Monday, September 7, 2015

A fresh perspective

A change of scenery can do a world of good.

With a busy fall in store and summer fading fast, I was eager to use the Labour Day weekend as an excuse to spend a few days on the trail. Sadly, our three-day mountain trip into Strathcona shifted into a two-day hike before an iffy weather forecast and a load of loose ends around the house convinced my wife and I to stay put.

We stacked some firewood, planted herbs and arugula, picked some weeds, drank tea and cooked up some quinoa-crust pizza. It was a blast and we got loads of crap of the to-do list, but there's only so much domestic life one can take. On Sunday, we decided to ferry over to Vancouver Island for some Indian food and a hike up Maple Mountain in North Cowichan.

Maple Mountain calls to me from across the water every time I climb Mount Erskine. The mountain's diminutive yet thickly forested slopes are hard to miss if you're riding the Howe Sound Queen between Vesuvius and Crofton. Maple Mountain is a tease, too far to warrant a day hike and too close to justify the ferry fare.
But I'd heard good reviews about it and even made it to the neighbourhood on a mutual aid search and rescue mission near the mountain in 2014. I'd hiked some of the park's lower areas in search of a missing man known to walk the trails. The "community forest" has easy access, a wide range of terrain and isn't very crowded. It's easy to see why the mountain draws many people from the Duncan and North Cowichan area. The area is especially popular among mountain bikers, hikers, mushroom pickers and bird watchers.

Garry oak meadow, Maple Mountain

We parked our car at the end of Maple Mountain Road and set off on the Blue Trail. The path skirts under a set of high-voltage power lines before entering the park. I was warned about the smaller, unofficial trails that crisscross across the mountain but discovered that if you stick to the big, colour-coded dots and trail signs, things are pretty straight forward. We only got sidetracked a few times, and it wasn't long before we got back on track. It's a good thing too, since my phone/GPS didn't have much juice left in it.

We reached the junction with the Pink Trail in about 15 minutes. This is a 2.5-hour loop that would take us to the 505-metre  (1,657-foot) summit. The trail hops though rocky outcrops and Garry oak meadows as it rises steadily further from the shoreline. I'd imagined a quick stroll in the woods and dressed accordingly. Cotton shirt and cotton pants, both heavy, hot and drenched in sweat, and we weren't even have way up the mountain yet. Fortunately, the views made up for the wardrobe discomfort.

The east side of Maple Mountain offers some decent vistas of Salt Spring's Burgoyne Bay, Mount Maxwell, Mount Bruce and Mount Erskine. It was fun and mildly disorienting to get an off-island perspective on these familiar peaks. The trail rose into a stand of older growth Douglas fir ringed by thick salal and draped with old man's beard.

At times the trail seemed to go straight up, which isn't a surprise since that's exactly what the map's contour lines show. I hadn't dressed the part and my head space wasn't really in the right gear either. I spent much of the hike up cursing myself for being in such poor shape. At one point I think I may have considered packing it in. Yard work was tiring, but it clearly wasn't nearly enough to keep me in the right kind of shape to stay in the mountain game for long.

View from Maple Mountain to Salt Spring's Mount Maxwell and Burgoyne Bay
The Pink Trail joins an access road about 100 metres from the summit, which is crowned not with a sugar shack but a massive communications tower. We took a moment to sit on on some rocks and enjoy some of  our freshly picked apples while we peered toward Maple Bay under the hum of aerial transmissions.

Summit "sugar shack"
Summit apple
 The northern half of the loop back down the mountain veers off from the access road at some pink flagging in the trees. Walk through the bush and the trail will become clear. Pink Trail north offers a stark contrast to the sunny rock outcrops that punctuate its southern cousin. We sank into deep, dark and wet forest. Aside from a few openings, the trail stays under thick cover of fir and maple trees. Wet leaves underfoot offered a sure sign that fall was near. We happened upon a deer that hopped off into the woods. Moss hung thick as the rocky trail led steadily back to the shoreline, where we reconnected with the Blue Trail, headed south and made our way back to the trailhead.

There was a time when I scoffed at "recommend hiking times." Not today. We made it back to the car within minutes of the 2.5-hour recommendation. We had our dog Goma. We got lost a few times. Too many apples on the summit. We may not have been fast, but at least we're getting good at excuses.

