Does Living in the US Give Bald Eagles a Superiority Complex?

Have you ever wondered what your younger self would think of you? Would they be exhilarated by the life you live, or bored to death by it?

I think about this a lot, but I struggle with it, mostly because I don’t have a lot of crystal clear memories of my childhood. Sure, I can remember some key things; I really liked Chinese food, I hated most vegetables, I was the fat kid until well into high school when I finally hit a vertical growth spurt, and so on, but I can’t remember things like what I wanted to be when I grew up.

Despite this fog – no doubt thickened by my proclivity to drink far too much through most of my twenties – a few things have remained crystal clear. In this case, my memory of a photo on the wall of the Pacific Rim National Park Visitors centre near Tofino.

I was somewhere in my early teen years when I saw it, a grainy picture of person hunched over in a rickety rust coloured cart that seemed to be floating through the sky above a wide river gorge. On either side, massive trees stretched to the skies, and just above the water a thick white mist hovered like a set of low lying storm clouds. According to the caption, the photo was a cable car crossing along the West Coast Trail, a rugged and remote hiking path on Vancouver Island’s wild western coast.

I wanted to run out and start the trail that very afternoon, buy my parents refused to let a pre-teen with no permit, no stove, no overnight pack, no water filter and nothing more than a 10km day hike under his belt try to tackle a 75 km trek. I left the visitors centre defeated, but clutching a trail map and promising myself that one day I would return to ride that cable car. That image stuck in my brain for nearly 20 years, but last week, I finally came through on that promise and if I’m being honest, I left the trail feeling pretty frustrated.

One of the many ridiculously beautiful beaches along the trail.

One of the many ridiculously beautiful beaches along the trail.

Most people prepare to hike the West Coast Trail for months, and sometimes even years. They read the guidebooks, research weather patterns, book long breaks from work and wait diligently for Parks Canada’s online reservation system to open so that they can snatch a coveted summer permit.

I’m not like most people. When I realized that I had an upcoming long weekend, I panicked and scrambled to try and find some way to make the most of my time off. I made a list of backpacking trips with some simple criteria; they had to be longer than I could finish in a normal weekend but short enough that I could finish them in five days, they couldn’t be a hike I had done before and it needed something special, a challenge that elevated the hike from feeling like a slow plod from Point A to Point B.

At first, the West Coast Trail wasn’t even on the list, but after too long drives, unrealistic distances to cover, no available permits and other factors eliminated my entire list, I went back to the drawing board. Searching around the internet for ideas, I absentmindedly clicked around the Parks Canada website for the West Coast Trail. As I expected, permits for the north and south access points for the trail were completely booked, and a note on the website explained that they had stopped releasing first come first serve permits each day at the trailheads. That’s when I noticed a tiny green circle beside the words “Nitinat Entry”, a newly opened mid-point entrance to the trail.

Immediately, my mind focused back onto that cable car. After confirming that I could, in fact, start the trail at a place called Nitinat Entry, I filled out the online form, clicked reserve and stared at my email until the confirmation came through.

Had I done a little more research, I would have learned that reaching Nitinat Entry isn’t quite as simple as clicking reserve and hopping in my car. But, like I said earlier, I’m not that good at preparation. Were I writing a guidebook to my trip to the trailhead, it would go something like this:

Start by driving to Lake Cowichan on Vancouver Island. If you are traveling from Vancouver, make sure you do this on a long weekend to ensure that it’s as difficult as possible to catch a ferry.

Stop for groceries in Lake Cowichan, being careful to do so during the one weekend in the summer when the town is taken over by a country music festival. The only bread products the grocery store will have are hotdog or hamburger buns. Choose wisely.

Leave Lake Cowichan. Once you make it through the plodding music festival traffic, continue until the paved road ends and becomes a series of winding gravel logging roads. After over an hour of white knuckle driving, a particularly rough section of road will deposit you in the tiny village of Nitinat near the northern tip of Lake Nitinat.  

Once you arrive, head to the gas station to check in for the trail, pay for your water taxi, and then find a place to sleep. Make sure you don’t have a reservation for the one motel in town, and when they inform you that there is one room left and that the campground is full, decide to check out the campground for yourself. During your search for a campsite, blow a tire on the rutted out campsite ring-road.

