Life on the Edge: The West Coast Trail

To prepare for the West Coast Trail on Canada’s Vancouver Island, find a ladder, preferably a wobbly one with a few rungs of questionable stability. Load your backpack and put it on. Then, climb up and down the ladder dozens of times while someone sprays you with a hose.

What is the point of following a trail like the WCT into wilderness? If I’m limited to one word: perspective. Give me two words, and I’ll add humility. Allow me a third, and compassion completes the list.

When Amy and I hiked the West Coast Trail (WCT) in July of 2023, Vancouver Island was experiencing a historic drought, so the hose-spraying training regimen was unnecessary. During our seven-day trek, sunny weather was so prevalent that we wondered if stories about hikers slogging through mud for seven consecutive days of downpours were exaggerations if not outright lies. 

The one night that we did get some precipitation, we forgot to put the rain fly on our tent before we fell asleep. Waterdrops splatting against our faces reminded us that we were camped at the coastal edge of one of the world’s great temperate rainforests.

Sea Cave at Owen Point. Photo by Stephen Grace


The logistics of a WCT backpacking trip are as daunting as the hike. Reservations for permits should be secured months in advance. Before being issued an actual permit, you must read online preparation material, watch a safety video, and attend an in-person orientation session. One out of every hundred people who attempt the WCT has to be evacuated. Parks Canada is going to great lengths to reduce the number of evacuations. After completing your orientation session at park headquarters, you are issued a permit and given a detailed map of the route and a tide table. You are also given an evacuation form to fill out in the event of a misadventure because you didn’t study your map and use the tide table to time your travel around shore obstacles. Boxes on the form indicate “contributing factors” to the evacuation. One is labeled “carelessness.” Our goal for the trip, Amy and I decided, was to avoid checking this box. 

If you are a hardcore thru-hiker who eats trail miles for breakfast and the fifty-mile length of this trail strikes you as laughably easy, here’s a more telling number: seventy. That’s the ladder tally. Some of the ladders are a mere twenty feet tall and tilted at user-friendly angles of around 60 degrees. Other ladders tower fifty feet or more; some seem disturbingly close to vertical.

Amy, climbing. Photo by Stephen Grace


Consider the ladder system of Culite Creek: seven ladders on one canyon wall and eleven on the other side. Between the ladders runs a cable car you can use to cross the creek. If this sounds like fun in an Indiana Jones or Goonies way, well, it is—for a few seconds. After you release the car containing you, one other hiker, and your packs from a platform, gravity gives you a free ride. But before you can finish yelling whee, friction does its dirty work. The cable car stops, and the rest of the ride is up to you. Start pulling the rope and scold yourself for not doing more upper-body workouts.

Each time you arrive at a cable car crossing, the car could be on the other side of the river—meaning you must first pull the contraption to your platform. Only then can you haul yourself and your gear across. Are these cable cars lightweight and easy to pull? No, thank goodness. While dangling over a gorge, you want a sturdy metal car to carry you. To prepare for the WCT cable car workout, start doing pushups at home and lat pulldowns at the gym as soon as you secure your permit reservation. CrossFit classes and tug-of-war contests would be helpful for this hike.     

A rule of physics on the WCT: what goes up one ladder must come down another. A rule of psychology on the WCT: do not stand at the top of a ladder and look down. Do not dwell on your fatigue, your disorientation, and the pack on your back that throws off your balance as you descend. Do not focus on the fact that the ladder shakes each time you shift your weight. And for goodness sake, have the common sense to collapse your poles and stash them; don’t try to carry them in one hand like I did on the first day while descending what we later learned from a lighthouse keeper was the tallest ladder on the WCT.

Did I say lighthouse keeper? Indeed, I did. There are not one but two lighthouses, and you cross their manicured grounds on this trek that injures many people and sends many more peeling off at the halfway point when a non-emergency escape with a water taxi is possible. You can hand your filled-out evacuation form to a lighthouse keeper, who will arrange for your rescue. The WCT is a jarring jumble of civilization and wilderness.

