“I’m not sure I remember that being there!” That comment, uttered by yours truly a few weeks ago, is one I seem to make more often these days. The thing is, I think I’m getting to the point in life where some memories seem crystal clear, while others seem so nonexistent they might as well be a figment of my imagination. In the end, I’ll settle for the ability to get to where I’m going and a safe return, with the all important opportunity to reminisce. After all, that’s one reason why I’m writing this story right now!
Frosty fall mornings tend to remind me of my tree hunting escapades. The autumn season, with its diminished sunlight hours, has often been my time for exploring the forests. My other passion, mountaineering, seems better suited to longer days. So it was this November that Duncan and I were rolling along Highway 18 recently, bound for Port Renfrew. Our destination? The Lens Creek Trail and Chesters Grove, a resplendent group of Sitka Spruce and Bigleaf Maple on the banks of the San Juan River.
This wasn’t my first occasion to visit these trees, and, relevant to my introduction here, I was neither convinced I could locate them again, nor was I certain they were even still there. It had been nearly thirteen years since Chris and I, thwarted on our first attempt to see the vaunted Red Creek Fir, had enjoyed them back in February of 2007. As it turned out, the two visits certainly had their similarities, but so too, their differences.
That first excursion was in the throes of west coast winter. Fresh snow had fallen several days before, though the route was relatively clear of obstructions. After parking near the Lens Creek Bridge, we hiked a reasonably easy path, noting the wreck of an abandoned car near the road head. As per the title of this story? Well, I can’t boast of a vintage 1982 DeLorean but at least this tale will take you back in time, and you get a beaten up 1986 Honda CRX, so hopefully that covers my artistic license?
Soon after that, the trail crossed a small creek, one that years later I would have no recollection of at all. What followed, by my account, was a walk down to the San Juan River on an old road that would take us another fifteen minutes. One of the few distinct things I recalled was that there was a decaying old yellow truck in the bush beside the road, likely of 1950s or 1960s vintage.
The path through second growth trees to Chester’s Grove was a short one that had us among the giants soon thereafter, where we enjoyed what remained of a unique forest. In this coastal riparian zone, the Sitka Spruce is often the dominant tree, accompanied by Bigleaf Maple, and the occasional Western Red Cedar, Western Hemlock or Douglas fir. Growing conditions on the San Juan River are ideal for these natives of the coastal rainforest. The humid climate and warm winds of the Pacific are ideal for growing large Sitka Spruce, which have been known to reach diameters in excess of fifteen feet and heights of up to 190 feet. Nearby trees, such as the Harris Creek Spruce and the San Juan Spruce, have reached enormous size!
While examining these spectacular trees back then, we could not help but be reminded of the past glories of Port Renfrew. While it remains a memorable place, it is nevertheless a shadow of what existed before the advent of logging. These lands, which are unceded Pacheedaht territory, were, and still are to some extent, a natural wonder. In this new era, greater attention will have to be given to preservation, as valley bottom stands of old growth have become increasingly rare on Vancouver Island. I’ve not been able to find much about the history surrounding Chester’s Grove, but I was once told it was named for well respected Pacheedaht elder Jack Chester. On thing that is certain is that the San Juan Valley has a decided magic to it, which I’m sure you’ll savour as I take you on a walk through these trees!
When Duncan and I arrived nearly thirteen years later, some things had certainly changed, while others had remained the same. Those two vehicle wrecks along the trail have deteriorated considerably, to put it mildly!
When you follow the original road which the Lens Creek Trail uses you’ll note it is joined from the left by a newer road, and you’ll want to bear right at this junction and continue on toward the river. Parts of that road, beyond the junction, had been regraded in recent years, and yet another spur had been cleared that parallels the Chester’s Grove Trail. That spur continues on, terminating at the river, beside the grove itself.
It seems likely that there is some harvesting planned for the sixty year old second growth forest that grows beside the grove. Naturally, Duncan and I were hopeful, upon seeing this, that the trees of this grove would be left to stand. Despite that obvious concern, I know of no plans to log Chester’s Grove and it’s been my understanding that the trees there do have protected status.
Just as Chris and I had done years before, Duncan and I then wandered the grove, battling our way to as many trees as we could. They were as grand as ever! The Sitka Spruce there range between nine and thirteen feet in diameter, and the surrounding Bigleaf Maples must be an incredible sight when all in leaf. This grove is also thickly matted with underbrush, and so those expecting a groomed trail might be a little disappointed. Your efforts will, however, be well rewarded, just be careful where you place your steps, as footing can be somewhat challenging!
Once again, we were drawn to the river, where we gained a different perspective. It was easy to conjure up ideas for future exploration, as more towering spruce dot the riverbanks as far as the eye can see, while the hoof prints of elk mark the sand everywhere! Unbeknownst to me at the time, I later read that a mere forty metres upstream there are reportedly a pair of record sized Black Cottonwood trees. They are said to rise sharply on the opposite bank, towering over the maples beside them. According to reports, both are nearly six feet in diameter, of considerable age when you realize that half that girth generally denotes a tree that’s over a hundred and fifty years old!
I have to say I was elated to see these trees again, and as I now live on Vancouver Island, it will be a whole lot less time consuming to visit them in the future. There was a certain joy in sharing them with someone new, as Chris had once done with me years before. I’m determined to continue searching out the secrets of the San Juan Valley, and I’ll no doubt be sharing those adventures here. If you’re interested in seeing these trees, I highly recommend the experience, for who can resist such a journey back in time?
During my research about Port Renfrew, this publication, dating back to 2005, has excellent notes on local history , among other things. I thought it quite interesting and so I’m sharing here as recommended reading.
Most of all, I’d like to recognize the Pacheedaht First Nation, on whose lands I have enjoyed many adventures, and who have always been welcoming to me. When you’re in the area, you might want to consider camping at the Pacheedaht Campground near the Gordon River.
It survived for nearly a thousand years. Think about that. Ten centuries. The Elaho Giant, one of the largest and oldest Douglas firs ever to live in British Columbia, lived at least nine and a half of those centuries in complete solitude. After all that, it managed to escape being cut down in the 1990s, when the Elaho Valley was the site of bitter conflict over proposed logging. Additionally, the building of a route which traversed the Elaho to the Meager Creek Valley was forged, which later helped lead to the designation of the area as the Stoltmann Wilderness, named after noted conservationist Randy Stoltmann.
Years later, in June of 2015, a dry spring season took its toll, as a wildfire tore through the upper end of the valley. Though the grove of firs at the Elaho-Meager trailhead was spared, the Elaho Giant was caught in the midst of the tragedy, and rumour had that it was burned beyond recognition. When a group of fire fighters who had battled the blaze reached the tree, they declared that it had miraculously been saved! Some limbs and branches were alive and green, they said, and though the trunk was charred, that seemed to be the only real damage.
Now, turn back your clocks to November of 2007. My only visit to the Elaho Valley was a brief one, featuring a lengthy day that featured enough torrential rain to put any set of windshield wipers to the ultimate test. The principals? Two guys willing to hunt trees in any given deluge, and that would be Chris, and me. We really wanted to see the Elaho Giant, and besides, what else would we be doing on such an inhospitable day? Armed with Chris’s trusty Jeep Cherokee, raingear, salty snacks, and a Backroads Mapbook, we were off!
You must reach the Elaho Valley by making your way up to Squamish via Highway 99, then by following the Squamish FSR to its junction with the Elaho FSR. From there, it’s a question of driving about as far north as the rough roads take you! Even on an unpleasant day, the valley’s character somehow shines brightly. It is the gateway to an endless, rugged wilderness that few people choose to explore. It’s also remote enough that help is a long way away, and should you venture there you should be prepared and self sufficient.
The drive is more than long enough to immerse yourself in all manner of thoughts and conversation. What’s more, it’s male time to hone your imitation of nearly every Simpsons character, if that’s your thing! There was much to see, from shrouded views of jagged mountains and swiftly rushing creeks, to glimpses of glaciers and trees turned brilliant autumn colours in the icy November rain.
We did make one brief stop in the Squamish Valley to check out Huberts Creek, of particular interest to Chris and his love of canyoneering. Among my aspirations were spotting one of the transplanted herds of elk, or perhaps even one of the many grizzlies that call the Elaho home!
As we bounced further up the valley, it was decided we’d first check out the Elaho- Meager Trail and its grove of ancient Douglas firs before doubling back to see the Elaho Giant on our return trip. Other than the rain, the trip was relatively uneventful, and we rolled quietly to a stop, right beside the trailhead. The view from the nearby bridge over Sundown Creek is something everyone should see!
Even by then, the trail had become pretty much inaccessible. A major flood had destroyed a makeshift crossing over Cesna Creek, making it impassable, and as a consequence the trail fell into disuse. With the limited time we had, the plan was to explore the grove and see how far we could get along the main trail before turning around. The first thing we did was to walk the Douglas Fir Route, which is a 2 km loop through an extraordinary and venerable forest. There has been some conjecture about the age of this stand, but some core samples taken from other trees in the area suggest some may be as old as 1300 years. In any event, we weren’t disappointed, as the firs were inspiring to see!
