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.