Vancouver Island is an internationally-recognized caving hotbed, home to a greater extent of mapped cave systems than in the rest of Canada in its entirety. It boasts Canada’s 4th deepest cave (Thanksgiving, at over 400m) and, as I recently learned, new exploration may soon link passages representing the longest system of caves in all of Canada. With stats like that, there was no way I was going to pass up exploring Vancouver Island’s superlative caving opportunities during this Wild Isle project, even though I’d never before been caving and, having now done so, clearly had NO idea what I was going to be getting myself into.
My day with Randy Brochu of Gold River, spent in the Slot Canyon Cave in Weymer Creek Provincial Park, was a true lifetime highlight reel experience. My CBC All Points West column from the day is now posted on the show’s microsite as well as on iTunes. There’s a photoset on Flickr, which I’ve also posted here. Randy has a ton of photos of the Weymer caves as well as from numerous other areas on his site, West Coast Caving, which is a great visual resource for getting a better idea of what’s going on underground on Vancouver Island. For more frequent updates of his explorations, check out the West Coast Caving Facebook Page.
Other notable links to use as a starting point for your own exploration are below:
If you want to delve a little deeper (forgive me, the pun opportunities with this sport are terrible), there’s a useful article on the Canadian Caver site about Vancouver Island’s karst topography, the cultural importance of caves, local management issues, etc.
Here’s hoping you have fun getting wild on the underside.
Jill and Joel Collins are the adult half of Cedar, BC’s On the Beaten Path family, committed explorers of their Vancouver Island wildness and beyond. Recently they were good enough to let me tag along on an adventure with them – an exploration to find a new-to-them climbing bluff high on Mt. Benson near Nanaimo. You can see a photo essay from our day here and the Collins, our trip and the subject of getting active outside as a family was also the focus of my June 25th Wild Isle column on CBC All Points West (find the podcast from the episode on the show’s microsite or on iTunes). The conversation with the Collins was rich and informative throughout my day with them, but with only a short time available on the radio it was impossible to share more than a fraction of their stories and insights. Not wanting to miss the opportunity to pass those along, I asked Jill Collins if she’d be willing to answer a few questions here, including those solicited from the All Points West community via Facebook & Twitter.
1. Jill, thank you for taking this additional time with me. I admit I was a bit of a fanboy about your entire family and your shared commitment to outdoor adventure during my recent All Points West Wild Isle column. One thing I didn’t have time to get into, though, and I’d love to know more about is you and Joel in particular. Can you tell me a little more about the two of you, how you developed your attachment to the outdoors and what brought you to Vancouver Island?
Sure thing, Rumon. Joel and I were both born and raised in small town Alberta and have childhood memories typical of our generation; lots of outdoor time, camping, and sports. My childhood outdoor memories are, dare I say, a tad more conventional than Joel’s. My dad enjoyed camping and fishing and it was here I formed my attachment to the outdoors. I fondly remember exploring the forests around our campsites and spent hours on the boat gazing down into the water. Joel’s dad took more of a” get out and do something” approach to the outdoors with canoe trips down the North Saskatchewan River and biking the Icefields Parkway. Today those adventures sound lovely but back then, they were not all picturesque. There are a few stories of Joel and his brother being dragged along. Funny thing is, now we drag grandpa along on some of our adventures.
Our paths crossed in Edmonton when I was at college, Joel at university, and right from the start our relationship consisted of outdoor time, camping and sports. It was our time together outside, being active that really began to blossom and grow. We began exploring remote areas, hiked longer distances, took up photography as a hobby, and pretty soon adventuring became a regular part of our life together. Before Ben turned 1, we came to Vancouver Island for holidays, my first time here - Joel had been when he was a kid - and instantly I fell in love with the island’s raw beauty. I was awe struck by the ocean, as any rural Alberta gal would be; tempted by the endless outdoor adventure activities one could enjoy and felt more at home here than anywhere I had lived my whole life. A year later we moved here. Vancouver Island may not have the highest peaks in the world, or the biggest surf to ride or the warmest climate and ocean to play in but it is an outdoor adventurer’s dream playground, allowing one to dabble in it all, pursue seasonal activities almost year round and still push the limits. Living here truly is a blessing.
