Tuesday, 18 February 2014

Chilcotin Camping Trip

Windy Pass

I am on day 10 of the 28 day Boot of Shame challenge (the challenge is not doing anything stupid to impede healing), and currently have no actual racing or training to write about. As a result, the next couple posts will be a sort of an Alex trail running backstory, involving my first pretty lame efforts to hike / camp / be rugged / deal with huge overwhelming fear of grizzly bears. (I am happy to provide swimming updates, but so far the only person really clamoring for these has been Craig)

So...instead of writing about my continued rivalry with breast stroke guy in the fast swim lane, I will write about the 5-day backcountry camping trip I took to the Chilcotins with an old boyfriend in August of 2011.

A note about hiking and Mark
When I met Mark, I had done exactly one hike - the Lions - in running shoes. Over the next couple years I accumulated some running injuries but had a firm love of the outdoors. So, on recovery from stress fracture #1, I learned to day hike. At first, my ability to go uphill pretty quickly was only matched by my inability to go downhill with any type of speed, at all. Not too surprisingly, my navigation skills were somewhat lacking.

The way I got into backcountry camping was going to a non-backcountry-camping campsite. It was 9pm, so obviously I was ready for bed. The people at the site next to us were obviously ready to drink for the next four hours. So when Mark told me that if I hiked a couple hours to a camping site I would be guaranteed a good night's sleep at whatever god-early hour I wanted to go to bed, I was completely sold.

Mark and I decided to go camping in the Chilcotins based on a hiking guidebook and the experience of doing exactly two one-night backcountry hikes in the past year. 

The plan
We decided to do the trip as a sort-of-backpack / sort-of-dayhike. We would set up base camp at Spruce Lake, a 13km hike in, do a series of dayhikes, and then backpack out. This meant we could cart in more gear, explore different parts of the area, and not have to break and set up camp every day. Sort of a camping-lite idea. 

The month leading up to the hike, I had pretty severe shoulder pain, which was sometimes sorta-remedied with a tennis ball roll-out. The days leading up to the hike I had a pretty good head cold (in the summer! what the hell?) remedied by Nyquil and a lot of whining.

This was going to be my first "real" hiking trip, as we would be going to a fairly remote area. On short runs, I have overpacking instincts which remain to this day (as evidenced by my massive backpack from Kneeknacker 2012), so for my first "long" hike here are some of the things I brought:
- food for about 10 dinners (we were staying 5 nights)
- a couple Nalgene water bottles of wine (I regret nothing.)
- two books (softcover!)

It took several re-packings for my backpack to reach "only" 45lbs. 

Getting there - Day 0 - Vancouver to Gun Lake
The Chilcotin area is a five-hour drive from Vancouver - head to Whistler, with the jagged Coast Mountains on either side - stiff and icy with glaciers, even in the heat of summer. From Whistler, follow the meadows to Pemberton, with more mountains covered in dense green. From there, the road narrows and climbs, climbs, climbs more along a steep river gorge. Towards Lillooet, the green fades to big, dusty brown cliffs. From the last straggling houses in Lilloet, we turned down a sometimes paved, sometimes dirt road.

By this time, it was approaching late afternoon. The flat blue sky gave way to thunderheads. We were the only car on the road. There was no cell service, and the radio crackled into silence. We passed farms with half-hearted fences and dry grass. We drove alongside Gun Lake, past half-burnt trees left from forest fires years before, and turned up an old logging road to Tyax Lodge. There, we bought the most detailed topographical map we could find, and ate a slightly surreal and fairly fancy dinner at the lodge, surrounded by middle-aged tourists.

Just as the sky was tinging darker, we drove back and set up camp next to Gun lake as the clouds rolled past the sunset.

Really getting there - Day 1 - Gun Creek trailhead to Spruce Lake
We woke up to a clearer sky and no rain, so packed up as quickly as possible. The last part of our drive was on unmarked logging roads. We turned a steep left, then navigated by how many kilometers we had driven. Mark thought this was an excellent time for me to practice my navigation skills. Here's the thing with the logging road network: most of the times, navigation was choosing the right way at a fork in the road. So, a 50% chance of choosing the right route if this was done at random. However, it turns out my navigation was worse than random. This had the benefit of exploring many other logging roads, but the downside of taking a lot longer to actually find the trail head. Finally, though, we drove the last couple sketchy kilometers to the trail head, praying the late 90s Chrysler two-wheel drive could negotiate the dry and not-so-dry creekbed crossings (it did). 

The start of the hike was a parking lot with two other cars, a dilapidated outhouse up an overgrown trail, and a sign warning about grizzly bears. Compared to the packed trailhead parking lots at places like Garibaldi or Helm Creek, it felt like we were really on the edge of the wilderness - more remote than remote.

I need to learn to pack light

Mark helped me heft my way-too-heavy backpack, and I staggered forward. We were off. Us and the many many mosquitos were the only ones on the trail at first. We walked along as shafts of sunlight came through the poplars. The trails, compared to the ones we usually hikes, were dusty and easy. No roots, few rocks. There were no other hikers, but a steady stream of mountain bikers passed us as the day progressed.

