Are You Not Entertained on Coliseum Mountain?

By Benjamin Massey · August 21st, 2018 · No comments

It feels like Vancouver has two types of hikers. There are those who put on Crocs and wander around a lake on a path that might as well be paved, go up a flight of stairs, pat their fat old dog, and say “that was a good hike.” Then there are the people who voyage into places shown on the map only as “Bad Idea,” dropping sentences like “after a brisk fourteen miles through waist-deep poison ivy I ascended the cliff to Mount Hopeless and ate an entire box of After Eights.” The first group writes tour guides and fills up buses, the second group writes trip reports and fills up message boards. Damn the lot of ’em.

What about the rest of us, the normies? The people who don’t mind being a little sore the next morning but react to the word “bushwhack” like that fat old dog reacts to “vet”? There are plenty of us, as you will swiftly verify by going outside and checking. But our stories are lost, not impressive enough for the survivormen and too try-hard to show to the weekend stroller.

Today I choose to defy convention. On a sunny Sunday in July I took my first shot at Coliseum Mountain, in Lynn Headwaters Regional Park on Vancouver’s North Shore. Lynn Headwaters is one of my favourite places in the world. It has trails for every experience level: ones you can wheelchair down, ones with a bit of a climb and some trees, ones which tax all but the very fit, and routes boasting mountain traverses and alpine challenges that the park would not dare to advertise, for fear of great reeking heaps of dead tourists. If you like tourists, head a little south into Lynn Canyon and get booty-shorts tight with people taking iPad selfies on a suspension bridge that’s more biomass than structure. If you like solitude, Lynn Headwaters will provide it even on weekend afternoons. There are good connections to other trails and even the bus. It is a little patch of joy.

Coliseum Mountain is, with the justly-famous Hanes Valley trail and the justly-ignored Lynn Lake trek, one of the three hikes the park considers very difficult. Though unofficial trails provide a greater challenge, you have to seek them out; Coliseum is certainly tough enough to be getting on with. At least for a tubby guy in 27-degree weather carrying a heavy day pack full of crackers. It is a long way horizontally, and a long way vertically: more of either than I had ever hiked in a day before. But is it worth it?

Oh heavens yes.


Glamping at Glengarry Campground

By Benjamin Massey · July 26th, 2018 · No comments

The Long Trail in Vermont is held to be the oldest long-distance hiking trail in the United States. Running 273 miles long, experienced backpackers can finish it in about a month through the mountains between the Massachusetts and Quebec borders, plunging deep, deep into the forest where no civilized man would go. Though not the most famous patch of track the Long Trail is regarded as a must-try for the ambitious backpacker.

While I did not have a month to spare, my hiking partner Carolyn and I arranged to do six days of it, nearly fifty miles from the Appalachian Gap to the resort town of Stowe, before gorging on ice cream and beer. However, while I was en route Carolyn noticed that we were in for the most appalling weather in recent history: temperatures always around 35° Celsius1, humidity in the nineties, and three days of lightning storms while we would have been crawling across the top of Mount Mansfield. It appeared to make travel ill-advised.

A late-night Skype conference from a shitty hotel in Harrisburg, Pennsylvania produced a plan. The news was grim but even in such hostile conditions the Long Trail could be conquered.Thirst and privation would be our constant companions, the heat our implacable nemesis, and death our only friend, but should we succeed the adventure would define the rest of our lives. Generations not yet born would feel their blood quicken as they thrilled to our tale. The price would be immense; perhaps greater than we could pay. But it is not given to everyone to carve new tracks out of the wilderness: sometimes you simply persevere when the weaker, and perhaps the wiser, would long ago have turned back. The prize for all this pain? Trivial, local, but real immortality.

But it was really hot so we went glamping in Ontario instead.


