In these days of public outcry over the destruction of British Columbia’s remaining old growth forests, it is no small twist of irony that one of the last bastions of remaining giants is relatively close to the metropolis of Vancouver. Tucked away in what is still a remote corner of the North Shore Mountains is the Kennedy Creek Valley. It lies within the boundaries of Lynn Headwaters Regional Park on the less travelled west side of Lynn Creek, with its headwaters at seldom visited Kennedy Lake.
It was only through subtle hints in Randy Stoltmann’s Hiking Guide to the Big Trees of Southwestern B.C. that my curiosity regarding the area was first piqued. On page 74, he stated “When this valley was logged before the turn of the century, hollow or broken topped trees were often left, and the steep valley sides were only partially cut over. In these areas, massive cedars up to sixteen feet (five metres) in diameter and 200 feet, 61 metres in height still live on into their second millennium.” Well, that was more than enough to get my undivided attention, so I soon decided I had to see what was there!
But first, maybe a little history is in order. It was near the turn of the twentieth century that the west side of Lynn Creek was harvested by Julius Fromme’s logging crews. They managed to forge their way as far as Kennedy Creek, but, perhaps because of the market conditions of the day, or just plain good fortune, the forest stretching north between Kennedy and Wickenden Creeks was not completely razed. As a result, much of the original forest between 400 metres and 700 metres in elevation remains intact to this day!
There is no easy access to its steep, rugged slopes. You must either hike in to Kennedy Falls on the rough track of the Cedar Trail, or ford Lynn Creek near the Third Debris Chute on the Cedar Mills Trail, that is, if it’s safe to do so. However you get there, you must be fit and well prepared for the experience, as it’s a strong test of all of your wilderness skills. I began by hiking the Westside or Cedar Trail to see the two monstrous Western redcedars that Randy had described in the aforementioned book, but beyond that, there was little more knowledge on which to base further exploration.
On several of my earlier excursions I also visited the beautiful Kennedy Falls, which lies at about 400 metres in elevation. For the ideal photo opportunity, it is best visited after heavy rains, though of course that can make getting around more difficult. While the falls are not exceptionally tall, the cascade and surrounding sections of Kennedy Creek always make the destination worthwhile. Seeing those spectacular trees on the Cedar Trail certainly whetted my appetite for more exploration, but I needed more information so that I’d know exactly where to look.
When I spoke to park employees they had little to say, really, yet at the park’s Mill House there were photos of some of the park’s giant trees. In time, I discovered, the park officials are not that enthused about encouraging hiking on the west side of Lynn Creek, perhaps due to the inherent hazards. In many of those photos the face of one person seemed to show up frequently. That person turned out to be Ralf Kelman, a Vancouver artist, who is the son of a Seymour Valley logger. Ralf had grown up in the forests of Vancouver’s North Shore. He was, and still is, this province’s master treehunter, and over the years had been integral in finding numerous champion trees. I managed to contact him, and over a cup of coffee, he was kind enough to share a wealth of knowledge with me about Kennedy Creek and much more. Better still, he said, the valley had not been completely searched, though he cautioned that ground was far from easy to cover.
Finally, in 2006, Chris and I began our day by fording an icy cold Lynn Creek on a cloudy day in September. After that crossing , we hiked up the valley toward the falls, and then worked our way up the slopes on the north bank of Kennedy Creek. It didn’t take long before we made our first find, a grove of cedars all at least eight feet in diameter and all well over four hundred years old.
From there, we decided, we’d just continue upward until the stand petered out, then traverse north in the direction of Wickenden Creek. A natural bench presented an ideal opportunity for travel, if not necessarily an easy one. Fallen trees made it necessary to climb up, over , and around countless obstructions. The finds were frequent, with more cedars up to fourteen feet in diameter and several that were truly ancient. It was hard to believe, but we had basically hit the motherlode, as far as treehunting goes! Forests such as these, once ever present in southwestern British Columbia, are basically a thing of the past. I can still recall how elated we were to be there!
Soon we were upon the south banks of an unnamed creek in the drainage at about 550 metres in elevation. Once we crossed this creek we were in the midst of another grove, this one equally spectacular. By this time, we had seen so many big trees that we were taking the nine foot cedars for granted!
Since time was running short at that point, we stopped for lunch underneath a thirteen foot cedar which may have been the oldest tree we we found that day. I believed it to be roughly 700 years old.
We then opted to try heading uphill again to see what we could find. Our route was determined by the finds – sight big tree, hike to said tree, then on to the next one.
We had ended up, by now, at an elevation of 650 metres, and were just below an expansive boulder field below the end of Goat Ridge.
It was here that we made another grand discovery, a huge cedar spanning over fifteen feet in width, and well over 600 years old. Despite its seemingly unguarded position and exposure to winter avalanches, it had thrived well and its hollowed lower trunk looked to have been used as a winter den of sorts.
Soon time became short and we had to begin the trek home. There were some interesting finds on the way back too.
For both of us, this trip was tremendously rewarding in that we were making discoveries that few had made before us. As we hiked out of the valley toward Lynn Creek again, we both knew we’d be returning, and that’s why this story is only part one of a lengthy tale. Each time I revisit, it’s an exhilarating experience, for who can refuse a trip back in time without leaving your own era?
As everyone here in British Columbia knows, there have been numerous hot summer days to go around this year. More accurately, the midsummer weather began early in May, and Southwestern B.C. has had one of its most active forest fire seasons.
For several weeks, Doug and I had been planning a trip to the mountains, but the smoke from the fires had been changing our plans. Finally, I came up with an idea. Seven years ago, on a cold, clear, and windblown day, I’d had the chance to visit a sweeping alpine plateau in the Bedded Range and hiked up Jim Kelly Peak and Illal Mountain with a new group of friends. I had wanted to return for another look in warmer weather, and this July seemed the perfect opportunity.
The promise of a decent trail with relatively reasonable elevation gain to an ideal basecamp was enough to convince Doug of the possibilities. So it was that we set off early on a Friday morning, headed for Hope. Doug grabbed a coffee at The Blue Moose, and we made our way to the Britton Creek Rest Area on the Coquihalla Highway. There we stopped to organize our gear and eat an early lunch. Half an hour later we were driving up the Tulameen Forest Service Road, and, after crossing Illal Creek, rocked and rolled our way up a rough logging spur to an excellent parking spot around three kilometres in. This was the maiden logging road voyage for Doug’s new Toyota Tacoma and it passed the test with flying colours!
All that settled, it was time for the hike in. Our packs were heavy with overnight gear and refreshments, and the temperature, though hot, was offset initially by adequate shade and brisk winds. Insects, sometimes more than notorious there, were few and far between, as we steadily trekked up to the plateau. Most of the wildflowers had already bloomed, which is unusual for mid July, but the meadows were still quite lush and green.
