This week I got three days off in a row, which has been a rare thing this summer.
Naturally I was determined to plan incredible things to maximize this time. After eliminating the best options that maybe weren’t so feasible (visit space, write a novel, become amazing at playing guitar), I decided to go on an epic hike. What better option than the nearly-finished Squamish to Sunshine Coast Trail?
I’d been following the Facebook page for about a week, so it had been on my mind lately. The beta was pretty minimal – the maps provided a good overview, but were too ambiguous for navigational purposes. It seemed like a risky plan that would make my mother worry, which usually meant it was right up my alley (sorry, Mum).
Shortly before I set out, I’d read that someone had run the route just recently (Vance Culbert – 13hrs! What a legend). I downloaded the GPS file of his route and uploaded it to my topo map program on my phone.
Let me break in here to admit that I am someone who it probably a little too reliant on my own intuition for navigating. I’ve had technology fail on me before, and although I’ve spent lots of time in the backcountry and haven’t ever gotten lost, I would recommend everyone bring a map (and know how to read it) and a proper compass (and know how to use it). ESPECIALLY for this route. I don’t usually do this because it is a terrible habit. I’m working on it, I promise.
A friend dropped me off in the early morning at Ashlu Creek. He also lent me his neat GPS/altimeter watch which made me feel like a fancy hiking robot. It was pouring rain, and there was no sign of it letting up for the next few days. The low vis and unfamiliar route meant there was a good chance I’d need all the navigational help I could get.
I walked along the narrow dirt road paralleling Ashlu Creek, which took me gradually uphill. The road eventually transitioned into a narrow ATV trail. Around a kilometre in, the main trailhead broke off to the left, made obvious with pink flagging tape. I was surprised with how solid the trail seemed for being so new. A km or two up I passed a sign indicating that I was indeed on the trail to the Clowhom Valley, and not, I dunno, somewhere else. Good start so far.
The trail climbed up for several kilometers, sometimes steeply through the trees, and occasionally contouring gently through brushy open areas with views of the Squamish Valley to my left – or so I assumed, since I couldn’t see much through the rain and fog. The trail passed by a scenic waterfall, and then up and through the many streams feeding the falls. The incline levelled out for the last few kms to the pass, meandering through forest and meadows.
Here I got the serious heebie-jeebies as my normally very accurate mental bear-radar started going off (hereby known as Beardar(TM)). I called out intermittently, clacking my trekking poles to warn any potential threats of my approach. It all seemed pretty useless under the deafening noise of the rain and ever-present streams and waterfalls. I upped my effort with belting out songs that I was particularly terrible at. If the bears weren’t afraid of the sound of my voice, maybe they’d at least be offended enough by my breathy, limited vocal range to leave the area.
I was somewhat worried about keeping my feet dry, but the meadow section prior to the pass relieved me of that concern as the heavy rain had turned sections of the trail to unavoidable mush which quickly saturated my shoes. At that point I regretted only bringing three pairs of socks.
The valley under the pass was like something from The Land Before Time. I was surrounded by delicate waterfalls cascading down from the hills and cliffs, feeding into a small river. Cairns and flagging led me across the meadow and across the river via rock hopping. On the other side I took a short break and scooped water from the river with my Nalgene. I had brought a water filter and purification tablets but didn’t bother using either since the water was so close to the source.
The steep climb up to the pass began immediately after the river crossing. It was only a few hundred meters, but I struggled with the steeper sections in the slick mud, relying on to bushes and rocks to pull myself up since my feet could get a solid hold. At the top, I took a quick rest, topping up on electrolytes and shoving celebratory handfuls of fruit snacks and cheesy bunnies (like Goldfish, but better!) into my mouth. It was 11:45am, and the crux was over – or so I thought. I’ll skip the foreshadowing to say that the crux was definitely not over. I had just finished the easy part.
