Ben Massey. Backpacking enthusiast, creator of this site, former writer of sports articles for several websites and one magazine, all-round handsome guy, and writer of his own blurbs.
The North Boundary Trail in Jasper National Park is a dream hike. From Celestine Lake near Jasper to the Berg Lake trailhead in Mount Robson Provincial Park, it is much-discussed and not that remote but not often-hiked. This year Thompson Valley Charters started a bus route between Kamloops and Edmonton stopping at Mount Robson, and I would have made it if not for Heat Dome, which melted snowpack that flooded these trails. BC Parks closed the Berg Lake Trail beyond kilometre 7 in August.
Also closed was a bridge over Twintree Creek, one of the few remaining on the North Boundary. Stuart Howe’s 2019 video shows horrible rushing blue-white water that I’d hate to ford. Parks Canada, not known for providing updates on the North Boundary, has officially closed that bridge on pain of a $25,000 fine.
BC Parks is fixing Berg Lake right now, but the North Boundary has long been neglected by Parks Canada. Reservations are already refused until September because Blue Creek bridge washed out in 2014 and, with no replacement in sight, Parks Canada wants hikers to wait until water levels go down. By all accounts Twintree Creek is tougher; it’s probably safest to consider the trail closed.
Would Jasper National Park lose a marquee trail for want of a bridge? Well, it keeps happening. The Fortress Lake trail into Hamber Provincial Park has been cut off since 2014 because of a washed-out bridge over the Athabasca River. The Athabasca Pass trail, leading to a National Historic Site of Canada, has been nigh-unreachable since the winter of 2016 due to a lost bridge at Simon Creek.
This is normally when an author bemoans Parks Canada’s budget and suggests the reader somehow vote our way out of it. Yes, Parks Canada should have the money far more than other things all politicians treat as higher priorities, but they ain’t quite broke. Earlier this year they built a 113-metre suspension bridge above Logan Creek on the West Coast Trail. A safe existing route has received a spectacular upgrade that will save hikers from what was once a morass of ladders and a shorter, still-memorable suspension bridge. The contract was valued at $840,122.
Bridges can be built, when they’re a priority.
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It would have saddened a handful of Vancouver Island backpackers when Sooke Mountain Provincial Park outlawed camping. Located about an hour from downtown Victoria, Sooke Mountain has been logged, surveyed, alternately protected and exploited, driven over, ridden on, and hiked for more than a century, and the provincial park is located in the heartland of a more interesting, more nearly-wild area than you might expect given its location and history.
People are all around. Sooke Mountain borders the popular Sea to Sea Regional Park, maintained to a very high standard by the [British Columbia] Capital Regional District and criss-crossed with trails. It is linked to the Sooke Potholes, a very popular destination, and a walk between the two can easily involve a side-trip to Empress Mountain, the tallest peak in the Victoria area. The terrain is often strenuous but, on the established routes, only occasionally severe. To the north there’s logging, which puts a limit on the real wildland, and the Greater Victoria watershed, but this leaves a great deal to explore on foot by unofficial and haphazard trails. Geographically it has every advantage. But this gem goes unpolished, to the pleasure of Sooke Hills wanderers who escape the capital for a taste of wilderness.
Land ownership is complicated, with the Capital Regional District, the province, and the YMCA all holding big stakes. The provincial park itself is relatively small, compared to the bevy of public and private landowners around it, and lacks direct vehicle access, so BC Parks has taken a very stand-offish approach. Victoria’s planned for at least ten years to open the area up to recreation, but the region has swallowed up more backcountry parkland than it can digest: Sooke Mountain is just one more page of bullet points. Because of this, trails and facilities are user-maintained at best while official maps are non-existent and unofficial ones obscure. Since a wildland so close to an urban area is tempting to the inexperienced, and nobody’s apparently taking responsibility for the area, it’s probably best not to encourage too much casual activity. People are already rescued after going in flagrantly unprepared for the backcountry; nobody needs more of that.
But until 2019, you could camp there, and in 2017 I did, braving bad maps, blowdown, and poop buckets, crossing old moss-covered pipes across gaping chasms, getting lost in the woods, and emerging dazed, tired, and alive, having seen hardly a soul in 24 hours between two popular destinations.
I want to write more, I really do, but it’s hard. I just don’t hike that much, and when I do it’s often not worth writing about even to me.
In this situation, what do other hiking blogs do? That’s a bad question because all hiking blogs, and vlogs, and Instagrams are terrible attention-seeking nightmare factories that seem to dream of being sponsored by a company selling bandanas or something just so they can experience the sheer joy of selling out. I like adorable half-polished diaries of hikes, and I like Andrew Skurka’s site, but I’m posting all the half-polished diaries I can and Skurka’s site is good because he’s an expert full-time hiker and guide, which I most definitely ain’t. Damn.