A soggy shirt, gutbusting assent and dead batteries. So much for being prepared. You needn't always travel far to get a different perspective, yet the result can be profound.

Maple Mountain trail map
Reference material:

Guide to Maple Mountain, Municipality of North Cowichan

Friday, July 10, 2015

Lost and found

Mt. Tom Taylor, July 2015

It always feels funny to strap on a pack loaded with climbing gear and walk on the ferry to Vancouver Island. So many inquisitive looks and recurring queries about my ice axe and snow pickets. Even in winter there are times when fellow passengers bid me good luck in my quest for snow. It’s out there, I assure them; you just have to climb high enough.

Canada Day 2015 proved no exception, but with car loads of families set to enjoy the midweek holiday and the morning sun already burning over a bright blue ocean, it was I who began to ask myself the very questions usually directed my way. 

Ronan, my ride to the hills and tent partner for the coming three days, confirmed the answers when he pulled up to the Crofton ferry terminal in his wife’s immaculate Subaru Outback not too long after all the ferry traffic cleared up. It was mountain time. We’d climbed together years before on a spring trip to Mt. Klitsa, but hadn’t crossed paths in the years since. I’d remembered him as a gregarious Irishman, unafraid to face the elements and explore the wilds of Vancouver Island on his own or as part of a larger group. I was happy to hear he'd begun to spend more time in the mountains after recovering from a tough bout of tachycardia.

We sped north along the island highway in the way so many Vancouver Island mountain trips begin. A left turn at Campbell River towards Gold River and, within an hour, we arrived at Strathcona Park Lodge, our designated meeting spot and an island institution that deserves a blog entry all its own.

I filled my water bladder during the 30 minutes or so that we had to spare until the rest of our group arrived. After all the handshakes and hugs, I was relieved to discover our team had shrunk considerably from the 12 people who’d initially expressed an interests in the trip. Seven was still a larger group than I’m used to but still exponentially more efficient on the trail.

Within an hour we’d driven the length of Buttle Lake, stashed the cars by Bedwell Lake trailhead and shouldered our burdens for the anticipated three-hour hike to camp.

Four kilometres and 500 metres of elevation opens a whole new world. The Bedwell Lake Trail (BLT) is one of Strathcona Park’s showcase features. It’s wide, steady and gives users a more-or-less direct route to the alpine. The only easier way to reach the park’s high country is the Mt. Washington Parkway, but that’s cheating. With its suspension bridges, iron ladders and carefully engineered switchbacks, the BLT is reported to have cost a million dollars to complete. It represents a time when funding was forthcoming and BC Parks were kept to a world-class standard. I doubt any such trail could be built under today's budget.


We hit Baby Bedwell Lake right on schedule, having taken only one major breather amidst a jumble of boulders that featured natural air conditioning flowing out of the rocky vents at our feet. The lake features about a dozen tent pads around a scenic alpine lake. The large granite outcrops that surround the lake offer a spectacular location to pitch a tent, cook a meal, dry off from a swim and soak in the mountain views of Big Interior Peak and Tom Taylor’s east ridge. More than a few members of the group were elated by the site; we’d finally arrived in the mountains.

Sprawled on warm granite under a setting sun, my belly filled with Bombay potatoes, trip leader Andrew called on us to share our goals for the days ahead, share a bit of our personal mountaineering history and offer a confession. He began by telling us he’d forgotten his crampons while transferring gear between cars on the way to the trailhead.

I spoke about a recent trip to Triple Peak, my ongoing battle with tangled rope syndrome and the unfortunate discovery, earlier than evening, of a small tear near the top of my water bladder. I’d applied a temporary patch with cloth medical tape topped with a touch of NuSkin spray-on bandage. I worried about my water supply for summit day and had to spend the first night with a partially soaked sleeping bag.

This post-dinner group summit was a first for me, but one I’d like to incorporate in my future trips. The exchange offers trip participants a chance to get to size each other up, recognize priorities and share concerns. It sounds formal and serious, but we spent much of the process laughing about our forgotten poles and aversion to heights. We agreed to set off at 6 a.m., and I retired to the wet sleeping bag.

