Category Archives: Trip Report

How to Beat the Blerch

This was going to be a story about laughter and rocket-powered pandas, about comicbook dreams and hilarious runs through the September sunlight. I was going to tell you how I beat the odds, came back from my injury to win the glory of a full marathon. But on the way to the finish line, the story changed. Now I have to tell you more, about a truth that so often eludes us. Flitting away like sunshine through autumn branches. The truth is that every day on this green earth could be our last. I’m here to tell you about love, and loss, and the reasons that we run. I’m here to tell you about Beat The Blerch.

All race pictures courtesy of Comer Photos. Free of charge, minor miracle.

I awoke with a start, sleep no longer possible in the pre-dawn light. Kevin’s little head was nestled on my shoulder, Ryan’s little elbow pressed lovingly into my side. I checked the time, steeled myself as best I could. Then I sat up in one fluid motion, just a whisper of sleeping bags, Ninja Daddy unleashed. No one stirred, because I am ninja. Gingerly I unzipped the tent door, stepped into a field wet with dew. I was ahead of schedule, but already I could feel my nerves building up. Border delays a day before had cost us our reconnaissance, and I wasn’t exactly sure how to get to the start line. I put on my race gear, everything except the shoes. I was standing in a goat pasture, and there was far too much poop around at the present time. When you go full marathon, it’s no fun to have a shitty run. And not at the temperatures they were predicting: a late September surge to 34° C (93° F). I had woken up in America, far off the beaten track. A farming town called Carnation, Washington. Best to control the one factor I could, and keep my shoes clean. Clean shoes are good.

Beaaaaaat the Bleaaaarch. Dog Mountain Farm.

Breakfast was late, and we scrambled to get the kids prepared for the day as our hostess scrambled to scramble our farm fresh eggs. When they finally came, the meal was insanely delicious. I could hardly eat any, my heart was beating so fast. Why the pre-race jitters? What was I scared of? Six weeks before, I couldn’t walk more than half a mile without sitting down, the stitches in my knee pulsing like electric shocks. I was just lucky to be here, lucky to put my feet on the start line (if I could find the start line). God I was nervous! Beside me, my siblings were sweating it out just the same. Kyle was worrying over his first half marathon like a dog worries a bone, and even normally calm Laura was getting jumpy, wondering why on earth she should care about her third 10k. We really had to go. With less than half an hour to gun time, we sped down the dusty road towards Tolt MacDonald Park.

One of the joys of traveling beyond your country is how smartphones become a sort of glorified iPod, unable to see or care where you are. We rattled into town with old fashioned verbal directions bouncing around in our brains, arriving with just 12 minutes to spare. I said my goodbyes, took off running through the parking lot. I was still a half mile out from the start line, and this mad dash would serve as my warm up. I followed green arrows past rows of porta potties, past kids carrying rolled up banners, runners lazily arriving for later starts. Of the 2000 participants of Beat the Blerch, only 10% were going full hog. The rest were going half marathon (half hog?) or 10k, and the path was full of these people. A lot of them begin to snicker and giggle as I went past, and I wondered fleetingly if I was dragging toilet paper behind me. Thankfully it was just my bumper sticker: “IT’S MY ACTUAL BIRTHDAY — STOP EATING MY CAKE!”. Katie had pinned it to my back, and this must make people happy. Unless I had forgotten to put on shorts, and I really was in a runner’s nightmare. Okay, shorts intact. I made it to the start line, fist bumped my friend David as he rose majestically from the crowd. Both of us had suffered from training disruptions: mine from falling off a mountain in July, David by climbing up every other mountain until he had no time left for running. But we were here, sunglasses in place, grinning and growling. Ready to go, ready to finish. Ready to run.

At five minutes to 9, a man in an enormous green fat suit stood up and addressed the crowd. The air rippling through his outfit made him look like a creature never before seen on earth, a kind of Incredible Hulk Leprechaun who was also an astronaut wearing a sweatband. If you are a person of size looking for a new self image, I suggest this one: it’s pretty cool. This man was in fact The Oatmeal, also known as Matt. This was his race, his idea, based on a comic he put on the Internet about a year ago. “Hey, I’m The Oatmeal. I draw panda bears in my basement for a living,” he said. He seemed kind of amazed to see us all standing there, hundreds of us, with thousands more in the wings. It seemed weird to us too, weird but ever so fitting.

And for my next number, I’d like to sing “Only the lonely…”

Mr. Oats is an expert on farting mammals, brewskis, kitty cats, grammar, and coffee; it is no coincidence that the Internet loves him. But this guy is more than a funny face. He’s also a real person who owns a fat suit, a Tesla Model S, and a pair of trail running shoes. Maybe even more than 1 pair, since the Internet loves him with real money. He wrote a comic to explain the Terrible and Wonderful Reasons why he runs, a six page epic of ink and sweat and truth. Some of his reasons are not my reasons, but they all make sense, deep down inside. “Running is not about building strength,” wrote Mr. Oats. “It’s about finding strength. And measuring yourself every single day.” Because if you don’t, the Blerch might win.

The Blerch. © The Oatmeal 2014.

The Blerch is a kind of obese cherub, an embodiment of self satisfaction and apathy. Why go running at all, when you have unlimited Netflix? Why dash out of your house into a minor rainstorm when you’ve had such a long day? You should just stay in and eat cake. You deserve it. And when you do, the Blerch beats you. Running is a shout in the darkness, a stand against the La-Z-boy life, this modern world we live in.

Our jolly green giant stopped speaking, saluted the crowd. Giant speakers came to life, and the Star Spangled Banner rang out. I looked at the runners gathered around me, men and women in Lycra and tutus and superhero costumes, the vagabonds and hipsters, the ultra runners and weight watchers. All of us so different, but here right now, shoes on the tarmac, toes to the line. Who cares about the finish, this is where I feel most proud of us all. Then the airhorn went off, and we ran as one under the bright green archway. I dodged a support post and there was The Oatmeal, bounding out of our way like an overweight gazelle. His hand was out towards us like the pope, like he was the emerald pope of running. I dodged sideways, planted great big high five in the royal palm. It felt like latex, like fist bumping your doctor during surgery. It felt good.

Following captain underpants.

Then we were out, running along a feeder path towards the Snoqualmie valley trails. I was running beside a man wearing an invisible tuxedo, and I was okay with this. His grin flashed like a thousand lumens, almost lighting the bridge we ran under. The pavement ended, and we struck into the unknown. Wide paths, strewn with leaves, old stones, and the occasional pile of something else. “Horse SHIT!” A man gasped beside me. “Are we at the swearing section already?” I asked him. My pace may not win awards, but by God I’ve got quips. I ran for a while, smiling like a gentle idiot, watching the light play across the Tolt river. People were setting to fish from the far banks, casting long flies out into the rushing water. The sunlight touched everything like a painting, like a dream of the way things used to be. For as long as I am able, please let me move like the water. Rushing free and true, over all obstacles. Laughing on my way to the sea.

