I have discovered recently that fear has played a massive part in all of my decisions to date. So, in an attempt to over come this thing I have begun doing things that are kind of outside of my comfort zone.
Like any reasonable person this means picking things that make me nervous and doing them anyway. One of those things. is rock climbing because I love it and honestly I am absolutely afraid of heights. This is not a blog post about rock climbing, however, so onto the other thing.
Now, lots of people go on solo camping trips. Lots of people blog about them. Most of those people are male. There are lots of Solo Travel blogs written by women of course, but when I was looking for tips for solo camping by women specifically there were few of them. Naturally I was looking this up well after I had already decided to go out into the woods by myself, but sometimes you just have to jump in with both feet and hope you don’t drown (but please don’t do that in water if you don’t know how to swim at all because drowning is bad.)
I had already decided I wanted to go camping and it was increasingly obvious no one was coming with me. I had invited several people who all ended up having other plans or being sick which meant I was left with the fact that if I wanted to go camping I was going to have to go by myself.
Living on Vancouver Island there are a lot of options for camping. Fewer options when you take into account that I don’t (currently) drive and it being February some of the campgrounds are closed. Most have some sort of winter camping options but I didn’t really want to just go camping; I wanted to go camping on the beach. This is totally doable without full winter gear on Vancouver Island pretty much all the time so that wasn’t really the issue. No, the issue was that I wanted to go camping on a specific beach.
Juan de Fuca Provincial Park only encompasses a little over fifteen square kilometres and contains the forty-seven kilometre Juan de Fuca Marine Trail. The trail was developed in 1994 as a Legacy of the Commonwealth Games held in Victoria, BC and spanned China Beach Provincial Park, Loss Creek Park, Parkinson Creek Park, and Botanical Beach Park. Starting from the Southern trailhead at China Beach, Mystic Beach can be found two kilometres down a moderately strenuous-but not difficult-trail. There is an access point from the road that cuts off approximately the first kilometre of the hike.
I decided to come in from that roadside trailhead.
I should also point out that this is about thirty minutes outside of cellular signal range.
I don’t know about anyone else, but I have this kind of obsessive need to be wherever I am camping as soon as possible. Preferably arriving in the evening so I can set up camp and wake up where I want to be. This is great in the Summer because we have daylight until ten pm.
Not so great in February where it is full dark by seven-fifteen and I get off work at five. And my friend didn’t pick me up until after six. Needless to say I did not arrive at the trailhead before dark. In fact I didn’t even arrive within fifteen minutes of dark. No, I didn’t get there until eight thirty. Naturally I considered calling the evening approach off and coming back in the morning.
But I REALLY wanted to wake up on the beach.
So I told my friend to drop me off and then drive home again, leaving me by myself out of cellular range with my pack and a headlamp to hike a kilometre or so down to the beach. Maybe not my best moment. I admit I was having some serious doubts about my sanity as my friend drove the winding coastal highway. I mean really, who does this? Just tells their friends to drop them off in the dark in the middle of nowhere with no cell service and a “Thanks! I’ll see you Sunday?”
Obviously I do.
Now I admit that opting to make an after-dark approach when I didn’t have a gps beacon was probably not a good idea. I admit that there was a moment after I’d put my pack on and started down the trail without letting myself think about backing out that I was there in the dark with my headlamp while I heard my friend drive away and I thought “well damn.”
And then I kept going.
I almost lost the trail two or three times. Having hiked this in the dark before I was already aware there was one section I had to be particularly careful in; even in daylight it’s easy to start the wrong way. Each time the trail began to look questionable I stopped, looked around and adjusted my course accordingly. Each time I found the muddy footprints of the hikers who had gone before. I was understandably more cautious than I would have been in daylight, careful to support my weight with the heavy stick I had picked up when I needed the extra balance. I talked myself (aloud, because making noise is good) through the trail, and it really wasn’t so terrible. I didn’t get lost. I didn’t get hurt. I was cautious and it paid off. In the thick of it I was surprised to find myself calm and actually feeling somewhat relaxed.
Coming down the last steps of the trail and descending onto the beach was a beautiful moment of victory. From here it was just a matter of picking a place to pop my tent and stash my food and go to sleep. Toiletries went with the food into the bear box. That done, I knew it was unlikely that something would come pawing at my tent in the middle of the night. Certainly it could happen but with nothing obvious to attract attention it becomes much less likely. It is just one of the things that you have to take into account when venturing into the woods, by yourself or otherwise. Part of the reason I chose Mystic Beach is that I already know where the pit toilets and bear box are. Not having to fumble around to find things in the dark was an immense comfort.
It took me two tries to get my tent up and I’m still not really sure why. Maybe I was more anxious (and relieved) than I thought, but I did eventually get it set up by headlamp and in the rain and was ready to crawl inside and go to sleep.
Laying in my tent I realized I forgot how loud the ocean was. Especially when you’re sleeping less than thirty feet away and the tide is winter-high. It made for a pretty sleepless night, but I wouldn’t have changed it for the world.
Woke up in the morning to find the fog had rolled in, shrouding the beach in a bank of grey and making it feel even more intimate. Especially given the fact that I was the only one there. It was also not as cold as I was expecting; with a wool base layer and a fleece I was plenty cozy even without starting a fire on the beach. And I got to play with a new toy!
Currently I do not own my own camp stove so I had to borrow one from a friend. Turns out my friends like the nifty gadgets as much as I do. Testing out the Biolite Campstove was fun and while it is a bit frustrating at times I really did love using it. It’s pretty quick to get going with the fire starter sticks, even if the twigs are damp. Bit harder to keep going with damp wood; definitely recommend having a fire going as well to dry bigger pieces out before throwing them in for a consistent burn. Of course I was camping in the West Coast’s temperate rainforest and in the fog belt so dry wood was not a thing I could find. This made getting an actual fire going extremely challenging. I tried for a long time before giving up; it wasn’t really cold enough that I needed one and I mostly wanted to not be still trying.
