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Ken & Kendra Adventures: Following in my Father's Footsteps

I think I was bound to be the exact replica of my father once I grew up. I mean, it seemed inevitable. I was named after him, afterall. When I was a kid, I was convinced I had the coolest dad. I used to brag to my friends that my dad drove firetrucks and nearly broke his neck in a tubing accident (Because almost breaking your neck while tubing is cool, right?). I grew up watching him enjoy every activity he threw himself into, whether that be hurling himself off jumps on his dirt bike, or running countless kilometers across forest trails as an ultra runner. His natural drive for fun, thrill, and excitement inspired me as a kid. I wanted to be more like him. I began to absorb the energy and intention he put into each activity he took on, which soon translated into my desire to pursue my own adventures.

Crushed Dreams and Pivoting Plans Riding this mountain high ever since, I’ve been chasing moments that push me past my comfort zone and remind me of how incredible it is to simply be alive. In 2020 I decided to go big: I planned to hike the Pacific Crest Trail (PCT). The PCT had been on my radar for years and I was finally ready to step my dusty boots on trail with the intention of completing the entire 5-month trek in one shot. Within a matter of weeks I secured my long-distance permit, was accepted as a Thru-Hike Syndicate ambassador and sold most of my possessions to save for the trip. Everything was ready to go up until just weeks before my start date, COVID-19 halted my plans indefinitely. The border from Canada into the US was closed and I had no way of traveling to the trailhead. Just as quickly as I pulled my dream together, it was ripped away from me.  I moped around for months. I spent summer days dreaming of where I would be on trail and what my experience would have been like. At the end of summer, I remember sitting next to my dad at the kitchen table and reflecting on how much COVID-19 altered our year. My dad’s business stood at a standstill and my PCT dreams were shattered. I turned to my dad and on a whim asked, “Why don’t we hike the Bruce Trail? All of it. In one shot.” He looked down at his hands for a moment, thinking. He looked back at me and said, “Let’s do it.”

The Bruce Trail: Our First Thru-Hike In just 29 days, dad and I thru-hiked the entire trail. Trekking across the Niagara Escarpment from Tobermory to Queenston, Ontario, we covered all 944 kilometers of the trail in one shot. There’s something really special about conquering your first thru-hike. It was even more special for me because it was something I got to share with my dad. We were both long-distance backpacking newbies, figuring things out day by day. We experienced all of our thru-hike “firsts” together: First time setting up camp. First time cooking a meal over our stoves. First time experiencing trail magic. The entire trip felt like magic.    If I could choose one word to sum up our Bruce Trail experience, it would be “wet.” It rained almost every day on trail. There was a particularly relentless rain day where we were walking on a cold, barren roadside. The wind was strong and the rain was pelting the side of my face. I tried to cover my face with the hood of my jacket as much as possible, but it made no difference in my mood. I was miserable. I kept my head down, not sure of how far dad was behind me, and pushed as hard as I could to get back into the shelter of the upcoming forest. I felt an overwhelming sense of guilt once I reached the trail. I was unsure how dad was feeling and felt bad knowing that I dragged him on this rainy, muddy trip with me. Once I reached the trail, I turned around to see how dad was doing, fully anticipating him to be in a sour mood as well. But to my surprise, he had a huge smile plastered on his face. I truly hadn’t seen him smile like that in a long time. It was strong and genuine. Over the past year, I had watched my dad feel the increased stresses of work wear him down. As his daughter, it was hard to watch. But over the span of a couple of weeks, I saw him throw away uncertainty, pressure and expectation from back home. He traded it for the freedom that comes from embracing the unique unpredictability of life on trail. Looking at my dad smiling in the rain made me feel like how I did when I was seven, staring at the picture of my dad victoriously conquering Mt. Whitney: I felt proud that he was my dad. 

2021: A New Direction  29 days on trail came and went. Over 29 days, we battled injuries, gear breakdown and terrible weather. We learned how to realistically fuel ourselves, how to ration water, how far we could push our bodies and ultimately how far we could push each other. Completing my first thru-hike had been a long-standing dream of mine. But after 29 days, it once again felt like a dream, simply becoming a collection of really good memories. A hard feeling to work through: What most hikers come to term “post-trail depression.” Dad and I both felt it. Everyone back home was excited to hear our stories, but the novelty of our experience wore off soon after. It was hard coming back to “real life” after experiencing something so incredibly different from the norm. It was hard to convey feelings of loss and lack of direction post-hike to those who hadn’t experienced a thru-hike. The Bruce Trail was exactly where we needed to be when we were there, which made coming home feel wrong. We felt like something was unfinished. We just didn’t know what, exactly. 

A few months after completing the trail, the Thru Hike Syndicate (THS) reached out to me. After my sponsorship for the PCT was pulled due to the start of the pandemic, the THS wanted to give me another opportunity to be fully supported for a different hike. The THS gang had watched my dad and I crush the Bruce Trail and were inspired by our dynamic. To my surprise, they were willing to support both dad and I on a 2021 thru-hike. After a lot of planning and research, we decided to hike the Sunshine Coast Trail in beautiful British Columbia.  The Thru Hike Syndicate team hooked us up with all the gear we needed. From packs, tents, food, filters, socks, shoes, headlamps, poles… you name it! We had everything we needed to complete another successful thru-hike. The sponsorship gave us something to work towards during the off-season, allowing us to feel a little more like ourselves again.