I had started this thing fast, mainly to swat at The Oatmeal’s hand. Now I throttled back, let the multitudes surge past me. Tuxedo man disappeared, jumping girl jumped on by. “Happy birthday,” they all said, laughing at my bumper sticker. “Happy birthday!” Someone else asked me what I thought about birthday asses, which seemed like a strange question. Never one to be at a loss for words, I said I was WORKING IT right now. That was apparently the consent she needed to swat me right on the butt, causing quite a lot of hollering (most of it not from me), and now I know what birthday asses are all about. Heaven help the Canadian, my friends. Heaven help him now.

Tuxedo man (Benjamin Chan) is just glad he has nothing pinned to his back.

I merged onto another path, this one chock full of Half Marathoners. Suddenly I was running past hundreds of people, feeling sleek and fast although my pace was unchanged. The mobs parted for us, the crazy and the few. And as I went past, they began to sing. People I didn’t know were singing Happy Birthday as we ran through the forest, and the song spread all around me. I grew up in woods not so different than these, a loner most of my life. I think I will remember this as long as I live.

“Next time I run a race, I’m totally saying it’s my birthday even if it’s not,” my spanker called over. “You are SO lucky,” and she was right. Two months before, I fell off a mountain, sliding 20 meters (65 feet) down a slope that had no apparent bottom. Now I was running in light, surrounded by people chanting my name, with a handprint on my apparent bottom. Maybe I never stopped falling, maybe I was lying in a coma somewhere making all this up. I wasn’t about to ask her to pinch me. It’s funny to run a race and realize halfway through that you already won.

The faster half marathoners were already returning, zipping past us on the other side of the path. I kept my eyes open, watching for a fit young man in blue. There he was, my brother. Going strong, still not holding his arms the way I taught him, still with the t-rex moves. But always faster than me. “Kyle!” I yelled. My own arm went out, and we rocked the hardest high five I’ve ever experienced, a full speed hit that seemed to break the sound barrier. I was so proud to see him, near the front of the damn pack, owning his first HM. For the number of times my brother skipped on training, he sure needed to Beat the Blerch. Aw yeah. And suddenly everyone was gone.

I had passed a sign, the HM turn-around point. The crowds thinned enormously, from 1000 to 200, now spread far and wide down the trail. A few remaining runners went round the bend and I was alone, running by myself in the silent woods. And it was hard. The first ten miles had just flown, but suddenly I was dragging. Where was 11? I ran and ran. The path canted upwards, gaining elevation in the sweltering heat. I noticed for the first time how beautiful the forest was, the cedars wreathed in golden moss. A man in his forties was my only companion, a few paces behind me. He caught me on a bridge across some nameless creek, a sprawling concrete footbridge with no people and one perfect pile of horse poop. “Who poops here?” he asked, like a man who finally chooses to break his vow of silence. “And where is everyone?” All runs ask us questions, but sometimes there are no answers. Sometimes you just keep running.

Yes, this constitutes running.

My life was in slow motion now, caught in amber. Runners slowly passed me, faltered, faded back. A dutch foreign national caught up, and asked in a wonderful accent if I was the other foreigner. “There’s always someone,” she said. “Well, do Canadians count?” I asked. The runners nearby took a vote, and we agreed. Canadians count. I gave her some travel tips for my country, my great foreign land to the north. Then I let her go. She took a long time to disappear. “Happy birthday,” she called back. “Thanks,” I whispered. Then gunshots rang out.

Bang! Bang! Bang! The valley shook with sound, sharp and unmistakable. These were no pea shooters, these were serious munitions. A small pause as the patriot reloaded, then another series of reports, at least eight. No one dove for cover, so I could only hope that a shooting range lay nearby. This was not the kind of run you fall asleep on, not a monotonous jog through big city streets. I was awake. I could walk later.

My bottle went dry at Mile 14. I had been using the plentiful aid stations as a kind of car wash service, dousing myself with Dixie cups as I spend past. Now I needed a refill, and with great delight I stumbled into the final aid before our turning point. Only problem was, I could not open my bottle. My hand gripped at the top uselessly, laminated in sweat. My bottle seemed to be glued together with contact cement. A volunteer approached me, a girl with arms like small twigs. She opened the bottle easily, amazing me with her superhuman strength. I accepted a full bottle back, started to run as I tore open a packet of electrolyte powder. I stumbled a bit, hands twitching over the powder like I was addicted to something else entirely. I got most of it in, added a powder coat to my sweat stains. Then I was into a tunnel, long and beautifully cool, running blind with people coming and going around me, running for a circle of light that winked and shone like a power button in the dark. I left the tunnel, noticing for the first time how hot the day actually was. I was more than two hours in, and noon was approaching. But here was our own turning point. “Pick it up, birthday boy!” my spanking nemesis called as she ran past. Then I was around and down, heading back towards the tunnel, the aid, and the finish line. Still so incredibly far away.

Although the slope was with me now, I wasn’t gaining speed. My birthday ass was dragging, and the miles were dragging too. There’s no avoiding it: when you take 3 weeks off your training plan to fall down a mountain and put your leg up in full recovery, it cramps your style. Don’t say that word! My legs cramped a bit, then recovered. I heard some distant sirens, someone being pulled from the course. I tromped past the gun range, tried to reassure the marathoners who were still coming up. “Just keep running!” Just keep running.

Trail like a runway, can’t quite fly.

I passed a girl walking like a zombie, shell shocked and quiet. I passed her, and suddenly I had to walk too. My legs were steaming. I couldn’t run, and the Blerch sat heavily on my shoulders. In a few minutes, zombie girl passed me at a kind of stumbling march. This was it, the serious part of the race. The part where you live in the shadow of the wall. I threw my mind back to my last long run, pacing Nicola G down the Sunshine Coast Trail. Nic bit off 180 kilometers of singletrack, smashed the course record to smithereens. What was her secret? What had I learned? We already had the same shoes, we were both fairly calm people. Our running style was similar. But what did she do? I did remember one thing, the way she was bizarrely enthusiastic about small landmarks ahead. “Only half an hour to the next ridge, that’s so cool!” Never mind the 24 hours after that. Break it down, that must be her trick. Break it down, before it breaks you down.

At the time, I was looking for Mile 22. I had no idea how I could run another 4 miles, so I moved for 22 like it was the finish line. I even wrote that marker a love song, a piece of poetry with all the creativity that running a marathon gives you. “Twenty two twenty two, where are you? Twenty two twenty two, where are you?” I whispered under my breath. If zombie girl heard me, she gave no sign. And suddenly, to my amazement, there was 22. And I was still running. I licked dry lips. “Twenty three, twenty three, where you be?” And with my head held high, I reached the last aid station.

