
Day 2 on the trail was, for me, the hardest. The boulders and I did not really feel a sense of bonding. I was sore and tired from an intense day of hiking and two nights of almost no sleep so my focus was not there and every step you had to take through the boulders seemed to promise injury. Dead fallen trees from the bluffs and forest above did not aid my progress through this brutal 3km of the trail but I did my best to push on. Toward the end of the boulders I was growing weary and fatigued and a little bit stressed about the way I had managed to lodge myself and my pack in between the massive pieces of stone so with a little bit of extra help I made it to the end of the boulders and past the first tide dependent part of the trail. We pushed on with little rest time to make it to Owen Point and the caves. This was something I was super excited about and it's only accessible at certain tide levels which thankfully our trip had been organized around so as to include this amazing spot. We saw seals not far from the caves and had fun climbing in and around them taking pictures and just generally enjoying the break from our packs and the chance to explore. We pushed on past Owen Point, staying on the beach for awhile before heading back inland and down a set of ladders and into Camper Bay which would be that evenings place to camp.
Day 3 according to the map should have been entirely done inland and is known as the "ladder day" which you understand why when you go through Cullite and Logan creeks. Our guide, having hiked the West Coast Trail somewhere's around 50 times knew that if the tides were in our favour we could stick to the beach for the first while. I think the biggest reason why this route is not indicated on the map is that there are a couple of difficult surge channel crossings and then the drop down into Sandstone creek is a bit of an adventure. I found the process of crossing surge channels initially a bit daunting but quickly grew in my confidence and ability to trust the people I was hiking with to catch and support me. We hiked up Sandstone creek where there are two options to get back onto the inland trail, both involve rope. I think this was an instance when I shouldn't have followed then majority cause man was that frightening and hard work for the upper body. Nothing like climbing up a mud slide and having to negotiate overtop of jutting roots and things. I got pretty mucky that day and then, just when you get to the top, there are ladders. And more ladders. Ladders that tilt, ladders that creak, ladders that shake, ladders that have over 200 rungs. Ladders are tiring. After the remaining half of the day spent crawling up and down ladders we called it a night at Walbran which was calm and peaceful. I soaked my swollen feet in the cold water and massaged my muscles to try and keep everything in working order. Day 3 was also my first cable car crossing. I have a very bright and colourful and large memory on my arm from that experience.
Day 4 started off in fog like the previous day. It was a short day, with only 9 km to hike and on reasonably easy terrain though I have to say sand and gravel really wears on the feet after awhile. The sun came out late in the morning and the fog lifted and it grew warm enough that when we arrived at our campsite at Carmanah Creek, we were able to wash in the creek and wash out our clothes a bit. It was a glorious afternoon, sitting on the beach enjoying the sun. I spotted a whale from camp that day too. The downside to this campsite was that the outhouse had no door. After resting up on the beach for a few hours we trudged our way, packless, down to Chez Moniques to eat food and see what the deal was on our food situation. We had found out that day that our food drop had been enjoyed by a bear so what food we would dine on would depend on what Chez Monique would happen to have lying around her little shack for weary hikers. I never thought I'd be enjoying ice wine and cheesecake on the most intense hike I've ever done, but there's a picture to prove it. After a delightful evening and afternoon of rest, we went back to camp, with a few treats in hand and tucked in for the night.
Day 5 we left Carmanah and headed to Monique's again for breakfast. This meant A. carrying less food and B. real food, not oatmeal. We did some final reassembling of our food stores and were on our way. We took a quick stop at Carmanah Light house and continued to trek our way through to a beach not far from Nitnat Narrows. One of the great things about hiking the WCT is you dont have to camp in just the designated camping areas so we made a luxury and chose a different beach so that we could have some space all to ourselves. This meant no outhouse however and I had an unfortunate incident with some sand and the ocean in the dusky dark of the evening.
