Starlit Rambler - Adventure Travel Our Way
Judging from the title of this blog I am sure you can hypothesize what life event recently transpired. So let me save you the suspense, she said “Yes,” or I think she said “Yes?” Yeah she said “Yes” after what I would call silence, shock, disbelief, terror over getting old, and tears, tears of joy. This once in a life moment was perfect in every way; well every way possible except I totally botched the Proposal, forgot to get on a knee, didn’t have a ring, and was finally satisfied after my third proposal attempt in less than 12 hours…scary she said yes, right? Not to mention we were on night one of a six day, five night, 75 km (47 mile) backpack, rated the hardest trail in Canada and the Top 10 Hardest Trails in the World. The West Coast Trail is a special route not for the faint of heart. The terrain is rugged with the feel of an adventure as opposed to a run of the mill hiking trail.
Originally dubbed the Dominion Life Saving Trail, this 75 km stretch of the west coast of Vancouver Island claimed many ships on it’s shoaled shores. In 1907, with public outcry, the Canadian government contracted to have a trail established in order to provide an escape route for sailor who survived and washed ashore. Following modern navigation and rescue methods the trail became obsolete but Parks Canada established and maintained the trail as part of the Pacific Rim National Park Reserve. Let’s just say the evolution of the earth did not favor a land trail in this wet, dense, accident inducing environment as a means of human travel. People attempt the West Coast Trail in search of physical and mental challenge and a gauge of self determination. Originally I wanted to ask Rachelle the big question on the JumboTran at a baseball game but was confident my chances at her saying “Yes” would have diminished with no weigh given to my spectacular sense of humor. I figured proposing on this epic trail would align my stars a little straighter.
Descending through the winding windy route the Rambler felt as if the lateral sides of the vehicle were employing the strong winds to upend our large cargo van as we approach Horseshoe Bay. It is a crappy rainy day in the mountains of Squamish as we sped through the areas only stopping long enough for the light to turn green. The date is September 20, 2015 and we had decided not to wait out the weather in Squamish but rather make a run towards Vancouver Island in order to take advantage of a couple days of sun. Our next destination was the small village of Bamfield accessed either by driving two hours on a rough logging road or taking a 4 hour ferry from Port Alberni…not the most conveniently located trailhead. Nevertheless we were excited to spend the next week of our life’s’ exploring the famous West Coast Trail.
After a 90 minute ferry ride from Vancouver we unloaded the Rambler on Vancouver Island in route to Bamfield. Proposing to Rachelle had dominated my thoughts since we arrived in Canada over 30 days ago, since mentally I was 100% ready to pop the big question. So why was I waiting you might ask? There was a challenge transpiring between my cranial cavity, not questioning my love for Rachelle, but questioning the creative and problem solving I was capable of. We have spent nearly every moment together over the last 4 months in a tin can on wheels in locations foreign to our usual senses. Joined at the hip might be an easier visual representation for the audience. How was I supposed to go ring shopping when 95% of our time was spent without cell service in regions lacking gold rings and diamonds?
I can’t speak for everyone but for me there was a defining moment on this trip when I made the absolute decision I was going to marry Rachelle. Never will I forget exactly where I was and what I was doing. Similarly, but on a different happiness spectrum, most everyone remembers exactly where and what they were doing when news of 9/11 shocked the world. We have traveled to some of the most beautiful and romantic spots in North America so was it White Sands National Monument, Zion, Carlsbad Caverns, The Smokey Mountain, The Outer Banks, time spent with Rachelle’s family, or was it the 3 night kayak trip through the Boundary Waters of Minnesota when I made this pivotal decision? Honestly I would love to say yes to any of these amazing areas however the location was less than invigorating.