Back at it Again: The Sunshine Coast Trail Once July hit, dad and I were on our way towards the Sunshine Coast Trail (SCT). I remember sitting on the ferry, getting closer and closer to the Sunshine Coast. I saw the mountains lining the coast across the water, trying to imagine where the trail was and which peaks we’d be hiking to. With one thru-hike under our belts, we were ready to tackle another. Little did we know how much harder this trail would be in comparison to the mighty Bruce. Our original plan was to complete the 180-kilometer trek in 7 days, though we soon came to realize the SCT had different plans for us. After a lot of deliberation, we decided to only hike 135 kilometers. Could we have completed the whole trek in 7 days? Of course. But we didn’t want to. The trail was physically and mentally demanding. While battling the intense July heat, dad dealt with incredibly blistered feet, and I attempted to overcome the fact that my pack had rubbed my shoulders completely raw. Our quads and calves were always on the brink of tweaking, as the trail was either aggressively straight up or straight down. The lack of switchbacks felt comical after a while. After our second day, we knew we needed to slow it down. It was a hard decision for us to come to, especially considering dad and I both have a strong “finish what you started” mentality. But once we got into the groove of slowing things down, our days felt richer. Our days felt full. Instead of passing up on experiences for mileage, we started to soak in all the things the trail had to offer. We swam in lakes, ate lunch on mountaintops, formed a little trail family, camped in huts, took the time to marvel at old growth trees and soaked our feet in rivers just off trail. The Sunshine Coast was so drastically different from the Bruce. By slowing down, we were able to take in the differences and appreciate just how unique the trail was. 

On our 4th day, we made it to the iconic Tin Hat hut. The mountain it sits atop boasts of 360-degree views, highlighting the mountains, valleys, and lakes that have come to define the coast. Weather had a different plan. After a day-long ascent to Tin Hat, we were merely rewarded with thick fog and drizzle. Instead of being upset by the lack of views, we reveled in the small moments the evening presented us. We swapped stories with fellow hikers, warmed up next to the pellet stove, and huddled around the old maps and guidebooks found on the shelves as we planned for our coming days. Once everyone called it a night, I went upstairs and crawled into my sleeping bag next to my already sleeping dad. He was laying on his back cocooned in his sleeping bag with only his face peeking out from the bag. He looked so peaceful, finally resting after 4 challenging days on trail. I caught myself smiling as I was looking at him, thinking about just how lucky I was to be backpacking with my dad again. I felt so lucky to have a dad that wanted to spend so much time with me. He was willing to put his body through such a physically and mentally challenging experience specifically because hiking was something we loved to do together. Yes, the mountain views and massive douglas firs were a highlight. And yes, I loved getting to jump in lakes and nap on secluded mountainsides mid-hike. But my favourite memory from the SCT was sleeping in Tin Hat hut and being reminded of how truly great my dad was.

The Thru-Hike Syndicate Ambassador Program The only way any of this was possible was because of the support we received from the Thru-Hike Syndicate team (THS). Being a THS ambassador is more than being outfitted for your chosen hike: it’s about being brought into a large community of fellow hikers and adventurers who support and encourage you, while you in turn inspire others. We had the opportunity to be a part of a cohort of hikers from across North America that have inspired us to pursue other trails and outdoor experiences. We made connections with incredible brands who ultimately believed in and supported the goals dad and I set out for ourselves. Aside from hiking, the THS program opened up opportunities for me to pursue other passions, such as writing and videography (additional perks for all the creative hiking folks out there!) I encourage anyone planning a thru-hike for the 2022 season to apply to the THS ambassador program. It’s a unique opportunity to be a part of a community that stretches across North America. You’ll feel inspired, encouraged, supported, motivated and challenged all throughout your hike and even after it’s completed.

The Future of Ken & Kendra Adventures  On our first day hiking the SCT, we ran into another father-daughter duo. The daughter was in her 50’s, while her father was in his 70’s. They had hiked a short side-trail up to the SCT’s first mountain hut. They planned on enjoying their afternoon reading books at the hut, staying overnight, and heading home the next day. I remember looking at them and my heart felt warm. I knew that when I’m in my 50’s, dad and I will be doing the exact same thing. Maybe we’ll still be crushing 30-40 kilometer days like we do now. Maybe we won’t. But what I do know is that we’ll still be heaving our packs onto our backs, lacing up our dusty shoes, and pursuing trails and experiences that remind us of how incredible it is to be alive. And this incredible life of mine all started because my dad taught me how to chase adventure as a child.    Dad, thank you. And hey, I love you. 

Where it All Started At seven years old, my dad took me on a life changing trip to California. He was preparing to embark on his first-ever backpacking trip with his brother. I remember looking at the size of my dad’s pack and thinking it was roughly the same size as my entire body, leaving me in increased awe of my seemingly unstoppable dad. Within two days, my dad and his brother made it to the summit and back down in one piece. Once they arrived home, my dad eagerly showed me pictures of their trip. There was a particular picture that struck me and will forever be burned into my brain: it was an image of a rock jutting out from the edge of the mountain, and standing on the edge with hands raised above his head in victory was my dad. He looked so tiny. So small compared to his surroundings. So at the mercy of the mountain. At seven years old, I looked at this picture and knew that one day I would conquer the exact same mountain.    And ten years later, I did.   Kendra and Ken Slagter atop Mt. Whitney. Image via Kendra Slagter.

I was standing at the summit of Mt. Whitney next to my dad in complete awe of what I had just accomplished. 14,500ft of elevation traversed by my own two feet, with the help of a good set of lungs and all the willpower a seventeen-year-old could muster. At seven years old, I looked at that picture of my dad on the mountain and wanted to be like him. At seventeen, looking out at what seemed like all of California, I felt like I proudly acquired a sliver of that dream. As I stood at the very edge of the summit, I remember thinking, “I need to keep doing things like this for the rest of my life.” That moment on Mt. Whitney was pivotal in my life and the reason I live the way I do today. Since then, I’ve been living a life characterized by adventure, change and spontaneity.