Friday, November 21, 2014

Conquering the Castlecrag Circuit

Time continually twists our perceptions of the past. Looking back, we uncover insecurities, worse writing and great memories. The following is post-dated from an Aug. 2010 hike on the Castlecrag Circuit in Vancouver Island's Strathcona Provincial Park. Earlier this year, I had the chance to revisit the area during a multi-day search for Sylvia Apps and a short weekend trip. The circuit is a wonderful, accessible mountain experience, especially in August (or January!).

Rainy day at Forbidden Plateau (Aug. 2010)
Heavy rain and lingering clouds on Friday afternoon failed to deter hikers from trekking into the wilds of Strathcona Park's Forbidden Plateau on the last weekend of August.

At the trailhead, returning day trippers had reports of hail and sleet and snow at various points throughout the day. Nice to finally see some weather after nothing but blue skies and sunshine for so many weeks on the south coast.

Summer is so overrated.

I longed for the high temps and sunscreen after getting thoroughly drenched about 30 minutes into the eight-kilometre hike to Circlet Lake. Aside from my lousy rain jacket, the walk into Circlet is a breeze with very little elevation gain and plenty of dramatic vistas to start the trip on the right foot.

About a kilometre from our destination for the night, a BC Parks ranger bounded up the trail to tell us the Circlet Lake campsite was overflowing with people.

"There are even all sorts of kids and dogs there," he said.

Based his caution, the group reversed course and took the turn off to a deserted Kwai Lake Campground. The sun came out, and it was good times for all.

Camping at Kwai put plans for the Castlecrag Circuit in jeopardy. The detour added about seven kilometres to our original plan. After a good meal, we decided our group of 10 would split into two groups. One would take a slower pace and enjoy the out-and-back journey to Mt. Albert Edward while the second opted to make time and rise early for a pre-dawn start.

It took our group of four about 4 1/2 hours to reach the summit of Castlecrag Mountain (1,740 m / 5,709 ft). The ascent involved a wonderful sunrise over the east coast of Vancouver Island as we ascended a relatively easy and well-marked route into some awesome alpine scenery.

North aspect of Mt. George V, with flowers
Castlecrag's northern aspect presents itself as an impenetrable fortress, forcing all but the bravest of climbers to circle the mountain and access the peak via the south. A quick scramble off the main route to the summit revealed some stellar views of Strathcona Park from this slightly off-the-beaten-path peak.

Scree slope off east side of Castlecrag Mt.
From the summit, the second of the day's three peaks looming in the west. Whereas Castlecrag demands a swift assault, Mount Frink (1,948 m / 6,391 ft) requires a steady and deceptively long ridge slog. It only took our group about 90 minutes to navigate our way up Frink's mostly barren and snow-free eastern slope, though the number of false summits on our way up quickly went beyond humour.

A pepperoni and cheese summit lunch was followed by a well-deserved ride down several hundred metres of snowfields into a col en route to Albert Edward (2,093 m / 6,867 ft). From there it was another steady slog up the slope to more views and the next peak.

Breathe, smile, enjoy.
On Vancouver Island, 2,000M is a big deal!
It was great to finally get above 2,000 metres and enjoy some of the great alpine country that Vancouver Island has to offer after a summer I'd spent in marathon mode and messing about in boats.

Northeast aspect of Mt. Albert-Edward (left) and Mt. Regan (right)
There were loads of people crawling all over the summit and we saw many folks hiking up quite late in the day. Seemed like a last-ditch effort to make the peak before the autumn rains and snow bring an end to the hiking season.

The hike out proceeded down a nasty, steep trail along slick clay and, eventually, out onto the main trail to Kwai Lake.

Total time from tent to tent was a few minute over 12 hours. Conditions couldn't have been better and there was little snow along the route. Basing out of Kwai allowed us to travel fast and light throughout the day. The ideal weather conditions made it almost too easy, though I was out cold within minutes of hitting my Thermarest at 8 p.m.

Day three was a sleep in and quick two-hour hike past the humble Mt. Elma and out to the parking lot, where we whisked ourselves to the lunch buffet and cold beverages on offer at the base of nearby Mount Washington.

Rarely gets any better than this.

The original version of this trip report was published on Club Tread.

Sunday, August 24, 2014

Hiking with Goma: Kwai Lake

Kwai Lake at dawn (August 17, 2014)
I used to climb mountains; now I walk a dog.