Carmanah Lighthouse. Photo by Stephen Grace


Would you believe me if I told you there are not only two lighthouses on the WCT, but also a crab shack that serves seafood dinners? The trail requires two ferry crossings; their cost is included in your permit fee. At Nitnaht Narrows, the man who ferries you across in a motorboat also runs a restaurant on the floating dock on the south side of the river. If seafood feasts in the middle of a multiday hike are not your thing, maybe you’d enjoy a burger served on the beach below Carmanah Lighthouse.

Along with lighthouses and restaurants, other human wonders abound on the WCT. A staggering number of shipwrecks, victims of the notorious “Graveyard of the Pacific,” are noted on maps and trail narratives. Some campsites, such as Michigan Creek, are named for these doomed vessels—a boiler from the wooden steamship Michigan lies crumpled on the shore. The path you travel in your high-tech footwear, a GPS device attached to your ultralight pack, was originally a trade route blazed by Indigenous people. Later, this path through the wilds was used by shipwreck survivors making their way overland; then, it became a telegraph corridor linking lighthouses built to keep ships from shattering on shore. Across the years, evacuation has been a constant of the WCT, from wayward mariners to hapless hikers.

Walbran Creek Cable Car. Photo by Stephen Grace


“Anchor on the rocks” is a feature noted twice on your map issued by Parks Canada. As advertised, these locations contain relics from ships. Marooned, giant metal anchors rest on rocks without a trace of the vessels to which they were initially tethered. Coming across an enormous anchor among boulders after hours of wilderness travel is surreal, like an art installation created by the sea.   

Steam donkeys might also leave you scratching your head. If you are into derelict steam donkeys, the WCT is definitely for you. Steam donkeys are machines that powered an antiquated form of logging. Their rusting presence along the trail makes sense. Around them are the stumps of fallen titans. The severed remains of old-growth cedars now support hemlock and spruce, young trees straining toward the light, new life rising from old. 

The rusted carcass of a motorcycle, one of the iconic features of this trail, makes no sense whatsoever. But there it is: a motorcycle in the middle of a rocky, root-strewn jungle path in the dead center of nowhere. Along with the most beautiful trailwork I have ever seen.

On the north end of the WCT near Pachena Bay, talented hands have carved salmon shapes and other wonders in footlogs. I regret not spending more time appreciating these features, and I wish I’d met the man responsible for them. Another hiker told me we just missed the artist and his apprentice, to whom he was passing along this tradition.

Some wilderness purists might be bothered by a crab shack and a burger bar, by tended lighthouse lawns and derelict steam donkeys, by a random motorcycle abandoned on the trail. They might be vexed by the sheer amount of infrastructure. The suspension bridges, the ladders with landings, the boardwalks, the balance beams over bogs. Maybe these wilderness purists are even annoyed by the maximalist approach to footlogs—rendering them aesthetically pleasing instead of maintaining a bare-bones minimalism to make the trail passable. Okay, I’ll be honest. I was one of those people. At first. Call me a WCT skeptic. But the trail won me over.

Sea Cave Window. Photo by Stephen Grace


The quirkiness of features you won’t find on other backpacking trips in, say, Olympic National Forest or Redwood National Park is at the heart of the WCT’s charm. The Pachena Lighthouse keeper will talk your ear off if you let him, but why not let him? You’ll have plenty of long stretches of hiking without another human soul within earshot. Parks Canada has placed two enormous Adirondack chairs made of plastic (recycled, thankfully) on a wild bluff. Why not sit in these bright-red thrones above the sea? And why not get to know the derelict donkeys? They have already done their dubious work, slaying trees that stood for centuries before we decided we needed second homes with wraparound decks. Why not admire the steampunk look of the donkeys’ gears and cogs and marvel at the human ingenuity that made them? Trace with your fingertip the name embossed on the decaying metal: Empire. Consider the stories told along this trail and the stories yet to come in the centuries ahead, as the handful of ancient trees that survived our slaughter continue to add growth rings when the northern hemisphere of this planet tilts toward the sun in its annual orbit, and whales glide through the blue and boundless sea.

