This article originally appeared on Backpacker
The waves of the Pacific crash over the sea-carved rock shelf and onto the sandy beach. I stumble out of our tent and scamper away to find a spot to relieve myself, doing my best not to wake everyone in camp. From this beach on the west coast of Vancouver Island, the ocean looks as if it goes on forever. It's July 2023, and even though it's midnight the air is still warm.
Across the bay stands the 32-foot Carmanah Point lighthouse, and every so often its beam passes over the campground, illuminating the tents like paper lanterns. We are halfway through our hike of the West Coast Trail and as far away from life back home as we will be on this trip. The map says the trail is 47 miles long, but according to our GPS, we will have walked just under 60 by the end, probably from the many deadends from tidal headwalls. Here, at this nocturnal hour, the world feels dark in more ways than the obvious one. My whole life back home feels as if the light has been extinguished. Alone for the first time since we hit the trail, a wave of grief that I've been trying to hold back finally hits me. Liquid in my eyes begins to blur my view of the sky.
For years, my husband Oliver and I have been trying to start a family. A few weeks ago we got pregnant for the third time via surrogacy--our first two pregnancies had been unsuccessful. This third time, it was twins, and everything looked promising. But the night before I started this hike, we got a call: We had lost our pregnancy. Compounding my sorrow, I'm not even with Oliver. I'm out here in the middle of nowhere while he is home, alone.
Four days ago, my friend Jake and I were in Port Alberni preparing for the start of our six-day hike of the West Coast Trail, which traces the rugged southwestern shore of Vancouver Island. The sunny, hot weather felt perfect for a long-distance coastal backpacking trip. Recently, I had watched a documentary about the wildlife on Vancouver Island called Island of Sea Wolves. The scenes of feeding whales, hunting wolves, and soaring birds of prey had piqued my interest in the area. I had scored a permit and was thrilled to experience the remote ecosystem for myself. That was, until I got the phone call from our fertility clinic.
We had expected a simple progress report, like the ones that we'd been getting weekly since we had a confirmed pregnancy. But instead, the nurse told us we'd lost both fetuses. This was our third miscarriage in less than a year, and this time we weren't even together to support each other through it. I called Oliver and told him I would find a way home. But after hours of talking, he told me I had to do the hike. We needed to keep moving, no matter how hard it was. We couldn't let our losses keep us from living.
So the next morning, Jake and I took a four-hour ferry ride out of Alberni Inlet, through waterways congested with fishermen alongside hills of harvested trees. We arrived at the small town of Bamfield, then took a taxi to the Pacific Rim National Park Ranger Station for a briefing before we were given our permits and allowed access to the park. It was after 3 p.m. when we started to hike.
Five and a half miles in, we made it out of the forest and saw the open ocean for the first time. There was a rock just off the shoreline covered with barking sea lions. Amidst the cacophony, a blowhole erupted in the surf. To the left, a gray whale dove back into the water. Another whale breached and dove, then another lifted its huge fin out of the water and splashed it down on the surface. For a moment I forgot my troubles, but then immediately felt guilty for that flash of peace. I thought back to Oliver's words over the phone. I knew he was right, but I still wondered, how can we experience loss while remaining open to the profound beauty around us?
We set up camp at the Darling River, nearly 9 miles from the start. The sun began to set in the cloudy sky. Kelp beds bobbed and glistened in the frothy surf while gray whales hunted for dinner in the shallows. As I set up the tent, Jake built a camp kitchen under the buoys that hung like ornaments on the windswept branches of fir trees. It was dark before dinner was ready. The wind picked up and a light rain began, so we ate in our tent and passed out from exhaustion.
In the morning, we packed our campsite and began the next section of the trail, which took us along the beach through the remains of old ships. As we wove between the wreckage, my mind wandered.
Last summer, Oliver and I were matched with a surrogate from an agency and got pregnant for the first time. We were ecstatic. I'd been working toward that moment for most of my adult life. The dream of becoming a father out-shined all my other dreams, and it was about to come true.
The next month, we went on our Covid-delayed honeymoon to Norway. While we were in the Lofoten Islands, out on the distant edge of the Arctic Circle, we got the news that our pregnancy had miscarried. On the shores of the Norwegian Sea, we felt the depth of that loss. We had not anticipated how hard a miscarriage would hit us, but it wrought within us a hole that could not be filled.
We continued on, and in February of 2023 we got pregnant again. After only a few weeks, we lost that pregnancy, too. It started to feel like darkness was covering us.
In June, we tried for a third time, and when the news came that we were pregnant with twins, we held our breath. Each week went by, and our surrogate's HCG levels--hormone measurements that indicate whether her body will create an environment conducive for a full-term pregnancy--were very strong. Everything looked great and we were relieved. But that hopeful feeling was short-lived.