My usual hiking pace was described by Mark as a "death march", but the overloaded backpack slowed me down a bit. The amazing scenery made the hike go by (and lessened the pain of being passed by mountain bikers on the uphill). The trail followed the creek, then climbed through poplars, breaking out onto vast meadows of wildflowers.

Gun Creek

We reached our home base for the next several days after about three and a half hours and many many photos - a series of sites right next to Spruce Lake. We were the only people there. After pitching a tent, putting our food in the bear locker (remember: grizzlies), we unpacked the key item: a hammock. The hammock was made of string, barely barely fit the two of us (and not quite fit if I ate a large meal), and was precariously tied to two trees overhanging the edge of the lake. We had a half-hearted meal of bread and cheese, then settled back to drink wine out of special "hiking" cups and watch the sun set over the lake.

best hammock ever

A note on bears and outhouses
The campsite was great as we had it all to ourselves. The campsite, to me, was less than ideal in that it had an open-pit toilet (ie. no door, facing the outdoors head-on) that faced directly into a big, not-at-all-empty forest at the far edge of the site. This meant that every.damn.time at night, I would have to overcome my huge fear of grizzly bears, strap on my headlamp, and then use the outhouse while holding my bear spray in one hand and toilet paper in the other. So I am not a huge fan of the open pit toilets is what I am saying. I also hiked with bearspray the entire trip.

Day 2 - overlooking Spruce Lake and the flu

I woke up to a brilliant blue sky and Mark having caught the same flu I had. I set off several medium-sized flares while attempting to cook breakfast on our little firefly stove and had a hot beverages ready for when Mark finally surfaced. At this point, I was caffeinated, obnoxious, and ready to do a ton of hiking. Mark was ready to go back to bed. We compromised we me reading in the sunshine for a bit, then doing a mellow afternoon hike to a ridge overlooking Spruce Lake.

One of the highlights was seeing a flat plane land on the lake (a lot of mountain bikers are dropped off at the lake, and do a one-way out to Tyax Lodge). Another highlight was the top of the ridge: Cinnamon-coloured, rounded mountains with odd spires and shapes on one side, and the sharp and snow covered coast mountain range on the other side. A final highlight was seeing bear dropping on the trails that looked....recent, and one of my fastest downhills ever to get away from the potential bear.

Oh man...the lake. We got to the far side of the lake, dusty and hot and dirty. The float plane had left. There was nobody, it seemed, forever. We were too lazy to go back to the camp for towels or a change of clothes, so we just stripped down and jumped in. The water felt fantastic. The next best feeling was laying on the dock, back to the warm wood, staring up at the clouds drifting across the blue.

Day 3 - Windy pass to Eldorado Basin circle trip
We woke up the next morning and Mark's flu was not a match for my enthusiasm to do a big-ass day hike and really see the area. We set off with healthy fuel of about a pound of sausage and cheese, a bell pepper, and many cliff bars. The hike was going to be about 27km with 2000m of climbing, climbing up a series of ridges and then descending into a series of bowls.

early keener

The first climb was up the aptly-named Windy Pass. Pretty much as soon we we got above the treeline my pace increased (which is why all photos are thankfully courtesy of Mark). Besides a couple mountain bikers, it was just us on the lonely way up. It never rained that day, but the dark clouds on top of the pass made it feel pretty remote. I felt exhilarated at the top...until I was reminded that we would need to go BACK over the damn pass on our return, plus over another three passes that day. I maybe should have started out a bit slower.

not especially warm

We had lunch overlooking the top of another small basin, before tackling El Dorado basin - one of the biggest climbs and the best view. I loved the huge, rounded mountains, and the dry landscape. What I did not love, as we made our way back to climb, then descend Windy Pass, was my earlier enthusiasm for hiking really, really fast.

El Dorado mountain

This ended up with me sitting at the top of Windy Pass, cranky, with Mark giving me our last Cliff Bar (thank you, Mark!) and explaining to me that, somehow, I would in fact need to get back to the camp on my own steam, so there were limited options besides hiking. And yes, now is a good place to note that, despite having the flu, Mark's more measured pacing strategy resulted in him being able to out-hike me.

the approach to Windy Pass going back

one last downhill

The carbs kicked in, and 1.5hrs later found us back at the camp. When I finally took off my shoes, I had a blister the size of a fist on my right ankle. After grossing out Mark, I popped it and taped it down as much as I could. Then passed out in the tent for about an hour.

A note about washing and hiking
When the weather is warm, I am all for washing off in the nearest body of water. When it is cold out and/or there are huge vengeful mosquitos, I am really not that concerned with personal hygeine. That evening saw me take the shortest "bath" ever. 1) get naked 2) run / hobble into lake quickly enough to out-race mosquitos (not successful) 3) splash water around 4) run out, dry off, and put on huge cloud of bug spray pretty much negating benefits of "cleaning".

The evening saw us cooking on our tiny stove right besides the lake. One of the best feelings was to crawl into my sleeping bag while in the hammock and slowly watch the light fade (the sleeping bag was also good because it was cold and it kept the mosquitos off most parts of my body).

