Donkey engine


While hiking last week on the West Coast Trail, on the western edge of Canada’s Vancouver Island, my brother and I came upon a derelict and abandoned donkey engine. We stopped to marvel at its existence at the edge of civilization.

Donkey engine beside the trail

Long before foreign sailing ships reached the coast 200 years ago, the Huu-ay-aht, Ditidaht and Pacheedaht lived on Vancouver Island’s west coast. Our trail map reports that as trade increased, “many sailing ships met a tragic fate navigating in these unfamiliar and hazardous waters. Sailors soon referred to this coastline as the ‘Graveyard of the Pacific’.”

One of the derelicts of the times is the donkey engine, which took part in the work to establish communication between villages and new lighthouses – a telegraph line that also became a trail for shipwreck victims and their rescuers.

So what does a donkey engine on a remote trail have to do with city making?

Think of it this way – when we need something to improve life for self and others, we organize for it. And in the process, we change the shape of the places that are involved. One the west coast, when the shore became a graveyard, people recognized that action needed to be taken. They took action, built lighthouses, a telegraph line and a trail. And they left a story behind.

The donkey engine, if nothing else, stands out as a physical marker of the trail’s original purpose. When its job was done, it was left where it stood.

Decades later, the purpose of the trail is different. The users of the trail are explorers of a different kind – not shipwreck victims and their rescuers now, but hikers exploring the beauty and challenge of the terrain. (And their rescue from time to time!)

The very purpose we build structure for – any part of a city – changes over time. And that is part of the city’s story too, only we see it in many more layers. We really do shape our landscape, and we also shape the stories we tell ourselves about our cities and the places we explore.

What is your favourite layer of story in your city? 


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This post is part of Chapter 8 – The City Making Exchange. Here are some plot helpers of Nest City: The Human Drive to Thrive in Cities, the book I am sharing here while I search for a publisher:

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Back to West Coast Trail


Two years ago this May, my brother and I were rescued by CFB Comox and night-vision goggles off Canada’s West Coast Trail. We are going back to finish the trek this May, and I wonder what it has in store for us.

This trail is arduous.  When we planned our trip two years ago, we decided to start at the south end and complete the most difficult terrain early in the trip, when we were physically and mentally confident. We did well, and the injury occurred on simple terrain when we were overtired and overtaxed that day. There are lots of things we can see now that we could have done differently, but they weren’t clear then. There was no way of knowing what some of the options were THEN. Accidents happen, as they say.

So this time, our goal is not to revisit the terrain we have already covered, but to see the terrain that we missed when we were hoisted up in the helicopter. We will start at the north end, in Bamfield, and make our way to that magic site. I imagine we will take a moment to see if the only two items we lost – a sandal and a water bottle – are in the brush and turn around to retrace our 2013 steps.

We will walk off the trail with a whole new adventure to talk about.




Choose the right leap


I know I have reached a threshold at the edge of a chasm when I struggle. Feelings of angst, uncertainty, discomfort, frustration, fear, unease and even anger signal to me that something’s awry. These feelings are telling me that there is a choice before me, whether I recognize it as a choice or not. All I know is that there is some kind of chasm before me, around me – or within me.

As I contemplate the word ‘chasm’ I think of the surge channels my brother and I encountered on the West Coast Trail, on the west coast of Vancouver Island, Canada. Imagine an expansive flat shelf of sandstone along the edge of land at the ocean. This is where we walk, instead of the unruly wilds of forest on the upshoot of land beside us. The ocean, as it moves back and forth, erodes the sandstone and creates channels perpendicular to the path of human travel along the shore, and these channels range from narrow and shallow to wide and deep. They are also shallow and wide, and narrow and deep. What they all share is the surge of the ocean through them, back and forth.

Source: - EHEzy.jpg

Some of our crossings were simple, a matter of simply stepping over: a deep chasm but not wide. Others were shallow enough to simply walk through. They started to get challenging when they were too wide and deep to cross and we had to find a route overland. The scariest crossing was just wide enough to jump over.

We chose to jump the channel, over the churning ocean below, because the leap was easier than finding an overland route way out of the way through the brush.  We stood there with a choice: hard and harder. I am still curious about our choice to jump, for it may have been wiser to find an overland route because the consequences of a mis-jump were significant. A fall into the cold water, gushing back and forth about 5 metres below us, would mean a difficult rescue. The trek overland simply meant certain hardship and time, but no risk of personal safety.

