Hydraulic Creek, 8 May 2011

Andrew dropped me a line wondering if I liked the idea of a photo hike. I’ve always wanted to go out and explore somewhere with the aim of just taking photos, so I didn’t need to think twice about my reply. He’d told me of the lame photo-walk he’d been on in Stanley Park with a handful of fellow photographers, armed to the teeth with more lenses than your average optician’s, all taking the same photos of the same herons and geese and flowers, and less interested in talking about photography than about their gear. Boring!

Stanley Park is indeed a lovely place to go and take photos, but let’s face it – we like our places to be a little rougher, wilder and harder to get to. And so one fine cloudy Sunday, we loaded the bikes onto the car and drove up to the Lower Seymour Conservation Reserve in North Vancouver. We grabbed the last space in the parking lot and set off on the paved trailway. The hill before our destination almost saw me off (I’m in crappy shape right now, especially when it comes to cycling uphill) and I was glad to reach the bridge over Hydraulic Creek at 5.5 km.

Hydraulic Creek, 8 May 2011 Hydraulic Creek, 8 May 2011

We hauled the bikes out of sight and locked them to a small tree. Picking up our backpacks and camera bags, we set off into the forest. We were instantly immersed in a world of green, the maples acting as little more than skeletons for a dripping coat of moss. And we began to explore. I must say it was a little odd not hiking on a trail but it was also liberating to leave it behind and find my own way through the forest understory.

My first reaction was that I had to redefine my concept of solid ground as I picked my way carefully over moss-covered fallen and rotting logs. With only two of us out here I was aware of how careful we had to be venturing off trail into the drainage system of a North Shore creek. Not only that, but we were on a little-used trail and despite being only a short distance from the paved trailway, we might as well have been in the middle of nowhere. But it was good practice for reading the terrain, judging the best route up, over and around obstacles on steep slopes.

Hydraulic Creek, 8 May 2011Hydraulic Creek, 8 May 2011Hydraulic Creek, 8 May 2011

We spent some time just following the creek, finding curves and cascades to photograph, and taking time to appreciate the lay of the land. As the terrain steepened and the creek ran in a carved gulley, we took to the slopes and found trees, moss and fungi to target. A few old-growth trees not worth felling remained, but mostly we were surrounded by tall second growth. Travel was quite easy on the slopes, thanks to the lack of undergrowth in this recovering forest.

Andrew had hiked this way once before and knew how steep it got, but to my amazement the terrain steepened even more where we came to a scene of spectacular forest devastation. Our way was blocked by a large fallen Douglas fir, over a metre in diameter, largely stripped of its bark. The trunk was scraped and deeply scarred by rocks it had slid over. Looking upslope my eye was drawn to an imaginary line through the soil, tree stumps and bushes. We followed the trunk to its upper end to find newly-splintered wood, and could now see the line I imagined was real. About 100 m of steep mountainside was gouged out, as if a missile had landed and slid to its doom. Later inspection of the tree showed that it was in fact embedded about 2 m into the embankment!

Hydraulic Creek, 8 May 2011 Hydraulic Creek, 8 May 2011

We picked our way up through the debris, composed of astonishing amounts of soil and rock and splintered wood, reaching the point of origin, a tree stump with jagged shards of wood up to 3 m long, pointing in several lethal directions. I looked around and noticed new Oregon grape flowers just emerging, underneath the bark and branches from the tree. They had been flattened by the crashing trunk which could mean only one thing: this had happened very recently, probably less than a week ago. We wondered if it had happened during yesterday’s squalls. Sounds plausible to me. What a terrifying sound it must have made… The forests of children’s stories are often friendly places, sometimes sinister, but rarely deadly in this fashion. There’s no doubt in my mind: much as I love these coastal rain-forests, they are not benign places. A different kind of wilderness.

We marvelled at the demise of this tree, and found a way down the precipitous slope towards the creek again. A rare level stretch of water afforded an easy crossing (very glad I wore my boots), and we picked up the trail again to ascend in search of the big waterfall that Andrew had seen on his last visit.

Five minutes or so of huffing and puffing up the slope and we could hear the waterfall. A tricky side-trail led back down to the creek where we had to be at our most careful now that the creek was a torrent rushing down a 30-45 degree slope. A slip here would have sent us on a canyoneering trip we were not prepared for. Unfortunately we couldn’t get a clear view of the waterfall though it looked impressive through the trees, and after a few more careful photos we decided that it was time to begin our return journey. After all, five hours had gone by… Within 15 minutes we were back at our bikes: we had ventured less than a kilometre from the trailhead.

Looking at the myriad photographs I took that day, I learned a couple of lessons:

  1. Don’t skimp on using the tripod. Yes, it’s pain to lug around and even more of a pain to set up correctly to frame the photograph, but it’s worth it for the silky smooth flowing-water shots.
  2. Buy a polarizer. All that glistening wet foliage, especially near the creek, fills the photo with bright, distracting highlights. A polarizer will cut all that, simultaneously enhancing the greens. Of course, using the polarizer absolutely mandates the use of the tripod (see above :-)

So next time I’ll be better prepared. And there will be a next time: it was wonderfully peaceful and relaxing.

Distance: 2-3 km (at most)
Elevation gain: ~250 m

Photos on Flickr

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