Over the last 5 months the time spent doing the most inward thinking and reflection was not on a splendid mountain top but rather driving through the wheat fields of North Dakota. If you have ever driven across the mid west your brain can go in many different directions as the scenery slows your brain stimulation to that of a sloth. Now I am not going to bag on North Dakota because I was actually pleasantly surprised in it’s shallow rolling green hills and yellow sunflower farms bring a smile to my face. Here I sat navigating the Rambler in a challenging straight line towards the setting sun my mind was consumed by the thought of marriage. And then after hours of mental deliberation consuming the entire drive across North Dakota, we finally made it to Eastern Montana which is way more boring than North Dakota. Eastern Montana was the least stimulating area so my mental wheels kept turning on the thought of marriage with the occasional random idea mixed it. Lifting my eyes from the flat horizon the answer to my state long question smacked me right in the face. Exit 159 on Interstate 94 westbound in Eastern Montana. Here we are miles from civilization and material things when I look up to see these two simple words. Exit 159 on I-94 west bound through Eastern Montana’s rural region was named “Diamond Ring.” I am not even kidding! It was a sign from the above power and no way was I foolish enough to turn a blind eye to exit 159 on I-94 west bound in Eastern Montana.
The morning of September 21st, 2015 was spent in the little ranger station at the north end of the West Coast Trail. Before you are issued a permit to hike the famed trail each participant was required to attend a 45 minute orientation describing the trail. Tide tables were pasted inside the water proof map with warnings as many sections of beach were impassable at certain high tides. Here is where we met Jim and Cameron Ross, a father son duo from Vancouver ready to take on this challenging trail. Also in the orientation was a group of 4 from Oregon who were all in there 50’s by the look of them. The jolly ole overly robust gentleman was very talkative cracking rather stupid jokes at every opportunity during the orientation. The other man in the group was dubbed “The Boy Scout” as he dressed the part while their wives both looked like experienced hikers. Following the orientation we headed back to the Rambler to start packing for our week in the backcountry. As usually I collected the camping gear out of the “garage” while Rachelle prepared and packed meals in the kitchen. Most backpackers plan meals consisting mostly of dehydrated, light foods while we prefer fresh vegetables and sausages!
So after hours of packing we were finally on our way nearly three hours since orientation had finished. The sun was out for the first time in what felt like weeks as we said farewell to the Rambler and took the first steps of our 6 day backpack. We were thrilled until we put out packs on and felt the weigh of 6 days of food and fresh veggies…heavy! The first day of hiking was quite easy and enjoyable with ocean and smooth forest walking. Rachelle had been especially excited as we heard there was great opportunities to see whales off the coast of this isolated region. Oh yeah let me backup and say a big thanks to Johann from Victoria. Johann had just finished the trail and walked up to take a better look at the van. He was interested in converting a van and was astonished with our project so he invited us to stay with him in Victoria as soon as we were done with the trail. Then just before his ride was taking him back to Victoria he offered me his gators as he noticed I was without these pivotal hiking accessories. Who would have thought these simply pieces of material which wrap around your leg and extend over your boot would be so heaven sent. Bless this man Johann, as his generosity made my hike so much more enjoyable as the mud pits were plentiful.
Our first campsite was Darling River a short 14 km hike from Bamfield. The day was perfect with sunshine, multiple whale sightings, seals, sea lions, beautiful beaches, and a ridiculous sunset. Everything was perfect as we prepared dinner under the moonlight and warmed our hands on our personal beach fire. With a dismal weather outlook for the next couple days I decided tonight was the night.
So here we sat, at Darling River, on a piece of driftwood with Rachelle on my right side. The glowing fire is cracking and popping as the moon illuminates the crashing waves. This is the moment and the day could not have been more perfect. So here I sit with a million thoughts rushing through my head, yet I am at a loss for words. I stumbled over my speech as the only coherent sound out of my mouth is “Has anyone ever wanted to asked you something, but didn’t have what they wanted to give you?” Silence goes by as Rachelle finally responds with “What are you talking about?” “Oh nothing,” I replied thinking to myself, “that was a stupid question.” So here I sat with the same predicament as before since I still did not have a ring but came to the resolution I was not going to wait any longer.
