The end of the trail beckoned us forward, beckoned us to its rocky embrace. The waves crashed against the shore line that we had been walking for the past 30 miles sporadically intermixed with deep inland travel wading through bottomless mud pits. We had been false charged by 5 different bears the day before along this coastline, a pleasant way for the trail to remind us of the wild experience behind us. We were closing in on the end of the Vancouver Island Trail. The past month, which we had originally believed would only take 2-weeks, was another test of our fortitude. Maps that whispered lies to us daily, bushwhacks that were only the thickness a rainforest could provide, and traversing unknown territory where there was no trail had been our lives. So, as we got closer to the end, coming around an outcropping on an especially turbulent stretch of eroded shoreline, it was only fitting that we found the embodiment of our hike. It startled us at first, but as we got closer, the bright orange colors, limp form, and drooping head, announced it as exactly what we had been for the past 30 days, a survival dummy!
The Vancouver Island Trail had just been officially designated in June 2020, we hiked it in August 2020. We had just come off of an extreme survival trek of thru-hiking the Great Divide Trail in record rain and record hypothermic conditions, so we honestly believed this would be a walk in the park so to say. We needed a trail to recoup, a trail to rest, a trail to be outside of survival and thought and purely inside of enjoyment and life. While we still were able to find the enjoyment inside of this experience, it sapped away the tanks of energy that had already been bone dry from the Great Divide Trail. This began a whole new world of survival. A type of survival out of the classic definition of living or dying due to external conditions such as weather, exposure, sickness and instead an internal battle of survival to find the energy day after day that was deeper and deeper to reach each day. When we say our tanks were empty, they were empty unlike anything either of us had ever experienced before, the GDT was an experience of pure survival every moment of every day for 37 days, and our bodies and minds had been fried. Yet, it was time for a new test, a new walk in the park, a new crash collision as we became survival dummy round 2.
If we would of hiked this trail any other given year, any other given time, it would have been a completely different experience. As long as we didn't use this trail as a follow up to the most extreme conditions we had ever experienced on the GDT, we would not have ever felt nearly as battered as we did as when we looked at that survival dummy. It felt more of a reflection than an inanimate object. How did it get in between the rocks? Wash it washed ashore after an especially brutal storm? What had it encountered and suffered to reach this peaceful wind blocked tunnel of rest it found itself lying in when we arrived? Were we asking these questions to the survival dummy in front of us now, or were we asking these questions to the survival dummy inside of us?
You all have seen the 2020 Dumpster Fire Memes... but have you seen the more intense 2020 Frozen Dumpster?!?!
The Vancouver Island Trail while having an incredible amount of potential, is still a trail in its infancy. Being in its infancy that means it has much growth ahead. Growth in maps being ground-truthed, growth in trail actually being a trail in front of you and not bushwhacks down cliffs, growth in awareness around this beautiful trail. We love this type of journey and experience, and while still loving it fully when we hiked it, it was a battle. Your mind is your greatest strength and greatest weakness when out on trail, and as such, it fluctuated between the two. By having a different experience in mind, a peaceful trek, an easy trek to end the year, our mind was comfortable. When it got thrown on its head and the experience turned to bushwhack and navigation daily our mind protested at the drastic difference. It had needed a break and instead was met with a challenge. It was mentally draining in away that we have very few words for. If we had known going in that this trail would be another navigational and mental struggle we would have set our mind accordingly, and it would not have balked each day at the extreme conditions in front of it. It is all about mind-set, the mind that anticipates and expects is stronger than the one that is perplexed and surprised.
Yet, we needed to find strength, we had started this trail, and we were going to finish it. We had began with a disadvantage in mindset of assumptions, as well as an extreme disadvantage of our bodies and minds being fried from the GDT. Yet, our mind was our own, and as we had said it is your greatest weakness and greatest strength on trail, so we knew we could harness it again. Getting to the point that we could utilize it has become easier throughout the years on trail, but this again was a special experience. We had to reach deeper, reach further into the pain, to find the strength. (We have written an article on this type of mentality called Pain Well) While our previous article talks about physical pain bringing us into this well, it was now our mental exhaustion and pain that brought us into this same well. We would have to again find comfort and peace in our exhaustion, in our pain, and find the beauty that was inside here with us.
