Elfin Lakes, 9 Jul 2011

Maria was in Portland for the weekend, and I had a good day to get out on a hike. Company failed to materialize and so I was left scratching my head, wondering what hike I could safely do on my own. I opted for Elfin Lakes, as it’s usually a busy trail, and after another crummy night’s sleep, I was parked up in the emptiest parking lot I’d ever seen here and setting off before 7 am.

I’d read that there was snow on the trail, but I have to admit I was (mentally) unprepared for spending the whole day in it. The first half-hour was easy going up the old road. The viewpoint overlooking the Chief was an unexpected surprise as I thought the light would be poor – nothing could be further from the truth and the midsummer morning light lit up the northern faces of its three summits beautifully. Then I hit snow.

Elfin Lakes, 9 Jul 2011 Elfin Lakes, 9 Jul 2011

If the snow were just hard packed, travel would have been quite easy. But the partial melting of the deep ski tracks from the winter left the snow full of deep parallel ridges that made walking difficult. But somehow I managed to pick my way along, and within a little over an hour of leaving the car, I was within sight of the Red Heather shelter.

A couple of turns before reaching it, though, I was treated to one of the most spectacular views of Atwell Peak I’ve ever seen. For just a moment the clouds drifted away from the snow-laden slopes and I had a clear line-of-sight through the trees, the sun once again delicately illuminating the landscape. I swapped lenses and took what I think is the best photo I’ve ever taken of that mountain. I was glad I did take that photo because the clouds had returned later in the day.

Elfin Lakes, 9 Jul 2011Elfin Lakes, 9 Jul 2011

A quick rest stop at Red Heather (where the snow must have been nearly 1.5 m deep), and, knowing the climb ahead of me, I put on my Yak Trax. I set off following the orange marker poles, replacing fallen ones along the way. The route was obvious, especially on a good day like today, but I still felt that it was worth standing up as many of the poles as possible so that summer hikers not expecting snow would follow the correct route and not get lost.

I had the whole meadow to myself, and I enjoyed the traction of the Yak Trax, making good time up the slope to the next view of Garibaldi. Turning south again, I followed the orange marker poles along the safer slopes of Round Mountain and Paul Ridge. I was making good time, despite stopping to replace the poles every now and again as well as finding nice views to photograph. The snow was covered in deep sun-cups which made off-trail walking very difficult – they were just that little bit too small or too large to walk from edge to edge. Added to that were the rain-carved drainage patterns which varied from surface features to half-metre-deep canyons.

Of course if I’d stayed on the trail I’d have been fine :-) But seeing as the snow conditions were good, I ventured out onto the crest of Paul Ridge and followed that towards the Elfin shelter until I reached one particularly steep section at which point I dropped down and rejoined the main trail. I still hadn’t seen a single other person.

Elfin Lakes, 9 Jul 2011Elfin Lakes, 9 Jul 2011

From the ridge I had clear views of Garibaldi and beyond, including Opal Cone, the Mamquam Range and peaks I knew were near Garibaldi Lake but didn’t know their names. Afterwards I was able to identify Castle Towers and Mt Davidson. I plodded on, the trail ambling up and down a bit, teasing me with the sense that I was near, but just not quite there yet. Eventually I knew I was cresting the last little rise and there below me were the Elfin Lakes. Or rather two depressions in the snow, partially filled with vivid-blue meltwater.

I slid my way down the slope to the edge of the first lake to investigate. No sign of the bottom at all – the lakes were only just beginning to melt out. My eye could pick out lines of red watermelon snow, radiating out from the lakes, where they were growing along the edges of the meltwater channels.

Elfin Lakes, 9 Jul 2011Elfin Lakes, 9 Jul 2011

A short while further and I was at the shelter. I saw two pairs of snowshoes outside, and picked my way carefully down a couple of snow steps to the porch of the shelter. Yes, down a couple of steps: the snow was still over a metre deep, perhaps nearer a metre-and-a-half. There was a tricky little gap to step over to get to the floor of the shelter which would have been unpleasant to misjudge or slip through. I peeled off my Yak Trax and pushed open the door of the shelter.

