Monday, 3 June 2013

Buoy Carving and Hiker Artifacts

The West Coast Trail is littered with human artifacts. There are a plethora of carvings that mark significant events, places and relationships scattered along the trail. However, these carvings are no ancient petroglyphs, but rather are artifacts of hikers who feel the need to signify their successful traverse of the difficult west coast landscape with a material symbol.

Over the years the beaches of the west coast trail have been repositories for various flotsam and jetsam brought in by the tides. The most common thing washed up seems to be floats and buoys. Colourful, carvable, lightweight, and with a rope attached, buoys are used as trail markers to point the way to beach entrances and exits and mark campgrounds, much the way rock cairns are used on alpine trails. In the often grey weather of the west coast, these colourful markers provide much needed wayfinders. It's interesting to think about how the garbage of marine traffic have been transformed into beacons showing the way for terrestrial travellers.

However, the buoys have a symbolic purpose beyond that of wayfinding. The carving and placing of a buoy
has become a common ritual practise to commemorate hiker's successful rite of passage along the West Coast Trail.

 Michigan campground, named for the wreck of the Michigan whose boiler still rests on the rock shelf the campground overlooks, is hung with more buoys than any other site along the West Coast Trail. It is the northernmost campground, so it is often either the first campground for southbound hikers and the last for northbound hikers. Therefore many hikers commemorator either their last or their first night on the trail by carving and hanging a buoy at Michigan. Below is the buoy carved by two Tasmanian hikers I had the pleasure of camping with in mid-May. Note their attempt to carve at outline of the island of Tasmania on the upper right.

Why do people feel the need to mark the landscape with a sign that they were there? Especially when backpacking etiquette commands that a camper leaves no trace i.e. "leave only footprints, take only pictures" as the saying goes. During the Parks Canada orientation hikers are warned that they may not take any plant or animal materials, as well as 'artifacts'. However, it is emphasised that 'artifact' is a term applied only to materials of a First Nations origin. 'Man-made' objects are fair game (there is some irony here). So the transformation of buoys from maritime garbage into hiker 'I was here' signs is okay-ed by the park, and provide the beaches of the West Coast Trail with an additional aesthetic that may be man-made, but is colourful nonetheless.

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