Day 6 we hit Nitnat Narrows - fresh dungeness crab greeted us. This is one part on the trail where you must take a ferry to cross a river to the other side. Many weary trekkers indulge on the crab and salmon that they pull live from the ocean and kill and cook in front of your face. Being vegetarian I don't normally eat fish but I made an exception and shared a few bites of one persons crab and enjoyed a baked potato and chocolate bar for myself. After warming up by the woodstove and filling our tummies, Carl, our ferry driver gave us a special treat and took us for a boat ride out into the open ocean where we got to see an old tribal canoe that was one of many being gathered for ceremonial purposes amongst the different tribes along the coast. It was incredible to see this ancient canoe from hundreds of years ago, preserved,and being manned out in the open ocean. After crossing Nitnat and once on the trail again we stopped in at an old warrior village to see the remains of the long houses that were still at Tsuquanah Point. After hearing from Carl about the importance of this village, it was incredible to stand in this place with your eyes closed, imagining the 600 warriors that once lived there. A very different vibe indeed. We continued trekking and stopped at Tsusiat falls to take some pictures and use the washroom. One thing about the west coast trail is that if you want to use the outhouse there are three things, one of which must be present at all times. You must 1) require trekking poles to climb over, under logs. 2) there isn't a door AND you need trekking poles to get to the bathroom 3) if numbers 1 and 2 aren't present you must climb a ladder to arrive at the outhouse door. After our rest at Tsusiat and getting tangled in the logs in my attempt to use the washroom it was up another huge set of ladders and off to Klanwa Creek. This was a nice respite. I was super chilled this evening for some reason so i had all my layers on and was glued to the campfire.
Day 7 we made excellent time and arrived at Michigan creek very early despite having to get through 11 km that day. It was another day where the sun came out to warm our hearts and dry out clothes. Whales came particularly close to shore that day and I got some pretty good shots, I think! I didn't cart that extra lens for nothing! It was nice to arrive in camp early and have the entire evening to sit around the fire. It cooled off pretty quickly as the sun disappeared into fog again and the wind picked up but I still managed to roast a couple of marshmallows and our guides surprised us with a final night on the trail desert. A chocolate cherry fondue and kahlua to put in our coffee and hot chocolate! It was kind of fun to be around camp and to talk to people we had met along the trail. Michigan creek is the last place to camp, 12 km from the north end trailhead so it was a mixture of everyone finishing and people just beginning.
Day 8 we awoke to the thickest fog we had seen on the entire trip and everything was pretty well damp - all my clothes, my sleeping bag, my toque, everything. We got up at 5 am again so that we could make it out by 1 at the latest. 2km in we stopped off at Pachena Bay lighthouse and looked around a bit then took another small detour to watch some sea lions fighting and then it was push on to the finish. As we passed people just beginning their journey we could smell clean. At one point someone said "is that laundry detergent I smell?" Yes indeed, the promise of a shower was not too far away indeed! We arrived at the trail head around 12:30, greeted by our driver with a bottle of chilled coke cola and yummy oatmeal cookies. I went into the Parks office where we were signed out and weighed myself. I flaked out on the grass, peeled off some layers and my boots and we all reflected on the last 8 days. A 90 minute logging road ride had my stomach turning when we arrived in Port Alberni for lunch, a quick stop and it was back in the van headed toward Duke Point to catch the 5:45 ferry back to Vancouver. I arrived home around 10pm and was thrilled to feel hot water on my face and back though it took me a good couple of days to get all the camp fire smell out of my hair.
If I had the choice and someone would have given me another 8 days of food, I would have turned around and hiked back to Port Renfrew. I miss the open ocean and sitting around the camp fire already. It was an incredible experience that I'll never forget and I learned so much about myself in the process and what I was capable of achieving. I've never experienced so much encouragement and support or been pushed and challenged so much both mentally and physically. Everytime I doubted a step someone was there with a hand to offer or a positive word to pick me back up and keep me going and with every obstacle overcome I became more confident in my abilities. I hope to go and hike the trail again some day maybe on my own or with a close friend or maybe with a guide again but I'll be back again, I'm sure.