Two women were inside, packing up there gear. I chatted to them for a while as I pulled out a snack. Turned out they had hiked in a couple of days before in the worst weather imaginable (rain in the snow is miserable) only to find that the heater in the shelter was not working! So they had spent two chilly nights in the cabin, made all the more chilly because they were the only two people staying there! I couldn’t believe it. One, that I had made it this far having seen absolutely no one else, and two, that the shelter was empty! I had never seen in empty before so I couldn’t resist looking upstairs and marvelling at all the empty bunks. If ever there was a time to get some peace and quiet at Elfin Lakes, it was now. I was stunned.

Back downstairs I spent a few minutes leafing through the log book, laughing at the entries from all the people who’d ventured up for the Canada Day long weekend, wearing their sneakers only to encounter all that snow. Oh and it rained a lot over that weekend too. At least those people had a working heater. Some of the entries were simply surreal. I left a helpful comment at the end (namely the BC parks website so that people could find out the current conditions). It seemed to me that almost no one writing in the log book had thought to check the snow levels, or simply didn’t know how to. Now I begin to realize the depth of the lack of knowledge that casual hikers have, the kind of knowledge I take for granted. A warm shelter makes up for having insufficient gear and understanding of what you’re doing. Hiking in to other places with that lack of preparation could be much worse…

Elfin Lakes, 9 Jul 2011Elfin Lakes, 9 Jul 2011

It was 11.30 am, I’d had my snack and was ready to move on again. I said goodbye to the two women, wishing them a more pleasant hike back than they’d had on the way in. I went back to the lakes and spent some time wandering around getting the right angle for a handful of photos. The blue of the melting snow was beautiful, especially next to the watermelon snow.

Finally I had no other reason to hang around, and set off back in search of a good lunch spot. At midday I promptly met my first hikers, a group of three (in sneakers, dare I point out…) making their way to the cabin for the day. A bit further on, I encountered another small group of people on snowshoes. After that I headed back up onto the top of the ridge, found a sheltered spot with superb views and sat down for my lunch break.

High up above the summer trail, I had clear views of the (cloud-draped) Tantalus Range and the Squamish Valley, Garibaldi itself, the Columnar Peak/Gargoyles summits and the lakes. I had the place to myself and when I stopped chewing, I was surrounded by silence. Complete silence is a rare treat in the modern world, and it’s one of the reasons I go hiking. If you’re not used to it, the quiet can be overwhleming, but I crave it. I closed my eyes, and listened to the sound of my breathing, overlaid with slight tinnitus.

Elfin Lakes, 9 Jul 2011Elfin Lakes, 9 Jul 2011

Time to move on, and I headed back to the trail and followed it home, passing a few more day-trippers. I soon reached the Red Heather meadows, and took a bee-line down the slope, sun cups be damned – the snow was soft and slushy in the afternoon warmth. I stopped again at the outhouse and within a few more minutes I was back on the road. Less than an hour later, I reached the Chief overlook again where I ran into a family of three with a very chatty young son (he must have been 7 or 8 years old). It was late in the day to be aiming for the lakes, but they were just going to go as far as the meadows. For once the final stretch back to the car didn’t drag, and I even paused a few times to get some nice emerging skunk cabbage and flower shots, now that the sun was on them. Yes, you read that right: skunk cabbage, only just pushing its way through, in July. That’s how miserable spring has been here.

Back to the car, the parking lot now had maybe 8 cars in it, which still qualifies as empty for this place in summer. I threw my pack into the car, changed into my sandals and headed back down the pot-holed road to Squamish, heading in to town for a coffee. On my way home I pulled off at the Deeks Lake trailhead, just to see how far I could get the CR-V up the road. Turns out, all the way up to the trailhead – awesome! That’ll make the Brunswick Lake hike a lot easier. I was home well before dinner time. What a great day out :-)

Distance: 22 km
Elevation gain: 600 m
Photos on Flickr

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