Before I go into the juicy details let us step back to better understand the timeline of events. Everyone remembers I-94 westbound and the ironic “Diamond Ring” exit in rural Montana. If you are following the blog you will recall our time spent in Jasper and finally a shot stay in the town of Banff. Here in Banff Rachelle was completing some continued education online courses for her nursing license when I snuck away for a couple hours. My dad had just returned from German after having successful neck surgery to replace two bulging disks in C6 and C7. We spoke on the phone for about an hour catching up on life, the surgery, business, and finally a possible proposal. Ron, my dad, was the first person I actually verbalized this idea of proposing to Rachelle. After sharing his story of how he proposed to my mother at Yosemite I turned the attention to my ring predicament or lack of ring predicament. What should I do? Will she be bummed I don’t have a ring to surprise her with or will the actual proposal be so special that not having a ring won’t matter? Knowing Rachelle we estimated it might be somewhere in between but what the hell do we know, were guys! My dad eased my nerves a bit by letting me know he proposed without a ring then together they custom designed a ring after the fact. Finally after over an hour on the phone we decided it would be best to get a “place-holder” ring then design a ring once time constraints and secrecy was no longer a determining factor. This notion was further reinforced as I entered my first jewelry store in downtown Banff and quickly departed as the two women in the store spoke just enough English to greet me but not enough to talk about a diamond purchase. To make matters more embarrassing I had no idea what size ring I needed with the only suggestion being “bring your girlfriend in, say your buying a ring as a gift, and we can measure her finger.” I laughed at this idea as we have never stepped foot inside a jewelry store. So after an unsuccessful 20 minute ring shopping endeavor I headed back to Rachelle and we enjoyed sushi for dinner.
I had planned to do a number of things before getting on the West Coast Trail. Two that topped the list was finding a “place-holder” ring so I could propose and actually have a ring, with the second being calling Rachelle’s father, Tom McEwen. So here we sat on this driftwood log in front of the fire and in the back of my mind I kept thinking, I don’t have a ring and didn’t call her dad…crap. I am still holding firm to the excuse of living in a van 24/7 for the reasoning behind my lack of task completion. On our way to the trailhead I even told a white lie insisting we needed to stop in order to get presents for our parents but sure enough it was Sunday and the last town we traveled through was quieter than Provo, Ut on a Sunday afternoon. Double crap, as this was my last opportunity to get a ring and more importantly call her father. Procrastination sure won this battle. Sorry Tom…I tried.
At this moment everything began to slow down as we sat in silence after my ridiculously stupid question. The smooth driftwood log seems to be winning the comfort battle against my boney skinny butt as the anticipation of the moment overtakes my sense. Here I sit with a million things going through my mind as my unknowing companion sits by my side staring off into the fiery blaze. Mentally I had imagined how this moment would go down but as it approached my mind went blank and simplicity took over. Not 100% sure what I said but it went something like this. “Rachelle isn’t it incredible all the amazing things and places we have seen?!” (Silence, then she nods to acknowledge, without removing her beautiful blue eyes from the red flame). I sound like a babbling idiot so I just went for it. “Rachelle, will you marry me?” (Silence…staring…silence…staring) “Are you serious,” she questioned. Damn, not the response I was going for. “Yes I am serious, I want you to be my wife.” More silence passed and suddenly my mind was clear while I am sure her’s was racing. Quite incredible how a simple question can instantly stir a change of emotion. Rachelle’s eyes analyzed mine checking the sincerity of the inquiry and then responded with, “well aren’t you supposed to get down on your knee or something?” Triple crap! In my haste of emotion I denied the golden rule of the proposal, get down on one knee you idiot. So without delay I dropped to one knee as a portion of my butt still hugged the smooth driftwood log.
“Rachelle, will you marry me?” (Silence) I waited for the “Yes” with glowing eyes and a sandy knee, “I’m scared” (Oh no not a good answer), “Does this mean we are getting old? I don’t want to get old!” So here I knelt in the sand of Vancouver Island isolated from civilization surrounded by breaching whales, seals, golden sunsets, clear starry night, background music, a glowing flame, a GoPro, and all I can get out of her is “I’m scared, I don’t want to get old.” (Yes a GoPro caught the whole shining moment. We have yet to watch the footage so if the audience is paying attention comment on this blog and maybe, just maybe ill release it to those individuals.) After calming her nerves that rapid spontaneous aging is nothing to lose sleep over I am certain there was a “Yes” somewhere in there, I think?