We made our choice carefully for the channel was too wide, and the view down too spooky, to feel confident. My whole being halted before making the leap. I could feel a physical uncertainty washing over me, telling me that this was too much to ask. This is an unusual feeling for me as I have great confidence in testing myself in physical challenges. I jump into things. The truth is, we didn’t give ourselves too much time to think about the consequences or our options. We chose to believe we could do it – and we did.

Choosing when to leap depends on the context. If we did not have the physical ability to leap, were tired at the end of the day, lacked confidence, or if the sandstone was wet and slippery, an overland route would have been more appropriate.  It would have been a hard an arduous, unclear trip in and of itself. It would have been a leap of it’s own as we battled the wild bush.

The leap we chose made sense given our context. Our antennae were working well: we chose the right leap.

The next post will explore the role of struggle in our choices.  


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This post forms part of Chapter 6 – Emerging Thresholds, of Nest City: The Human Drive to Thrive in Cities. Click here for an overview of Chapters 4-7 (Part 2 – Organizing for Emergence). Click here for an overview of the three parts of Nest City.

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Survival systems

This is the headline that wrapped up my hiking trip on the West Coast Trail a week ago today:  Rescuers from Comox had to Overcome Bad Weather.

Shifting to survival senses

With four fabulous days of hiking and hard work behind us, and only two days ahead of us, my brother broke his ankle.  In a moment our journey shifted from exploring a beautiful land and shore to a journey of a different sort: ensuring his well-being and survival.

I blew SOS on my whistle.  No answer.  We were alone.  I pulled out my cell phone to call the emergency phone number given to us at the trailhead but calls could not leave my phone.  The instructions said not to call 911, but I tried anyway.  It went through.  I introduced myself and the situation and requested evacuation off the West Coast Trail.  The response: “Is that in the United States?”

I was patched through five places before I found Purnell and Shannon, the West Coast Trail search and rescue personnel.  At last, someone knew where we were and that we needed help.  We were to sit tight until they determined what action to take and called us back.

But they couldn’t call back.

My phone could not make or receive calls.

This might look like it is the beginning of a bad story, but it isn’t.  I made contact with a sliver of the emergency response system on Canada’s west coast.  I am just now grasping the sheer size and significance of the organizations and institutions that got my brother to safety and set him up well and quickly to begin his healing journey.

19 Wing Badge

In the big picture, several institutions were in service.  All the operators who helped me get through to Purnell and Shannon.  They ascertained that it was not possible for my brother to get off the trail on his own or carried down by stretcher, night was falling and the weather deteriorating, they called the Joint Rescue Co-ordination Centre in Victoria.  This engaged 442 Transport and Rescue Squadron and 19 Wing, Canada’s only air force base in British Columbia, out of Comox.

The face of all the help behind the scenes began with Search and Rescue Technicians (SAR Techs) Chris and Marc (with a ‘c’).  Since there was not enough fuel to get my brother straight to the hospital in Victoria, the airport got involved, as well as Tracy and her partner with BC Ambulance.  Then all the emergency room staff, who were waiting and fabulous.  And the x-ray gal.  And the orthopedic floor staff, the surgery staff and a physiotherapist.  And all of the systems behind the scenes that enable these people to do their work: the mechanics, accountants, managers, support staff, building maintenance personnel, lab technicians, including the providers of fuel and energy for all of this to work.  Everything just got looked after once I told the system help was needed from a tiny phone on kilometre 33 of the West Coast Trail.

The whole system did this in 24 hours: search, rescue, deliver, diagnose, operate and discharge.  Within 24 hours of his fall, even surgery was behind him.

This is remarkable.  This huge system of systems worked as I could only dream.

The whole system is wanting to help

A helpful institution is not an oxymoron.  This experience has revealed that what feels like a big maze of horrible bureaucracy is actually a huge system of systems wanting to help.  That is its purpose.  And it can do wonderful, helpful things for people. As I reflect on my brother’s experience, I notice that:

