We walk along the wooded trail, salal branches and fern leaves brushing our sides, as John Crouch tells me how he once had to be air-lifted out of Strathcona Park.
It was September of 1998, and he was on a week-long hike with a friend along The Grand Traverse when he fell down a portion of the route between Comox Glacier and Mt. Washington. He suffered a concussion and a “banged up face,” and it was four days before the helicopters found them. Thankfully, because they’d done everything right — laid their t-shirts on rocks where rescuers would see them, brought good stores of food and water and had weather on their side — Crouch came back the following year to finish what he’d started. But he doesn’t like to dwell on this story.
Today, we are hiking through Francis/King Regional Park in Saanich. There are no glacial scrapes possible here, little chance of meeting a cougar and even slimmer risk of getting lost, but Crouch still comes prepared. He wears his day pack filled with a water bottle, bandages and a protein bar, along with sturdy walking shoes and a bright yellow shirt. It just becomes habit after a while, he tells me. He has been doing this for a while, after all. Crouch, now 72, has been scaling landscapes around the world since he was a lad and has authored three books on the subject — Walk Victoria, Hike Victoria and Bike Victoria. So it’s little wonder I feel at ease with him as my guide.
Still, one has to keep their wits about them in the forest. I graze past one plant a little too closely as I hear Crouch caution me about stinging nettle. My ankle prickles with invisible spines, but the feeling fades.
“See this?” Crouch says, pointing to one big-leafed green. “If you are stung by a wasp, say, the cure is as easy as chewing up some of these wild vanilla leaves and applying them to the spot. It’s not perfect, but it sure helps — especially if you run into a wasp nest on a four-day trek.”
Crouch bends down one moment to point out the lingering Oregon grape with its holly-like leaves, and an awning of oceanspray. He tells me how Francis/King plays host to one of the most biologically diverse environments in the region, with spring bringing a cacophony of shooting stars, chocolate lilies and camas. It also offers 11 kilometres of gentle woodland trails along the 100-hectare property, connections to Thetis Lake Regional Park, a cedar boardwalk with access for people with walking disabilities and a nature centre. But this is just one of the dozens of wooded retreats located within just 20 minutes of Victoria.
“Walking — movement really — is so good for generating thoughts and for nattering,” Crouch says. “There was a scientist who made his whole study about the effects walking had in [psychiatric patients], and he found it quite relieved some of their symptoms and made them open up about what they were going through.”
In the hour it takes us to wind around the dirt paths, muddy marshes and rocky terrain, Crouch and I tackle every topic from the philosophy of adventure to technology debates and how we each got started in our fields. Crouch, part trail guru and part historian, says he likes to make hiking more of a social activity. This park itself is a social blend. James Francis first purchased the area in 1840, though his son Thomas gave the land to the district in 1960. In 1979, the area was amalgamated with the park named after naturalist Freeman King, and now only the oblique in the name separates the two.
We round the final tree before the parking lot and I inhale one more breath of earth, moss and sun. My head is filled with stories and I glance down the trail as the leaves wave.