Saturday, January 19, 2013

A Gift Not Given

Many, many years ago, I hiked the West Coast Trail. The West Coast Trail, famous among hikers, is a remote, rugged, 75 kilometer trail in the Pacific Rim National Park on the west coast of Vancouver Island, Canada, along the Pacific Ocean. There are cliffs that backpackers climb using ladders, rivers and creeks that need to be forded or crossed using a cable car, and sections of headland that can be bypassed by picking your way along the ocean's edge (after consulting tide tables so you don't get trapped by an incoming tide).

To accomplish the trip, my partner and I drove to Port Alberni, the closest community to the north access point of the trail. We left our car and everything but our backpacks there and took the train - the historic E&N Railway - south to Victoria. From Victoria, we hitchhiked along the Sooke highway southwest to Port Renfrew, the small community at the south access point to the trail. (People still hitchhiked in those days.)

We had researched the trip beforehand and purchased a West Coast Trail hiking book. This was thirty years ago, before the days of the world wide web. Our materials told us that the trip typically took seven days in total. We carried dried provisions for eight days, first aid supplies (there are no roads or settlements along the trail), clothing to keep us warm, and rain capes that covered us as well as our backpacks. It can be very rainy and cool on the coast, even in summer, and wet clothing and sleeping bags could make the trip miserable.

If my memory serves me right, on the morning of the third day, we left our camp at Carmanah Point, and headed to the Cheewhat River, which we crossed by cable car. We had already hiked some of the most rugged parts of the trail and I was stiff and sore. As well, my left hip was bothering me, no doubt because I was carrying a pack that was too heavy for my size and weight.

We were headed for the Nitinat Narrows. This is a very short tidal river or narrows that joins Nitinat Lake and the Pacific ocean. It is swift, wide and deep. The only way to get across was to wait for someone from the Nitinat (Ditidaht) First Nation to come by and ferry you across in their boat. Moreover, the crossing can only be made at or close to slack tide, as when the tide is rushing in or out through the narrows, the current is extreme and there are rapids.

After crossing the Cheewhat River, my partner was anxious to make it to the Nitinat Narrows so that we could be ferried across before the tide came in. Although hikers usually stay close their partners, especially in such a remote area, on this occasion he rushed ahead leaving me alone in the forest.

This part of the trail cut inland, away from the ocean. It was heavily treed and the ground was boggy. I was grateful for the long sections of boardwalk that enabled me to not have to walk through the mud. Although it had been raining earlier, the rain had stopped and the forest very quiet. All I could hear was the sound of my feet and my own breathing. My partner was nowhere to be seen.

I was walking along, trying to keep up a good pace but very tired and sore, when suddenly I had the eerie feeling that I was not alone. I stopped and looked around, thinking there might be a bear, but I saw and heard nothing. This is a wild remote area, and there were and still are grizzly bears and cougars in the park. I arranged my rain poncho over my pack to try to look as big as possible, and continued on, whistling and singing to make noise. I walked quickly and with confidence, trying not to limp, even though my hip was aching. If there was a bear nearby, I did not want to surprise it, and if there was a cougar stalking me, I wanted to look big and capable of defending myself (although, in fact, I was short and slight and had nothing to defend myself with except a stick that I had picked up).

I went along, perhaps another kilometer, still feeling as though something was watching me. Then, finally, I came over a ridge and was at the Nitinat Narrows, and rejoined my partner who was waiting there. It was a relief to take off the pack, stow the poncho, and rest, knowing that an animal (if there was one, and not just my imagination working overtime) would be less likely to attack two of us.

A little while later, two Nitinat men came along in their small motor boat. We paid them twenty dollars to ferry us across, and climbed into the boat. They had been out crabbing, and there were two plastic garbage cans, each half full of live crabs. It was no longer slack tide. The tide was starting to rush in and the boat engine roared as it strained against the current as we crossed the river. I sat quietly in the boat, feeling shy and awkward. As we came across into quieter waters, one of the men looked at me and said, "I like that sweater." He paused, then he said again, "Yeah, I like that sweater."

I remember the sweater that I was wearing. It was a heavy wool sweater (these were the days before technical wear and fleece). The main body of the sweater was a light brown colour with black "suspenders" with big blue buttons knitted into the pattern, and black and yellow trim on the arms and at the bottom of the sweater. I had bought it in a secondhand store, where I bought many of my clothes during this poverty-stricken time of my life. I had chosen it for this trip because wool is warm even when wet.

I wanted to give my sweater to the Nitinat man. He liked it, and I knew that he wanted it. I almost did give it to him, but I did not because we still had half of the hike ahead of us, and I did not have another warm sweater to wear.

Looking back, I wish that I had given the sweater to him. Now I understand the important meaning that gifts hold for people from many First Nations cultures. A gift from the heart would have meant much more than that twenty bucks. I was a young white woman and he was a stranger, and yet it would have been the right thing to do to have given him the sweater. As it turned out, the weather became warm and sunny after we left Nitinat Narrows and I did not need to wear the sweater for the rest of the hike.

By the way, when we got back to civilization a few days later, we heard the news that a cougar had come out of the forests near Sooke and attacked a small girl just a week before. The parents had managed to beat off the cougar and rescue the child. This occurred not that many miles away from the section of trail between Cheewhat river and Nitinat River. I have often wondered whether that same cougar had been stalking me.




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