This should be interesting.

The last aid station had a couch, an enormous comfy couch. On the couch was a sasquatch. Was I hallucinating? I didn’t even consider it, just walked right over and shook his hand. “So there you are!” I cried. I hadn’t realized just how badly I wanted to meet a sasquatch, until now. His grip was strong and friendly. “Why don’t you sit a while, take a load off? It’s your birthday, buddy.” And for the second time today, a group of strangers broke into song for me. Only this time, they were lead by a sasquatch. It was a beautiful song, filled with haunting birthday harmony, and kind of like a lullaby. The couch was damn comfortable. Who was that sitting beside me? Just a Blerch. That’s cool, Blerches are cool. This one was a girl Blerch, and she seemed tired. I was tired. Oh well. Nicola would be going by now. It was time to get going. With a sigh, I bounced to my feet. “Off so soon, brah? Why don’t you stay a while?” There were more Blerches around me than before, their eyes gleaming in the afternoon sunlight. I made to brush them off. No other runners were left in sight, either gone on without me or fallen at this last comfy crucible.

“I gotta go, man…” I started to walk. Left foot, right foot. “Do you like Game of Thrones?” a kindly Blerch asked me. “How about Batman? Batman is awesome. Let’s stream the movie now! Come on back to the couch and relax! No one knows how long a marathon is anyway. You could tell them it’s 23 miles, and they’d be like Good For You Dude! So what do you say. Do you wanna chill with us? Do you wanna take a break, take it easy? Do you wanna… aw… ” and like stepping out of a marshmallow pile, I finally unstuck myself and broke into a run. Not a sprint, not a blistering pace setter. Just enough to get away. I ran and ran, leaving the doleful Blerches behind.

“At least send a postcard!”

Nothing could to stop me now. I was proud and free, like a slow moving majestic elk. I strode past two women, who inexplicably called after me: “Aw, you are so cute!”. I was closing the final gap, rolling up that first mile of trail. I passed a guy who got daggers in both legs each time he flexed them; his pace was suffering a bit because of this. Then I was under the bridge and on to the paved feeder path, feeling the true heat of the day. When you run for a number of hours, you become separated from your environment even as you become immersed. Light ceases to blind you, heat ceases to burn you. I came in running hot, sweat covering my body like a hard coat of plastic, but at my core I was shadowy cold. The sunlight on my shoulders felt like an embrace, touching me in these last moments with fleeting warmth. Another few turns and I could see it, a puffy green arch, the finish line. I scanned the crowd for faces, needing to see them, their smiles. Kyle and Laura we standing just ahead of the arch, palms towards me. Welcoming me home. Some 275 minutes before, I had dodged to my right and high-fived the mighty Oatmeal. Now I dodged right again, hand out beseechingly. Smack! Smack! Our palms connected, and at that moment both of my legs locked up solid. Turns out that dodging sideways was no longer on the menu. With the finish line just ten feet away, I hobbled, hopped, and leaped towards victory. And I finished, I staggered across the line and a nice person took my shoe tag away and gave me a medal. My son came running from the crowd, tugged somewhat dangerously on my shorts. “Daddy, you ran an entire marathon! Did you know that?”. I did know that. The Blerch was beaten, the fives were high. My buddy David was right behind me, unstoppable after a hundred mountains. Kyle had finished in the top 10%, Laura ran her fastest race ever, I came in out of the cold. We had survived.

And yet…

(Sunlight through the trees, leaves rustling in the wind. Sirens on the breeze, under a bluebird sky.)

On the way to the finish line, a man we didn’t know began to feel tired. There was less than a mile ahead of him, so he did his best to press on. Evan Sebenius was about the same age as my brother; like him, Evan was running his very first half marathon. His feet stumbled on the feeder path, and he fell just 200 yards before the line. Runners clustered around, offering water and chews, putting their own plans on hold. Forming a protective circle around him. The first medics to arrive yelled for backup: subject was semi-catatonic, with no palpable blood pressure. Somewhere off in the woods, I was starting my long run back down the hill. The sirens I heard were for Evan, fallen in his hometown of Carnation. Much of what I saw that day, he also saw: the sunlight, the hilarity. Maybe he was one of the singers, maybe he was the first guy to start singing behind me. I’ll never know, because Evan Sebenius didn’t come back. They tried for 45 minutes at the ER, but he never came back.

Image from the Evan Sebenius Memorial Fund.

I’ve been thinking about this a lot. When you spend time sliding helplessly down the face of a mountain, you think about how fragile a gift life is, how vibrant and amazing and fragile. How close have I been to my own line in the sand? That day at Triple Peaks when I should have brought crampons instead of snowshoes, inching and slipping just above the ice cliffs. That time we were lost overnight on a frozen ridge line, as temperatures plunged and our headlamps began to fade. Biking casually home from a service call when I had to swerve off the road, just missing a minivan speeding the wrong way along the 101. All the bears I have met at close quarters, especially the ones that charge me. The time my flashlight died in the woods where a cougar had just been sighted, and I only got out by lifting my laptop above my head, using it as a beacon in the night. Looking back, these things seem stupid risky. Going outside seems risky, and maybe the Blerch was right. Maybe bad things come to those who try.

That’s another thing we think about, we the fallen. We think about how much love is in our hearts, for our friends, our partners, our kids. On November 2nd, runners everywhere will join to “Run Evan In“, symbolically finishing the race that he could not. His family has been overwhelmed by pledges of support, by the way this community of sweaty action people have come together in solidarity. By the one thing that endures when someone is gone; by love.

Before my leg was healed, for practice, I would march around my house with baby Kevin on my shoulders. Whenever we passed by the front door he would give a kind of leap, kicking me neatly in the chin. My son wanted to glide right off the summit of Mt. Daddy and into the arms of adventure; he wanted to open that door. The world outside was big and loud, and that world had messed me up, put me (and his brother Ryan) directly in harm’s way. And yet… this world is inseparable from our life.

If Kevin jumped high enough and fast enough, or if Ryan asked in a really nice voice, I would go and get my keys. I would limp outside with my tiny team of sons, embarking on a painful quest around the block. Walk 50 paces, rest. Walk 50 paces, rest. Sometimes our cat could come with us, because I could never lock her inside. This world, this place where we all live and die, this is only life. Life in all its grandeur and horse shit, life in its breathtaking miracles and stupid tragedies. I can’t not try, I can’t see the door without feeling my own heart leap. How many heartbeats do we have left, you and I? With luck and kindness, we may yet live to see our children grow. See them taking their own risks, some that they seek and others that seek them. May we live to fall and climb again, as long as this fair world will have us. May our hearts be brave, even in the face of loss. May we all have our moments in the sun.

Photo by Katie McLean.