To silence my inner curmudgeon who craves a pristine wilderness experience, I reminded myself that none of us will be here—not humans on trails, not trees, not whales—when the sun swells and turns the Earth to ash, as it inevitably will before it dies. Scientists who study the lifespan of stars know this is true, and the rest of us know it, too. Such are the rules of this universe in which we find ourselves. A universe in which nothing lasts, not even the nuclear explosions that bathe our world in light.

This thought stopped my sniping, at least for a few moments, as I stared at a broken machine, a victim of entropy rusting among the stumps. I absorbed the brutal truth that all of this is so precarious. So brief. This realization helped me revel in the friendly chatter of a lighthouse keeper. It helped me celebrate the sight of art carved in logs on a wilderness trail, lounge in a plastic chair after hiking through rainforest, and embrace the idea of a man operating a crab shack in the wilds to feed his family. For a brief but blazing instant, my expansive mood extended to the derelict donkey I touched, a remnant of a fading empire. A machine that we devised to kill some of the largest living things in the history of the planet. My love encompassed the broken ships strewn along the shore, some built to murder whales. All of us are doomed, and all of us are beautiful. I surrendered to my love for this world, gorgeous and hideous, noble and base.  

Call it trail fatigue. Dehydration. Exhaustion. I’d like to think that the moving meditation of hiking day after day on a difficult route led me to a place of understanding and acceptance. If only for a moment, the WCT loosened the grip of my misanthropy, which seems to strengthen its hold on my psyche each time I check the news.

What is the point of following a trail like the WCT into wilderness? If I’m limited to one word: perspective. Give me two words, and I’ll add humility. Allow me a third, and compassion completes the list.  

We are all so vulnerable out there on a trail like the WCT. It makes sense to be kind to each other, to share information about the hazards ahead, to not hoard what we have, to offer assistance. We may be strong now, but a moment’s inattention, one misstep, a single slip, and we are the ones in need. 

There is no trail more challenging than the path we navigate through life, a truth that all of us, myself included, tend to forget or choose to ignore soon after leaving the wilds.       

* * *

 *Back to practical tips: another rule of WCT ladders is never assume a rung will be there to hold you. Amy learned this lesson one misty morning when she was the first to descend a ladder in the fog, which like all other ladders on the WCT, had been built of rot-resistant cedar. Many of the WCT ladder rungs are polished smooth from boots. Old rungs show low places where countless soles have stepped, eroding the wood—rungs with stories. The stories pile on through the years until one rung can take no more. It wobbles loose and tumbles into the void.

Stephen on the Trail. Photo by Amy Grace

Long arms and legs are useful for stretching past a missing rung. Life’s lottery awarded me lanky limbs capable of spanning the ladder gap we encountered without much trouble, but I worried about my fellow hikers with differently proportioned appendages. While stretching my leg to put weight on the rung below the missing one, this stressed rung moved. I made the mistake of glancing at the ground twenty feet below. Deep breathing restored my mental equilibrium. Methodically, I made my way down, testing the stability of each rung before committing to it, similar to assessing sketchy handholds and footholds while mountain climbing.

You can prepare for WCT ladders by putting on a pack and climbing a ladder at home, and you can get comfortable with heights before you embark on the trail, but I don’t know what kind of training regimen would prepare you for the broken boardwalks—another specialty of the WCT. Bogs, of which there are many, lie interspersed among the forest stands. Bogs are botanically fascinating with their nutrient-poor, acidic soils that host plants adapted to these extreme conditions. If you are into sphagnum moss, as I have been ever since reading Robin Wall Kimmerer’s book Gathering Moss, bogs are beautiful. But they pose a significant hiking challenge.