There is an incredible amount of beauty inside of you as well as outside, you just have to be able to look and see. Beauty through struggle shared is exponentially increased.
Knowing the Pain Well is there is easy, reaching into it each day is difficult. Yet, that is exactly what was demanded of us and we would oblige, we would make our minds as strong day after day as we knew they were capable of. The journey there each day was different, but the journey inside we knew. The journey there may come from waking up in pouring down rain, walking through knee high mud for miles, eating dust along logging roads, bushwhacks that 1 mile took us 2 hours going down cliff sides, this was just the entrance, now the real work began. The Vancouver Island Trail was extremely beautiful and extremely demanding in regular circumstances. In a regular year of this being an extreme trail, in a regular year where we had reserve energy, in a regular year. Yet where we found ourselves was outside of regular circumstances, outside of the norm, outside of the regular. We had been in the extreme and unusual for all of hiking season, and being in the unusual made us unusual, (honestly we were already, had been for years). Well that means that we would consciously chose to thrive in the abnormal, push the envelopes of odd, and be proud to be among the uncommon.
The next month along the Vancouver Island Trail was a journey. One we wouldn't change for anything (well, maybe our partner would say something different). One that we were tested in new capacities everyday. We knew how to bushwhack, we knew how to deal with weather, we knew how to hike. Yet, we were learning a new level of commitment and a new level of perseverance . We had experienced the extreme perseverance of the GDT this year, and that unto itself can not be put into words how each footstep was a physical and mental struggle unlike we had ever known. Always just slightly above the threshold of danger, until we were very much within its frozen and vice like grip. We will remember that struggle for the rest of our lives always being on the brink of hypothermia and teetering between the line of life and death daily. We want to clarify while we use big metaphors occasionally, we want to re-iterate how very much real the above statement is, almost every single day we teetered on a very precarious scale. Many may think we are exaggerating or embellishing, but with the weather and the consistency of always being wet, there is no exaggeration when this was our life and could have been death for those 37 days on the Great Divide Trail. It was extremely unlucky with the weather following us, and punishing us every single day. Let us move past that, but we will never be able to put into words the battle daily on that trail. Let us move to the Vancouver Trail. We were know outside of the threshold of life/death that was the GDT in 2020, it was no longer a physical danger, it was now purely a mental battle, and each day finding energy when there was none left. A test we passed, but a test that was a new threshold, and new level.
Find your growth, find your strength, it is there.
So, when we arrived at that survival dummy on the rocks, within 30 miles of the northern terminus, we laughed at the absurdity of the moment. Honestly, that was us. That is why we bestowed our own hat on its head. There was no difference between that survival dummy and ourselves for the past few months. We had both been through turbulent waters, both been frozen in the deep, and both had been battered day after day by the elements. The lifeless droop of the head was reflected in our very posture. If we could use that extra ounce of energy towards moving forward, and our head bounced a little extra along the way, so be it. We needed even that extra ounce some days. There were cuts and scrapes along its body that again reflected our own, and fading of its body, that reflected the fading of our own. The lifeless gaze in its expressionless face paralleled the lifeless gaze of our soul having nothing left even when we had everything. We had nothing left to give mentally or physically, but had been given so much from these trails this year. We had been given beauty along with brutality, we had been giving adventure along with pain, we had been given freedom along with the captivity of struggle. and we had been given tests along with the answers we had always known within. We had been wet, beaten, battered, and tested day after day, the very life of a survival dummy. As we put our hat back onto our heads, we smiled, smiled in the similarities and differences, and said goodbye to the survival dummy along the rocks, and embraced the survival dummy within ourselves.
With a battered body and mind, but a joyful soul.
P:S: We need to give a huge shout-out to our hiking partner Magpie. She reached a level even outside of our comprehension with how much internal drive and commitment it took to finish this trail after the GDT, and could not be more proud to know a hiker that their internal strength has such depths and is unfathomable. Strength without bounds.
Read our full article on: Vancouver Island Trail's Website