Facts & Arguments is a daily personal piece submitted by readers. Have a story to tell? See our guidelines at tgam.ca/essayguide.
My fingers dug into the smooth trunk of the beast as I searched in vain for a handgrip. I pointed my feet and dug my knees in hard, but there was no movement forward. My bare thighs quivered and locked up, victims of fear and cold. The spray from crashing waves sent icy fingers over my legs, pulling me toward the boiling stew of kelp below. Over the ocean’s roar, I heard a hiker’s desperate yell: “Keep moving! Keep MO-VING!”
I was straddling a huge cedar log, branchless and straight as a totem pole, deposited by a Pacific storm on a desolate stretch of Vancouver Island’s coast. Nature had suspended the log as a bridge over a 50-foot-deep chasm in the rocky shore. “Giant Surge Channel,” the trail map explained.
I rubbed my nose on my sleeve, dribbling a trail of mucous like a frightened snail. Hands shaking, I slipped forward like a clumsy inchworm, pain jabbing at my crotch with every thump of my hips. Below, the surf sucked water out of the channel, then drove it crashing back like the blow spout of a blue whale.
The log was three feet wide, and I imagined it as a fern-like sapling back in 1793, the year Scottish explorer Alexander Mackenzie made the first land crossing of North America. He’d beaten Americans Lewis and Clark by 10 years, and at the B.C. coast wrote his name on a rock with pigment and grease. Later surveyors carved it into the stone, where it remains today.
He was 29 years old. My 20s had been a less fulfilling voyage.
When I emerged from university I was 24, broke and recently discarded by my girlfriend. But I had a new plan: I would work for a year, then depart for France and Italy to see the paintings that existed only in my mind’s eye as flickering projections in dark lecture halls.
Soon, I was awash in weekly paycheques, and that year became a decade. Shift work and overtime devoured my travel plans, and the year I turned 30 I worked 49 days in a row.
During rare days off, I hiked nature trails in the Toronto area with members of my tribe – overemployed singles craving a life outside the cubicle. After one rain-soaked outing, we were drying off at a local pub.
“Hey, let’s do a real hike. How about the West Coast Trail?” said Mike as he passed the brochure around. His résumé included canoeing Lake Superior alone and running river rapids in December. “C’mon, what do you say?” he asked as the magazine came my way.
I studied the photos of pods of wild killer whales and saw my life exposed. I was a purple starfish curled into the cleft of a rock, waiting for a tide that would never come.
“Okay, let’s do it,” I said, folding up the brochure. “I’m in.”
Over beers, the talk turned to flights, tents and hiking boots. July worked for everyone. It was going to happen.
A few days in, we were halfway along the 75-kilometre trail when we hit a fork in the path. Daylight was fading, and a curtain of fog was being pulled in by the evening breeze. We were hours from the next campsite, but the trail map preached a fiery sermon on the injuries and drowning that awaited us if we chanced forbidden shortcuts.
As we deliberated, a group of hikers approached from the other direction. If not for their synthetic jackets, they might have stepped out of the Middle Ages with their pale skin and long, shaggy hair.
“There’s a fair surge ahead, but a bonnie log for crossin’, lads!” said one of them, gesturing back around the point.
Scottish, I guessed. And nuts, too.
“But ye must hurry ’fore the push o’ the tide. Guid luck.” The wind almost whipped his last words away.
Before I could digest the warning, Mike broke into a jog. “Let’s go!” he shouted over his shoulder.
We rounded the corner and saw the massive log that was now our only way forward. Mike crept across like a panther while I gulped back panic mixed with lunch. I bent down and hugged the slick wood like a toddler with an oversized toy. When I reached mid-log, I was frozen like a crab. I craved safe adventures, not real danger like this.
“Keep MO-VING!” the voice broke through again.
I blinked water out of my eyes and saw Mike waving me toward the safety of the far shore. A kick of adrenalin transformed me into a millipede. Heart racing, I ignored the gouging cuts to my hands and legs as I scuttled. I slid off the far end of the log, letting my soaked pack fall to the ground. Gasping, I turned to look at the roiling sea I’d just crossed.
The same brine that awakens starfish and animates sea urchins had bathed me in its salve.
If one stretched a measuring stick across the “Giant Surge Channel” it would be less than 20 metres. A good runner can cover that in three seconds. A snail might take three days. I counted the trip in years.
But passing over the growth rings of the ancient wood had rekindled my passion for adventure. My tide had come in.
That day didn’t silence the competing calls of work, family and travel, but now the obstacles, detours and companions in my life help keep me in balance as I walk the trail.
Greg Walker lives in Caledon, Ont.