Trek is an amazing experience for staff and residents alike. We just completed the November Coast Trek, and this seemed like a good time to talk about what goes into preparing for a trek and to hear the actual trek experience from the perspective of one of our experienced clinicians.
Thursday Before Trek: The house has been divided into two trek groups, with the clinical team determining who will be in each group. We look at which clinicians and trek leaders are going on this trek to see which residents would benefit from their experience. We also consider the personalities of the residents and what combinations are best for a successful trek experience. The groups meet with their trek leaders and with the clinicians to review where they are going, the expected conditions and any questions they have. Because this is a coastal trek, we stress the importance of attention to detail. We want to set the tone for the coming days. The coast trek is often wet, cold and windy, and careful preparation is essential.
Friday Before Trek: Friday is staff prep day. We meet at 9 a.m. for orientation. Conditions on the coast have been deteriorating, with increasing wind, rain and surf conditions. One group’s route is changed in order to better weather the coming storm and provide an easy way out if things get worse. At orientation we review the conditions, routes, the residents, equipment, food, evacuation options, communication equipment/procedures and possible medical issues we may face. Particular attention is paid to hypothermia, especially preventing this condition, as we will be in a wet, cold environment. After we have completed orientation, the staff checks first aid kits, repair kits, foot kits, satellite phones and the group gear for the residents. We pack our own gear and food so that Saturday can be focused 100% on the guys.
Saturday Before Trek: The guys wake up to attend meditation, eat breakfast and clean their rooms. The trek groups then meet with their clinicians and trek leaders and begin their own orientation, where the rules of trek, expectations, schedule and conditions of the coast are reviewed. Again, attention to detail is stressed. The mood is upbeat and the guys seem up to the challenge that lies ahead of them.
We move onto checking gear with the philosophy that one is none and two is one. The trek staff has already checked the gear, but the guys recheck it under the watchful eyes of staff. Tents are set up, tent stakes counted, stoves are tested, tarps checked and fuel levels are rechecked. Then gear is issued to each resident. Backpacks, boots, long underwear, socks, hats, sleeping bags, rain gear, sleeping pads, stuff sacks and everything else that is needed to successfully navigate the unique environment we are about to enter.
After gear comes food. The guys plan, measure out and pack their food. It’s is a delicate balance to achieve as it all must fit into bear barrels. There is also a little bit of team building that goes on here. The residents have to figure out together what they will eat; they eat as a group, so compromise is essential. Once they have finished, staff reviews their food choices, looking for variety, amounts and simplicity of preparation. The final check is to weigh the total amount of food, divide the weight by the number of residents in the group and divide that number by the number of days in the field to make sure there are enough calories per person per day to sustain the activity.
Finally it’s lunch time! Kelly, our amazing chef, makes a hearty French onion soup for lunch. At the staff table we review the progress thus far and we are impressed with the group. They are focused, working as a team and having fun, making preparation day that much easier for all of us.
Back at the trek center, packing begins. Everything gets waterproofed and is packed in a certain order in the backpacks. The order is determined by weight distribution within the pack itself and what needs to be readily available when we hit the trail. Given the conditions on the coast, raingear, tarps and snacks are easily accessible. Packs are weighed and compared to the resident’s body weight to make sure no one is carrying too much. Packing done, we meet with our groups, stage the packs and give them kudos for a good day. Preparation cannot be stressed enough, and we take it seriously.
Day One: Monday morning is a flurry of activity. The guys get up to a big breakfast made by Kelly, clean their rooms and meet at the trek center. One last check of the weather confirms it will be a wet couple of days. Routes, evac and communication procedures are reviewed with the office staff.
Into the vans and off we go! It’s a long ride and the weather changes the closer we get to our destination. It starts out overcast, changes to drizzle and then to all-out rain when we reach Sekiu. Pulling into the Ozette Ranger Station, the reality of the conditions becomes clear: rain and wind. I have seen groups quit on themselves in the parking lot as they grasp the challenge ahead, but not this group. They were excited for not only the challenge but also the opportunity to enter the rainforest.
