Hiking the West Coast Trail

By Benjamin Massey · October 3rd, 2017 · 1 comment

I have a bad head for heights. Earlier this year, in the Sooke Potholes Provincial Park on Vancouver Island, I got to show it off spectacularly. On the second day of a backcountry backpack through an area with no official trails, I found myself walking atop the Sooke Flowline, an abandoned water main that once provided drinking water to the people of Victoria. This was intended; missing my turn was not, and with the trails obscure and sometimes unmarked I was lost in spite of my GPS. I didn’t worry at first; I knew the Flowline led to the highway, from which I could not be far, so I stuck to the route rather than bushwhack in an area of valleys and cliffs.

This was a mistake. The pipe soon turned from nicely winding along the ground to perilously perched increasingly high above the forest. Fewer people come this way (because it’s wrong), so the slippery moss growing atop the old concrete was becoming more hazardous. Where there was no moss it was only because a falling boulder had punched a hole in the pipe. It was uncomfortable but not actually dangerous, until suddenly it really, really was.

I don’t clearly remember the context. The ground had been getting further and further away, then it was gone. Replaced by cliffs and the Sooke River, with the pipe that had suddenly turned aquaduct crossing at a height of about a trillion miles. It was definitely far enough. There was no escape save across the concrete pipe, which was say four feet in diameter, slippery with moss, full of holes, and, as pipes tend to be, round. I was already tired from a long day, it had been wet, I of course had 40 pounds of camping stuff on my back, doing a pirouette to turn around with so little traction and absolutely fatal consequences for a slip seemed more dangerous than proceeding. But if I crossed that river I better find something good on the other side or I’d never find the courage to cross it again.

I did cross it, and I did find something good, and I got out and it was fine. But I learned a couple useful things. One, it’s not possible for me to be literally “scared shitless” because if it was I would know. Two, although I’m fine in mountains, steep boulder fields a kilometre and a half up, and suspension bridges, when hiking my fear of heights can still be an obstacle.

So that’s how I found myself hiking the West Coast Trail, 47 miles of beach and forest and up and down just north of my old friend the Juan de Fuca Marine Trail, between the Vancouver Island communities of Port Renfrew and Bamfield. The West Coast Trail is famous for its beauty, its rugged remoteness, its immense popularity, and for its ladders. Dozens of ladders, all across the trail, up to a hundred feet high, climbing sheer cliffs, where one slip means certain death, in one of the rainiest climates in the world.

I might be an idiot. I got vertigo just from the Google Images search. But, with a week of vacation left in my pocket for 2017 and the Juan de Fuca Marine Trail already under my belt in August, I browsed Parks Canada’s website just for fun and found that, almost unbelievably, this highly popular trail had one precious opening to depart from the Gordon River trailhead, by Port Renfrew, on September 16. So I booked it, and I went, and this is what it was like. This is 11,000 words long, and will mostly be of interest to friends and family, but might also have some tips if you are planning a trip yourself. (It certainly has one, a very big one that I could have used in your place.)

Just like last time, this is based off a diary written at the time, then cleaned up and tied together after the fact. All figures are from my GPS watch and should be considered both approximate and “as the Ben runs,” except for the distance remaining, which is approximated from Parks Canada’s official trail map based on the day’s campsite. Since the official kilometre markers don’t include things like getting up and down from your beachside campsite, nor potential detours, your hike will always be longer than the official distance. That said, my GPS is prone to occasional fake news and everybody’s path is different.

By the way, if you’re expecting photographic brilliance, I’m afraid it’s all cell phone photos for this post. Some of them suck, some of them don’t. You’ll find out why.

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Hiking the Juan de Fuca Marine Trail

By Benjamin Massey · August 11th, 2017 · 2 comments

The Juan de Fuca Marine Trail is a 47-kilometre back country backpacking trail, along the south coast of Vancouver Island between China Beach (west of Sooke) and Botanical Beach (a 45-minute walk south of Port Renfrew), paralleling British Columbia Highway 14.

No, you’re thinking of the West Coast Trail. The West Coast Trail is half-again as long, filled with vertiginous ladders, cable cars, and boat rides, and about ten times more famous. The Juan de Fuca Trail is the West Coast Trail’s misshapen bastard brother. You can do them both in one huge trip, connecting through Port Renfrew, but there’s no doubt who the alpha dog is.