But people write about gear. A lot. By gear, a hiker does not mean the kit he uses to inject heroin into the diminishing veins between his toes, although he’d save money if he did. He means the specialized, lightweight equipment that he weighs on his kitchen scale so he can tell everyone he’s some awesome minimalist who wastes not an ounce. I am not an awesome minimalist. I bring a chair hiking.
I also carry opinions, and they don’t weigh anything. Some of them might almost be interesting to others, and some will be good for me to write down so I don’t go “oh right my satellite messenger failed last time I tried this” sometime in 2022. Hey, perhaps a gear post now and then is a decent waste of electrons!
Parks Canada’s new reservations system is fun. Used to be you’d log in 7 AM on opening day, the database server would crash, and you’d refresh, and the database server would crash, and you’d have a couple browsers open to get one as far as the cart, and the database server would crash, but you’d check out, and then the payment server would crash, and you’d repeat this ten times until your credit card had been overcharged a few hundred bucks and, because you were high-agency, you’d get your campsites. I wrote about it! It worked for me, which is not the same as saying that it worked.
Now you log in opening day and are randomly assigned a place in line. The website hardly crashes at all but, no matter how on-the-ball you are, you cannot advance more quickly than the luck of the draw. When I visited on Banff, Kootenay, and Yoho backcountry day there were 14,715 people ahead of me taking the good campsites. 14,715. I wrote it down.
I had planned two hard and fast weeks through three parks, from Field, British Columbia to Canmore, Alberta, a hike to be proud of, one you have to train for. But 14,715 people made that impossible. So I had to gear down and hike Kootenay National Park‘s Rockwall, one of the crown jewels of the Canadian Rockies, the one they put on the cover of the Canadian Rockies Trail Guide most years, a beautiful and popular destination I was truly lucky to get into. I even found myself obliged to stop at every campground along the way, a relaxed itinerary that would allow me to spend the summer sitting and getting tubby rather than grinding the Grind.
It was amazing: five of the best nights of my life. You should go. (And if you want to read nearly 9,000 words of what it was like written more for the writer’s pleasure than any entertainment value, you should keep going.)
Solar power, as anyone who has tried it knows, does not work.
Perhaps there are niche cases, like desktop calculators or orbital satellites, where solar cells pay off their expense and bulk, but when it comes to backpacking the science is settled. Look at gear surveys on long-distance trails, at the items hikers love, hate, keep, throw away. If a hiker brings solar panels onto the Pacific Crest or the Appalachian, they are soon discarded. If he does not bring them, at no point is he tempted to buy a set. Not even their biggest fan pretends a solar panel relieves you from long hours sitting next to a power outlet recharging your battery pack. Garmin, acknowledged masters of the great-hardware-shitty-software industry, advertise their solar-powered Fēnix 6 smartwatch as having extended range, rather than being able to live off the sun. Reviews of backpacking-oriented panels try as diplomatically as possible to suggest that if you keep the best you can buy soaked in sunlight in Colorado in the summer, you might just possibly get something useful out of them.
My experience with my backpacking solar panels has been thoroughly bad, dragging them like boat anchors around British Columbia’s Lower Mainland and Southern Gulf Islands without the least satisfaction. But surely the apex of futility was when I used them sailing from Bellingham, Washington to Skagway, Alaska on the Alaska Marine Highway. Sleeping out on deck for four days in the Alaskan summer we had decent weather, eighteen hours of sun a day, and a shortage of power outlets. I tried my solar panels to bridge the gap, and by journey’s end was just this side of pitching them into the Lynn Canal.
There’s no sugarcoating it: solar panels are heavy (my set weighs almost two and a half pounds), expensive, and ineffectual. The backpacking solar panel is completely useless.
Or is it?
After two years of frustrated would-be backpacks in the Rocky Mountains1 2020 would be a winner. A half-dozen early mornings, scoring opening-day reservations for some of Canada’s most-coveted campsites. Jasper frontcountry, Banff frontcountry, Jasper backcountry, Banff backcountry, provincial parks: processing and stress, HTTP 503s and duplicate credit card charges: all worth it to see great trails in peak season.
Take the train to Jasper, one night in the frontcountry, then two on the famous Skyline Trail. Bus to Banff, and three more nights up the Sunshine Village gondola, through the Assiniboine Pass, and down to the southeastern corner of Banff National Park via legendary Lake Magog. A trip worth the wait.
