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Saturday, 14 April 2012

West Coast Trail 1994

It was one of those rainy winter evenings in Vancouver in 1994 and I was sitting in bar having a few brews with my friend Rory when the subject of hiking the West Coast Trail came up. I was interested but also thought that it might just be idle chit chat. One of those things that some of us talk about with enthusiasm and for some reason we never get around to it.
A few months went by and then one night I got a phone call from Rory asking me if I was still interested in doing the West Coast Trail. I told him I was. I had no idea that he had cobbled together a group and done some research on the hike.
Altogether there was going to be eight of us, Rory, his girlfriend Laura, two of Rory’s co-workers, a rugby pal who worked as a bouncer at the Roxy nightclub in Vancouver and his girlfriend, a childhood friend who had been living in Sweden and me. Our ages ranged from the rugby guy and his girlfriend who were in their early twenties to me, the oldest, who had just turned forty-eight.
The West Coast Trail is about 75 km long. It is on the west coast of Vancouver Island and runs from Port Renfrew in the south to Bamfield in the north. The hike typically takes about 6 days. Some have done it quicker but they usually travel light and are quite fit. The trail can be either hiked north to south or south to north. Originally it was known as the Dominion Lifesaving Trail and was constructed because of all of the shipwrecks that occurred in the area in the late 1800s. The trail passes through first nations lands that they have been inhabited for over 4000 years.

 The first thing we did in preparation for our trip was to have a meeting to decide what kind of gear we would need. A small fortune was spent by most of us at Mountain Co-op. We bought sleeping bags, rain gear, cooking utensils, freeze dried meals, gaiters, hiking boots, back packs, and anything else that seemed practical. Rory knew someone who was marketing a new product called Power Bars and we went out to his car and he sold us a bunch of them out of his trunk. We practiced packing and unpacking our 65 lb. backpacks.
Our departure date for our hike was set for June 5th and a few weeks before that we did a 2 day test run up at Golden Ears Provincial Park near Vancouver. It was never confirmed but I thought that maybe part of this excursion was a test to see if the older guy (me) had enough stamina. I guess I passed if it was a test.
The big day came and we all met at the ferry to Victoria out in Tsawwassen, a suburb of Vancouver. As everyone was a friend of Rory’s, most of us were familiar with at least four of the others. Who was going to share a tent with another was already determined. Everyone was kind of gung-ho about the trip and there was a lot of laughing and joking on the ferry ride.
We were met at the ferry terminal in Sydney on the other side by another friend of Rory’s who had rented a big windowed van and we loaded our gear into it. It took us about 2 hours to get to our destination which was Port Renfrew and the beginning of the West Coast trail. About a ½ hour into our ride someone pulled out a joint and it was passed around. I remember the driver steering with his knees while he took a toke. Some of the crew started singing Meat Loaf’s Paradise By The Dashboard Light and I was a bit surprised that they knew all of the lyrics.
We pulled into Port Renfrew and found the orientation hut for our trip. We were told about bear and cougar tracks and treating the water we were going to be drinking and a few of us were having trouble focusing. We then headed down to the faded red painted Port Renfrew Hotel that was situated on a dock. (It burned down a few years later and was replaced by kind of yuppie like place.) The hotel was to be our departure spot for the trip and we had few beers and played some pool while waiting for a boat to come and pick us up and take us across the water. It was now fairly late in the afternoon and it was getting dark. There was a slight drizzle outside.
Port Renfrew Hotel since replaced
The boat finally came. Aboard was a group that had just finished the hike. One of our guys didn’t have any rain gear and he cut a deal with one of those hikers for a rain poncho. Most of us were pretty quiet on the boat trip. Maybe the pot was wearing off or maybe it was the thought of hiking in the dark in an area we had never been before.
There wasn’t any dock on the other side and we basically had to leap off of the boat while cradling our heavy backpacks. More than one splash could be heard of someone not quite hitting land. There was another group of hikers huddled behind a large log waiting for the boat ride back that would end their trip. One of them jokingly said “Welcome to your worst nightmare.” Or were they joking?
After counting heads we quickly realized that we were in a bunch of muck and a decision was made to press on further along the trail. Flashlights were pulled from our backpacks. We had to negotiate some really muddy hills and pull ourselves up them with a rope. After a couple of hours of slipping and sliding we finally slogged our way to a place where we could pitch our tents. We were covered in muck and we seemed to be in a kind of strange world. I know I had never pictured this scenario. It was as if we had all been in some battle.
Somehow, with all the wetness, we managed to get a fire going. We had a bite to eat, set up our tents in the pouring rain, and climbed into our sleeping bags. We were all asleep in no time.
Being that I was the oldest (the closest person in age was a guy who was 8 years younger) I was determined not be a burden in any way. I thought that by being up first each day that I could get a jump on things and be ready to tackle the next day’s trek. It turned out to be a good idea. I didn’t want anyone grumbling about the older guy slowing them down.
By going south to north on the trail we had chosen the route with the hardest sections first. There were lots of wooden ladders and some of them were not in the best of shape. Climbing ladders is time consuming and there is no way to speed through them with a heavy pack. We didn’t cover a lot of kilometers the first few days. 
It never seemed like there was a definite leader in our party. I think Rory had the map. Our objective each day was to reach the next designated camping spot. Other than that we just kept plodding along mostly in groups of 2 or 3. We probably averaged about 10 hours a day hiking.