I’ve never done the West Coast Trail. I have now done the Juan de Fuca Trail, and my choice was pure practicality: the three-day August long weekend was already coming, and I’d worked enough overtime to win a fourth. The recommended time to spend on Juan de Fuca is four days; for us ordinary Joes the West Coast Trail takes seven. So on Wednesday I was booking buses and a night in Victoria, on Thursday I was on the move, and on Friday I was hiking.

Naturally I had a trail guide. Published in 1998 and allegedly revised in 2008, Donald C. Mills’s Giant Cedars, White Sands paints an idyllic picture:

The Juan de Fuca Marine Trail gives hikers the freedom to use the trail any time. They need not make reservations or pay for trail or ferry permits. The bridges, boardwalks, and suspension bridges are very safe. The Trail is forty-seven kilometers long and can be hiked in part, as a day hike, or hiked all at once, in four to six days. Whether you are a novice or an expert hiker, you will want to experience this new and challenging trail.

As a dissenting view, let us take VancouverElizabeth‘s review via TripAdvisor, from June 29 of this year:

Dangerous Trail.

Just hiked this trail. The trail is seriously degraded. There has been no upgrades in 20 years. At some parts the trail is poorly marked. There is a considerable amount of deep mud and the trail is steep, slippery and difficult to navigate. A challenging trail with many obstacles and many parts that are dangerous.

One star.

VancouverElizabeth’s is the truer analysis. The fine backcountry constructions have become at best worn, at worst ruins. Almost every staircase is missing at least one step, maybe half are only relics in the dirt. Even in a bone-dry summer the mud was unavoidable and thick, while erosion has made steep slopes worse and some flat parts risky. I didn’t find navigation difficult but there are open areas where I can see how one might, and there are opportunities to pass the last marker on a beach and wander into the wild until you run out of either land or patience. Slippery? Definitely, when I did it, despite the drought. It’s probably hard to get yourself killed, but easy to bust an ankle hours from highway and help. Oh, and this part of Vancouver Island is one of the world’s leading black bear habitats.

I disagree with VancouverElizabeth in two ways. First, there have been a few upgrades in twenty years. Over four days I saw nine wood planks that had obviously been replaced since the hardware was originally installed in the late 1990s. So there.

Second, and maybe I’m feeling generous because it was my first multi-day thruhike after a year of one- or two-night ins-and-outs, but it was better than one star. Dangerous, sure, tiring, in spots, but that’s part of the fun. And there were rewards. I wouldn’t leap up and down to call it “a world-class adventure hike” (in the words of Giant Cedars, White Sands) but I might do it again.

This diary is largely for myself, so I can look back years from now and say “oh yeah that was neat.” People making plans might find aspects useful, and I’ve provided statistics for each of my four days. But mostly, this is for buddies and family who want to read about what I’m doing. General interest is likely to be limited. That’s right, blogging it old-school.

There is no cell service or wifi so I wrote each entry in camp and put them together back home. So don’t think this is any sort of as-it-happens diary: they’re a day’s impressions cleaned up after the fact. I hiked westbound, from the China Beach trailhead to Port Renfrew, but the other direction is also popular.

Trigger warning: this post contains materials that may cause distress to readers sensitive to cheap wooden staircases falling apart in public parks. Please read on at your own risk. Emotional counsellors and psychiatric advise are available through the City of Toronto.

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Cracked backs change tacks in the hack

By Benjamin Massey · February 15th, 2017 · No comments

Curling is awesome. It belongs to the people in a way no other major sport does. And curling is major: its championships are broadcast, its stars get endorsement deals, its television ratings routinely outdraw soccer in Canada, it’s in the Olympics and a gold medal is realistic for more countries than, say, the men’s 100-metre sprint. The fact that it maintains its proletarian atmosphere in this day and age is nothing short of a miracle. It makes the sport entertaining even apart from the fun on the ice, and there’s plenty of that.