2. Where did this family commitment to adventure come from? What are your reasons behind it?
Our family commitment to adventure is really just a continuation of our life together before having children. Before the kids were born, we were traveling to our cabin in the foothills of the Rocky Mountains every second weekend, all year long. Now that we are a family of four, adventure is our family time. It is time where we are completely in tune with each other, the kids have our undivided attention, and it allows us to do what we love. I also view the adventures we embark on as an opportunity to role model and teach Ben and Liv to lead an active and healthy lifestyle now so it will become a regular part of their life and to form connections with the natural world around us. A huge part of adventure is exploring new places and trying new things and this is definitely the driving force behind why we do what we do. I love hiking along a new trail or challenging myself with a new outdoor activity. I crave adventure and the more you experience it the more you want it. Ben and Liv thrive in the outdoors and watching them test their limits and succeed is truly amazing. This alone is reason enough.
3. How young did you get the kids started adventuring and what approach did you take to getting them accustomed to adventure?
Ben and Liv have both been adventuring since they were born. As babies we carried them in backpacks and they were content all cuddled up and close to mom and dad. This allowed us to continue with our day hikes without skipping a beat. The challenge came when they started walking. Being carried no longer met their needs, they wanted to walk. We are fortunate to live near a Provincial Park, Hemer Park, and it was here we began training, so to speak. Hikes became slow walks in the forest. Each time we went a little further, carried them sometimes, added bike riding to the mix and began to test their limits. Quickly we found out that kids need rest breaks, lots of rest breaks. That is when I began to incorporate food into our hikes. [Ed. I teased Jill during our adventure together and in my radio column about the frequency with which she mentioned keeping the kids well fed while outside. At this point it comes naturally: when we left she reported she had a sandwich for me too and throughout the day kept checking in to see whether I wanted another pepperoni stick, some more trail mix, an apple, a…] That got us further and next came games; tag and eye spy. We started to get an idea of how far they could hike and that allowed us to seek out hikes of the same distance elsewhere. Each time we pushed their limits and they kept on succeeding. Sure, there were trailside breakdowns. But building their confidence up and encouraging them to continue got us where we needed to go. It helped having the experience of Hemer Park to reflect back on. Telling them the trail is just as far as walking around Hemer Park, or remember when you were tired at the pond and could not go on, but you did, was real information they could relate to. Slowly we added in biking, backpacking, canoe trips, surfing and now we are rock climbing, caving, snowshoeing, skiing, and enjoy multi-day bike trips. They don’t know any different because they have been active outdoors with us their entire life.
4. I had the chance to spend a day with your little adventurers – they’re awesome kids – but surely they don’t always want to go out adventuring? How do you address that?
You’re absolutely correct. Ben and Liv are not always fans of adventuring. Perhaps it is our desire to be active and our quest to escape life’s responsibilities that drives us to find ways to convince them otherwise. Getting them involved in the planning, preparations, and packing is a way to keep them engaged. Kids thrive when they are given an important task and it teaches them about responsibility and being mature. Adding variety to adventures is important as well. Hiking back to back to back weekends does not work well, they lose interest so we add bike trips or rock climbing, or caving into the mix. These are things that they really enjoy doing. All our adventures have a purpose, a destination with something cool to see or do once we get there. We remind them of past adventures, the fun we had, and the neat things we saw on the way. Reassuring them that mom and dad too have to overcome tired legs or lack of energy helps them feel they are not alone. Food is huge. In order to adventure with children you need to arm yourself with food and when you think you have enough, add some more. Another tactic is to be creative with food. There are a few special treats I bring along on adventures that they never get any other time. I remind them of this. Now that they are getting older, they are helping us decide where to go and what activity to go along with it. Ben chose to bike across Quadra and Cortes Island for our last adventure and because it was his initiative there was little moaning and groaning going into the adventure.
5. There’s a lot of contemporary discussion about screen time, the amount of time kids spend in front of televisions, computers, video games, etc. What’s your position on your kids and screens?
