36 hours in the unknown: ChaseCamp 2016

Chasing Sunrise: 36 hours in the unknown

“You hear us talk about it all the time, but this is really about just making it count – and that’s going to mean something totally different to each of you.” Ally Pintucci, one fourth of Vancouver-based crew Chasing Sunrise (CS) has the undivided attention of 50 strangers who, just two hours earlier, checked in at the parking lot of MEC headquarters in Vancouver and boarded a bus into the unknown.

A few weeks earlier Ally and CS co-founders Gordon Swenson, Julian DeSchutter and Taylor Smith had the difficult task of choosing 50 participants from over 2000 applicants to come on an all-expenses paid mystery weekend care of MEC Outdoor Nation, BC Parks and Chasing Sunrise (plus other fantastic sponsors). Now at an empty campsite in E.C. Manning Park, BC – celebrating its 75th anniversary this year – the group still had no idea what was going on.

“There’s a lot more to life than being in your 9 to 5 routine,” Ally tells the crowd. “None of us play nearly as much as we should. That’s why we’re here this weekend – to live in the moment and remember how to be a kid again. Welcome to ChaseCamp 2016!”

36 hours in the unknown: ChaseCamp 2016

The group arrives at #Chasecamp. Photo credit: @icalderonphoto

36 hours in the unknown: ChaseCamp 2016

The MEC Outdoor Nation lounge in the middle of tent city. Photo credit: @icalderonphoto

While cheers and claps erupt, there are a few stunned and hesitant faces in the crowd. One camper displaying a mix of surprise and delight is Gurjeet Singh. A first generation Canadian, Gurjeet is now the general manager of his parent’s 23-year-old fabric business. While he’s an avid hiker, he’s never been camping before, but the CS crew made the weekend a first-timer’s dream. Fifteen MEC tents have been pitched and stocked with MEC sleeping bags and pads. At a neighbouring log shelter adorned with a “CHASECAMP” banner, fresh, healthy lunch from Whole Foods is already being prepared by Kyle Friesen and Laura Rosset of Paleo food delivery company Fuel Your Fire (vegan, vegetarian, pescetarian and gluten-free options, too). In the centre of the tent city, a MEC Outdoor Nation lounge is decked out with chairs, tables and lanterns. Between two perfectly gapped trees, four hammocks are slung in a bunk-like fashion. Parallel to a path that leads to the water’s edge, there’s a semi-taut slackline. Down at Lightning Lake a pile of floaty toys wait for a dip.

“I’ve never slept in a tent before in my life,” admits Gurjeet. “I didn’t know what that little inflatable thing underneath was, but the guys I was rooming with told me to blow into it and after a couple breaths it was done. I put it down, laid on it and was like ‘this is really comfortable.’”

36 hours in the unknown: ChaseCamp 2016

Gurjeet at Lightening Lake. Photo credit: @icalderonphoto

The weekend starts to unfold with an epic rock-paper-scissors icebreaker game where each defeated camper has to cheer on the victor in their next battle. At the end, the motley crew of 21 to 43 year-olds are shouting through wide smiles. While they run the gamut from hyper-passionate outdoorsy types to those who have never camped before, like Gurjeet, they all have one thing in common: they agreed to go on a 36-hour adventure without a clue of what that adventure was – but Ally is keen to fill them in. An afternoon of Ultimate Frisbee, California kickball, dinner and s’mores around the fire will polish off their Saturday. Gurjeet is all over it. “You see it in the movies and you see it on TV and I’ve always wanted to go,” he says. “But being the son of an immigrant family, camping didn’t make sense to them. I haven’t had the chance to go due to school and work, but it’s what I hoped it would be – good times around the campfire, chilling by a body of water, some physical activities and having heart-to-hearts with people, in this case total strangers.”