Fastest on the Sunshine Coast Trail

“Hey, what was that?” I skidded to a halt, stopping so quickly that Nicola ran into me from behind. We found ourselves alone and breathless in the middle of old growth forest, no one else around for miles. The night was dark with that finality of nature, the moon lost in the thick canopy overhead. Summer heat still radiated from the ground below, but I felt the skin on my neck go cold. Somewhere across the valley, a familiar howl rose soft and sweet into the quiet air.

When Nicola Gildersleeve asked for some help running the Sunshine Coast Trail, I didn’t really believe her. I wanted to believe, but ten years is a long time. At the risk of sounding old, I’ve seen a lot of fools: a lot of other runners who tried to take the Sunshine Coast Trail end to end. A hundred and eighty kilometers of wilderness, of ancient paths and mossy cliffs, of working forests and non-working cellphones. Ean Jackson was the first, the first and best fool of them all. In 2004, he ran the entire shot in an exhausting 43 hours and 50 minutes, staggering into the Saltery Bay parking lot like a man on stilts. His pacers were half dead, his shoes were falling apart. The man was laughing. And because it was caught on film, his feat of endurance stood as an inspiration for us all. Named after Ean’s cheeky license plate, XS-NRG reached thousands of ultra runners, at the time when the sport was breaking out. From one to many, the gauntlet was thrown down.

Ean made it look easy, in a kind of laid back, clinically insane way. He rambled through the brush like a friendly bear, carefree and feeling fine. He dove into lakes, lost his pacers and went looking for them, had conversations with stumps. Instead of Shot Bloks and energy drinks, he scarfed down hamburgers and draft beer. If Action Jackson could do this trail, anyone could. Anyone who could run for two days straight without any kind of rest, that is. But ultra running was taking off, and there was suddenly no shortage of athletes. The film screened at VIMFF in Vancouver, and trail architect Eagle Walz dared participants to try it on for size. Many in the audience had run longer races with steeper climbs; the FatDog in BC’s interior, the iconic Tour du Mont Blanc in France. This was a romp in the backyard, an easy record for the taking. So they tried. But the Sunshine Coast Trail is not to be trifled with. In ten years, no one touched Ean’s record. No one even came close.

Eagle & Nicola, eternal optimists. Photo by Peter Watson.

I got the message on Facebook, where all things begin. There were exclamation points, smiley faces. A stranger named Nicola was looking for runners to pace her on a record-breaking FKT across the Sunshine Coast Trail. I didn’t know what an FKT was (it’s Fastest Known Time, not a swear word), but I did know that she was making a goofy face in her profile picture. Several parties had already tried to the run the SCT this year only to fall back in disarray; I couldn’t remember if they had goofy Facebook faces. The breaking point seems to be about halfway through the route, as you leave the safety of the front coast behind. Your phone loses service, the land grows remote and wild, and you begin to realize that the only thing predicable about our trail is the incredible variety of randomness. Nicola Gildersleeve had never been past that point, and she was bringing along a few friends who were equally unfamiliar. I knew she had a chance, I wanted her to have a chance. Still, there was a reason that Ean’s record had held for so long. “I’m going to pace someone on the SCT,” I told my wife. “But there’s a 50/50 chance I won’t get started”.

I could afford to be cynical, because I was pacing her up the last and highest mountain of the run. At least, that was the plan. Then my phone began to ring. “Can you run tonight? Like, in a few hours?” Peter Watson sounded vaguely amused, which seems to be the closest he comes to panicking. Peter is Nicola’s long time partner, aid wrangler, and taxi driver, and he had a problem. The Day 1 pacers were tiring earlier than expected, and Nicola didn’t have an escort for the hills beyond Inland Lake. This was an important part of the route, mentally and physically. The trail is less generously marked, the terrain steeper and more wild. The night would meet her on those slopes, as Nicola entered her twelfth straight hour of running. It would be somewhat mean, although not unheard of, to strip away her pacers just before this stage. So I agreed to do it, I cleared my evening, and I got ready to run.

Pacing isn’t hard. You wait patiently at the rendez-vous point like a piece of baggage waiting for the train, and when that old train finally chugs into sight, you leap up and run really, really slow. Because unlike your sweaty companion, you are not in it for the long haul. You’re just tooling along for a few hours, heading for the next station down the line. Fresh eyes and local knowledge, until you get slightly winded and say goodbye. I thought about this as I laced up my shoes, untied them, then laced them up again. Pacing isn’t hard, at least, that’s what I heard. I had never actually paced anyone before.

Joseph’s impression of an oncoming ultra runner. Illustration by Lost Worlds Racing.

I went to Inland Lake, and immediately I felt better. Because this person, this stranger who I would be leading through the dusk on an epic quest of daring-do, this woman wore the exact same shoes that I did. La Sportiva Crosslites are not very common. I got mine from the back aisles of MEC, but Nicola got hers right from the company. She was a La Sportiva sponsored athlete. This was the big leagues.

Imagine that you get up on stage to jam with a real musician, and she’s rocking the same guitar you have: that’s how I felt as Nicola ran into the aid station. And she looked completely fine. Like she was bounding off a magazine cover, not finishing her tenth hour of hills. I would have hardly believed it except for the pacer: My friend Meghan Molnar lead Nicola in, and Meghan was done. A strong, capable distance runner, Meghan came in saltier than potato chips, her face literally white with salt. The day was hot, pushing 30°. As Nicola complimented me on my shoes, Meghan walked in small circles towards the cool waters of Inland Lake, like a desert traveller crawling for an oasis. I remember my last marathon in that temperature, the effect on my body. You carry the sauna with you, unshakable and intense. The first pacers were done & down. I was up next.

Nicola (left) and Meghan chugging in to Inland Lake station. Photo by Peter Watson.

We set a quick pace along the Inland lakeshore, the most runnable section of the entire trail. This was really going down, and now it was up to me. We started over the first bridge, and I switched smoothly into touring mode. If you run with me, you will get the tour: that’s how it works. “Watch the middle point, it’s slanted,” I said between breaths. “I was biking along in a windstorm, and a tree hit right here.” The old growth cedar had exploded on impact, breaking the bridge in two. I came along on my bike just five minutes later, hoisting it on my shoulders through the war zone. By the time I reached the parking lot, the lake was so calm it looked like glass. I stood with my camera for an hour, shooting photo after photo of the impossible horizon.

As I spoke, I settled on a pacing strategy. I’ve read enough reports from long races to know a little about what could be in her head, so I decided to keep her out of there as much as possible. This would be achieved by talking a lot, until she either told me to shut up or discovered new strength in outrunning me. By nature I am not a talkative person, but I was going to try. The history of the trail, local legends, random anecdotes, my own background in these woods, my childhood growing up. Everything was fair game to blab about, except The Question. I resolved to never, ever ask how she was doing/feeling/coping. Best to leave that be. We passed the totem pole, cobalt blue at the side of the trail. Our marker for the junction ahead. We left the water, turning our backs to the setting sun. And we began to climb.