Next to no curlers make a living off the game; even touring pros are happy to turn a profit, and almost everybody holds down a job in the curling industry or with a sympathetic boss who doesn’t mind an employee telecommuting for most of the winter. Important tournaments, with cash prizes, take place in ordinary local clubs, staffed by volunteers with tickets priced within most means. The prestigious Canadian Open was most recently played in the 14,000-strong town of North Battleford, Saskatchewan, and the men’s Elite 10 will take place in the even smaller Cape Breton community of Port Hawkesbury. In these little clubs, the shouts and even conversations of the players ring through the rafters, and a joke much above a whisper will make hundreds of fans laugh. In a televised tournament the players, however humble, wear microphones, and audibly struggle to police themselves for obscenity. Curling may be the only professional sport with strict rituals about which athletes buy drinks. Where most athletes engage expensive public relations firms to make them look good on social media, curling has the legendary Glenn Howard’s daughter Carly retweeting photos and complaining about ice conditions. It is certainly the team sport where men’s and women’s teams draw the most equal amounts of fan attention, and female curlers became famous because they threw good rocks, not because of their looks or because it was politically correct1. Even mixed curling has a solid following, and a modified format with one man and one woman (“mixed doubles”) will be in the 2018 Olympics.

Find three friends of the same sex and you could be playing in the 2018 World Championships. All you need to do is join a curling club, enter your regional curling playdown, win, gain entry to your provincial championship, win again, qualify for the national championships, and win once more. Your costs are some cheap equipment, hotels (or camping; it’s been done), airfare once you reach the national stage, a few hundred bucks in fees, maybe ice time for practice if you’re feeling ambitious. Every year, every single year, there are teams at the Canadian championships who nobody has heard of, who came out of nowhere, who have only the most hastily-cobbled together sponsorship and who will beat one of the world’s best on national television. Then there’s the age factor: this year’s men’s Canadian championship features skips from 61-year-old Jim Nix of Nunavut to 25-year-old Brendan Bottcher of Alberta, with most of the field in their mid- to late 30s. For the sports fan sick of feeling old every time they turn on TSN, curling is the cure.

This year’s Canadian women’s championship, the Scotties Tournament of Hearts, has seen favourites massacred by amateurs before it has even started. With the exception of the defending champion every team must qualify through its province. Jennifer Jones, who is only the 2014 Olympic gold medalist, lost in Manitoba. A deep Saskatchewan field fell victim to inexperienced Penny Barker. Nova Scotia favourite Jill Brothers was beaten by Mary Mattatall, an unknown sponsored by her family’s signage company. British Columbia was weak overall but the victory of veteran Marla Mallett, whose only previous moment in the spotlight was a surprise run eight years ago, was still a stunner. Of the ten top-ranked teams in the country only two will play for the national championship.

The best show was in Alberta. Venerable 41-year-old Heather Nedohin was called in to skip—make tactical decisions and play the vital last two shots every end—for the Shannon Kleibrink team, as the even-more-venerable 48-year-old Kleibrink had thrown her back out. Kleibrink, in a province featuring the young and world-class teams of Val Sweeting and Casey Scheidegger, was not expected to do much. Neither Nedohin nor Kleibrink curl “full-time.” Kleibrink has finished in the money at some modest tournaments in Alberta and British Columbia the past few years and is ranked surprisingly high but well behind the expected contenders. Nedohin “stepped back” from competitive play two years ago, giving up her professional-standard team to Manitoba transplant Chelsea Carey, and has contented herself with the same casual community events as thousands of her fellow curlers. When called upon Nedohin actually had to find a volunteer to cover her day job, as the Sherwood Park Curling Club she works at was in the middle of a major event.

That anonymous volunteer might be the biggest difference-maker of the 2017 curling season. Nedohin was perfect in the opening rounds of the Alberta provincials, including a win over former Prince Edward Island champion Geri-Lynn Ramsay, and cheered on the returning Kleibrink when the veterans twice beat Sweeting in the playoffs. The win sends Kleibrink, Nedohin, and their team of Lisa Eyamie, Sarah Wilkes, and Allison Thiessen2 to the Scotties in glamorous St. Catharines, Ontario. With Kleibrink’s back still a concern Nedohin will skip the occasional game at the national championships. It’s semi-common for teams at this level to rotate a player: usually a weaker rink swapping leads around every draw because they’re going to finish 1-9 anyway. But for skips to do it, and particularly two skips of such fame, is probably a first.