We went through a lot of mud the first few days. Throughout the whole hike a lot of time was spent looking at the ground and making sure we didn’t trip on roots or rocks. Breaking an ankle meant a helicopter coming to the rescue. Our packs were really heavy and if we slipped on the wet surface or tripped, gravity would take us in whatever direction the pack weight wanted to go. I know I took a couple of tumbles but luckily no damage was done.
Every few hours we would take a break, have something to drink, munch some granola. I was smoker and a few of the other guys were casual smokers. They would sometimes share my stash and at times I felt like the quartermaster doling out my smokes. (I know that there are many who won’t be able to relate hiking in the wilderness to pot and cigarettes but….)
The first thing we did each night when we arrived at the next campsite was start a fire. Pitching our tents only came about after a bit of a rest. The freeze dried food tasted pretty good. Anything with a bit of sodium in it would have tasted pretty good. Not a lot was said around the campfire at night. We were too exhausted. I don’t think the meaning of life was ever brought up.

Taking a break

One guy brought his fishing rod with plans of using it at the end of the day. It never happened. The guy who was a bouncer carried most of his girlfriend’s gear too. He was one strong guy. Another guy brought along a really tiny TV to see if he could pick up the Vancouver Canucks on it. The Canucks were in the Stanley Cup finals at the time. He never did get a picture on that TV.
Most nights we could see the lights across the ocean in Port Angeles, Washington. It was nice to get our hiking boots off at the end of the day. By 9 p.m. we were all fast asleep. My supply of Drambuie held out for about 4 days.
I hated wearing gaiters and packed them away pretty quickly when I couldn’t stand the itching on my legs any longer. For the first few days the weather was kind of drizzly but we were hiking under the forest canopy so we really didn’t get soaked. I wasn’t that fussy about wearing raingear and wore it only if I had to.
Our first few days were spent in the area where the wooden ladders were. Aside from the ladders there was a lot of hiking up and down hills. We had to crawl across a few large logs to get to the other side of some creeks. I wasn’t brave enough to walk across the wet logs with a heavy pack on my back.

The ladders
The terrain that we hiked changed from time to time. We went from walking in muck in boggy areas to slippery wooden boardwalks to heavy wet sand on beaches. Although our hiking boots were waterproofed, they still got wet on the inside and we dried them out each night by the fire. Some of us  developed a few blisters and we were glad that we had brought along a product called New Skin with us.
I can’t say that I can recall the name of every stream or area that we stopped along the way but I do remember the places that stood out the most.
There was the cable car that we pulled ourselves across a creek below, the lighthouse that we passed by, Tsusiat Falls, First Nations guys that took across Nitinat Narrows in their boat for a reasonable price and sold us some live grabs that we cooked and devoured, the little shack out in the middle of nowhere where some First Nations people sold hotdogs and beer. One person in our party took a liking to this spot and apparently decided to shed his clothes while lingering there, according to two girls that passed us on the trail.
Cable car


