Getting Schooled: Lessons Learned the Hard Way on an Ocean-to-Alpine Epic

Almost crumbling under the weight of an 80-pound pack with burning cramps firing through my legs, I feel serious doubt seep into my tired, overheated brain and I ask myself for the three hundredth time in the past two days… “What have we gotten ourselves into?”


It always looks simpler on the Google Earth map doesn’t it?
It always looks simpler on the Google Earth map doesn’t it?

I can hear Jon and Jimmy clawing, grunting and powering their way through the demonic underbrush nearby. Every single footstep must be carefully placed in order to prevent serious injury in this twisted mess of rainforest chaos, whose mossy floor has surely never seen the footprint of man. Even linking two consecutive footsteps is like figuring out a life-sized, 3D jigsaw puzzle, while simultaneously hauling a swinging backpack that seems to exist only to remind us of how gravity really works. The Devil’s Club and alder roots cut and tug at my ankles and calves. We must not fall. Every step is taking a chance, and rescue here would be like pulling a wet raisin from beneath a pile of toothpicks… then i hear Jon’s voice, asking how I’m doing.

“I’m almost done, man. This is torture… What have we gotten ourselves into?”

Lesson #1: The punishment doled out over miles of unrelenting bushwhacking can never be felt, or predicted, on a computer screen.

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It started off innocently enough — three buddies drinking good scotch and looking at a laptop. Why not pack up our inflatable paddleboards and hike over the Tantalus Range? It’s never been done.

A few minutes of perusing Google Earth and we had a route selected from the shores of Lake Lovely Water up through a 6,000-foot col between the summits of Mount Niobe and Lydia Mountain, then back down to the Salmon Inlet for a long paddle back to Sechelt on the Sunshine Coast. The entire mission, alpine-toocean, looked to be about 50 kilometres in total distance — give ourselves three days… it looked good on the laptop.

“What I like about this kind of exploration is not so much being the first to do something,” Jimmy said, “but I like that we’re stepping into the unknown, creating our own way.”

Late on day two and “our own way” is deep into no man’s land. The Tantalus Range has seen plenty of exploration – it’s an established big mountain skiing zone with scenic peaks that have also long been a mountaineering wonderland – but the bush-tangled slopes on the western side? Not so much.

Lesson #2: Take it one step at a time. It’s the only way forward.

Darkness is fast approaching and we’re exhausted, bleeding from the shins (shorts were a bad idea) and still a long way from anything resembling a ‘camp’. Far below, a creek cuts temptingly through the landscape in the distance and as we gaze optimistically in that direction, the nightmare really begins.

A massive avalanche must have thundered down the other side of the canyon recently and back up our side, because suddenly we’re faced with a phalanx of trees knocked over, but facing uphill. This swath of unlikely destruction is no more than 100 metres wide, but it takes us almost three hours to get up, over, through, down and around the confusion of broken trees, branches, twigs and thistles. The only thing we can do is put one foot in front of the other. Keep going, don’t stop, don’t allow yourself to be engulfed by the forest. The concentration required to place each step exhausts our minds as much as our bodies.

I stumble into Jon and we can hear Jim up ahead, battling through the deadfall with the ferocity of a caged lion. Collectively though, we have the land speed of garden snails. One step. Breathe, focus, move. Slow and steady, just keep going. Another step. Finally (and it seems miraculously), we find a flat section of earth that looks like an old logging road at the base of a raging waterfall. We’re soaked, battered, beaten down and bruised, but we’re safe and injury-free.

“That was probably the hardest bushwhack of my life,” Jimmy says.

“Yup,” Jon agrees. “That was hell.”

Somehow we eat and fall asleep.

Lesson #3: Teamwork gets the job done (especially when the job sucks).

We awake to steady rain and reluctantly don the heavy packs onto our mashed-potato shoulders. The old logging ‘road’ is heavily overgrown, but a faint trail leads us down the path of righteousness and into sweet salvation — the Clowhom River. Boots are ripped off, feet and legs are plunged — instant satisfaction. Pumping up the boards feels incredible, knowing we are done with carrying packs for the remainder of the journey.

Barefoot, we paddle on into Clowhom Lake, enjoying some conversation before a headwind picks up, forcing us to dig deeper and paddle harder. Stay together, fight it as a team. It’s a strenuous paddle, but compared to the dark forests behind us, it is but a minor inconvenience. Paddle, paddle, dig, dig. The smell of salt hits us long before the lake ends, and as we reach the Salmon Inlet a wave of accomplishment washes over us all. But the feeling doesn’t last long.

“Sechelt? ‘Bout 20 nautical miles (36 KM) to Sechelt,” explains a salty-dog captain at the government dock. “Pretty quick trip in this boat. You guys want a lift?”

I saw his lips moving and my ears heard words, but my brain only registered it as “Quit now and cruise to Sechelt where cold beers and burgers await!” We even consider it for a moment, but of course we need to keep on paddling. We’ve survived too much to quit now. A mission is a mission and you have to see it through. BURGERS! BEER! Instead we paddle on.

Lesson #4: With risk comes reward, wait for it.

Full moon on the Salmon Inlet and the ocean magic begins to shine. Every paddle stroke sets alight grand swishes of phosphorescent algae — millions of tiny green lights eddying past. Tiny, silver fish dart beneath our boards, leaving tracer trails of mind-bending brilliance that could easily be a CGI sequence straight out of the movie Life of Pi. After countless hours, a dense fog rolls in and judging distance becomes futile. The seascape swallows us up in a mesmerizing mix of sky and stars; green sparkles and black water, as if all of nature is hallucinating around us.

Finally after 36,000 paddle strokes, we slice the water one last time and jump to shore. There are no burgers and beers in sight, but the grassy backyard of an expensive ocean-side property gives us the only thing we really need — a place to crash. Pure exhaustion quashes any post-adventure euphoria, but nonetheless the mission is accomplished.

I’m still not sure what we got ourselves into with that journey from lake, to mountain, to sea. It was rarely fun and relentlessly hard, but then I suppose the best lessons usually are.