Ten centuries ago, this world was a very different place. Already, Leif Erickson, son of Eric the Red, had just led his expedition to the east coast of North America. Soon after, battles raged throughout Europe as The Crusades began, not to mention all that followed in the next nine hundred years. Why all the history? The answer, in my mind, is that it gives relevant perspective when you discuss ancient living things. Time illustrates the incredible longevity, in particular, that trees can have.
Even as Erickson landed in North America, in the relatively undisturbed coastal rainforests of Vancouver Island, a fateful cone, plausibly, had seeded itself not too far from what is now the San Juan River. Fortunately, there would soon be a sapling where the cone once lay, which eventually managed to grow well over 300 feet tall and almost fourteen feet in diameter! It may also have reached the age of a thousand years, though that estimate is based on known sizes and ages of similar trees of its species.
Today that tree is called the Red Creek Fir, and it is, by volume of wood, the largest Douglas fir on the planet! Over the years, several violent storms have reduced its height, but it still stands at 74m (242 ft) tall. It is not, however, the world’s tallest Douglas fir. That honour goes to Oregon’s Doerner Fir, which measures 327 ft tall ( it is formerly known as the Brummit Fir).
The Douglas fir, ironically, is not actually a true fir, but a member of the pine family (Pinaceae) . Pseudotsuga Menzieszi is its Latin name, and Pseudotsuga actually translates as “false hemlock”. Scottish naturalist Archibald Menzies and Scottish botanist David Douglas are its noteworthy namesakes. The Douglas fir has been a vitally important species to the timber industry, due to its strength, durability, and versatility.
My own history with this tree has been somewhat checkered, to say the least. When I lived in North Vancouver, I visited Vancouver Island not once, not twice, but three times with good friend Chris before finally getting to see it in 2009. What I’ll say for certain is that it was well worth the effort! The Red Creek Fir is definitely one of the more awe inspiring trees I have ever seen!
Considering the amount of logging that has taken place on the west coast of Vancouver Island, it’s no small miracle this giant still stands today, but now it is safe from harvesting, at least. The tree can be reached by a network of rough logging roads and a short, pleasant forest trail. I’m including a map and a few photos here that will help you find the trailhead, and detailed driving directions can be found here.
It isn’t often that you get the opportunity to meet a living being that has been around as long as the Red Creek Fir. If you’re ever in the area, and you have a vehicle with half decent ground clearance, it’s well worth a visit!
You hear it from everyone who has visited the west coast of Vancouver Island. They rave about the tall trees, the crashing surf, the unforgettable sunsets, and countless other charms. Wilderness adventurers of all experience levels come from far and wide to visit its forests and beaches year round.
British Columbia’s future may very well depend on how our province chooses to protect its natural world. It has become clear that times are changing. To those who reside here, one crucial question must be asked: If nature is really our greatest resource, why are we in such a race to destroy our future legacy?
The answer would seem simple, but conflicted interests make it complicated. We are at a crossroads: No longer are industries based solely on the extraction of natural resources a reasonable base for a thriving economy. The truth is, they have reached the point where they are destroying that very foundation. In my mind, the only way to shine the light in a different direction is to spend more time bringing attention to the natural world. That then, is primarily what this story is all about. This province needs to save its earthly splendour, and what better place to start than the windswept shores of Vancouver Island’s Pacific Coast?
The month of March brought with it unseasonably warm and dry weather this year, so it seemed like decent timing for a visit to Vancouver Island’s wild west coast. Set in the heart of unceded Pacheedaht territory, the forests near Port Renfrew still hold many hidden secrets which I hope to explore. Fortunately for me, I had an ideal tour guide for the mission, in the person of Chris Istace. “Stasher”, as he’s known to many, has spent plenty of days wandering the coast, and is one of the first good friends I’ve made in my new island home. Our plan, basically, was to visit many of the trees on the map seen below here, and to walk the Botanical Beach area. Here is a link to the fine story about this trip that Chris wrote up a while back, I highly recommend his website!
We met early in Chemainus before heading toward Lake Cowichan, where we’d grab a coffee before reaching the coast via the old Harris Creek Mainline. The last time I’d driven that road was nearly a decade before, when it was still unpaved! Much had changed, but some things had remained the same.
The ride left us plenty of time to discuss a wide variety of topics, especially the preservation of British Columbia’s ancient forests, which we both have been very vocal about. The interior of Vancouver Island is an absolute statement on how not to manage those forests and you get a front row seat to view that devastation on the road to Port Renfrew! At the very least, we as citizens ought to have more say in what happens to our forests, and there are a lot more valid questions. Why can’t we log sustainably? Why can’t we transition to a lumber economy that focuses on processing second growth timber or older stands of less prime value? Why have we been exporting raw logs and all the processing jobs that go with them? Why is there no willingness by government to protect the finest of our forests from clearcutting? To be succinct, I am not in favour of abolishing logging at all, I just feel it’s high time to change the model on which the industry operates.
It was also a chance to learn a bit more about each other’s backgrounds. We have each managed to find our way westward, but through markedly different routes. Chris has previously lived in Alberta and Estevan, Saskatchewan, whereas I moved to Nanaimo after living in Montreal, Edmonton, and North Vancouver. What I’ll say, to summarize, is that the love of outdoor living brings a lot of people to Vancouver Island!
The morning air still held a chill, as we reached Harris Creek. There we took a break and Chris showed me several of his favourite spots along the creek. The rushing waters of the canyon made for an ideal place to clear the mind, and we were happy to linger there for a while.
Our next stop was the nearby Harris Creek Spruce, a massive Sitka Spruce which is likely about five hundred years old. It’s quite fortunate that the logging companies decided to preserve it, for it holds so much life upon its aging limbs. The tree is surrounded by a picket fence, to protect its root system, and nearby there is a beautiful stand of Bigleaf Maple trees. I had first visited the tree back in 2007, and was heartened to see an old friend once again.
Port Renfrew was the next destination, where we would spend some time hiking the shores of Botany Bay and Botanical Beach. It wasn’t quite possible to arrive there at low tide, which would have been ideal for viewing the many tide pools, but nevertheless, we had a lot of fun. There is nothing quite like exploring the wild west coast of Vancouver Island, with its pounding surf and wind blasted Sitka Spruce providing the backdrop. The geology alone is quite interesting, and of course the biodiversity you find in each and every tide pool is unique and fascinating. Quite commonly you’ll see black bears wandering the shoreline foraging for food but we weren’t lucky enough to spot one that day.
Sometimes you need to go the extra mile to get yourself a really good photograph too. Have a look at this sequence and you’ll see just what I mean.
Soon we scrambled around the point and onto Botanical Beach, where we wandered just a bit longer before moving on to the next attraction. I never tire of these coastal beaches, and even the sound of waves triggers so many pleasant memories.
Our whirlwind tour continued as we stopped for a bite to eat, then headed over to Avatar Grove. The trees there were preserved through considerable effort by the Ancient Forest Alliance. On the way up we actually ventured off the trail looking at several trees that get less attention, one a venerable Douglas Fir.
The Ancient Forest Alliance, with the help of many volunteers, built trails through both the upper and lower groves and did a commendable job of campaigning for the preservation of these trees.
The upper grove is most known for the burled and twisted Western Red Cedar affectionately called Canada’s Gnarliest Tree. I’m not sure whether it can lay claim to that title but it is certainly quite the sight, with its heavily burled trunk and twisted branches!
Back on route, we visited the rest of the trees in the upper grove, and met a number of other folks paying their own respects as well. It’s notable that when left standing, forests like these drive both spiritual and economic interest in a region, which is a unique combination. Ancient forests are undoubtedly places where people find their souls.
The lower grove was our next objective, and though Chris had been to Avatar Grove a number of times he had not happened to see it yet either. I found it to be quite a revelation, in part because you could could hear the Gordon River running in the background, as filtered sunlight shone through the trees. There was a subtle breeze to go with it all, and as it turned out, we may have spent more time there than in the upper grove!
What I’ll call the high point of the day, at least in my mind, came with a visit to Big Lonely Doug, which stands almost alone in a clearcut off Edinburgh Main. Its stark existence, ironically, brings to mind that there is a campaign going on to save the trees in nearby Eden Grove merely a few hundred yards away. Keeping stands of old growth forest intact should be our goal, and in British Columbia that has been a difficult task to accomplish.
