Adventure on the West Coast Trail

In the fall of 2003, a wild and crazy plan was set into motion by the chance meeting of two dreamers. The setting was the gymnasium of the G.F. Strong Rehab Centre in Vancouver, B.C., where I and two other quadriplegic guys had just finished telling amazing stories about climbing mountains — including Kilimanjaro and Garibaldi — to a rapt audience.

Afterwards, Corby Peterson, a film student and aspiring filmmaker, and Rachel Footman, an occupational therapist, approached me. Corby hinted that we could do something creative involving nature, disability and blowing people’s minds! I half-jokingly threw out the idea of doing the West Coast Trail (WCT) together. We all laughed, knowing how ridiculous it was, but we immediately started relating our experiences about our previous trips there and soon, we’d arranged a date to connect and give further thought to our scheme. For all of us, this would be our second time on the WCT, my first as a quadriplegic. The Standing Spirit Project (SSP) was born.

Sometimes in life, you come across a place that captures you so deeply that you know that, no matter what, you’ll return one day. The trail is such a place for me. There were places and moments during my time there that enraptured my body, mind and spirit to the point where I completely lost myself. Ever since I broke my neck and became paralyzed, I’d been thinking back to those moments of total peace and wished to return, to forget about the everyday routine and challenges that come with living with a disability. The sacrifices, efforts from friends, time and planning would be immense, but for those sublime moments, it was going to be worth it.

The WCT is a grueling 75-kilometre hike between Port Renfrew and Bamfield on Vancouver Island. It attracts hikers seeking a formidable challenge and unparalleled pristine, rugged, natural beauty. It’s not uncommon to glimpse sea lions, whales, cougars and bears. It’s quite uncommon, however, to spot a full-grown human male quadriplegic in that setting. Strange animal for sure!

The trail runs through Barkley Sound, an area known as the Graveyard of the Pacific. It has seen the demise of at least 60 ships since 1854, including the worst nautical disaster in Canadian history. In 1906, the S.S. Valencia ran aground at Pachena Point and 126 people died. The tragedy prompted the construction of a lifesaving trail with telegraph stations to call for rescue. The WCT follows that route.

There are sections of the southern half of the trail that would be impassable for our group because they have bogs, muddy sections and very long ladders. So, we decided to do the trail in two stages: hike the northern half in 2005 and kayak the southern half in 2006. (I will use an adapted kayak so I can paddle along with the team.)

Corby and I planned the trip for two years, choosing teammates who had the strengths and skills we would need to make the trip a success. We did a practice trip in the spring of 2005. It was an eye-opener! It was the May long weekend (the same weekend I broke my neck 11 years earlier), and it poured the whole time. In the forest, the mud was knee-deep in places, and the rocks and beach were dangerously slippery, making progress painfully slow. We returned to Vancouver with a whole new perspective. I wondered how we were going to do the almost 40 kilometres it would take to complete the first half of the trail, from Bamfield to Nitnat Lake, in five days. We also realized, though, that our team got along well and could laugh and stay positive even in tough situations.

The month before we left, it seemed as though fate was doing its best to keep us from following through with the project. While wheeling through a parking lot, I was hit by a truck that was backing up. Luckily, I only had bruised ribs and bent rims, both minor hindrances compared to what happened a few days later. Corby and Rachel’s house burned down and with it all of their belongings, including their hiking and camping gear and the harness that was custom-designed and built by Roy Hamaguchi of The Tetra Society of North America, Hobey Walker of Integrated Combat Equipment and Robert Green at Carleton Rescue Equipment to help get me up the numerous ladders found along the WCT. Incredibly, Corby and Rachel regrouped with the help of family, friends and community, and we had the harness, which took almost a year to create, remade and ready to go two days before we left.

Friday, August 19, 2005 — the weekend before our trip. I couldn’t believe we would be on the trail in two days. Mountain Equipment Co-op donated our food and a store credit. We spent Saturday there, making sure we had the proper supplies and gear. We met at a friend’s house for a BBQ and some team-building, West Coast style. Sunday, we had an orientation meeting at my flat, where we loaded our packs, took inventory, looked over our plan and map and tried out the new harness. Just one more day!

Bamfield is located about midway along the west coast of Vancouver Island and is the northern starting point for the WCT. We arrived, nervous and excited, on Monday afternoon, just in time for a mandatory trail orientation. Every year (the trail is open from May to September), the park staff evacuates hundreds of ill-prepared and injured hikers from the trail. The wildlife, tide and weather all pose threats. We learned that a couple of campsites had been closed due to bear, cougar and wolf sightings. An information board told us that last season 125 people were evacuated. Already this season, 74 people had been rescued. These sobering figures reminded us that the WCT is a living, breathing entity that should not be underestimated. The difference between a successful hike and an evacuation isn’t just good gear or good luck. It’s good judgment. And, in our case, preparation and a kickass team!

Day 1, we awoke to blue sky and the excited hustle and bustle of hikers preparing for their adventures. For much of the trip, I would be sitting in a Trailrider, a light, all-terrain piece of gear designed to transport people with significant physical disabilities. It looks like a cross between a rickshaw and a wheelbarrow, with one wheel below the rider. It’s pushed and pulled by other people using handles that extend from the bucket seat. We took it for a quick practice cruise through the camp. Other hikers stared, surely thinking that we were crazy.