Then the virus came. VIA Rail, Canada’s passenger rail provider, suspended transcontinental service for the year. So I had to fly into Edmonton, with associated problems moving fuel and bear spray, and bus to Jasper on Sundog. This meant a needless night at Wapiti, watching elk and ordering pizza.
On the Banff side Sunshine Village announced they, including the gondola leading to Assiniboine Pass, would not open for the summer of 2020. So an already-long day would be lengthened by a sketchy cab ride and a boring uphill walk. Then, in July, the bombshell: a nice lady from Brewster called and said that due to “extreme low demand” their Jasper–Banff bus would not run until September at the earliest2.
It was disappointing but one cannot be angry at small businesses trying to survive in a time of panic. Every thwarted booking, every reservation canceled, was refunded promptly and without hassle. Everybody was very polite, and the reputation of the Rocky Mountains’ little transport companies and outfitters has only improved. But now I could either go to Banff and do Assiniboine Pass, or go to Jasper and do Skyline, but, with no connection between them, not both.
I chose Skyline. A mistake was made.
Hiking-wise it has been a rough summer. Some of this has been viral, of course; even when parks have opened it’s felt antisocial to bus willy-nilly to small towns1, smiling and breathing on things. But quite a bit has been my own fault. For example, I canceled a planned overnight on Pender Island after hiking 98% of the way to Beaumont campground only to find I’d forgotten my cooking pot. I canceled a trip to Manning Park because there was lightning in the forecast and I’m a wimp. Another trip to Gulf Islands National Park was all booked-up when the ‘rona struck and when reservations re-opened I couldn’t get a replacement. One way or another I’ve canceled more camping reservations that I’ve used this year.
On one trip I combined “covid panic” and “Ben you fucking moron,” nicely spraining my ankle on the Norvan Falls trail of all the ridiculous places, a simple enough hike I know as well as kiss-my-hand, when just after the final bridge before the falls I stepped of to responsibly social-distance from a nice old lady passing the other way and landed wrong2 I hiked out, denying myself even a free helicopter ride, but it rather laid me up, as did my aggravating it on a run without a brace because have we established I’m an idiot?
It’s unfortunate to sound so bitter, because on balance my 2020 has been way better than the median. But from a backcountry perspective it’s been rather a bust.
So with a week of fun and rain in Jasper coming up, when confronted with a fine summer weekend I resolved to do something (anything) that let me sleep with a tent over my face, if only to enliven my legs and remind myself what shape trees are. Stawamus Chief Provincial Park, within walking distance of Squamish, opened up BC Day long weekend, and I leapt. So-to-speak. (People do leap off the Chief, but not even I am dumb enough for BASE jumping.)
Pandemics are boring. My home office in Vancouver, British Columbia looks out on a beautiful sunny day I am powerless to enjoy. Snowfields stare at me from the North Shore mountains while my snowshoes gather dust. Running around my neighbourhood only does so much; I miss nature. I miss the fresh air. I miss content for my hiking blog. I miss trees. I miss campsites and dehydrated food and reading a book on a lightweight chair and worrying about the rain and putting on three layers of jacket as I finish up the last camp chores while a gentle white light swings placidly within my tent. I miss being sweaty and stinky for days on end and not caring. I miss it all.
On the list of problems in the world today this is, to be sure, not number one. We’re all in the same boat and I think we all understand why we’re doing it. At risk of sounding controversial, if we all died of coronavirus that would be sad. Probably all of us who can are social distancing in ways which would normally seem ludicrously anti-social and feeling pretty good about ourselves.
And while we all want to get outside, outside can be crowded. Smart people are avoiding busy beaches and crowded trails. The District of North Vancouver has closed down the ultra-popular Quarry Rock and Lynn Valley Suspension Bridge trails. The big Vancouver-area resorts, Cypress Mountain, Grouse Mountain and Mount Seymour, are shut down, along with every zoo, water park, or other outdoor playplace.
This August I’m off hiking in Jasper and Banff National Parks. Take the train in to Jasper, camp for a night in the frontcountry, hike a trail, take the bus to Banff, another frontcountry night, more hiking, camp at Lake Louise, then head home. Since I am the sort of person who enjoys planning trips almost as much as going on them, I had this planned out, with routes researched, campgrounds picked, and schedules ready, before Christmas.
Good thing. I needed a night in a frontcountry campsite in Jasper; reservations opened up January 7. The largest campground in the park is under renovation for all of 2020 so I played it safe, got up early to snag my spot. This was smart. Parks Canada’s database server failed under the strain of us early-risers; as errors and “processing…” queues kept me waiting I could watch the sites I wanted turn from green to red. Luck was on my side: I got in. But that was merely the first battle in a long war, a campaign of all against all between thousands of fellow-travelers from Canada and around the world, for the right to go camping.