Day 4 - trail run to Hummingbird Lake
I woke up that morning at 7am...and then went back to bed for another two hours. Mark seemed to have magically recovered from both the flu and from the previous day's hike. We decided to do a trail run to Hummingbird Lake - about a 18km roundtrip. Based on the topographical map, the route seemed fairly flat and easy to navigate. As a result we set off without a) food / water or b) a map.

we didn't bring a camera...Hummingbird Lake is at the end of this valley

Early trail running Alex
As a note, this is before my serious trail running days. 2014 Alex (when not injured) carries a running backpack with water and food for any run longer than a solid 30minutes, and welcome "photo opportunities", aka chances to rest and catch her breath. 2014 Alex also embraces "powerhiking", which is pretty much walking uphill. 2011 Alex wanted to travel light, and thought that walking up any sort of incline meant that the run was a failure.

The run to the lake followed high above Gun creek, along a valley flanked by mountains.

This meant that as the run started on a downhill, instead of being happy (downhill is fun!), I was actually cranky because I knew I would be faced with the prospect of going uphill on the way back. I also was a bit nervous about the navigation. The thing is, Mark has an almost unnatural ability to find the right path, but had to hear countless times of "are you SURE?" "this looks weird" "we should be at the lake sooner" (well, yes, but we were slow). After skirting around what appeared to be a small clump of boulders - we were at the lake. It was turquoise, ringed by trees, and had mountains rising at the end of the valley. It also had about a billion mosquitos, excited for the blood of the first humans there in a while. So, 15 seconds later, we were on our way back.

On our way back, in true Alex trail running style, my insistence on navigating us ("I don't think that's the right turn - it looks different") resulted in doing some extra uphill before finding our way back to the main trail. Oh - and it got warm, I got thirsty, and I luckily didn't get any sort of beaver fever after drinking out of the least-sketchy-looking creek.

Two and a half hours we arrived back at the camp, pretty wiped out, and demolished the remaining sausage and cheese as our recovery food. (Fact: the lentils and other healthy food I packed was untouched the entire trip).

That evening Mark made a campire, and on our last night, it was lovely to watch the moon rise over the lake, and then the stars come out through the trees.

Day 5 - Spruce Lake - parking lot - Vancouver!
We got up early (actually early) and tried to pack up our gear quickly...which, due to all the crap I brought, ended up taking over an hour (I've since gotten a bit speedier!). Then, loaded back up with the heavy pack, I teetered down the trail back down to the parking lot.

The morning was gorgeous - the early morning coolness, the waving grass, watching the sun start its rise from the mountains across the valley. As we descended, it got warmer. Our bug spray had pretty much run out, which lead me to discover that it is possible to get mosquito bites IN YOUR EAR. Oh man. By the end, my total lack of upper body combined with little hiking fitness had me staggering along, and I was so happy to hear the rush of Gun Creek that signalled we were almost at the car.

We were both pretty tired, hot, and sweaty. The car had fresh (sorta) clothes. Right as we were going into the creek to wiped off, a group of people on horseback showed up on the opposite side of the river. I'm not going to say I nearly got naked in front of strangers...but it definitely prepared me for my changing-in-parking lots after trail runs.

Oh god food is so good
We finished our hike around noon, and the plan was to get back to Vancouver by the evening. The one thing that was needed was actual food on the way. Going through Lillooet, Mark spotted a Greek restaurant. Although Lilooet isn't exactly known for its ethnic food, we went in and ordered a huge amount of food (and two cokes). Definitely the best Greek food I've had :) Then, as it had been a full three hours since we had eaten, we stopped for milkshakes in Squamish on the way back.

A note about navigation 
The trails were pretty much unmarked, so using the topographical map is key. There were times where taking a different fork could lead at a wildly far-off, different destination than than taking the right one. We used this one.

It was early August, and it would get cold as hell at night. The time were were there it never rained, but it never really got into shorts and t-shirt weather. Hiking over the passes can get quite exposed. On higher areas there were snow crossings, but nothing that couldn't be negotiated in trail runners.

In conclusion
I was seriously underprepared for the hiking trip. I packed way too much stuff, almost burnt down the campsite lighting the stove, and had no concept of pacing. And even when I was cranky and tired, I still loved it (and, thankfully, Mark was much more mellow and knew what he was doing with regards to camping). It was my first trip to someplace that felt really remote, and it definitely planted a seed in me for the desire to go to somewhere new and beautiful and experience it on my own feet.

Here's the thing - three years later, all the edges are smoothed over in my memory - the mosquitos, the blisters, the huge and irrational fear of a grizzly attack, the bonking at the top of Windy Pass. What remains are itchy feet and restless energy and an oh-god-I-just-want-to-go-back. And that's maybe the biggest love of trails - to find somewhere that haunts days at a desk and nights falling asleep listening to traffic for somewhere that much wilder.


  1. Great story and photos - makes me think of the years Larry and I had the VW van and camped in remote forestry sites. So peaceful.

  2. Thanks Teresa! That sounds like a great way to see the area too. Any pictures from your adventures there floating around?