Memory and Photography on the Trail

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Five years ago (good grief) I hiked the West Coast Trail. On my second night out, after a very rainy hike to Walbran Creek, I woke afloat in the midst of a flash flood. Diving into the pouring rain to move my tent out of the new lake I snapped the pole twice and tore the fly to ribbons, spent an extremely miserable night in the ruin, and tarp-camped the rest of the trip. I replaced the tent with a cheaper, better one I still use, what was scary at the time turned out to be a great adventure, and almost all was well.

But sadly my nice old camera drowned in that flood, and the SD card with two days of pictures on it could not be read however I tried. For five years those two days have beem memorialized only by some bad phone photos. I re-read my own blog posts and relive the memories once in a while; that’s half the reason I publish them. I always felt that loss. The only photo I had for beautiful day one hardly bears thinking about.

One day, five years later, I was at the office testing software by plugging SD cards into things to bring photos off them. It was testing and therefore frustrating, and after my nth fix I grabbed the SD card off my desk, plugged it into the tablet, swore again because the right pictures weren’t coming up… then realized they were my West Coast Trail photos. I’d thought I’d thrown that SD card out years ago, and I did have a card in my office that I knew didn’t work, that I kept meaning to put in the trash but never did, and it just so happened this Android device could read it, and I got my photos off.

Before the flood I ended my diary for the day “God loves me and wants me to be happy.” When I got flooded I thought that was dramatic irony; it turned out to just be true. Those snaps set me remembering, and that set me wondering.

Of course I was glad to have them, for their own sake. I’d always regretted that I didn’t have a picture of the first big ladder, right out of the boat at Gordon River, but in my memory it was a billion feet tall. Now, with the photographic evidence back beneath my fingers, I can see that my memory was exactly right, that thing’s enormous, it’s a miracle I ever climbed it, but I know I did because there’s my photo from the top too.

There’s my tent, on the last day of its life, set up on the beach before the logs. I wouldn’t expect to remember every detail of the camp at Camper Creek, but there’s a warden station prominent in the background. There was a warden station at Camper Creek? I actually got the West Coast Trail map to double-check and sure enough, there’s the warden station (no, sorry, the guardian cabin, this is the West Coast Trail after all), and I camped right in front of the bloody thing then completely forgot about it. Earlier this summer I wasn’t able to see the warden cabin at Isaac Creek on the South Boundary Trail and have regretted it intermittently since but apparently I needn’t worry; if I didn’t take a photo I wouldn’t have remembered anyway.

Then, a picture of the Camper Creek outhouse. It’s a beautiful, new-looking composting toilet of the type they had on the trail that year, and on the door is a rather off-putting carved mask. I noticed it enough to take a photo of it but I didn’t remember that at all until I saw that picture. You could have asked me point-blank if I remembered anything interesting about that outhouse and I’d have scoured my mind and never brought that mask up.

My memory is rather bad, which is why I write trail diaries, and anyway the first two days were overshadowed by those that followed. I didn’t associate Parks Canada’s cabins with anything much at the time since I wasn’t yet used to backpacking in the Rocky Mountains, where they are truly special sights. There were a million cool new outhouses on the West Coast Trail and if one of them happened to have a weird mask on it, I can see why I wouldn’t retain that after a long day at the start of an exciting hike.

However, my rationalizing my forgetfulness rings slightly false. Like most of us, I carry a good-quality camera almost everywhere I go. I used my smartphone to photograph the rest of the trip, so I’ve never forgotten the shut-down Chez Monique’s sad and derelict on the beach, or the sunset off Thrasher Cove, never forgotten the old bridge over Logan Creek or the lighthouses or the poo with a view at Tsusiat Falls or any of a thousand things I can happily hold onto, because I have the pictures to spur my memory until all memory is gone. I’ve also never been sure if I’m remembering those sights, or my pictures of them.

Thus my gratitude to recover those pictures. When I ride to places I should walk, my legs get weaker. When I let machines lift things I should carry myself, my arms get weaker. When I let my phone remember things for me, what do I expect to happen?

Thus, also, my humble trail diaries. Being a creative act, writing and editing a diary engages my mind in a way photos don’t1. The ladder at the start of the West Coast Trail, for example. At one time my clearest memory was of me getting off the boat with a dozen others, milling around and standing under the trail sign, watching one guy climb up over five minutes, realizing everyone else here was just as reluctant to tackle this thing as I was, and striding over to start climbing with purpose and fear. I wrote about it, and it stayed. Today I see my photo more clearly in my mind than that old memory, and it’s only having had the past five years to cherish one and being suddenly hit by the other that makes the distinction clear.

I didn’t remember that warden cabin at all. But seeing it now, knowing I camped right by it, I seem to think I did so consciously: it was supposed to rain over the next 24 hours and I wasn’t sure what to expect. Is that a memory, or my mind rationalizing that picture? I will never, ever know.

Orthogonally related, I very, very clearly remember having Al Kooper’s song “The Warning” stuck in my subconscious for the last two days on the West Coast Trail. There was no conceivable relationship to my hike, except insofar as Kooper sang “a man is coming who will turn the tide” and tides had been on my mind a couple days earlier. Long hikes tend to be very religious for me and Kooper, a Jew born Alan Kuperschmidt, singing about Jesus Christ has obvious religious significance, but it takes some long reaches to tie those strands into a thread. Yet I remember it, as firmly as any of the things that I experienced, and memory being so strong through the medium of another man’s song seems significant. Senses serving as a reminder, once again.

Memory’s tricky. We all help our own out, and then it turns out we’re replacing it. I wonder about those who do hours and hours of hiking video (meaning the sincere ones, not the people who do Mount Washington in a bikini and yoga pants). Some of that content is quite good, but how does it feel to them, looking back? Do they ever feel, years later, like they were living a movie rather than hiking?

  1. Photos were probably creative and memorable for Ansel Adams. But even if you shoot a digital SLR in manual mode, picking the right fixed-length lens and choosing your exposure, aperture, and ISO, digital shooting is a lot less creative, and a lot more fire-and-forget, than photographers tend to admit.

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