The story of Big Lonely Doug is an interesting one, to say the least! Apparently, on a winter morning in 2011, a logger named Dennis Cronin was walking through a stand of old-growth forest in the Gordon River Valley near Port Renfrew. He was supposed to survey the land and flag the boundaries for an up and coming clearcut. Soon he would soon stumble upon one Canada’s largest Douglas firs, no doubt worth a considerable sum in the timber market. Cronin, for reasons of his own, marked the tree with a ribbon that instructed the fallers to leave the tree standing, and that is just what they did. Everything around the tree was levelled and removed, leaving the now solitary fir alone in the cut block. Ironically, the tree was even used as a spar, as cable was wrapped around it in order to help haul other trees out of the cut block. Some time later, environmentalist T.J.Watt of the Ancient Forest Alliance, an organization committed to preserving old growth forests in British Columbia, happened to find it while out searching for big trees in the valley.
If ever there was an apt metaphor for the destruction of British Columbia’s ancient forests, that Douglas fir was a textbook example. A towering giant, set in a field of destruction, the tree would soon be given a name: Big Lonely Doug. It would gain tremendous popularity, embraced by Port Renfrew, which calls itself “Tall Tree Capital of Canada”
The sheer scale of this Douglas Fir is something to behold. I had seen countless photos of it and closely followed its story, but as they say, seeing is believing! Chris had seen the tree before, but was no less impressed. I’m not at all surprised that author Harley Rustad was inspired to write a book about this tree!
Just looking at Big Lonely Doug and all the stumps in the clearcut, I could not help but imagine what has been lost in our forests. Time is definitely running out to save them! We spent the better part of an hour just taking it all in and working for the ideal photo opportunity.
Before we headed homeward, we decided to make one more stop. It had been years since I had been to the San Juan Spruce, which was British Columbia’s largest Sitka Spruce up until several years ago, when a storm destroyed part of its upper canopy. I lamented the fact that I’d not taken photos of it back in 2003, as I didn’t have a camera with me at the time. It remains, nevertheless, still an inspiring tree, set as it is right beside the San Juan River, in the middle of a forest service campground!
The drive home seemed somewhat faster than I expected, but then again all things come to an end, relatively speaking. As we parted ways in Chemainus, I was already contemplating a return trip and some new explorations. You can never get enough of coastal British Columbia!
As I write this, the current state of preservation of old growth trees here on Vancouver Island is still of pressing concern. Already, very little ancient forest remains here, and neither the incumbent New Democratic Party, the current opposition B.C. Liberal Party, nor a plethora of logging companies have any desire to cease the destruction. Only British Columbia’s Green Party, part of the coalition government at this time, is supporting a moratorium on old growth logging. What is really needed here is a paradigm shift, for lack of a better phrase. The tired rhetoric of seeing old growth forest as a decaying resource that might as well be harvested or it will lose value is simply an excuse for justifying environmental destruction. Why not consider change?
Picture the scene. You’re hunting the forests of the Pacific Northwest in search of record giants. On a hillside you can see the outline of a massive trunk in the distance. Is it a Western Red Cedar? Douglas fir? Whatever the answer is, you’re determined to find out! You struggle up the steep slope, and suddenly that tree disappears quickly, as though it had been an apparition. Why? Because now you’re going to have to scramble over some fallen timber and around a sharp cliff face before you can see it again. You press on, momentarily cursing the obstructions, and grab onto a nearby limb to pull yourself upward. Oddly, you observe, the tree you’re holding onto also has needles growing out of the trunk, and its bark is a beautifully understated hue of reddish brown, and then you look upward…and realize the tree in question is a very sizeable Pacific Yew!
That, so often, is typical of how one happens upon a yew in the forest. It grows inconspicuously, its base preferring the shaded understory beneath the towering trees above. Meanwhile, its upper branches reach higher into the forest canopy, gathering more sunlight for growth. Quite often you’ll see one from afar and assume it’s either dead, or deciduous, as frequently there is little foliage on the lower extremities of an older specimen. The overwhelming notion, though, is that you seem to stumble upon them, as though they are hidden in plain sight!
While they aren’t frequent topics of discussion among tree hunters, they are nevertheless highly significant forest dwellers. Their flaking bark is frequently home to mosses that give refuge to flora, and their trunks, which are usually hollow, are often home to Douglas Squirrels and other small rodents. At higher elevations, the tree grows closer to the ground and seems to have more limbs. Quite often, when you walk a mountain trail at elevations up to 800m, you’ll inadvertently grab a piece of one to assist you upward!
The giants of the species are not exceptionally large when compared to their forest companions. The largest one in British Columbia, for example, is just 0.91m in diameter at breast height, fairly modest in comparison to, say, that 14 foot wide cedar that may be growing nearby! It has a consistent habit of rotting from the inside out, making it difficult to determine its precise age, but I’ve managed to find several that are at least 300 years old. It also boasts wood that is exceptionally hard, which can dull a chainsaw chain after a single cut, or so I’ve been told.
I’ve grown fond of these underrated denizens of the rainforest over the years. The next time you walk through an ancient forest, take a closer look around. You might soon find yourself looking at a beautiful Pacific Yew, and once you do, you’ll be seeing the forest for ALL the trees!
Doug’s Ford Explorer rolled slowly to a stop. It was an ideal summer morning back in 2009, and there was plenty of excitement in the air. We were finally going to climb Castle Towers Mountain! The plan was simple: We would hike along the ridge lines below Helm Peak after leaving the trail, then work our way to Gentian Pass. From there, we would push on to set up camp on Polemonium Ridge and find our way to the summit the following day. You may have heard that this part of British Columbia is overcrowded and a bit too popular for your liking. While sometimes that is undeniably true, likely even more so today, I think this story might just change your mind a little. If you’ve ever had any doubt that spending a couple of days hiking in Garibaldi Provincial Park is a good idea, then be prepared to dismiss those worries!
With full packs, the grunt up the Helm Creek Trail took plenty of effort, but we were still elated to be there. Doug had put a lot of planning into this trek, and now it was time to put our boots to the trail. It seemed a relatively short couple of hours for us to make it up to the Helm Creek campsite, and some overnight campers were still lingering there as we arrived at Helm Meadows. The momentary envy we felt for the coffee they had was all but extinguished when I told Doug I’d packed some beer along for the walk!
If by now you’re wondering about the catchy title to this story, well, here’s an explanation of sorts. So, exactly what is a hoser? See the actual definition below, but the word has come to mean any typical Canadian in many circles, and it’s also a nickname that got attached to the two of us by friends years ago. The flowers and Castle Towers? I’ll let the photos answer that question!
To elaborate, I offer the following:
Hoser: (n) Canadian hockey derogatory term that is similar to the American “idiot” or “loser”. It is derived from the pre-Zamboni days in hockey, where the losing team would be stuck with hosing down the ice after the game. It was popularized again by the characters Dave Thomas and Rick Moranis played on the SCTV comedy show of the late 1970s and 1980s.
The next phase of the operation was to circumvent the Helm Glacier so that we could arrive at the col above Gentian Pass. To do that, we climbed steeply toward Helm Peak and simply meandered along the ridge some 250 metres below its summit. The clouds and sunshine put on a real show for us as we walked, and although the weather looked unsettled it ended up clearing just as we had hoped. The views, at least, were a welcome distraction, as the slope we had chosen to hike up was steep and lined with heather.
Spectacular views of Gentian Peak, Black Tusk, and many of the peaks of the Garibaldi Ranges made their appearance one by one. Though we were beginning to feel the heat of the day and the weight of our carry, it hardly seemed to matter. Gazing at all of the lakes, with their varied shades of blue and green, I could not have imagined a better place to be on a summer day.
Once we reached the col, we virtually stopped in our tracks. There it was, Castle Towers! The very first time I had hiked to Garibaldi Lake I had been drawn to this high, glaciated, triple summited tower, and now we were getting a closer look. After a brief diversion examining a weather station there, we continued on.
