Mount Norman, 21 Jul 2012

A weekend off hiking, a weekend on one of the southern Gulf Islands. Our plan was to unwind at the pace of Island Time, but we still found ourselves drawn to the highest-rated hike on the Pender Islands, Mount Norman. (Yes, there are two Pender Islands – north and south connected by a bridge over a narrow channel excavated to make it easier for boat traffic.)

The mountain is the highest point on Pender Island. Our route started at the Canal Road (southern) trailhead, from which it was an easy 25-minute climb to the summit. The grade was consistent but I think would feel quite steep for novice hikers. The guide book we had suggested starting at this end on account of it being a nicer trail, but if there was something nicer about hiking along this stretch of the trail through dense scrubby second-growth compared with that from the north end, we must have missed it. But no matter – we just set a pace and kept to it.

The summit views made it all worthwhile, though, and we immediately understood why this was the best hike on the island(s). We emerged onto a wooden platform (occupied by two verbose American couples engaged in a game of one-upmanship as to their respective lives and careers) and looked out onto Boundary Pass and more islands and beyond. The bump of Mount Douglas near Victoria was evident and the snow-capped summits of the Olympic mountains floated above a layer of cloud in the Strait of Juan de Fuca. Squadrons of dragonflies buzzed up and down the slope; on more than one occasion I thought I was watching small birds.

Satisfied with our views (and eager to get away from the noisy chatterers) we headed off on our descent towards the northern trailhead. A few hundred metres short of that trailhead, we took the trail up (yes, back up a short way) and then down to Beaumont marine campground. This part of the trail was wonderful – perhaps the highlight of the hike – passing through open arbutus and Douglas fir forest (which at this time of year was full of Indian Pipe), then following the coastline on rocky bluffs before descending gradually through salal and a cedar grove to the campground. I was blown away by the sheer number of Indian Pipe flowers we saw on this trail. While the main spring flower bloom was long gone, clusters of all-white Indian Pipe were springing up every few yards. By far the most we’d ever seen in one place, and eclipsing what we saw on the trail to Skookumchuck Rapids. I couldn’t help but stop and take pictures.

The campground is in a superb location, just off a pair of beaches, one of which is the remains of a white-shell midden. A great place to kayak to – a group of women had recently arrived and were testing the water. It was cold :-) We sat on a log and enjoyed an afternoon snack, admiring the glassy water and warm light on the trees and cliffs. A seal popped up its head, followed by another, smaller head: a mother and pup. They played for a bit before disappearing, only to reappear barely 20-m off the beach. We watched them for a few minutes as they played a game of hide and seek, reaffirming their bond by going nose-to-whiskery-nose. It was quite a delight to see them.

Then it was a case of retrace our steps and climb back up to the main trail and re-ascend Mount Norman. For a few moments we had the viewing platform to ourselves (even the dragonflies had gone), and we took in the scene one last time before descending to the car.

It was well worth doing, but I wouldn’t do it that way again. Next time we’ll start at the northern trailhead for a 6.5-km trip with a bit over 320 m estimated elevation gain.

Distance: 9 km
Elevation gain: 430 m

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