Pilgrimage to Powell River:
Hiking the Sunshine Coast Trail
British Columbia, Canada
Words and photos by Paige Lucas
Powell River is nestled in a devastatingly beautiful pocket of the British Columbia coastline. Originally a logging settlement, it is so remote it might as well be on an island.
The countless jagged mountains make it impossible to drive there. A ferry or a small sixteen passenger plane are the only options for arrival. But despite the difficulty of getting there, this little town of 20,000 people thrives on tourism due to its accessible and magnificent outdoor recreation opportunities.
The 110-mile Sunshine Coast Trail is just one of those. It follows the mountains from one plot of coast to another, skirting the edges of town along the way.
I learned of its existence when I saw a map of the trail in a local magazine during a 2016 family trip. Powell River is so small, I was shocked that it was home to Canada’s “longest hut-to-hut hiking trail”. The trail had been sitting there all that time like a big, juicy secret. Once I knew it was there, I couldn’t get it out of my head.
I first caught the backpacking bug when my brother gifted me Wild by Cheryl Strayed for Christmas one year. After that, all I wanted to do was hike the Appalachian Trail after graduating from college.
The trail had been sitting there all that time like a big, juicy secret. Once I knew it was there, I couldn’t get it out of my head.
My parents didn’t understand the desire and feared what would happen to me alone in the wilderness. They forbade me to go without a partner.
So, I found one and made it 800 miles before hopping off the trail to start my career in Boston. I cried for days after my parents picked me up. I was coming down from a huge daily dose of endorphins, mourning an experience I knew I would likely never have again, and grieving the friendships that I knew had ended with my hike. They didn’t understand my misery – and how could they? Backpacking is an extremely immersive experience that was impossible for them to imagine.
Ever since my stint on the Appalachian Trail, I’ve longed for another wilderness adventure.
When my parents said we were visiting Powell River again this year, I immediately announced I would fly in early and hike the Sunshine Coast Trail. I didn’t even think for a minute anyone else would be interested. But my father quickly chimed in, “Well, I’ll go with you!” I looked at him in surprise. “You will?!” I asked.
I’m sure he offered partly to keep me from setting off alone, but as time went on it became clear he had his own reasons for taking this pilgrimage with me.
In some ways, my father has always been an enigma to me. He is comprised of many parts, some that I can’t seem to reconcile. Others, I know I have yet to discover. He was an NHL hockey player who never took much to drinking. His gruff demeanor intimidated nearly all of my childhood friends, but his inner artist led him to create impressionist paintings that now hang about our house with only his initials in their corners to give him away.
He survived painful and exhausting cancer treatments without ever showing an ounce of fear. He wrote my mother dreamy love poems about their European travels, but in every birthday card I can remember receiving he penned only a philosophical “What greatness lies within thee?” And, despite his overflowing passion for the great outdoors, he never moved back to his breathtaking hometown of Powell River.
Every time we visit Powell River, I wonder — why didn’t he move back here? This trip was no different. In fact, I faced this question more directly than ever before as I watched hiker after hiker ask my father “And you never came back? Why?”
It did seem a little crazy, especially on the Sunshine Coast Trail where all you can see in any direction is the humbling beauty that British Columbia has to offer.
Just on that first day we passed lush ferns that reached well past our heads, saw a seal soaking up all the sun he could before the rising tide swept him off his rock, and watched a bald eagle swoop down low across Wednesday Lake after our dip. Blackberry bushes eagerly begged us to lessen their load of ripe, juicy fruit.
Impossibly tall Douglas Firs and cedars quietly draped their boughs over us as we marched in our boots from breakfast until dinner. I had the sense they were keeping watch and wondering about my father, too. Their swaying and swishing whispered across the breeze, “Stay. Stay this time.”