I completely understand that computers and technology are an important part of our lives and will be for Ben and Liv as they get older; in their education and in their careers. Smartphones and iPads have been integrated into Joel and my life but for Ben and Liv, they have always been there. We use them as tools both on and off the trail. At home, online research is no secret, often they are right beside us discovering the next trail we will hike. We look at photos or videos together and even attend the Banff Mt. Film Festival as a family. On the trail we listen to music, snap photos and make notes of things to research when we get back home. Often there is talk about the Wild Kratts on our adventures, an animated series about wild animals that combines science with fun and adventure. We found a shark egg case on a beach in Tofino and Ben and Liv knew immediately what it was because they saw it on the Wild Kratts. Screen time must have a purpose and sometimes the purpose is to let them chill. It all comes down to balance.
6. And if their contemporaries - and parents - are using screens and devices without such a purposeful approach, what’s your response to the natural kids’ desire to want to fit in, to keep up with the Joneses, so to speak, in that regard?
I think Ben and Liv are still too young to get caught up with what their friends are doing but I have seen signs of it for sure. Ben has asked to go on websites or to watch movies his friends have seen. They both have screen time and we absolutely allow them to explore the world through computers and TV. They both know what we approve and disapprove of when it comes to games and programs. Every family comes up with their own guidelines and leading by example is key. Joel and I are not into computer games nor do we watch a ton of TV. We do our best to talk about what our family does and that every family does things differently. Cute story about keeping up with the Joneses, not screen time related, but you will like this one: When you were climbing with us, Ben spotted your climbing shoes immediately. None of us have climbing shoes. A few days before our mini adventure together, we were at the indoor climbing gym and there were climbing shoes to demo. He tried a pair and so wanted to buy them. We had to explain to them how much they cost, where the money comes from, and if we bought climbing shoes for him we would have to sacrifice other adventures like skiing or buying bikes for everyone. After our adventure with you, Ben mentioned your climbing shoes and how cool it would be to have a pair. Then he mumbled something about liking his new bike.
7. Oh…whoops! Point well taken. On that subject, I’ve had a number of folks mention, upon seeing our photos from the day, that they like the fact Ben and Liv aren’t “all geared up,” that they’re just getting after in on the rock, in their sneakers. I’ve shared your comments about taking a multipurpose approach to gear such as helmets, shoes, etc. - that definitely resonates with my parent friends.
Moving on from my gear-headed faux pas… Kids the age of yours seem to get no end of social invitations to birthdays, play dates, etc. With so many of your weekends committed to family adventuring, how do you balance all these kids’ social commitments? Do you think they’re missing out at all?
It is definitely a juggling act to balance and schedule the kids’ social lives, school, our work, and Joel’s volunteer fire department responsibilities. And with all the commitments between these and our priority to adventure, birthday parties fall down on the list. I have to say, my take on birthday parties may not be the norm. I do not see value in getting a bunch of kids together for excessive cake, goodies, and gifts. I would rather see them come together and enjoy each other’s company, not become caught up with the enormous pile of gifts or what’s in the goodie bags. Do they miss out on birthday parties? Physically yes, but are they missing out, no. We make time for them to form connections with their friends in other ways.
8. You’ve never done it any differently so perhaps this question is unfair, but do you have a sense of what this family adventuring does for your relationship with Joel?
Not an unfair question at all. Our relationship has always been one of love, respect, and we enjoy spending time together. I married my best friend. Sounds like a cliché but it is true. We are a team. I remember when we first started adventure racing together and people were amazed that a couple would take on that challenge. I thought that was odd, who else knew my strengths and weaknesses better than Joel? Plus, I knew he would “drag” me up the hills. We work well as a team no matter the situation and adventuring has allowed us the opportunity to grow together, create memories, and maintain an active lifestyle that we both value. Our relationship is stronger because of it.
9. How do you divvy up roles and responsibilities for adventures between you and Joel?
I hand him a list of things to do. Just kidding. Our roles and responsibilities are clearly defined. I handle the food preparation, pack most of the gear, and take care of the things that need to be done at home before we set off on an adventure. Joel’s focus is on safety, gear maintenance, and the little things I overlook. It is a reflection of our personalities for sure. I pack the tents, sleeping bags and cookware; he packs the axe, first aid kit, and fuel for the stove. I pack for function, Joel packs for practicality. It works. You saw us in action when you joined us on Mt Benson in search a new bluff for us to climb. You noted on your radio program how we each go about our roles seamlessly. Like I said before, we are a team. The one area where our roles are interchangeable is when it comes time to deal with the kids on the trail. It is not all sunshine and lollypops. Sometimes one child is more connected to one parent than the other or not connecting at all. It can change mid-course and having the ability to recognize that in the children, and each other, is a large part of our success when adventuring.