Raingear donned, we begin a three-mile hike through a second growth rainforest that did not disappoint: lush and green, with mushrooms popping up from the forest floor. The wind and rain were softened by the trees, making the hike more enjoyable. The three miles were covered quickly and the coast revealed itself in all its majesty.
We were facing north, so the brunt of the storm could be seen out to sea but we were shielded from its full force. The waves were roaring in, wind blowing the tops into tails of mist. Rain was coming down in a steady stream. It was a powerful scene and amongst the seeming chaos sea birds and seals went about their afternoon feeding.
We quickly identified places for the tarps and tents and went to work. The tarps went up first so packs could be unloaded in relative dryness. Then the tents. Gray Wolf Ranch has amazing tents, built to stand up to the challenges of Mother Nature, but they work only if set up correctly. The lads had practiced this and up they went without a hitch. Once the gear was stowed, stoves came out and hot drinks were served. The mood was bright and excited as they snacked and watched the weather unfold.
The trek leader and I huddled under our tarp and listened to our VHF radio for the weather report: worsening conditions until Tuesday after midnight. We just needed to hang on for one day. We gathered the residents and checked in. We confirmed that they were all warm, happy and fed. Some had even been exploring the beach earlier in the day. The weather forecast was relayed to the group and we determined to stay put until Wednesday morning. The guys were happy with the decision and we went to bed by 7 p.m. Darkness comes early; sunset was about 4:40 p.m.
Day Two: Tuesday morning arrived with a steady rain and a powerful wind. While we were shielded from the worst of it, the trees overhead hinted at the force of the storm. The residents all got up, had breakfast and we checked in. Spirits remained high. The plan of the day was to lay low and wait out the storm, but let’s be honest; we deal with young men, and a little rain and wind wouldn’t hold them back. Some of us went around the point known as Sand Point and stood in the wind, which was gusting up to 60 miles an hour. The sea was amazing. We crested a low knoll on the point and observed the ocean to the north and south; the waves were amazing. Eagles, oyster catchers, seagulls and various other birds soared in the gusting wind and seals fed in the bay as the tide came up. We even saw a black bear. Three deer visited as well, one doe, a fawn and a buck with one antler.
You never know how a group will react to a layover day, but our guys did great. They paid attention to staying dry, fed and hydrated. Further weather information indicated the storm would slowly rotate from the south to coming out of the north so we needed to move the staff camp and one resident tent. This was done in short order and just as predicted, the wind shifted and the temperature dropped, but we were ready. Dinner went off without a hitch. Again we got together and had a short group, checking in about how the guys were going and reviewing the plan for the morning. Gusting winds woke me up a few times, but the guys slept through the night without any disturbances.
Day Three: Wednesday morning gave us the window we had been waiting for; we could finally move. We got the guys up just before sunrise, 7 a.m. There is a process in the morning you need to follow if you are to get packed up and moving. First, before you even get out of the tent, your sleeping bag gets stuffed in its waterproof bag and you put on the clothes for hike ahead. Then it’s out of the tent. Breakfast gets made, tents and tarps come down, snacks for the day are placed within easy reach and backpacks are loaded. This was all done effectively.
We gathered the group, checked in, checked the packs, swept the camp, reviewed the route on the map and discussed what could be expected today.
The group would move from Cape Alava to Norwegian Memorial, an amazing and varied hike. Our trek leader in front, we set off. The first mile or so was flat, hard-packed beach as we approached our first headland.
Movement on the coast is determined by the tides. We must plan what time to get around headlands based on the tide level. As leaders, we use a tool called the Rule of Twelves with a tide chart to determine when it is safe to get around a point of land that is impassable at certain tide levels. The first headland was navigated without incident and we entered Yellow Banks, one of my favorite places on earth. It is an isolated cove with a wide beach and surfable waves (if not for the cold water!). After more than two miles of easily hiked beaches, the next stretch proved more difficult.
Every beach on the coast is different. Some are hard sand, some soft sand, some fine rocks that tax your calves, others are uniform rocks the size of ostrich eggs that wear you out and yet others are algae-covered slippery rocks that cause you to slip. At points we were walking on boulders and climbing over or under massive cedars that have fallen across the beach. We came out of a difficult stretch to the beach where the Norwegian Memorial and our campsite are found. The hard-packed sand felt great after the previous miles of uneven footing.
