“I come to life when I’m outdoors,” beams Willy Rens, scanning the Johnstone Strait, searching for any sign of whales swimming near Warden Beach, a crescent moon spit of gravel at the edge of the rainforest, and Orca Camp’s home base. To say that Rens is an outdoor enthusiast is more than an understatement. This is a man who has built his career doing what he loves – escaping into nature, kayaking with Orcas, leading expeditions along the indomitable West Coast Trail, heli-ski guiding British Columbia’s legendary deep powder in winter, and sharing the wonders of western Canada that have long inspired him.
Born and raised in Belgium, Rens’ love of the outdoors developed early.
“I have quite a few brothers and sisters and they’re all into adventurous activities. We spent many weekends backpacking in Les Ardennes and I think that’s where I got my foundation for adventure travel,” says Rens.
That foundation would eventually lead to a career ski instructing across Europe and, in 2001, to British Columbia where he took up adventure guiding full-time. A devoted deep-powder ski guide in winter, in summer, Rens’ heart belongs to the West Coast Trail, where every turn on the rugged 75-kilometer trail yields one spectacular view after another.
“When you’re on the coastal (part of the Trail) you’re walking over sand, rocky boulders and tidal pools; then you disappear into the woods and you’re in the middle of what I call a ‘Tarzan’ trail! It’s pure wilderness, where if you walk five meters off the trail the forest is impenetrable.”
If you stay on the Trail, it eventually winds its way back to the coast, and to one magical spot that always stays with Rens, “There’s a little island with one tree on it that sticks out of the ocean – that’s one of the pictures I always have in my mind when I think of the West Coast Trail.”
While Rens makes his living outdoors, he recognizes that most of his guests spend their lives indoors, locked into a hyper-connected world, where finding time to enjoy nature is something they can only do once or twice a year while on vacation. He believes his role is to not just guide them safely through the epic Trail, but to help them slow down and appreciate the journey they’re on together.
“I always start my trips telling my guests on the first day: you’re going to gear down from fifth to fourth, and tomorrow to third, and the day after that to second gear and then to first – we’re going to go real slow and we’re really going to experience the tranquility, the quietness. We’re going to stop and listen to the birds; we’re going to identify their calls. People often tell me afterward that that’s one of their favourite memories,” recalls Rens, who believes the West Coast Trail is best undertaken by those who have trained for the rugged terrain and who have experience with multi-day backpacking expeditions.
“It’s such a challenging hike, especially if the weather is not on your side,” notes Rens. “If it starts raining everything turns to mud and becomes slippery, and you’re (trying to navigate) with a heavy backpack on your hips.”
Treacherous as it can be at times, Rens believes the West Coast Trail offers many rich rewards.
“It’s a tough hike, but the reward comes when they’ve pushed their boundaries, and overcome a huge challenge,” says Rens, reflecting that day five on the trail is often the most grueling, yet rewarding.
“Day five is a long, long day with the last stretch on very loose sand. It feels like quicksand. Your pack weighs even more then, but, when they make it through and end up on the beach, they set up their tent and I’m cooking their dinner, – you can tell they’re dead (tired), but the feeling they have in that moment is something they’ll always remember.”
With a guiding career that has spanned the globe, Rens believes his wide horizon helps him to keep the world in perspective. Meeting new people, sharing his love of the outdoors and western Canada’s magnificent scenery motivates him to return to the Trail each year.
“We didn’t immigrate to Canada to get rich. We came for the love of the outdoors and to work with people, showing them things they don’t have in Europe (or wherever they come from). For me, that’s as good as money. I won’t get rich doing this, but I’ll have a lot of fun, meet a lot of interesting people and make a lot of friends. That makes for a very rich life, indeed.”
Willy Rens is a lead guide with Ecosummer Expeditions. He has traveled the world paragliding, mountaineering and off-road motor biking for the past 25 years. These days he escorts small groups throughout western Canada and hikes the legendary West Coast Trail each summer. When he’s not wandering the wilderness you can find him soaring the thermals above Wells Gray Provincial Park in his paraglider.