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Growing up in Ontario I never needed a pair of real hiking boots; running shoes were adequate footwear for the trails we walked. So, before moving out west, I went to an outdoor store where a young salesperson convinced me to buy a pair of lightweight, waterproof boots that cost almost as much as my flight.
During my first week in Kelowna, two friends I had met at school invited me to walk up Knox Mountain. I pulled on my new boots, excited for my first foray into the alpine, only to learn that no one else had worn hiking boots. Some people passing us on the trail were even decked out in flip-flops. My housemate later told me that Knox Mountain was not a mountain, it was more of a hill. At 300 metres elevation, it was the largest hill I’d ever seen.
A few years later I moved to Victoria and signed up for a Vancouver Island rite of passage: hiking the West Coast Trail. My companions were in charge of figuring out the tidal schedule during our first night of camping. In the morning they reported that we weren’t going to run into any tides and we could walk along the beach the whole way without any worry. I should have been more suspicious (the Parks Service insisted we attend an information session about tides prior to the hike) but I didn’t question them. As it turned out, my friends compared the metres from one chart with feet on the other and we ended up at a creek during high tide. Eventually, we crossed it and spent the afternoon drying out around a fire. While I recommend figuring out the tidal schedule ahead of time, the afternoon around the fire ended up being a highlight of our trip.
It wasn’t until I moved to Smithers, nearly seven years after first moving to British Columbia, that I started hiking in “real” mountains. By then I was wearing a replacement pair of hiking boots, identical to my first pair. Not knowing anyone in town, my housemate recommended that I go along on a hike organized by the Bulkley Valley Backpackers Society. Every Sunday they meet in the grocery store parking lot and carpool to different trailheads to hike as a group. I had been told the group was attended by older hikers so I wasn’t surprised when, other than one other newbie, I was the youngest attendee by about 20 years. However, I was surprised when we started hiking and I couldn’t keep up. I soon learned that many of these men and women hiked multiple days of the week. The hike co-ordinator that day said she was in her seventies and had just come back from a bike trip around Europe. When the group stopped for elevenses (a midmorning snack) I knew that I would get along with them just fine. After lunch, on our way back to the trailhead, the co-ordinator bounced between different groups of hikers, making sure everyone was doing all right. She must have walked twice as far as the rest of us.
During that first summer, I also joined a dating app. I was matched with one guy, whom I’ll call Steve, and who, after meeting for a beer, asked if I was interested in going on a hike. I was, I exclaimed a little too eagerly, and he suggested his favourite trail in a nearby community. We started early in the day because it was supposed to be hot. After parking the car we walked down a dirt road to get to the trailhead. “Do you have any beers?” he asked. I had heard of the tradition of bringing a “peak beer” on a hike but I didn’t have one. He laughed when I told him. I had misheard. He’d actually asked if I had any fears. “Oh,” I said, laughing too, “Yes, I’m pretty afraid of heights.” He gave me a funny look and said that if at any point I wanted to turn around to just say the word, that there was no pressure to go to the peak.
The trail started with switchbacks winding through the forest. It was steep but I tried to steady my breathing and make it appear as though it wasn’t too much effort. After a few hours of steady ascent, we were in the open. My legs felt tired and we were only halfway up. We crossed a grassy causeway thousands of feet in the air. Finally, we were at the last third of the hike. “It’s not too far from here,” Steve told me, but this section had loose rocks and not much to grab onto. I felt as though if I slipped I’d slide down for hundreds of feet. I slowed to a snail’s pace and focused on taking one step at a time. Steve later joked that I maintained four points of contact for that last section. It was when I learned that “fear sweat” has a distinct odour to “exercise sweat.” I was emitting both. When we finally got to the top I was elated, but still cautious. I sat, eating watermelon and taking in the view: neighbouring mountain peaks all around us, the river that etched its way through the valley below and the town of Hazelton, which now looked very small.
My boots have taken me all over B.C. I’ve seen bears, goats, wolf tracks, banana slugs, marmots and eagles. Now that I live here, it’s easy to take it for granted but I am trying to spend more time thinking about how grateful I am for these spaces and learning how I can help ensure they’ll still exist when I’m gone. Part of that involves helping others get into hiking.
This summer, I co-ordinated my first hike for the Bulkley Valley Backpackers Society. A young woman from Toronto showed up; she was in town visiting her sister for the week. That day, the mountain we were planning to hike was socked in by clouds. We considered cancelling and waiting for a sunnier day, but she was keen and only in town for the week so we went anyway.
The trail was wet and foggy and a bit of a slog uphill, but when we exited near the treeline the skies cleared and we had a magnificent view. We walked along a ridge where there were meadows of wildflowers in fuchsia, coral, violet, red, yellow, white and navy blue.
As the woman from Ontario took in the scenery, she talked about how incredible it felt to push herself and how there is nothing like these mountain views in Ontario. Listening to her excitement, I felt a renewed sense of awe to be able to see it again through her eyes.
Kaitlyn Bailey lives in Smithers, B.C.
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