Soon enough, we arrived at a shining tarn beneath Jim Kelly Peak, and stashed our overnight gear. It was a relief to doff the heavy packs and relax for a while. There was at least some, no, wait, plenty of temptation to sprawl out and take a nap, but we’d come there to hike and so instead began analyzing our options for the route up Coquihalla Mountain.
Conditions were ideal , and contrasted sharply with the frigid day on which I’d climbed Jim Kelly Peak and Illal Mountain.
The route we had chosen was the south flank, which involved a long traverse around the mountain, over half of a circumnavigation, one way. There were limited reports about the route but rumour had it that at one time, in the boom days of Coalmont, there was even a once popular trail there that had now fallen into disuse. To begin, we needed to drop from the Illal Meadows into the col between Jim Kelly Peak and Coquihalla Mountain and follow a well worn path that supposedly accesses a popular lake below the pass. Here, on the way in, we spotted several of the biggest marmots we’d ever seen, and on the way back also saw a weasel hunting among the rocks. The next series of photos illustrate the approach step by step…
That traverse proved to be as endless as its reputation, and you had to be creative in order to avoid difficult ground. We did that by losing elevation and following easier ground through bands of stunted trees, also known as krummholz. It was a lot like finding one’s way through a maze, and on more than one occasion we did find remnants of that old trail, albeit accidentally. There was plenty of scenery to enjoy, especially as the towers of the Coquihalla massif loomed high above us.
With more than a little persistence, we just kept on scuffling, and finally the south flank came into view. It was a welcome sight, to be sure!
We knew that the summit was close at hand now, and that all we needed to do was find a way up the flank. This we did by walking an obvious path through fields of scree right to left in second photo below, then clawing our way almost directly up several partially loose sections of rock including a chimney or two and a lot more krummholz.
Finally, we broke through and topped out on yet another band of rock, but from this one the summit cairn could be seen off to our right. Success was near!
Immediately, however, my eyes were drawn to to the left, where the slopes dropped sharply off the other side of the mountain. You can never really relax in the mountains! This hazard was easily avoided, of course, but it sure got our attention.
As we walked to the summit cairn I felt compelled to holler “Oh yeah! Earned!” Normally, I’m not given to that kind of expression, but on that day we were both pretty stoked to be there. It had been almost seven years since I had seen this mountain, and it was compelling to see the other side of that view ( see the first picture in this tale).
Scanning about, one could now see the other summits of Coquihalla as well. Views of the Hidden Creek Valley, Tulameen, Needle and Markhor Peaks were especially rewarding.
Taking more than our usual twenty minutes on the summit, at 2157 metres in elevation, we snacked for a while and then left for camp, finally.
The way back was almost as lengthy, but we were able to make somewhat quicker work of it.
We did, as on the hike in, have to gain and lose elevation frequently but before long we were grinding up to the col we had left a couple of hours before.
All that was left then was a somewhat tired ramble to the meadows, dinner, and icing down some beer in a snow cooler we had built. About as good as it gets, if you’re asking me.
The evening hours featured fine sunset views in all directions, and on the plateau below we could see the tents from several other campers who had arrived to enjoy the meadows. Here are some of my favourite photos from sunset time…
Soon darkness fell, and we turned in for the evening at last. it had been one fine day!
The night turned out to be reasonably warm, and slept well. I was even happier that I had not tried camping here on that first excursion some seven years back!
Inevitably, I’m an early riser on most mountain trips, and I was up before five in the morning wandering around the plateau. Here are a few shots of the sunrise, which was well worth waking up for!
Fun fact: If you don’t know what krummholz is, it’s stunted groves of tightly growing conifer typical to cold alpine regions. Growing low and densely helps it to thrive in snows, wind, and other such harsh conditions
Soon enough, Doug emerged from his tent. All that remained was to break camp, enjoy some coffee and breakfast, and talk about our return to a place where one visit is simply not enough!
The walk back was leisurely, with plenty of time for more photography and to closely examine the geology of the region as well as the plant life.
Back at the truck, we decided to drive out first as we were concerned there might be a lot of vehicles driving the narrow road in. That turned out to be very true, it was a veritable thoroughfare on this Saturday morning! As we exited the logging road there was a group of backpackers milling about, and I later found out that one of them was someone I knew, though not until later on. Small world, as they say!
Credit the 1966 song ” California Dreamin’ ” by The Mamas and The Papas, for the borrowed title of this tale. All day that tune had happened to be running through my mind, for whatever reason. This was, to sum it up, one the more enjoyable trips I’ve been on the last few years, and highly recommended.
Thanks also to my good friend Gerry, whose indomitable spirit and determination to get people into the mountains to discover new friends and experiences was largely responsible for my introduction to this part of the world seven years ago. This one’s for you, buddy!
In British Columbia’s Selkirk Mountains, steep slopes, sharp rock, avalanche fans and fields of ice abound. That is typical terrain in Glacier National Park, not far, as the crow flies, from the mountain town of Revelstoke.
A lot of folks know of this park, but all too often roll through Rogers Pass on their way to the Rocky Mountain parks such as Yoho, Banff, or Jasper. It is a place in which I’ve felt at home since the very first time I visited, and it’s become an unforgettable part of my summers over the years. Once you have taken the time to experience this park, it somehow takes hold of your senses.
Among my favourite tracks to hike is the Glacier Crest Trail, so join me if you like for a look at what it has to offer.
A quick stroll from the trailhead soon brings you to the site of the old Glacier House Hotel. Once a worthy destination for travellers, now all that remains of it are remnants of the foundation and some of the massive boilers that were used to heat the establishment. It’s hard to imagine the throngs of high society that once milled about there. The challenges of dealing with harsh winters wrought by avalanches and heavy snows eventually won out in the end.
Among the very first things that caught my eye here were the tumbling mass of the Illecillewaet Glacier and the rugged beauty of Mt Sir Donald. The power of nature is almost overwhelming in this valley, and the sound of the waters roaring through the woods is unforgettable.
You get a very clear impression of that once you reach “Meeting of the Waters”, where Asulkan Brook and the Illecillewaet River join forces, fed by the glaciers high above. If your time is limited, a short twenty minute walk to see these rushing waters is invigorating in its own right.
The walk continues to a lively crossing of Asulkan Brook where the work starts in earnest. There are numerous switchbacks to climb, and while views are limited for a while, there is solitude to enjoy. The forests of the Selkirks are reminiscent of the coast, but it’s as though every quality is somehow enhanced and intensified. Waters seem to rush more quickly, the scars of avalanches are more pronounced, glaciers are larger, and the mountains, too, reach greater heights.
When you finally break out of the trees to the ridge above, all that hard work becomes worthwhile.
Avalanche and Eagle Peaks are the first conspicuous sights, and of course Mt Sir Donald really stands out strongly! Somewhere around the 1850 metre mark in elevation there is a rocky clearing that affords these fine views. The very first time I hiked the trail, on a sweltering day in late July, this was as far as I made it, having unwittingly run out of water. Ironically, there are few water sources at higher elevations on this trail, so plan accordingly.