I was led through the pass by more flagging and cairns, winding around serene pools and over streams and big old granite boulders. The trail began to descend steeply into the valley on the other side of the pass. I could hear a large rushing river, but couldn’t see through the trees and brush. The trail had begun to dissipate, but the route was still clearly flagged. The trees thinned out and I trudged through brush toward the river which had now come visible. The flags led to what looked to be a log crossing until high waters had recently overrun it. I went farther upstream and chose to ford through a slightly gentler section. The water was only a foot or so deep, but the current was strong enough to knock a person over if they weren’t careful about where they chose to cross.
The flagging led me over an old moraine, unrecognizable in its thick cover of brush and brambles. I scrambled carefully over a large boulder. The granite was too slick to get a good grip so I used my knees and upper body to haul myself up. On the other side, the fog had thinned just enough for me to see an incredible waterfall ahead. I took some time rest and admire the sight before continuing.
The trail went closer to the falls, and across the creek it fed into. Then it was back into brush where the trail must have just been cleared recently. Soon I stopped seeing flagging tape, and the cleared trail seemed to end abruptly. It took me several minutes to determine whether I was lost, or if this was the beginning of one of the uncleared sections of trail as marked on the map. After checking the GPS I determined it to be the latter, and so the real journey had begun.
At first I took my time trying to find the best route forward, but it became pointless as the brush became thicker. I knew I would more or less follow the river down the valley, but I hoped I would find some flagging or cairns to aid the way. There really was nothing – not even a game trail. I alternated through dense brush and talus fields. The talus was treacherous in the rain, the huge sharp rocks made even more slippery by its layers of moss. I moved through at a snail’s pace, covering maybe half a kilometre per hour. It became worse when the talus met the brush once again, and not only was I shoving through tangled brush and Devil’s Club, but I also couldn’t see where my feet were landing – granite? Rotten wood? or just a deep pit between the talus? I made my way down to the river to see if I could find a quicker route, but the water was more than a foot deep at parts and the current was fierce. It would take my down the valley faster, sure, but not in a happy state.
I ascended back through the brush, now higher than my head, pushing branches and twigs away from my face and trying not to trip on the mess below. The rain came down more heavily and by the time I reached the next section of talus the rocks were nearly impassable. With every step I slipped a little bit, and the question became ‘how much can I afford to slip on this next step?’. A misstep could easily result in a broken ankle, or much worse.
I came across an old plane wreck, its debris spread through the rocks and partly grown over. It had been a small aircraft – maybe a Cessna or Piper. The impact on the talus had reduces it to twisted shreds.
I stopped to check Vance’s GPS data to see that we’d traveled almost an identical path since the trail ended, including many of the same wrong turns and backtracks, as if we’d seen the same features and potential routes and had intuited the same, best way to go.
More slick talus, more thick brush. At some point my pack cover fell victim to the brambles (if anyone finds a bright green silnylon MEC pack cover up there, let me know!). Then a clump of trees for a brief change of landscape, although crawling over and under rotten logs wasn’t much easier. Back into the brush, I couldn’t see my feet through the brambles, and plunged suddenly into a muddy pool. The sudden shock was outweighed by what I saw ahead: across the stream was a patch where the brushed seemed to thin out, and what almost looked like a game trail. I waded through and followed the narrow flattened path under the brush. ‘Please don’t end. Please don’t end,” I thought repeatedly, feeling desperate and slightly insane.
Soon it was clear that I was out of the talus, and following the nearly invisible path through bushes and saplings at relatively breakneck speed. I heard large animals crash through the trees around me, startled by my noisy approach. The trail continued down parallel still to the river, which had plunged far below me. Through a break in the trees I saw the foamy water below, and a white owl sitting still on a branch across the gorge, staring down the gorge. I called out to it, but it didn’t move. My voice was drowned out by the rush of the river.
The game trail thinned out even more, but I refused to be discouraged. I couldn’t afford to lose motivation after the past several hours of physical and mental struggle. My resistance paid off when, like a ray of light in the darkness, the trees opened up to an old ATV trail marked with pink flagging. Then I saw power lines, and heard the noise of machinery, and emerged onto a logging road. I could have cried. Even the rain had stopped.