The firs in the grove were immense in girth, with many over eight feet in diameter. Old growth Douglas Fir is becoming an increasingly rare sight in British Columbia, where most of it has already been logged. Growing conditions in the Elaho have certainly been ideal over the years, and as proof the forest here thrives very well.
Though we only scratched the surface of this wilderness, it was easy to see why people worked so hard to save it. The Elaho-Meager trail had always been at nature’s mercy, inasmuch as the very forces that make it desirable have also served to caused its isolation. In recent years, the Meager Creek access has also been affected due to landslides and volcanic instability. The long and the short of it? Now one of the most scenic trails in the province is unable to be enjoyed for the time being. There are no plans to repair the washout at Cesna Creek.
Having seen the trees, we now moved on to the main trail, which was, surprisingly, able to be followed quite reasonably. It led us through more old growth forest and a rocky, exposed area that looked a lot like a manicured rock garden.
Once we turned around, it was a fairly short jaunt back to the Jeep, where again we studied the maps. According to the Backroads Mapbook, the Elaho Giant looked as though it was within shouting distance of the road. It took us just another twenty minutes to locate, and fortunately at the time, the forest nearby had also been spared from logging.
Well, it’s said that all good things must come to an end. An optimist by nature, I’m always reluctant to admit that, but I do understand that life has no guarantees. Our brief sojourn into the Elaho Valley ended several hours later, jarred by the reality of returning to the all too familiar signs of civilization. The downpour persisted, as though it felt the need to escort us, and we managed a few stops on the way that almost helped ease us back into humanity, as it were.
The Elaho Giant, years later, was not as fortunate as we were. Its roots, thought only to be badly charred in that fire of June 2015, were later found to have incinerated, as it was discovered in 2016 that the tree had finally died. A life of a thousand years in such an idyllic place must certainly have been fulfilling, but I could not help wishing the tree had lived longer. I did, however, take solace in knowing that its birthplace remains wild and untamed. Twelve years have passed since that cold and rainy November day in 2007, and though we’ve yet to return, I will always remember the Elaho.
******* Author’s Note *******
In my search for any kind of report on the Elaho- Meager hike, I came across but one good representation of what it’s like from a two people who managed to do it before the Cesna Creek washout. Thanks to Trudel and Andre for telling this story, which for all intents and purposes may not be duplicated for a while!
Dedicated to John Mann, lead singer of Spirit of the West, who lost his battle with dementia today, on November 20, 2019, at the age of 57. Live life well, you never know how long you’ve got! Thanks for the memories, John.
Welcome to the rest of the story! In Part One, I spent some time outlining the problems that have befallen Joffre Lakes Provincial Park. Things such as overcrowding, mismanagement, and poor behaviour from the hiking community have combined to propel the park into crisis mode. The question still looms: Can we fix what’s wrong? I believe the answer is a resounding yes, and here’s why…
In 2019, British Columbia Parks decided that all camping at Upper Joffre Lake would now be placed on the reservation system. They also took steps to manage the parking problem in Cayoosh Pass by creating a shuttle stop further up the highway which would serve to relieve congestion somewhat. Parking at roadside on the highway is now strictly prohibited, and they have also created more spaces in the parking lot. While the overall budget for parks has increased little with the change to an NDP government, at least some of the complaints have been heard and acted upon. At last check, the number of park rangers still needed to be addressed, but patrols were definitely being increased . A decision has also been made to ban dogs from the park trails.
So what remains to be solved? Well, the paramount issue of too many day hikers during the summer months has been ignored up to this point. The simple fact is that the sheer number of people places an inordinate strain on the environment, and it’s likely that both a quota and a permit system should be required during the busiest months, at the very least. Permit charges could be used to fund park rangers, infrastructure, and maintenance. The outhouses are in terrible condition, and require more frequent attention. Additionally, our tourism promoters need to join B.C.Parks in promoting “Leave No Trace” protocol and help to educate park users about correct hiking etiquette.
Since the first few paragraphs here have been controversial, why not switch gears and return you to the mountains again? It is through showcasing the beauty of the park that we can not only share it with others, but also encourage its preservation. Joffre Lakes Provincial Park is a place that future generations ought to be able to enjoy!
It was another four years before I returned to Joffre Lakes. On that occasion, Doug and I were hoping to climb Mt Taylor, the 2318m peak which lies on the northwestern boundary of the park. The standard approach was identical to the one I had taken for Tszil Mountain back in 2008, so I also had the added benefit of being familiar with the route.
Once again, we chose a day in July for the climb and planned to camp nearby in Cayoosh Pass so we could get a jump on the crowds. The weather was ideal on the drive up Highway 99 that afternoon. We knew that there was a good chance rain was on its way the next day, but we were both in need of a day in the mountains so we decided to roll the dice. We spent a fine evening enjoying just about everything, with the possible exception of the mosquitoes!
Unfortunately, the morning brought with it the expected rain, so the decision was made to forego climbing Mt Taylor. As long as we were there, however, we figured there’d be no harm in hiking the trail up to the lakes. That turned out to be a great idea, as the weather served to deter all but the hardiest hikers, so we actually experienced very little traffic. The rain hardly dampened our spirits, as we knew we would return on a sunnier day.
As it happened, that sunnier day came about a year later, as once again, Doug and I set up camp in Cayoosh Pass on an evening in July of 2013. Again the clouds of mosquitoes tried to deter us, but we came well prepared for their shenanigans. About the only inconvenience was mastering the art of drinking beer through bug nets but we were up to the task!
The next morning, we could see promising blue skies, and set out early for the trailhead. When we arrived, there were very few hikers around, and the only ones we met on the way up were campers on their way down from Upper Joffre Lake.
In order to climb Mt Taylor, you hike to that col it shares with Tszil Mountain then cross over to its opposite side, where you pick up a rough track that leads onto Taylor’s southeast ridge. Once we attained that ridge, no technical difficulties were anticipated, and that turned out to be mostly true.
The panoramas that unfolded as we climbed were impressive. Towering mountains and glaciers could be seen on every horizon, with resplendent lakes shimmering below. To call the views memorable seems woefully inadequate, but then, that’s why I carry a camera!
Between eating lunch and taking photos, we ended up taking nearly an hour on the summit, an unusual amount of time for us! With the warmth of the wind and no weather systems expected, we felt no need to rush, though I did recall there was a possibility of thunderstorms forecast for later in the day. It was just after 1 pm when we began our trek homeward, and it occurred to us we hadn’t seen another person for about four hours.
After retracing our steps down the ridge, we were soon back on the snowfield, where the winds blew more briskly through the pass. Normally I’m strongly apprehensive when descending a mountain, because that’s when accidents tend to happen, but in this case all I remember feeling was calmness. I found myself daydreaming about how First Nations people might have experienced this valley centuries before. In some ways little has changed, in other ways, the change has been overwhelming.
When we reached Upper Joffre Lake, we were soon jolted back to reality by the throngs of people milling about. It occurred to me at the time that the popularity of these lakes was gaining momentum very swiftly! Aside from dodging hikers along the way, we made good time heading for the trailhead, as storm clouds began to build rapidly. It looked, for a time, that those lightning storms might just materialize after all, but they never did. Soon enough, we were back at the truck tackling the most difficult part of the day: somehow escaping the parking lot! It had been, without a doubt, a highly satisfying adventure.
In order to salvage Joffre Lakes Provincial Park, the hiking community must take on more responsibility. It’s unfair to blame everything on the government when we can help solve a lot of the problems ourselves. How can we do this? There are many answers, but one is paramount: the promotion of “Leave No Trace” practices in the wilderness! If you’re looking to learn about these principles, you might want to follow my friend Taryn, who serves as Mountain Equipment Co-op’s Leave No Trace ambassador. We were all novice hikers at one time, after all, and today there are plenty of good sources available that can educate you on how to treat the wilderness. Knowledge is power!
Why not encourage people to pack out what they pack in? We all know that leaving waste and garbage is wrong, so why do we still see this happen? I find it nearly incomprehensible that anyone who would wish to savour nature’s glories would leave their trash there, but this has become a chronic problem. Recently, local Vancouver hiking group CROSSNA devoted considerable time to collecting and carrying out refuse from Joffre Lakes, and the results were shocking, to say the least. We can encourage stewardship through our hiking clubs and media, and promote proper practices in our tourist industry as well. All it will take is education, and execution. That’s not much to ask to ensure that places like Joffre Lakes Provincial Park remain our sanctuaries rather than become victims of our own reprehensible behaviour. It’s time for everyone to work together and do the right thing!
In 2019, there were at least two significant landslides on Joffre Peak. This has affected access to the park via Cerise Creek and may possibly do so in the future. The access via Joffre Lakes Trail has not been compromised at this time. Keep apprised of safety bulletins regarding the area, as conditions may be subject to change. Some additional perspective offered in the article here
You’ve no doubt heard the story by now. It’s one of overcrowding, lack of planning, and the abysmal management of a natural treasure. With all of the current controversy regarding Joffre Lakes Provincial Park, sometimes it’s hard to remember that it ‘s also one of the most idyllic places in all of southwestern British Columbia. This park, located at the summit of Cayoosh Pass, is just north of Pemberton on Highway 99. The turquoise lakes, glaciers, and towering peaks make it popular year round, but the summers are when it’s busy beyond description.