It is here on this climb that you get an idea of the punishment you’ll endure on the return, because at that point you drop at least 250 metres in elevation to reach Gentian Pass. As per mountain terminology it isn’t strictly a pass so much as it is the Gentian – Polemonium Col, I suppose, but the name seems to have stuck. It took us another three quarters of an hour to reach the short expanse of meadow below, with its fine views of Castle Towers and the nearby Spearhead Range. By then we were in no mood for the up and coming hike up to Polemonium that was to follow, so we decided it was dinner time.
Doug broke out the stove and cooked up tasty dinner of rice and chicken with Indian spices, which was so good at the time I can still recall it a decade later! Meanwhile, I iced down some beers in a creek nearby and broke out some Snickers bars for dessert. After we ate and drank, we took ourselves a short nap, which really helped Doug as he hadn’t been feeling that well the week before the trip. Still, it was only with great reluctance that we shouldered our packs again and made for the ridge above. It seemed like every step took a minute, but eventually we reached our destination.
Polemonium Ridge was a revelation! It was a broad plain of multiple levels, and featured endless vistas of the surrounding peaks. Though I don’t remember saying much at the time, I do recall being very thankful to be there! For lodging, we had brought two lightweight bivouac shelters that were braced with our hiking poles, and of course sleeping bags. We placed camp in a carefully located position, in case the winds kicked up, then set to exploring the ridge for a spell. Garibaldi Lake loomed below us, no doubt buzzing with campers, but from our perch we heard only faint summer breezes and the calls of nearby marmots. This was a real mountaineer’s camp, complete with some aging remnants left on a previous expedition or two. I even found an old pair of aviator sunglasses that date back to the 1970s which I still have today!
The sunset was a grand show, as the alpenglow danced across the nearby peaks and a fiery orange glow hung over the Tantalus Range and the Squamish Cheakamus Divide. We spent the time letting all of that sink in and talking about trips past and future, and the fact we were then out of beer! Shortly after the sundown, we turned in, wanting to take advantage of the cooler morning conditions as we knew we’d be climbing in the shadows. Sleep came easily, it had been a long day!
I awoke early, as I always do in the mountains, having never been one to lie in a few extra hours when there’s a sunrise to see. I found myself thinking about my father, who had passed away the previous November. He had a lot to do with teaching me about the joys of early rising, being of the belief that it was particularly sublime to be awake while most of your corner of the world was ensconced in slumber. I will always think of him in the wee hours of the morning.
Breakfast came next, then we cached some of our gear which we’d pick up on the descent. No sense carrying too much weight, right? Cool morning air accompanied us as we climbed further up the ridge and searched for the gully that would give us passage to the west flank of Castle Towers. It turned out that it wasn’t too difficult to locate, the crux being all of the loose rock that we had to contend with. We were well distracted by the views of the hulking mass of the Garibaldi massif and it’s volcanically created lake in the valley below.
Pretty soon our objective stood before us, and next we scaled yet another pile of randomly placed rock to bring us to the foot of a snowfield. According to our information, the snow here was supposedly in decent shape for kicking steps, so we’d opted not to bring crampons and ice axes with us. Big mistake! Doug, with his sturdier footwear, was able to lead successfully up the steep pitch to make it just barely possible for us to cross the snow. I followed behind, trying to very carefully place my steps. Since there was some exposure, this took us some time, but in time we made it up intact. Lesson learned? A serious mountaineer brings ALL the necessary gear, and that way if you need it you have it with you!
All that was left to do was to finish the climb to the west summit, where we could examine the rest of the route. That consisted of a fairly large boulder field, which never gave the feeling of walking on secure and solid ground. Nearly every rock moved regardless of its size, and that made for one very nervous ascent, but we just kept on moving until we arrived at the top.
The west summit of Castle Towers is a spectacular vantage point. Not only could we see Garibaldi across the valley, but many of the more rarely ascended peaks in the park, such as The Sphinx, Isosceles, The Bookworms, Phyllis Engine, and many more. We could even see the Tantalus Range and could make the distant peaks of the Squamish Elaho Divide. Mt Price and Garibaldi Lake stood out in especially sharp relief, and seemed close enough to reach out and touch, as did the Castle Towers Glacier!
This was a day on which I was going strongly, but I could soon see that Doug was now grinding out every step. It turned out that he was dealing with a case of vertigo which was disturbing his sense of balance, despite his determination. When we finally reached the cairn of the west summit, it was time to reevaluate our situation. Doug decided it would be best if he rested for a while, while I finished the task and made my way to the central and true summit. While that looked relatively straightforward, my concern for his well being prevented me from doing that. Had I met with an accident, I could not have been sure he was going to be alright on his own, and since we were in a very isolated location, I opted to stand down. While I felt was the right decision, it wasn’t necessarily an easy one, but whatever disappointment we felt soon faded away as we focused on the incredible views!
We savoured the moment as best we could, as soon we’d be on the clock again, and heading homeward. We’d need to pick up the rest of our gear that we’d left at camp on Polemonium Ridge as well, and were expecting a long walk back to the parking lot! For a minute or two, we could hear nothing but the wind whistling through the vents in our helmets. I love that sound!
Feeling somewhat fresher than before, we now backtracked down the boulder field, with all the more caution. It may have been even more unnerving on the descent, as even car sized boulders shifted underfoot. I remember laughing uneasily, referring to it all as “geologically recent”, mostly because it was!
When we reached the hardened snowfield for the second time, I had even come up with the idea of using a sharp rock to improve the steps, but the sun had shifted, serving to slightly soften the snows. It turned out nature had helped us out somewhat, and we were soon back on the endless rubble that would lead us back to the now familiar gully, then up to Polemonium Ridge beyond. It wasn’t quite as easy to climb as when we’d descended it, mostly because we kept finding rocks to dislodge, but thankfully it was a short, sharp, section of suffrage.
Our loads would get a little heavier, and as we retrieved our gear and stopped for another snack on the ridge, Garibaldi Lake shimmered below in the distance. It was at that moment we joked about calling for a helicopter ride home, but part of earning your keep in the mountains means you’ve got to do that walk back to the truck!
As we left Polemonium Ridge behind, we turned to stare once again at Castle Towers. Would we try again for the summit? I knew I definitely wanted to. We still have not. It was one of the most ruggedly beautiful places I’ve seen in the Coast Mountains, not far as flies the crow from civilization, but it may as well have been a thousand miles from the closest human. It’s that very feeling of isolation that fuels my love of the mountains, and most of these words are but faint praise when comparing them to being there in the moment.
Next, however, came the drop into Gentian Pass, steep as it was, followed by the climb back up to those ridges above the Helm Glacier. We were trudging along so slowly at one point that I’m sure I recall some of the resident marmots mocking us! Despite their imaginary taunts, we soon found ourselves overlooking the Helm Glacier and its sprawling valley below. Turning one last time to Castle Towers, with a quick nod of respect, we were off yet again. It would be over an hour before we reached the well groomed trail at the Helm Creek campsite, and several more before we made it to the parking lot. It was Doug who rebounded strongly toward the finish line, as I began to fade, as much mentally exhausted as anything.
The hike back was something of a blur, so I’m glad I took plenty of photographs. All I really recall was that it was dark when we finally finished the trek! Here are some more looks, in no particular order, at this wonderfully scenic place.
Author’s Note: I must have been tired and delirious because I forgot that just before we reached the parking lot we stopped to retrieve some very cold Heinekens Doug had stashed from a nearby creek. Doug actually checked the GPS track he had and found a waypoint called Beer Creek. It makes me happy to know we weren’t deprived of refreshments after all that walking!
As popular as Garibaldi Park has become over the years, there is still land in the park that is as isolated as it is difficult to reach. Castle Towers Mountain is, in spirit at least, the gateway to this wilderness, so don’t pass up the opportunity to experience it. The harder you work, the greater the rewards!
“Whose idea was this anyway?” The question was Ted’s, as we traipsed up the old road to Singing Pass. The answer from Denis came quickly: “I believe this was your idea. You getting old or something?” I don’t remember the rest of the conversation, but I know it included some pretty good back and forth! That was unsurprising, considering the two have been hiking and climbing together for decades and were into their sixties at that time. As funny as I found the banter, I just wasn’t awake enough to laugh, though I wryly kept asking “Are we there yet?”