Nicola slowed to a walk immediately. The whole time I was with her I never saw her move quickly uphill, changing the way I think about running ascents. We walked and talked up the side of Confederation Hill, until she began muttering to herself. Her pace faltered, began to wander a bit from side to side. “I feel like I’m bonking, but I’m not,” she said to me. It sounded like a sad confession. We were on steep logging road grade, fading moss and bracken. The shadow of Mt. Mahoney loomed above us. I gave her a bit of time to figure it out, and we walked together like a couple of old pensioners, slow, slower, slower still. I tried a few funny stories, which seemed to go down okay. Halfway through one of the funnier ones, I remembered that the punchline was about puking. Really, is that something I need to bring up right now? Could I be doing a better job at this? Ten minutes went by, and Nicola came back to herself. We picked our way along a rotting ladder in the side of the hill, began the switchback section beneath massive redwood cedars. We were high enough to reach the last rays of sunlight, deep orange and gold flooding through the stand. “It’s beautiful,” I whispered, half to myself. “It’s steep,” Nicola said. So pragmatic, these ultra runners. But she was back.

Dusk had fallen by the time we reached the next shore. Here I encouraged as much speed as possible, wanting to flee this section before darkness set in. Confederation Lake is small, and you can easily see the cabin at the far end. But the path is tangled, full of twists and turns. An impossibly old forest, free of brush and difficult to track through. We didn’t make it, pulling out our lights before we were even halfway around. This place has a name, marked on the old maps. The Valley of Fatigue. Still, there was a bit of a glimmer in the trees. Just enough light to win through. We crossed the last bridge to the baying of three enormous hounds, and Nicola’s dismay. “I don’t do well with dogs,” she whispered confidentially. So what are pacers for, but to blunder bravely forward and greet this wagging, wailing welcome committee. Their owner came out with apologies, pulling them back. Bears were in the neighbourhood, at least, he thought they were bears. Wouldn’t we stop a while at the cabin? No. I knew Nicola wouldn’t brag — we never brag — so I had to explain about her epic quest. Records will not be broken by stopping for tea in recreation cabins. On we went, past the open-air outhouse that looks strangely like a huge Fisher-Price potty. I had told Nicola about this earlier, and we both stood and laughed a long time at the funny potty toilet. I’m not sure why it was so funny, except for running. Running makes things pretty hilarious.

Same place, different time: me dancing on tables by the Confederation Lake cabin. Photo by Steve Gould.

This was the true ending of the day, on the last open shore of Confederation Lake. As soon as we hit the trail, darkness reigned supreme. The markers were not very reflective to our little headlamps, and I strained my memory back to remember other days. Strolling with Katie after we woke in the forest dawn, or running with Steve on my almost-ultra in the mountains. We walked until I began to feel the trail again, began to expect the turns. And then we ran. Suddenly we burst out into the open, the far side of the bluff. Tin Hat mountain rose serene before us, where she would be some hours from now. Getting smarter, I didn’t tell Nicola that this bluff was Vomit Vista. She didn’t need to know that Eagle was violently sick here once, leading to its unique name. Some trivia was better off unsaid.

In the film, this place is where Ean Jackson’s run starts to go wrong. The climb to Confederation was too steep, the trail too thin and narrow. The daylight left them here, just as it left us. His pals were dismayed and demoralized, and they started dropping out. You have to respect that, you have to respect history. Even if the history is funny, with Ean carrying his friend Dave into the aid station like a man near death, hamming it up so that the rest of team thought they had a crises on their hands. Dave Cressman was fine, he just needed a good night’s sleep. A sleep I could look forward too, and Nicola could not. That old train had to keep on chugging.

Ean Jackson and crew
Ean Jackson (left) and his merry band of enablers, 2004. Photo by Paul Kennedy.

We were descending from Confederation again, losing our hard-won elevation in fits and starts. The trail was gone before our eyes, hidden under a lush blanket of salal. I was guiding us mostly by toe, probing for the solidity of the path under my feet. To our right, the hillside fell away into darkness. I lost the trail a few times, lost Nicola only once when I forgot to slow down for a sudden rise. Looking back, I could see her headlamp moving as steady as a ship in the night. Cruising up the hill like that was all there was, like life was motion and motion was infinite. What a beautiful illusion, that we could live to move forever.

We passed from this into a sheer amphitheatre of hemlock and fir, the ground coloured like chocolate in our questing lights. Few markers, just a trace through the needles, piled deep along the trail. Years and years worth, like the spent seconds of our lives. I nearly went down a few times, dancing on my toes to stay upright. Nicola had no time for such frivolous movements, gliding along behind me. With every tired mile I found myself more impressed with her, the state she was in. Calm, focused, content in all we ran. She talked about pizza sometimes, but there didn’t seem to be much to complain about. The balance she brought was enormous. Around us, the forest was calm.

Confederation Hill separates the front country from all that lies beyond. No city lights, no phone signals. Darkness and memory. This is the first place I came when I was a child, all of six years old. Rolling into Powell River with my mom, we heard about a hippie festival going on far up the lake, a “Healing Gathering” at Fiddlehead Farm. The boat was leaving right then, so we got onboard. I was a city boy, fresh from Victoria. When the skiff let us down at the towering forest, I felt like I was climbing onto another world. Carrying my book bag, I followed a truly ancient road deep into the wilderness, heart wild in my chest. Now I was here again, in the shadow of the valley, looking for that same road. No farmhouses, no parties remained. The owners grew old and passed away, the lands were sold and logged and torn apart. Only the orchard survived, old fruit trees untouched by the ravages of time and fate. I was close to the orchard now, less than a kilometer away. But we were suddenly out of markers, lost on a connector that I was almost sure was right. This was a reroute, a section that had not been there before. “If I don’t see a marker in two minutes, we might be lost,” I admitted to Nicola. And then the distant howl, rising sweet and pure into the still night air. “Hey, what was that?”. Nic managed to stop mostly in time, only kicking me a little. We stood and listened to the mournful wail of… wait… car horns? The sound swelled and peaked, echoing through the valley. And then all was still. Was it a redneck party? A secret automotive dumping ritual? Or, somehow, “could that be for us?”. The only thing we knew was that it came from ahead, further up the old road. The road that even now was branching off, marked at last with the orange badge of the SCT. We were on the final trek, for me at least: the climb to Fiddlehead Orchard.