Gradually, as you make your way along the ridge, more views open up, and you can see into the Asulkan Valley as well as down to Highway 1 and Rogers Pass. If you happen to have forgotten your camera, you’ll be regretting that by now.
The Illecillewaet Glacier also commands your attention. Once, it reached far into the valley below, but since the turn of the twentieth century, it has receded considerably. On several occasions I have also explored the Great Glacier Trail, which gives you a closer look at its path of erosion. At the height of the last ice age, of course, most of Glacier National Park was covered in sheets of ice. That must have been quite a sight!
The path continues through a boulder field, then emerges into a beautiful alpine rock garden. On a clear day, the sun is almost overwhelming here, as you round a bend in the trail heading toward the lookout. Another half hour brings you to a well built cairn atop the ridge, where you’ll be compelled to stay a while. I’ll let the views speak for themselves.
On this day, I spent more time at the summit just grooving on all of the views. Even at over 2300 metres in elevation, where I stood on the lookout was dwarfed by almost all the surrounding peaks. Regrettably, but at least with the knowledge that cold beer waited below, I began the hike back to camp.
Linger as long as you can, for as hard as the climb up was, it will still take you a while to get back to the trailhead. As much as I have enjoyed this trail, and others, over the years, I still have many more tracks in this park to explore.
So remember, if you can, to devote some time to this inspiring place. The rugged spirit of wilderness abounds there, and it is both powerful and compelling!
A couple of weeks ago, when we were passing through Mt Revelstoke National Park, I managed a short hike on the Ancient Cedars Boardwalk. As my treks go, it’s a relatively effortless one, but I like to stop there every so often to enjoy this forest. It’s a stand dominated by western redcedars, and while few of the trees exceed six feet in diameter, it’s notable that they are nevertheless very old, some perhaps five hundred years in age. You see, because they grow at a much higher elevation and experience a high volume of snow, they take considerably longer to reach mature size. Parks Canada did a fine job of building this trail for all to enjoy, in the process also protecting the fragile understory, where delicate ferns and thorny Devil’s Club can be found, among many other types of plants. It’s not uncommon to see woodpeckers, squirrels, hummingbirds, deer, or even an occasional black bear in the area. The boardwalk is just half a kilometre long and suitable for almost all ages and abilities. Here is a link to the parks website if you are interested in the park trails…
Imagine a journey back in time, if you will, to the year 1497, let’s say. A tiny seed cone from a western red cedar flutters to earth deep in the North Shore Mountains, in what would later be known as the Hydraulic Creek drainage in the Seymour River Valley. It comes quietly to rest on an outcropping of granite, and in this protected enclave, somehow takes root and begins life as a tiny seedling. In a forest seldom if ever seen by human eyes, but walked by deer, bears, mountain lions, and squirrels, the tree is never wanting for companionship. Not fifty yards downslope, a tall and sturdy Douglas Fir already into its second century provides it shelter and shade.
Then, every year came the rains. The time passed, ever slowly, ever quickly, and the seedling became a tree. That tree grew to be vibrant and strong, and the forest that surrounded it in the many seasons that followed flourished equally well.
All began and ended as nature determined until the turn of the twentieth century, when men arrived in the Seymour Valley, wanting cedar for the shingle bolts that would be used to build homes. Life for the cedar, now a towering spire, would never be quite the same. In fact, its very survival became threatened.
Teams of loggers arrived in the forests, working their way up the valley in search of the harvest. Many trees fell to their crosscut saws, but somehow, that gnarled cedar atop the rock and its neighbouring Douglas fir survived. Some might speculate that it was because of a great fire that halted logging operations in the mid 1930s, or that they may also have been saved by the fall of timber prices and the Great Depression. In any event, luckily, they were spared.
Travel far forward in time now, to the 1980s and early 1990s. The forest was then under the administration of those charged with maintaining Greater Vancouver’s water supply. The area below the Seymour Dam had been designated an auxiliary watershed and had just been opened to recreational users. Though logging had been strictly banned in the watersheds prior to 1967, once again it reared its ugly head in the years that followed. There were extensive plans to cut down the valley’s remaining timber and, unbeknownst to the public, regular harvesting was taking place in both the Seymour and Capilano Watersheds. The area below the dam, now called the Lower Seymour Conservation Reserve, then bore the more ominous name Seymour Demonstration Forest. It was not clear at the time just how much of the forest would ultimately be saved.
Enter Ralf Kelman, the son of a North Vancouver logger who had grown up in the woods of the Seymour Valley. He had developed a love of the forest sometimes bordering on obsession, and had spent many a day hunting down remaining stands of undisturbed old growth trees. He certainly did not want to see any of these trees destroyed, and became involved with the Western Canada Wilderness Committee in order to speed their preservation. Together with Paul George, Will Koop, Chris Player, and numerous others, he strove to end logging in Vancouver’s watersheds. The conflict raged on for quite some time, with more exploration and mapping as well as the clandestine gathering of photographic evidence. The powers that be were very reluctant to stop the practice, but eventually, in 1994, logging was finally halted in the Seymour Demonstration Forest. The logging in Greater Vancouver watersheds did not actually become official until 2002. This link to the WCWC’s actual conservation campaign is a real eye opener and shows you the attitude of the Greater Vancouver Water District (GVWD) and logging interests at that time.
During that time of conflict, the WCWC had published a map of the old growth tree groves in the Seymour Valley, and through my good friend Vida I was able to get a scanned copy of the map, so I set out to find what Ralf had already discovered. The very centrepiece of his finds was the Temples of Time Grove of Giants, which was just south of Hydraulic Creek. The Tolkien Giant and the Temple Giant, two of the trees on the map, particularly captured my imagination.
On a perfect spring morning in 2006, Matt C. and I visited the trees to find out whether they were all still alive. While I had visited many of the them before in 2004, the plan that day was to try and visit each and every one on the map. After a brisk bike ride to the Hydraulic Creek Bridge, we stashed our rides in the woods and began hiking. Matt, who at the time worked for the Seymour Hatchery near the Seymour Dam, was really looking forward to seeing the grove.
We began as I had several years before, by trekking steeply uphill to the Hidden Giant. It is a Douglas Fir that spans about seven feet in diameter, and could be as old as four hundred years old. If it remains permanently protected, it will surely become one of the finest remaining specimens in the valley.
From there we worked our way a little bit higher, as the sunlight filtered through the forest canopy. We could easily imagine how Ralf must have felt when he discovered these trees. Just thinking about the fact that they might well have been cut down shows how far the conservation movement has come in a relatively short time. Still, the balance between preservation and industry will always be a precarious one. Hopefully, compromises will be reached, and forests like these will survive for future generations to enjoy.
Our next stop was the Paul George Giant. Paul is well known for his environmental efforts, and also authored the book Big Trees, Not Big Stumps, which documents many of the efforts to preserve British Columbia’s forests. His namesake is a six hundred year old fir whose trunk measures about eight feet in width, and sits quietly overlooking the rest of the grove.