I took a left at the road and passed a distance marker – 29km. From where, I wondered. I powered ahead at a steady 6km/hr, determined to enjoy every second of that road walk while my body began to heal its many new cuts and bruises. The road paralleled a river, fed by many creeks and streams coming down from the west side of the Tantalus range. I passed over several bridges – some brand new, and others under construction – as well as a quarry and a hydro dam. At a bridge around the 25km mark I stopped for dinner. I also filtered some water, made some tea, and changed my socks, which felt amazing on my poor swollen, clammy feet.
The daylight in the valley had begun to fade slightly, and rainclouds gathered behind me on the north end. I pushed ahead, hoping to make some distance by nightfall and maybe even outrun the weather.
The kilometre markers flew by, and so did the remaining daylight. The road was easy walking – well graded on a very gradual descent. As night fell, so did the rain once again, although just lightly. I pulled out my headlamp and continued on in the dark, occasionally checking behind me to ensure I wasn’t being stalked by any nocturnal predators. Around a corner on the road I saw a pair of bright eyes reflecting out of the bushes in the dark.
“Hey!” I called out, clacking my poles together. The eyes didn’t move. Cougar? I shuddered. Then another pair of eyes popped up. Ok, not a cougar. I yelled again, and a shape emerged onto the road, large and indistinguishable. And then more pairs of eyes, and more moving shapes. As I came closer I thought I saw deer, but they were much larger, and more proportional than moose. When I came closer I saw the contrasting white hair on their backsides. Elk! I kept my distance as the herd crossed the road. Glancing into the trees to my right I could see many pairs of eyes shining back at me as we cautiously observed each other. When the herd had passed, I continued on. The rain picked up in intensity and I began scouting out potential camping spots – ideally dry patches or strategic locations safe from predators.
At around the 14km mark I reached Clowhom Lake, and farther down the road I found a small three-sided shelter housing what looked like a dolly or lifting unit. The road was sandwiched between the lake and a sheer cliff, where I would be fairly protected. It was only maybe six by five feet, with four or so feet of clearance, but it was dry, and I crouched inside among the dirt and spiderwebs. I watched a black widow scurry away from the light of my headlamp and realized it was the first time I’d seen a black widow, but I was so glad to find somewhere dry than I didn’t care.
I set up my tent haphazardly. A third of it stuck out onto the road, and I set up my rain fly in record time before too much water got in through the mesh. After throwing my sleeping gear inside, I walked farther down the road to find a good tree to hang my food from. The beech trees on the roadside weren’t sufficient, but the road crossed a bridge 30 feet over an inlet to the lake, which was good enough for me. I clipped a carabiner to my food bag, attaching it with a double overhand knot to a length of paracord, which I tied messily (but functionally) to the broad wooden railing of the bridge. I returned to my tent and pulled off all my wet clothes (sock pair #2 now soaked), pulled on my dry base layers and pulled my quilt over. Physical exhaustion and the sound of the rain lulled me to sleep in record time.
The next morning the rain had stopped. I grudgingly pulled all of my still-soaked clothes back on (with the exception of my remaining pair of dry socks) and quickly broke camp. I ate breakfast at the bridge after retrieving my food bag, taking an advil with my morning tea. My body was aching, and the bruises on my legs were turning colours I didn’t know skin was capable of. I set out around 8am, and it was slow going as my body warmed up to the idea of moving again. About half an hour later, the bridge crew passed by in their trucks, stopping briefly to chat. I continued on, following the decreasing km signage. The rain was still holding off, for which I thanked the universe for its mercy.
The road hugged the massive lake for hours. At the 2km mark I watched a deer and her two fawns bounce across the road. At 1km I reached the junction of Clowhom Lake and Salmon Inlet, separated by a dam and a bridge which took me across and through a small industrial camp.
From there I followed a fresh logging road, still covered in slash and ruts, which contoured around the east side of the scenic inlet. As if the weather had suddenly been reminded that this is the real Pacific Northwest, the rain began to fall once again.
When the road ended I checked the GPS to be sure. Yep, another bushwhack. This time through what looked like a steep rainforest section along the inlet. I saw some pink flagging tape in the trees, and although it was probably surveyors’ tape, I followed it anyway. In the trees, I saw more tape, assuring me that this probably was, in fact, the intended route of the trail. Other than the tape, there was no indication.