36 hours in the unknown: ChaseCamp 2016

Rock, paper, scissors battle. Photo credit: @ryanf0wler

36 hours in the unknown: ChaseCamp 2016

Multi-storey hammock bunks. Photo credit: @miraecampbell

36 hours in the unknown: ChaseCamp 2016

California kickball. Photo credit: @icalderonphoto

Those total strangers have become fast friends within only a few short hours. They are travellers, plumbers, parents, resource ecologists, entrepreneurs, students, environmental scientists and self-described vagabonds, among others. They wanted in and they got it everything that came with it, including a 2:45am wake-up call from the CS crew.

Headlamps flicker through the trees on Sunday morning. Following a fresh juice and energy bar snack courtesy of Body Energy Club, everyone piles in for a short bus ride to start an 8km hike up to Cascade Lookout. Kyle and Laura are cooking bacon, eggs and hashbrowns at the top, plus brewing pots from Salt Spring Coffee – a sweet relief that no one seems to be able to put into words. As the sun crests over the mountains, lighting the sky up in shades of pink, orange and gold, the new friends hug, cuddle for warmth and pose for photos. This moment is not only the CS namesake, it’s their signature, and it’s that intangible thing that makes everyone in their community feel connected, even if it’s only over Instagram.

“There’s something really special about catching a sunrise,” explains Ally. “It’s different from sunset because sunset is common for people; it’s easily accessible. Sunrise, however, is usually planned out and taken in alone, especially when you’re forcing yourself to peel your eyes open at the craziest of hours to catch it.”

36 hours in the unknown: ChaseCamp 2016

Headlamps light the way to Cascade Lookout. Photo credit: @icalderonphoto

36 hours in the unknown: ChaseCamp 2016

Sunrise on Cascade Lookout. Photo credit: @damonberryman

36 hours in the unknown: ChaseCamp 2016

Breakfast at the top, care of Whole Foods, Salt Spring Coffee and Fuel Your Fire. Photo credit: @icalderonphoto

The significance of the moment is not lost of Gurjeet. Later, as his buds are napping in the sun beside the lake, he reflects on the personal weight of the weekend. “My parents came from India in the 80s. We didn’t have any family here or grandparents to rely on so after school I’d go to the store. It’s a respect thing too,” he says. “Your parents did this for you – left a place where they were settled, came to a new country and started a business to give you a better life. When I saw the CS posting, I knew I had to apply. I feel like if I didn’t come out I’d be squandering the opportunity that they moved here to give me.”

For the class of Chasecamp 2016, their opportunity and sunrise reflection came with rad extras that elevated the whole camp experience – using a Lifestraw bottle to drink right from the lake (something Gurjeet says his Mom has always told him specifically not to do), snacking on healthy bars from Vega between kickball games, dancing around the campfire to Ultimate Ears Bluetooth speakers and not worrying about missing a moment because the entire weekend was being recorded for them by a bevy of talented photographers, videographers and staff from Hitcase.

“There are some things I didn’t know until now,” says Gurjeet. “I definitely burnt my first two marshmallows trying to make s’mores. There’s a technique to getting it right. I know now what to wear and not wear – long sleeves once the sun goes down and flip flops for comfort.”

As the group took down tents and packed their stuff to board the bus back, the gratitude for the experience was on the face of every camper. “I don’t know how any other camping experience is going to compare,” Gurjeet sighs.

36 hours in the unknown: ChaseCamp 2016

Time for s’mores. Photo credit: @icalderonphoto

36 hours in the unknown: ChaseCamp 2016

Songs around the fire. Photo credit: @ryanf0wler

The beauty of the Chasecamp weekend was that everyone who went was so willing to step outside their comfort zone. A lack of knowledge and community are big barriers for people wanting to trying something like camping, but groups across the country like Chasing Sunrise are making it happen – taking strangers into the wild and up mountains in the middle of the night so they can witness the beauty of nature one mystery weekend at a time.

Kim Budziak

Wordsmith, avid skier and rookie road biker. Firmly believes the best days are the snowiest ones.