Five years ago Nedohin was a world-class curler in her own right, leading her team to the 2012 Canadian title by beating two World Champions (Jennifer Jones and Kelly Scott) in the playoffs after winning a difficult Alberta title against two Olympic medalists (Kleibrink and Cheryl Bernard). She also achieved unlooked-for immortality: after throwing an imperfect shot Nedohin rasped a frustrated “shitballs!” into her microphone, to the enduring delight of a national audience. These days she prefers “sugarballs” on Twitter, but we all know what she means.

Yet Nedohin is not highly-rated in hindsight, because she lost her World Championships semi-final to South Korean also-ran Kim Ji-sun, because she was only average trying to defend her Canadian title, and because she finished out of the playoffs at the 2013 Canadian Olympic trials: without doubt, the toughest curling tournament in the world. These are the standards we hold our curlers to. Kleibrink gets the same sort of disrespect. Ten years ago she won two Grand Slam tournaments, finished second to Jones at a Scotties, won the Canadian Curling Trials in 2005, and finished second twice more; she is the most successful woman in the Trials’ short history. But she never won the national title, never played at the Worlds, and, at the Turin Olympics, lost a semi-final to the world-class Swiss rink of Mirjam Ott, so off Kleibrink goes to the list of also-rans.

Of course the life of an athlete is sacrifice. Nedohin will miss the mixed doubles provincials this weekend in Camrose, which she would have formed an interesting team with her former-best-curler-alive husband David. But there might be a heck of a reward. As mentioned, this Scotties field is astonishingly uneven, and based off recent results Team Kleibrink/Nedohin may genuinely be a medal favourite. The only way to the trophy is if Ontario’s Rachel Homan self-destructs, but she’s by no means immune to that, and the Alberta fivesome ranks with the even-more-experienced Michelle Englot out of Manitoba, Northern Ontario’s Krista McCarville, and defending champions Carey in the second tier. An upset to win the Canadian championship would only be a little more astonishing than the upsets that got them there, and then suddenly players who were supposedly done years ago would be getting free trips to China for the world championship.

Curling is awesome.

Pious postures towards plain politics not welcome

By Benjamin Massey · September 16th, 2015 · No comments

We’re still talking about Toronto FC taking down that “Refugees Welcome” banner during a game on the weekend, are we?

Since this isn’t the soccer website, a bit of background. Recently it has been trendy for fans in European countries to put up banners saying “Refugees Welcome” as a show of support for those attempting to enter their countries. Soccer in Europe, especially in Germany, is much more explicitly political than any sport has ever been in Canada, and many clubs are openly and proudly left-wing. As we will, Canadian and American fans have seen what the cool Europeans are doing and tried to imitate it. A similar (but not identical; see below) banner was raised at a Toronto FC game at BMO Field on September 13, and after a few minutes security had the banner removed.

I won’t pay much attention today to whether it is proper to mix non-soccer-related politics and supporting a team at a soccer game, but you will be able to infer my opinion from the fact that I am not posting this on my soccer blog. However, I do intend to address a few points neglected by those who mindlessly criticize Maple Leaf Sports and Entertainment for not letting a few fans use their product to push their platform.

  • “Refugees welcome” is a political statement. I do not see how anybody in any good faith could say otherwise but they do. It doesn’t get much more political than calling upon the government to change its policy1, yet, remarkably, you see suggestions that this particular political opinion somehow rises above the hurly-burly to the rarefied air of Undeniable Truth. This is part of a tendency among the especially partisan to take one’s own views as self-evidently correct and considerate, while anyone who disagrees with you must be up to something dirty.

    The usual retort of “it’s not politics, it’s compassion” is doubly ridiculous. First and most importantly, people who disagree with you don’t automatically lack compassion you narcissistic jackanapes. Second, at its core politics is essentially compassionate. Even policies and acts you think callous are distributing the world’s finite resources to try and make life as good as possible for as many people as possible. Everyone save a sociopath wants the greatest good for the greatest number, but we disagree on what that good is and how to go about achieving it. Hence, politics.

    Welcoming refugees is a matter of current debate. Angus Reid found that 54% of Canadians answer “Should the Canadian government take in more refugees?” with a “yes.” The greater the number called for, and the greater the hypothetical cost, the more Canadians who disagreed. There was far greater support for sending Canadians abroad to help rather than merely bringing refugees in. There was a heavy divide between supporters of each major political party, and the question is an issue in the election campaign. Sounds political to me.