My newest hiking partner is a four-month old black lab-border collie cross named Goma.

Goma wakes up early, usually just before sunrise. This is great on a trip like this, when the mornings are dry and warm.

We usually walk to the end of the driveway, a dusty dirt track that stretches for about 200 metres. On more adventurous mornings, we make it past the mailbox and down the road. We've gone on a few of nearby hikes but never tried anything as adventurous as a 15-kilometre roundtrip overnighter.

Hiking with Goma means more breaks than usual
I had read that it's important to keep trips shorts for young, growing dogs. Their bones and joints are sensitive and liable to damage with too much exertion. Dogs also aim to please and have a problem deciding when to pack it in.

Warnings in mind, I decided a relatively flat hike into Kwai Lake in Strathcona Park would be the perfect venue to introduce Goma to the mountains. It felt like a compromise; we would stop short of Circlet Lake and well below Mt. Albert-Edward, but still get beyond the range of the day tripping crowd.

The service road to the Mt. Washington ski resort provides convenient year-round access to one of Vancouver Island's finest alpine areas. Cars and trucks filled the sprawling parking lot outside the Raven Lodge nordic centre, which appeared closed for a private function that involved no participants. It was already late in the day, but we spotted several folks changing into their mountain clothes, tightening boot laces and adjusting packs by their vehicles.

I took the busy parking lot as a bad omen. Here we were, midday on a sunny, summer Saturday, heading into one of the most accessible backpacking areas on the island. I felt our chances of finding a decent camp spot that evening were dismal at best..

The first 2.5 kilometres follows part of the Paradise Meadows loop trail. This fully boardwalked section offers novice hikers an appetizing taste of the mountain environment. Little signs alongside the trail point out mountain heather and hemlock trees. There are mountain lakes and picturesque meadows that overflow with alpine flowers if you time things right. Come winter, the area can buried under up to seven metres of snow, making it an ideal place for backcountry skiing, snowshoeing and winter camping.

We left the Paradise Meadows loop at the junction to Battleship Lake. That was it for the boardwalk and the traffic level decreased considerably. We reached the junction to Lake Helen Mackenzie in a little more than an hour. Our backup plan was to camp here, but it was still relatively early in the afternoon and we were just finding our hiking legs. We'd taken a few short rest stops and water breaks and covered about half the distance to Kwai Lake. Goma looked like he could easily handle another four kilometre so we voted to push on.

Since dogs need to be leashed in provincial parks (especially on heavily trafficked boardwalk areas), Goma spent much of the first couple of kilometres pulling ahead. When we took him off leash he ran forward, turned around and return to us slackers. He did this over and over again. In the first hour, he surely covered twice our distance and expended significantly more energy because of his frenetic hiking style.

It was time for a nap by the time we were halfway between Lady Lake and Croteau Lake. We found a comfy spot amidst a blueberry patch and, within minutes, the dog was in dreamland. A father and daughter team who stopped to chat said they were one of only two tents at Helen Mackenzie. They were on a mission to reach Kwai Lake and return to their camp in time for dinner with mom. They still found some time for a berry break and a chat. Whether it's at the dog park, waiting outside the grocery store or sitting alongside a mountain trail, dogs are great conversation starters.

August means blueberries abound in much of Strathcona Park
I wonder if we could have completed the final two-kilometre slog to Kwai Lake without the handful of blueberries that kept our animal in action. Every dose supplied a burst of energy, which he unwisely used to run circles around us. By the time we reached camp, Goma figured out how to eliminate the middle man by picking his own berries.

There were only three tents pitched when we arrived at Kwai. We canvassed the area and discovered that the lake's prime waterfront site was, incredibly, still available. We set up camp and took in the lakefront view, though clouds obscured the distant peaks. The campsite at Kwai has an outhouse and bear locker, not too bad a deal for $10/person. Two other couples arrived later in the afternoon and there were still many decent spots left to choose from. My worries about campsite overcrowding were, once again, unfounded.

Getting comfortable in camp
We dined on a multicourse meal of rice crackers, Thai noodles, Indian curry rice and chocolate, accompanied by the finest of boxed French wines. I'm getting sick of my curry meals, but they're so easy and packable. The wine, on the other hand, wasn't too bad.