It may have been a lengthy approach, but I was still more than curious about the destination. Fissile Peak, part of the Overlord Group, boasted volcanic rock and fine views of the Overlord Glacier. It was also quite close to Russet Lake. Surprisingly, this part of Garibaldi Provincial Park is relatively quiet once the snows recede and the skiers pack it in for the season. You’re unlikely to meet too many other hikers on most days. The previous year, Ted had climbed Whirlwind Peak and Overlord Mountain, so he was keen to complete the trifecta by ascending Fissile.
Soon enough, but not soon enough, we were passing the old mine adit at trailside and Cowboy Ridge was now within our sights. Just like that, we were out of the trees and following easy switchbacks to the broad plain above. Some of Garibaldi’s grander summits were already front and center, and the icefield of the Cheakamus Glacier shone brightly in the morning light.
What was the highlight of the trip for me, though, was that up until that day I’d never had the chance to see a marmot in the mountains up close. Sure, I’d seen them at parks and campgrounds in British Columbia’s interior, but never on an alpine excursion. This trek was different! An entire family of marmots, in no hurry to scurry away from us, were out to welcome us to the area. We happily hung out with them for a while before heading up toward Russet Lake.
Well, that was unexpected, I remember thinking. So you ask, could this day have gotten any better? Well, yes, and no, as I’ll soon describe. We continued our stroll toward Russet Lake, opting not to check out the Himmelsbach Hut, which I recently learned has now been rebuilt since then.
Back on the trail after that moment of respite, pretty soon our quarry was within sight. Fissile Peak is a dramatic sight as you approach it, standing out beautifully against the dry alpine plateau. As I alluded to earlier, Ted had been this way a few years earlier when he’d climbed Whirlwind and Overlord Peaks, and he knew well these mountains had a reputation for loose rock. The routes up the mountain, as written in Matt Gunn’s guidebook, described two options. We chose the first, something of a free for all scuffle up an intimidating pile of scree, which, coincidentally, describes this mountain to a tee. Pretty much anything you lay your hands on or step on is a potential souvenir!
Remember New York Yankees catcher Yogi Berra, known for his peculiar sayings that stretched the boundaries of the English Language? One of his gems was “No one goes there nowadays, it’s too crowded.” Well, he certainly wasn’t talking about Fissile Peak, which is way down on Garibaldi Provincial Park’s to do list. It isn’t a place recommended for the novice hiker, to put it mildly, but as long as you are careful and persistent you should be able to make a go of it.
Once we attained the well earned ridge above, views really began opening up far and wide. The Whistler area is a great place to wander as long as you can sort out the parking and access issues. I can certainly say with conviction that I’ve never spent a bad day in Garibaldi!
Next it was simply a matter of scrambling up to the summit for a very well deserved break. We had a great laughs reading all of the quotes in the summit register. Such beauties as “I can’t believe I lived!”, “I’m not dead!” “How do we get down from here?!”, and “OMG, I’m still alive!”
Ted jokingly commented “I’d never have left that last comment. Not so fast, buddy, you’re not down yet!”
Denis and I could only concur, with the climb still fresh in mind! The views, on the other hand, were splendid, and we took more than our standard ten minutes on the summit to admire them and eat lunch.
More incredible scenery unfolded as we worked down the ridge line. “Route Two” in Matt Gunn’s Scrambles in Southwest British Columbia was our choice on the descent. There was no way we were coming down what we’d encountered on the way up! There is a bit of stiff third class scrambling to drop down off the end of the summit ridge, and then some moderate scree sliding as you reattain the valley. All in all that worked out very well. Soon we could say we’d made it down this mountain, followed by a quite a few of its rocks!
It was with great satisfaction that we staggered back down toward the trail, meeting some ptarmigans along the way and enjoying the 360 degree views. What a place! Those ptarmigans were very well camouflaged, because we nearly stepped on them! This trip certainly had been great for wildlife sightings!
A successful climb was in the books, in more ways than one, but this trek was far from over. You see, a total of 34 kms had to be walked before the journey would be complete, and we were barely halfway there. Mercifully, the temperatures remained comfortable as we started our long hike back to the truck. Since leaving was gradual, there were of course more scenes to be admired as we bantered endlessly about beer and potato chips, or rather, our current lack of same!
The better part of four more hours had us arriving back at Denis’ truck down in Whistler, where we were three very happy guys! For those interested, the Coles Notes on this trip: Elevation gain was approximately 6300 feet, that courtesy of Denis who measures vertical gain the old school way! 34 kms hiked, or about 21.25 miles. One could make the case for climbing this mountain on spring snow, if it managed to spare you the struggle up the scree. You could also choose to camp at Himmelsbach Hut if you had the time, but that wasn’t going to happen with these guys. To quote Denis “Why would I want to sleep in some drafty alpine hut when I have a perfectly good bed at home?”. Lastly, I’m not recommending this mountain to all my friends, and that’s basically because I’d like them to remain my friends!
To begin with, beer may have been enjoyed at the parking lot, and on the way home we decided to stop at Wendy’s in Squamish and load up on cheeseburgers and fries. It was one of the best decisions we made all day! What a sight we must have been walking up to the counter with the uneven gait of three old western gunfighters. It was a helluva way to end the adventure! It didn’t look at all like this, but who doesn’t love “The Good, the Bad, And the Ugly”? This trip, as it turned out, was all of those things, and more!
Anyone who knows me well enough is quite aware that I’m an obsessed Tour de France fan, so much so that I’d somehow shamelessly work “Le Tour” into the title of a story. There’s something about the true sacrifice, courage, and suffrage of the world’s premier bicycle race, which was first held in 1903, that has always fascinated me. I’ve been a devoted fan of Le Tour for decades. This story, full disclosure, bears no real resemblance to that gruelling 21 stage bike race, seeing as how it’s really about a one day tour of the Black Tusk region in Garibaldi Provincial Park. That said, I hope you’re enjoying the race so far this year and that you enjoy this tale. Hey, in the end, I’ll settle for the latter!
It had been some time that we’d been kicking around the idea of hiking up the Rubble Creek Trail en route to camping on the shoulder of the Black Tusk one evening, and then doing some looking around on the following day. So it was on a perfect August afternoon that Doug and I were grinding uphill, overnight packs in tow, starting out on the dusty switchbacks at the relatively late hour of 6 pm. It was a balmy 22 degrees, cooled by a bit of a breeze, and surprisingly, there were very few hikers encountered on the trail. The intent wasn’t actually to climb to the summit of Black Tusk- I had done that before, and on this trek we had chosen not to bring our helmets- but to thoroughly explore this ancient volcano’s features.
The hike in to our campsite up went exceedingly well! We covered the 1400 metres of elevation gain and 15 kilometres of distance in just about three and a half hours. We then set up our lightweight shelters right at the end of the maintained trail, as per the park signs. The Perseid meteor showers were in their beginnings, and it was amazing to be in a place so very quiet that was so close to civilization. Garibaldi Lake loomed silently below, and a panorama from Helm Peak all the way around to the Tantalus Range stretched out before us. One could easily see how this place had become sacred to the Squamish people, as there’s really no place that is quite the same!
Well, sometimes it’s true that all good things must come to an end, because the next thing we knew, an insidious breeze began drifting down from the col above. It started out innocuously enough, but after a while we felt as though we’d been tossed straight into a walk in freezer. We had not brought an excess of warm clothing ( especially myself), and this was to be a major issue as the night wore on. It would have helped to pack an extra layer or three! Pretty soon we reconfigured the shelter into a double bivy to try to cut down on the draft, which helped a little bit, but I spent one of the most restless outdoor nights of my lifetime. To give you an idea of how cold I was, I wasn’t even annoyed that I’d forgotten to pack the beer I’d brought with me, so I’m sure that must have meant we were close to the limits of hypothermic tolerance! The hours ebbed away at a snail’s pace, the way they always do when your teeth are chattering. We knew that it was to be sunny and 25 degrees the next day, but of course the night hung on endlessly.