The worst part is, there isn’t a better way.
I like hiking, but if there’s one thing I like even more, it’s eating. Perhaps the reason I enjoy overnight backpacking trips so much is that I can combine both these interests.
Of course when you’re car camping or carrying food for a night or two you can eat like you would at home. Spark up your two-burner Coleman stove and fry that bacon and eggs. On the West Coast Trail I met some people who’d brought in steaks… for one night, anyway. Carrying and cooling that stuff gets hard fast so if you’re backpacking, and your budget runs to CDN$13 or so per dinner, dehydrated meals are pretty universally considered the way to go. Their shelf life is years, meaning your extra food will be perfectly good next time you go out. There’s a certain sameiness of taste, given which ingredients are good dehydrated and which aren’t, but within those limits you can find food to suit any palate.
The world of backcountry cuisine is full of misinformation. Meals say “2 servings,” or even “2.5 servings,” on the package, and if you’re eating them while sedentary, rising only occasionally to tend the fire, that may be true, but on the move carrying a big ol’ backpack it ain’t. (Admittedly I am rather fat.) Then there are the “cookless” types, who try to tell you that eating pouches of peanut butter, nuts, and ghee for two weeks makes not carrying a stove seem like a reasonable idea, or on the other hand the “backcountry gourmets” whose backpacks are two-thirds spice rack and who stagger into camp, having carried more than is reasonable, only to spend four weary hours trying to perfectly sear salmon on a JetBoil. I can understand people who don’t take dehydrated backpacking meals along because they’re too expensive (and they are), but that consideration aside they are the ideal combination of convenience and tastiness.
As always I am the only one who will tell you the truth. Here are the ten best dehydrated backpacking meals, out of the ones I’ve eaten.
Until this past Labour Day Garibaldi Provincial Park was one of the many obligatory outdoors spots in British Columbia which I had not visited. There’s always some more exciting way to spend scarce vacation time, always some reason to go elsewhere. For non-drivers it’s certainly accessible, but a bit of a hassle. It’s notoriously crowded, of course, and you can see quite a lot of it any given sunny weekend by searching Instagram. The real outdoorsmen swear by its true backcountry, and the cross-country skiing is said to be excellent, but I lack the game (and the 4×4) for those. So it stayed vaguely on my “I’ll get around to it” list for a long time.
This year I finally knocked quite a lot of it off. Parkbus offers service to the Rubble Creek trailhead, access point to Garibaldi Lake, Panorama Ridge, and the Black Tusk, every weekend. From there one can do a day hike, or even an overnight there-and-back (this, I believe, is the only Parkbus destination out of Vancouver with both Saturday and Sunday service). But if you want to experience more of the park then you can hike out the Cheakamus Lake exit and down the access road to the #20 Whistler city bus run by BC Transit, and from there ride into Whistler itself, from which, even in the post-Greyhound era, any of several intercity buses can whisk you back to downtown Vancouver in touristy comfort. It looked too practical to allow of any excuses.
I don’t think I’ll be back, at least not to Rubble Creek. I hear people say that the West Coast Trail is crowded, well, I liked it a lot. They’ve had to slap stiff overnight quotas on the Chilkoot Trail and I liked that too. So the crowds didn’t scare me, even when I got up at 5 AM the first day campsite reservations were open and saw that, of the 50 sites at Garibaldi Lake itself, half were already booked. Maybe they should have. There were plenty of compensations but it turns out that, after all, there’s such a thing as too busy a backpack for me, and Garibaldi was it.
Skagway. I can’t believe I’m back in Skagway.
I have visited three times, which is two more than you should. In 2017, an aborted backpack to Kluane National Park (our river disappeared) turned into a week pottering around anywhere you could bus from Whitehorse. Thus a bus trip to Carcross, the most boring town in the world, and a transfer onto the White Pass and Yukon Route railroad down to Skagway. In my spare time I am a train nerd, and like most western Canadians I’d always nursed a modest, Pierre Berton-level interest in the Klondike Gold Rush, a grand tale of human irrationality, hubris, greed, glory, triumph, and despair. Skagway was one of the main Gold Rush towns, these days preserved almost as a memorial, and the railway had been built to convey prospectors and equipment through the early days of modern mechanical mining.