Tsusiat Falls

Crab catch

Beer & hot dog hut
The days went by and on the 6th day we still had about 25 kilometers left to go to the end. We had covered about 2/3 of the trail. We all wanted to see the Canucks playoff game that night and a decision was made to hoof it the 25 kilometers all in one day. After lunchtime I lost sight of anyone else in our crew. They had all taken off like there was a land or gold rush.
I kept up a steady pace, only stopping every hour and a half or so for a short break. 25 km is a long hike. It was almost all wooden board walk and I later found out that we missed a number of interesting things off of the trail like the seal colonies. Hour after hour went by and then, late in the afternoon, off in the distance I could see an opening in the trees. It was the trailhead. I walked out into the clearing and spotted the orientation hut.
A few tears came to my eyes. Not out of relief but from the feeling of sticking with something over a number of days and accomplishing a goal. Many who have done the West Coast Trail know what I mean.
Before we left on this journey, we made arrangements for my secretary and her husband to rent a van in Vancouver and drive over to Vancouver Island and pick us up at the end of our trip. Sure enough, I ran into her moments after arriving at the end of the trail. She seemed as excited as I was. I soon found the other guys from the hike and after some hugs and handshakes we grabbed our gear and checked into a fishing lodge that was owned by the bouncer guy on our trip’s girlfriend’s dad. It was great to have a shower.
That night we all went to a local tavern and watched the Canucks in game six of the Stanley Cup finals. It was hard to decide what to order on the menu. It all looked so good. We were all higher than kites even before we had a few beers. I guess you could say we were celebrating.
I don’t remember much about the trip back to Vancouver. A few days later we all got together at Rory’s place and watched the Canucks lose in game seven. We went our separate ways mostly and I have only stayed in touch with Rory and Laura.

Me, Doug, Rory, Laura, Colin #2, ?, ?, Tom
Tom passed away in November of 2013 after a bout with prostate cancer. He was a great guy.

Two summers ago, my girlfriend and two pals set off on the West Coast Trail. I declined an invitation. It wasn’t that I didn’t think I could hack it at 63 years of age, it was more like I didn’t want to do comparisons. I dropped them off and picked them up at Banfield. They didn’t quite do the whole hike end to end but they were out there for seven days. 

Hugh, Linda, Brian


Over the years I have listened to conversations of people talking about doing the West Coast Trail. Some of those conversations seem to make the hike sound like a walk in the park. It isn’t. I remember seeing army guys with exhausted looks on their faces the time I did the hike and seeing the fatigue of the folks who had just finished the trail when my girlfriend went.

In the end it may be one of those bucket list things, a family or friends sharing a journey, or a good slice of life. It is nice to belong to an unofficial club. You have to do it to say you did it.

The Banff Springs Hotel 1971

Banff Springs Hotel 1971
Me in a pub near Radium Hot Springs.

I did two hitches at the Banff Springs Hotel. This story is about the first hitch in the summer of 1971.

It was early spring and I was living in Toronto with two roommates that I had gone to high school with in Montreal. I wasn’t that thrilled about the job I had working in the dispatch office of a national van lines company and one day while leafing through the want ads I spotted something that interested me. The ad said that interviews were going to be held at the Royal York Hotel for summer employment at the Banff Springs Hotel.

The person who interviewed me was Fred Weiland who was in charge of the dining rooms and bars at the Banff Springs Hotel. I had had previous experience working as a waiter and wasn’t surprised to be told that I was going to be hired. A few months went by and I never received a phone call or letter asking me to report  for duty. I kind of wrote the whole thing off as a missed opportunity.
One weekend, I was part of a foursome playing golf including one of my roommates and through a bit of chit chat I found out that one of the other players was a personnel guy with Canadian Pacific Hotels which, at the time, ran the Banff Springs Hotel. I told him my story about my interview.
A few days later I got a phone call asking me how quickly I could make it out to Banff. I asked for a week. I quit my job and went to Montreal to see my retired parents for a few days. When I got back to Toronto one of my roommates gave me a lift up north of Toronto to a city called Barrie. His parting gift was a small piece of hash rapped in tin foil.
I hitch hiked the rest of the way to Banff. I left on a Friday night and was in Banff on Monday. I made it as far as Sudbury that Friday night, got a lift in a mail truck through the night and by late Saturday I was in Manitoba. The only delay I had was trying to get a lift from an anal British guy in a gas station early Sunday morning in Saskatchewan. He was pulling a sailboat and I just couldn’t convince him to give me a ride. Hitch hiking was always something I was good at. It might have been that I was fairly clean cut in a time when lots of older folks disliked hippies.
I wandered down Banff Avenue and with some directions I crossed the bridge over the Bow River and found the Banff Springs Hotel. It was quite an impressive looking building and looked rather majestic. I walked up the front steps to the main entrance (it has since been relocated) and asked one of the bellman dressed in tartan where the personnel department was. In the lobby I spotted the huge stuffed buffalo heads on one of the walls.
I was told that I would be working as a waiter in the Alhambra dining room and was assigned a room that I was to share with two other guys. Both of them were also from Montreal. They weren’t exactly friendly from the get go and gave me the impression that their space had been invaded. The room had one single bed and an upper and lower bunk bed. I got the top bunk.
I was issued a short waist high white jacket along with some buttons and two epaulets that we attached to the jacket ourselves each time we required a clean one. Black pants, black shoes, a black tie, and a white shirt complimented my appearance.