In my never-ending quest to minimize weight and declutter those foggy moments between waking up and departure, I’ve taken to eating a Probar for breakfast. These dense prepackaged calories are equivalent to a bowl of oatmeal. Have a second and your hitting logger’s breakfast territory — without the gassy consequences. I’d neglected to confess having forgotten my supply of tea and coffee, but Ronan came to the rescue with a spare java pouch and a touch of Bailey’s to seal the deal. We downsized our packs and hit the trail a few minutes after 6 a.m.

The sun rose quickly as we gained elevation. Within two hours we’d reached a series of sub-alpine tarns that set Roger to dreaming of swims to come along the return journey. The inspiration kept him moving at a strong, steady pace for all 13-hours to follow.

Just past the lakes Ronan discovered he’d left his camera behind during a blister rehab stop a little further down the mountain. Andrew’s crampons and Ronan’s camera were the first in a series of lost objects our group had begun to leave along the trail. The inventory piled up to include water bottles, hiking poles and another camera that Roger left behind after one of the numerous dips he took on the trail back to camp.

The horizon grew to include Mt. Septimus, the Red Pillar, Argus and Mt. Harmston, Nine Peaks, the Golden Hinde, Colonel Foster and Mt. Albert Edward. All of Strathcona’s high peaks were on display. As we got higher, views to the Mackenzie Range, Triple Peak and Clayoquot Sound completed the island tapestry.

The thermometer reached 30 C by noon. We kept up our crawl along the granite ridge overlooking Tom Taylor’s north glacier at an elevation of about 1,700 metres. Summer was in full swing. The soaring temperatures, stunning views and rocky footing conspired to slow our progress.

We spent considerable time contemplating whether to rope up before a snow field only to discover the benign crossing took fewer than 15 minutes. Down a short snow slope, through a notch below the south side of Tom Taylor’s “tooth,” and up a south-facing, sun-baked gully from hell brought the team to the final challenge, an awkward shimmy around a weather-ravaged, old-growth alpine pine growing smack in the centre of a supposed fifth-class move. Another corner, a long reach and a hefty step saw us crest the summit just before 2 p.m. Time for lunch, some photos and a chance to sit back in the sun surrounded by the whole of Vancouver Island. Not a bad place to celebrate Canada Day, even if it was July 2.

We could have spent the rest of the day up there, taking in those views, feeling the great mountain beneath us, yet we were all aware of the long trail back to our camp at Baby Bedwell. We reshimmied past the tree, elected to downclimb rather than rappel and chose to cross low along the upper section of Tom Taylor's north glacier. After a short prussik refresher and rope clinic, our two rope teams shuffled along, taking time to peer into some pretty big gaps and listen to the water rushing through hidden depths beneath snow and ice.

Further down the ridge, we elected to take our chances on what looked to be a shortcut home. The result was about an hour spent retracing our steps after the intended route dissolved beneath some staggering bluffs. Chris and I had chosen a higher route than the rest of the group and were able to cut back up the ridge. This meant negotiating a sketchy scree-strewn gully with a few harrowing hero moves. With my pack growing heavier with each passing step, I cursed finding myself in this situation when the road home had been so clearly laid out before us.

By the time we’d reached camp, most of us were knackered. We’d spread out considerably as the afternoon turned to evening and we each settled into a comfortable pace for the homestretch. A new round of celebration ensued as each member of the group made it back to camp, dropped their dusty clothes and sought immediate relief in Baby Bedwell’s refreshing waters.

A serving of vegetable curry restored my body, and a Purple Jesus revived my spirit as we lay, once again, spread on the warm granite overlooking our alpine paradise. We’d managed to recover everything but the trekking pole and Roger’s point-and-shoot. Given the unfavourable odds of anyone ever finding and returning his camera (and the valued contents of his memory card), Roger was back on the trail at 6:30 the following morning.

While I contemplated the highly utilitarian taste of my second Probar breakfast, a holler screamed down the hillside. By the time I’d packed up, a much-relieved Roger was back at camp with camera in hand. As Ronan and I made our way out towards the trailhead, I swear I could hear the splash of Roger setting out for a final victory swim.