Never was I so glad to see the glow of sunrise nudging the ridge beside Helm Peak at 5 am or so. I don’t know how cold it was at Helm, but I’m certain there was probably plenty of rock falling there just as there was on the slopes of Black Tusk above us that night. You see, sleeping directly below the Tusk is kind of like being at poolside with a bunch of big kids behind you, because you never really know if they’re going to push you into the pool, or not! After a while, I had convinced myself that most of those rocks were smallish and far enough away, perhaps because we had not the inclination to move anyway. So ended the infamous “Night of the Frozen ‘Nads”, as we took to calling it later!
Here follows a few images taken at the scene. You’ll have to imagine the cold just as I had to imagine the photo, as I had rolled over in the middle of the night and somehow shattered my camera screen! That made photography quite interesting for the rest of the trip, as I had no clue what I was getting in the shots that I took.
I’d be remiss, before telling the rest of this tale, if I didn’t give you a little background information on this intriguing destination, so first a little knowledge. The Black Tusk is one of the most identifiable landmarks you’ll find in the Coast Mountains. It almost seems to be thumbing its nose at the world, some might say, while others have implied the gesture might be a little more profane! The true summit, rarely reached due to several pitches of hard to protect and fast crumbling rock, is 2319m in elevation. The sub summit I had reached years ago has a worn trail right to the top and stands slightly shorter. It can be seen from quite a distance from the Squamish and Whistler area as you drive along the Sea to Sky Highway (Highway 99). Part of the Garibaldi Volcanic Belt and, of course, the Garibaldi Ranges, it’s classified as a stratovolcano
The volcano has been extinct for ages, but trust me when I tell you that when you walk its slopes it somehow seems like it could spring to life at any given moment. Geologists believe that it was originally formed about 1.2 million years ago, and that a second round of activity after glaciers receded eroded the surrounding cinder cone, leaving only its harder lava core. It’s thought that the most recent changes occurred just 170,000 years ago, which is relatively recent in geologic time!
Unbeknownst to many, the Black Tusk actually also has two sizeable glaciers, which can be found on the northeast and northwest slopes of the mountain. Like many glaciers today, they are in serious retreat, but since they are also covered in a substantial layer of fallen rock for the most part, they are melting very slowly.
The peak also has great significance to the people of the Squamish First Nations. They call it T’ak’t’ak mu’yin tl’a in7in’a’xe7en, which translates as “Landing Place of the Thunderbird”. It is said in their lore that the fire and lightning of the thunderbird was what formed the mountain. Having long been fascinated by its unique appearance, I can certainly see why they assigned such mystic qualities to it, as it certainly commands your attention! After all, as original inhabitants, they may well have witnessed its fury firsthand! When you visit, remember these words, and treat the land with the utmost respect.
After the rough night, we didn’t expect too much of ourselves, but as it turned out the coffee and cheerios we put down had us on the way to points higher at around 7 am, but not before we’d defrosted somewhat! We walked parts of the approach trail toward the summit to have a look at the chimney, stopping for all distractions on the way. Most folks who visit only bother with the direct route, so you usually have the outliers to yourself, which I enjoyed a lot. Next time up I think I would want to camp above the col on one of the sub summits, as the views from there are unparalleled!
Here are some scenes from all of that rambling, and I hope you enjoy them as much as we did!
The diversity of this place was very unexpected. I’d just expected to find a big pile of black rock but there was so much more there than meets the eye. Once we’d had our fill of the main summit, we branched out to explore the perimeter areas.
It was at this point we took a break for lunch, not really wanting to leave, but knowing that we had to. Returning to the mountains and forests again and again is seen by many as seeking a challenge, but for me it has always been the easiest thing in life to do. It’s the everyday mundane tasks and duties that confront me the most, while the mountains are a place to savour freedom in one of its purest forms! The sunny weather and warmth of the midday sun may even have been the very best part of all, as we soon forgot the cold of the previous night! It took a couple of hours to descend the path back to the parking lot, and we soon met the first of the hikers on their way uphill once we reached Taylor Meadows.
The Tour de Black Tusk ended very well, though the haze of distant wildfires obfuscated some of the views, and by mid afternoon we reached the truck and our highly anticipated cooler of beer. We met scores of people on their way up the trail to Garibaldi Lake. It was a popular place then, and that’s even truer today. All manner of folk were seen, in all ages, shapes and sizes, and in widely ranging states of preparedness. In the parking lot we enjoyed some much needed refreshments and were even gifted some cheese by some hikers from Washington that we met! Random acts of cheeseness, what more could a Canadian ask for?
While it might be difficult to time a trip to this wilderness in order to avoid the crowds, the highly unique terrain of the Black Tusk is without a doubt worth the effort. If you manage to see it for yourself, here’s hoping your tour goes as well as ours did, minus the evening chill!
In this day and age of modern and lightweight gear, 4X4 trucks and sport utility vehicles, it’s important to remember that mountaineering used to be much more of an arduous pursuit. The approaches were lengthy and required far more time and commitment, as there were few mining and logging roads. The chances for rescue were often slim to none, if an accident occurred. In part because the access we enjoyed on this particular excursion was relatively easy, I feel compelled to dedicate this story to the mountaineers of yesteryear. Like Tom Fyles, pictured below, they fought the harder and lonelier battles of earlier exploration, and I raise a glass to them all, as you should, too!
I do, however, have a story or two to tell, so let’s get on with that…
It was a perfect September afternoon, the kind most hikers dream about. The wheels of Denis’s Toyota pickup rocked back and forth, and side to side as we steadily made our way up to Blowdown Pass. This valley, perched on the boundary of Stein Valley N’Laka Pamux Provincial Park, is a genuine Coast Mountain paradise, home to rugged peaks, and spectacular floral displays. It’s also one of the strongholds of southwestern British Columbia’s remaining grizzly bear population, and a place whose name is closely associated with some unique historical lore, but more on that just a little later. The upper section of the Blowdown Creek Road certainly required some very skilful driving, but fortunately, Denis was more than up to the task!
The three of us arrived atop the Blowdown Pass in the evening, but we were surprised to notice we’d still have the time to climb Gotcha Peak before the sun was to set. We quickly decided that rather than setting up camp right away, we’d take to the mountain instead. We only needed to gain somewhat less than four hundred metres in elevation to the summit, which we managed easily in about forty five leisurely minutes! Doug led the way with Denis following, while I tarried behind taking far too many photos.
We spent only a scant five minutes on the summit before hiking back down, as there was beer for us to drink and a tent for Doug and me to pitch, after all. Besides, Denis abhors excess summit loitering at the best of times! The trip back to the pass took us just twenty minutes or so, and was only delayed by more of my camera shenanigans!
After we climbed Gotcha Peak, Denis set up camp in his trusty Toyota, while I helped Doug pitch his MEC Wanderer car camping tent which we have dubbed “The Hoser Hilton”. What with our somewhat icy tenting experience on the Black Tusk recently all too fresh in our minds, this time we were really loaded for bear! We had down sleeping bags, full sized pillows, and countless layers of clothing. We even brought camp chairs and firewood! A fire pit was built, stories were told, many beers were drank, and chips were crunched as the cold night air settled in the pass. Myriad topics were discussed around the campfire, chief among those the upcoming NFL season- we are all Seattle Seahawk fans- and the crazy characters of the old Clubtread hiking website over the years, the latter enough to fill the pages of a epic novel! Tales of adventure were many, to say the least. Sometimes you don’t realize all the things you’ve done over the years because you’re often so focused on the next excursion!
A blue moon would rise later that night, but beforehand, its glow illuminated the skies above the 2360m summit behind camp, which I was already scheming to climb before breakfast the next morning. These were good times, with great company, in one of those special places that defy normal description; Blowdown Pass is a location you almost appreciate more after you have left it than when you were actually there!
As easy as this climb was for us, the man for whom this valley was named lived a decidedly rougher and more challenging life. His story, which I will relate here, was one of considerable struggle in a very different era.
The Gott Creek Valley (and Gott Peak), also once the site of lucrative mining interests, takes the name of local guide, trapper, and legend Francis “Frank” Gott. He was the subject of a manhunt in the Lillooet area after the shooting of local game warden Albert “Bert”Farey in 1932, by most accounts, but the story is actually much more nuanced than some folks would have you believe. You see, Mr Gott was of native heritage, and the man who sought to arrest him was following a provincial law which for decades had given no proper respect to the fact that the St’át’imc people had hunted animals for sustenance long before colonial powers had arrived in British Columbia.