If you want to see some more of the photos that I took on this hike, you can see them at:
I am going to bet that a lot of fellow university students (and musicians in general!) can completely empathize with being burnt out. I haven't written in my blog in a very long time (too long!) and my excuse? Life happened. I ventured off into the "real" world, whatever that may be, and have attempted to make my own little niche in a competitive market all the while trying to stay on top of school, pay bills, practice (who would have thought!) and still have some semblance of sanity by having a life be that social or things I do for personal enjoyment. It's no wonder we musicians burn out, we're being pulled in a million different directions when all we, or at least all I want to do is practice. Wouldn't it be nice if I didnt have to do Schenkerian Analysis or Post-tonal matrix graphs? Actually, ok, I kind of enjoyed doing the matrices, but that's because it was one of the few points in theory I actually seemed to be good at. That all aside, it's no wonder we get burned out. If by some miracle our schedules don't make us crash our bodies eventually give out and tell us they need some TLC and rest so how is it that we combat this problem of burn out? I thought I had it figured out but after 3 years in university, trying to stay afloat in a double major, I realize I don't have it figured out! I know the recipe but I guess kind of like baking with yeast at different elevations, the bread doesn't always rise the same so even though the recipe is in essence the same, circumstance might alter the outcome.
This blog is going to be a little bit of reflection over the last few years, a bit of a rumination of how I've grown and changed, not just as a musician but as a person and how it has affected my playing sometimes for the better and sometimes for the worse, but overall how I think I've (hopefully) triumphed into a greater creative artist.
From the beginning of first year to the end of third year I've gone through pulling late nights and early morning to just learn all my music and stay on top of academics in 1st year to going through a "relearning" the violin in 2nd year after losing all the feeling in my hands and questioning if i should really be doing violin at all to finally discovering in 3rd year that there is life outside of the little, windowless cells known as practice rooms in the oddly coloured, poorly soundproofed, exceptionally grungy UBC school of music.
In the last three years I've worked with some incredible musicians and teachers, I've seen friends come and go and started to figure out who I can really trust to be there for the long haul. I've experienced the good and the bad of working with different teachers and instrumentalists and I perfected my skills at problem solving in a chamber ensemble. In first year, I overcame the challenges of having an uninspiring teacher and fought to get the teacher I wanted and had sacrificed a lot for to study with and mastered the art of not sleeping at night and instead became skilled at sleeping through choir and history class. In 2nd year I had my dream quartet, I loved everyone I played with and I had finally got the teacher I wanted and then my world crashed when my hands went numb and i became a medical mystery and had to work on how to relearn how to play the violin amidst other challenges that presented themselves in correlation with my hands. In 3rd year I learned what it meant to have a life outside of being chronically sick at home or at school. I started dancing again and I set a goal to feed my hiking and photography hobby (which I think, has vastly improved my musicality and my expressive capabilities) of tackling the famed West Coast Trail which I depart for early Monday morning - 75km, I'm so screwed! Anyway, in 3rd year I realized that sitting inside a windowless little box or sitting at home feeling frustrated and sick was not really feeding my expressive pallette, no one wants an emo Bach 3rd Partita, right? This year was really the best year in a lot of ways even though in others it's been hugely challenging as I've had to give serious thought and consideration to my future as a violin player versus teaching and composing - If anyone knows the cure for numb hands, let me know!
Anyways - so what does this have to do with burn out? Well, In first year I was naive and worked and overworked to try and stay on top. In 2nd year my body burned out for me and by the end of the 3rd year I've been feeling a little bit like, can I actually still play well enough to make a go of this? Burn out, I think, is contributed to and greatly aggravated by circumstance and self doubt. The minute you question your worth as a musician (or anything else) you set yourself up to fall flat on your face. Of course you can never entirely prevent something like getting burnt out from happening, but I think having a balanced lifestyle and making sure you keep some perspective on the "real world" outside of the practice room can help a ton!
More entries: May 2009
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