The views on the Sunshine Coast Trail drew a swelling warmth from my heart and took any words I could try to speak. Lakes lay strewn across the valleys like freckles. The frosted tips of Whistler mountains peeked at us from behind nearer peaks. Each morning the sky flushed pink and each night it burned orange, following the sun’s lead over the Pacific.
Though my father hasn’t lived in his hometown for forty-six years, he was still able to identify each island, each mountain, each neighborhood. He called them all by name and shared the stories he lived out in those places.
Every time we visit Powell River, I am reminded just how much that place is a part of my father. Memories and entire parts of himself lay nestled in its landscape. His footsteps line the forest floor, his sweat flows from one lake to the next. Hiking with him, I felt like we were together retracing his steps from childhood to adulthood.
“It’s a kind of pilgrimage,” he said. Silently, I agreed. It was sacred.
I was born and raised in Maine, where my parents still reside. It is rugged and worn by harsh winters. I love driving through its pine tree tunnels and exploring its biologically rich tidepools. I relish in the eerie sound of an unseen foghorn on a cloudy day, or the lapping of waves against the side of a docked lobster boat. There is something thrilling about feeling the sting of frozen winter air reach deep into your bones.
Powell River can feel similar. It, too, has a swiss cheese landscape of lakes dotting land and islands dotting the ocean. Seagulls cry out and garter snakes slither alongside ponds. Bears feast on fruits and bugs. But, its temperate rainforest climate and ancient forests remind me that it is not mine the way Maine is mine. It is not my home in the way it is my father’s.
Still, it formed my father and my father formed me. We are related, me and this place. It flows in my veins. It lies beneath my skin.
We are related, me and this place. It flows in my veins. It lies beneath my skin.
My father is not one to share his feelings, especially not painful ones. I also hold deeper pains close to my chest. I always feel a sadness for my father when we visit Powell River that is hard to articulate, and I wonder if he feels it, too. He made the choice with my mother to settle somewhere else, and I know they are happy with their choice. But choosing one thing inevitably means giving up another. Who would I have become, had I grown up here?
The last mile of that first day was extremely difficult, but the destination for the evening was atop a bluff with sweeping views of the mainland mountains and island-dotted coast. As soon as he dropped his pack, my father laid back on a picnic table bench and exclaimed “Oh, that little breeze feels so good! I can’t believe it!” He kept repeating those words over and over again like a prayer of thanks.
My feet traveled many miles as we settled into our daily rhythms for waking, eating, walking, and sleeping, but my heart was on a journey, too. A journey with my father, for my father, of my father. I saw more of him in the land and saw more of myself in him with each arduous step. I think he knows now why I wanted to hike the Appalachian Trail years ago, and that makes my heart sing.
Our likeness surfaced in different forms. We are both headstrong and try to avoid showing weakness. When we ran low on snack bars, we started fighting – but not in the way you’d expect. We each argued vehemently that the other needed the food more and stubbornly refused to eat it. It was obstinance, but it was also sacrifice. We also both love the outdoors for the solitude and peace it provides.
On our last night, we were planning to stay at a hut near the tallest peak on the trail. But, as we unpacked our things alongside a family of nine, we read in the trail guide that there was a place to sleep at the summit. We both looked at each other and, without speaking, simultaneously decided to re-pack everything and push on. The extra mileage was worth it. We had the highest summit to ourselves on our last night for both the sunset and the sunrise.
Our eleven days on the trail together felt fleeting, but in truth they are not. They sprawl out with the dense moss and tangled roots that hold up the old growth forests. They move over stones with the rushing streams. They blanket the ground with the fallen pine needles. Our memories will forever lie embedded in that dazzling patch of earth we traversed.
Paige Lucas is a photographer, hiker, barista, traveler, and soon-to-be high school English teacher based in the Blue Ridge Mountains of southwest Virginia. Through writing, portrait work, and travel photography she explores the small, tangible details of human life that weave together to form the elusive meaning of it all. Find more of her thoughts and photographs on Instagram @paigelucasphotography and on her website.