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Canyoneering 101: An Afternoon in Looper Creek Canyon

 

It was September of 2012 when I received a message from my good friend Chris: Was I interested in joining him and a group of friends to do some canyoneeering on Vancouver Island?

First, a brief explanation, of sorts. For those of you who have never heard of canyoneering, it’s a sport in which you don a wetsuit and dry pack and make your way down a creek canyon as best you can to hopefully emerge in one piece. I kid, really. Actually, it is generally a very safe pursuit when you consider that you make use of a plethora of mountaineering gear, if needed, and take all the necessary precautions while making said descents.

It didn’t take me long to answer in the affirmative. Chris had been telling me canyoneering tales for years and I’d been intrigued for quite some time. His description of the Looper Creek Canyon’s beautiful polished rock and verdant limestone gorge sounded fantastic to me, and so more plans were made.

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Morning on the ferry deck

Since Chris was on a tour of some Pacific Northwest canyons and already on Vancouver Island, I’d be taking the ferry over to Nanaimo to meet him in Departure Bay. Riding the boat with me was Vlad, a long time climbing partner of Chris whom I’d only had the chance to meet briefly before. Also in on the trip were Kevin and Francois, aka Fix, who were also on “The Island” and had been descending some other canyons there. The sun was just beginning to come up as my wife Jan dropped Vlad and me off at Horseshoe Bay. We were in luck, it looked as though it would be another warm and sunny day.

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Looking back at the city, Island bound again!

As the ferry steamed toward Nanaimo, Vlad and I sat out on the upper deck enjoying the scenery and sharing hiking stories. Soon the boat was docking, and we met Kevin and Fix on the other side. They were still recovering from the previous day’s adventure but other than lack of sleep they were none the worse for wear. I had known Kevin from sites online for years, so it seemed, strangely, as though we had already met. Fix, who was entirely new to me, was a real canyon enthusiast with a strong interest in photography and filming.

But, where was Chris? He’d left his transplanted home in Utah some days ago and as far as I knew had last been somewhere in Washington state. In another fifteen minutes, his well used Jeep Cherokee rolled into the parking lot and Vlad and I jumped in for the ride. With Fix and Kevin following in Kevin’s Jeep, we all set out for Lake Cowichan, where we would begin a long drive on logging roads bound for Looper Creek. “Don’t mind the dust, chips, the box of blueberries and whatever else you find.” Chris warned, jokingly. “Just move whatever so you can sit down!” Many shenanigans were shared along the way; this was to be the sixth canyon in six days for Chris, one of his busier weeks ever.

We continued to Lake Cowichan where there was a stop to fuel up, and then hit the logging roads for at least another fifty kilometres. Finally, Chris pulled over abruptly at an inconspicuous looking bridge. We walked over and stood about for a minute. “Well, that’s the canyon down there,” Chris said. I peered down into the deep gorge, but I couldn’t see much of anything in the midday shadows.

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Peering into the “abyss” from the Looper Creek Bridge

Seconds later Kevin and Fix arrived and the next half hour was taken up with both idle banter and the important task of outfitting everyone with the necessary gear for the trip. Then there was an important discussion regarding the possible technical challenges. In canyoneering, teamwork is paramount, because once you’re in the canyon, you’re pretty much committed and it can often be difficult to reverse your direction. Since this was summer, high water flows were not expected. If we were lucky, the whole trek might be able to be done in wetsuits and of course the mandatory climbing helmets, but nevertheless we would be ready for anything!

I was of two worlds on this trip. Firstly, I was the oldest person in group, but secondly, I was also the least experienced, as this was to be my first canyon. Since Chris has been one of my best mates for years and I’d heard so many stories, I did have a good idea of what to expect, however. As for the others, Vlad had been in a number of canyons with Chris, while Kevin and Fix were both seasoned veterans.

Once we had packed up, it was time to make our way up the logging spur near the bridge for about a kilometre and a half to where we would drop in to the canyon. Being the ever eager rookie, I’d already put on my wetsuit and tied it off at the waist for the walk uphill. The result of that was an uncomfortable stroll in the hot sun, though I was glad to have the leggings on when we bushwhacked down into the gorge.

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Kevin dropping in!
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Vlad gets ready
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Chris is pretty relaxed, he’s been here before

 

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Monster Bigleaf Maple specimen, probably 300 years old
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Polished rock

No sooner had Fix led the way down the steep, brushy slope, than we were all on the banks of Looper Creek. Huge Bigleaf Maple trees towered above us as the creek ambled quietly by. I could tell almost immediately that this was a special place, quite unlike any I had been before. As a youngster one of my favourite things to do was to find a creek and explore it, so this seemed like another chapter of my youth, in a sense.

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An otherworldly place

We walked onward through the waters, descending, almost imperceptibly at first. The mood was light and there was no shortage of humour from everyone.