Boardwalks provide a stable surface for striding over mud that can rise above your gaiters, reach your knees, and even envelop your thighs. This malicious substance tries to suck loosely laced boots from your feet. I have heard stories of hip-deep mud on the trail holding people in place. After straying from boardwalks and poking around a few bogs that seemed bottomless, I am inclined to believe these horrific tales. Stephen King’s stories are less disturbing.

Boardwalks offer salvation. Sometimes. In theory, a boardwalk is a blessing. In practice, falling trees, soggy soil, shifting drainage patterns, and winter storms contort and crack the boardwalks into broken messes that create navigation problems—and strange optical effects.

A fresh boardwalk may have recently been reconstructed—enjoy it while it lasts. A stretch of new boards often ends abruptly at a sunken section of old wood, startling your brain into thinking you may tumble off an edge ahead as if plummeting over a cliff. Or, even more arresting, a section of boardwalk may become so twisted that it resembles the wonky path of an amusement park ride. You keep adjusting your position as the boardwalk curves from horizontal to vertical—until you are walking on the rail of what seems like a banked roller coaster track. At this point, you may opt to step off this lunatic infrastructure and take your chances in the mud.

Typical Stretch of Rainforest Trail. Photo by Stephen Grace


You always have choices on the trail, as in a video game. Left or right around the log? Over? Or under? Do you traverse the base of the rock outcrop or climb ledges toward its top? Each choice leads to another choice, and the fractal branching of the countless decisions you make on your hike will be your destiny.    

Perhaps you are wondering if the broken wood of the boardwalks bristles with nails and if these nails pose a danger. Yes, and yes. Should you make sure you’re current on tetanus shots? You bet. Have people hiked the WCT barefoot? I’d be willing to wager they have, but would strongly caution against joining their ranks. Parks Canada requires sturdy hiking boots. My trail running shoes worked fine during the drought, but waterproof boots with knee-high gaiters would be sensible footwear in more normal, muddier times. Wearing anything less would, frankly, be a bit loopy.

Trekking poles are essential tools on this trail, not only for aiding with balance and taking strain off your knees. A useful WCT technique is “mud poking.” A man who hiked the trail in a multiday rainstorm a few years ago explained to me that you probe muck between boardwalk sections with a pole tip to find a sunken log or other solid surface before committing your boot to what looks like a pit of tar.   

The most basic rule of boardwalk navigation on the WCT: never trust just one board and risk breaking it with your weight—always place your foot on two boards at a time. If Parks Canada explained this in their preparation material, I missed it. I learned this lesson from the sound of cracking wood.

The foundational rule of all WCT rules? Every step is critical. Pay attention.

Amy tracked her steps. Over the course of seven days, the clever device on her wrist recorded 180,093 steps—almost every one of those required fierce concentration. If you enjoy letting your mind wander while hiking on cruiser trails, the WCT is not for you. If, however, you are like me and find that focusing intensely on your surroundings as you move through complicated terrain is a form of meditation that shuts down the inane chatter in your brain, the WCT will be your bliss.

* * *

Some sections of the WCT take you away from root-riddled rainforest trekking, removing the need for bog slogging and broken boardwalk stepping. These paths send you along the shore, a mixed blessing.

Past the Cheewhat River, we exited the forest and found a flat surface of firm sand that made for an easy beach walk for maybe one kilometer or one “click,” as the cool kids on the WCT say. But other than that stretch, shorewalking proved pretty brutal.

Sandstone Slab at Low Tide. Photo by Stephen Grace

You hear a lot of talk about “shelves” on the WCT. At low tide, level expanses of sandstone offer relatively easy walking—until they don’t. Just as you start thinking, “Hey, this is no harder than strolling across the parking lot at Safeway,” you step on a seaweed-covered rock and become a victim of a cartoon slip-on-a-banana-peel fall. You get up; make sure no bones are broken, look around and hope no one captured the moment for YouTube, and then onward you walk across the shelf. Until a surge channel stops you in your tracks.

