Tag Archives: bushwhacking

The Magic of the Blue Cedar Grove

The Blue Cedar Grove. It’s a title that stirs the imagination, kind of like The Golden Spruce, I remember thinking, when I first read the words. I never did remember to ask Ralf Kelman exactly why he’d chosen such a name, but as soon as I saw it on the Western Canada Wilderness Committee (WCWC) map, I knew that I needed to see these trees!

The first trip I made to this grove was hardly a day filled with great inspiration. It was a one of those spring days when it’s hard to anticipate what way the weather is going to turn. In short, I guessed wrong. Only half an hour into my bike ride up the valley, light rain began to fall, escalating into a torrential downpour by the time I had left my ride to hunt for the trees. I did decide to press on, but it seemed the further I walked the harder it poured! I made it as far as a soaking wet, moss covered boulder field before I conceded defeat.

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The only find on a very rain soaked day was this fine four hundred year old cedar
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A day when you could not keep the water off your camera lens!

 

The high point of the day was returning to my truck to don dry clothing, devour a sandwich, and drink a thermos of hot chocolate laced with Grand Marnier! ( I highly recommend that last part if you haven’t tried it before, just don’t drink and drive. Take a very long nap, like I did. )

It was four years later in 2008 that I finally returned. On that occasion I chose perfect weather, with the sun shining warmly on my birthday, no less! In a scant twenty minutes from where I left my bike I reached the grove, which certainly did not disappoint.

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There it was, the moss covered boulder field where I had begun my retreat several years before!

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Tall and towering cedars, draped in moss, set the scene. The forest floor and understory were a carpet of innumerable greens, though it was far from easy to decide where to place your next step.

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In this case, moss grows on the east side of this big cedar!
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If you like marked trails with few obstructions, avoid hiking with me!
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Fallen giant on the forest floor
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An explosion of greenery!

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Spectacular place to spend an afternoon

I was quite surprised to also find a number of very nice Douglas Firs interspersed here and there, and along the creek a number of massive Bigleaf Maples held court, shading me from the midday sun. Nearby, a quizzical deer observed me clambering about, no doubt wondering what in the world I was doing there!

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Douglas Fir aka Pseudotsuga Menzieszi
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Bigleaf Maple on O’Hayes Creek
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The sheer volume of their foliage is overwhelming!
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Bigleaf Maples are highly underrated if you ask me

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After enjoying the grove, I was soon drawn uphill, following the dull roar of water that I could hear in the background. When I found the source of the noise it was a surprise to me. A winter avalanche had roared down the creek canyon right down to an elevation of 500 meters. By the month of May the snows had melted out and the creek had created a cavern beneath them, leaving me something highly unique to explore. I dared not venture inside it, though, as I could hear the creaking and groaning of shifting ice echoing from within.

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Just a shot here to give you an idea how steep and rough these creek valleys are. These are the nearby cliffs at Jack’s Burn, where you can sometimes spot mountain goats
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O’Hayes Creek as seen from a helicopter. Credit to Doug for this photo, which really gives you a different perspective!

Some years later I was to learn that this creek was highly volatile indeed, as during heavy rains the entire couloir released and stripped out the creek bed right down to earth. You can still view the scars of that event in Google Earth images, another five years after it occurred! Here then is the walk up the canyon as I viewed it that day…

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O’Hayes Creek
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Over the years quite a few huge boulders have tumbled down this creek gully
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Those are The Needles in the background
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I got to see this rock tower from above on the day we traversed The Needles several years before
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The canyon walls
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A truly unique place, and one I’ll never forget!
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The ice cave back in 2007. For scale, the opening is, or was, seven feet at its tallest. I did not go inside!
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The sounds emanating from within were intimidating to say the least!

Having finally run out of time, I descended the gully once again, vowing to return. The next decade, however, would have a lot to say about whether that was going to happen, but suffice it to say that I was a very happy hiker on that sunny afternoon in late May!

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This territory is about as rugged as it gets!
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Cliffside cascade

 

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I could not resist another look back at a truly incredible place

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The end of a great day, heading back to my bike

In 2018, I would finally return again, on another absolutely resplendent day. I knew that soon I was to be moving away from the North Shore Mountains, and the Blue Cedar Grove compelled me to visit one more time. The day of discovery was a rewarding one, as I found several sizeable  Pacific Yews , hiding in plain sight as they always seem to be. One of them was so twisted and gnarled that I named it “The Elk”, for its upper branches that gave the appearance of antlers.