The following morning of September 22nd was similar to any other morning in the backcountry. Before arising, from the tent, we packed our sleeping bags and therm-a-rests as usual. I began boiling water for the oatmeal while Rachelle took down the tent. Nothing seemed different and this really upset me. Honestly it didn’t even feel like I proposed the evening prior since I was unable to slide a ring onto her finger, my words fell flat, and an expected special feeling seemed to be lacking. My personal disappointment began to bubble to the surface as Rachelle asked what was wrong. “I screwed up the proposal,” these words dribbled out of my mouth with a tone of self pity. Rachelle insisted it was perfect, reminding me of the setting with whales, sunset, stars, the fire, and the beach. Festering in my skull was the revolving thought of “how did I not get some sort of ring?”
I did not anticipate the depth at which this bothered my soul, imagining how dismal the next 5 days and 60 km of walking would be unless I did something about it. “Where is your knife,” I questioned (no i’m not suicidal) looking down at my bracelet which was gifted to me at Burning Man the year prior. “No you can’t cut off the bracelet,” she responded. “Wait here,” I exclaimed as a memory from the night prior stirred my creativity. Remembering a few long strands of green sea grass, resting on the driftwood log, I haste-fully relocated to last nights setting. The event that transpired was something out of a fictional novel, I began to braid. Suddenly the memories of my childhood came rushing back, recalling when my sister Zahava (or was it Rachel?) taught me how to french braid their hair. Like a miracle these three strands of sea grass took on a form unlike anything in their natural environment. The ring was beautiful as I stared, questioning how my hands created this unique piece of art in under 90 seconds.
It was time for proposal numero three and I was not going to screw this one up. Dropping to one knee, with more confidence than ever, proclaiming “will you marry me?” This time there was an emphatic “Yes” as I slide the sea grass braided ring onto her finger and the weight of the world was lifted from my shoulders. The proposal was uniquely perfect in every way.
Day 2 - With a noon departure from Darling River and a short 8km day to Tsusiat Falls camp we left our memorable Darling River camp. Throughout the West Coast Trail there are options to take either a beach route or a jungle route. We always opted for the beach route if tides were low enough given the time of day. Highlights from this section included a “derelict donkey engine” used for grading the trail, a massive anchor from steamship “Woodside” at Trestle Creek, and our first cable car suspended over Klanawa River. After a short ladder decent from the jungle to the beach we arrived late into Tsusiat Falls just in time to catch the sunset. The beauty of Tsusiat Falls made it a popular campsite and given our late arrival spots were limited. Earlier on the trail at Pachena Point we met three friendly guys from Squamish, BC named Jake, Ryan, and Cody who invited everyone over to their fire that evening at Tsusiat Falls.
Day 3 - This morning we woke up earlier since we had our longest day hiking at 21 km including a ferry crossing at Nitinat Narrows. We pressed to get out of camp early but still managed to be one of the last groups to leave. Many groups wanted to get to the next camp early in the day in order to “hang out”, sacrificing the morning, which was just as delightful to us as the afternoon. Departing from Tsusiat we had the option of climbing back up the 4-5 story ladder or taking the beach route approximately 4km until we hit a headwall. These impassable headwalls made beach travel impossible with the jungle being the only option as the sea swallowed any possible route. Here on the beach we caught up and passed the group of 4 from Oregon we had met in our orientation group. It was clear the overly robust gentleman was slowing the group down while he voiced concerns regarding the technicality of the trail. He was clearly uncomfortable and his witty sense of humor seem to vanish. I give it to him and their group for attempting such a difficult trail but in the back of our minds we were thinking, “this is the easiest part of the trail, its about to get real for this group.”