  1. The system helps me when I know what I want from it. With each call into 911, my message to the operators got more and more specific.  Eventually, I learned to say to the US operator, “Please put me through to British Columbia RCMP.”  Then to the RCMP operator:  “I am on the West Coast Trail of Vancouver Island awaiting evacuation.  This is the only way I can get in touch with the people helping us, please put me through to this phone number.”  They did it.  And eventually, they knew my calls were coming and helped even quicker.
  2. I need to learn about the system to help the system help me. I had to craft my message to be responsive to the kind of help that operator offered. I had to learn their language.  Mentioning the West Coast Trail to the US operator was meaningless. The path through the maze was much smoother when I had the right language for the right people.
  3. I need to learn and adapt with the system to help the system help me. I became a part of the system when I made the first call to 911, which required me to learn and adapt with it as we adjusted to the unusual situation where  my phone could not make or receive calls.
  4. The system helps me even when I don’t know what I want from it. In the end, the system just delivered what was needed.  It has expertise that I do not have and it was delivered via phone, on the trail, in the air and through to the hospital.    
  5. To receive help, I have to be willing to let the system help me. I remember a couple of times feeling mad and frustrated, but I know that if I got mad, the system would just have a harder time helping.
  6. There is a big system invisible to me that is there to serve the public. It might not always work this well, but the point is that it did.  Various parts of it slip into play when needed, and slip away when not needed.  This big system works.  It can do what we ask of it.
  7. My fellow citizens and I have created this system and its service. As a taxpayer I pay for it.  I am glad I do. 

Thank you to Shannon, Purnell, Chris, Marc with a ‘C’, and the folks on Nitinat Lake

I find that I am all caught up in the pride I feel in Canada’s search and rescue and health personnel – and in particular the people that came to get us.

Two people we didn’t meet, Purnell and Shannon, were on their way by zodiac to spend the night with us if the conditions made it impossible for the airlift to take place. They also coordinated getting all our gear that we had to abandon on the trail, back out to us in Victoria.  Thanks to the folks that live on Nitinat Lake for the transfer.  All that is missing is a sandal and a water bottle.  We didn’t expect this.  Thanks.

FC2009-001 11 January 2009 Mount-Washington, British-Colombia A CH-149 Cormorant helicopter flies over Mount-Washington in preparation to land. CF Photo by Sergeant Eileen Redding

I am quite moved by the experience of being rescued.  My whole body vibrates when I recall hearing the helicopter, but not seeing her for a long time as I waved flashlights into the sky as she hid behind the low cloud cover in the rainy, dark night.  At last, we could see the bright lights of our new friend the CH-149 Cormorant, and when we saw the first SAR Tech lowered from the helicopter, we knew help arrived.  We saw a second SAR Tech lowered to the ground, and a Stokes litter (rescue basket/stretcher), then the helicopter flew off.  We waited and waited, but no one came up the path.  We thought we must have been dreaming.  After a few hollers back and forth in the quiet, I learned they were in the bush – I had to head down the path to help them find their way to my brother.

GD2008-0454-12 30 May 08 Sydney, Nova Scotia Search and Rescue Technicians from 413 Transport and Rescue Squadron, participate in an exercise with a vessel from the Coast Guard College. CF Photo by Private Melissa Spence

And so we met Chris and Marc and they settled in to do their work and prepare my brother for transport up to the helicopter.  And their immediate confirmation that there was no other way for a guy with his foot pointing in the wrong direction to get off the trail.

My whole body vibrates again as I recall the SAR Tech preparing me for my trip through the air up to the helicopter, his help to stand in her downdraft that was snapping trees, and the wind-whipping trip itself.  I was a shock to be physically touching help (him) and feeling help (him) and being held by help (him).  Then trusting that below me my brother was also coming up safely, but alone, in the Stokes litter.  And then help, in the shape of this big bird, whisked us away to Victoria and the next phases of help.  The 19 Wing badge (shown above)  is most appropriate.

cx2003-0152-20c CFB Comox, BC 24 April 2003 Sergeant Mike Falardeau, a Flight Engineer at 442 Squadron Comox, prepares to lower the stokes litter to the deck of the HMCS Brandon during a hoist exercise outside the Esquimalt harbour in Victoria, British Columbia. Photo by corporal Miranda Langguth, 19 Wing Imaging.

Thank you Squadron 442 .  HAIETLIK, the Lightening Snake of Nootka Indian Legend in the center of your badge resonates with the history of the land you plucked us from.  And your motto, UN DIEU, UNE REINE, UN COEUR,  resonates with your purpose – that others may live.

Thank you to the land of the Nootka.  Thank you for the experience of enjoying your land and shore.  Thank you for the safe departure.  Thank you for returning our gear.  The whole experience is a gift.

We will be back to pick up where we left off.  For those that know the trail, we were traveling from south to north.  The hard part is behind us.

Post script

Here is what the first sounds of rescue sound like (the CH-149 Cormorant).