Sunday, May 20, 2012

How'd ya like the island, eh? Hiking Vancouver Island's Forbidden Plateau

Last September in Nanaimo, on Vancouver Island. Mike and I are in the checkout line at the Country Grocer. The clerk weighs corn on the cob and white potatoes, scans individually wrapped Babybel gouda and vacuum-sealed packages of locally made Grimm’s Hot Pepperoni sticks. Looking up, she gives us a motherly warning wrapped in a strong Canadian accent. “We have bears and stuff. Cougars, too.”

We have bears and “stuff” in Oregon, too, but the clerk has a point: Vancouver Island is home to one of the largest and most dense populations of cougar in the world, and we were about to backpack deep into the thick of things, into the Forbidden Plateau, right in the middle of Strathcona Provincial Park and the some of the wildest country on the island.

Forbidden Plateau is a high rolling country of lakes, meadows, and forests below a ridge of mountains that separate the plateau from the rest of the park. It’s reminiscent of Indian Heaven Wilderness in Washington, but wetter at the same elevation, with a tangled understory and a more complex rain-forest filled with hemlock, cedar, and fir. The trail gains and loses a surprising amount of elevation a it follows tree-lined mountain lakes set in bowls – and there are a lot of lakes. We planned to spend four days and three nights in the park, with hikes to the summit of Mt. Albert Edward (6,866ft) and other surrounding peaks. It didn’t turn out that way, but then, things seldom turn out as expected when Mike and I get involved.

Our trip to Forbidden Plateau was incredible, but it was hard to plan. In part that’s because resources in the US are scarce, and in part it’s because we made assumptions based on experience backpacking in the US. Canada is different, in minor but important ways (don’t confuse meters and feet on a topo), and our trip was on a budget as well as a timeline. I originally posted this report on Portland Hikers, but I’ve edited it to be – hopefully – more accessible for the interested reader. At the bottom of this post are links for resources we found helpful.

Day #1 and Day #2

We left Portland in late morning and drove to Seal Rock campground on Hood Canal. Seal Rock has become a regular car-camping spot on our trips near the Olympics, and provided a good opportunity to drink beer around a camp-fire and celebrate having a week off. After darkness fell, we walked down to the bay and watched the moonlight on the mirror-clear water. The sky was bright and small waves lapping gently against the rocky shore seemed auspicious omens for the days to come.

The next day, we caught the 12:30 ferry from Port Angeles to Victoria, and after arriving, we realized it was too late in the day to drive north and car-camp as planned. We booked a room at the fantastic Oceanside Inn, the hostel we’d return to after backpacking, and spent the evening wandering downtown Victoria, generously sampling local beers at Swann’s, and taking in the buskers and shops along Government Street.

Day #3

In the morning we stopped at Crown Bookstore to get a map, and drove north on Highway 1, which splits into Highway 19 and Highway 19A. My touring map showed campgrounds along 19A, which winds through small towns and resorts along the Strait of Georgia. All the campgrounds marked on our map turned out to be RV campgrounds, but eventually we found a public campground at Lake Comox, close to Courtenay. The campground was conveniently only 40 minutes or so from the trailhead at Mt. Washington, but was expensive at $28 per night. That money, however, pays for clean restrooms, showers, and firewood delivered to your camp. The host was a delightful Irish man, armed with information and self-published books about the history of the area and the wealth of nearby mountain biking and rock climbing opportunities.

The campsites were very close together, right next to a public beach, and water-skiers raced past all afternoon long, blasting mindless pop music and endless techno beats. But we made the best of it, and hung out with the local guys in the site next to us: Joe, a painter trying to turn pro-snowboarder, and Josh, a laid-off sprayer at a mill. Both were young, more or less down-and-out, and trying to make ends meet in an economically depressed region that bears resemblance to Oregon in the early 1990’s. We talked for several hours around a campfire, stared at the stars, and crashed around midnight, hoping to get a good night’s rest before heading in to the wilderness the next day.

Day #4

Because of the extra night in Victoria, we were a day behind schedule, but that mattered less when we woke up to rain and heavy mist. All the forecasts had been sunny, so this was a surprise (note to self, when you plan to hike up a mountain on a rain-forested island in the Pacific in September, expect precipitation). We packed in a hurry, grabbed coffee at the Wandering Moose CafĂ© in Cumberland, picked up donuts at Tim Horton’s in Courtenay, and arrived at the TH around noon. The rain tapered to mist, and after paying $10 per person per night for a permit (ouch!), we loaded up our packs and set off past a “Caution: Bear in Area” sign.