Name badge and jacket buttons.

For the first few days I was trained by an experienced waitress and assisted her where I could. Then I was let loose on the unsuspecting public. The evening meals were by far the busiest and  the dining room was always packed. These were the meals where the tips added up. Breakfasts and lunches not so much.
At the time, there were two major dining rooms in the hotel, the Alhambra and the Fairholme. ( A few months  ago we stopped off at the hotel on our way to see my daughter in a production of Cats in Calgary. I took my son and girlfriend for a tour of the building. We were standing in one of the dining rooms and I asked a passing security guy when the name of the dining room had been changed from the Fairholme to the Alberta Room, He told me he had worked at the hotel since the late seventies and the room had never been called the Fairholme. You might say he was dismissive. When I got back to Vancouver Island, where I live, I did some research on the net and sure enough I found proof that the room was once called the Fairholme, What a twit!

The Alhambra was a tad classier of the two dining rooms and had a winding spiral marble staircase that led to the front entrance. The kitchen was massive and served both dining rooms. Waiters and waitresses lined up to pick up the servings in the kitchen while cooks barked orders. There was a Scottish cook who liked to tug at some of waitresses front zippers on their uniforms, A double set of swinging doors led to the dining rooms. I scoffed more than one plate of smoked salmon plate between those doors.
Most of the summer staff were students. Some were a little more serious than others. There were a couple of older ladies who came out each summer to work as waitresses. One was a Mrs. Leach. There was one busboy that I remember who was pretty funny and would do rhymes about places near where he lived in western Quebec. You can go to Huberdeau, have a beer in Weir, get the boot in Lachute.
I can’t remember what the hourly rate was but it was pretty low. We had to pay something for our rooms and it didn’t cost much to eat in the cafeteria. Tips were the name of the game. For some, it was squirreling away the next years tuition while for others it was booze money with a bit left over to take back home. I was in the latter category.
A lot of bus tours came through the Banff Springs Hotel dining rooms. The tour guides were often gay and could be very demanding. Sometimes it seemed like the guides were getting even by having their turn at pushing people around after spending days on end with old ladies making demands. The old gals were referred to as “tour whores” by some of the waiting staff. The tips from them were never great but I had a little fun joking with them about travelling around on their husband’s insurance and that just maybe the old boy had been buried in the backyard back home.

Sulphur Mountain or Tunnel Mountain?