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Introducing “The Elk”, one very interesting Pacific Yew!
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The base of “The Elk”

I will never forget having lunch on the banks of O’Hayes Creek that day, warmed by the sun as countless birds sang nearby. It may seem trite to say I feel as though I’ve developed a bond with this place over the years, but I can’t think of any other way describe it. It is, without a doubt, one of the Seymour Valley’s special places. Here is a guided tour of what I experienced that day.

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Shadows in the forest
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This cedar tree had a very long piece of bark that seemed to have stripped from the trunk

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Spiky treetops usually mean old growth trees!
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Any time you find a yew around two to three feet wide you have yourself a very old tree
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When a giant falls it can either be quite a roadblock or a highway for escape!

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Rattlesnake Plantain
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Timeless beauty

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Little things!
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Partners

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Sunlit Alder trees
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I call this cedar “The Moose”
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Tilting panorama of a cedar tree

Imagine, if you can, the Seymour Valley in the late 1800s. It was a land almost completely undisturbed, abundant with wildlife, and blanketed with one of the finest coastal temperate rainforests this land had to offer.

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Western Red Cedar, aka Thuja Plicata
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Towering Douglas Firs

With the influx of settlers and the further displacement of indigenous peoples, however, everything changed. Much of the valley bottom timber was harvested, and the majority that remains many years later is in the stages of recovery. There are, however, places that do remain relatively pristine, and I’ve made it a passion of mine to search for them. The Blue Cedar Grove certainly possesses that magic in abundance, a place that always fills me with gratitude. Should you take the time to seek it out, I’m sure you’ll agree!

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Blue Cedar Grove
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Welcome to the Jungle!

There are times when I write about a trip in the mountains that I struggle to find the right words to tell the tale, and then there are the stories that almost write themselves, and this one is definitely the latter. It all began innocently enough, with an email from Doug. He had studied his maps and come up with the idea to traverse The Needles, an obscure group of wooded summits north of Lynn Ridge and deep in the heart of the North Shore Mountains. They were steep, largely unknown to most, and shrouded in mystery. They still are.  A look at the maps over an Okanagan Spring Ale or two at Doug’s place was enough to hook me on his idea. In retrospect, I now know I can be talked into just about anything by cold beer, as if there had ever been any doubt about that.

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This is the task, from left to right. how hard can it be? Spoiler alert: very!

Such a peregrination cannot be undertaken without superb planning, and Doug prepared thoroughly by studying the route in detail. The plan was to begin by biking to Hydraulic Creek, and after stashing our bikes there, to run up the valley to the Paton’s Lookout Trail. This is a trail that leads to Coliseum Mountain from the Seymour Valley. We’d follow it to the Needle/Coliseum Col, and then head down the Lynn Headwaters Coliseum Trail to Norvan Pass, where the bushwhacking would begin. We would then complete the traverse and exit via the Hydraulic Creek Trail to our bikes and the ride home. Sounds simple, right? Here it is on a map…

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Q: Looks easy here? A: No

Fast forward to Saturday, July 16, 2004, a day I’ll always remember, in part because it was also my mother’s 71st birthday.  The time was 430 am, and I was biking up to Doug’s house where we would rack our bikes and drive up to our ride’s starting point near Rice Lake. I despise harsh exercise before sunrise even though I enjoy rising early. This day was no exception, but on the drive up I began to catch a little more enthusiasm.

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The Needles from Doug’s driveway at 430 am

The sun was nearly emerging  as we finished the first leg of the journey at Hydraulic Creek, where we locked up our bikes and set aside cold Gatorade for our return. After sorting through our gear, it was time to run about 3 1/2 kms to the Paton Trailhead, where the hiking would begin in earnest. At this point, I recall feeling very fresh, as the heat of the summer day had not reached us yet, which was good because temperatures were expected to rise to well over 30 degrees Celsius.

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We had a pleasant feeling about our expedition because we had just spotted a young barred owl in the trees near the bridge. “Surely this meant things were going to go well?” I had thought.

We trekked steadily upward after our run toward Paton’s Lookout, a flat topped plateau at an elevation of roughly 1100 m. The trail was in excellent and we were packing light and fast. Time was of the essence, as we hoped to be back before 430pm that afternoon, but we were prepared to bivouac if needed. The forest in Paton Creek is an excursion worthy of its own merits, as there are large stands of untouched timber there and it’s not unusual to see a black bear or two.