It has been nearly twenty years since I was told that an official trail was planned to be cleared and marked through this grove, but that has not happened just yet. Should you wish to explore these trees you should be fit, sure footed, and experienced in off trail hiking. If you’re lucky, as I’ve been, you might also see wildlife such as black bears, deer, bobcats, and pine martens. Cougars are also native to the area, so all normal precautions apply.
While you hike it also helps to have a keen eye for the little things, like this tiny frog that we stumbled upon, and a wide variety of mosses and fungal growths.
We soon found ourselves traversing through thickets and deadfall as we worked our way toward a small creek bed (Krisby Creek on the WCWC map) that would lead us to even more ancient Douglas firs. Here we found the tree called the Rosebush Giant, sitting in an isolated clearing that readily gathers sunlight.
Not too far away you will find the Hundal Giant and the Chittenden Giant, two more beautiful firs with deep, channeled, almost crenellated bark. A little known fact about the bark of these trees is that it may reach nearly a foot in thickness. With protection like that, a tree is capable of enduring many Pacific Northwest winters!
A little more time and persistence brought us to the monarch of this grove of trees, that six hundred year old leviathan known as the Temple Giant. It measures ten feet in diameter and towers well over 250 feet from the forest floor. It may have a chance, if it thrives, to become the biggest champion tree in the valley if it isn’t already.
Within sight of this leviathan, still wedged into the rock face just uphill, was the twisted bulk of the Tolkien Giant. It almost seemed to be watching us. I will describe our meeting with this veteran of five hundred winters, but for an important perspective, first we need to move forward in time once more…
Two more revolutions of the earth around the sun. Now it is the spring of 2008, and as the remnants of a spring storm fade into mist, I find myself once again cycling the Seymour Valley Trailway. On this day, my companions are Rich, Daryl, and Chris, tree enthusiasts all. We opted to use the more southern trailhead to access the grove on that day. There were few sounds other than our occasional banter, as even the birds were still hiding from the morning rains. We made our way slowly to the Temple Giant, which still stood tall and proud.
I stopped for a second, watching Rich approach the tree. I recall turning to Chris, who, like me, had been to visit the Temple Giant numerous times, and saying that something didn’t seem quite the same. I didn’t remember the tree sitting in a reasonably well lit opening in the forest. Chris agreed, adding that the tree had always been difficult to photograph because of the shade.
The explanation for our momentary puzzlement became apparent all too soon. Lying in bizarre symmetry, the perfectly split trunk of a great tree had come to rest on the hillside. As it had fallen, it had also taken out a number of younger trees, hence creating space in the forest canopy above. I soon realized that the Tolkien Giant had met an untimely end.
This was both unexpected and sad. I paused interminably, thinking. Though I’d only known the tree for a fraction of its five centuries, I felt as though I’d lost an old friend, and found myself looking back to the bluebird day on which I had last seen it. Matt and I had marvelled at what an unlikely looking survivor it had been. Its location alone, anchored steadfastly around and into the grooves of the rock face, was a classic example of the way nature wastes no opportunity.
Much as I felt the loss, I also began to see that its passing had made way for other denizens of the forest, and my eye was drawn to some nearby cedars I had not noted in years past. Nature always provides, however mysterious its ways, so to speak.
Our hike continued that day, as the mist cleared and the forest brightened somewhat. We visited most of the trees Matt and I had seen two years before, and made several more discoveries as well. Even the most familiar walk can be a unique experience. Here are some sights and scenes from the rest of the trek…
Though it was a shame to have lost one of the valley’s most spectacular trees, there was a most fitting way to end our day, a consolation of sorts. We made our way back toward the banks of Hydraulic Creek for a visit with the Hobbit Tree, another cedar well over halfway into its first millennium of life.
This tree, which can be easy to miss although relatively easily located, is at least nine feet wide and just exudes character. Rich was kind enough to pose with it for scale, just to give me an idea of its immense size. I hope that it still stands for at least a few more hundred years!
There was little left to do but stop, eat lunch, and take a few photographs of the creek nearby before heading home for the day. It had certainly been an eventful day!
While it’s important to remember that while these trees are currently protected, it wasn’t always so. A mere twenty years ago, after all, there was still logging in the Greater Vancouver watersheds, and only through diligence and commitment was that practice stopped. You can find out more about that history in this link here. It’s rather a lengthy read, but a worthwhile analysis nevertheless. If it had been solely up to the GVWD and the loggers who held Tree Farm License #42, the Temples of Time Grove would long ago have been logged. A tip of the hat to the people who fought so hard to save these forests!
In order to protect the best of our forests, our values of conservation must remain strong. In that sense, the message conveyed in the title of Paul George’s book remains as relevant as ever: Big Trees, Not Big Stumps.
*** Update: As of a visit to this grove in the spring of 2017, I can happily attest to the health of all the trees and that the Lower Seymour Conservation Reserve remains committed to their preservation. ***
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
We walked onward through the waters, descending, almost imperceptibly at first. The mood was light and there was no shortage of humour from everyone.
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.
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!
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.
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!
The sun made occasional appearances too, wherever an opportunity presented itself.
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.
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.
The vegetation too, was everywhere and conspicuous. Every available space for growth was exploited, wherever possible, and sometimes where improbable.
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.
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!
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.
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!
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!
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.
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!
When I first found myself on the west coast of British Columbia after arriving from Quebec in the late 1970s, the very first thing that captivated me here in British Columbia were the towering conifers. The very scent of the forest was something completely unknown to me, and I can recall spending an inordinate amount of time looking upward in admiration. It was that sort of awe that kindled my interest in hiking, and it remains strong even today. I have spent countless hours in search of the province’s remaining old growth trees.
Years later, when I began to research the whereabouts of these remaining giants, I began to follow the exploits of legendary B.C. big tree hunter and conservationist Randy Stoltmann. Through his book Hiking Guide to the Big Trees of Southwestern British Columbia, I learned of numerous incredible finds. Two particular areas captured my imagination more than most others. One was Cheewhat Lake, and the other was the Carmanah Creek Valley, both on Vancouver Island. Cheewhat is notable for the discovery of the world’s second largest Western Red Cedar, perhaps as old as two thousand years. Carmanah features great stands of ancient Sitka Spruce, and is among the last intact valley bottom ecosystems to escape the saws of logging. The Cheewhat Cedar is now protected within Pacific Rim National Park Reserve, while Carmanah-Walbran Provincial Park gives sanctuary to the Carmanah Valley.
It was not until the autumn of 2012, however, that the right opportunity to visit these forests would present itself for me. It was on a late October afternoon that Doug and I would finally see ourselves enroute to the west side of Vancouver Island. Naturally, the trip began on the ferry at Horseshoe Bay, bound for Nanaimo. The goal, from there, was to make our way to Cowichan River Provincial Park where we’d camp the first night. The rains persisted right up until the time we arrived at the campground.