Every hotel has their hierarchy. In most cases it was Europeans at the top with the power and Canadians doing the grunt work. In the Alhambra dining room where I worked, the maĆ®tre d’ was a guy named Tony who was from Austria I think. His immediate underlings, the captains, were almost all Europeans. I kind of got the feeling that they looked at Banff as kind of a remote colony. After hours they often stuck together. I had as little contact as I could with them. Most were a bit too snotty for me.
The most coveted summer job was supposedly being a bellman at the front entrance because of the tips. Big freaking deal! Bartending had a bit of glamour to it. “Hi folks, what’ll ya have?” Washing dishes was kind of the bottom of the barrel but I have to say I had some admiration for some of those guys who took it in stride and made the best of it by joking around with each other and the waiters and waitresses.
A week or so after arriving at the hotel, I had a bit of a confrontation with my roommates. They were treating me like a pariah and made a few snide comments and I finally had had enough and told them that if one or the other would like to step outside maybe we could settle things. There were no takers and a bit later one of them left town and they couldn’t team up anymore.
The guy that stayed on wanted to have a career in the hotel industry. I think he did. Although I disliked him I did take advantage of his record player. Carole King and Tapestry, the Woodstock Album….Canned Heat…..”I’m going up the country….”. He also had an album with the Supremes singing Rogers and Hart tunes that wasn’t half bad.
I’ve never been much of a group person and my time in Banff was no different. I did hang out with a Jewish guy (Richard Golumbia) from Peterborough who was also a waiter and into fishing. We hiked up the glacier fed Spray River a few times with our rods but never saw anything remotely resembling a fish.
The Spray River runs through the Banff Springs Golf Course and meets up with the much bigger Bow River a few hundred yards below the Bow Falls. There was a kind of sandy patch on the hotel side of the Bow River where some of the staff would stretch out on a sunny day and pick up a few rays. On one of those days I spotted some other guys diving off the cliff side and swimming about 30 yards across the Spray River to the beach. It looked like fun and I became one of the cliff divers for a few days, perhaps trying to impress the babes. A guy from Central America, I think his name as Hernando, was taken away to the hospital with a gash on his head and it kind of put a damper on that activity. If anyone had ever found themselves swept away in the current of the nearby Bow River they could have very likely ended up a cold corpse in Calgary.

Bow Falls.
Back in 71’ there was a corral across the street from the hotel where the trail horses were kept. I went horseback riding 5-6 times that summer and on one of those trail rides I found out that one or two of the other riders had been with the Olympic equestrian team. When we got out to the flats they got the OK or high sign from the trail guide and went from a canter to gallop in no time. My horse followed suit and it took all I had to hang on.
Nightlife in Banff was pretty well all downtown (pre Sundance Cabaret). About a half hour walk. More than a few have staggered back to the Banff Springs Hotel over the years after pounding back a few beers. There were a few large taverns in town, one of which had a giant mural on the wall of men building the railway. There was a story that I heard about some old guy in one of those taverns whose claim to fame was once stealing a locomotive. In the Mount Royal Hotel there was a small lounge where folksingers would entertain. I think it was called The Buffalo Paddock. If you wanted to dance there was an Italian joint called Tita's or something close to that name. 
I remember a few of the restaurants around Banff back in 1971. There was a pancake house place just down the street from the hotel. By the railway tracks in town there was a steak and lobster place in a converted old caboose. On Banff Avenue there was a restaurant called the Paris Steakhouse. The steaks were huge but very thin. The French guy who took us to our table had a fake hand covered with a glove. Someone later told me he lost his digits in a meat grinder.

I started hanging out with a waitress from Galt. Ontario who was going to Europe that fall and we talked a bit about me joining her. It never happened. She left at the end of August and I got involved with another waitress who I later saw in Toronto. It turned out that she already had a boyfriend but that is another story. If I was used I didn’t mind that much. Maybe I was Rick from Casablanca and her boyfriend was Victor Lazlo. Well we’ll always have Banff…and Toronto.
Aside from waiting on tables in the dining room, I was occasionally asked to work private parties. The rooms for these parties were a floor down from the dining rooms. At one of these events I had to take a tray load of frozen parfaits downstairs. I had planned on taking a short cut through a darkened corridor near the service bar. Unbeknownst to me, the hotel restaurant supervisor  replaced a portable partition I had removed in the corridor. I banged into it with my tray in the dark and when I came out to the spiral staircase where people were arriving for dinner, the parfaits started to fall like grenades. I can still remember the glare in the supervisor’s eyes.
The weather outside was getting nippier. It was now September and a lot of the staff had left to go back to school. Each year the hotel would host a lawyer’s convention at this time and about 2000 of the legal bandits would turn up. It was kind of the official end of the summer. A rowdier crew  who weren't sudents came in for the winter season and some skiing.
I was going to stick it out for another week or two but one day I was slightly hung over and got stuck with serving the shop owners in the hotel lunch. Little or no tips and being ordered about just didn’t suit me that day and I told one of them to shove it. It had been fun while it lasted.
I caught a plane back to Toronto and went through my savings in no time.
You may be asking yourself whatever happened to that little bit of hash I had? Well my roommates told me that the RCMP sometimes raided the rooms so I hid it at the base of a tree. Unfortunately I couldn’t remember which tree. I did picture in my mind squirrels doing summersaults.
A little over a year later I did my second hitch at the Banff Springs Hotel.
To be continued….