So exactly what happened to cause all the issues? Well, with the advent of social media, the expansion of the Sea to Sky Highway, and the excessive promotion of tourism, came a huge influx of visitors. When you combine that with the destruction of the old trail in favour of a wider gravel path, and a zero dollar increase in parks management funding over the last fifteen years, what you have is a recipe for disaster. Long before the ridiculous and sometimes unruly crowds, however, Joffre Lakes was a markedly different place to visit. Even if you turn back the clock a mere dozen years, the park was a far more pleasant experience, though even then there were clear signs of change. Well, if you’ve been of the mind that a place this overrun just isn’t worth seeing, then continue reading and I’ll try to illustrate why you might want to rethink that resolve!
It was in July of 2008 when I finally found my way to Joffre Lakes Provincial Park. I had heard it could be a bit crazy in the sunnier months, so I’d avoided it mostly for that reason. Most of the people I knew in the hiking world had already spent plenty of time there by then. It was an overnight stay in the parking lot and a trek to the 2377m summit of Mt Tszil that served to change all of that for me. I arrived on an early July evening to meet up with Ted and Denis, who were climbing nearby Saxifrage Mountain earlier that day. Once there, I spent a lot of time rambling back and forth to Lower Joffre Lake just to photograph the mountains and glaciers as the sun began to set. The parking lot had but nine other vehicles in it, which is unimaginable by today’s standards.
The guys arrived around 10 pm, a bit tired and short a couple of pints of blood courtesy of the hordes of mosquitoes in the Spetch Creek Valley! We hung around shooting the breeze and enjoying a couple of cold beers before settling in for the night. We knew we’d be starting out very early the next morning.
Arising early to make coffee, I found the clouds had closed in and the bugs had now come out in full force. During the night the valley had chilled and we awoke to clouds of mist swirling in the parking lot. The weather was expected to clear as the day wore on, as we geared up for what was sure to be a long trek. Soon Denis and Ted were ready to go, and a short while later we were hiking the beautiful trail up the Joffre Creek Valley. Rolling fog and cooler temperatures made for fast travel, and on the way I enjoyed the Kendal Mint Cake Ted had brought up for me!
At Lower Joffre Lake the sun had been struggling to emerge, but by the time we arrived at Middle Joffre Lake half an hour later it had nearly won its battle. There was plenty of chatter to kill time, bit it was a lively discussion about the right kind of chips to eat that dominated the trail conversation. Denis is strongly against flavours, strictly preferring plain or ripple chips. Despite the fact I am of the same mind, it was fun getting him to evaluate all the other varieties. Lines like “If I wanted a dill pickle, I’d be eating a dill pickle. Why would I want my chips to taste like one!”, and “Ketchup is a condiment. If you must add it to your chips, please do so privately with packets, because I don’t want it on mine!”, or “BBQ flavoured chips don’t really taste like anything I’ve ever barbecued, so I don’t understand that idea at all!” were the order of the day. Ted had heard it all before, and seemed more concerned with where we were going next and the beer we’d be drinking later on.
In no time at all, we had reached Upper Joffre Lake and would be scouting for the somewhat obscure trail that leads you up into the alpine. It winds through the woods and eventually to the bottom of a large lateral moraine of the Tszil Glacier, where a steep and rough track follows a spine into the col between Mt Taylor and Tszil Mountain. The path was soon located, and so was a sweater lost recently by someone we knew through the Clubtread hiking website we all hung out on. The guys, uhhhh, put that to good use in their latest comedy routine of the day.
The route was well marked and reasonably straightforward, and soon we found ourselves staring down the summit block of Tszil Mountain. The line of ascent was simple to figure out, and much sooner than we had figured we were standing on the summit, in less than four hours from the cars. Not too bad, especially for Ted and Denis, who had knocked off 1500m of climbing the day before!
Originally, we had planned to climb Slalok Mountain, but the guys were pretty burned out from the previous day’s climb so, between that, and the whiteout we encountered, Tszil would be enough to content us that day. We sat high above the clouds, enjoying our lunch and the constantly changing scenery.
Soon, with snacks now consumed, we departed the summit, and were now basking in the warmth of sunshine. Along the way the guys ran into a couple who had just finished a trip to The Alps, and spent a while discussing their experiences there. Feeling the need for some solitude, for whatever reason, I decided to wander down the ridge further to take photos of the lake and mountains. I marvelled at the clusters of tiny wildflowers, and the way they take advantage of every opportunity, while the calls of pikas occasionally broke the silence.
Eventually, it was time to retrace our steps back down to the lakes, where we experienced a fairly hectic hike back down to the parking lot. Keep in mind this was a weekday in 2008, and the crowds today have increased at least twenty fold! Then, as now, there were a lot of impatient people on the trail, many spectacularly unprepared, and plenty of peculiar behaviour to go with them.
We were happy to reach the parking lot, now jammed with cars, and kick back with some cold Stella Artois and those potato chips we love so much. Plain ripple, of course, if you’re keeping score, as I had no ketchup packets! Then, as now, it was a day worth remembering, and it had me planning future visits to Joffre Lakes Provincial Park.
But what of today? Despite the fact that this park faces many future challenges, it is still a wilderness worth preserving. In a world where outdoor recreation has reached record demand, there will have to be some well reasoned solutions so that it thrives. I’ll discuss those potential answers in this story’s next chapter, to follow soon…
It was 3 am on a Monday morning when I rolled reluctantly out of bed, making it as far as the couch. You know, I used to be an early riser, once, but that’s becoming something reserved for special occasions lately. As I forced down coffee and breakfast and read my computer screen in the fading darkness, my eyes later came to rest on a sentence: “430 am and heading for a hike, Mt Klitsa, here we come!” The words were Mary’s, and it occurred to me that despite how early it was, everyone else was getting up a whole lot earlier! Less than an hour later I met up with Dustin, Jim, and Mary, and we were soon rolling toward our destination.
Klitsa Mountain, at 1639 m in elevation, is the second highest peak surrounding the Alberni Valley. It’s not as high as Mt Arrowsmith, but because it gets far more snowfall it stays snow covered until much later in the season. The mountain’s name,“Kleet-sah”, derives from the aboriginal word that translates as “always white”.
The route to access Klitsa, at least via the Brooke George Trail, is certainly a circuitous one. For us, it meant driving on Highway 4 to Port Alberni, then following Stirling Arm, Gracie Main, Nahmint Main, and finally the N600 spur which led to a branch where the trailhead begins. Dustin was able to drive us all the way there, to within 20 metres of the first trail marker. That gave us the advantage of beginning our hike at 800 metres in elevation! It also helped that Mary had been on the trail before, so navigating the maze of roads was, thankfully, somewhat easier.
It was still fairly early that we piled out of the truck and began gearing up, and the blast of frigid morning air had us moving around quickly, with more than our share of joking around. I’d hiked with Mary and Dustin before, and also joining us on the trek was Jim, who I hadn’t met until then. It turned out we had more than a little in common, as you often discover on those long trips on logging roads!
The only hitch on the entire trip happened within 150 metres of the trailhead, where a stray set of flagging tapes had us heading in the wrong direction, but we soon sorted that out and were promptly back on track. The route to Klitsa from the Nahmint Valley is actually long established, and the trail was renamed the Brooke George Trail in honour of a very well respected member of the Alberni Valley Outdoor Club. Brooke passed away some years ago in a mountaineering accident, and the club has adopted the trail in the years that have followed.
The path began by leading us up through a considerable stand of untouched old growth forest, while following roughly along a creek that drains the upper bench below Klitsa. Sections of the trail were quite muddied but we were quite lucky that much of it was frozen solid, at least on the way up. Once we arrived at the small lake that sits at about 1050m we took a break and studied the route a little bit more. I knew that the trail was soon going to be traversing a fairly wet subalpine meadow which you get to by working your way north, along the lake’s eastern shores. Once past the lake, the climbing would begin in earnest as we wove our way along the route toward the alpine.
Pretty soon the path began to dry out somewhat as we entered the alpine, eventually reaching a junction with the less often used route that comes up via the Brigade Lakes Trail and the Gibson-Klitsa Plateau. From what I understand, that track is an equally worthy objective but it does come with a good deal of bushwhacking in the upper lakes basin. I know I’ll want to spend some time there as there are apparently a great number of ancient trees to be seen! The Brigade Lakes Trail is much more readily accessible if you don’t happen to have a high clearance vehicle, as you can park at the Taylor River rest area on Highway 4. It was actually built by a group of loggers on a forest service project who felt the area was so special that it ought to be saved, believe it or not! As a result, much of the Gibson-Klitsa Plateau became part of an old growth conservancy, though currently there is some concern about a road boundary marked on the lower reaches of the Brigade Lakes Trail. It would be a shame to see any of this wilderness damaged!
Once past the junction, you begin to see the lakes below, and the higher you climb, the more mountains appear! The footbed is relatively well worn, and cairns appear here and there, along with the occasional flagging tape.