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Vlad and Kevin taking it all in
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Fix leading the way
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Kevin contemplates the day
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Walking downstream

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Pretty soon we reached a clearing with deep emerald pools and a series of small cascades, so it looked as though we’d now be doing some swimming. It was there that everyone else got into their wetsuits.

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I also got a tutorial on how to stash your camera in a dry bag. Kevin and I were using waterproof digital cameras whereas Chris and Fix had digital SLRs. They had ample suggestions about how best to keep your camera dry but that was something that was brand new to me!

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Vlad in the very first pool

We moved on, walking through narrows, hopping on rocks, and swimming through pools. It was just a lot of good clean fun! There was plenty to see along the way.

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Kevin befriends one of the locals
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Into the mystic

Canyoneering is a very unique experience. I found it similar in spirit to exploring forests, one of my favourite pursuits, in that you envelop yourself in the surroundings. The walls help to enhance that feeling. It is very different from mountaineering, my other passion, where you may begin in forest but you work your way ever upward into the open terrain of the alpine. Each pursuit has its own enticing qualities, I believe.

There was but one demanding section, as depicted below, near a confluence of huge fallen trees. Chris had thought we might need to break out the harnesses and rappel down to the waters below, but as it turned out it was able to be circumvented using a simple hand line. For good measure, though, Chris and Kevin took the time to practice setting up some gear. The rest of us were either taking photos or clowning about, and jumping into pools!

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Kevin and Chris setting up
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Fix looks on as they rig gear
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Chris tests out his work

The sun made occasional appearances too, wherever an opportunity presented itself.

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The canyon was a place of truly phantasmal beauty, and it seemed that everywhere one looked caused the fascination to grow stronger.

There were the walls. Sheer, unyielding, granite, limestone. Sometimes they were smooth and polished, other times rough, even somewhat sinister, and enclosing.

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Then there were the fallen trees, interlocked to create obtructions, or perfectly placed to aid our path. It rather reminded me a life sized version of the kids game “Kerplunk”, as we manoeuvred our way over, under, down, and around their hulking skeletons. Whenever it seemed we had reached an impasse, nature seemed to provide some avenue of escape.

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The vegetation too, was everywhere and conspicuous. Every available space for growth was exploited, wherever possible, and sometimes where improbable.

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Another huge Bigleaf Maple tree

Last but far from least were the pools. Clear, green, shimmering, sometimes travertine. Some were shallow, others deep. Some you walked, some you swam, others you floated through.

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I learned a lot about photography in watery conditions on this trek. Each person had their own way of landing shots and a system of setting up for the ideal image. Even if you brought a waterproof camera, as I did, you still have to keep water off the lens!

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Fix landing the ideal shot
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One of my favourite shots from the trip, taken with my eight year old Olympus 410 Waterproof Camera. It still works well today!

The journey continued on down the gorge. Eventually, we arrived at the crux of the trip, a large pool surrounded by rock walls that canyoneers sometimes wryly refer to as a “keeper pothole”. The name derives from the fact that they can sometimes recquire a grappling hook to escape. This one had no such issues, though I scuffled briefly because for whatever reason my hands had gone numb. Here’s a short video Kevin took of the resulting shenanigans, where, if you ask me, Vlad steals the show by repeatedly leaping in and climbing out again.

After a few more laughs and a lot more photographs we moved on again. Just when it seemed the trek might never end, or simply wasn’t meant to end, we reached the grand finale.

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Chris heading through a narrows

Suddenly, the creek virtually vanished, its flow now subterranean. Our path bent sharply to the right, then to the left before the water reappeared in a succession of swims that finished in a cavern like chamber underneath the bridge we had begun at. It was high above us, and partially obscured. From the road above one could never have known that such magic was so well hidden from sight!

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We lingered there as long as we could, reflecting on the day. I later discovered that my friend Karsten K. had once rappelled off the bridge to the place we now stood admiring. Now that is what I call making an entrance! This is Karsten, below, after that rappel into the gorge. Check out his Flickr photo site by clicking on the photo, it’s well worth the time!

Looper Creek Canyon

We left reluctantly, scouting for the exit trail nearby. It was well rigged with a series of ropes to aid us in our ascent. In another ten minutes we were at the trucks, sharing the stoke of a truly unique adventure. Amid all the camaraderie, a few beers were drank, thanks to Kevin, and we stowed away a lot of wet gear for the ensuing ride homeward.

We then parted company with Fix and Kevin, who were bound for Duke Point, and set out for Departure Bay. The ride back on the ferry featured an epic sunset to craft the ideal ending to what was, in every way, a near perfect day.

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Ship in the night
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Texada Island from the ferry deck

If ever you’re looking for a unique experience, I highly recommend you give canyoneering a go. You won’t regret it! My only misgiving was that I had waited so long to try it myself!

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Well, maybe just one more look!