The popularity problem

By Benjamin Massey · June 15th, 2018 · No comments

My Victoria Day long weekend was spent at Golden Ears Provincial Park near Maple Ridge, British Columbia. I’ll diarise about that another time; suffice to say it was a bust. There were clouds and bugs but most of all there was a crowd; a happy, rowdy pain-in-the-ass. At a spacious campground 45 minutes from the nearest parking lot people gave up and went home by three in the afternoon. The survivors seemed like nice people; the problem is that they were there. Enjoying the outdoors in their own way so, just by being around, we made that enjoyment a bit less for each other.

This was obviously going to happen. Golden Ears is a popular park, being gorgeous, easy to access and getting easier, and possessed by that enormous mass popularity of many local nature spots. Golden Ears, like Garibaldi and Alice Lake and oh God I’m going to stop listing them before I get depressed, is going to be too popular to be fun a lot of the time. The same applies for many day-hiking spots in the Vancouver area, and here I’m particularly thinking of the Lynn Canyon Suspension Bridge and the beautiful Quarry Rock viewpoint. The /r/Vancouver Reddit thread on Quarry Rock Victoria Day gave me all the bad feelings. And, going not that much further afield, the world-famous West Coast Trail is renowned as a hotspot for all the bad things the phrase “world-famous” implies in hiking culture.

Of course, backpacking in Golden Ears is an immensely popular overnight experience, so there is a cost attached. That cost is, um, $5 a night. Paid, by the way, essentially on the honour system.

Now, as the saying goes, “you aren’t being delayed by traffic, you are traffic.” All of us who visit these places, save the litterbugs and dirtbags, are equally guilty of contributing to the crowd. That is not the point, as we all recognize. The problem is that a great mass of humanity crowding into nature ruins it for everyone, diminishes the purpose of the experience. It’s the tragedy of the commons and that means that, while all would-be campers may be individually blameless, some must still be kept out.

It’s cold to say but what’s the alternative? Finding ever-more obscure places for our long weekend fun? That’s the default solution, except it’s 2018 and some yahoo with a blog finds out about your obscure place, writes about his time there, it accidentally goes viral, and then it’s all over. All these places started as locals’ favourites. Besides, blazing new trails will always be the perfect weekend for some but others want to follow markers down established paths.

The only answer is to ration access to these popular places. And should that sound shocking, remember that rationing is what we have already. It just isn’t applied systematically.

When I did the West Coast Trail last year I booked my trip, what, three days before I left? It went great and I had a lovely time. But it was shoulder season, on no particular day, and I was able to come up with a non-trivial amount of money on no notice. That trail was rationed based on your ability to write a cheque for CDN$184 plus the costs of travel and, thanks to a limit of 75 people starting from each trailhead each day, either your flexibility or your ability to plan ahead. This summer another person and I are doing the Chilkoot Trail between Skagway, Alaska and Bennett, British Columbia; the cash cost was less but we’re going on a premium summer weekend and I had to be on the phone the hour reservations opened up. There are a limited number of spots and we got two of them by foresight; what is that if not rationing? And it stinks for the working stiff this summer who puts in a bunch of overtime and, suddenly finding he can take a five-day weekend, looks for an adventure.

That’s what we have to remember. This is all rationed, today, even if it’s only so far as “if you actually want the experience, you have to take it on a cloudy Tuesday morning or loiter on the rock for four hours.” Whether it’s rationed more by cash (the WCT) or patience and free time (Vancouver) or the ability to plan ahead (the Chilkoot), it’s rationing. You can’t say “everyone should have access to these popular places” and dust your hands off, because that world doesn’t exist. Finite resources are finite, who knew; the question is how best to distribute them.

Mount Everest, for example, rations by plan-ahead-ability and heavily by cash. You can still book a guided climb of Everest in April 2019 with a world-leading company from Nepal, but it’ll cost you US$65,000 a man exclusive of getting to and from Kathmandu. Just a permit for just the mountain costs US$10,0001. Despite that colossal cost, despite this trip being unthinkable for anyone outside the global 0.01%, the slopes of Everest are still strewn with trash and corpses, while tents are pitched in marital intimacy in the established camps. If the cash cost is meant to make the mountain pleasantly quiet then it is too low.