Klitsa soon made a more prominent appearance to the east, and before long the summit block was before us. We had reached an open clearing that was clearly marked on both sides of the trail, but we weren’t quite sure where the path went from there. I looked up to the left at first, as my friend Chris had cautioned me that the right hand side was harder to climb and more exposed. He and Shane had climbed it earlier that month in a virtual whiteout and ended up with a little more fun than they bargained for, though they’d managed it well. We hesitated for a minute or two and looked around , but as it turned out we rediscovered the path basically straight ahead of us, after which it trended strongly to the left. In different conditions, there may have been several gullies worth ascending but since we had ice to contend with we were content with the easiest possible line.
The last 100 metres were a bit more of a grind, but that was mostly because we’d all been pretty active the day before. Dustin, for example, had spent the previous day hiking up Kings Peak in Strathcona Provincial Park, which was an all day affair. Mary had climbed Mt Maxwell on Saltspring Island, while Jim and I had been active trail running. Jim, also an avid skier, kept busy contemplating all the possible lines up for grabs once the snows fell there!
There was loose rock to contend with while we lost ourselves in the views, but the walk was neither hazardous nor exposed. A relatively easy scramble soon had us on the summit, where we enjoyed little if any wind and ideal temperatures. I was about as happy as I could be, as this was a mountain that had really captured my imagination! This was a mountain where the ocean on both sides of Vancouver Island could be seen, which was a new experience for me.
From the summit, the entire Alberni Valley was laid out before us. You could see Sproat Lake and the Taylor River below, as well as Highway 4. In the distance Arrowsmith loomed prominently and beyond, the Salish Sea. Across the valley to the south is Nahmint Mountain and as you look westward peaks like 5040, Adder, and Steamboat can be seen, as well as countless others. Northern views are dominated by the mountains of Strathcona, notably Nine Peaks, Big Interior and Septimus. Since I’m an Island novice, about the only one I was sure of was the Comox Glacier! According to Mary, on the clearest of days one could also see Elkhorn and the Golden Hinde but if my photos captured either I’d not have known what I was looking at!
As stoked as we were to be there, after about half an hour we decided to begin the hike homeward, after all, we did have a long way to go! Before we departed, everyone took another good look around, as though imprinting the views to mind. It was a place I would return to in a second!
The walk down went uneventfully, with the added benefit being that much of the ice had begun to melt, though the trail lower down was all the muddier. We didn’t mind, though, because it could not have been a better day to be outside! We made such good time we decided to take another break on the way down.
Once past the lake, it was just a matter of trekking through the woods again for about an hour to reach the truck. That in itself was a treat, as there aren’t too many undisturbed old growth forests left here on Vancouver Island. It’s quite likely many of the Mountain Hemlocks exceeded 400 years in age!
All told, it was a very memorable day on the trail. We completed the hike, which probably had close to 900m of vertical gain, in roughly five hours car to car, I think. As relatively quick as that was, the same could not be said for the drive back, which was as long as it had been that morning. The roads, however, were all in excellent condition, so we had few complaints!
On the ride home, we decided to stop in at Bigfoot Burgers in Whiskey Creek for a late lunch. Dustin and I had wanted to eat there on an earlier trip to Mt Cokely but hadn’t managed to do so. This time around we were pretty determined to get those burgers, but the restaurant was closed for a staff party, of all things, so no luck there! At Mary’s suggestion, we made our way to Coombs Old Country Market, better known as “Goats On the Roof”. There’s a restaurant there that served us up some pretty decent burgers and fries, I’ll say! One unusual thing about the place is that it’s also well filled with wood carved art, much of it for sale. There were many pieces that were naturally or culturally significant, and quite a few that were rather ornate or even a bit risqué. One in particular featured a tiny little stool on which the backing had been crafted into a phallus, of all things. We all had a bit of laugh over that, and a few other pieces. I had joked that “My wedding anniversary was the following day, and there were some pretty decent carvings of life sized bears there, hmmmmm.” “Well, I do have a truck with plenty of room,” said Dustin. It was a fitting and fun end to a fine day out. In the end, I recommend both the mountain and the restaurant, you can’t go wrong with either! (No, I did not buy the bear)
*** Author’s note: Some thanks are in order regarding this day in the mountains. Thanks to my friend Chris Hood, who first piqued my interest in this mountain. He was to summit it himself two weeks later, and I wish I could have shared that day.
Thanks as well to Chris Istace, whose invaluable information provided about the trip he and Shane Johnson had just done a couple weeks before helped us to have a successful outing.
Finally, thanks to my hiking companions on the trek and to Dustin for driving, you all helped make it a memorable day! ***
The annals of mountaineering, especially those of social media offering, are so often filled with the stories of success. That is, you plan the trek, face the adversities, and eventually stand triumphant and heroic on the summit before staring down the descent. The truth, however, is that sometimes victory eludes you, yet in defeat there is often a story worth telling. If you have the courage to look back on the bad days, you might even get a laugh or two out of the spanking you’ve taken. Whatever the case, the most important thing is to keep on going back to the mountains. They are always worth the effort!
Here then, are a few excerpts from my three and a half decades of history in the hills, some rather inglorious. The mountain has a way of finding you when you’re not having the best of days, you know. As long as your ego isn’t too closely shackled to grabbing the summit every single time, and even if it is, you can still learn a lot from your misadventures.
What follows here is a retrospective of some climbs on which I ended up turning around, and the variety of related reasons for those retreats. I was surprised to find, to my chagrin, that there were a few more of them than I thought there were! Most of the real epics were concentrated in a ten year period that I’d characterize as the most trying time in my life, yet those same years were crammed full of discovery and elation as well.
First up? Mt Elsay, the avalanche… It was late one spring when I finally had my first experience setback in the mountains. I was close to my 39th birthday, and was feeling pretty immortal back then. I was, after all, at the peak of fitness at the time, having finally quit destroying myself playing baseball, and freshly off successful knee surgery. In many ways I felt unstoppable! Spoiler alert, I wasn’t.
That trek basically ended for me almost before it started. No sooner had I descended Wes’s Staircase on the Elsay Lake Trail, than a haunting mist obscured the entire valley. I continued on for a spell, knowing the route well, but almost immediately I froze in my tracks. There was a deep rumbling off the eastern slopes of Mt Seymour. It sounded powerful, so I stood and waited a minute or two to see what had happened. When the clouds drifted away momentarily, I could see a massive runout of wet snow that had carried with it the twisted limbs of small trees and continued on well over the trail I had intended to walk! This was an omen, had I been five minutes faster it’s possible I might not be telling this tale right now! It was a timely reminder that nature couldn’t care less how much you want to reach a summit. Though my wife sometimes begs to differ, I can sometimes take a hint! I turned around, and didn’t return again until over eight years later to climb the mountain.
In 2006, I only missed out one summit, and that was the rock tower of Ben Lomond in the Britannia Range. Simon, Alan, Denis, Chris, and I had planned on climbing Ben More, Ben Lomond and Red Mountain in one long day. On our way up Ben More, I felt something pop in my left hip, which I had injured the year before on Mt Price. I knew right away it was going to be serious, but I badly wanted to stand atop the high point of the Seymour Valley. Though I did manage to summit Ben More, by the time we reached the base of Ben Lomond, I could not move my leg high enough to kick steps into the precipitous snow slope. Frustrated, I sat down with Chris, then chipped off a piece of snow with my ice axe to stuff in my pants. Chris, meanwhile, was suffering with a painful foot injury. We were not happy campers! This was the first time I ever had to sit idly and watch other people climb a mountain and I didn’t like it.
It made me kind of nervous to be a spectator, but of course Alan, Denis, and Simon pretty much pulled it off without a hitch. When they came down, it was time to climb the less technical Red Mountain, which I had decided I was going to do come hell or high water. It hurt like hell, but I did it.
Meanwhile, we watched from afar, cheered, and celebrated as Chris got up off the snow and proceeded to climb Ben Lomond! After that, we all walked out, and I returned the next summer with Denis to finally climb this peak. It was all I had hoped for! It was, however, the start of a ten year battle with that serious hip injury. Hip flexors are difficult, as they may heal, but in the process, they often tear again frequently. It took me a decade to properly rehabilitate from the injury, but then, I never stopped hiking, so maybe that is why. I resorted to taking up yoga to help the healing process, and it worked better than anything else I had tried.
July of 2008 on Cayoosh Mountain was the best of times. Ted, Denis, and I spent the night camped out having more than a few beers before starting out the next morning for the summit. The conditions were ideal, but we were going to have to move fast to avoid the high temperatures of midday.
It had been a big snow year and we knew the route could become dangerous if we tarried. As it turned out, I basically managed to louse that up by getting us off the right path. We passed the correct gully and instead I led us to a ridge we cliffed out on. That meant we had to double back before ascending the correct line, which we did, eventually.
Once we reached a steep bowl below the sub summit, however, I knew our day was done. The snow had become too isothermic, and was now too unsafe to cross. The only sane decision was to walk away. We haven’t returned yet, but maybe someday we will. That one’s on me, boys!
Later in 2008, Chris and I were attempting Tulameen Mountain in the Cascades. We began, sans helmets, by climbing a very sketchy gully and veritable shooting gallery of falling rock that I began calling the Jingfest Couloir. With that bit of Russian Roulette out of the way, it was a question of digging in and making our way through a big field of shifting rock and up the southwest ridge of the mountain.