The trail followed boardwalks through Paradise Meadows and hit dirt as it passed Battleship Lake, completely obscured by the weather. At times, we couldn’t see the water just below us – forest on one side, emptiness on the other. It was gorgeous in the mist: lakes faded out into the void, and subalpine flowers bloomed in green grassy fields that slipped away to a white horizon outlined by the silhouettes of trees in various shades of gray and deep green.

Forbidden Plateau is extremely popular and as a result, all the official trails were clear and intersections were well marked, with square posts holding placards with directions and distances. At various intersections, there were signs with simplified maps showing trails and distances between intersections and campsites. Because of heavy use, camping is allowed only at designated sites (lakes Helen MacKenzie, Kwai, and Circlet). Each CG has bear-proof food caches and a covered pit-toilet, and tents must be pitched on low wooden platforms. Knowing that it might be crowded further in, we camped at the first available site, which turned out to be a completely deserted Lake Helen MacKenzie.

The sites at Helen Mackenzie are very close together and connected by boardwalk, but we had the lake and the rain to ourselves. The first order of business was figuring out how to tie down tents on top of the wooden platforms; regularly placed eyehooks helped. The weather helped keep the mosquitoes down to a tolerable level, and thankfully it didn’t get cold, except for a damp chill just before dawn, and the temperature during the day was decent under layers.

Since campfires are prohibited in Forbidden Plateau and everything was damp, we spent the evening playing hackey-sack and hoping the weather would change. A few hot toddies with Canadian whiskey helped enliven the mood. I’d brought a sturdier two-man tent instead of my ultra-light solo tent, and had plenty of room to figure out how to get comfortable on wooden boards. We were in our tents shortly after 9pm, trying to fall asleep in the early darkness and steady drip of rain.

Day #5

I rose by 8am to overcast skies with blue showing in streaks, and a golden light falling in ribbons on Mt. Elma across the mirrored lake. I grabbed our food from the bear cache, sprayed on insect repellent, and started coffee by boiling lake water. Water access at Helen MacKenzie is difficult, at the bottom of an 8ft cliff. There might be better shore access, but I didn’t feel like hiking and bushwacking through thick, wet brush to find it.

The sun made a good effort but just in case, we made another “scale it back” decision to camp at nearby Kwai Lake, and day-hike from there towards Mt. Albert Edward. We intended to camp at Circlet Lake, closest to the Albert Edward summit route, but we weren’t sure if the weather would hold and we were leaving the next day, so Kwai seemed a good alternative – closer to the mountain, but not as far from the TH. To get to Kwai, we took a trail past Croteau Lake, where we stopped for a snack and battled aggressive gray jays. They swept in overhead, buzzing us from trees with their eyes fixated on our food. And for the first and only time, the clouds opened up enough to see the long tantalizing ridge leading to the summit of Albert Edward.

Pushing on, we arrived at Kwai. It’s small but beautiful, deep green and ringed with trees, and once again we had our pick of campsites. After we ate lunch, a group of teenagers with a few adult guides hiked past on their way to Circlet Lake, and paused for a break on the trail below our camp. After watching the kids feed the ever-present gray jays from their hands, Mike tried it out – known locally as Whiskey Jacks, the jays are quite habituated to humans. The jays swept down to perch on his hand with no hesitation at all.

That afternoon we took a short hike towards Circlet Lake but weather turned us around before we arrived at the lake. Just after we got back to Kwai it started to drizzle, but the rain largely held off until after dark. Camping here at night was kind of spooky – I really felt the solitude, the darkness, and the elements, and the tension arising from needing to stash food in a bear box. And once again, it was hard to fall asleep “early” at 10pm – but what else was there to do with no campfire, at night, in the rain, miles from anything else? Oh yes, finish the whisky, and dream of bears among the mossy hemlocks.

Day #6

Woke in the rain, slept a little later, and packed up quickly during a drier spell. For variety’s sake and a shorter hike, we chose a different return route, one that led past a ranger’s cabin in the mist back to Helen MacKenzie, and the return trail to Paradise Meadows and the trailhead.