We’d been listening to the World Series on the radio while we drove, and so the drive seemed to fly by. That night, clutch hitting by Pablo Sandoval and a gritty pitching performance by veteran Barry Zito of the San Francisco Giants was enough to down the Detroit Tigers and their ace Justin Verlander, if you’re a baseball fan.
More showers ushered in a somewhat gloomy night, but to us that hardly mattered. We were armed with plenty of tarps, and Doug’s sturdy MEC Wanderer tent, which has served as basecamp for many of our adventures. Add to that steak to barbecue, a cooler full of beer, and an ample supply of firewood, and we had the makings of a fine evening. The next day called for improved weather, so our fingers were crossed for better fortune on that front. We spent a great night in camp, reminiscing about past exploits and bantering about future plans. As we turned in, the night descended into a world of silence, broken only by the sounds of rain striking the tent and the hiss of our campfire being quietly extinguished.
Wanting to get as early a start as possible, we awoke in darkness to get breakfast straightened away. Ahead was the rest of the highway to Lake Cowichan, followed by a lengthy drive on logging roads to the Rosander Main and the Cheewhat Cedar.
We soon realized that sunshine was upon us, and that it was going to be a bluebird day. After a stop for fuel, we took to the gravel, aided in no small part by a work crew which had newly graded much of the road surface. It was still early in the morning when we parked beside a small roadside cairn. Beyond that cairn lay a rough track that would hopefully lead us to the legendary tree.
Radiant morning sun filtered through the forest canopy as we passed the sign that let us know we were now within the national park reserve.
A massive fallen cedar immediately captivated our attentions. A giant well over 15 feet in diameter, its massive root ball and trunk had become host to a vibrant community of new life. The understory was very biodiverse, and the further we hiked, the larger the trees became. The trail itself was a somewhat indistinct path, and aside from the occasional marker, close attention was needed to stay on track.
After walking through a clearing in the forest we stumbled upon the gnarled mass of a very large cedar which was well over fifteen feet in diameter. It was easy to tell that it was very, very elderly.
Though we were following but a faint footbed, Doug figured we were on the right track, and I agreed. It was as though we had landed in another world as the forest grew more enchanted with each step!
Soon the trail took the sharp bend to the left that we were looking for, and we were led to an absolute giant of a tree. As massive as it was, at nearly eighteen feet in diameter, we knew that it wasn’t the Cheewhat Cedar. The entire grove, in fact, was a true old growth stand, so rarely seen nowadays, yet once so commonplace on Vancouver Island. Before moving on we stood still, not speaking much, but simply absorbing the atmosphere.
We knew that the monarch could not be far away, as the map indicated it was only yards downhill from where we were, and so we continued hiking. Suddenly, and somehow almost surprisingly, it appeared in the clearing below. I could now understand the feeling its discoverer must have experienced.
This tree was truly gargantuan, spanning twenty feet in diameter. Since the time this tree had begun its life as a seedling, two millennia had passed, give or take a decade or two. Two thousand years! That was almost beyond comprehension, though by no means could it compete with, for longevity, with the world’s oldest trees. That is a topic for another time, of course.
The next hour was spent eating lunch and rambling about the tree taking photographs from every conceivable vantage point. The Cheewhat Cedar is truly a remarkable exhibit of nature at its finest. I highly recommend visiting it if you ever get the opportunity.
Wanting to make our way to Carmanah, we hiked resolutely back to the trailhead and continued up the logging road, accompanied by the midday sun.
The morning had given way to a beautiful autumn afternoon, as we rolled into the parking lot. It seemed a deserted campsite, and there wasn’t a soul in sight.
We decided to take advantage of the clear skies and take to the woods right away, as more rain was predicted for the evening. The park trails were comparatively well developed in contrast to the Cheewhat Trail we had just walked.
In fact, in the early 1990s this valley had been the centre of a very well organized conservation effort. Randy Stoltmann, among many others, had been integral in spearheading that movement at the time.
It was the year before before his untimely passing in a ski mountaineering accident in 1994 that the valley finally attained designation as a provincial park. Miles of boardwalk had been built by scores of volunteers to raise awareness of this rare forest. The campaign was also supported by numerous artists of worldwide acclaim.
In just twenty years, these paths have begun to fall into disrepair, but the dream they represent still burns brightly. It was a triumph to preserve this special place for all to see.
Our hike down the valley continued quietly along Carmanah Creek. On the sandy gravel banks the tracks of animals could be seen clearly, and our necks craned trying to find an elusive Marbled Murrelet nest. A shy, retiring creature, this bird has the habit of nesting in the tops of old growth Sitka Spruce trees. Much of its habitat on the west coast has been destroyed or altered, and its southern population has dwindled over the years. In Canada’s north, where apparently it is a ground nesting bird, it has far more abundant numbers, I understand. Unfortunately, we never did see one.
We visited the Heaven Tree, among the largest spruce trees in the valley, and admired the vast garden of hanging mosses it presented. This tree is definitely one of the park’s star attractions.
Then we walked down to the Randy Stoltmann Commemorative Grove, home to several massive specimens. We felt immense pride in following in Randy’s footsteps, as we have done on many hikes. He also lived on Vancouver’s North Shore, as we do, and spent hours in the forests we have walked.
That Carmanah survives well would likely mean a great deal satisfaction for him, I imagine, but Randy Stoltmann left us long before his time.
The route toward the ocean is officially closed beyond the grove, but I’m told it’s actually somewhat intact, if riddled by deadfall in some stretches . There is a giant Sitka Spruce called the Carmanah Giant further downstream that I plan to look for someday. The trail actually follows Carmanah Creek to its intersection with the well known West Coast Trail, which one needs a permit to hike.
After a short stay at Stoltmann Grove we hiked back to walk some of the upper section of the trail and to visit The Three Sisters. The forest there was equally enchanted. We lingered for a while but since skies were darkening we headed back to the truck to get camp set up.
It turned out we did have the whole park to ourselves and the only firepit in sight as well. Amidst eating dinner while the rains began to fall we listened to the faint and crackling radio feed of the second game of the World Series, where the Giants Pablo Sandoval was once again terrorizing Tiger pitching.
This day also ended with cold beer and a decent campfire! Darkness came early, and when the beer was gone we turned in, with the distant sounds of Pacific surf drifting in the wind. The sound of rain drowned out all consciousness, and the next thing we knew morning had dawned.
Breakfast came early, and all that remained was the long journey home. A relentless downpour chased us all the way to the ferry terminal at Departure Bay. It had been two remarkable October days, a time I’ll always remember.
I dedicate this this to the late Randy Stoltmann (1962-1994) whose efforts helped ensure that Carmanah-Walbran became a provincial park. It is important to note, though, that there is more work to be done, as the entire Walbran Valley is not yet fully protected.