You also hear a lot of talk about “surge channels” on the WCT. These gaps in shelves carved by the surging ocean can provide minor navigation nuisances. They can also kill you. Some of the surge channels are so dangerous that if you fall into a chasm you are trying to leap across or you slide into one from its slippery edge, and the rising tide is pushing a powerful current through the channel, your chances of getting out alive are very close to zero.

Surge channels are often hidden from view as you gaze across the flat plain of a shelf. What do you do? You try to remember what the instructor in the orientation session said about where the infamous surge channels lurk, and you decipher the symbols on your map. And when you must grapple with one of these dangerous gaps, you go high on the shore, climbing above the head of the channel, except when you absolutely should not do that.

There is one surge channel where you are told to never, under any circumstances, climb the steep headwall above the channel—hikers who slide down this slope into surging water have slim hope of surviving. How do you get across this one? Wait for low tide.

Shore walking, often billed as an easier alternative to jungle hiking and ladder climbing, presents yet another challenge. This shore problem, though not dangerous like slippery rocks and surge channels, is a source of psychological suffering. Soft sand.

Loose piles of sediment reduced our speed to a maddeningly slow trudge—a purgatory of incremental forward progress before we reached the promised land of the next campsite, marked by buoys hanging from trees—helpful beacons if you arrive early in the day. If you roll into camp during the late afternoon or evening hours, you can’t miss the tents, sometimes counted in the dozens.   

* * *

Western Redcedar. Photo by Stephen Grace


If solitude is your goal on a wilderness trip, remove the WCT from the top of your hiking list. The crowding at campsites—especially popular ones like Tsusiat Falls—approaches urban density. Add to the list of WCT challenges: not tripping over tent guylines as you make your way to the privy.

But the crowding warning comes with three caveats. First, hiking between campsites feels delightfully isolated—you can go for hours without seeing another person, especially if you break camp early and beat the morning rush hour.

Second, if you crave a private camp and are willing to devote some physical and mental work to the project, it is achievable. Our most idyllic experience came at Thrasher Cove, the busiest of all camps. We got there early, crossed a couple of logs to get to the extreme south end of the cove, and found the tent site of our dreams: a square of pale sand just above the reach of the highest tide, tucked among giant drift logs. The sound of surf shushed human voices in the distance, allowing us to drown in delicious solitude.  

Third, and most importantly, although the popular campsites can feel crowded, people are friendly. No one is ever turned away from a site—there is always room to pitch another tent. And there are always encouraging words for bedraggled travelers who stumble in at dusk seeking vacant real estate.

Chatting with good-natured campers from around the globe on the WCT became a highlight of the experience for me—a surprise for my solitude-seeking self.

An Australian guy who looked like he’d be comfortable on a rugby pitch said of an exceptionally tall ladder, “It’s a gooder.” This quip became standard trail lingo for Amy and me—we called every big ladder we encountered “a gooder.”

As terrific as that was, my favorite quip of the trip goes to an American woman traveling light, solo, and fast. One morning, she blasted past Amy and me as we were botanizing on a boardwalk, our nerdy selves crouching down to look at carnivorous sundew plants eating flies. Later that day, we saw this woman sunbathing on a shore. While we trudged into camp, she gave off the vibe of someone who had been there a long time, luxuriating in the soft sand, savoring the sight of the blue sea beneath the blue sky after her badass self knocked off a whole bunch of trail clicks in one fast push between camps. She called the  WCT “a beach vacation with an obstacle course each day.”

* * *

Shoreline near the Michigan Creek Campsite. Photo by Stephen Grace


Trail names are usually reserved for long-distance journeys like the Appalachian Trail and Pacific Crest Trail. However, given the challenges of the WCT, Amy and I decided that trail names were in order.