 

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The Saga of the Red Creek Fir, Part 2 of 3

The months rolled by, the pages of the calendar turned, sometimes slowly, sometimes swiftly, as life goes. Now it was May of 2008. Chris and I had resolved to try again on a spring day to find the Red Creek Fir and so, there we were again, somewhat livelier, in line again at 5 am for the ferry to Nanaimo. Filled with laughter and optimism, how could we possibly fail?  [sarcasm/] Well, keep reading, for more insight into that rather unlikely scenario [/sarcasm].

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Memorable views
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Silence of the early morning

We spent much of our time that morning on the wind blasted deck of the ferry, identifying distant peaks and planning future treks. The rest of our time was taken up watching the trials and tribulations of a very confused fellow passenger. He had had great difficulty in listening to the traffic employees direct him where to park when boarding, and later he arrived late to his car, having forgotten exactly where it was. He became thusly known as “Dude, where’s my car?”, after the title of a recent movie neither of us had actually seen. I could certainly relate to his struggles, as I’ve had plenty of trouble finding my truck in mall parking lots over the years and I’m hopeless at finding my keys!

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Soon enough, we were on the road again, intent on taking Highway 18 to Lake Cowichan so that we could save time by driving the Harris Creek Main across the island to Port Renfrew. Here are some scenes from our trip along the road, including a stop to see the Harris Creek Spruce, 400 years old and over 12 feet in diameter.

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What up? Logging companies trying to save money on security?
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Sadly, much of the heart of Vancouver Island has been logged like this. Estimates are that a mere 5% of valley bottom ecosystems remain untouched.
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The Harris Creek Spruce, which was preserved in part with the help of logging companies, I have heard
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Harris Creek, for which Harris Main, the backroad we traveled, is named

In due time, we’d arrived at the point of reckoning, as we crossed the bridge over the San Juan River.

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San Juan River

A mere five minutes more, and we pulled into the entrance of Red Creek Main, with about 12 kms to go until we found the tree.

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Hey now, that doesn’t look so bad…
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….but, on the other hand, don’t say they didn’t warn you!

Not without some mildly harrowing moments negotiating a washout or two, Chris managed to skillfully pilot us to where the trailhead supposedly was. Somehow though, things seemed altered from the original description. There was a new spur that came in from the hill above on the right that appeared to be the new road in, and the old road had been extended for what looked like a km or two at least. We opted to walk the road, searching for any sign of a trail, but we could not find anything promising. We did not have either a GPS or a set of coordinates for the tree to go by, so then we drove up the hillside to see if the tree was visible from above, even engaging in some fruitless bushwhacking for a while. I’m not sure whether it was just collective mental exhaustion or just plain inability to think logically, but we just could not figure it out at the time. By this time Angry Chris had made his appearance and he was NOT happy with the Red Creek Fir gods! The score, after the inevitable capitulation that followed, was Red Creek Fir, 2, Chris and Mick, 0. Shut out again, and none too pleased!

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Angry Homer Simpson. Not my photo, may or may not have resembled Chris at the time. (copyright Simpsons all rights reserved)

Now what? Well, Plan B suggestion for the day was to explore the new spur, called Red 100, to see where that led us, and then possibly to see if we could head down Gordon River Main and locate the Braden Creek Canyon. You see, Chris has an obsession with canyoneering. For the uninitiated, that’s a sport where you don a wetsuit and pack dry bags and climbing gear in order to descend a creek or river whatever best way you can. I’ve now tried it once, and so I can understand how he got addicted, but that’s a tale for another day.

We caught all the breaks on the next part of our day, and in half an hour we had found the Braden Creek Spur, and we got out to scout the upper canyon. This was well worth the time, and almost assuaged  the considerable frustration that was renting a room in our heads by now. Here is a look at Braden Creek. I’m still not sure or don’t recall whether Chris has descended it yet or if he will any time soon, as he’s living in Utah as I write this.

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Braden Creek, where we dropped in
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There is something special about exploring creek valleys!
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Fast and angry water here!
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This canyon has beautiful rock, much of it granitic
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By far my favourite view of this canyon, what lies beyond that opening?

So, what was left? A long ride back to Departure Bay, to catch the ferry to Horseshoe Bay again. We began to relate to how the 1982, and especially the 1994 Vancouver Canucks must have felt when their dreams were dashed, but no, we were not going to quit! This was far, far, far, from over. Like Homer Simpson gunning for that last remaining doughnut, we vowed to return. God willing, for our own good and the good of our wives’  sanity. Who knows, maybe we’d even succeed next time?

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Cruising by Nanaimo airport again

Yet another lengthy day came to a close 18 hours after it began, and the sunset views on the boat ride home put it all into perspective, our problems being, on a world scale, really rather trivial at best…

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Mt Baker and sunset. Just for fun this time we caught the Duke Point sailing
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Watching the wake
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Thanks again, BC Ferries!

Until next time, same bat time, same bat channel…