At an elevation of around 800 metres you pass a huge Douglas Fir and a section of trail that overlooks some beautiful granite cliffs. As I was getting hungry, we stopped briefly here for some snacks, then  began climbing again.

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Paton’s Guardian

The Paton Creek Cliffs can be seen from well below in the Seymour Valley; I’ve used them before as a navigational feature, of sorts. As far as I know, they aren’t a popular climbing objective but they do look rather interesting.

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Paton Cliffs. These can be seen from the valley floor
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Starting to warm up. Temperatures would reach the upper 30s on this trek!

After another half an hour we had topped out on Paton’s Lookout, and now we had to lose about a hundred metres of elevation, then regain that and more to attain the col below Coliseum Mountain. Here are some scenes from the lookout, an ideal camping spot, however, I believe camping is not actually permitted there.

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Cathedral Mountain from Paton’s Lookout
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Granite etchings from a glacial past
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Coliseum Cliffs and Coliseum Mountain
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Cathedral Mountain, 1737m, again

It was clearly evident the mercury was rising as we worked our way toward the boulder field that gave entrance to the col. I began to wonder if we had brought enough water, as there was still a lot of ground to cover, but for now at least, we were going strongly.  We could now see far into the Seymour Watershed, an area off limits to hikers.

You can see the haze beginning to build in the distance here as it often does in the mountains on hot summer days.

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A hazy view to Seymour Lake Reservoir
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To get to the North Needle-Coliseum Col you have to ascend this boulder field.
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We made a tactical error by not filling water from this tarn, because the ensuing ridge was bone dry

Had we known that tarn above was the last water source we’d see for some time, we might have chanced to fill up there despite the risk of giardia, but we chose instead to pace ourselves and conserve our supplies. Another hour passed as we hiked up the boulder field and completed the second link of our journey. We had made the col!

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View at the col

We were surrounded by fields of blooming heather as we hiked toward the pass. The air was calm and still, and the silence was only broken by the occasional buzz of the brilliant blue dragonflies that seemed to be everywhere in the meadows.

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Heather!

Now the task shifted to taking the trail down to Norvan Pass, where a brushy bench would lead us to the foot of the sub peak of the North Needle. This at least went by swiftly, and it wasn’t long before we were confronted with the real challenge of our excursion.

Of all things, this switch plate ushered the way to Norvan Pass, and we followed. The next ten minutes were the only ones we walked on relatively flat ground. The views were very enjoyable here, and we felt the privilege that only relative solitude affords; this was a rarely visited place.

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Time to flip the switch!
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A look north to the Crown-Lynn Divide
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Crown Mountain through the trees!

Shortly, our objective came into focus. For a minute or two we studied the climb from a distance, questioning both the possibilities and the probabilities. Well, that, and our relative sanity, of course.

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To follow, vertical bushwhacking, inhospitable terrain and ascending with the aid of what climbers call vegetable belays!

The way I remember it was that ascending from the left was not a tremendous idea  due to pronounced gullies and cliffs, and the approach off the right side looked equally inadvisable. I’m not sure which of us coined the phrase but the mantra for the day became “Straight up the gut, not left, and not right.” That proved to be true, all afternoon long!

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Enter the madness!

Well now, there we were at the base of the North Needle, and it was now time to get serious. This has always been the kind of terrain that I like to challenge, and so I more or less dove into the forest. Luckily, we also discovered the route was marked with a series of orange tapes, which we added to at several key points. You know that piece of gear you forget to plan to bring on every other expedition? Well on this trip it was gaiters, and as a result our shins took a constant thrashing from all of the stunted trees, copper bush , and heather that choked our path. Live and learn!

All of the lush greenery you see here is about eye high and just thick enough that you can hardly see in front of you. With practice, though, it gets better. We got plenty of practice.

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“Hey Doug, you in there?”
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Looking up, straight up the middle!

We just trusted the line we had chosen, heading straight up the middle, over this, under that, around this, through that. By now it was about noon, and we were getting well roasted, as the temperature hit the high thirties in degrees Celsius. Understandably, our pace slowed somewhat, but we kept busy with idle chatting and the occasional profanity laced tirade. Having scrapped our way up the North Needle’s subpeak, we followed a short shelf to the next vertical section and continued the thrash.

The orange flagging on the route at least gave us some sort of psychological edge, but did not diminish the fact that we knew we were strictly on our own here. Rescue was a long, long, way away.