Everyone on the team wore backpacks weighing 40 pounds or more. Corby and Graeme were also hauling movie cameras on breast packs. We attached as much as possible to the Trailrider and hit the road.

Rain makes the trail a completely different beast, so we were thrilled to have dry weather. There were a lot of roots criss-crossing the path, so everyone kept one eye on the ground. I often became the eyes for the people pushing and pulling me and the Trailrider, telling them what was underfoot. Good timing on lifts between the front person and back person can make a huge difference by helping to conserve energy and improve my comfort and everyone’s safety.

I couldn’t just sit back and relax — when travelling this way, you have to be constantly aware of what is going on, not only for the people helping you, but also yourself. The constant jolts and sudden stops due to collisions with rocks or roots jarred my body, sometimes taking my breath away.

We spent most of the first morning along a narrow trail on bluffs overlooking the Pacific Ocean. The WCT offers countless postcard vistas, making it hard to stay focused on moving forward. However, there were tide schedules to keep and camp spots to make and our success relied heavily on staying true to form. We had lunch at a place called Pachena Point, an opening in the forest where a path leads onto cliffs overlooking the ocean and large rocks inhabited by sea lions. These huge creatures were so loud we heard them long before we saw them. There must have been 200 of them. Two bald eagles frolicked and fought talon-to-talon above us, and grey whales passed by a few hundred yards from shore. Lunch has never tasted so good!

From that point, the trail became increasingly more diverse and challenging, our bodies became more fatigued and sore and the SSP gathered momentum. The team members split time on Trailrider duty and, by the second day, were a well-tuned machine. They instilled in me such confidence that I believed we could overcome anything on the trail.

Communication and trust were key. Where the team’s strengths shone most were at the ladders. Up to 70 feet in length, they were often placed along cliff faces or river or creek crossings where there was little room between the lush, green forest or cliff wall and a long drop to the rocks below. The harness we had designed for these situations worked like a dream. I was lifted onto Jeff’s back and essentially became his living, talking backpack. To be on someone’s back like this is a surreal experience. There were times when he was moving along the trail over logs, rocks and bridges that, eerily enough, I almost felt as though I was walking again.

From scouting trips, Corby and Bjorn, our rope and climbing specialist, knew where the ladders were. Bjorn and someone else went ahead to set up safety ropes that we would attach to the harnesses worn by Jeff and me. As we got closer to our camp for the night, Rachel and Tom went ahead to set up tents, start a fire, boil water and prepare food. The moments we shared in camp were priceless. We sat by a roaring fire, listened to the crashing of the waves and laughed as we recounted the day’s stories. We watched the sun settle into the ocean and stared at the sky, lit up with millions of sparkling stars.

The place I wanted to return to most was Tsusiat Falls. We set up camp there on Day 3. A river runs over the cliff and falls into a freshwater pool on the beach, metres from the ocean. We were surrounded by a symphony of water. Long before the trip, I had decided that I was going in the water, regardless of the temperature. Not long after we arrived, I asked Jordan to organize a group dip in the falls. It was one of the coolest things I’ve ever done, and I’m certain the rest of the team feels the same. The water crashed down on us, cleansed us deeper than just our skins, and afterwards, as we came out of the water with our teeth chattering, I felt a kindred connection with everyone, as though we had been blessed by Mother Nature. The magic continued the next morning when we awoke to a fog so thick we couldn’t see the ocean. The mist on the falls was a perfect setting for a farewell and our last day on the trail.

Wardens from three First Nations tribes manage the trail under the banner of the Quu’as West Trail Group. Along the way, they welcomed us and shared stories about living and growing up on the trail. We were taken on a tour of an ancient village overgrown by the forest. One warden even became an honorary team member and helped with the TrailRider on the final leg of the hike.

We exited the trail at Nitnat Lake where Karl Edgar, the longtime ferryman, has taken hikers, survivors and injured evacuees off the trail and across the narrows. He fed us crab and beer and seemed as honoured as we were to be a part of the whole scene. We looked forward to a meal made by Corby’s mom, Sue, who awaited us at the Nitnat campground.

During the 22-kilometre boat ride, we sat quietly, reflecting on the journey so far. We were all in awe at our accomplishments. I looked at my friends, old and new, with immense gratitude and admiration for their commitment and effort. They helped me get somewhere I never thought I could get to again, and to experience things that only happened in my dreams. We proved that no matter what happens to you in life, whether you are able-bodied or disable-bodied, your spirit remains standing.

The Standing Spirit Project is grateful for the generous support of family, friends, organizations and donors, including Mountain Equipment Co-op, B.C. Ferries, Pacific Rim National Park Reserve of Canada, Petzl America and many others.

To make a donation to support the second stage of the journey and the production of the film, visit www.canadahelps.org, enter BCMOS in the search window, and make a note in the message field that your donation is for the SSP. You can also donate by sending a cheque to the British Columbia Mobility Opportunity Society, Box 27, Plaza of Nations, Suite A-304, 770 Pacific Blvd. S., Vancouver, B.C. V6B 5E7. Please indicate that your donation is for the SSP.