Exploring mines is an inherently dangerous activity. The author encourages you to heed all warning signs and take all precautions! Do not enter open mine adits!
Last Saturday, Doug, Alex, and I set out to search for some of the hidden mines in Lynn Headwaters Regional Park. It had been something we had all wanted to do for quite some time, but other objectives had gotten in the way up until then.
While not strictly a secret, it’s not commonly known that during the period of 1900- 1940, a number of claims were prospected in the Lynn, Norvan, and Hanes Creek drainages. From what I have read, it was mostly iron, copper, and zinc that were discovered, but no doubt more precious metals like silver and especially gold were the real objectives.
Doug had obtained a map from fellow North Shore Rescue companion Wally, who had visited the area some years ago with local mountaineering legend Howie Rode. Our plan was to hike the Headwaters Trail to the bridge at roughly the 5 km mark, check out the camp near that location, and then climb up the creek draw east of the bridge in search of whatever else we could find.
The first part of our trek was easy enough, a rambling on mostly flat ground. The trail was alive with dozens of runners on their way up to Norvan Falls, a popular weekend destination. Most of them would have little clue that the trail they were running on was once a thriving lifeline for both logging and mining operations. Today, Lynn Headwaters, a former watershed until 1981, is one of the jewels of Greater Vancouver’s wilderness parks.
The ore cart you see above is one of easiest artifacts to locate in the area. I stumbled upon it years ago while hunting old growth trees in the area long before I even knew about mining in Lynn Valley. It is only about ten metres off the trail at around the 4.7 km mark. All that remains are the axles and some attached hardware, as the decks have long since returned to the earth, so to speak. There is a nearby pile of ore tailings and supposedly a mine adit too but we were unable to find the actual minesite.
Within sight of the ore cart is another guilty pleasure of mine; one of the most unusual trees in the entire park! It’s a tree with a legend, too, as the story goes a group of loggers were in the process of falling it and another nearby tree, when an accident occurred that took the lives of two men. It was decided that they would leave the tree to stand, with all its cuts, and it still survives today. It’s well over 500 years old now, and truly defies adversity. I like to call it The Survivor.
Sometimes when I look at it I can’t believe it hasn’t toppled just yet, and I hope that day never comes!
There was a time when Western Redcedars between twelve and sixteen feet in diameter and up to a thousand years old were commonplace here. When the Cedar Mills Logging Company plied its trade here, the fallers were very thorough. I have hunted almost all of the park’s drainages on the east side of Lynn Creek and found very few ancient trees.
Now, back to our quest for the mines! We crossed the bridge upstream and began climbing up the south bank. The terrain was typical of the area; we needed to gain but a couple hundred metres but the grades were unforgivingly steep. You also had to be careful not to cliff yourself out, trap yourself in a sharp ravine, or get stuck climbing over deadfall. All good clean fun of course.
Not far up from the trail we found quite a few relics, like this shovel head, piping, and old gas can. The men who worked these slopes were tough and dedicated. Packing cast iron up mountains like this was no easy trick.
The hook we found, here at left, was I think used for logging purposes as you can see some wire rope cable is buried beside it. I thought it would make an amazing movie prop for a Halloween movie of some kind. What do you think?
Next we traversed north toward the next creek drainage at about the 500 metre level in search of a possible camp.Some coal burn remains were found as well as a number of cast iron rails and stove parts. Again, the act of lugging all those parts uphill and assembling them must have been an onerous task indeed!
There were also cast iron pipes found here, and some apothecary bottles. Alex, also a North Shore Rescue volunteer as Doug is, regaled me with tales of his youth in England that included digging for artifacts under cover of darkness. Hunting for hidden history had long been an avid interest of his. Europe, of course, offers centuries more to discover than our reasonably short recorded heritage here in North Vancouver.
Doug’s thought was to cross the next creek canyon because the map indicated several finds on the adjacent cliffs. This involved fighting our way up another steep spine and making a careful crossing over slick rock. We were all glad that there had been very little recent rainfall.
Less than five minutes away, we knew we were on to something when we saw this sign. While the guys approached from above, I climbed up from below, and saw what I thought was either a work platform or a cabin base.
The platform had long been covered by trees and dirt but there was a mound of tailings beside it. From above, Doug and Alex announced with excitement that they had found a mine!
Alex was the first to have a closer look. he discovered that there was a shaft opening beneath the floorboards that went down quite a way. This was not a place to trifle with, as by dropping a rock inside we guessed that it was water filled and well over ten feet deep!
The ground above the mine was extremely steep. We wondered aloud exactly why this spot had been chosen, of all places. It must have been those dreams of untold riches that drive men to prospect. It was something well beyond the modest possibilities found here, we were certain.
The timbers were in amazing condition, considering how long they had been abandoned, and you could see that they had been notched, perhaps to accomodate some kind of pulley system and or a winch to bring the ore up. Deep in the mine opening, on the right, there was even a partly finished scupture of a face.
It was, at the end of the day, some time very well spent. It was soon that we departed, recrossed the creek, and tried to work our way south to the creek canyon we’d started in. We gave up that venture when we realized we would run out of time, so we plunged downhill, reaching the trail and its hordes of humanity in just minutes, hiking homeward on a perfect spring afternoon.
Well secluded in a remote corner of Mt Seymour Provincial Park is a 1508 metre peak that towers high above the Seymour Valley to its west and the waters of the Indian Arm to the east. That mountain is Mt Bishop, named for the first president of the British Columbia Mountaineering Club (the BCMC ). It was first ascended in 1908 via the Bishop Creek Valley from the shores of Indian Arm by a large party of climbers. One those was Fred Mills, a noted explorer of the North Shore Mountains and an early member of the British Columbia Mountaineering Club (BCMC). A place that still sees few if any visitors, Bishop and its slopes offer an authentic wilderness experience, despite the fact that Vancouver’s city lights can be seen distinctly from its lofty vantage. Here then, is a blended tale of a two treks I have made there, and of Mr Mills’ historical expedition.
It was April of 2004. I was standing on the pedals of my mountain bike, picking up speed as I worked my way to the Mt Bishop trailhead, some 24 kilometres from my house, where the ride had begun. I had heard of a rough trail that had been blazed from the end of the Eastside Seymour Road in the Lower Seymour Conservation Reserve to the summit of Mt Bishop. The promises of massive old growth forest, subalpine lakes, and mountain meadows were running through my mind.
Soon after reaching the 13 km mark on the road, I came to an abrupt halt. My information had the path beginning at the 12.8 km mark, so logically, I needed to backtrack. Soon, I sighted the markers. I wasn’t certain exactly how I missed the conspicuous tree festooned with bands of flagging tape, but there it was!
After a short bikewalk I opted to stash my ride and commence hiking, but it was not long before I almost froze in my tracks. Something crackled loudly through the underbrush about fifteen yards to my right. It fell silent for a moment, then accelerated quickly through the forest cover with what sounded like a low growl, and then it was gone. I never did see what it was but I knew it was not a deer or a black bear. I concluded it may have been a cat of some kind, possibly a cougar or bobcat. My heart rate having returned to some semblance of normal, I continued onward.
