Bring out the Boy Scout

    I took ‘be prepared’ to a whole new level on my summer hiking trip. I like to think that's why I'm still alive

    By Curtis Gillespie, ’85 BA(Spec), on December 12, 2019

    I was in the Boy Scouts of Canada between the ages of about eight and 12. I don’t remember much of it except for having to wear a funny hat and neckerchief, and that we began and ended each weekly meeting by squatting in a circle on our haunches like a wolf pack listening to our Sixer (our leader) shout, “DYB, DYB, DYB!” Meaning, Do Your Best. To which we’d leap up with two fingers over each ear to imitate young wolves as we shouted, “DOB, DOB, DOB!” Meaning, Do Our Best. Our uniforms had ample space across the chest and down both arms to sew on badges and proudly display them as evidence of our skill at things like pitching tents, chopping wood, staunching wounds, tying knots and starting campfires.

    Some years after my siblings and I left home, my parents gave each of us a hand-constructed memory chest with keepsakes from our childhood. It’s a cherished part of my life and I look through it often with pleasure and gratitude. But the things I recall with a little embarrassment are my Cub and Scout badges, which my mother must have unstitched from my various uniforms and stored for safekeeping. I love her for a million reasons and that’s one of them, but it had to be a bit of a bummer for her because there were just so few badges.

    The lonely three or four badges that have settled like dried flower petals at the bottom of the chest are hard to decipher for what they signify, but they appear to be recognizing such things as good hygiene and politeness, which, I don’t really need to say, were turned into badges purely to prevent the empty-shirted humiliation of those of us not quite at the top rung of Boy Scout achievement. Getting one of these badges was like going to Navy SEAL training and getting a commendation for knowing which fork to use for the salad course at a formal dinner. If you were hopelessly non-outdoorsy, as I was, the empty spaces across the front of my shirt and down the arms were actually a kind of semaphore (another skill I didn’t have) telling the world, “Do not under any circumstances put your life in this guy’s hands!”

    Yet, astonishingly, three of my friends did just that (possibly because I neglected to inform them I had never earned the camping badge) when we decided to hike the West Coast Trail this past summer. It is a notoriously challenging six- to eight-day trek on the west side of Vancouver Island through the rainforest and along the coastline. You have to pack everything in and out — all your food, cooking gear, toiletries, tent, sleeping bag, clothes, emergency supplies, toilet paper. And it’s a commitment. There is one escape hatch on the trail, roughly halfway through, but other than that, it’s genuine be ready or you’re in trouble adventuring. Hundreds of guidebooks and online resources offer many thousands of tips, but they all pretty much give the same fundamental advice:

    Be prepared.

    As departure day loomed I could feel the Scout in me coming out. I sensed the clean fingernail badge wasn’t going to do us much good four days into the trail with no roads or escape routes or rangers or cell signals, not to mention possible bears, cougars, cliffs, tides, streams, ladders and campfires. So I did what any self-aware and insecure Scout would do. I overcompensated. To say that I went over the top in my gear preparations is like saying the Rolling Stones don’t know when to quit.

    My wife, Cathy, eyed my near-daily trips to the equipment store with bemusement, pausing one day to say, “You do know you have to put all this on your back, right?” I packed and unpacked my backpack seven or eight times, laying every item out on the floor in the basement. I analyzed each according to my ruthlessly logical standards, which was how I ended up bringing 30 cubes of bouillon, a dozen tea bags and a huge sack of powdered milk — but only one hiking shirt. (The one thing I probably didn’t prepare for enough was the actual hike. I suspect I spent more time debating whether to bring two or three pairs of hiking socks than I did in those socks training for the trip.)

    The way we prepare for something says a lot, not only about who we are but also about who we think we are and how we want others to perceive us. I think the four of us displayed four types of preparation, all of which flowed from our individual natures. Greg was nimble and efficient in a quirky scientist kind of way. Jon was self-reliant and trusted his wealth of experience. Danny was both analytical and physical per his nature. And I pursued outright disaster mitigation.

    My goal was to plan ahead for the inevitable mishap I was likely to trigger but which I could then resolve through having anticipated triggering it. When we hit the trail, I had in my pack bear spray (which I didn’t use), cougar repellent (which I didn’t use), dozens of metres of different strengths of rope (which I didn’t use), a roll of heavy duct tape (which I didn’t use), four or five different kinds of antiseptics and wound closure materials (which I didn’t use), rescue and disaster materials such as foil body wraps (which I didn’t use), extra batteries for my headlamp (which I didn’t use, primarily because I didn’t figure out how to use the headlamp until the fourth night), repair materials for tent, sleeping bag, backpack, hiking boots, clothing and poles (none of which I used), two kinds of Benadryl (which I didn’t use), three hats (one of which I used) and a bug net for my head (which I didn’t use).

    This is in contrast to the single pair of sunglasses I brought and lost on the second day.

    The first half of the hike went pretty much as I had hoped. It was difficult; it was beautiful; it was a little treacherous in spots. It was taxing and exhausting, but doable. And best of all, I felt my preparations had paid off. Sure, I had way too much gear, but I felt I had things under control. I felt good, and I know my trail mates felt the same.

    Then we crossed the Nitinat River and went from Hobbiton to Mordor. We soon realized the taxing and slightly treacherous trail we’d been on for the past three days was the gladiator training before hitting the lion-filled Colosseum floor. Most of the 40 kilometres to the finish line was across terrain that was up and down, up and down, often with some rock scrambling. And we were always — I mean always — negotiating a path choked with roots, branches, mud, rocks, ferns and logs. Nearly every step held injury potential. Every footfall had to be considered and judged. I was often exhausted at precisely the moment we’d arrive at a ladder complex. Ah, the ladders. There are some 70 to 80 along the trail, and the highest must be 30 metres. On one ladder I stopped counting rungs on the way down when I hit 80.

    And we began to encounter other problems. I managed to fall into a tidal pool with the weight of my pack pulling me under. I scrambled around like a beetle on its back for a few seconds but luckily the water was only a couple of feet deep. Danny’s knee got wonky. Jon decided a six-day backpacking trip was a good time to experiment with a new camp fuel system and managed to singe a large patch of hair off his leg. Greg appeared to have no problems, a fact for which we will never forgive him.

    According to the rules of narrative drama, it’s at this point in the story that we should come to the crux of the matter, a dangerous event we encountered but overcame — a bear, a serious fall, a broken ankle, a tidal wave. While I can partly adhere to dramatic tradition (in that I nearly committed a homicide when a hiker we met assumed I was Greg’s father; I am three years older), I have to report that there were no tragedies and no major dramas. One member of our troop suffered mild hypothermia but a big mug of hot miso soup set him right. No, the truth is that even though the conditions got worse and the trail got substantially more taxing the more tired we got, somehow, we did fine.

    I suppose it’s because we were prepared. Preparation, I learned, isn’t only about bringing along what you’ll need, but what you’ll need to feel good about yourself. Solid preparation might sometimes sound like it’s obsessively readying yourself for every potential calamity, but I wonder if it isn’t actually the opposite. Maybe being prepared is a cosmic way of getting the universe on your side so that nothing disastrous happens. It’s a hopeful, even optimistic, practice. If we feel ready for anything, then odds are it will go pretty well most of the time, which, by extension, means we should not be afraid to try new things and embark on new adventures. Even if we never got that badge. This is why the only real preparation advice I can offer you intrepid life Scouts is this:

    DYB, DYB, DYB!

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