From Kwai, the trail lead uphill then leveled out in meadows before dropping to Helen MacKenzie. The ascent and descent weren’t much but the trail was wet, slick, and filled with roots. We both slipped a few times and I took a spill that injured my pride far more than anything else. The only really sketchy section of trail we encountered was here, where erosion at a steep downhill switchback forced us to cross exposed bedrock slick with rain and clay-like mud.

On the way, we met a hiker from Victoria who was attempting to summit Mt. Albert Edward in a day. That’s a pretty ambitious plan for the average hiker, who, I think, could make it to Circlet in a day, summit Albert Edward the next day, and even hike out on the summit day. That might work for locals, but after driving up from Oregon, it’s worth it to spend more time. Circlet Lake is the most popular CG, and as sites are first-come first-serve, you run the risk of having to backtrack to Kwai on busy summer weekends. But all in all, Forbidden Plateau is worth a few days exploration, and while it might be heavily used, it doesn’t see nearly the same number of visitors as do Oregon’s Columbia River Gorge, or Mt. Hood.

After changing into dry clothes at the truck, we walked over to the volunteer nature center and had a fun conversation with the staffer working there. She was genuinely interested in our trip, in learning what trail conditions we encountered, and in sharing enthusiasm for hiking and backpacking.

All told, our total mileage in Forbidden Plateau was about 12.7 miles, with 2300ft of gain, but that’s a rough guess. If the weather had been nice we would’ve doubled or tripled that, and spent another day up there. After leaving, we drove down to Courtenay, had coffee and donuts at Tim Horton’s again, and then sped down 19 back to Victoria and a few nights of urban adventure.

Never did see any bears and stuff, though.

Thoughts on Wilderness on Vancouver Island

At first glance, it would seem Forbidden Plateau is well maintained. We met two young rangers doing advance preparation for helicopter-aided pit-toilet service; the boardwalks and tent platforms were in good shape; the trails were well graded and very well marked; and the depth of knowledge and enthusiasm at the nature center was refreshing. But in reality, Forbidden Plateau probably gets a lot of attention because the trailhead is so close to a ski resort, accessible by paved road. The rest of Strathcona Park has few trails, many of which are accessible only by permission or advance notice on gated logging roads in actively logged areas, and the forests directly outside the park’s boundaries have been decimated by logging. Commercial interests continue to try to operate within the park, and funding is abysmal – the nature center is maintained by donations, many of the campsites and trail signs were installed by local mountaineering clubs, and BC Parks doesn’t have the budget to hire more than one ranger per ten parks on the island. It’s both sad and enlightening to compare conservation issues and challenges in another country to those in the US.

Vancouver Islanders also appear to approach their wilderness somewhat differently than Americans do theirs (barring the very public resort/family-style campgrounds we both have). Feeding Whiskey Jacks seems accepted, but they take protecting Forbidden Plateau so seriously that they built miles of boardwalk and designated tent platforms to protect meadows and campgrounds from erosion. Car camping seems uncommon, perhaps due to a shortage of public lands, and on Vancouver Island, pure backpacking appears to be uncommon as well. Canadians appear to backpack in order to do something else when they get into the woods, like climb, ski, snowboard, or fish – and the fishing in Forbidden Plateau is great, according to a guy floating in misty Battleship Lake who had earlier caught a few 16” trout. As an aside, there are stricter rules for wilderness travel in popular Forbidden Plateau than there are in the rest of Strathcona, which has far fewer established trails and more “routes,” and sees much far fewer people. But on Vancouver Island, everywhere north of Victoria is rural and increasingly remote, with economies dependent on natural resources or tourism. The island is caught in time, facing the same challenges rural Washington and Oregon encountered when their logging and fishing industries collapsed. I’d expect there to be a different approach to the outdoors, one that viewed the land as a commodity as much as a familiar place to escape the pressures of the city, the town, and outside forces.

Recommendations and Resources

Spend at least one night in Victoria or in a town along the coast. That will give you a day to get to Canada and time to buy supplies and explore the coast before hitting the trail. Vancouver Island has a lot of neat history – logging, mining, First Nation culture, etc – that deserve a closer look.

Online Resources:
Maps, Gear, Guides:
  • Free map (not much detail)
  • We used this map: Forbidden Plateau and Campbell River (92f11), ISBN 9781553418115, available from Crown Bookstore in Victoria.
  • Guidebook: “Hiking Trails 3,” by Blier
  • Robinson’s - In my opinion, the best gear store in Victoria
Lodging & Essentials:

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