But if you charged every dollar the traffic up Everest would bear, all the lawyers and doctors and people-we-delude-ourselves-into-thinking-we-could-be who do Everest would be replaced by multi-millionaires. If you put a fare gate leading up to Quarry Rock and charged whatever amount of cash it takes to keep the experience enjoyable, holiday Mondays would get exclusively tour buses of Shanghai’s best snapping shots of Indian Arm with their iPads. There are cases when that might be fine (restrict the Grouse Grind to real estate agents paying $30 a climb? Oh well!) but not many. Capitalism, alone, is not an adequate answer, right?

Well, maybe. As we know there are plenty of views as good as those you see from Quarry Rock. Not all of them are as easy to get to but Quarry Rock itself was a bit of a hassle until it got popular. The West Coast Trail, infamously, has gotten easier every year, and I found it “not the toughest hike I’ve done with a terminus in Port Renfrew, British Columbia in 2017.” Given the right incentives, many sites could share the load currently heaped onto a few.

Deep Cove and the Lynn Canyon Suspension Bridge and all those teeming-with-hell’s-debris places in greater Vancouver are busy partially because of international tourism, because they are easy to reach and free to the user2. Changing that equation changes the results. The Capilano Suspension Bridge, which is privately owned and charges a fee, has to compete for tourist business against a public park a twenty-minute drive away that gives it up for free. Nothing about this sounds right.

And you’re right, nothing sounds good about charging a single mom working at 7-11 twenty bucks a head to bring her family to a popular park either. But her community can arrange to put $60 more in her pocket so she can see that park, or however she chooses to help her children, more easily than getting them a sunny Thursday morning in the fall off work and school because that’s the only way they can see a free park the way it should be seen.

We act like going into nature is some deeply spiritual, uplifting experience, because for many of us it is. For many more it’s a nice way to spend a weekend, which is why they babble on their cell phones or bring cases of Pilsner along or view it all through their iPads. They could just as easily be going to the movies or watching Hamilton. Why? Because we subsudize parks even more than we subsidize Hamilton, and who wouldn’t save a buck on a day’s entertainment?

Again, tacking fees onto trails until the crowds reduce and we’re happy is not a complete solution. But when we complain that the Black Tusk is more man than rock on Dominion Day, these are the terms we need to think in. The mountain is already rationed. Are we rationing it as efficiently as we could be?

Fighting Vermin in Dionisio Point Provincial Park

By Benjamin Massey · May 18th, 2018 · No comments

I don’t mean to be controversial, to sound melodramatic, to appear unhinged. But it is time to commit genocide against raccoons. Sure, the clean ones you see cute pictures of in children’s books look adorable enough, but that is media propaganda. Real raccoons spread filth and disease as they zip about noisily at all hours of the night. They inconvenience passers-by and damage property. They scatter trash all over Hell’s half-acre and make a mockery of man’s pathetic efforts to keep order in the universe.

But, most of all, they eat my pepperonis.

Dionisio Point Provincial Park is a patch of marine solitude on the northeast tip of Galiano Island, the second-largest of British Columbia’s Southern Gulf Islands. If you live in the Pacific Northwest and aren’t familiar with the Southern Gulf Islands, take the time. Crowded with tourists in the summer, unbearable on pleasant long weekends, but in shoulder season they are quiet, accessible, (broadly) inhabitable, and picturesque in a fine understated marine way. Rather than the grand fjords, chasms and mountains of the mainland, or the storm-swept savagery of the Pacific coast of Vancouver Island, the Southern Gulf Islands give you all the charm of horizontal lines, great heights at a discrete distance, pretty beaches, and enough on the horizon for your eye to always alight upon something. The weather’s pretty fair too.