Once you’ve changed your tire, not having found a place to sleep, return to where you checked in for the mandatory pre-hike briefing. Take notes since it covers important subjects, mostly the various ways that you are likely to die or be maimed on the trail. For example: tsunamis, bear attacks, wolf attacks, cougar attacks, tides and/or currents, rogue waves, surging rivers, falling off massive ladders and/or bridges, general falling, etc…

When that’s over, find a place to sleep, probably in your car because the last motel room was given away while you were looking for a campsite/changing your flat tire. At this point, helpful or not, you should get irrationally and unnecessarily angry (this is less of a specific step and just something you can do at any point throughout the process, repeat as needed).

Once you’ve found a place to park for the night, eat some ramen noodles and feel dejected. Try to sleep.

Wake up early and catch a bone-chilling 21 km water taxi ride down the length of the lake to a floating shack between kilometre 32 and 33. Now you can start the trail. But once you’re one the trail, sprain your ankle within the first 10 km.

After all of this, the start to my teenage dream hike was anything but seamless.  Even so, the trail was quick with the awe-inspiring beauty. The sun set over wild, driftwood strewn coastlines, the morning mist hung around towering Sitka spruce, and the temperate rainforest painted more shades of green than the human mind can imagine. Eagles, seals, sea lions, starfish and all manner of wildlife popped in and out view. There were whales.

But, even with all this, I started to fixate on a series of little yellow squares.

They started about fifteen steps onto the trail, the first one appearing on my right to inform me that I was passing kilometre #32. As I started south, planning to hike some distance down the trail before finishing the trail through the Northern exit, the signs counted down. Kilometre 31, kilometre 30, kilometre 29, and so it went. I wasn't until my second day on the trail, when a slightly larger yellow square proudly declared that “Bridge 45” was coming up when I realized something was wrong.

Describing Bridge #45 as sketchy would be charitable. At least one third of the struts were either rotten through or missing all-together, and the whole thing had a distinctly diagonal tilt, threatening to dump off balance hikers into the rocky creek below. It wasn’t surprising though, as most of the bridges, climbing ladders and boardwalks that I had crossed on the trail looked like they were on the losing side of a war with the forest, the mud and the rain. In fact, compared to some other ones, Bridge #45 was in pretty decent shape.

I started to think to myself. I wonder what he minimum standards for something to be formally registered as a bridge on this trail are? Is it the length? Does it need to cross a river or a creek? I mean, those log gangplanks a few kilometres back were longer than this bridge, but they weren’t a numbered bridge. I wonder how many planks a bridge needs to be missing to warrant repair on this trail?

A few minutes later, I passed another yellow sign, this one was smaller and suspended on a single, narrow metal tube. Kilometre 25. My brain started crunching the numbers.  

OK, so if we have 25 kilometres left and 44 bridges left to cross that means we have to cross around 1.8 bridges each kilometre. But, there can’t be .8 of a bridge. So maybe it’s 2 bridges one kilometre, then 1 bridge the next? Or maybe there’s 3 one kilometre and none the next. Whoa, what if there’s an entire kilometre that’s nothing but bridges?

It kept going.  

Oh, awesome, Bridge 44, that must mean kilometre 24 is close, I can’t wait to see that sign.

This kept up for days. As I walked from kilometre post to kilometre post, my brain would start to crave a glimpse of that little yellow sign, like another hit of the world’s most boring drug. It was infuriating.

Don’t get me wrong, I understand the reason for the kilometre posts. They take the guesswork out of navigation and create a foolproof system for planning and tracking progress up the trail. More than this, they’re a crucial tool for getting injured hikers off of the trail as quickly and easily as possible. Kilometre posts make sense to a rational mind, but they take away something important from the experience, largely because backpacking is a pretty irrational activity.

Backpacking is a conscious choice to make it measurably harder to meet some of a human beings most basic needs. At it’s base level, it involves leaving places where things like clean water to drink, food to eat and shelter from the elements are easily accessed. On the West Coast Trail, rain is all but guaranteed, water needs to gathered and filtered out of creeks, cold winds blow off the open Pacific and there’s a decent chance you’ll get injured. In other words, you’re going to be wet, cold, thirsty and at least sore, if not in serious pain, for better part of a week – all while carrying a heavy backpack. Despite all this, hundreds of people hike the West Coast Trail each year. I can only assume it’s because it means something to them that makes little sense to the majority if people.