We arrived at Nitinat Narrows which marked the approximate half way point on the West Coast Trail with the threat of hard sustained rains in the short term forecast. Nitinat Narrows is, in essence, the only exit point besides the beginning and end of the trail. For those unwilling to commit to the second, much more difficult, section of the trail this is their salvation. For a mere $65, in order to ride a small ferry a couple hours out, the pain was over with a hot shower and room awaiting. At least 3 people were waiting to take the 5 pm ferry and give up on the trail since torrentially rains were coming. All I could think was, “You’re signed up to hike in a rain forest in one of the wettest climates and now the threat of rain is scaring you to quit?” The local Native Indian tribe “Ditidaht” operated the ferry while offering fresh Salmon and Crab to tired and hungry hikers. When in Rome; we split a Salmon plate, which was exceptional, and continued the final 12 km of our 21 km day.
Carmanah Creek was our destination for the evening of September 23rd, located 2 km past Carmanah Point where a lighthouse stood. Carmanah lighthouse overlooked a seal lion haul out rock which a family living on the premises. There was also a helicopter landing pad and enough barrels of diesel to keep the lighthouse burning. We arrived at Carmanah Creek campsite with a mother daughter duo coming into camp just behind us. Tired and wet from the day we set up our large camo tarp, protecting us from the rain, while proceeding to erect our tent underneath it. Then, in the middle of setting up, the mother/daughter yelled to us directing our eyes west towards the ocean. A pod of 6-8 dolphins played in the breaking surf bring our spirits high again after a long, wet, and exhausting day.
Day 4 - Departing from Carmanah Creek our eyes turned towards the sky as a helicopter circled the area in search of a place to land. Someone was getting evacuated from the trail which is quite the common occurrence on this challenging trail. Today is when the trail got interesting! The rain had fully set in with no surrender in sight. We had a total of 12 km (with the option of 4 more kms to Camper Creek if spirits were high) with 7 km till Walbran Creek, marking the start of the pain. Walbran Creek is where our 4km/hr pace turned into a 1.5km/hr pace as ladders, deep roots, mud pits, pouring rain, cable cars, and fatigue set in. The technicality and grit of the trail began to shine through as the sun was hidden behind the rain clouds. Originally we planned to camp at Camper Creek but it became very evident our pace and daylight would not allow this so Cullite Creek is where we rested for the evening. Here we hung out with the “Squamish Boys”, Jim and Cameron from Vancouver, Heather from Calgary, Heather and Jen; wild land firefighters, a random couple waiting for an airlift out while the rain continued. Never have I been more appreciative of the heavy camo tarp, weighing my pack down, but protecting us from the elements. Somehow Cody was able to start a fire using some diesel fuel, which had washed up on shore, in order to dry out our gear.
Day 5 - We awoke early the morning of September 25th with some patchy fog but the promise of sun kept our spirits high. Today was the finally push through the most difficult section of the trail to Thrasher Cove 12km by foot. After crossing another cable car at Camper Creek we had a decisive decision at kilometer 65. Here is where one can decide to take the rain forest route or the beach route. This beach route depended heavily on the tides and weather conditions as one would be stranded if tide information was misread. We rested for lunch as we assess the conditions to make an attempt at Owen Point which was only passable at tides below 6ft/1.8m. With sunny weather and correct tides we decided to go for the point with the reward being a double tunnel only exposed at low tide. The final 2 km on the coast was a crazy slippery boulder section taking about 2 hours to maneuver over 4-6 foot tall boulders. Arriving into Thrasher Cove we were welcomed by other hikers surprised we took the beach route as the fear of the tides made them opt for the forest route. Here we met with Jim and Cameron describing the forest route as one of the hardest sections…so happy we took the beach!
Day 6 - I welcomed the sunrise on our final day on the West Coast Trail. We had a short 6 km hike out to the ferry but after a week of trekking the fatigue had taken a toll on our bodies. This final 6 km seemed to take an eternity as the trail was never ending. Finally we arrived at kilometer 75 with Jen and Heather also celebrating their completion of this famous trail. After a short ferry ride (1 minute) we turned in our permit, signifying we safely made it to Port Renfrew, completing the West Coast Trail!
Author: Jeremy Wilstein
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