Several BC provincial parks and the federal Gulf Islands National Park Reserve offer year-round walk-in camping; no services but clean sites, gorgeous ocean views, and some five-star day hiking that holds up from early spring to late fall1. It’s not a cheap trip, BC Ferries fares being what they are, but it’s convenient, pretty weekend stuff that lets you taste fresh air when the mountains are snowbound.


Hiking the West Coast Trail

By Benjamin Massey · October 3rd, 2017 · 2 comments

I have a bad head for heights. Earlier this year, in the Sooke Potholes Provincial Park on Vancouver Island, I got to show it off spectacularly. On the second day of a backcountry backpack through an area with no official trails, I found myself walking atop the Sooke Flowline, an abandoned water main that once provided drinking water to the people of Victoria. This was intended; missing my turn was not, and with the trails obscure and sometimes unmarked I was lost in spite of my GPS. I didn’t worry at first; I knew the Flowline led to the highway, from which I could not be far, so I stuck to the route rather than bushwhack in an area of valleys and cliffs.

This was a mistake. The pipe soon turned from nicely winding along the ground to perilously perched increasingly high above the forest. Fewer people come this way (because it’s wrong), so the slippery moss growing atop the old concrete was becoming more hazardous. Where there was no moss it was only because a falling boulder had punched a hole in the pipe. It was uncomfortable but not actually dangerous, until suddenly it really, really was.

I don’t clearly remember the context. The ground had been getting further and further away, then it was gone. Replaced by cliffs and the Sooke River, with the pipe that had suddenly turned aquaduct crossing at a height of about a trillion miles. It was definitely far enough. There was no escape save across the concrete pipe, which was say four feet in diameter, slippery with moss, full of holes, and, as pipes tend to be, round. I was already tired from a long day, it had been wet, I of course had 40 pounds of camping stuff on my back, doing a pirouette to turn around with so little traction and absolutely fatal consequences for a slip seemed more dangerous than proceeding. But if I crossed that river I better find something good on the other side or I’d never find the courage to cross it again.

I did cross it, and I did find something good, and I got out and it was fine. But I learned a couple useful things. One, it’s not possible for me to be literally “scared shitless” because if it was I would know. Two, although I’m fine in mountains, steep boulder fields a kilometre and a half up, and suspension bridges, when hiking my fear of heights can still be an obstacle.

So that’s how I found myself hiking the West Coast Trail, 47 miles of beach and forest and up and down just north of my old friend the Juan de Fuca Marine Trail, between the Vancouver Island communities of Port Renfrew and Bamfield. The West Coast Trail is famous for its beauty, its rugged remoteness, its immense popularity, and for its ladders. Dozens of ladders, all across the trail, up to a hundred feet high, climbing sheer cliffs, where one slip means certain death, in one of the rainiest climates in the world.

I might be an idiot. I got vertigo just from the Google Images search. But, with a week of vacation left in my pocket for 2017 and the Juan de Fuca Marine Trail already under my belt in August, I browsed Parks Canada’s website just for fun and found that, almost unbelievably, this highly popular trail had one precious opening to depart from the Gordon River trailhead, by Port Renfrew, on September 16. So I booked it, and I went, and this is what it was like. This is 11,000 words long, and will mostly be of interest to friends and family, but might also have some tips if you are planning a trip yourself. (It certainly has one, a very big one that I could have used in your place.)

Just like last time, this is based off a diary written at the time, then cleaned up and tied together after the fact. All figures are from my GPS watch and should be considered both approximate and “as the Ben runs,” except for the distance remaining, which is approximated from Parks Canada’s official trail map based on the day’s campsite. Since the official kilometre markers don’t include things like getting up and down from your beachside campsite, nor potential detours, your hike will always be longer than the official distance. That said, my GPS is prone to occasional fake news and everybody’s path is different.

By the way, if you’re expecting photographic brilliance, I’m afraid it’s all cell phone photos for this post. Some of them suck, some of them don’t. You’ll find out why.


