The Origins of the West Coast Heeler Pack

Every adventurer has their genesis story. The first time you took your bike on a trail. That one summer camping trip that made it all click. Some are young when this process starts and others are a little further down the road. Some of us experience a very distinct moment that alters the course of our adventures.
In this edition of Therm-a-Rest Explore, Alicia Erksine, a member of the Therm-a-Rest Dream Team shares her story and how she became a full-time adventurer as the West Coast Heeler Pack.

I remember I was young, maybe 8 years old. I was cozy and warm in an oversized sweater. It was my first camping trip. We camped on the beach in Jordan River. The air was salty from the ocean; we were warm from the campfire we made. It never felt dark from the fire, flashlights and the moon. These comforts felt like being home.

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Being outdoors was just a normal thing, there wasn’t much thought to it. If it was nice out, I would ride my bike to the Sooke Potholes, a popular river to go swimming in. Friends and I would build forts within the trees on my family’s property so on rainy days we could hide out, build fires and jump in puddles. My uncle and I would 4×4 in the mountains to the lakes.

As I got older, I spent a lot of time running in the neighbourhood and when I got Kona, my dog, I took my runs from the pavement to the trails. At that point being outside was a means of exercise and running my dog. Camping trips have always been fun weekends with friends in the summer.

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The accident changed all of that.

In October 2013 while working for a local municipality, I was on lunch and hit by a car while in a crosswalk. I remember feeling like hours went by when in reality it may have been seconds before someone came running over, held me and told me not to move and help was on the way.  I was lucky I didn’t break anything, but sometimes I think breaking a bone would have been easier to deal with then the whip lash. I had no idea what I was about to face. While in the hospital, I was sore and stiff, it felt like after you’ve had an insane 2 hour workout at the gym after being absent a week. Waking up the next day, I could barely move. I needed help to walk, help to sit and stand. If I was laying down and had to roll one side to the other I had to use my hands to physically move my head. Months later, as my body was coming out of that pain, I started a rehab program with a specialist. It was like having a personal trainer. I would go two to three times a week building up my cardio endurance and strength. was when I start to feel like I wouldn’t suffer forever. I found that when I was active and moving my body I felt better and when I sat at work all day I would come home feeling sore. In the city, I felt panicked, always worried around traffic. In the car, paranoid, others were driving too close. Coming to work each week, I was constantly stressed. My anxiety would rise, I would think, is this how I’m going to spend my life, miserable, spending my life in an office that physically hurts my body, where I’m sitting or standing in one place so long, my neck gets stiff and results in a tension headache that leaves me wanting to be in the dark for several days.

When I spent my weekends hiking with my dogs, I felt calm and happy, like I was a different person, one that didn’t struggle with PTSD. My panic over what my life was going to look like overcame any fear of leaving my job. All I had to do was wait for the right time where Colten and I wouldn’t take any negative hits due to my decision.

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June of 2016 I left my office job. I took a week after my last day and went camping with Colten and the dogs. This didn’t feel like a vacation, it felt like the start of a new life. I didn’t have to worry that the “vacation” would end. Instead, I could enjoy every second of camping because I didn’t have to think of going back.

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When I came back from that first trip, I had people asking to book their dogs for hikes. My friends trusted me with their dogs and when their schedules got crazy, they’d ask me if their dogs could join my hikes. There were plenty of similar businesses out there, so I knew that there was a demand. It got to the point where I had several people just waiting for me to start hiking dogs as a job so they could schedule their dogs in with me. Having those friends support and trust in me gave me confidence to start a business doing what I love.

The biggest hardship in my transition was people not supporting me or not empathizing with what I was going through. I would have people say, “you left a secure job with a pension and benefits?!” Many thought I was immature for leaving a secure job, with a pension and benefits. They seemed to think I had made the decision overnight. I thought to myself, “What good are a pension and benefits if you are too depressed to enjoy them?”

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Now, I spend my days on beautiful trails with some amazing dogs. The person I am today is so different from the person I was while working in my office. I even find myself laughing and smiling more. In the future, I look to expanding the work I do with dogs and gaining even more flexibility for camping trips in new places.  Being with them is a constant reminder to have fun, be curious, and explore the things that grab your attention. When I go camping, it’s not to get away and have a break from the Monday to Friday grind, but to add on to a great week.

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Everything happens for a reason, and I’m grateful for that accident, as much pain that came from it. It’s brought me to where I am now.

Author: Alicia Erskine is a Canine Adventurist hiking on Vancouver Island trails with a pack of dogs. When she’s not out hiking with client dogs, she’s on summits, camping, or working on new skills with her own two dogs, Kona and Cali. Follow her on IG at @aliciakine to see the human side of her life.

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