Keynote Speech – Richmond Earth Day Youth Summit 2016
by Jay Matsushiba
I was lost.
Life got tougher and all I seemed to hear was more and more bad news. This bombardment of pessimism…
Coral reefs will be gone by 2050, climate change is destroying our communities, hundreds and thousands of species going extinct and, most of all, we will not be able to live on a happy planet. These problems kept growing and growing in my mind, becoming these unscalable mountains each day. As those cliffs towered over me, I ran.
I tried to run from those doubts but it seemed like the further I ran the louder and closer those doubts became. I spiralled down and down and further down, and as I ran I left a few important things behind as well.
I disappeared from what I had felt passionate about with environmental sustainability, unable to deal with the helplessness I felt, and I honestly didn’t know if I still believed in the movement. I really needed a moment away from it all, to try to escape this downward spiral. To make those doubts just shut up for once.
So what do you do when you need that moment? Many of us like to take a walk, and that’s what I did. My friend, being the candlelight in that darkness, organized a backpacking trip to hike the famous Juan de Fuca trail on Vancouver Island. She invited me along with a few other friends.
Together, this group of five teenagers was going to take on this adventure. This was the first time many of us had gone backpacking. I’d gone camping plenty of times before but backpacking? That was new to me.
Another first for us was being totally on our own. No parents, no guides; we had only our own limited skills, abilities and mental fortitude to make it through. That was terrifying, but also incredibly empowering.
We had to hike 8 hours on the first day to get to our planned campsite. No big deal, right? We were all fit, young individuals and we thought it’d be just be a healthy challenge. In hindsight we probably should have realized that hiking 20 km of the “Most Difficult” section was going to be tough.
The first two hours of the trail were gorgeous, as we hiked along the beach. The magnificent Pacific Ocean to our left, as far as the eye could see, lined by gorgeous red cedars on our right. We were beginning to feel pretty good about this trip.
But as soon as our spirits seemed to rise, the beach trail ran out. We were instead greeted by a wall of towering evergreen trees. In a gap stood a sign, tilted on an angle, which read “Juan de Fuca Trail è”
Greeting us there was, I swear, a cliff. This incredibly steep trail disappeared into the forest, and we needed to drag ourselves and our over-packed bags over this hill.
As we lugged our way up one of the first things we noticed was the dust. People on the trail ahead of us would kick up the dust with every step, leaving it for us in the back to breathe in and having it build up in our eyes, noses and throats. When it was my turn at the front I found it impossible to avoid kicking up dust as well – the fine silt seemed to cover absolutely everything.
Finding water was not as easy as expected either. Many of the streams and creeks that flowed between the hills had dried up. The few that remained weren’t exactly easy to get to. One stream was 2 or 3 metres underneath the bridge that crossed the ravine, and we needed to refill our bottles. So I tumbled down the side of the ravine and ended up absolutely caked in mud.
But both of these challenges paled in comparison to what tested us the most.
The Hills. It seemed like they would never end. We fought the heat, dehydration and dust as we climbed hill after hill. Every hill just lead to another, and every one we climbed seemed taller than the last. Our thighs burned, our calves trembled, and it got to the point where our legs literally stopped working, and started collapsing underneath the weight of ourselves and our bags. Yet at this point we were still hours from our campsite. What we planned to hike in 6 hours, dragged on into almost 10, and I did not think we could finish that trail.
Eventually, on one of our many water breaks, one of us said to the others “I can’t go any further, I can’t do it. You guys can go ahead without me and I’ll catch up.”
And at that moment, without any of us speaking a word, we stood up and unpacked his bag. We took some his load, his food, his tent, and repacked it all into our own so that he could keep going. So that we could keep going. Even though all of us were exhausted, in pain, and with legs that barely worked, we still were willing to carry more so that we could finish the trail together.
And finish the trail we did. Finally, as daylight was running out, we made it to our beach camp-site. I swear that view was the most beautiful scene that I have ever seen, with the sun disappearing into the Pacific Ocean.
As we sat around the camp-fire, and enjoyed our instant mashed potatoes, I reflected on what I had learned that day.
- Even if things are incredibly difficult, you are capable of far more than you ever expected. Each and every single one of us has the incredible power and strength of the human spirit, and it’s just a matter of finding that strength inside yourself.
- There are people out there who will be the candlelight in the dark, and they’ll give you the light you need to escape. Its just up to us to say yes.
- You will find friends that will take this journey with you and willing help you out to take some of that load off your shoulders when you need it.
So, look around you right now. Do you see this room full of hundreds of people? We’re all in this together and each of you has the unimaginable potential to make a difference in your own life and in the lives of others. Look around you – these are the people that are willing to carry some of your load, to help you through. And you’ll be around to help carry theirs when you have the strength.
As I fell asleep on the Juan de Fuca Trial to the sound of the waves crashing, I realized the most important lesson of all. We don’t have to run or turn away. We’re not helpless, we’re not useless and we’re certainly not hopeless. We have the capability to make our environment and this world a better place, and I believe in you. No matter how loud those doubts get, you can do it. And if you can’t alone, then together we will.
Jay Matsushiba is a 12th grade student attending Sir Winston Churchill Secondary School in Vancouver, B.C. He is currently the co-chair of the Churchill Environment Club and the Vancouver Youth Sustainability Network, working to provide other youth opportunities to be involved in their passions in environmental sustainability. Jay volunteers at the Vancouver Aquarium educating visitors, maintaining habitats and helping rehabilitate rescued marine animals.