Only several minutes later, I came upon a magnificent grove of western redcedar. The largest of the trees approached four metres in diameter, and two were significantly old specimens, well in excess of 700 years old. I lingered for a time in the presence of these giants, then began hiking uphill again. Ropes were fixed on the difficult sections as the trail was as steep as its reputation!
My trek was to last but half an hour more, as suddenly it dawned on me I’d be late if I did not turn around. A brisk walk turned into a run, and then a hurried ride home. One thing was sure, though, I was hooked and vowed to return!
Flash back to the summer of 1908. To me, a year of significance, as my grandmother was born then in New York City and the house I used to live in was built in that year. The Mills Party, for their part, made camp at the mouth of Bishop Creek across from Croker Island, near the turn of the twentieth century. They ascended all the high peaks in the area, including Mt Jarrett and Mt. Elsay. Jarrett and Bishop were both climbers in this BCMC group, though Mills did much of the leading. The region was roadless then, so their method of transport was by boat from Indian Arm. After walking the ancient forest of cedars, they attained a hogback ridge that gave them passage to the alpine and the summit of Bishop. The other peaks were accessed from that region, and all climbers returned to camp that evening before returning homeward. It was, without a doubt, a full and successful day!
Fast forward to 530 am, July 30 of 2004, and another heinously early start for Doug and me, just two weeks to the day from our traverse of The Needles. Would today prove similar? Read on and discover….
As we arrived at the trailhead, it was by then 7 pm, and the rising sun was beginning to cast shadows on the fast awakening valley. The bikes having been locked away, it was time to walk through the aging giants that would give way to the upper valley. The Bishop Trail had originally been blazed by Denis Blair, Jim Sedor, and Moe Lamothe, avid mountaineers all. In the years since then I have been on quite a few treks with Denis, who, it must be said has become something of a mentor for me. He has forgotten more about the mountains than I’ve ever known and is still climbing strongly in to his seventies, no mean feat here in the steep Pacific Northwest!
Later the trail was adopted by local climbing legend Don McPherson, who improved it while clearing an access route to the Indian Arm Trail, and finally by North Shore Search and Rescue, who planned to use it to evacuate injured hikers.
The jungle gym qualities of this trail were as immediately apparent to Doug as they had been to me several months before. The ever popular Grouse Grind, also built by McPherson, ascends 890 m over 2.9 kms, but the Bishop Trail climbs 1268 m over 3.25 kms, not for the faint of heart.
It was good clean fun and plenty of effort to make our way up that trail! Once we made it to 700 m above sea level and a fine view of Cathedral Mountain, the route was new to both of us.
In short order we reached a clearing which gave way to a broad basin with several subalpine ponds. We knew that the largest of them must be Vicar Lake, and that the worst of the battle was done. The peak lay another hour above the lakes, and its unmistakably rounded summit was now within sight.
We lingered for a while at the lakes, before taking once again to the woods. It was an ideal place to stop for lunch.
The forest was now an old grove of Mountain Hemlock dotted with sizable, silvery trunked Yellow Cedars.One in specific, named The Bishop Giant, was over eight feet in diameter,over 800 years in age, and in near perfect health.
As you can see in the two photos above, the upper section of the trail begins at this metal marker on the shore of Vicar Lake, from which you also have a fine view of Mt Elsay.
The next section of the route wound through ever thinning forest along Gibbens Creek until it emerged on the ridge, where the views expanded. The weather was warm, but not as oppressive as it had been earlier that month, so that the hike was quite comfortable.
This was a beautiful section of the trail. Heather clad meadows and thick, stunted hemlock were the order of the day there.
There was little left to do but scale the granite blocks that led ever higher. The hiking here was not difficult, with only the occasional bit of scrambling to be done. The lower reaches of the trail provided much more of a challenge than the alpine reaches did, as it turned out.
In twenty more minutes we stood at the apex, Mt. Bishop was ours to share, if only for a while. We wandered around the summit and took a well deserved break!
We spent a relatively short time on the peak, eating the rest of the homemade pizza (thanks to my wife) and absorbing the absolute quietude, before traipsing back to the bikes again. Here are some summit shenanigans….
The clouds also made for some interesting photo opportunities!
As we began the trip back down the valley, more cloud cover rolled in, but no rains came with it. A little reluctant to leave the alpine, we took our time through the meadows.
In the intervening years since Mr Mills led the first ascent, this mountain has not changed substantially. On almost any given day, one would find it without the company of humans. At one time the wildlife population was supposedly more abundant, yet we found the tracks of many deer, mountain goats, and of several black bears on our travels that day.
It was about half an hour before we had made it back to Vicar Lakes again. Though gravity always makes descents somewhat easier, that doesn’t necessarily mean they’ll take less time.
What with all the obstructions, ropes, and rockbands the Bishop Trail has, it took us nearly as much time to return to the trailhead from the lakes as it did to make the same distance uphill. That’s not unusual for the North Shore Mountains, where there’s seldom an easy way.
By the time we reached the truck, over ten hours had passed. It had been a lengthy and strenuous day. Over 30 kms of biking and another 8 kms of hiking all told. A highly recommended trip, by my account.
We certainly appreciated that when Mr Mills and his party made their foray, they didn’t have a chance of completing their climb as a day trip. It likely took an extra day of travel by horse and boat just to establish their basecamp. Determination was needed in greater supply in 1908!
For some time I have wanted to kayak my way up the Indian Arm and recreate their expedition, and hopefully that day will come. Until then , when I walk up Mt Seymour or drive the Barnet Highway along the Burrard Inlet, the sight of Mt Bishop will always trigger fond memories.
Tucked away on a sharp divide between Cyrtina Creek and Furry Creek, the unofficially named Chanter Peak and its accompanying approach via its western subpeaks looked to be an adventurous ascent. Simon had diligently researched the ridge and knew that it was rarely hiked and promised great views, and that was more than enough to pique my curiosity! The name Chanter, assigned by the Bivouac website, refers to the pipe of a bagpipe which is provided with finger holes with which to play the melody. It was not, as we joked then, what you call those groups of friendly Hare Krishna folk you sometimes see carrying on and singing happily at the airport. The peak’s suggested name is supposed to be in keeping with the Scottish theme of names in the area, like Ben Lomond and Loch Lomond, whose names are official.
Our immediate concern when considering our options, was to try and avert any kind of route that crossed a potential avalanche chute. The north face of the ridge that you see in the photo below had several that were particularly dangerous looking and incredibly steep.