Francis Gott, seen here wearing his WW I medals
He gained fame in the Lillooet area as a guide and a woodsman
The news of his day more or less tells us that the authorities were angered by “out of season hunting”, so they had enacted the Protection Game Act of 1905 to basically force people to comply with their new rules. They were also known to specifically target indigenous people most frequently, and this harassment no doubt engendered further hostilities. In addition, the law was also trying to prohibit the sale of alcohol to “Indians”, and would often prosecute First Nations people who were caught either consuming liquor or providing it for others. That, essentially, was a further violation of their rights. (Gott also served a six month jail term for the latter offence.)
The warden, Bert Farey, and Frank Gott had originally been feuding for several years, after he had fined Gott previously for hunting a deer illegally. That feud finally came to a head in 1932, when Gott shot Carey and killed him after an altercation ensued over yet another deer carcass. Gott, then distressed, left a note professing his intent to commit suicide, and subsequently a posse was raised to hunt him down. He was found, shot several times as he fled, and eventually captured, but he never stood trial as he later perished from his injuries in 1932 at the age of 76.
It is considerably sad that these events ever came to pass, truthfully. Gott was revered for his skills as a woodsman and guide, and was also considered a fine man by those who knew him. After all, at the age of 62, he had disguised himself and even dyed his hair to appear younger just so he could fight for Canada in World War I. (The maximum age for enlistment was 47!) He served the country well, but once authorities discovered his age he was discharged in 1917, returning to his Lillooet area home with both the British War Medal and the Victory Medal. Among the people of the St’át’imc Nation, Frank Gott is considered a hero, and I quite frankly agree with that in many ways. While it’s true he almost certainly shot Farey and killed him, he was also being forced to follow unjust laws and he was subject to the many other abuses native Canadians faced on their own ancestral lands. Gott’s story, and that of game warden Bert Farey, who was also both a decent man and a decorated World War I veteran, are needlessly tragic. If nothing else, they were and are glaring examples of the mistakes and oppression of colonialism. Even today, there are plenty of reparations to be made between First Nations people and Canada. It is my sincere hope that things continue to improve. For more about the St’át’imc Nation history, read here
I was up at the break of dawn the next day, as I always am in the mountains, and so set off alone to enjoy the sunrise before breakfast. A golden glow illuminated the Cottonwood Valley beyond the pass as bright orange skies ushered in the day above Siwhe, Evenglow Mountains, and the Stein Valley beyond. I scrambled up the northeast ridge of that summit behind camp, hands in pockets, with snow falling faintly, until a steep frost covered section and a pair of gullies demanded closer attention. Caution was needed there as a little Class 3 scrambling complicated by slick, loose, rock led me to the summit, where I gazed out on the panoramic views over the Stein Divide. That done, it was time to head back to camp for coffee and oatmeal – two things that Doug makes better on on camping trips than anyone else I know! Rather than descend all the loose rock covered with a glaze of frost and traces of fresh snow, I instead descended the west face toward Gotcha Peak on larger granite blocks before angling down toward camp, as the rock there was somewhat drier.
I soon returned to camp just as Doug had the coffee ready. We all had our fill of breakfast and the jokes flowed freely as we geared up to tackle Gott Peak. As the valley began to warm, we followed the intermittent trail up the west ridge. The track first winds its way up heather and krummholz laden slopes into the alpine tundra above. Eventually, it passes a small bump on the rolling ridge before making its way to the summit proper of Gott Peak. The clouds were ever present, actively moving about in an effort to block the sun, sometimes successful, sometimes not. No need to rope up for this one, folks! It’s just a question of putting one foot in front of the other and following the obvious route till you reach the final cairn, so that’s what we did. Views from the 2511 metre summit and on the ridge walk were sublime, especially those of the Gott Creek Valley, stretched well out before us, and of Blowdown Lake, far below in its secluded bowl. On the way back Doug took the lead and tried to save us some elevation gain by leading us on a traverse below the ridge crest, which was an interesting diversion. The entire trek to Gott took maybe about a couple of hours with considerable kibitzing along the way, and soon after we were packing up for the drive down.
On the whole, it was a quiet visit to the mountains. We saw just two day hikers on their way up as we left, and a couple more on their way down who looked like they were returning from a much longer trek.
Many pikas were heard or seen, but no photographs.
Half a dozen marmots were seen, but again, no pictures.
No bears were seen at all, and, most likely, all mosquitoes were presumably killed by the cold as we were not bitten a single time!
As always, the drive down was not nearly as difficult, because gravity works, and before noon we were kicking back with lunch and a couple more beers alongside Duffey Lake. This was a five star outing for all, and many thanks go to Denis for his driving skills, as the road was without a doubt the most difficult obstacle to overcome on this trip! If you haven’t had the opportunity to visit Blowdown Pass, then get there soon, it’s an experience you won’t forget!
The sound was as loud as it was clear! The distinctive grunt and snapping of jaws left little doubt as to its source. Motioning silently to each other, we beat a hasty retreat down the alder choked logging spur, hightailing it back to the Mamquam Forest Service Road. Chris and I had no question that we’d run into an ill tempered black bear, even though neither of us had seen it. So ended our ill fated assault on Pinecone Peak!
This story had its beginnings in the third week of June 2008, when we had decided to set out to climb the aforementioned mountain. Armed with some decent route descriptions and trip reports from good friend Simon, we had made our way deep into the Mamquam Valley in Chris’s trusty Ford, under deceptively clearing skies. The road was still wet from spring torrents as Chris displayed an array of evasive manoeuvres to avoid obstacles better left to four wheel drive travel. In addition to running some damn fine bookstores ( visit him at one of Vancouver’s Pulpfiction Books locations ), he can also flat out drive a logging road! Up until that ursine encounter, it had been a fairly pleasant outing. We had even taken the time to stop and look at the many creeks bursting with meltwater as the skies seemed to part above, hinting at a bluebird day. Optimistically, I felt that the weather would take a turn for the better, after all, how often does the forecast turn out to be wrong these days?
Alas, we were duped by the weather gods! It was just as well, I suppose. Ominous clouds had begun gathering above and the rain then began to fall, lightly at first, then harder, and harder still. What to do now? Well, we wandered about the valley, hiked up a few logging spurs, located the M-110 logging spur that led to the Pinecone Lakes Trail and Peak 6500, then spent a little more time perusing the area. Some considerably large stumps of Western Red Cedar were one highlight of the morning, along with several piles of shotgun shells and views of misted forest.
Clouds hung low in the morning silence, a deer hopped through an opening in the clearcut and soon disappeared. We marvelled at the endless determination of the road builders, and wondered aloud how many more piles of spent shotgun shells there might be in this valley. Good thing none of the local Leroys were around that day!
A stroll up yet another spur netted a really rare find- an old Zenith cabinet style colour television with, you guessed it, another nearby cache of shotgun shells!
As my friend Tracy later said “Wow, that TV’s seen better days!! I bet it remembers this Coke commercial, or this Big Mac commercial, and, of course, Mikey.” Televisions like these sure do bring back fond memories, don’t they? In my mind, I almost could imagine Adam West (R.I.P.) and Burt Ward in an episode of the old Batman series playing out on screen! Bam! Sock! Thwack!
From there we bushwhacked back through the clearcut, admiring the surprising biodiversity, and the general aura that showed us that the Mamquam Valley was a special place, despite the obvious human disturbances.
We finished our foray with a wander down to the banks of the Mamquam River itself, enjoying the sounds of the roaring current amid the din of the pouring rain, while I vainly attempted to keep my camera dry just to try and land a few decent photos!
It hadn’t exactly been the kind of alpine excursion we’d daydreamed about, but it had nevertheless been a memorable day! I’d characterize it as unexpectedly eventful, at minimum.
Soon enough we were enjoying our lunch in a Squamish cafe, drinking coffee and telling more tales, a little wet but certainly none the worse for wear. An ironic denouement, at least for Chris, considering his profession. We’d come to buy, but settled for browsing, in the end, though we enjoyed it well!