En route the train stopped at Bennett, British Columbia, the near-ghost town that is the northern terminus of the Chilkoot Trail1. From the station you can see a sign for the Chilkoot Trail National Historic Site of Canada. Saint Andrews Church, a rare surviving Gold Rush-era building, looms between the mountains above. You get off the train with the other tourists and ramble briefly around Bennett, looking at the interpretive signs and enjoying the scenery. It is extremely pretty. Some people camp there for a night or two and take the train back without hiking, and you see why.
Then you get back aboard and ride to Skagway through the White Pass, which is stunning. I swore, on that train in 2017, that I would someday hike the Chilkoot, the 33-mile route from sea level by the Taiya River, through the kilometer-high Chilkoot Pass, and back down to Bennett, where Gold Rush prospectors took to their boats and the hiker to his train.
It’s summer in Vancouver, British Columbia. The weather is sunny and perfect. It is a statutory holiday. Somehow you hanker to visit Grouse Mountain, one of the city’s premier outdoor attractions. Maybe you want to watch the lumberjacks, or see what you’d look like if you were standing next to a bear, or eat the worst poutine in Canada. We’re not here to judge. But you know that the gondola up the mountain is going to be both crowded and, at a minimum $59 per person, expensive.
You could hike the Grouse Grind but on a long weekend you’ll spend 90 minutes climbing stairs with your nose in an ultramarathoner’s crack. Alternate trails will be only a little better. Looks like you’re doomed to expense and inconvenience.
But what if I told you that there was another way, a back door into Grouse Mountain that’s in fine condition yet for half its length is visited only a few times a day? And all it takes an entire day spent hiking nearly thirteen miles, climbing a mountain up mud and a mile-long boulder field, and crossing a wide, deep creek on a precarious log jam?
Ladies and gentlemen, the Hanes Valley Route.
We all go to nature for different things. Some enjoy the challenge and solitude of attacking difficult places, spending days or weeks reliant on our guts, our abilities, and a few thousand dollars’ worth of ultra-modern, lightweight gear. Most think of a well-groomed drive-up site, maybe in an RV, with water and fuel close-to-hand, and rusticity without labour more intense than driving for a few hours down the backroads and a fight with tent poles.
This is great! Perfect for young children and the infirm, of course, but these places offer scenery, fun, and lifelong memories to anyone with a minimum of trouble (if not expense). You won’t see me defend soulless RV parks with concrete pads, gravel for your incontinent dog, and nary a plant that hasn’t been mowed, but even in those places many patrons are there for a base camp to explore more interesting sites and it’s hardly fair to consider the rest as typical. Most people seek pleasant climes that fits the amount of effort they’re willing to expend, and exposure to nature is an inherent good. Front country has a lot to be said for it.
But not a lot said about it. You ever notice that? If, God forbid, you do want that lousy time sitting in a trailer park you will find a surfeit of guidance, because RVers have disposable income and even those who just park their trailers at a site and wander around need to know where to park. The backcountry side of camping writing is even more massively oversubscribed, including by this very website; thousands of people thinking “if I work this hard enough I’ll get the marks to pay for my four months on the Pacific Crest Trail1.”
We’re left with people who want to experience natural wonder but not a Life-Changing Experience on the West Coast Trail for a week. Many such people are in southwestern British Columbia, Vancouver and Victoria and so forth, and the trails resound with their steps. But your best source for good, vehicle-accessible, but naturally-situated camping in this area is always a governmental website. Being bureaucrats, and therefore category-oriented, they shove everything into two bins. “Front country” and “back country,” and what does that even mean?
I spend a night or so a year in the backcountry of Golden Ears Provincial Park. British Columbia’s Lower Mainland knows all about Golden Ears; the vehicle-accessible campgrounds sell out most nice weekends, day use areas resound with visitors, and the official trails are well-trafficked almost for the length of the 150,000-acre park. It is a huge place that draws a huge number of people.
As well it should. This park inspires awe. Forest, subalpine lakes, haunting valleys, beautiful creeks, and mountain views. The only thing missing is solitude, which admittedly is important. Yet the backcountry campsites are gems which, while hardly hidden, are less well-known than they should be. A feature of these trips is people who ask “can you really camp back here?” Yes, and most affordably; there are a number of BC Parks-approved sites and the permit runs $5 per night.
With a car the backcountry sites at Viewpoint Beach are accessible even to parties of Cub Scouts, and Alder Flats is not so far that you can’t get bring a two-four of beer. Without a car, Golden Ears Park becomes a proper trek. In 2019 ParkBus will drive you to the Gold Creek parking lot, the jumping-off point for the backcountry, for $49 return1. Better than a cab, but not cheap, and the ParkBus only operates on Saturdays meaning that if you want to camp you’ll need to make your own way in or out.
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