Burning Boots in British Columbia

On a recent trip to Vancouver Island in British Columbia we decided to take a side trip to Gold River. We were staying at the Roberts Lake fishing camp about ten miles north of Campbell River and enduring rain and fog on a daily basis. Since we were already wet, a trip into the rain forest seemed like a good thing to do.

The trip from the east side of the island to the west was for sightseeing purposes only. We left our fishing gear at the cabin. We took only our cameras and a sense of discovery. Along the way beautiful mountains and countless streams and waterfalls surrounded us. I don’t know if the waterfalls are always that broad and thunderous or if the constant surge was a result of the torrential rains we were encountering. What I do know is that the sightseeing was breathtaking. When I rolled down my window to get better pictures, I also discovered that the spray was very wet and chilling.

Suddenly we rounded a corner and found ourselves looking at a large wooden boot sitting on a tree stump pedestal. Based on the diameter of the pedestal, it was obvious that the boot had been carved out of a single log. There was no sign to explain the boot. Nor could we find a simple explanation for the flowers growing out of it.

It was near lunchtime, so we stopped in a nearby pub for a bite to eat and a bit of a history lesson,

The story of the boot began in 1978. In that year, the mayor of Gold River, Vic Welsh, and the mayor of Tahsis, Bill Lore, were trying to raise money for a community center. Bill Lore made the following challenge: “I will walk to Gold River if you will walk to Tahsis.” Vic Welsh accepted the challenge and each man lined up financial backing. The first ever GREAT WALK raised more than $5,000 for the cause.

From what I’ve been able to learn about the event that is now held annually and sponsored by the Tahsis Lions Club, the GREAT WALK is great fun, but should not be confused with your typical everyday Boston marathon. Gold River and Tahsis are two small towns that are more than a short distance apart. Known as “North America’s Toughest Pledge Walk”, the fundraising “race” is conducted over rugged gravel logging roads. The distance is 63.5 kilometers (about 42 miles). The road is not easy for walking let alone running, but the extreme beauty, as the path traverses numerous mountains and valleys, makes it more enjoyable to the contestants. The highest point is more than 1,700 feet above the starting line and provides fantastic views of the valleys below.

On the first Saturday of June, hundreds of people line up in Gold River for the 4:00 AM start. The runners and joggers are allowed to begin in the front of the pack. For the first forty-five minutes or so, contestants trudge uphill with the help of floodlights. By the time they reach the 1,700-foot mark, the sun is peaking over the horizon and the chill of the night air begins to disappear. At this time of year it’s not unusual to encounter snow and ice in the higher elevations. It’s also not unusual to spot bears, cougars, and other wildlife along the way.

There are a dozen checkpoints between the two towns. For two days prior to the event, local volunteers make sandwiches and set up tables and port-a-potties along the road. Participants in this walk-a-thon need more than water and Gatorade to keep them going. The volunteers are also very good at offering encouragement.

At the halfway point, contestants check in. This qualifies them for a T-shirt. Twenty-one miles of gravel roads should qualify them for something!

Those who finish the entire 42-mile course are also given a certificate that says, “I DID IT!” The certificate is known as the “coveted” Burning Boot award. Those who have not crossed the finish line by 8:00 PM (16 hours after the start) are rounded up in motor vehicles and brought in to Tahsis for the final festivities. Blankets, showers, and towels are provided for all registered contestants.

In 2004, 325 people registered for the Burning Boot Walk. 275 of those started the race and 254 finished. Carlos Castillo of Victoria, British Columbia had the fastest time for a man at 5 hours and 51 minutes. Roberta Hughes of Courtenay, British Columbia, turned in the best time for a woman – 7 hours and 3 minutes. Also recognized were the first male and female youths to finish, the youngest male and female youths to finish, and the oldest male and female to finish.

The records for the event include the following: Fastest time – Steven Royer finished in 4 hours and 30 minutes in 2001 to tie the record held by Stephen King who did it in 1984. That’s about 9 1/3 miles per hour or about one mile every six minutes. That’s a fast pace on level ground with a smooth surface. The fastest woman, Gaela Kilgour, ran the course in 5 hours and 38 minutes in 1999. The youngest finishers have been Liani Ruhl, aged 9, in 1987 and Gavin McGregor, aged 7, in 1983. The oldest female was Olive Jackson, aged 77, in 1990, and the oldest male was Bill Rieveley, aged 82, in 1994.

In 1999, almost 900 people participated in the Burning Boot event. For the last few years, the organizers have been trying to get Oprah Winfrey to take part (and provide some much needed publicity).

I must admit that I thought about returning to British Columbia next June to see if I could at least earn a T-shirt.

After lunch, we drove back to our cabin at Roberts Lake. I took a much-needed nap and all thoughts of competing in the Burning Boot walk-a-thon disappeared from my brain. Thank goodness!

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2 Responses to Burning Boots in British Columbia

  1. Liani Ruhl says:

    Hey! I Googled myself and came up in this article! I’m actually doing the Great Walk again this year after a 12 year break…..

    • jimsjourney says:

      I’m honored that someone so well know not only read my article but took the time to comment. Thanks a million! And, in case you’re wondering, I still have no desire to earn that T-shirt.

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