On that day, the weather had looked unsettled, and then suddenly we could see a storm moving very quickly up the Fraser Valley. This was not good! We were only another hour from the summit of Tulameen but our position was much too exposed. The next thing we knew there was lightning, and more threatening clouds, and we were scampering back to the cover of the woods below! It took a while, but we struggled back to the truck in one piece, none the worse for wear. Chris often tells me he’s a magnet for bad weather. I’m not sure about that, but on that day it was a funny enough explanation!
A different fate struck on Castle Towers in 2009, where Doug battled vertigo gamely and scrapped his way up to the west summit on a perfect summer day. The week before he’d been down with the flu and an ear infection. Climbing the true summit, just a half hour away, just wasn’t going to happen. While I took summit photos, Doug took a seat just below the cairn trying to gather his bearings.
He offered to wait while I attempted it alone, but we were a long way from civilization and if anything had happened to me I was not sure he was in the right shape to walk out alone. I made the only decision that I felt right about, and we enjoyed the west summit for a good thirty minutes more before beginning the long walk back. In the end, this trip was among the finest we have ever done together, and over a decade later I still talk about it!
The year 2009 also brings to mind one of the more strange and happy days of my life. In September, Chris and I drove up to the North Creek Valley near Pemberton to have a go at Hemionus Mountain. As we hiked up the south ridge on that cold and sunny day, we were treated to some phenomenal scenery. Just as we reached a high sub summit with a commanding view, we made the mistake of sitting down.
I had slept only an hour and a half the night before and Chris had been doing a lot of trekking the weeks before as well. Though we might have had the summit, instead we just kicked back, relaxed, and let it all sink in. This was the first time I’d ever done that on a mountain trip, and it was outstanding! We laughed a lot, and then strolled back down after a while. Some of my friends were a little incredulous, wondering why we would drive all that way and not at least try a little harder. I just shrugged, to us it had seemed right. Still does.
Then there was Ring Mountain, a dormant volcano in the Squamish Valley. I set out with Doug, Denis, and Chris on a spectacular spring day in 2010 with the goal of standing atop this tuya. The year before, Doug, Chris, and I had approached it from the Callaghan Valley, and due to a lot of faffing around on the wrong side of the mountain we had already spent a fair amount of time on the objective.
I was to fail again that day, as despite Doug’s stellar efforts at breaking trail I simply did not have the strength to follow. What I didn’t know at the time was that I had previously picked up a very devious intestinal parasite which only affected me especially in times of hard physical effort. With it came chills, shuddering, fever, nausea, and sometimes the complete and random evacuation of my bowels. That day featured all of the above. While Doug and Denis reached the summit, I waited below, cursing my fortune. In fact, I was damned angry! Chris also had to turn around on that day, but it was more a matter of time constraint, not for lack of strength. Current score: Ring Mountain 2 Mick 0.
Only months later, I would make an attempt of Mt Bardean and Mt Ratney with Gerry and Sabine that turned out to be all too familiar. In those days I was pushing the envelope on every trip, and surviving on the absolute minimum of sleep.
My wife and I raise a son with autism, you see, and for the better part of about 20 years, we lived in a partial state of exhaustion. I made it to within just 150m of Bardean’s summit that day, but could go no further.
It wasn’t as bad as all that though, because I enjoyed a 90 minute nap in an idyllic alpine meadow while Sabine and Gerry climbed the two peaks. I’ve not managed a return yet, but would love to try again!
Curiously enough, since 2010, every summit I have attempted has been met with success and for the most part with far less difficulty. As time has passed, I don’t get up mountains with the quite the same speed I did in younger days. Who does? What I do is finish off the efforts with a combination of persistence and well, more persistence. I live by two important mantras: “Just put one foot in front of the other” and “Those beers down at the truck aren’t gonna drink themselves!”
It had taken us the better part of two years to sort out our move to Vancouver Island, but having finally done that, I wanted to climb a mountain here! Recently I’d joined a local hiking group called Island Mountain Ramblers , and while checking out the trips they had planned, I discovered one I had to join! Gemini Mountain, deep within the Nanaimo River Valley, sounded like a place I needed to see!
There is limited access to the valley, which is controlled by Timber West, the landowners. It was only possible to hike there in autumn months, according to Matthew, our trip organizer and current club president. The twin summits of Gemini Mountain were ideally located and, if the weather was in our favour, might serve up some beautiful views. The only catch was that we’d be in there during hunting season, but at least the area we were to hike was off limits to the hunters. While that sounded a little scary, of course there were no problems!
Eight of us met at Harewood Mall, and from there drove a long way up the Nanaimo Lakes Road to reach our destination. We stopped at a checkpoint along the way, where you need to report in to let Timber West know where you’re headed. It was at least another half hour before a while before we turned onto the K15 logging spur. A long climb led us steeply up that road to where we’d begin our hike.
The Nanaimo River Valley has a lengthy history of logging, and there are still a lot of active haul roads within its watershed. Despite the piles of logging slash burning at roadside as we climbed, you could still see that the valley maintained its strong feel of wilderness. Somehow it seems to have transcended all the harvesting that has happened there.
After gearing up, we began our hike at about 1200m in elevation, with cold winds urging us on. Our leader knew the route well having been there before, but there were few markers to show us the way. The forest, a mix of Mountain Hemlock, Silver Fir, and Western Hemlock, was quite enchanting.
Soon the trees became more widely spaced, and we entered some attractive subalpine meadows, then heather covered slopes led us to some dense coastal brush. The mist and clouds were constant companions, and would only leave us for short breaks throughout the day.
We were soon approaching the first of Gemini Mountain’s two summits, and after a short bushwhack, we were there! As we arrived, the clouds would clear, making good on the promise of those spectacular views. I had been hiking for many years in the same familiar ranges of the Lower Mainland, where I was used to being able to identify most of the peaks around me. Here on Vancouver Island, however, the surroundings were entirely new to me, so there was a great sense of discovery that had me quite enamoured.
After a short break, we began hiking over to the second, and highest summit. This involved trekking over the shoulder of the first summit and weaving our way down to a col between the two. On the ridge, we passed by bedding and grazing sites of elk herds, and followed their paths quite often. We’d have to return the same way we came, because both sides of the col were lined with steep cliff bands that would prevent us from taking any shortcuts.
The col was a beautiful and rugged place! Soon the skies parted for at least half an hour, as we rose above the clouds. The ground sloped sharply into a valley below the col, and in the distance the road we had driven up to the trailhead became visible. There was a sea of mountains to gaze at, but most of them were unknown to me.
Soon we left the col and crossed over on a ramp to the base of some steep bluffs. Here we waited, before climbing up to a bench just below the summit. That was the biggest challenge of the day, as the rock was a little unstable in places. While we did that, the skies would clear even more, which had everyone feeling more cheerful.
Our trip leader Matthew, along with navigating, had his two year old daughter in his backpack. He also had his five year old son walking the entire route with us. He did well, and the only help he needed was a boost or two on some of the steepest sections. It reminded me of hiking with my kids when they were young, trying to share with them that fascination with nature, which they still seem to have to this day!
After we climbed the bluffs we then headed up to the summit proper, at 1525m in elevation. The summit plateau was fairly broad, with panoramic views. There were also some alpine tarns that were just beginning to freeze over. I was very happy to be atop my first peak on Vancouver Island!
Pretty soon the weather began to arrive in earnest. The winds now began blowing more briskly as we took a short break before the hike back. Many peaks could be seen in the distance, including Mt Baker down in Washington state.
Light rain began to fall as we walked down to the col, then back up to the first summit, and finally back down again to the logging road. It seemed like much longer than a five and a half hour hike, yet at 3 pm we were back at the vehicles and rolling down the road to the gate shortly after.
If anyone out there on Vancouver Island has thought about hiking this mountain during the limited opportunity, I’d highly recommend it. As well, if you’re looking for a hiking club on Vancouver Island, join the Island Mountain Ramblers, you’ll be glad you did!
Mt Cokely sounded like an interesting destination. I had read about the trip on the Island Mountain Ramblers page several weeks before, and though at first it was fully booked, I managed to latch on when a few people cancelled. The plan, for our group of ten, was to ascend the Saddle Trail, scramble up to the ridge of Cokely, and then further on to the summit. On the return trip, we’d return to the ridge, find the Rosseau Trail, and return to the vehicles via that route. This would be my first visit to the Mt Arrowsmith Biosphere Region, and I was looking forward to the views!
The lightest of rains and low clouds followed us as we made our way from Nanaimo on the Island Highway toward Highway 4. By the time we passed through MacMillan Provincial Park (Cathedral Grove) and turned onto Summit Main, the rain had begun to fade. Next came more logging roads, as we followed Cameron Main and Pass Main to the trailhead high above, at roughly 1000m in elevation.
The Saddle Trail proved to be a beautiful hike, as promised. It’s a fairly well used track that winds its way through a pleasant subalpine forest and the occasional bluff on its way to the col between Mt Arrowsmith and Mt Cokely.
John Y., who was our trip leader for the day, had also brought along his dog Chica. She proved to be quite a talented scrambler, but I suspect she may just have been there for the food!
The rest of our group was rounded out by Karen, John R., Stephanie, Christin, Janine, Adrian, Holly, and Dustin. It helped that we all seemed to have good camaraderie, but after all, it’s hard not to have fun in places like these!