    It’s telling that most of these banners, both in Toronto and the ones it imitates in Germany, are in English. The main language of Syria is Arabic. This is not a show of support to the troubled, who in any case are unlikely to be watching Major League Soccer games. This is a demand for change, and those who hoist these banners have not been shy in making it overt. This is a political matter in the most fundamental sense.

  • This particular banner was even more political than that. It’s not always mentioned in the stories, but you can see it in the photos. The banner confiscated in Toronto did not merely say “refugees welcome” but “Refugees Welcome.ca“, a website for a political campaign. Here is the first paragraph of that website:

    Toddler Alan Kurdi’s tragic death by drowning on September 2nd is a clarion call for urgent action on the global refugee crisis — the largest since World War II. This crisis is not inevitable. It is time for Canadian immigration and refugee policies to change. It is time for us to call for an end to the wars and environmental and economic collapse that forces people to become refugees and migrants.

    Nor do they confine themselves to the refugee question. Further in, they “acknowledge and take seriously our responsibilities towards Indigenous peoples whose lands we reside upon. We oppose all forms of displacement and affirm the inherent human right to stay, freedom to move, and right to return.” They are issuing “a call for transformation of the structures of the country to ensure full racial, gender, economic, and social justice for all.” They specifically condemn Stephen Harper and the Conservative government. We are told “this website is coordinated by members of No One Is Illegal groups,” another political movement. I mention this not to argue with them but to establish their intentions. Even if “refugees welcome” was not a political statement, and it most emphatically is, that banner in Toronto was an advertisement for a lobby group with explicit political positions.

    Earlier this month, supporters at a Canadian national team match at the same Toronto stadium unveiled a rapidly-made banner that said “Refugees Welcome”, without the website. The Canadian Soccer Association didn’t exactly make a point of showing it off, but it was allowed to stay up. Even if you believe sports and politics should mix, there is a difference between a general political position and advertising a specific campaign.

  • BMO Field security was within its rights to have the banner removed. Hair-splitting in the press over whether the fans were or weren’t in an approved supporters’ section has successfully established that the security personnel at soccer games are not very bright. But the Toronto FC code of conduct is reasonably clear:

    Restricted Items

    For the safety and security of our fans, the following is not permitted inside the stadium:

    [. . .]

    • Large flags, banners and drums
      [. . .]
    • Un-approved pamphlets, handouts, advertisements, etc.

    [. . .]

    Fans found in possession of the above-mentioned items will be asked to remove the item from the facility or dispose of it. Fans that refuse to comply may be ejected from the facility and may be subject to arrest. Management reserves the right to handle each occurrence on a case-by-case basis.

    League policy also explicitly prohibits political messaging from fans. We can argue over whether that banner was “large,” and partisans will still weirdly claim it’s not “political,” but it was certainly an un-approved advertisement. Stadiums in North America generally do not allow banners in without caring about their content and I know of no case when out-and-out advertising for anything other than the supporters’ group hanging the banner has been permitted.

  • Criticising Toronto FC’s military appreciation nights is, regardless of all of this, something of a fair point. I am pro-military; the sort of person who would start a website called SoldiersWelcome.ca and attack Stephen Harper for his shabby treatment of our armed forces. I could go on at length about this and I’m sure someday I will. This is all, quite clearly, a political position. (You see? It’s not hard to admit.)

    For promotional purposes, Maple Leaf Sports and Entertainment also claims to be pro-military, and Toronto FC has run several “Military Appreciation Nights”, the fourth coming up on September 19. Though cloaked in the feel-good thought-free ambiance of a marketing initiative this, too, is a political statement. If such statements are not welcome at Toronto FC games then that should apply to the organisation as well as the fans. A soccer team does several things it wouldn’t allow its fans to do: no supporter will be allowed to bring fireworks into the stadium but Toronto FC’s had some infamous firework shows, things like that. But political speech is a much touchier area than a pretty explosion.

    Of course, those who say the club should allow political statements but take down those considered unacceptable don’t have this argument, since they accept that a business can curate which views it chooses to be associated with. But you might.

If you believe that fans at soccer games ought to be able to wave banners to support whatever political cause they like then fine, you are consistent. If you believe that fans at soccer games ought to be able to wave political banners that agree with your own positions, well, at least you’re honest. Either way, call a spade a spade.