Amy was NNC, short for Non-negotiable Coffee. Though she is a compassionate medical professional who has devoted her life to healing people, I am quite certain that Amy would murder me with her bare hands if denied a cup of morning java.

And me: Fossil. I like looking for fossils, but I also feel old. At least compared to the twenty-something dudes who hiked the trail in five days with packs that weighed fifty pounds or more. When asked if there was anything they wished they had brought with them, they answered without hesitation and in unison: “Beer. More beer.”

One of the Beer Bros had attached to his pack a rope of a diameter thicker than needed to hang food from a tree out of reach of bears. But this rope was neither strong enough nor long enough for rappelling down cliffs. Maybe it’s the kind of thing you carry when you’re proud of how much you can bench press and you’re heading off into the wilds. When I talked with these guys, I was irritated that they displayed all of the bravado I’d had at that age but lacked the annoying arrogance I’d also had back then—god help me if I have to go back knowing what I know now and hike with my insufferable twenty-something self. But boy, would I like to have the speed and stamina I’d had back then.  

“Ah, to be young and fast.” That’s what I said to the three women who raced past me on the trail one foggy morning in the woods. “I’m fifty-five and fast,” said one of them, presumably the mother of at least one of the girls working hard to keep pace with her. “Supermom” became her trail name, but I never saw her again. How could I? She seemed to be setting some kind of speed record on the trail.

Standard ego-soothing ensued. I told myself I was moving at a relaxed pace to savor the experience. Which, to be fair, was partly true. While stopping at the ocean’s edge to watch and listen for whales instead of sprinting ahead, I saw a fossil shell embedded in a slab of sandstone from some long-ago sea, washed up on the shores of time for a slow middle-aged man like me to see.

In my twenties, I would snowboard 30,000 vertical feet at Jackson Hole, Wyoming, then wake up the next morning and do it again. In my thirties, I trained for climbing Aconcagua in Argentina and trail running in Tibet by running to the top of 14,000-foot peaks in Colorado. In my forties, I rediscovered the thrill of mountain biking and gobbled up miles of singletrack. I could tell you about outdoor adventure goals achieved in decades past, but I couldn’t tell you what kind of rocks I traveled across. I couldn’t tell you about the plants I blazed by or the birds I was too busy to hear. Slowing down has its advantages.

Never again will I match the pace of Supermom or the Beer Bros. By the time I completed the WCT, I was at peace with this. I told myself that stopping to listen to a Pacific Wren sing is better than bragging rights. And most of the time, I believed it.  

* * *

There are many reasons to love the WCT. Smelling ocean air in the rainforest. Hearing the thrum of surf as you cross a trickling creek. Lying on a bed of sand with your back propped against a log as clouds drift above the waves. Watching whales feed so close to shore that the air you breathe in is the air they exhale. Following the tracks of sea wolves as the rising sun illuminates a beach. Smelling wet fur when you enter a cove where the wolves walked moments before you. Listening to the musical calls of crossbills feeding on western hemlock and Sitka spruce cone crops. Stretching your neck to see these trees spire into the rainforest canopy. Losing track of time as you peer into a tidepool to watch hermit crabs fight over shells in a housing market more cutthroat than Seattle’s. Sensing the manic pulse of a hummingbird’s wings as the tiny creature zooms through a sea cave with ferns hanging from the roof. Natural wonders proliferate on the WCT, but the real appeal of this trail lies in its childlike nature.

Logan Creek Suspension Bridge. Photo by Stephen Grace

On the final day of our trek, I learned—or rather relearned—that putting tree pitch on my hands improved my grip when climbing slippery ladder rungs. I discovered this as a kid climbing fences in my Missouri neighborhood because I needed to know what lived in the wilds beyond my yard. Amy told me about climbing cottonwoods at her grandparents’ dairy in Wyoming. Suddenly, it all made sense. The expense of the trip. The logistical complications. The tedious planning. Putting up with the pain of creaky knees and an aging back. I understood why we had taken this journey.  