While rolling fog and low cloud obscured much of the views, it was still easy to see why the Saddle Trail is a popular hike. The final approach to the saddle was particularly scenic, with wildflowers lining the path and a creek cascading down to the valley below.
It took us less than a couple of hours to make the saddle, where we regrouped and prepared to scramble up to the ridge. It turned out the rock was of reasonable quality with decent holds, but as we climbed the exposure would increase significantly. Due concentration was needed to choose the right line, especially during the last fifty metres of the climb. This was definitely my favourite part of the hike!
From the ridge, we traversed our way over to the summit block. That required another short section of scrambling which probably had the most exposure of all and one particularly tricky step you could certainly call the crux. That went very well as we made sure not to rush. Curiously, I took no photos on that part of the hike.
The summit was broad and inviting, and we stopped there for lunch near all the radio repeater equipment and hoped that the clouds might soon clear. Sure enough, after about ten minutes, some blue skies materialized and opened up some views. One could see down to the valley from where the CPR Trail to Mt Cokely made its ascent.
In another twenty minutes or so, we began the walk back to the ridge, which involved down climbing that tricky section that slowed us down on the way up. It was at that time the clouds once again shifted and parts of Mt Arrowsmith made several brief appearances.
Pretty soon everyone was together again and we began following the cairns along the ridge of Cokely that marked the Rosseau Trail. Save for one particular area where a short and sharp scramble connected two parts of the ridge, this was the easiest part of the hike, technically speaking. We simply followed the ridge until it neared its end and the trail began to descend into the forest below.
Next came a most unusual part of the route, where we meandered through a garden of stunted trees, some very ancient, along a near vertical cliff band. It made the trail seem almost enchanted!
A word of warning about the next part of the trail, because there is a spot where people have been tending to wander off route on the way down. You reach a point where the trail opens up to your left and it tends to draw hikers downward but in fact the actual route continues along the cliffs a bit longer. At one point, part of our group out front were making their way down this particular hillside, and the hikers toward the back of the pack heard a bit of a yell. I did not see what had happened from where I was. Holly, apparently, had stepped on a log then began a quick slide that ended with her tucking forward and then, briefly airborne, executing a perfect forward somersault before hitting the ground. Miraculously, even though there were plenty of sharp and nasty things she could have landed on, it turned she was just fine. We were all very happy that she was pretty much unharmed, saved by some good athletic instinct!
We actually carried on down that fateful slope for a few more minutes, before several of us finally concluded we had lost the trail, so the rest of us climbed back to the last marker we’d seen. By the time I made it back up, half the group were already laughing a bit, having easily rediscovered the trail once again. According to previous club trip leaders, and a couple of hikers I spoke to on Mt Benson two days later, wandering off the track at this particular spot is nothing new on the Rosseau Trail. It might be worth doing a little trail work to remedy that problem.
With all that out of the way, we continued on the trail, which transitions into an easier walk through a venerable forest. It didn’t take much longer than an hour or so to reach the logging road again from there, and in another ten minutes we arrived back at the vehicles.
That marked the end of another successful Island Mountain Ramblers hike, and a really enjoyable day out. Mt Cokely was well worth the time, and I can hardly wait to do this hike again!
Friday, the 12th of July, 2019. It was a warm afternoon as I pushed my bike onto the ferry at Departure Bay. My destination? Horseshoe Bay, where I’d catch a ride with Steve. The morning after, we’d be meeting up with Doug for a biking and hiking expedition to Capilano Mountain. It would be my first hiking trip back on the mainland since moving to Vancouver Island, and I was really looking forward to the trek!
This, for Doug and me, would be a return to a mountain that we had first climbed some 14 years ago, and I was wondering just how well we might recollect the details. If you’re up for a comparison of two fine adventures and a dash of historical perspective, grab a refreshment or two and read on!
For clarity, I’ll first cover our “ancient” history from the first excursion, before recounting our recent experience. Much of the route remains the same, but there have been some important changes since then, not to mention that time may have altered our impressions somewhat!
The heat of the summer sun had begun quite early on that summer morning in late August of 2005. As on many of our trips, just as we still do today, we relied on the directions in Matt Gunn’s Scrambles in Southwest British Columbia. It’s always an invaluable resource and I highly recommend you get yourself a copy!
After 14 years, you’d expect there to be some gaps in our memories, but for the life of me, looking at some of these photos it seems as though I must have done this trip with a possible concussion. Oh, wait, come to think of it, I may well have, but more on that later! The first strong memory I had was crossing a massive washout of Beth Creek before finishing the bike portion of the trip. It wasn’t long after this that we cached our rides at the trailhead, elevation 665m.
Much as you’d all know or could probably guess, by the name of this website, I’m a real aficionado of old growth trees. We must have been moving very swiftly that morning, because my impressions of this forest seemed inadequate, to say the least. Doug’s own notions were similarly understated. When we walked this trail so many years later, observations were to change, but here were the only images of those ancient trees I recorded at the time.
Beth Lake is a stunning place, and I vividly recalled being struck by its beauty. Then, as now, the shadows cast by the ramparts above make the lake challenging to photograph, especially as one tends to arrive in morning light. What we both remembered best were all of the berries we ate there! It turned out we thought the lake was at about 1000m in elevation, but actual statistics have it at 1085m.
There was never going to be any confusion about the trail’s next segment, a short and winding track that passes alongside some of the more massive slide boulders you will ever find. Fourteen years ago, the insects seemed to meet us here among the rocks, and as we stopped briefly for lunch, so did they!
All recognition of these images of the climb up to the boulder field above the lake that followed seemed blurred, at best. Normally my visual memory is exceptional, but in this case I was glad to have taken photos because they were all the history we had! I honestly could not even recall anything about how difficult it was, and neither could Doug. The views of the surrounding Coast Mountains were excellent, as you can see in the next few snapshots!
The boulder field just below the alpine basin was the next focus of our attention, according to the pictures. I’m not sure whether it was a product of age, mine, specifically, but years later this part of the hike sure seemed a whole lot steeper!
The path ends up leading you through several notches as you make your way in behind and past the Beth Lake Ramparts. For quite some time you continually gain and lose elevation on the way to the summit plateau, which gets frustrating if only because you know it’s going to repeat itself on the way back! Second time around, we had but faint recollections of that process, but the passage of time can paint the scene differently, can’t it?
In 2005, we also saw plenty of signs of bear activity, and that was just as true in 2019, though on neither trip were bears actually sighted. Once you get further along the ridge, a real alpine playground is your reward. There are scores of beautiful tarns set in fields of granite. Water sources seemed very clean, though on both trips we used filters just to be sure.
The way to the summit was reasonably well marked. Once you pass Gordan Lake, you can expect close to another hour of hiking to land you on the top of Capilano Mountain. Anyone who visits will no doubt remember this part of the walk, which exemplifies all the best qualities of the Coast Mountains!
In 2005, we spent about fifteen minutes on the summit before turning around. On the way back there were even some sections we even jogged, where possible. The weather held up magnificently, and there was no thought that it was going to rain at any time.
The journey back went very swiftly, with one serious hitch. On the ride down, my bike hit a rut and I ended up sailing over the bars, landing heavily on my ribcage. I was shaken up, bloodied and bruised, but my pride was probably more injured. Still, despite that, it took just twenty more minutes to return to the bottom of the road, once we got riding again. After 8 1/2 hours, we were back at the truck, daydreaming about cold beer! Later on, in the weeks that followed, I had typical concussion symptoms like headaches, dizziness, and sensitivity to light. Well, that, and several cracked ribs! Be careful out there, folks, and wear your helmets!
Well, before I get into describing this year’s trek, how about a little history?
The name Capilano will be forever enshrined in the history of British Columbia. Chief Joe Capilano, who was born in 1850, was a leader of the Squamish Nation from 1895 until 1910, when he unfortunately died from tuberculosis. Known as Sa7plek ( pronounced Sahp-luk) to his people, he fought very hard for the recognition of native rights here in Canada. Most notably, he traveled to the nation’s capital in Ottawa, and to London, England with several other native leaders to meet with King Edward VII. They wanted to express the urgency regarding the settling of native land claims, which even today is still an issue.
The delegation of leaders were also in protest of the government law which banned potlatches in 1885. A potlatch is a gift giving feast practiced by indigenous peoples of the Pacific Northwest Coast of Canada and the United States, among whom it is a focal point, historically, of their economic system and culture. The government basically banned it in order to force cultural assimilation, but also to further the colonial interests of churches, who considered it to be both Pagan and anti-Christian. Understandably, First Nations people saw the law as a great injustice and symbol of oppression, which it absolutely was. It was not until 1951 that the ban on potlatches was lifted.
Capilano, who was also known as Joe Mathias, was an avid outdoorsman and guide in his younger days. Along with Dr Henry Bell-Irving and an unnamed native companion, he spearheaded an 1889 expedition into the Britannia Range that climbed the West Lion, Harvey, Brunswick, Hanover, and a number of other peaks. These were first recorded ascents, but ironically, they did not climb Capilano Mountain, though it most likely would have been within their reach. Capilano Highlands, Capilano Road, Capilano River, and Capilano Lake, however, all bear his name on Vancouver’s North Shore.
