It was a rainy Tuesday afternoon in early March as I crashed heavily onto the couch after a long, hard trail run. Tomorrow was definitely going to be an off day! Or was it? Minutes later came a message from my good friend Chris, who lives in Langley over on British Columbia’s mainland. He was wondering what the snowpack conditions might be for southern Vancouver Island. Keenly, I spent the next ten minutes tracking down that information. The burning question quickly followed: Did I want to tag along and try to climb Mt Joan tomorrow morning? Short answer: Of course! How could I say no?
Wednesday morning I was up early, while Chris rode the ferry to Duke Point from Tsawassen. Brilliant blue waters rippled in the wind under clear skies on the Salish Sea. It looked as though we were going to have excellent weather!
We left Nanaimo at about 830 am, and forty minutes later we were on the Cook Creek FSR, driving up the Rosewall Creek Valley. Much as we’d dreamed of driving high on the logging spur, the first couple of water bars looked intimidating, so we elected to park at about 350m in elevation. Regrettably, it was going to be a long slog up the road!
I say regrettably mostly because I had my doubts about how far I might get, sore as I was after my exploits the previous day. Still, I was enthusiastic, as it had been about two years since Chris and I had shared a trail together, and I knew it would be a fun filled day. There was a lot for us to catch up on, but it took all of two minutes for the usual Simpsons imitations to begin flying back and forth between us!
Mt Joan, a 1557 metre summit, is in the heart of eastern Vancouver Island’s Beaufort Range. I’d been hearing a fair amount about these mountains since joining the Island Mountain Ramblers late in 2018, and I was curious to see them up close for the first time. The Beaufort Range can be well seen when you drive Highway 19 along the east coast. Our plan was to follow the logging road until reaching a junction, where a left turn would have us on a trail leading to a small lake below The Squarehead. Contouring around that lake would eventually give us access to a ramp that would lead to a col between Mt Joan and The Squarehead.
As I write this now, in the midst of the Covid-19 pandemic, I’m reminded of how quickly things can change. On that day, we had few cares in the world, and were simply preoccupied with the kind of snow conditions we might encounter in the alpine. Once we reached 700m in elevation, predictably, snow appeared and snowshoes were quickly donned. It didn’t take too long to hike to where the trail reached that important junction I mentioned earlier. For those interested, had we chosen the path to the right, Mt Curran would have been our destination, as the signs make more than clear.
The rough track then leads you over two separate creek crossings. The first is marked by the remains of an old haul cable, left over from the extensive logging that took place in the area. Continuing on, you follow an overgrown road to the site of a washed out bridge, where trail builders have made use of a sizeable fallen log to facilitate safe passage over the rushing waters. Once those obstructions are cleared, it’s a matter of following that same road up into the alpine.
Tired as I was, I was glad to have Chris breaking trail most of the way, as he was having an exceptional day. A crusted layer of snow had us punching though to softer snow beneath, but we still managed to make reasonable time. At one point I plunged through the snowpack and found myself grovelling to escape a hidden moat. After a smattering of foul language, I battled my way out of that tiger trap and we resumed our quest. The old road then began to swing around the mountain and the scenery opened up considerably.
Gingerly, we traversed one exposed slope where some isothermal snow looked prone to sliding, then within minutes we soon reached the end of the road. It was at this time that the route kicks up a notch , heading steeply into the old growth forest as it makes for the lake above. Right about then, Chris found himself an extra gear, and I more or less discovered I’d left mine on the hills I’d been running the day before!
I was, at least, bound and determined to get to the lake, which I knew would have a fine view of The Squarehead and surrounding ridges. Once we arrived there, it was decision time for me, and I knew I needed the rest more than anything. We simply hatched a new plan: Chris would take a run at the summit of Mt Joan, some 250m higher in elevation, while I’d break for lunch and explore a couple of knolls nearby in pursuit of some views.
Chris soon disappeared into the woods, and I found myself alone at one of the more scenic lakes I’ve seen on Vancouver Island. That said, I’m new here and my friends all tell me I haven’t seen anything yet!
Taking the time to eat was a good idea, and soon I was reenergized and wandering the forest. Oddly, as soon as I stood up, the weather seemed to change and winds began kicking up, but there seemed to be no immediate danger. Snow actually fell for about five minutes then abruptly ceased. Mountain Hemlock, Silver Fir, and Yellow Cedar swayed in the wind. Each step I took came with a resounding crunch as I moved quietly upward.
The ridge I had chosen to walk was short, but strenuous, and ultimately brought me to a viewpoint above the lake, under 1400m in elevation. I watched the scudding clouds above The Squarehead, wondering how Chris was doing up there. I had it figured he might be tackling the last hundred metres of the climb by now, and so I began my hike back down the mountain.
Since one of my quads was still pretty cranky, I was just aiming for a steady pace that would likely have Chris catching up with me by the time I arrived at the creek crossing. As if on cue, that was precisely what happened!
Now that we were united again, I got to hear about the all important conclusion of the route, which as it turned out had gone almost as expected. Clouds had descended, and views into Strathcona Provincial Park had vanished, but he had still been able to see the Salish Sea and other ridges in the distance. It was enough to convince me that I’d definitely be returning to Mt Joan once again!
The retreat from the mountain went smoothly, and the walk down the logging road was still lengthy, allowing for a variety of discussion. When you’ve known someone for a while, topics of conversation are seldom lacking, are they?
In retrospect, with some of our outdoor destinations on hold of late, telling this tale has been a timely reminder to me that enjoying the company of good friends in the hills is invaluable. Remember that, the next time you’re tempted to take a day like this for granted, and instead, savour the experience. The mountains, after all, build some of life’s most vivid memories.