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They tell me there are a few more tapes enroute these days

Ironically, rescue was among our topics of conversation, as Doug had just signed up with North Shore Search and Rescue at the time. I would have loved to have joined  myself, but my life at home raising a son with autism had to take priority then as it does now. Doug has gone on to become an integral member of the rescue team since then and we often work together trying to map trails and/or get photos of remote locations for possible rescue missions.

Better yet though, we now stood atop the North Needle, where congratulations were in order and more curse words shared profusely. This summit was a mere 1260 metres high, but to this day neither of us has worked harder on a mountain, before or since!

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Yep, me, still alive, mildly hallucinating! “%$#^&^%*^& Yeah! We’re up!” ….Photo by Doug

The views were well worth the effort!

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Crown Mountain and part of the Crown-Lynn Divide, Forks Peak in front of Crown
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West Burwell prominent at right
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Burwell and Coliseum, with Cathedral hiding behind

In the photo below, the unnamed peak on the Hanes-Wickenden Divide at left here in the foreground is a long time curiosity of mine which I am still hoping to scale someday. It used to be called Forks Peak. Crown Mountain lurks behind kind of menacingly, though maybe I thought so because I had just run out of water! We did not linger long, soon dropping into the saddle in pursuit of the Middle Needle.

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Treed and dense, the path from the North Needle became no easier, and the flagging tape became harder to spot. The same basic technique applied, keeping to the middle to avoid the cliffs we knew were there, though impossible to see. The time began to blur somewhat, as the sun beat down on us persistently. I’m not sure how long it took, but soon the Middle Needle, at 1258 metres, was ours!

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Very treed, very dense!
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Just below Middle Needle. I am as dehydrated here as I have been all my life!….Photo by Doug

We were elated to be walking about on these rugged little peaks so rarely seen by people yet so close to home, relatively speaking. I don’t think I’ve ever felt such a sense of utter accomplishment, as this was a hike that changed us in ways we may not have understood at the time.

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Doug atop Middle Needle!
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Me, psyching up for the South Needle, Vancouver in the background!

The next link in the chain was a sharp drop of 150 metres followed by scrambling up the north side of the South Needle, which we had stood upon just weeks before. All I could think about was all the food, water, and Gatorade  waiting with our bikes, so down we plunged.

As I was leading the way off the Middle Needle in more dense foliage, suddenly I felt something hit my shoe and flash past, so I picked it up, actually, more like stretched out to catch it in midair. Turned out it was a lens from a pair of sunglasses, strangely. What’s more, it turned out to be Doug’s, and at the time he was some sixty feet above me! Talk about lucky.

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South Needle and Lynn Ridge….Photo by Doug

The fight continued, with us making reasonably short work of the ascent of the South Needle. Now we were within reach of a well marked trail, and chock full of optimism. The forest would help us chill a little, too, we hoped.

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High above the Lynn-Seymour Divide

I later realized the cliffs in this photo above were those north of the head of Mayers Creek near Jack’s Burn. You can see Lost Lake in the background as well.

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The triumph of the navigator!

 

 

Seen here above, Doug celebrates the culmination of his fine but evil plan at the summit of South Needle, 1160 metres in elevation. The hardest work has been done, and we’ll now descend the Lynn Ridge Trail to the Hydraulic Creek Trail.  Thirsty and tired, soon we were on our way, but not till Doug shook hands with the mythical wooden creature!

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Descending the South Needle, Doug leading the way

The ancient forest welcomed us with much needed shade. It was tempting just to take a nap under one of the big cedars but we pressed  on, cold drinks now being closer to reality.

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Ahhhh, shade!
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Twin cedars

At roughly 800 metres in elevation on the Hydraulic Trail, trail builder Gabriel Mazoret affixed this plaque. It reads, from a poem by Christina Rosetti (1830-1894) :

“Does the road wind uphill all the way?  Yes, to the very end.

Will the day’s journey take the whole long day? From morn till night, my friend. ”

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I could not have imagined better prose to sum up our day.

It was exhilarating to refuel ourselves when we reached the bikes! What a sight we had become as we burst, scratched and soiled, from the woods carrying our bikes, to the audience of many casual afternoon riders. We were bloodied, bruised, scraped… and about as happy as can be. Almost eleven hours later, we were bound for home, already talking about another adventure!

Statistically, there was 5576′ of climbing, 5428′ of descending, and 32.5 kms of biking, running and hiking, all told, and all of it very memorable. A long and rewarding day in the mountains. The owl, it seemed, had been a good omen indeed.