The terrain was thick with ferns and trees and bushes, and the forest floor was on an incline, often plunging steeply down toward the water, and was made up of moss and large chunks of granite, and old rotten wood that crumbled under my feet. Every branch and rock I grabbed to steady myself snapped off, or came loose, or pulled straight out of the ground. The flagging tape either ended, or I lost track. Sections made impassible by sheer cliffs forced me to scramble up through the foliage, and the back down once on the other side. At one point I found a short game trail, which gave me respite for all of two minutes before it disappeared. I carefully climbed a large rock face which appeared to be the only way forward without ascending much higher. I double checked my hand and footholds before putting too much weight down, but the unpredictability of wet stone, wet shoes, and slippery moss won out, and I slipped and fell, crashing into a tangle of brush and rotten logs below. It wasn’t as bad as some of the falls I took over Pokosha pass, but I felt lucky that I hadn’t been impaled by a branch.
I attempted the climb again, this time successfully, and kept on through the ever-thickening forest. I felt like I had transitioned from a person into a wild animal. I didn’t think about wasps or spiders or ticks, or where I was putting my hands. I was focused on moving forward, always searching for the path of least resistance through nature’s greatest obstacle course.
The forest opened up to a large slash area with hydro lines. By this time the rain was nearly torrential. I thought I could see a road up above, so I desperately shoved my way through the brush, which was nearly impassable. The thorns and brambles tore at every inch of my body, undoing my shoelaces, catching on my hair, and pulling lengths of paracord off of my pack. I tried several routes through unsuccessfully, until I did manage to cut my way through, only to find that there was no road at all.
Discouraged, I returned to the forest where navigation was slightly easier. I saw evidence of a camp through the trees, just a little farther down the inlet. I descended all the way down to the water, where the low tide had exposed a few feet of slippery rock, which I carefully walked along until it disappeared. Rather than return to the trees, I stepped in to the water and began wading thigh-deep along the shore, narrowly missing a large jellyfish.
On the other side I crawled up the embankment and into the camp clearing where a man worked on a truck. I called out, but my voice was unheard in the rain and din of machinery. I tried again, until I was just feet away.
“Hey!” I yelled. The man looked up, clearly startled at the sight of this woman who’d apparently emerged from the ocean. “Hey,” I repeated. “Do you have any water?”
The two camp workers on shift had given me free reign of their facilities. They didn’t understand where I had come from (“Squamish,” I’d said. “But from where?” They asked. I had pointed to the dense forest hugging the east side of the inlet. “But there’s no road.”). I had just had the best shower of my life in the back of a modified cube truck, and I leaned against the washing machine in my base layers as my clothes and shoes tumbled around the dryer. I studied the maps on my phone. I only had a short distance left of the route, but the final uncleared section of trail over the pass would be especially treacherous in the heavy rain. I had come so close to seriously injuring myself several times already, that I felt continuing in this weather would almost guarantee a more serious incident. Plus I didn’t have a PLB, which meant it could be at least a day or two before anyone realized I was missing.
I eventually decided that I couldn’t justify the risk. The trail would always be there, as they say (not so applicable in this case, as I’d experienced, but more of it would probably be there in the future as it was still being completed). The Hydro workers who returned to camp that afternoon offered me a ride back to Sechelt by boat, which I accepted. When I told them I’d be hitchhiking my way back to Squamish, I’d clearly ruffled some dad feathers, and they offered me a ride from the docks into Sechelt and even gave me change for the bus. I thanked them gratefully.
A bus ride, a ferry trip, a hitch out of Horseshoe Bay, and a surprisingly long 5km walk later, I was home. I made pancakes and ate until I felt sick, and then I fell asleep in my own bed and dreamed of the mountains.
A million thanks to Geoff Breckner and volunteers who have dedicated their time and hard work to building this trail, and to Vance Culbert for providing the GPS data of his run (without which I would have spent a lot more time doubting myself while navigating through the uncleared routes). Thanks also to Bill and Shakey for the camp hospitality, and to Shane, Stacy and John for the ride into Sechelt and for the toonie that saved me from having to hitch to the ferry.