So it was that on a perfect tenth of May in 2006, we set out to tackle the task. Simon’s Nissan X-Trail lurched to and fro up the logging road, and we took delight in watching a big black bear cross the road at one point! It was evident that it was going to be a warm spring day, and we continued up the road to park at a washout about 8 kms from the gate. I was intrigued about this ridge, since I had seen it when climbing nearby Capilano Mountain the year before. We had packed snowshoes, crampons, and ice axes, as we weren’t sure exactly how the snow conditions might play out, and expected the trek to last a good portion of the day.
We began by crossing Cyrtina Creek to gain the forest below the western side of the ridge. This went well, at least for Simon, but I managed to end up in the drink.
None the worse for wear, we continued through stands of ancient mountain hemlock, working our way to the bottom of the ridge. Plenty of stories and laughs were exchanged as we worked our way upward. We had developed quite a rapport through previous expeditions and now had that easy sense of humour that only develops through familiarity.
The beautifully open old growth forest that we saw that day is now forever gone, according to Simon, who repeated this trek some eight years later. At the time it had been slated to be logged, and though we had hoped it would be preserved, that, unfortunately, was not to be.
We soon came upon a tree that looked as though it would be a perfect den for a bear. Simon peered inside for a quick look, finding no ursine residents, but did so with a casual air that had us both chuckling at the time.
In short order, the forest opened up into an area of scattered trees and lighter foliage. It didn’t quite don on me at the time, but there was good reason for that which would soon become obvious to us.
Once we crested these slopes you could tell that avalanches had snapped trees and created substantial clearings, and possibly in the not too distant past. We soon climbed into a bowl below the ridge and could finally see a path to the ridge above. Route finding was simple – we chose a steep gully already razed right down to the earth in some spots by a recent slide. It provided an ideal avenue to attain Chanter Ridge. Had that avalanche not already occurred we might well have shifted our plans or stood down, but luck had prevailed, in this case.
This trek turned out to be one of those days in the mountains that has become especially memorable to me. Perhaps it was the feeling of isolation I felt, or perhaps it was the more than ample sense of adventure. I’m not sure exactly what it was, but these photos still evoke strong recollections. I sometimes use the photo above as an icon on social media sites.
The elevation at the west end of the ridge was about 1420 metres, I believe. It was an appealing vantage point, and we were beginning to enjoy the day immensely. The route we would be taking to move eastward toward the summit seemed straightforward. We knew only of the destination, and scarcely little of the possible obstacles, but that was perhaps the best part of it all.
The sun was beginning to warm us up quite a bit, and the first thing we realized was that neither of us had brought any sunscreen. While that was no issue at the time, it certainly was to be later. We resolved to move on, trying to shade ourselves wherever possible. There were, after all, plenty of other things to focus upon at the time. Here are some of the emerging views that were enjoyed.
We now concentrated on the task at hand; the next peak on the ridge was a short but sharp ascent of less than 150 metres, elevation wise. The snow, at this point, was well consolidated and ideal for travel.
Getting up this peak was no marathon undertaking, but it did take some determination. We had to stop on a ledge to put our crampons on, and, as we did, we noticed a huge crevice where snow met rock. It looked very deep and foreboding, and neither of us wanted to end up trapped inside. We carefully moved past the ledge then tackled the last fifty meters or so to the crest. The first crux was soon ours!
The sun had really begun roasting us by then, especially since we were now without the cover of trees. I had wrenched a knee on the steepest section of the climb, but it seemed I could manage. We stopped to eat some lunch and survey the sublime views in every direction, savouring them as much as we could. We could now see the road we’d driven up the valley on, and where we’d begun, roughly 800 metres below on the valley floor.
We had set a good pace up to this point, or rather, I should say, Simon had set a good pace! Of all the people I’ve been with in the mountains, he is certainly the quickest when moving uphill. I’ve often wished that I could spend the number of days he does in the hills, as usually he averages ascending over fifty new peaks a year and has climbed hundreds of summits. Me? I’m just glad to have been along for a decent handful of those hikes.
We were now in the kind of territory every mountaineer loves; an open stroll on a friendly expanse of snow with stunning vistas everywhere you looked. In the photo above, you see me working toward another peak on the ridge.
I was in no hurry to accelerate this part of the trek, as we trudged along through snow that was fast becoming isothermic. It was also clear we’d both be sporting obvious sunburns in the days to come but that too, seemed not to matter. We had not managed to catch sight of the summit yet but according to readings Simon figured it could not be far away.
One could easily discern that the prevailing winds had the habit of creating huge cornices, which we were very careful to keep our distance from. It was safe hiking in the middle of the ridge, but we had seen the sheer drops and avalanche chutes on the north face and so naturally wanted nothing to do with those.
Soon enough, the summit was in our sights, and Simon took the lead again as we dug in for the top. You can see (in my photo below) Simon making tracks upward and next (in Simon’s photo) me ascending the ridge with the start of our ridgewalk in the distance.
In another ten minutes, we were standing at the high point, at 1568 metres, on this unnamed ridge! It was time to break out the cameras yet again before beginning the journey back into the valley!
While capturing the summit had been eventful, now it was time to think about the day’s second crux. How were we to get down? While we had a general idea, there was some apprehension due to the snow having softened and the need to avoid avalanche prone slopes. That would take some doing, but we were confident a solution would present itself.
The mountain hemlock, pictured below, that guards the end of ridge where we dropped down may be well over 500 years old.
As we reached the end of the summit block, an appealing snow bowl with reasonably safe slopes came into view. We would start our trip downward there, plunging steps as we walked.
Next came a glissade on wet snow that enabled us to lose almost a hundred metres in elevation. At the end of the slide only quick reflexes allowed Simon to avoid a nasty broken snow bridge. Had I been in the lead I would certainly have broken through if only because my greater weight would have ensured that. As we stood about considering where we should go next, a conspicuous solution leaped out at us. A perfect ramp to our left seeemed to lead to the foot of the ridge, and since we knew that the slopes above it were reasonably safe, we walked and glissaded our way down. It had taken merely half an hour to reach the valley floor.
The end of the ramp came abruptly, and welcomed our return to the forest, but not without warning. Some weeks before, an avalanche had ripped down the couloir immediately west of our exit point and taken out a huge expanse of forest. There was no urge to linger there, because while the danger had passed, the feeling of vulnerability had not, so we continued on toward the logging road.
It had taken us just under eight hours to complete our trip, and we were feeling that brimming sense of accomplishment that a fine day in the mountains typically brings.
On our walk down the logging road, we stopped in to have a look at Rolf Beltz’s ski cabin, which has now long fallen into disrepair. We certainly wished it had a beer fridge, but you can’t have everything, I guess.
All told, our eight hour day featured about 9 kms of travel and 1300 metres of cumulative elevation gain. It was a day that tested not just our skill and mettle, but also our critical thinking process. It was a satisfying day in so many respects, and I suppose that is why this trek has left such an impression on me. The ridge with no name, had, to us at least, made a name for itself!
Travels and adventures past and present, from camping to hiking to searching for B.C.'s remaining old growth trees, and other thoughts on life