My mind, exhausted from the endless focus that the trail demands but liberated from the mundane concerns of modern existence, looped back to children I had seen scaling drift logs at Pacheedaht Beach before we set foot on the trail.

The day before we began hiking, we car-camped at Pacheedaht. This campground, and the entire WCT, is on land where people of First Nations have lived from time immemorial. Parks Canada emphasizes this fact and educates trail users about Indigenous history and culture. But actually meeting one of the owners of the land you are about to enter is a more potent experience than written words can convey. 

Pacheedaht means “People of the Seafoam,” a woman who checked us into a campsite explained. I may have read that fact and then forgotten it. Now, I will never forget. The very least we can do when someone welcomes us into their home is remember their name.

Regarding the car camping, before we began our hike, I could have done without the dueling music of campground patrons, which, predictably, increased in volume in direct proportion to the amount of alcohol they consumed. Watching campers foul the beach with cigarette butts, beer cans, and plastic trash did little to improve my estimation of humanity. The roar of a leaf blower blotted out the song of a Swainson’s Thrush. Some campsite users sat inside RVs staring at screens, while others lounged outside in an inflatable hot tub. Many selfies were taken. The shouting that penetrated my foam earplugs, waking me at some absurd hour, reminded me why car camping can seem like the seventh circle. But one night of car camping hell was worth it for a glimpse of something glorious: kids free-ranging their way along the shore.

While Amy and I sat in the sand after eating dinner at camp, we aimed our binoculars at an Osprey kiting in the wind over the sea, searching for fish in the water below. A boy and a girl ran across a log, navigating its narrow girth like a balance beam. Their antics drew my attention away from bird behavior. What were these little humans doing? What little humans do when left to their own devices. They were going on adventures.

Drift log near the Darling River. Photo by Stephen Grace


I consider myself a connoisseur of drift logs, and Pacheedaht has some of the finest I’ve come across in the Pacific Northwest. The boy made excellent use of one mighty stump, its roots smoothed and bleached by sun and sea. He surmounted this challenge with deft footwork that he may have learned in a climbing gym. Or maybe his balance and agility came to him naturally, a genetic legacy of our ape ancestors who dwelled in trees before descending to the African savannah. The girl shouted that her loose water shoes were bad for climbing. After issuing this disclaimer, she scampered up the stump, reaching its summit as quickly as the boy had. Standing together, they took in the view from the top, closer to the Osprey’s world now than before they had climbed above the beach.

The Osprey, holding its position in the wind with subtle wing adjustments, looked like it was having fun. But this bird was hunting, carrying fish back to its nest to nourish the next generation. Does a bird feel a sense of freedom in skillful acts of physicality? A sense of accomplishment at goals achieved? Does a raptor experience rapture at the conclusion of a struggle with prey? Maybe. And perhaps play is more serious than we suppose.         

Imagination and creativity play prominent roles in outdoor adventure. Projecting an image of yourself standing on a summit stokes your motivation. Generating scenarios that could be encountered on a trail helps you plan how to work through potential challenges. Often, finding a route through the wilderness requires experimenting with different strategies to solve the puzzle of how to get to your goal.

No one told the children at the campsite that they needed to climb a gigantic stump. This learning experience was entirely their own. When the boy and girl climbed down, they joined a roving band of adventurers. One child lifted a stick like a sword and said, “My king says you shall not pass.” 

Not only were parents not present for this adventure along the shore. The children had no phones. No screens. Only their bodies and imaginations, and a wildland at the edge of the sea.

Maybe their parents were wise. Maybe they understood that children need to explore the world on their own. Or maybe they were preoccupied with drinking cocktails in the inflatable hot tub or watching screens inside RVs. Regardless, those kids inspired me.  