10. How do you find and decide on trips?
Most of the time I am the one who comes up with adventure ideas. Obviously the internet is jam-packed with blogs, websites, and forums about outdoor adventure and this is where I start. I grab the Vancouver Island Backroad Mapbook and start looking for trails to hike and simply Google search the ones that interest me. From there the spider web begins and many hours have been lost as I comb through adventure idea after idea. When we hike a trail or explore a new area we discover new things. This turns into more time on the internet which leads to more adventures added to the neverending list. I now have a few blogs that I use regularly and find reliable [Ed. update, July 10: See the bottom of this post for a couple of Jill’s go-to sites]. The activity also dictates the trip we take. If we have backpacked a few times in a row I start looking for canoe routes to paddle or look at biking on one of the Gulf Islands. A new area to explore plays a huge role on where we go.
11. Do you do trips off Vancouver Island?
Yes, we do. For example, we’ve loaded up our backpacks and spent three days traveling up the BC coast to Haida Gwaii - you could travel to just about anywhere in the world in three days, but we hop to the next island. We also island hop to many Gulf Islands, but in the spirit of adventure, we usually bike them. We have biked across Galiano; Denman and Hornby; and Quadra and Cortes with all our camping gear in tow. There have been a few kayak trips. Valdes, Ruxton, and Pylades; plus a handful of other islands we have explored on our boat, either as day trips or overnighters. We also travel back to Alberta at least once every year to visit family and when we do there is always an adventure planned en route. As I say this it will sound crazy but it really shows how dedicated we are to adventure. When we head to Alberta we drive and we will tack on a few extra days that are just for us. We are not the get in and drive like mad type. We take a different route every time, work in a couple day backpack trip or explore an area we have never been in. On one trip our goal was to stop at as many waterfalls as we could. In a day and a half we had seen 5 waterfalls but even more amazing was the 8 bears we saw, some a little too close for comfort but that too is part of the adventure.
12. Speaking of waterfalls…there’s one heck of a lot of it on Vancouver Island – what do you do on rainy days?
I grew up in Alberta. I will take the rain over snow and -30 temperatures any day! But seriously, rain can dampen our spirits and this is certainly true when adventuring with kids. But, as I’m sure you know, adventuring in the rain offers a unique look at nature. The sounds and smells are so different, the shades of green explode, rivers and streams come alive and as long as you keep moving, you stay warm. Of course the rain can spoil an adventure. You shared our story about being caught in a downpour while biking along the Cowichan Valley Trail and even though it was miserable experiencing it, to this day it is the most talked about story for the kids. We have learned from that mistake and steer clear of bike adventures during the rainy season. We do quite a bit of day hiking during the rainy months. This past year we started caving and find this to be a great activity to do on rainy days. You still get wet, though. To adventure in the rain all it takes is rubber boots, rain pants, and decent rain jackets. Or if Joel is around he will ask, “Are you made of sugar?”
13. And in winter?
Is that not rain? This is what I love about Vancouver Island. In the winter we can downhill ski at Mt. Washington, snowshoe to Mt. Becher, and surf in Tofino. The changing seasons allows us to switch up our adventures.
14. For parents just getting started – either with new babes or inspired to do what you, Joel, Ben and Liv are doing with their own kids of similar ages – where would you suggest they start?