“Be careful on the corduroy bridges,” I called. They were old when I was six; now the logs were falling apart. Not rotting, but loosening in place, so that they jumped and jostled as we hurried across. I had been running for about three hours; Nicola, about 13. To have the land respond this way was beyond strange, and she almost balked. Little glints of water winked and shone from the cracks between them, but we carried on just the same. Balance unbroken. In a moment the path turned sharply left, a last dodge for the cutblocks that lay out there in the dark. An outhouse flew past as if on wings, and we were suddenly in the Fiddlehead Orchard. The trees untended by human hands, still hanging with fruit, crisp and sweet. Each year the orchard is a little bit smaller, as the forest consumes it. I still can find the old rope swing, hidden now amid the newly grown tangle of fir and hemlock. A ring of new life around old, caught and held in the wide expanse of logging that fills this valley. New howls rose ahead of us, human cheers and shouts from our happy aid team. It was almost time to say goodbye.

Me and Ryan know where the rope swing is. Photo by Terry Faubert.

Our arrival was well timed, the crew only just in place. The dirt roads through Fiddlehead are a bit of a warren, and the two cars had become hopelessly separated. Lost from each other and the aid point, they resorted to desperate honking in the night, scaring their distant runners and finding each other with moments to spare. Now they were all set, and the action was pure pit-stop. They tossed Nicola in a chair, swapped out her shoes, taped up her feet, asked her a dozen questions, offered up a dozen strange treats. In the glow of shared headlamps I finally saw her face, almost a stranger’s face to me. We had been running single file for the whole jog, so that she was more of a voice, a bit of light behind me. Now I saw a woman just getting to her thirties, tall and fair, not as weather-beaten as most trail runners. She sat on her fabric chair like a tired queen, weary from campaigns upon the land. Her crown a misbehaving headlamp, which somehow at Hour 13 was no longer making sense. “I can’t figure out my headlamp”, she said mournfully to Peter, who was flitting around faster than my eye could follow. He got things straightened somehow, taped her feet up, massaged her shoes into place. He offered a fresh-made quesadilla, rescued from a miniature stove just before it burned. After a few minutes of this royal treatment, Nicola sighed, smiled, and pulled herself up. A full moon hung motionless on the horizon, blotting out the stars, filling the valley with light. She thanked me warmly, thanked her chief and team, thanked the new guy — Alston — for the pacing he was about to provide. She was not quite halfway done the course, but most of the elevation was still ahead of her. Her next steps would take her up Tin Hat mountain, and hours would pass until they were down the other side. No point in waiting around. They ran into the dark together, with just enough time to shout goodbye. The headlamps dwindled, went out. They were gone.

The team struck down the aid station in seconds, tossing food into coolers, rolling up the table. Soon the ground was bare again, and we were headed out on the long drive home. I left Peter at the crossing below Spring Lake, where Nicola would appear at some point in the prelude to dawn. Then Nicola’s mom drove us home, all the way down the mainline. Hours went by, and midnight rolled around. Somewhere far above us, Nicola and Alston were ambushing a herd of Elk, sending them scattering down the mountainside. Peter was enjoying his own adventure, as his tire went flat and then jammed on his truck, stranding him about 50 K from the nearest service station. He limped that truck down the road like a tired marathoner, until he was finally rescued by a passing hobo. Nearby Lois Lake has some interesting characters; this one had an 8 pound sledgehammer that got the tire off in a hurry. Then Eagle Walz swooped in, always the humble superman of the Sunshine Coast Trail. He brought his own truck, made sure Peter got to every trail section just on time. Ten years ago, his last-ditch pacing saved Ean’s run; now he was saving Peter’s aid. What is the definition of a superman? Among other things, it’s someone who knows exactly where he should be.

Peter and his very tired truck. Photo by PR Paws / Eagle Walz

As for Nicola, well, she kept on chugging. Sometimes she was coughing, sometimes she was retching, but most of the time she was chugging. The sun came up as she was running off the Smith Range, heading for Mt. Troubridge and the final climb. I just so happened to be hiking there, and after a lot of glancing over my shoulder, Nicola and her latest pacer caught us at the 151 lookout. She had 29 kilometers to go, and she looked completely fine. Happy, calm, even kind of enthusiastic. “Only 8K up to the summit, so cool!”. We weren’t hiking to the summit that day (too damn far), but I knew she’d be there. As soon as I ran with her, I knew that she was going to finish. Baring death or dismemberment, Nicola Gildersleeve was going to finish. And she did.

At 33 hours and 50 minutes, Nicola ran to the Saltery Bay parking lot. She threw her tired arms wide, hugging the kiosk map like it was a long lost friend. And in a way, it was. Nicola didn’t conquer the SCT as much as she befriended it, welcomed it into her family. That’s just my perspective as a pacer, and I could be wrong. Maybe when I left, she beat her chest like Tarzan and yelled “Take that, SCT!”. Such behaviour would be justified. I mean, she knocked ten hours off a record that had stood unbroken for a decade. That doesn’t happen a lot. I may never see it happen again in my lifetime.

And Ean? He doesn’t mind a bit. Ever since he ran the course, Action Jackson has been waiting for someone who would do it all over again, and make it look easy. Besides, he even has a consolation prize. After today, Ean is still the fastest man.

When Nicola Gildersleeve asked me to help run the SCT, I didn’t quite believe her. I went anyway, because I wanted to believe. You won’t know until you try, and I wanted to support that try, that effort. Win or lose, it’s the effort that holds true greatness. I didn’t think it would mean that much, but at the end of the day this felt like something important. More than a race, more than a number on a wall. The strength that Nicola brought to our trail will stay with me a long time. Her clarity, her incredible sense of acceptance. A power that lives in all of us, to face whatever challenges wait in the path ahead.

That, and we wore the same shoes.

Getting along even when we wear different stuff on our feet. Congrats, Nicola.

That time I fell off a mountain

On July 20th, 2014, I fell off a ledge on the side of the West Lion. My backpack shifted, the rock was slippery, and I went down fast. I slid a meter or two, feet first, hugging the wet rock. My chin took a glancing blow from the place my feet had been moments before, and I landed on all fours on a steeply pitched slope. The weight of my multiday pack flattened me out, and I slid another 15 meters downward, unable to compensate or slow my speed. My world filled with sound, the grinding roar of my backpack’s metal frame on rock, my brother yelling and yelling above me. After a few seconds I ran out of ramp, dropping into a cluttered gully of broken rock. My feet locked in, and I stopped.

“Calm down,” I called to my brother. “I’m all right”. But I didn’t feel all right. I was ten kilometers from the trailhead, on one of BC’s most technical through trails. We were surrounded by cloud, insulated against most forms of rescue. My left knee was starting to throb, as a 3 inch gash got ready to bleed. This was all pretty bad, but what hit me most was a horrified sense of responsibility. I was here with my son, my three year old hiking buddy. He was with me now, crying in the backpack, shaken but unharmed. I had fallen with my son.