Whenever I start down a trail, there is a moment of surrender. I know the distance and how long it should take me to cover it,  but I also know that once I step on the trail, there are no guarantees. I should be able to finish a 5km trail in a couple of hours, at the most. But, add some rough trail, a steep slope, a lot of mud or any other number of obstacles and that same distance might take me half a day. I have to accept that once I’m on the trail, I lose a degree of control. Instead of focusing on the finish, I immerse myself in the task of simply putting one foot in front of the other, freeing my mind to wander.

When you insert a marker every kilometre, that changes. Instead of losing myself between thebeginning and the end of a hike, my mind focuses on the micro-goal of getting from this sign to the next one. Instead of considering profoundly ridiculous questions – like if bald eagles living in the United States develop a superiority complex – my thoughts focus in on the slow and steady countdown of each kilometre. When that happens, my adventure on a backpacking trip fades to be overtaken by the convenience of knowing just how many yellow signs, bridges or both lie between me and my destination.

On the last day of the trip my frustrations boiled over into a seething anger. I started to hatch a plan to return down the trail under the cover of darkness, sneak past the Parks Canada office at the Pachena Bay entrance and pull up each kilometre post so that I could cast them all into the ocean in some kind of grand gesture. It was a stupid plan, and as my exhaustion grew, I shifted to writing a mental screed about just how wrongheaded it was to put the posts along the trail. I heaped them onto the growing thought pile of adventuring diluting projects like the Sea To Sky Gondola and the so-called “skywalks” over the Grand Canyon and the Columbia Ice-field that had amassed in my brain.

Before long I abandoned those thoughts as well. No matter how frustrated I was, I had to admit that the West Coast Trail was still an amazing adventure in a deeply wild place, and that it was a bit ridiculous to put a series of tiny yellow signs in the same class as multi-billion dollar infrastructure projects. Eventually, along the final kilometre of the trail, I castigated myself for thinking something that excited me as a young teenager would deliver the same sense of awe as an adult. I told myself that my years of travel had simply raised the bar.

There is a nugget of truth in these last thoughts. Over the years, day hikes have become backpacking trips, scrambling up mountains has become rock climbing, black diamond ski runs have become backcountry ski touring and so forth. Yet this felt like excuse at best, and more-so like a total cop-out. Sure, I had pushed myself into bolder adventures in the wilderness and on the weekends, but the truth was that the in my day to day life, adventure had faded. What bothered me so much about the kilometre posts, was that they reminded me of that vaguely British voice on Google Maps telling me to turn left, letting me know the distance of my trip and when I’m likely to arrive, all with a strong reassurance that I’m on the shortest route despite the current traffic.

I don’t wander like I used to. As a teenager, bikes and skateboards were my crampons; the tools that helped me reach new places to explore. They carried me beyond the boundaries of the world I knew – my neighbourhood in Southwest Edmonton – and towards new horizons. With each passing year I would venture further and further from home, eventually using the bus to explore beyond the limits of my 10 speed.

When I moved to Montreal in my early 20’s, I would spend my Friday nights wandering the city. Without a GPS in my pocket all the time, I would lose myself in the city and in my thoughts. As my mind and feet wandered, I would chance upon pockets of beauty, favourite bars and perfect cups of coffee.

Sometimes it sucked. I would get drenched in late afternoon thunderstorms, lost in a boring suburb, stranded in a snowstorm by a bus that never seemed to come or bike halfway across a city only to get a flat tire and find that the convenience store in that neighbourhood had a broken slushy machine. To that version of me, a single image of a cable car on the West Coast Trail was enough to fire my imagination for nearly two decades.

P.S. I got to ride the cable car. It ruled.

Now, my phone let’s me explore cities and neighbourhoods I’ve never seen in real life. I can figure out where to get a cup of coffee or a burrito while I’m taking a shit at the airport. Even at home, I unconsciously choose convenience over adventure. I’m a lot more likely to open up Netflix or stare at images of far flung mountains than I am of greeting boredom by wandering off with no destination in mind. If I want something, I’ll plug it into my phone and let my GPS show me the fastest route there.

I was frustrated when I stepped off of the West Coast Trail because it felt like someone else had cheated me out of an adventure, but I’m worried that I might just be losing my own sense of adventure. I’m terrified that I’m turning into the kind of person my younger self would shake his head at. I know it’s kind of weird, and probably a little immature, but I’m realizing that I desperately want to be the kind of person that a younger me would not only be proud of, but be excited to know. So, the next time I’m bored, I’m going to fight the urge to open my laptop. Instead I’ll point my bike, my feet or my car in no particular direction and just go, only returning when it’s too dark, or when I’m well and properly lost.

Cameron Fenton