Goma took a while to get comfortable. I think it was the combination of exhaustion, uncertainty and mosquitoes. He was very defensive and alert to every sound, but could barely keep his head steady. After we turned in, I spent much of the night wondering if it was time for a bigger tent.

With the exception of a mountain trip or need to catch a ferry or flight, I never used to wake up this early. Goma likes to wake everyone up at dawn, sometimes earlier. He eats breakfast at 6 o'clock (not sure who established that one!) and we usually take a short walk down the driveway or around the neighbourhood before seven.

Morning on Kwai Lake
Goma's sleeping habits got me out of the tent in time to watch the sunrise as we walked and explored around the lake. We met two guys in their sixties that were off early to climb Albert-Edward, a hefty 16-kilometre roundtrip that awaits Goma in a year or two.

After some breakfast gruel and a cup of tea, we were packed up and on the trail by a few minutes after 10 o'clock. Goma appeared to have learned a thing or two about pacing, which made the trip out much easier, until he eventually collapsed a few hours later in the shade by a water bucket placed outside the Strathcona Park Wilderness Institute kiosk by the trailhead.

Hiking out of the Kwai Lake campsite
We returned via the Brooks-Elma pass, rounded Lake Helen Mackenzie and chilled lakeside (swimming and more Thai noodles) near the day-use area for at least an hour. Since it offers the most direct access to the popular Circlet Lake camp and the high country beyond, we met a lot more people on the outbound trail. By the time we were at the lake we were back in day-tripper land.

Wednesday, July 16, 2014

Canoeing: Sayward Forest Canoe Circuit (1)

Hard to believe it's been four years since my wife and I completed the Sayward circuit as part of her annual birthday celebration trip. Since this year's birthday fell on a Tuesday during a really busy work week, we're left with memories from 2010 until we can find a few days to sneak away again. Another visit to the Sayward Circuit may be just right.

June 15, 2010: Things weren’t looking very good when, fewer than 50 kilometres from our launching point for the Sayward Forest Canoe Circuit, my wife and I hit the heart of a big-box mega-complex.

Alas, this was the surest place to invest in the fishing equipment that would reward us with countless gut-busting lake-side feasts. Toting shinny new rods and lures as well as a few last-minute grocery items (including one kilo of rice crackers), we continue the drive north.

The scenery along the 30-minute drive from Campbell River to our launching point on Mohun Lake wasted little time shedding aside Campbell River's heavy and historic industrial mantle. In exchange, we were greeted with the Sayward Forest's modest backwoods landscape.

We entered the Mohun Lake camping compound at the lake’s south end and were greeted by a woodsy caretaker who offered us a photocopied map of the route.

Mohun Lake Campground: leave your car here and rest assured it will be there when you return.

“You guys have a map?” he asked, only minutes before we were to set off on our four-day paddle.

Given that the map had fewer than half of the route’s actual established campsites and scant detail about the portages along the way, it likely causes canoeists more grief than good.

'Woodsy' then made sure to catch us up on tales of those who came before us.

There was the couple that chose to turn back after getting mixed up in a beaver damn-strewn swamp. There was another group that decided, mid-journey, to pack it in and hike back along several kilometres of dusty logging road. And then there was the group of spirited youngsters who wrapped their aluminum canoe around a rock at the circuit's lone set of rapids.

We grabbed the map and asked for some tips.

The attendant couldn’t really say what lay in store since he hadn’t actually been to the lake’s other end in years, let alone to any of the circuit's other 12 lakes.

Probably time for a new map. We had already packed this one, released in early 2010.

It almost made the trip too easy, almost.

Friday, July 11, 2014

'A stupendous mass of rock'

It's hard to miss Mt. Arrowsmith; the peak and its surrounding massif stands out in a mantle of snow for much of the year, offering an impressive sight for anyone driving along the island highway.

Mt. Arrowsmith was one of the first mountains I climbed after moving to the region nearly 10 years ago - cannot believe how time has flown by. Having settled from the province of Quebec, I recall being amazed at the trail's steepness and the massive trees that manage to thrive along the slope..

I've since climbed the Judge's Route with friends from "back east" who express the same amazement at the trail's intensity.

"Ma t'en calisser une," as we say in La Belle Province.