What piqued my interest even more was that Joe Capilano also worked in the sawmill at Moodyville, a pioneer settlement in what is now the Lower Lonsdale area of the city of North Vancouver. I had lived in that part of North Vancouver for the last three decades. He even inspired prose, as well known poet Pauline Johnson’s “Legends of Vancouver” was adapted from his tales of adventure!
“Rattlesnake, rattlesnake! Rattlesnake, rattlesnake!…” The rhythmic sound of Steve’s stereo was playing a long and steady beat as we rolled along Highway 99. That lengthy tune, courtesy of King Gizzard and the Lizard Wizard, was serving two purposes. The first was to get us locked into hiking mode, and the second? It was answering that eternal question “How many times can you say ‘rattlesnake’ in one song?” Whatever the answer to the latter was, we were pretty psyched up! I was definitely looking forward to the long climb of Capilano Mountain as we pulled up behind Doug’s Toyota at the bottom of the Furry Creek Road that morning.
The weather on the 13th of July, 2019, was quite uncertain. We expected a mix of sun and cloud, with a strong chance of showers, but decided to give it a go anyway. It was about 8 am that we started out riding up the logging road.
We weren’t as quick as expected on that ride. Doug seemed to be going strongly, but Steve had a bit of a sore back and I just seemed a bit tired. When we reached the correct spur for the turnoff we actually biked right past it, but luckily, we checked our bearings after a few minutes.
That was a good catch by Steve, and it no doubt saved us much unneeded exercise on the day! With said diversion out of the way, we now cycled up the somewhat overgrown spur that would eventually land us at the trailhead. We knew it was the right road when we soon reached the familiar bridge over Phyllis Creek.
Somewhere around 450m in elevation we encountered a substantial washout that seemed relatively recent, but at least there was no problem carting our bikes around it. That was more than we could say about the next one, which was bad enough that we decided to cache our bikes much earlier than we had hoped.
The hiking, as a result, began around 200m lower in elevation than in 2005, and a couple of kilometres in distance of walking were also added to the trip. We didn’t feel it then, but we certainly would later! It took at least another hour to finally arrive at the Beth Creek washout, which was near where we had left our bikes on the first trip.
On the ride up, naturally, we told Doug about the “Rattlesnake” song, so from that point on in the entire trip any obstruction, challenge, or random topic of conversation had us chanting “Rattlesnake! Rattlesnake” at opportune times. You might be surprised how funny a recurring joke can be over the course of an entire day. Between that, Seinfeld dialogue, and South Park imitations, we kept ourselves well amused!
For a taste of the best of Eric Cartman, click here.
We kept a steady pace on the trail, and worked our way up to the old growth forest which starts at roughly 800 metres elevation. That was where the fun began. Steve was on the lookout for Porcini mushrooms, which were expected to be in season considering recent rains. First there was one, then another, and another, and another, and… you get the idea! He finally reached the point where he’d be adding too much pack weight if he didn’t wait to pick them on the way back. As it was, even after trimming the mushrooms they weighed over five pounds. This, for Steve, was a constant source of joy all day long!
As much as Steve was stoked about all the mushrooms, I was equally enthralled by the ancient forest we found ourselves in. Yellow Cedar, Pacific Silver Fir, and Mountain Hemlock were the dominant species, and the chattering of Beth Creek nearby added to the ambience.
Morning at Beth Lake, soon after we emerged from the forest, was all too familiar. The one regret was that sadly we were too early in the season to gorge ourselves on berries as we had done many years ago! As before, we took a break near the lake boulders for lunch, and once again, the mosquitoes found us in seconds!
We worked our way through steep forest after leaving the lake area, which we knew would give passage to the boulder field. There were even more mushroom finds, and more than a few venerable trees in this subalpine forest to keep us amused. Much to our chagrin though, the boulder field was not as close at hand as we had speculated!
Just as we were approaching the draw that contains the boulder field, we stopped to filter some water. The clouds above were starting to look a bit suspicious, but we were somehow convinced it wasn’t going to rain. Still, as we shifted into low gear heading for the ridge above, the views behind us were definitely becoming more obscured.
Though it seemed like a long time grinding up to the ridge, we finally arrived. Now came the circuitous ramble that would take us behind the ramparts into the alpine basin beyond. On the way, we ran into a mother grouse, and for a time the clouds even hinted at blue skies!
As mentioned before, Capilano’s broad alpine basin, though it takes a solid effort to reach, is what really makes this trip worthwhile. Unfortunately, as luck would have it, the rains arrived there just as we did, dampening our spirits a little. At the time, I remember saying if we wanted the sun to come out, we just needed to put on our rain gear. Just a few minutes later, we were peeling off our jackets as the sun broke through the clouds. I’ve no doubt in my mind it would have deteriorated into a torrential downpour had we left them at home!
We pushed onward, with the aid of countless jokes, toward the summit. There was a bit of route finding involved, but the views were now becoming very worthwhile. Our first order of business was to once again lose some hard earned elevation gain as we made for the summit ridge. So close, and yet so far away.
Doug’s memory returned as we began the climb up a steep slope filled with heather, and he reminded me of how we’d wrestled with that problem on the first trek. This time, after a fresh rain, plenty of care was needed just to stay upright! Steadily though, the summit got closer and closer!
And then we were there! It was just as I recalled it, a broad and rambling granite plateau, with expansive views everywhere! We took some time to enjoy our lofty perch, but not too long, as I had to be down in time to catch the ferry homeward. In the end, with a more relaxed pace and so much exploration, this trip ended up taking us over four hours longer than it did in 2005! Here are some of the sights and scenery we took in at the summit!
With some regret, we began the trek down to the tarns, happy in the knowledge that we were halfway home! On the descent, we had some unfinished business to take care of in the form of retrieving Doug’s bear spray and gathering more of Steve’s mushrooms. The emerging sunlight meant we’d be staying dry, at least!
It was at about this point that I began to get a bit of a leg cramp, but lately Steve always packs electrolyte tablets to add when he filters water. They are an item I keep forgetting to add to my own kit, as they’ve proven useful many times. Luckily the tablets breathed life into me at just the right time, but they didn’t help the sore back I was also dealing with. Getting older isn’t always fun! We hiked onward, behind the ramparts, up and down, up and down, up and down… until we finally reached the boulder field again.
We busied ourselves with hustling toward the bikes as best we could, but it soon became apparent I wasn’t going to make the 820 pm ferry at Horseshoe Bay, so I’d be catching the 1040 pm sailing. Steve’s cache of mushrooms also steadily grew on the hike down! When we finally reached the bike cache, I walked right by it, not noticing my GPS had recalibrated somewhat. The ride down went well, albeit cautiously for me as I was unable to adjust the seat post on my bike. Once we reached the trucks, everyone breathed a collective sigh of relief!
We chilled for a while before moving on, as the sun began to sink slowly out of sight. An hour or so later, I was laid out on top of my pack on the deck of the ferry, utterly spent and gazing at the full moon. It would be after midnight before I was on my way home from Departure Bay, and two more hours until I finally slept. It had been a long and rewarding day!
Biking onto the ferry, staying at Steve’s. Delores and Bosco
Repeat it all, speed walker, finding the mushrooms, finding the bikes, ride down, ferry ride home by 1 pm
Notes, electrolyte water tablets, Steve’s filter
Bagger challenge spooning, Tweedsmuir, Burwell, wtf is with our memories? Only remembered a bit re the forest, the climb up to base of boulder field, and the swim tarn area, also a bit about the climb up to the summit last pitch
How the hell did we manage to do this in just over 8 hours even after I endoed and broke my ribs? That was 2005, this is now. Arguably I think Doug could have managed it this time in 1 1/2 hours less, but the rest of us were on the limit.
They nicknamed it Eden Grove, reminiscent of the Garden of Eden, which, in theological lore, was intended to be the paradise where mankind had its hopeful beginnings. Some years ago, Ken Wu and TJ Watt of the Ancient Forest Alliance (AFA) happened upon this spectacular grove of trees in the heart of Vancouver Island’s Gordon River Valley, not far from Port Renfrew. As the raven flies, it is located on Edinburgh Mountain, just minutes from the iconic Big Lonely Doug, the now legendary Douglas Fir which has only recently been designated for protection by the Government of British Columbia. Eden Grove (not an official name) falls within the traditional lands of the Pacheedaht First Nation. It is about thirty hectares of prime valley bottom ancient forest. Douglas Fir and Western Red Cedar are the showcase species, including one cedar that’s well over twelve feet in diameter! Many of the specimens there are likely 500 to 1000 years in age, but forests as rich in biodiversity as Eden Grove can take up to twice that long to fully evolve.
Recently, I had the opportunity to tour this grove with local adventure guide and tree enthusiast Duncan Morrison. A resident of Sooke, just east of Port Renfrew, he’s quite knowledgeable about the area and keenly interested in saving its ancient forests. We met in Lake Cowichan and drove out to the coast from there, with the clearcuts visible from the now paved Harris Creek Main a sombre reminder of past forest management decisions. I had been looking forward to visiting these trees since earlier this year, when I visited Avatar Grove and Big Lonely Doug in March. We arrived in late morning on a warm summer day in August, and it was something of a relief when we dropped into the cool shade of Eden Grove.