We'd been through it before, but this miscarriage was different. The doctor told us that he couldn't determine a reason why the pregnancies were failing, so we would have to find a new surrogate and make new embryos with a different egg donor if we wanted to continue trying for a baby. This hurt on so many levels: We'd gotten to know our surrogate intimately over the past year and a half. I had started to call her our angel, as love for her merged with the love for our unborn children. Plus, we had already leveraged everything on the first three pregnancies. We didn't have a backup surrogate and we didn't have money to make new embryos. Financially, we'd already spent more than we could have imagined. To lose our surrogate on top of everything was like having a breakup with no closure.
Our agency said the best thing in this type of situation is for everyone to quietly fade away. Still, I sent a text message to her, this woman who had given so much to our family. She didn't respond, which confirmed my suspicion that she was mourning, too. This instantaneous divide compounded my heartache.
My experience of grief comes with the inability to recognize myself. My whole body feels strange, unlike me. The way I view the world seems off, even scary, as if I'm stuck in a viewpoint that isn't mine, a perspective I want desperately out of. I can no longer trust the ground itself. I move forward, but each step seems like an unraveling.
I fought that mindset as Jake and I hiked up steep ladders with rungs of rotting wood. The boardwalks were also in a state of disrepair, their spongy texture threatening an ankle-breaking collapse just waiting to happen. Everything seemed like it was decaying. There was a drought in the region, and the normally loamy soil of the rainforest had turned to dust. The ferns were dying. Instead of the legendary mud we had been warned about, dry earth rose like smoke from our footprints.
At our next camp at Tsusiat Falls, someone had built a 3-foot-tall stone structure that looked like a cairn. When I commented on it, a stranger told me that it was an Inuit inukshuk, built in the likeness of a person to indicate that this was a safe space. Something about the description assuaged my pain. I was comforted by the notion that havens like this exist, landscapes of beauty where we can sit with our grief and not be overcome by it. When I got home, I researched the inukshuk and found that it translates to, "to act in the capacity of a human." Inuit people used them for many purposes--such as navigation, to mark a sacred place, or to herd caribou in a hunt--but one of the functions stood out the most to me; Inuit people sometimes used them as memorials to honor a lost family member.
Jake and I set up camp and went to a nearby waterfall to filter water. It must have been 40 feet tall and tumbled elegantly over the edge of a cliff into a pool on the beach. I'd seen pictures of this cascade raging, but in the drought it resembled a luxurious shower. As we bathed in the falls, I thought of the inukshuk. For that brief moment, the tension in my shoulders released. I couldn’t help but smile, and slowly exhale.
The next day's hike to Carmanah Creek took all day. We had thought this trip would be a leisurely adventure compared to our usual alpine climbs, but the West Coast Trail had obstacles all its own, with long days navigating broken ladders and boardwalks, and the unexpected emotional labor of loss. After a freeze-dried dinner and a few pulls of tequila while watching a vibrant sunset over the Pacific, we retired to our tent and quickly fell asleep.
Ever since I was a child, I gazed at the night sky, looking for constellations. They gave me comfort and inspired me with their stories. But tonight, as I look at the star-filled sky, my anguish seems too great to find any solace in astrological myths. I stand, feeling untethered, a solitary object floating in space, unable to let go of the lives of my children that could have been born.
I can't know now that the final few days of the trip will be the best ones yet, that I will forget our failed pregnancies for hours at a time and get lost in the beauty of finding wolf tracks on the beach, hearing gray whale songs up close, and watching baby sea otters play with their parents in the surf. I'll forget until a couple of young girls call Jake and I their trail dads, and my whole body seems to lose solidity, turned instantly into a wave about to crash into the sea.
Over the next few months, I'll experience moments of profound grief, where for long stretches I can't remember anything but my loss, where structure and shape is formed not by my volition, but by the circumstances around me, powerless.
But under that dust cloud of heaven, on the beach in the middle of the trail, I experience my first moment to truly reflect. Gazing at the Milky Way, I stand with my hands open and raised, as if holding the babies that could have been. To me, they are no different from the stars, small pinpricks of light that I'll never get to touch. These four pieces of dust, my hopes and my dreams, might be the closest I get to becoming a father.
Slanted to the north is Ursa Major containing the Big Dipper. The Arab telling of the constellation’s myth viewed the box of Ursa Major as a coffin, and the three stars leading to it as mourners. Looking up, I realize that we will never have a funeral for the almost-lives we lost. They never entered the world, just poked the thought of themselves into it. But they were my almost-children, and they were real to me.
We lost four babies from three pregnancies, just like the four points on the coffin of Ursa Major. With all the love and sorrow I am filled with, a single silhouette on the edge of a wild island, I imagine placing my loss inside the coffin of that great constellation.
I look down, overcome. The ground is solid. The waves still crash. This wilderness gives me a quiet assurance. It speaks with the rustle of breeze and I understand that even through pain, we can exist in this beauty, fully alive and awake to the wonder. That I can exist in all this great unknown and be more alive because of it.
Gazing back up to Ursa Major, the first constellation I learned of as a child, I see it in a new light.
Now, my four almost-children will be with me every time I'm in the dark, helping to guide me home.
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