Although I had cell service for much of our trek, I left my phone in airplane mode to save my battery and my sanity. Day after joyous, demanding day, I climbed roots and ladders, crawled into the Hobbit homes of hollow trees, explored sea caves, and imagined swinging across mud pits. I stood beneath a thundering waterfall. I swam in creeks and coves. I trekked across sandstone slabs like desert scapes washed by waves. When I saw outcroppings of metamorphic rock warped by heat and pressure beneath the earth before being lifted skyward by some ancient cataclysm, I climbed these formations to better see whales. Or I climbed them for no reason at all. Just because these obstacles were there, the child I had been and the child I aspire to be, told me I should.  

* * *

Thrasher Cove. Photo by Stephen Grace


Regarding the low bar that Amy and I set for ourselves at the beginning of our hike—not checking the “carelessness” box on our evacuation form—I can report that we cleared it. Just barely.

In a dark forest one morning, while lifting my leg over a log, I misjudged the distance required to clear a poky knob of wood. Hand sanitizer sterilized the wound, and I lost more pride than blood for this blunder. No evacuation necessary.

Amy’s mistake was following me when I chose the low road through a notorious jumble of boulders that range in size from bowling balls to compact cars, blocking Thrasher Cove. What we learned: When presented with the choice of a high and difficult—but dry—path through the boulder field versus a low and easy—but wet—route, choose high and dry every time. I went low and learned the hard way. Solid ice seems less slippery than wave-polished boulders glossed with green algae. Rocks not slick with seaweed bristled with barnacles. The ocean’s edge had developed a one-two punch to deter human travelers: a slip on a seaweed-slick boulder produced barnacle-lacerated flesh.

We took a break amid the chaos of rocks so Amy could clean her barnacle cuts and glue her skin back together. Pro tip: always bring a medical professional with you on a hike. Even better, marry one. After my wife expertly repaired herself, we slowly made our way across boulders to Thrasher Cove. Our evacuation form remained blank.

What’s truly astonishing is that of the 180,093 or so steps we took in challenging terrain, demanding our full participation and attention, with each footstep presenting the possibility of filling out an evacuation form, almost every one of those steps was without incident. This does not seem possible. Yet 99 out of 100 people who hike the WCT do not need to be evacuated. Nature built us for survival—we are capable of more than we think we are.

Our ancestors in Africa, who gave rise to our entire human family, from the People of the Seafoam to my Celtic and Ashkenazi forbears, had no option for filling out an evacuation form when they trekked through the wilds. They followed their curiosity to know what was in the next valley, on a distant summit, along a far shore. Their imaginations led them on quests for shelter and food. And when their material needs were met, they explored the wildlands of their imaginations, trying to figure out what it means to exist as a human being on this Earth, a project that continues to this day, with no end in sight.

Like the boy and girl on the seashore who knew they needed to climb a drift log, two adults straddling both sides of a divide—one of us (Fossil) on the north side of fifty, and the other (Non-negotiable Coffee) a bit south of this landmark—decided they had to hike the West Coast Trail. We knew, without being able to explain why, that we needed to explore a wild edge where the rainforest collides with the sea.

Time has stolen some physical strength and mental agility from us. But there is no reason that our imaginations cannot be as rich now as they once were when we climbed the trees and fences of our youth. Children are the best teachers, wild places, the best classrooms. And the WCT is one of the finest educational institutions on this planet.

The fact that the people of the First Nations allow those of us who weren’t born on their land to walk the trail and absorb its lessons, relearning what our ancestors learned long ago when they began the adventure of climbing down from the trees onto the plains of Africa to become human—this is a gift to us all, our human family, young and old. 

Stephen Grace has authored many books, including “Dam Nation: How Water Shaped the West and Will Determine Its Future” and “Grow: Stories from the Urban Food Movement,” which won the Colorado Book Award for Creative Nonfiction. He explores the Northwest’s natural history by snorkeling, paddleboarding, skiing, trail running, and backpacking.

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