Judge's Route, Mt. Arrowsmith, May 2014
After hiking elsewhere on the West Coast, I discovered Arrowsmith's steepness is pretty much the status quo for island peaks, which confidently strike skyward out of the Pacific Ocean.

I've climbed the peak half a dozen times now, mostly on the popular Judge's Route. The latest trip, in May 2014, took about six hours. Tempearatures in the valley below were well into the twenties - quite hot for May in these parts - and the sizzling, sunny weather followed us to the summit, yet there were still some pretty expansive snowy patches along the way.

"A steep, formidable climb when viewed from below, it is in fact a very aesthetic line which does not require technical skills," writes Lindsay Elms of the JR in his chapter devoted to the mountain in Beyond Nootka.

Judge's Route, Mt. Arrowsmith, May 2014
Arrowsmith offers a range of climbs for all skill levels, including the Unjudge's Route, Lost Gully and the dizzying Nose routes. Whatever path you choose, the mountain is sure to offer a challenging mountain experience in every season.

Despite an elevation of only 1,817m (5,962 ft), Arrowsmith looms large in the history of Vancouver Island mountain life. The earliest recorded ascent was an apparently thirst-quenching slog from the nearest road access that entailed a river crossing, porters and an overnight near the ridge. Back then the mountain lacked the easy access offered by the logging roads that now dissect the area.

"The next morning we were up at daylight and went about two miles climbing over the ridge of the mountain and up to the main peak - a stupendous mass of rock, about as big as 10 St. Paul's Cathedrals," wrote Dr. James Fletcher of his 1901 ascent.

In the late 1800s, many mountain folk thought Arrowsmith had to be Vancouver Island's  highest point. There was clearly much they hadn't seen, but the peak still stands as a stupendous mass that can inspire and challenge alpinists of all abilities.
Summit platform, Mt. Arrowsmith, May 2014


Elms, Lindsay,  Beyond Nootka: A Historical Perspective of Vancouver Island Mountains: Misthorn Press, 1996.

Tuesday, April 8, 2014

Start on the gong: Salt Spring trail running is born

I was definitely pumped to be in second place five minutes into Saturday’s inaugural Salt Spring Trail Runners race at Channel Ridge.

“So this is what it feels like to be at the front the pack,” I thought.

In most races, a crew of elite athletes are off to a sprint and out of sight within seconds of the start pistol. Those runners are usually long gone before I even pass the start line.

The absence of any pack to speak of on Saturday should have been the first sign something was amiss. Racers sprawled in a loose procession along the course’s opening kilometre. Karl Otto, who would go on to complete the course in a course-record setting 44:33, was still only 30 metres ahead and there wasn’t a sole in site on the twisting course behind me.

Then the climbing began.

Otto cruised ahead. The well-conditioned flitted into their rightful positions. I contemplated hitting the wall.

On the eight-kilometre course’s nastiest uphill segment, an aching back shifted my focus from burning thighs. I welcomed the change.

“How are you doing?” asked another racer, gliding past at a steady jog.

“My lower back is seizing up like a clam. How about you?” I responded, somehow.

“I feel like I’m going to barf up my heart.”

Dave Melanson and a group of trail runners dreamed up the Salt Spring Trail Runners series to promote outdoor activity and an appreciation of the island’s natural spaces. I checked the website. Heart barfing, back spasms and metaphysical crisis weren’t part of the package.

It was all downhill from around the six-kilometre mark. Two kilometres of knee-jarring feel-it-in-your-molars downhill through mud, rock and rain. This, I was told after the race, is when you can really compensate for all those precious minutes lost on the uphills. I’m grateful to have kept it together long enough to see the colourful prayer flag-festooned finish line, where pain and suffering quickly transformed into elation with a high five from Melanson and race director Peter Oro — yes, they actually high fived every participant.

The euphoria spread as more racers gathered at the finish. The rain grew heavier but the hugs, smiles, raffle prizes and temporary shelters helped make it all worthwhile.

Seventy-two trail runners lined up in the rain for race’s “start gong.” All crossed the finish line and no injuries — heart-related or otherwise — were reported. The race pulled in 120 pounds of goods and $100 for the Salt Spring Food Bank.

“We are overwhelmed with gratitude and pride for the island and its excited cry for more,” Melanson said.

Nearly five minutes after Otto’s rocket-fueled finish, Molly Black grabbed second spot in 49:20. Rick Laing followed soon after to claim third place.