First of all, start small. Find a local trail and start going for walks. For babies, my own personal opinion would be ditch the stroller and use a pack. I think it gives the child a more intimate experience with nature and parent. For kids that can walk independently - and here I am talking two-year-olds - pay attention to how far they can walk and push it a bit further next time. Follow their lead. If they need a break, take it. Next time they need a break, say ok, at the next big tree. Stop and admire bugs and shiny rocks and pretty sticks they point out. Try not to carry the kids but if you do, negotiate a time or till when and get them walking again. Bring food! Food is a must, have I mentioned that yet? Something nutritious and something that will kick start those legs; like smarties, raisins, or gummy bears. Nothing beats a trailside snack. Geocaching is a great family activity, where you search the forest for hidden treasure using GPS coordinates. These caches are filled with little trinkets that kids love digging through and just the mention of geocaching should have them out the door before you. It is also a great tool to use for expanding the areas you explore as caches are found in nearly every park and along trails. As you work up to hiking longer distances or trying new things there are some key things to remember. It is, if you will, a set of rules we practice. As parents, we are responsible for our children. They did not ask to hike to the top of the mountain so if we are going to put them in those situations, we have to be prepared to get them there and back again safely. Joel is very good about gauging the kid’s abilities and his ability to get them out of a situation and that is something that must be considered before heading out on any adventure. Our adventures are not at the upper level of our capabilities. They are carefully thought out and involve back-up plans. We never put ourselves into a situation we could not get out of. It is not about pushing our limits; we are pushing Ben and Liv’s limits. That being said, there still is enough adventure to satisfy our needs.
15. What strategies would you suggest for keeping kids happy during adventures?
Earlier, I mentioned getting the kids involved with packing and planning. Now is the time to point out something they packed. Often I have researched the area we are hiking or wildlife/plants that may be unique to the area and begin to feed tidbits of this to them, things that will be of interest to them. What have I mentioned time and time again? Food! Break out those treats they love so much. We sing songs. Pretty sure we could record an entire album of “the ants go marching” song with endless lyrics. We role play “what are we driving”, a game where we pretend to be a motor bike or scooter or canoe and act it out along the trail. We also find that letting the kids take photos motivates them and they have snapped some pretty cool shots. Because we adventure roughly every second weekend, I came up with family mission statements for our adventures each year. One year it was Spirit of Adventure, keeping with the Olympic theme and it motivated us to try new things which expanded our adventure activities. Another year it was Finding Life in Adventure, where we had to find, photograph, and identify 5 living things on each adventure and never the same living thing twice for the whole year. One other was the Art of Adventure, we listened to the music nature made, actually made crafts from rocks, sticks, and shells we collected, encouraged photography, and drew endless pictures in the sand. These mission statements allowed the kids to explore nature in different ways and fueled our passion for getting outside and adventuring. Basically, get creative and do what works for you and your children.
16. Any last thoughts, tips or tricks you’d like to pass along to the aspiring adventure family?
Sitting at home and thinking about the work required to get ready for a hike can seem painful but the rewards are worth it. Once you do it a few times it becomes easier. Not everyone enjoys the same outdoor activities so be prepared to compromise. I am not a huge fan of downhill skiing, but my other three adventure partners are, so I bite the bullet and go skiing knowing I will drag them snowshoeing. Teamwork is absolutely necessary, especially with the parents. If one of us is not into it the other steps up and takes on more responsibility. Perhaps one parent is more interested in pursuing outdoor activity. They need to spearhead the adventure and do all they can to get where they need to go. Ensuring it is fun for everyone is important. And the last thought I would like to pass along is something I learned about time spent in nature that I never expected. Outdoor adventure is the largest hands-on learning environment your children and you will ever experience. We have hiked giant ancient forests, surfed on the edge of the continent, traveled trading routes used centuries ago, and explored the depths of the earth. Through all these outdoor adventures we have learned about life cycles, migration, self-awareness, history, teamwork, science, confidence, Fibonacci numbers, art, calmness, creativity, and personal achievements. The list goes on and on and on. Hard to argue with all that!
Hard indeed, Jill - thank you for making such a thoughtful and compelling case for the fun and value to be had spending time outside with your kids. I look forward to seeing you and your adventure partners out on the beaten (or unbeaten) path sometime again soon.
Update, July 10th, from Jill:
Blogs I use for adventure reference and inspiration:
I’ve never met these guys before but do communicate with them online quite a bit. The power of social media!
Discussed during today’s column:
The Vancouver Island Spine Trail, the Alberni Inlet Trail and our amazing guides:
International Long-Distance Hiking Trails:
Celebrity thru-hiker, Cheryl Strayed:
Vancouver Island Trails:
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