It wasn’t supposed to be like this. When my brother Kyle changed our plans to include the Howe Sound Crest Trail, he swore up and down that it was family friendly, a literal walk in the park. He had already done the north and south sections, leaving only an undefined middle part. I interviewed him extensively on the topic, then researched the trails myself. The BC parks brochure admonished me to watch my footing and stay on the marked path, things that I was very good at already. Internet forums were full of chest-thumping tales, where sweaty masochists discussed how fast they had “done the crest”. If it took these boisterous brutes 9 hours, couldn’t we do it in three days? My brother and I were strong, experienced hikers, with the tenacity and general disposition of mountain goats. There was nothing ahead of us that should pose a problem.

The first day played into our expectations, rising steeply but smoothly though beautiful stands of hemlock and cedar. Waterfalls fell around us while Ryan snored gently in the Deuter pack, a heavy but robust carrier not unlike a fabric Humvee. Secured in his five point harness and wrap-around cockpit, Ryan would be my constant companion for the next three days, alternately singing, laughing, sleeping, burping, and asking where the parking lot was. We were multiday hiking, one of the best things on earth. The forest was our home, and we were awesome.

Ryan & Kyle at Deeks Lake
At Deeks Lake, day one

The second day was even easier, a short haul between friendly campsites along the trail. Thick cloud had set in, as forecast. Our views faded away, but there was beauty all around. Heather and wild blueberries, yellow lichen shining in the diffuse light. The path was simple, weather-worn with the boots of all that had come before us. We spent a quiet night at Magnesia Meadows, with glimpses of the distant city through pockets in the cloud. 14 clicks remained of our 29k hike, and Kyle knew that the last 8 were easy. There really wasn’t a lot to do, but I was worried. Something I had read about crossing the Lions, some inner sense that I would be leaving the edge of my comfort zone. As the sun went down, I texted my wife goodnight. “Tomorrow we pass right between the Lions!” I told her with exclamation points. After some hesitation, I decided not to say that I was afraid.

Ryan at Magnesia Meadows
Toddlers in the mist at Magnesia Meadows

We hit the trail at 6 am, drifting past the other tents like Gortex wraiths in the rising fog. Ryan had woken us before the alarm, speaking out of the inky black. “I know it’s just a dream,” he said, “but I think the Little Daddy is out there. If you look out the window you might be able to see him, walking in the dark.” That was suitably ominous, although not as bad as something he said three weeks before, as we sat in the living room. “Daddy, are you falling?” he asked abruptly. “If you’re falling, you have to duck your head.”

The trail took a beating just past the campsite, almost lost under steep fields of wild blueberry. Our pace slowed as we skidded and slid along, soaking ourselves to the bone with bits of cloud and bracken. In the midst of this purgatory, my most peaceful memory of the trip: an impossibly small pygmy owl, gazing bashfully at us from the branches of a fir tree. Turning his head 360° to look at Kyle, then all the way back to me, showing off in the sudden perfect stillness. A moment without cameras, without almost anything. And then onward.

This part of the Howe Sound Crest was something new, something not entirely expected. Each stage took a bit longer than planned, each scree field a little crazier. These slopes were active, shifting slightly around us. Out there in the fog we could hear movement like muted thunder. We soldiered on, each step bringing us further into the crazy zone. In one of these fields we passed two middle aged men hiking like war refugees, shell-shocked and grim. Poor chaps, I thought. Bit off more than they could chew. Then a trio of trail runners, improbably energetic. 30 seconds after they left, I realized I had once run side by side with one of them, down the Sunshine Coast Trail. That moment seemed so far away, a different person’s memories. We passed over a ridge that dropped sheer into the clouds on either side, as I held a rope that had certainly seen better days. Maybe this was the place I was worried about, I thought. I stepped onto solid trail and began to feel the stirrings of hope.

The HSCT is not kidding. James Peak traverse, photo by Natalie Ord.
The HSCT is done kidding around. James Peak traverse, photo by Natalie Ord.

We had been hiking 8 hours when I reached the first ledge. Just a rude cut in the wall of the mountain, embossed with defiant graffiti arrows. How could this be? We were caught flatfooted, totally unprepared for the sight. The good trail, the promised land, was still a few km ahead of us. The way behind was full of hazards enough, and so, I crossed the ledge. And it was fine. I passed along some more mountain track, reaching another ledge. That too went easily by. And then I reached the third ledge, what turned out to be the last one. The final place were you crab along, facing the rock, holding on to wet stone. No cracks and crevices, just the rough texture of granite to press yourself against. The drop was small, but I didn’t like the run-out below. It looked bad, disappearing off into the mist. Kyle got along just fine, and then it was my turn. I put my fear aside, crabbed along the ledge, got to a place I didn’t like. I could feel my centre of gravity pulling back, tugging at me with eager hands. So I fled back to safety.

“I’m worried about this,” I said to Kyle. “It seems like I’m at my load capacity.” I really was, although I didn’t know how close. I had been pushing margins all morning, and the boundary was about to give. I tried the ledge again, this time taking one more step. The crack I was standing in was not flat anymore, canting slightly downward. I felt my centre of gravity change, and I braced against it, calling for help. Kyle started taking his pack off, a process he wouldn’t finish until I hit the scree field some 20 meters away. I remember looking at my two hands, arched over this little hump of rock, each finger pushing in. For the first time on the hike, first time in years, I wasn’t sure if I had a good grip. And then I was falling, and all the fear was gone, washed out of my mind. I was falling and I hit the rock and I was still falling.

“Well, here I am,” I thought. “Sliding down a mountain. And I’m still fairly intact, which means I survived the first bit. Now I just have to wait.” And I slid along with the backpack frame roaring and the world blurring before my eyes.

There had been other ways to get past the ledge. None of them were great, but there were choices. I could have backed off further, divided up the backpack, enlisted Kyle’s help in a reasoned and proactive manner. I could have picked my way along the slope I was now racing down on my tummy. We could have tried to do something with our rope. There were a lot of choices that I didn’t take, because at 8 hours in you tend to go with whatever looks best at first glance. It’s actively dangerous to stand around searching for perfect ways to do things, because energy (and daylight) are so finite. I thought I could make it in safety, so I took the chance. Usually things work out, and in fact they still worked out. I skidded to a halt, and Kyle ran up to me, shouting apologies into the rain. He got the backpack up, confirmed that Ryan was intact. My son was crying freely, so Kyle held his hand. Ryan says it was this moment when he started to feel happy again, out there on the bitter edge of the north shore mountains. As for me, I crouched with my legs hugged to my chest, staring out into the fog. The aftermath was hitting, and I had to be strong. I hid the tremors from my son, let them go into the wind. I didn’t know then if I was capable of walking, let alone carrying him another 10 kilometers out. And I felt so bad about it, like I had stepped into the path of a car while holding his hand. Like I had really messed up, despite trying so hard. Messed up not because I fell, but because I had allowed myself to reach a place where falling was so easy. I came with nothing to prove, I didn’t visit these parts to learn how hardcore a dad I am. I just want to show him the world.