The weeks rolled by swiftly, and soon, summer was almost over. Doug and I seized the opportunity to head up the Mamquam Valley again, before the days began to shorten. On this occasion, not only was it not raining, but the chance of precipitation was basically nonexistent! We were determined to find the M110 logging spur and hike up to Peak 6500, sometimes known as Seed Peak. The mountain sits in the same cirque as Mt Gillespie, in an alpine playground full of tarns, beautiful granite blocks. There are even remnants of a pocket glacier, whose demise seems inevitable.
Here are a couple of views from the road as we drove up the M 110 spur….
After winding our way up all those logging roads, finally we managed to reach the trailhead to Peak 6500. Both the road and the trail had been brushed out and reflagged, making our passage somewhat easier. The track began with a beautiful walk through subalpine forest to a plateau, then followed with a steep scramble up to Peak 5700, which has an outstanding view of the surrounding Coast Mountains!
Getting to Peak 6500 involves dropping down 150m or so in elevation and then climbing up again to another alpine bench. We surely realized this was a superb wilderness area that is highly underrated, and were happy to have the place to ourselves. I recall there was a great sense of relief in the air, as life had been quite stressful of late for us at that time. There is something undeniably therapeutic about the rhythm of time in the mountains, so far away and above the twisted routines of human lives. If only everyday life could measure up to those standards more often!
The spectacular alpine views made this trip worthwhile, from beginning to end. This part of Pinecone-Burke Provincial Park still does not see that much traffic, so you truly get that wilderness feel. It would be a great area to camp in and explore for several days!
The ascent of Peak 6500, which is actually 6580 feet in elevation if you’re a stickler for details, is relatively straightforward. For the most part, it’s what I would call an alpine stroll, with very little technical difficulty or exposure. We explored the basin below at leisure, with its colourful tarns, fast eroding pocket glaciers and sweeping views of the mountains in all directions.
The more we meandered, the greater was my affinity for this place. Should you decide to visit it yourself, please remember to treat it with the utmost respect. Be sure to leave no trace by packing out what you pack in, and take great care not to damage the fragile environment!
Reaching the summit, we settled in for an uncharacteristically long rest, even though neither of us was particularly tired. We’re both of the mind that climbing mountains is best part of peak bagging, as neither of us is all that fond of descents, unless of course there’s beer waiting at the truck!
Peak 6500 boasts some enviable views! One can see the entire Britannia Range, and many of the peaks within Garibaldi Provincial Park, just to name a few, but pictures always speak louder than words, so here are a few more images…
I remember thinking that if I had to choose a mountain to live on every day, this just might be the one. I think Doug agreed with me on that score. Of the many treks we have made together on Fridays just like this one, the Pinecone Lakes area is definitely a standout. There is very little the region lacks. I could even make a strong case for lugging a pack raft up there just to enjoy some paddling on the glacially formed lakes.
As day trips go, this wasn’t a long one by my standards. It was about seven hours car to car including all the alpine sauntering, but the drive up will take you at least a couple of hours, so an early start is recommended. One thing I can assure you is that you won’t be disappointed!
Regrettably, we realized it was time to make our way home, as we were mindful of that long drive ahead of us. While this required a reasonable pace, by no means did we need to rush, and so we savoured the trip home as much as the climb. The magic of this valley lingers on for days, if not weeks. When I was assembling photos for this story, culling them down to a reasonable number was no easy feat!
The wilderness protected by Pinecone-Burke Provincial Park is a beautiful legacy for the province of British Columbia. It may not be far from civilization as the crow flies, but it’s an eternity away in the mind’s eye. I have much gratitude for having had the privilege of sharing it with friends, and now with readers. May it always be the refuge that it is today, wild, free, and undeveloped!
Steve laughed heartily, leaning over to the right in the cab of his Toyota 4X4. “Damn it,” I said. “When am I ever going to get that right?” You see, his truck is imported from Japan, where vehicles are all right hand drive, so I keep on going toward the wrong door when I go to get in the passenger side. “Haha, you’ll just do it again before this trip’s over! Mark my words,” he replied, laughing harder still. He opened up the tailgate and we rearranged our gear for the long drive north. Soon, we were bound for Britannia Beach, where we’d be meeting Doug and Wally at Galileo’s for a coffee at 7 am. From there, it was back onto Highway 99 to Pemberton, where we’d be detouring toward Birkenhead, and a series of logging roads that would finally bring us to the head of Tenas Creek. Destination? Seven O’Clock Mountain.
Nestled high on the divide between the Birkenhead, Tenas, and Tenquille Valleys, this was a familiar haunt to Doug and I, as we’d biked up the Tenas Creek Road with overnight packs and set up camp near Sun God Mountain eight years before ( You can read more about that here ). While we then managed to climb Sun God, we’d run out of time to summit Seven O’Clock Mountain on that occasion, so were stoked to be returning for another try. For Steve and Wally, it would be their introduction to the area.
There would be quite an eclectic mix of generations present on this trek, with Doug and I in our fifties, Wally in his seventies, and Steve in his thirties. The coffee went down smoothly, and we soon moved on, with Doug leading the way in his Toyota Tacoma. Our only stop was for fuel in Pemberton, where we amused ourselves with current tales of adventure and had a few laughs looking at some very peculiarly dressed summer tourists. The weather was clear and sunny, and we couldn’t have been happier to have had a couple of days free to enjoy the mountains!
Driving up the Tenas Creek Road had not been an option for us back in 2010 due to washouts and downed trees, and cycling up the road had been pretty gruelling back then, as we’d later reminisce. This time we’d heard the road could be driven right to the trailhead, and as it turned out, that proved to be true. Just before 1030 am we parked the trucks and geared up for the hike, much to the delight of the waiting clouds of insects. On this trip there was a lot to look forward to, with plenty of food and gear along for the ride, and a full cooler of beer for refreshments!
The forecast was typical for the region in July, expected to be clear, sunny, and approaching the low thirties in degrees Celsius. The trail, if you can call it that, is a notoriously steep and sparsely marked track. We soon settled in for the long uphill grind.
Among the sundry topics of conversation as we climbed was an online trivia game for prizes Doug told us he’d been playing lately. All players answer the questions and are eliminated as soon as they fail, apparently. He spoke of one question that involved clocks that knocked out a lot of competitors, then wryly suggested that all the millennials must have dropped out of the running because none of them knew how to read clocks with hands. This brought great laughter from all, and good humoured protest from Steve, who proclaimed he had no trouble telling time and proceeded to prove that several times during the hike. Besides, it was more than easy for him to get back at any of us when we mentioned anything prior to the mid eighties, since he was more than happy to point out he hadn’t even been born by then! None of that stopped me from branding the colour of his shirt as “Millennial Orange”, though.
The trail through the forest was steep and unforgiving, but the the bushwhacking was still light and tolerable. I could tell that the route hadn’t received excessive traffic in the years since my last visit. I found, however, that my memories of the approach had blurred, and after a while it seemed like unfamiliar territory. All that changed, naturally, when we broke out of the trees to the welcome view of Mt Ronayne. It then dawned on me that we were not too distant from where Doug and I had bivouacked eight years before, with Sun God Mountain towering above us.
Once we were within sight of a most familiar lake below the summit ridge of Sun God, we decided to take a break. I was glad of that because I had to take off my new boots and repair some blisters they’d already given me. The meadow looked as beautiful as ever, snow free as it was this time. When Doug and I had last visited it had been entirely snow covered.
Steve then trekked down to the lake to replenish his water supply while the rest of us snacked. Wally and Doug, meanwhile, were discussing the frustrating issue of markers continually disappearing from Grouse Mountain hiking trails back in North Vancouver. The problem was resulting in lost hikers and late nights for the North Shore Rescue team that they volunteer with. Somehow Wally, armed with an effusive sense of humour, managed to make that a funny conversation. I think his many experiences in different parts of the world have given him some well rounded perspectives on life!
I spoke of my impending move to Vancouver Island, which was to begin in several weeks. Changes are often unsettling to me, and this one was about as big as they get! Having lived several decades in the same place, I’d be going from knowledgeable to neophyte, so to speak. The bright side was going to be all the new discoveries I’d be making!
