Charles Reynolds has a surprise in store for his girlfriend Nina’s 28th birthday: an impromptu trip to the isolated backcountry of Vancouver Island.
Both competitive ultra-distance runners, the couple was no stranger to navigating the kind of rugged, remote terrain Reynolds had laid out for them; in fact, they relish it.
“Amongst our friend group, people would say we’re the athletes. We’re well versed in getting in shit,” Reynolds says.
But nothing could have prepared them for the challenge that lay ahead over the next two days.
Packed into their newly purchased 4x4, a Toyota Land Cruiser, they set off on a warm late-September day for a network of demanding trails and forest service roads (FSR) on the northern end of Vancouver Island, which recently has been marketed as a destination for off-roaders and a surefire way to boost tourism to the otherwise spartan area.
In fact, Reynolds has it on good authority—from online hiking forums, a copy of the Backroads Mapbook, and a local at a Campbell River brewery—that the specific route towards Woss they plan to take had been cleared for 4x4 use.
“What I didn’t know was, the route they’ve cleared is not the route from Campbell River to Woss; it’s the route from Campbell River to Sayward to Woss, so you have two sides of the triangle and can’t go straight across,” Reynolds relays. “But we had three sources of information, so we were stoked.”
That night, they drive on, travelling 50 kilometres or so to their campsite. At this point, it’s mostly forest service roads, “real easy travel,” Reynolds says. They spend the night at the rec site, before waking up early in order to make Woss by lunchtime.
As they venture further into the bush, the couple remarks on the labyrinth of trails they keep coming across. “Every kilometre, you’d get to like a four-way junction, and sometimes there’s a sign, and sometimes there’s not,” Reynolds says.
They forge on, continuing down a road called Menzie’s Main, just north of Campbell River, convinced it must connect to a main FSR.
Slowly, the roads grow tighter, tree branches scratching both sides of the SUV. They figure the trail must have become overgrown in the two years since the Backroads Mapbook was published.
Then, the vehicle gets caught on a tree. They cut it down. Then they get stuck on another tree, and cut that down. “By this point, I knew we couldn’t turn around in this section, so we would have to push through,” Reynolds remembers.
Armed with just a single axe between them, the couple cuts their way through another 10 or so trees, moving at a snail’s pace. A rock the size of a softball becomes wedged into the side of their tire, taking an hour and a half to dislodge. They build makeshift bridges out of fallen trees to inch the car forward.
“Basically there was nowhere to turn around and we thought we’d get out of this thick bit and then we could think about turning around,” Reynolds says. “We got out of the thick bit and then it opened up again. Every time it got bad, the tension would release and it would draw you in.”
Dozens of kilometres from the nearest town, their food supply running low (“All we had were two one-quarter full packets of these absolutely delicious flavoured pistachio nuts,” Reynolds says), they walk ahead, leaving their car behind. But instead of the network of FSRs they expect to find, it’s just more dense forest.
“We walked back, and my heart literally dropped into my stomach because I realized there was no way back and the way we were going was a dud,” Reynolds says.
They even consider cutting down a football field’s worth of trees with their lowly axe, before deciding they’d be better off making their way to the town of Sayward—still dozens of kilometres away by foot—where they plan to buy a chainsaw.
“Both of us have done long-distance events, but doing it with no food would have scared the shit out of me,” Reynolds confides.
With the Land Cruiser fully stuck, and faced with a long, daunting hike ahead, the couple realizes they might have to leave their new car behind.
“I was telling Nina, ‘This is serious. We may have to leave the car, and with winter coming, if we couldn’t find somebody to get it out in the next month, it’s done,’” Reynolds recalls. “It was really intense.”
Trying to keep things light, the couple jokes about what kind of chainsaw they’re going to buy, when, far ahead, they spot a truck zig-zagging down the road. They wave and yell frantically, trying to get the driver’s attention, only to watch it speed off into the distance.
They trudge on for another 20 km or so, growing fainter by the minute, when, like an oasis in the desert, Reynolds spots a white truck coming around the corner. “We both cheered,” he says, “but I was in my little red swim shorts because I got too hot hiking in my trousers, so I looked like an idiot.”
Two rough-and-tumble loggers named Andy and Mike pull up, astonished to find anyone so deep in the bush. “This forest network is [a mess]. You shouldn’t be here,” one of them helpfully advises, before telling the couple of the multiple people who have disappeared in the same area over the past few years.
Explaining their mission to get to Sayward so they can buy a chainsaw, the loggers tell them they can have their pick of the five chainsaws they’ve got in the back of the pick-up. They even agree to drive the weary hikers back to their car, but the bush is too thick for their truck to get through, so they hike the treacherous few kilometres to the site, lugging their chainsaws.
As it turns out, they found just the right guys for the job.
“We got there, and they literally looked like the most professional car recovery guys ever,” Reynolds says. “They managed to cut the trees down and they cut these perfect slabs in the trees, which they then used as ramps to get the car up. After that, they were literally cutting down trees like they were carving a turkey. It was so cool to watch.”
Elated they didn’t have to leave their $15,000 vehicle behind for what would have likely been months, the couple were “smiling for a day after that, ” Reynolds says.
“Happiness is always the difference between expectation and reality and our expectation was … that the car would be f*&%$# with, stuff stolen and left forever. To go from that to being out in the same day was a ridiculously good feeling. It was like getting told you’re expelled from school and then it all just goes away.”
In hindsight, Reynolds says he would’ve done more research to ensure the trails they would be venturing on were appropriate for their vehicle. The couple also plans to buy themselves a chainsaw.
But that doesn’t mean they regret their misadventure. Far from it.
“People are like, ‘Well, you won’t do that again.’ But I probably will,” Reynolds laughs. “The most important thing if you’re doing things like this in the mountains is to realize at some point you’re going to get stuck, and the difference between being f*$@#% and having a good story is the attitude that you have ...”