The rough route through the grove was actually well trodden in places, a surprise to me, as I had thought it a relative secret. We met a number of like minded people enjoying their opportunity to travel back in time, as it were, while sunshine filtered through the canopy above.
It took just a minute or two to reach one of Eden Grove’s largest cedars, which measures a healthy 39 feet around! I could hear the calls of many birds there, though we saw very few. The mosquitoes and flies, though, were another story, as they found us right away!
It is not just the trees here that are at stake. Among other species, these lands are also known to provide homes for cougars, black bears, Roosevelt elk, marbled murrelets, Queen Charlotte goshawks, and Northern red legged frogs. Watch this video that the Ancient Forest Alliance put together, it really emphasizes just how crucial habitat like this is to wildlife. You can also read about a most interesting tree climb that took place in Eden Grove back in 2016, when the AFA teamed up with expert tree climbers Matthew Beatty of the Arboreal Collective and Damien Carré of Expedition Old Growth to ascend a giant Douglas Fir in the endangered forest.
Fifteen minutes into our hike brought us to the marking for the planned logging road into the grove. It looked as though it would lead into Eden Grove from the general direction of the clearcut that’s home to Big Lonely Doug. Much as I’d like to say it was hard to imagine a road there, it was not, as I’ve seen it happen many times in other places.
There are times when I photograph a forest that I have to make a concerted effort to show its beauty, and then there are the times when it comes easily. On this excursion, it definitely was the latter, as Eden Grove delivered in every way. Walk with me, I’ll let the images speak for themselves, with a few captions…
We meandered on, toward one of the more interesting sights in the forest. There are two ancient cedars that stand together, in more ways than one! For now at least, the larger of the two steadfastly supports the other, which leans to the right at a considerable angle. Duncan took to calling them The Arch.
The understory is diverse and alive with greenery. There are more than a few fallen giants now providing their nutrients to the forest as they decay, completing their own circles of life. These downed trees also provide shelter for small animals, amphibians, and insects.
Eventually you swing gradually to the right and follow the top of an embankment, which is where the cut block boundary has been marked. The hillside beneath is packed with ferns, but above them all, there are a few more unexpected delights.
A most peculiar cedar with a radically twisted trunk is sure to get your attention. I have taken to calling it “The Corkscrew Cedar”.
The magic continued, more than enough to keep two enthusiastic tree hunters more than busy. Duncan knew the route was soon to end, so we took a break for a few minutes for a bite to eat and discussed what to do next. He was hoping to go for a quick swim in a nearby creek, while I was preoccupied with bushwhacking to a cedar we had spotted across a steep ravine!
During our brief stop, we were looking straight at what I am calling the Boundary Cedar, which sits right along that line of falling boundary tape. I suspect it to be in the nine foot diameter range but we did not measure it.
As anyone who has read the Old Testament might know, not everything went well in the Garden of Eden, and B.C.’s forests, metaphorically, have also been forever changed by those tempted by avarice. Recently there has been heated discussion about preserving the remaining old growth forests in the province of British Columbia, but the oldest of habits die hard. Logging company Teal Jones, which holds the timber license for Eden Grove, has even made a recent announcement that they are closing all of their mills that process second growth timber on Vancouver Island. Their intent, in the future, is to exclusively log profitable stands of ancient forest, and that has the clock ticking loudly toward the destruction of Eden Grove. Indeed, they have already begun logging in several other sections of the valley, and it may not be long before the grove becomes yet another clearcut!
Roughly ten yards from our lunch spot, we located the largest tree in the grove, which I’ll call the Eden Giant. It’s quite a sight, at nearly 40 feet in circumference and close to 13 feet at its widest diameter! It would not surprise me if it were well over 800 years old!
Having seen much of what the forest had to offer, we finally decided to hike back to the logging road. I also took a few, errrr, maybe a lot more more pictures! The end of the route is well enough marked, so that you know where to turn around.
On the way into the grove, as I mentioned earlier, we had sighted a cedar that was on the opposite side of a dry creek bed that I just had to see! Getting to it involved clambering over some fairly precarious ground. Duncan, having recently had knee surgery, wisely chose to wait for me as I made my way to it. At first I thought that it was dead, but closer inspection revealed that it is still clinging to life, with just one strong limb still growing.
I was glad to have made the detour across the ravine, but just as stoked to be back on the easier ground again! It was around this time we ran into a couple of hikers and chatted about these trees. It’s always encouraging to meet like minded people!
When we got back to the road, Duncan headed off to enjoy that refreshing swim he’d been thinking about, while I got sidetracked photographing the unnamed creek nearby. Maybe it should be called Eden Creek! There’s even a small waterfall nearby but I took no picture of it as a number of people were swimming there. Seems like Duncan wasn’t the only one thinking about cooling off that day!
The British Columbia New Democratic Party (BCNDP) campaigned on a promise to review and increase the protection of our fast shrinking ecological treasures, but in reality, their policy has been “business as usual”. All they have done to date is to designate a mere 54 significant trees for preservation, many of which were never expected to be logged. Unfortunately, while Forest Minister Doug Donaldson and Premier John Horgan refuse to implement a moratorium on old growth logging, the timber companies are, if anything, stepping up their activities. It is as though they have decided, that now is the time to escalate their efforts, rather than decrease them. Coastal temperate rainforests have been under attack for over a century now, and the crisis has risen well past the point of no return. Additionally, government policies and some of their definitions have only served to confuse the facts and end up distorting the truth. They have included countless stands of relatively unproductive timber in their inventory of remaining old growth forests in British Columbia, perhaps in order to inflate that number.
The reality is that valley bottom stands of ancient forest are disappearing as fast as they can be cut, at a rate of roughly 34 football fields per day in British Columbia alone! On Vancouver Island, almost 94% of the valley bottom ancient forest has already been cut. We hear the government say that they know, as do the timber companies, that logging these forests is the best way to manage the resource. But is this true? Let’s consider the numbers. Cutting down an old growth forest certainly does bring revenue and jobs, but it also removes a highly desired income source from the eco tourism industry. Much of the planet is becoming very conscious of nature. People want to see the ancient forests, the wild, storm blasted coastal beaches, and the roaring waterfalls! Port Renfrew, once exclusively a logging town, has already seen that writing on the wall. Its business sector has realized the value of the natural world, which they well know can only bring added value to their community. They are even billing the town as ” Tall Tree Capital of Canada”. Studies have shown that the sustainable value from ecotourism far exceeds that of a one time clearcut even if subsequent second growth harvest is factored in. That does not even take into account that many timber companies cut and ship raw logs to foreign countries for cash. When that happens, jobs are actually lost, not created, and in B.C. that questionable practice has gone on for decades!
So what is the ideal solution? Harley Rustad, the author of Big Lonely Doug, has previously suggested that Big Lonely Doug and Eden Grove be designated as a provincial park (story here). What an excellent idea! Honestly, I’d like to see ALL of Edinburgh Mountain’s remaining old growth be saved from the chainsaws, but we do need to start somewhere!
There are precedents for similar commitments in our province already, such as Ancient Forest/Chun T’oh Whudujut Park and Protected Area, which opened in 2016 as our newest provincial park. I made a recent visit there myself and I was thoroughly impressed! It’s important to note, however, that 25% of its forest was logged before it attained protected status, so now, as then, time is of the essence.
Canada ought to become a world leader in conservation, and saving our ancient forests would be an excellent step on that road to future success. Logging companies persist in spreading the notion that forests are a renewable resource, and that in a few decades the trees will grow again. Yes, it’s true, they will grow, and the forest will regenerate to some extent, but places such as Eden Grove will actually take many centuries to resemble what they are today! Considering climate change, that process, in fact, could take even longer, or it may no longer be possible. We have plenty of second growth and less productive older forests that could be cut instead, so it’s about time the logging industry changed its business model. Eden Grove should remain as it was intended to be, a paradise that only nature could have created.
Human intervention has already changed Edinburgh Mountain forever, but there is still time to save what remains of this unique place. I ask that once you have read this story, please share it widely to garner public attention. Feel free to send it to your local Member of the Legislative Assembly (MLA) in British Columbia, and/or your Member of Parliament (MP) in Canada. Most importantly, share your concerns, along with the story, with Doug Donaldson, who is the B.C. Minister of Forests, and John Horgan, the premier of B.C. (both pictured below).
You can also share this story with friends, conservation organizations, media outlets, newspapers, and any other sources that may help to spread the word worldwide. If you do share the story, please do so respectfully, as a constructive discussion needs to take place in order to further this cause.
I’ll leave you with a video that Duncan sent to me that was made in Eden Grove by some friends of his, I hope you enjoy the musical interlude!
*While the Ancient Forest Alliance and other organizations have campaigned for the protection of Eden Grove, neither the BCNDP nor Teal Jones have yet responded positively. Edinburgh Mountain’s ancient forests truly need to be preserved for our future generations! Consider supporting the AFA’s tireless work to save old growth forests in British Columbia in this campaign, and in others, by clicking here
*Though he still remains in an advisory capacity, Ken Wu has since left the AFA in September of 2018 and now heads up the Endangered Ecosystems Alliance
Travels and adventures past and present, from camping to hiking to searching for B.C.'s remaining old growth trees, and treks to the mountains