“I’m on the 6:25. Yay.” I laughed, reading that rather wry text from Doug in mid August 2020. Just a month before, we’d been crashing through the brush of North Vancouver’s Wickenden Creek hunting for ancient trees, and on that day I’d been awake far too early for my liking. Now it was time for an Island adventure, and it was Doug joining the ranks of the sleep deprived!
While Doug sailed over on the ferry from Horseshoe Bay, I was drinking coffee and scanning the skies from my Nanaimo home. It looked as though the weather would smile upon us that day! Less than two hours later, I met Doug at Departure Bay, and soon we were rolling up Highway 19 toward Campbell River, where we’d branch westward toward Gold River on Highway 28. Our destination? Strathcona Provincial Park’s Crest Mountain.
That drive to the trailhead turned out to be somewhat lengthier than I had remembered, and it was close to noon by the time we arrived. Assembling our gear wasn’t too complicated, but hitting the trail was twice delayed when Doug had to double back for some forgotten items. As I’d discovered on our previous excursion, it’s not easy keeping it together when you’ve been awake since 330 am!
The trail is unrelentingly steep, albeit well graded, as it switches back repeatedly on its way up the mountain. With packs fully loaded with overnight gear, we chose a reasonable and steady pace. The last reliable water source en route is at a bridge crossing at roughly 500 metres in elevation, so that was to be our first stop of the day.
After crossing the creek, there remained another 900 metres to gain before reaching the broad, ranging summit plateau, but the walk through old growth forest was a pleasant one. Curiously, I noted that we were still seeing Douglas Firs at around the 1200 metre elevation, which is rather uncommon on British Columbia’s mainland. At 1000 metres, we found ourselves meandering up a steep draw littered with numerous broken Mountain Hemlocks and Silver Firs, many still standing. Years ago, this was clearly the site of a powerful avalanche, something to be mindful of for those attempting the route in winter.
Eventually, the forest began to thin, just as the grade began to ease. We soon realized we had gained that rolling summit plateau I’d read about, so there we began contemplating our next move. Mist began swirling as we examined the shores of a prominent tarn at 1425 metres. It seemed an excellent place to camp, but my eyes were drawn upward to a nearby knoll. I was convinced it could afford us grand views of Kings Peak and the surrounding mountains, a hunch that proved to be true!
Is there anything quite like the feeling of throwing off your pack after a good uphill grind? I think not! While the rain held off, we decided to take a much needed break for an early dinner, while stashing the beer we had carried up for later consumption. I had the impression that our tenuous luck with the weather was about to expire, so we also busied ourselves setting up our tents and stashing gear. Menacing clouds now hovered over Kings Peak, but the western skies showed promise, so we remained optimistic.
Well, it was too late to retreat, and the summit of Crest Mountain was somewhere out on that rocky plain, so we set off to find it. It wasn’t completely apparent where the high point might be, as we scanned the ridge from a pair of radio repeaters not far from that first big tarn.
Elevation readings and a pair of reliable GPS tracks were our guides, and a winding track marked with the occasional cairn led us to a series of false summits until, finally, there was nowhere higher to stand! We milled about the massive summit cairn for a while, enjoying views of the mountains nearby. In our quest for the summit, we’d walked several more kilometres, yet only gained another hundred metres in height. Since we could not find the summit register, all that awaited us was a leisurely stroll back to camp.
Hanging mist and low cloud on the ridge eventually gave way to the lightest of rains, the type that gives you the impression you could even manage to stay dry as long as you keep on walking. We reversed our steps, bypassing the radio repeaters this time, and were soon minutes from the tents. Or were we? “Hey, look, there are some tents over there”, I said. “Yeah, those are ours!” Doug laughed. Somehow, it hadn’t occurred to me that we were already back at camp; the mountains nearby had all but disappeared in the clouds.
Earlier at camp, I had devised a crafty bear hang to cache our food overnight, so I broke out some snacks while Doug fetched the beer. If you’re going to the trouble of packing refreshments into the mountains, they might as well be strong and flavourful. My choice that day was a four pack of Mt Benson IPA from Nanaimo’s White Sails Brewery, one of my local favourites. Highly recommended!
We finally relaxed, telling tales both old and new, and discussing the craziness of the year 2020. The Covid 19 virus has certainly made it the strangest of times, hasn’t it? Despite the fact that Doug and I have known each other for many years and are the closest of friends we had nonetheless driven for hours to the trailhead wearing masks and being careful to observe social distancing guidelines! We each had ample reason to be cautious, as Doug was soon to become a grandfather, and I have a twenty five year old son with autism. All peculiarities aside, though, not much has changed; we may not be living as close to each other as we once did but are still committed to getting out as often as possible. Better still, I guess we now have two backyards to explore and share! Meanwhile, we managed to devise the perfect way to drink beer while still wearing bug nets. Yes, that’s right, the insects were out and about, though they were hardly what you’d call voracious.
Soon enough, our attentions were drawn elsewhere. Earlier, during dinner, I’d said ““Well it doesn’t look like we are going to get much of a sunset view tonight!”. Turns out I could not have been more wrong! It had begun to warm somewhat, and the clouds surrounding camp suddenly brightened. What unfolded next can only be described by pictures, and even then, somewhat inadequately!
A full rainbow suddenly stretched over the summit of Kings Peak and skies turned from yellows and oranges to the most intoxicating shade of pink I’ve ever seen . Eventually, deepened tones of orange, red, and purple took the stage, as we continued watching in wonder. Sometimes you’re well aware that you’re witnessing something profound, and we both agreed that this sunset was one for the ages. For some, this August evening might have qualified as some kind of a religious experience, but for all, as deep admiration for the marvels of nature!
I’m uncertain how long the display lasted, but for our purposes it expired just as we finished the second and last beer. Nothing we were going to be talking about was about to compare to what we’d just seen, so without much more discussion, we donned headlamps and simply crawled into our tents. Slumber came quickly as darkness descended on the ridge.
Normally I’m a restless sleeper in the mountains, but on this occasion I scarcely stirred until the morning light outside beckoned. I awoke to to the brightness of an obvious bluebird day in the making, with the sun yet to appear. Quietly, I mused that it might be difficult for the sunrise to match last evening’s sunset, but I certainly looked forward to what the morning would bring!
The sunrise, for its part, did not disappoint! Phenomenal waves of colour washed over the plateau, and the mountains revealed themselves clearly. Mt Colonel Foster, hidden in cloud the night before, introduced itself prominently. Rambler, Puzzle, and the summits of Filberg Creek stood out in sharp relief, as did countless others. The mountains of Strathcona Provincial Park are still relatively new to me, and I could only identify a handful of them, but it was easy to appreciate why many people spend a lifetime exploring this park!
Shortly after sunrise, Doug emerged from his tent to take in some morning views. Generally speaking, he’s somewhat less keen to wake up early in the hills as I do, but then, that comment would apply to most people!
Coffee and breakfast came next, followed by carefully gathering and packing all of our gear for the hike downhill. All that was left was a swift trek back to my Jeep, then a repeat of the journey back to Departure Bay. Certainly, we weren’t all that keen on leaving, but already we had plans to return. Strathcona Provincial Park, as islanders will tell you, has a way of exceeding all expectations!