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

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