A brief meeting of the minds followed while we scrutinized the route in front of us. It looked relatively straightforward to begin with, because we needed to reach the high point visible on the ridge above to make a clearer decision about where to go next. The walk began on blocky steps, which became steeper as we climbed. The views of the valley and Sun God Mountain had our spirits soaring, and the sun, as it turned out, was not nearly as hot as we imagined it might be.
Once we reached the top of the ridge, we could see that there was a broad col and another sub summit that was our next obvious destination, but the route we needed to follow wasn’t immediately apparent. In the end, we chose to flank the ridge on the left side and work our way around it, which required thrashing our way through some pretty persistent krummholz before we managed to emerge just above the col. Krummholz, by the way, is defined as a forest of stunted trees near the timber line on a mountain. It also has the nasty tendency of scratching unprotected limbs and provoking random outbursts of foul language!
It was Doug who immediately concluded, and all agreed, that we should try out the other side on the way back. For a few minutes though, we savoured the satisfaction of being at the col!
Now it was time to cross that col, with its splendid vistas far and wide, and scramble up the next pile of rock. Feeling a bit more energetic, I led the way upward, weaving through, around, and over the great granite boulders. It seemed as though we’d reach the summit soon, but as I crested the top I realized we still had to gain another 200 metres in elevation. We soon realized there was yet another peak to negotiate, and this one was going to be a bit more complicated!
We took to the rock enthusiastically, at first we followed close to the top of the ridge but, upon further inspection, we were forced to drop down and traverse it on a series of ledges on the left side. The right side, due to sheer drops, was not really an option at all! Already we could see that there was still another climb to deal with after this one, and after a little more meandering we were soon at its base.
While it didn’t lead to the summit we all wanted, that next section of scrambling finally cracked the code! We were now on an expansive and broad plateau that led to an outcropping of rock almost half a kilometre away. Seven O’Clock Mountain was finally in our sights! We took a short break at an icy tarn there as Steve filtered some water for everyone. I can clearly recall how wonderful it tasted, as does everything when you’re in the mountains, it seems!
Doug now took the lead again as we traipsed across the summit plain and soon we were digging in for the last hundred metres or so of climbing. It had taken us about twenty more minutes to reach the final pitch.
The top was reached somewhere around 2 pm in the afternoon. Steve and Doug mused that it would have been cool to be on Seven O’Clock at seven o’clock, but of course that would have meant we would have had to walk out in darkness! At Wally’s insistence, we all assembled for a summit photo or two and broke out some snacks. The views of surrounding valleys were breathtaking, and it was a highly satisfying place to be relaxing.
Well, I reasoned, it’s time to turn it around, because “All that beer back at the trucks is not going to drink itself!” The laughter rose once more, as we began the long descent.
Reversing our steps wasn’t too complicated, as it turned out, but we did manage to find ourselves off route a couple of times. At one point, we thought we’d lost Steve while contouring around the ridge again, but it turned out he’d taken a different route that got a little too complicated. I suggested we call it The Millennial Line, kind of a droll play on the Millennium Line, if you’ve ridden Vancouver’s Skytrain.
What follows here is a sequence of shots taken by Steve on the descent, as Wally, Doug, and I descended the route.
On the way back we ended up following very close to the same route, but Doug had made an earlier suggestion that would have saved us heading back to the lake and instead forging a direct line to the trail. In retrospect, it might well have served us very well had we tried it, as the extra hour or so was crucial when you consider that the bugs were now swarming aggressively as the afternoon light began fading. As it was, we careened through the brush ever downward, joyously reaching the road at six o’clock. “That’s when the big hand is on the 12 and the little hand is on the six, Steve”, as Doug explained.
On our way up the valley, we had managed to check out an ideal camping spot on the banks of Tenas Creek, so we returned, hoping to find it unoccupied. It was not only free for the taking, but for some strange reason the mosquitoes never really figured out we were there! Doug and Wally were going to sleep in the truck, while Steve and I set up our tents with the idea of viewing the heavens later.
I had brought firewood but we managed to add to our supply by cleaning up the wood lying about the parking area. Soon we settled in for dinner, drinks, other refreshments, and an evening of tall tales told around the campfire. All manner of trips, past, present, and future, were discussed, as well as gear, music, history, and numerous other topics. Wally had us all laughing hard with the funniest story of the evening, all about a guy who used to do work safe presentations at a place he had worked at many years before. His films featured the woes of chainsaw accidents and apparently, though gruesome, were sometimes as funny as they were terrifying. Let’s just say one of the incidents recounted had us crossing our legs in mock agony. I told some stories about a couple of the more colourful baseball managers I’d played for over the years, while Doug shared some hilarious tales about the late North Shore Rescue leader Tim Jones, who we all knew and loved. Steve? He added a few stories of his own, but mostly, he just “enjoyed listening to you old guys talk!”
After a superb night out under the stars, we awoke to yet another picture perfect day, packed up, and had breakfast before beginning the long ride homeward.
Even as I once again failed to find the passenger side of Steve’s truck, it nevertheless struck me that you can never spend enough time with first rate friends. Seven o’clock may happen twice a day, but ironically, time has a way of standing still in the mountains.
Here in the Pacific Northwest, when talk turns to the preservation of old growth trees, generally what people are discussing are the giants of valley bottom ecosystems. Western Red Cedar, Douglas Fir, and Sitka Spruce are most frequently mentioned. Why is that? Well, the answer seems obvious, in that they are located at lower elevations and as such might seem more relatable to the average person. They also reach great size and are conspicuously targeted by logging companies in pursuit of the almighty dollar.
There are, however, a number of different species that grow in the Coast Mountains that simply don’t garner as much attention. One such tree is the Mountain Hemlock, also known as Tsuga Mertensiana . If you’ve ever explored the forests above 800 metres in elevation, then you’ve seen your share of them. What you have likely never heard, however, are sharp cries of protest when the oldest of their kind are cut down. In truth, most people remain unaware that they are even targeted for harvesting!
Invariably, you’ll find the Mountain Hemlock at those higher elevations, where it’s most prolific. In coastal British Columbia it shares space with Yellow Cedar, Pacific Silver Fir, and in this subalpine zone it tends to be the dominant forest tree.
Having spent an inordinate amount of time in British Columbia’s southwest region, I’ve come to admire this hardy survivor of the woods. It’s specially designed to be able to hold the heavy snows of winter in the alpine regions, and to shed them efficiently. The Mountain Hemlock can be found growing in the most adverse conditions. It can thrive in groves, where some protection from the elements is afforded, but some big specimens are often found on exposed ridges, where they must confront the wrath of winter head on. Smaller, stunted versions are often found growing on rocky summits where their trunks thicken even more to withstand the winds.
The Mountain Hemlock is a tree that grows at a very slow and measured pace. When you see one that is just several feet wide in diameter that usually identifies a tree that is already several hundred years old. Growing season is short and difficult in the mountains, and nutrients are sparse, yet I’ve seen so many that have lived multiple centuries. In 2008, when Cypress Provincial Park was given permission to remove trees to accommodate some of the facilities for the Olympic Games, I made a startling discovery. Quite by accident I wandered into an off limits area where dozens of old growth Mountain Hemlocks had been cut down. Even the ones that were just three feet wide proved to be over 400 years old when I counted the growth rings and some of the trees were nearly two metres in diameter. Experts estimate that the tree can reach up to 800 years in age but I am convinced that some may make it into a second millennium.
Yet another example of similar negligence occurred when the trail to Joffre Lakes was expanded back around 2010. BC Parks contracted a firm to do the excavation and during the process they decided to take down a number of Mountain Hemlocks that were over a thousand years old. This was done, allegedly, in the name of public safety, but truthfully in this case they simply took the easiest possible line to widen the path. I’m quite certain they would be standing today had that evaluation been more accurate.
Many an ancient Mountain Hemlock has been levelled by ski resorts, road builders, loggers, and even homesteaders building cabins, over the years. Sometimes this has been done for business purposes, and other times for expediency, but nevertheless countless venerable trees have been destroyed in the process. Much of that destruction has occurred out of sight and out of mind, and it’s high time we paid more attention to this fine and noble tree. In the big picture, it plays an important role in nature, and must not be forgotten!
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