I left the beach to go for a hike; I had hoped to do the 12km round trip from Mystic Beach to Bear Beach; I turned around 2.5 km in because it got to a point where the water and the mud had seeped into my shoes and with all the winter storms we get on the coast there was quite a few downed trees. In some places the mud and deadfall made the trail actually quite dangerous, while in others it obscured the trail so well I got several very convincing photos that depict clearly why you need to have a plan to hike in the dark (or daylight) alone. Getting back to Mystic Beach turned out to be rather more harrowing than hiking out; there were a couple stairs that have been almost completely destroyed by the continued use and heavy rain – I was extremely nervous descending the last eight feet into the ravine because the wood riser had rotted mostly away, the mud was nearly a foot deep on the incline, and the rebar holding the wooden riser in place was still stuck vertically into the ground which could cause a very serious injury if I slipped.
Still I did not die, and made it back to camp to have lunch, and ran into a couple friends who’d come up for the morning and was surprised when one–who has way more outdoor experience than I do–said that she had never considered going camping by herself. This surprised me quite a lot; of my many friends she is one I would have guessed had already done a solo trip. It did really make me consider the fact that as women we are taught that it is especially dangerous for us to go alone, even when the reality is that going for a hike in the woods is just as dangerous for men as it is for women and solo camping away from civilization is the same.
After lunch some other friends came up (the one whose stove I had borrowed plus two) for a day-visit, and for some reason we decided it was the best idea ever to play in the waves. Now up here the Pacific Ocean never reaches ‘warm’ temperatures, though that doesn’t keep us out of it. Saturday was no exception. So it was that we were very wet when my friends headed home, leaving me once again on the beach. The sky had cleared and I was treated to a crisp spring (it’s not like we get real winter here) sunset. Knowing the forecast called for wind and rain the next day I did not go to bed at sundown; though I did crawl into my sleeping bag two hours later quite exhausted.
Camping alone is strange in that there’s no one else to limit or motivate you to do things. You might wake up at dawn, but there’s no pressing need to get out of your tent. You aren’t waiting on others, they’re not waiting on you. On the other hand, you now have to find something to entertain yourself with. If you’re tired, there’s no conversation to draw out your wakefulness. You are alone with your thoughts; even if there are other people around they may or may not choose to interact with you, even if you initiate something. Laying in my tent after dark and listening to the waves crash on the beach Saturday night was much better than Friday. I had once again become used to the backdrop of the ocean; though the waves certainly picked up in size after dark.
Sunday morning dawned grey and raining and I lingered in bed. Still not unpleasantly cold, but I was grateful for the dry inside of my tent and the tarp I had put up–will need to invest in a lighter tarp in the future. Hoping to wait out the worst of the weather I went for a walk along the beach with my camera just enjoying the stillness. I was not alone on the beach, but the only other group of campers were not obnoxious.
There’s a cave on the north end of the beach where hikers and campers build stone cairns (inukshuks) by the dozens. I had been surprised the day before to find that most (probably all) had been knocked down by the winter storms. There were maybe only a dozen set up; I spent an hour balancing and stacking rocks and enjoying the stillness. They are delicate things, despite being made of stone, and easily toppled, but that does not stop me from loving building them.
While I had hoped to wait for a break in the weather to pack up the rest of my camp and start the hike out, that backfired rather spectacularly and I ended up having to pack up the last of my things in the short squall that blew in off the strait. When I finished packing up the rain was heavy enough to put the last of my fire out in about thirty seconds. Hiking out was wet and windy and very, very west coast. My ride met me under the cover of the trees and made some mocking comment about the weather to which I do not believe I responded graciously. I handed off my camera (one less thing to carry, YAY!) and we hiked out.
There is a moment when you pack all your things away and you realize that whatever adventure you’ve had is really and truly ending. When you and your friends are in the car heading back and you all know that things are winding down and it is bittersweet. I can’t say I wanted this trip to end; I never do. Knowing that I have to wake up and go to work like nothing’s changed (even though it hasn’t) and act like my job means anything more than a paycheck (even though it doesn’t) when I know I could be out in the world instead is suffocating. The trip was odd because after having done so much by myself it was suddenly strange meeting my friends on the trail; they were dressed for a casual hike and carried nothing. Just that easily they had already started to pull me mentally off the beach and back into ‘real life’. They were ‘other’ to the mindset I was in; there had been no rapport built up as we spent our time on the beach because they hadn’t been there. They hadn’t shared the empowering and yet eerie trek down in the dark, or waited out the rain beneath the tarp.
I thought a lot about what I want out of life while I was on this trip; even more since I got back. My goal starting out was to get away from work and home and do something I enjoy. I hoped to come back feeling refreshed. Instead I came back more unhappy with the daily grind. Immediately I started reaching for the next adventure; while I had hoped to go on another camping trip, I had already signed up for a volunteer shift at the climbing gym the following weekend and I didn’t want to get out of it since that has been how I’ve been paying for climbing. This weekend I have no plans so far and am hoping (despite the forecast) that it might be sunny and dry enough to get some outdoor climbing in. Some of us are hoping to take a rope rescue course up island, or possibly go camping in Strathcona Provincial Park with some hiking or climbing. Or, if the weather permits maybe go climbing on Quadra Island.
Regardless of where we go or what we do, I’m in for the next adventure and the next and the next.
This solo trip was definitely a new experience. The most important things I learned were: I can trust my ability to assess the risks and plan accordingly and that sometimes you just have to do the things that scare you to find out what you are really capable of.
Stay tuned for part two: Why you should go it alone.