Hiking the Juan de Fuca Marine Trail

By Benjamin Massey · August 11th, 2017 · 2 comments

The Juan de Fuca Marine Trail is a 47-kilometre back country backpacking trail, along the south coast of Vancouver Island between China Beach (west of Sooke) and Botanical Beach (a 45-minute walk south of Port Renfrew), paralleling British Columbia Highway 14.

No, you’re thinking of the West Coast Trail. The West Coast Trail is half-again as long, filled with vertiginous ladders, cable cars, and boat rides, and about ten times more famous. The Juan de Fuca Trail is the West Coast Trail’s misshapen bastard brother. You can do them both in one huge trip, connecting through Port Renfrew, but there’s no doubt who the alpha dog is.

I’ve never done the West Coast Trail. I have now done the Juan de Fuca Trail, and my choice was pure practicality: the three-day August long weekend was already coming, and I’d worked enough overtime to win a fourth. The recommended time to spend on Juan de Fuca is four days; for us ordinary Joes the West Coast Trail takes seven. So on Wednesday I was booking buses and a night in Victoria, on Thursday I was on the move, and on Friday I was hiking.

Naturally I had a trail guide. Published in 1998 and allegedly revised in 2008, Donald C. Mills’s Giant Cedars, White Sands paints an idyllic picture:

The Juan de Fuca Marine Trail gives hikers the freedom to use the trail any time. They need not make reservations or pay for trail or ferry permits. The bridges, boardwalks, and suspension bridges are very safe. The Trail is forty-seven kilometers long and can be hiked in part, as a day hike, or hiked all at once, in four to six days. Whether you are a novice or an expert hiker, you will want to experience this new and challenging trail.

As a dissenting view, let us take VancouverElizabeth‘s review via TripAdvisor, from June 29 of this year:

Dangerous Trail.

Just hiked this trail. The trail is seriously degraded. There has been no upgrades in 20 years. At some parts the trail is poorly marked. There is a considerable amount of deep mud and the trail is steep, slippery and difficult to navigate. A challenging trail with many obstacles and many parts that are dangerous.

One star.

VancouverElizabeth’s is the truer analysis. The fine backcountry constructions have become at best worn, at worst ruins. Almost every staircase is missing at least one step, maybe half are only relics in the dirt. Even in a bone-dry summer the mud was unavoidable and thick, while erosion has made steep slopes worse and some flat parts risky. I didn’t find navigation difficult but there are open areas where I can see how one might, and there are opportunities to pass the last marker on a beach and wander into the wild until you run out of either land or patience. Slippery? Definitely, when I did it, despite the drought. It’s probably hard to get yourself killed, but easy to bust an ankle hours from highway and help. Oh, and this part of Vancouver Island is one of the world’s leading black bear habitats.

I disagree with VancouverElizabeth in two ways. First, there have been a few upgrades in twenty years. Over four days I saw nine wood planks that had obviously been replaced since the hardware was originally installed in the late 1990s. So there.

Second, and maybe I’m feeling generous because it was my first multi-day thruhike after a year of one- or two-night ins-and-outs, but it was better than one star. Dangerous, sure, tiring, in spots, but that’s part of the fun. And there were rewards. I wouldn’t leap up and down to call it “a world-class adventure hike” (in the words of Giant Cedars, White Sands) but I might do it again.

This diary is largely for myself, so I can look back years from now and say “oh yeah that was neat.” People making plans might find aspects useful, and I’ve provided statistics for each of my four days. But mostly, this is for buddies and family who want to read about what I’m doing. General interest is likely to be limited. That’s right, blogging it old-school.

There is no cell service or wifi so I wrote each entry in camp and put them together back home. So don’t think this is any sort of as-it-happens diary: they’re a day’s impressions cleaned up after the fact. I hiked westbound, from the China Beach trailhead to Port Renfrew, but the other direction is also popular.

Trigger warning: this post contains materials that may cause distress to readers sensitive to cheap wooden staircases falling apart in public parks. Please read on at your own risk. Emotional counsellors and psychiatric advise are available through the City of Toronto.