Getting to camp, the guys were beat but in good spirits. Camp was set up, hot drinks and dinner were made and spirits remained high. I judge a trek by how the residents are treating each other and how well they manage the little things. The first two days had proved to everyone the need for a tight camp, and the guys did a great job following that rule. With everyone fed, the leaders listened to the forecast: it was clearing up nicely. The next day was supposed to be clear and sunny, so an easy day was planned. We had group, discussed family relationships, checked in on everyone’s physical condition and reviewed tomorrow’s plan. I went to bed content that the group was solid and that it would be a great trek.
Day Four: The morning routine went off without a hitch and we headed off for a 30-minute hike around a headland to one of the best campsites on the coast: Cedar Creek. The camp is right off the beach, raised up about five feet, and overlooks an amazing seascape with a flowing stream lined with smooth river rocks. Camp was set up quickly and we settled in to enjoy the sunny day. The guys explored the area, chatted and read. The other trek group leapfrogged us. It was good to see they too had weathered the storm and were in good spirits.
After dinner, we made a fire and group was held after we watched a spectacular sunset. We discussed recovery and it was gratifying to see group members supporting each other in their recovery. The stars that night were amazing, but with clear skies come cold temperatures. We were prepared and stayed warm. Tomorrow would be a big day and the forecast called for another brilliant day.
Day Five: Frost greeted us in morning and we had a big day ahead. We would cover 8 miles, and on the coast, that is a big day indeed. Usually this is broken up into two days, but one of the campsites we have used, Chilean Memorial, has slowly eroded and cannot be used by large groups. Taking down camp was quick and we gathered on the beach to review the day. We had to get around Cape Johnson, so timing was important.
The hike was a challenge. The varying terrain of loose sand, large boulders, all manner of rocks and water presented plenty of opportunity for frustration. As we hiked, I listened to the conversations. They were about family, recovery, sports and how much they liked the trek and I smiled. In the face of difficult circumstances, attitude can make or break the trip and the attitude was great. The distance was covered in four hours, which may be a Gray Wolf Ranch record for that stretch of beach.
We reached our ‘camp’ at Rialto Beach tired but fulfilled from a hard day of hiking. We set up right on the beach with a stunning view of the ocean and a surf that was breaking within feet of the shore. An early dinner was followed by a beach fire and group. We reviewed our trek experience and everyone was grateful for the experience. Given that we started out in a storm, grateful was above expectations. We made commitments to each other regarding what we wanted change in ourselves when we returned to Gray Wolf. Before I went to bed, I stared at the stars and realized what a gift this trek had been.
Day Six: Saturday morning was cold! My tarp was covered in frost that fell like snow when I shook it. The trek leader and I had a cup of coffee before the sun came up and reviewed the experience. We agreed that it had been the perfect trek, completely free of interpersonal conflict and strife. This is not always the case.
The lads sensed it was time to get moving, motivated by breakfast at a diner and eventual hot showers, and they packed up camp in record time. Ellen Creek had to be crossed and we didn’t mind that our feet got wet, because the Gray Wolf van lay just ahead. When we reached the van, trek clothes were traded for jeans and hoodies and we loaded up and drove to breakfast. The heat of the van felt great but also highlighted how much we smelled!
Breakfast was at a diner called The Hungry Bear, and it lived up to its name. Pancakes, French toast, eggs, bacon and ham were consumed in quantity. It was nice to see the guys relaxed and enjoying each other’s company. Then we began the long ride back to Port Townsend. The ride was quiet due to food coma, but as we neared Gray Wolf Ranch one of the residents expressed that it was nice to be home.
That right there is the key to the whole thing. We strive to make Gray Wolf be as much like home as possible, a place where it is safe to make mistakes, grow and be supported in early recovery.
Gear was cleaned and we did a final check-in. The guys scattered to take showers and eat a wonderful dinner prepared by Kelly. Another trek in the books!
Of the over 35 treks I have done, this was one of my favorites. The scenery was great and the weather was a challenge, but what made this trek great was the residents.