Without the clouds, this part of the world would have looked like this. Our route so far that day.
This is what the world looks like, when you can see more than 10 meters. Our route so far that day. Image © Hollyburn Heritage Society.

There was no time for regret. My mind was already stepping towards what was next, a sprawling list of question marks. I sent Kyle back up the hill to grab the first aid kit, then spoke to my son in a strong voice, a voice from a deeper part of me. “Ryan, we fell down, and I bumped my knee. But I’m going to fix this, okay? Daddy is going to fix this. I promise.” I’m going to fix this injury, this mistake, this place we’re in. I’m going to get us out of here, although I don’t know how any more. I’m going to do it, absolutely. “Yes,” my son said, and he stopped crying.

I pulled out my phone to check for service, and found that it had been bent into an arc by some unseen blow. I stood up on the scree slope, blood trickling down my leg, holding the world’s first curved iPhone. Feeling kind of ridiculous, I bent it back into shape. Everything was still working, and I texted Katie. “I can has injury”, I wrote sadly. It was 1:30 PM, with the day halfway done. The highest part of the hike was still ahead of us.

“What do you need?” her reply came back. No alarm, no demands for answers. Just support, immediate and real. The way it always has been.

“I don’t know,” I replied. Tiny raindrops fell on the Ziploc bag I held over my screen. I needed to get my son home, but I wasn’t sure how any more. I needed help, but help seemed remote, far away. I dreaded making the call to Search and Rescue, telling them that Dad of The Year Joseph McLean was stranded in impossible terrain well beyond the pickup points, so come and get me, boys! Hope you like carrying a stretcher up sheer mountain passes. And by the way, I totally brought a three year old!  I tied a clumsy bandage around my leg, daubed at my chin with a moist towelette from the kit. In a few minutes I’d try to climb out of this gully, see if I could still be some use. Otherwise I would have to make the call. My first aid towelette had dried out long ago, giving it the shape and texture of a saltine cracker. Typical, I thought. Typical. And that’s when I heard the voices of our rescue team.

The Howe Sound Crest Trail is a lonely place, especially when it’s being harassed by rainclouds. Although we had met a few parties heading north that day, no one else was going south towards Cypress. No one except Peter, Colin, and Natalie, who strolled out of the fog just ten minutes after my fall. They navigated the ledge with something approaching ease, walked down to us on the slope. Was I okay? Maybe. Was there anything they could do? Well… could someone help carry the kid? Just for a moment, just up to the next crest. My legs seemed to be working, but I was still unsteady on my feet. I didn’t want any more surprises for poor Ryan, not even a stagger. And that is how he came to meet Peter, or more precisely, Peter’s back. Up into the air went my pack and my boy, and off they went for the top. I called after Ryan that Peter was a good hiker and very strong, silently praying that my snap analysis was correct (some people can’t even lift the carrier). At any rate, the man was an alpine ox. I scrambled ahead, feeling buoyant without a pack. Marvelling that my knee still worked, with a gash the size of a slug. Soon we were at the top of some anonymous peak, looking back at vague ripples in the clouds that could have been mountains.

And still I hesitated, unsure if I should ask for more. I had a full range of motion in my leg, and a fine show of strength from the adrenaline coursing through my veins. If Kyle cleaned out most of my pack, I could still carry my boy. But the trail ahead was rough, with promises of more “technicalities” before the last easy grade home. I just wasn’t sure, and I said so. “We’ll stay with you for a while,” our nonchalant saviours said. “Until you get sick of us.”

And that was that. Well, that plus other things, too many to tack on. Seven more hours of hiking, no one getting sick of each other. Restorative garlic sausage on one of the countless summits of Mt. Unnecessary. Washing out my wound, which also looked like sausage. Laughing with real warmth, even as the day around us grew cold. Playing musical backpacks, so that I was left with the lightest one and Ryan was paired with his new best bud. Watching my son going up crags in his undamaged backpack, passed from hand to hand by three strangers who were fast becoming friends. Meeting my sister-in-law near km 27, just half an hour from our car, as twilight settled in to the woods.

    Kyle was not letting go of me again. With Peter and Ryan on Mt. Unnecessary. Photo by Colin Alexander
Kyle was not letting go of me again. With Peter and Ryan on Mt. Unnecessary. Photo by Colin Alexander

I took Ryan onto my shoulders for the last steps down. We were both coming out of our daze, waking up to the fact that everything was already okay. Ryan spoke up for the first time in ages, reminding us that the sound we just heard, the distant fading sound as we walked the final steps to the parking lot, was the hooting of the last woodland grouse. The soft farewell of the forest, and a smile from my child. I was utterly amazed that we were out. The feeling would last through the next sunrise, when I got back from the hospital to see Ryan sleeping peacefully on cotton sheets, as if he had been there all along.

On July 20th, I fell off a ledge on the side of the Lions. I gained some bruises, a few scratches, 8 prim stitches just below my knee. And something changed. Something left me that day, a barrier I had raised between myself and the world. I learned what it is to ask for help from perfect strangers, and I leaned that I have a unshakable strength for getting home. I found out what it’s like to betray a sacred trust and win it back. In the days following, I felt deeply ashamed, damned by my own foolishness. I was afraid to tell people where I had taken my son, afraid to admit that I had been so stupid. Slowly, as my leg healed, I came to accept what happened to us as almost normal, and to take solace in our response. I’m not proud of the event, but I’m proud of what was left. We got out together, and we were smiling. I didn’t break my bones, I didn’t hurt my son. And I didn’t break our love of the great outdoors.

Falling is the original teacher, and this fall changed me. These days I feel more powerful and more vulnerable than before, although in a way I’ve always known this. Truly, we are so good at hiding things from ourselves. Our purpose and our power, our strengths and our failings. Out there on the mountain, I met up with ground truth (and hard). It hurt, but I heard. I left some blood on the rock, and some pretense also. This shell may grow back, but for now I’m closer to myself than I was before. I’m closer to ground truth.

Ryan talks about our fall every day. His verdict is that Daddy took a step that was too big, and then Peter came to help. My stitches are finally out, and we just went on our first hike together again, on the good old Sunshine Coast Trail. He was bugging me for so long, when would my knee be ready, when could we go for a big hike, and would I fall down again. As it happened, I did slip on some moss, and he scolded me very sternly to be careful. Then he nodded off to sleep, trusting me to do my best. His soft breath sounded in my ear, and I walked forward, leg still a bit stiff but working well. Forward with careful, humble courage. On towards whatever lies ahead.

Ryan at Lois Lakeshore
Back on the trail again.