Tyaughton Creek trailhead to Marmot Ponds: 13.5 km, +930 m, -200 m, 6h 30 m
I must have drifted off again after my overnight awakenings as the next thing I knew my alarm went off at 6 am. The next sound to greet my ears was the rain still falling on the tent, so we stayed put for another half hour or so until it eased off enough for us to venture outside. Patches of blue sky lifted my spirits, but there were still lots of grey, wet-looking clouds that looked like they could drench us at any moment.
We moved quickly to set up our hot drinks and breakfast to make the most of this dry spell. I wandered round the camping area, taking a quick flower inventory: paintbrush, lupine, strawberry, two types of vetch, columbine, bald-hip rose, and a few others. We sat in the car to finish off our mugs of tea and coffee, quickly steaming up all the windows. A doe and fawn white-tailed deer trotted by on the road in front of us, completely unaware of our presence – a truly lovely sight, and it cheered me up no end. Checking their tracks afterwards we could see just how tiny the fawn’s hooves were, only a few centimetres long! So cute!
With the rain continuing to hold off we dismantled our tents, shaking off as much of the water as possible, and packed our backpacks ready for the next seven days. It’s always a struggle getting everything to fit with a week’s worth of food, a situation I’d unfortunately made worse by bringing cinnamon buns for our breakfast, which went uneaten as we devoured the peach-raspberry slab pie we’d actually planned for last night’s dessert. There’s nothing like loading up on carbs before a trip but we had to face the reality that we’d actually brought too much!
By about 9 am we were ready to leave and we piled into the car to drive the short distance to the trailhead. The road was lined with paintbrush and columbine that contrasted beautifully against the fresh green grass at the roadside and in the central strip that tickled the underside of the car. I think I expected the road to be more heavily used instead of a pair of tyre tracks separated by a line of greenery. At least the road was in good condition and easy to drive, and it didn’t take long for us to reach the trailhead where two pickups were already parked.
We stashed our beer under the front seats and with the usual mixture of excitement and trepidation we left the car at 10:10 am. See you in a week, car! We began walking up the steep track (passing a COVID-19 sign advising us to keep at least two metres from our fellow hikers), a slow plod to begin the day, and were immediately surrounded by flowers. I vowed not to stop, convincing myself that there would be plenty of time for flower photos later, only to be halted by the largest patch of fairyslipper orchids I’ve ever seen! There was no way I was passing up that photo-op and I stooped down under the weight of my pack to take a handful of photos.
It took all my effort to stand up again and get moving uphill under the weight of my loaded pack, and I slowly caught up with Maria and Brenda, who weren’t very far ahead anyway as we had promised to stick close together, given that we were hiking in grizzly territory. After a couple of zig-zags we came to a fork in the trail which was neither on the map nor on my GPS. The left-hand option seemed more likely given a piece of flagging tape, but a minute later we realized it wasn’t the route we were intending to take, so we backtracked and continued uphill on the ‘right’ trail.
The meadows were huge, expanding up and down the slope on either side, a veritable sea of green punctuated with the bright sunshine yellow of balsamroot
We plodded upwards along the overgrowing track, the slope eventually levelling off as a side-trail joined us on the left – perhaps the route we had mistakenly taken a few minutes earlier? A sign next to an old split-rail fence greeted us, indicating we were now entering the South Chilcotin Mountains Provincial Park, and we immediately began a gentle descent through open pine forest and vast meadows which alternated between dry and grassy. The meadows were huge, expanding up and down the slope on either side, a veritable sea of green punctuated with the bright sunshine yellow of balsamroot flowers.
The trail led across across the slope and was considerably less obvious than I expected, especially in the grassy sections. This surprised me given that this was marked as a major trail on the map. Rarely was it wide enough for two of us to walk side-by-side and often was barely a couple of boots across. My kind of trail! Well, apart from the sopping wet grass that soaked my obviously-not-waterproof boots in fairly short order. I hoped that the whole trail wasn’t like this; I didn’t want to spend all day with wet feet, but I suspected it was probably too late.
There were so many flowers – what can I say about them? We passed through huge patches of blue lupines and large swathes of yellow balsamroot, western meadowrue – both male and female flowers (the difference between them I’d only learned of recently) – was plentiful, paintbrush came in all shades from pale pink to deep crimson, bright red columbine and blue larkspur, as well as death camas, nodding onion, white thistle, vetch, and others. Accompanying the flowers were aspens, and lodgepole and ponderosa pines. It was wonderful walking and the flowers around us took my mind off the load on my back.
We descended gradually to a small creek carved deep into the landscape, the trail leading us on a sizeable detour along the contour lines of the slope. We noticed a game trail on the other side after we had crossed the creek, and watched for signs of use but saw no movement.
The threatening weather dropped a few short showers on us, but thankfully light enough that we barely noticed. The clouds were hovering just above the mountain tops and we could see fresh snow on the highest slopes. Across the valley we could see huge clearcuts carved out of the dark forest, the hillside shaved bare with brutal efficiency. Crews were working on collecting the logs, the sounds of the machinery travelling clearly across the open valley between us. It was a depressing sight, and we were glad of other distractions for our eyes. After all, the valley was absolutely gorgeous and we were thoroughly enjoying our time walking its slopes.
The trail crossed a few more small creeks, easily fordable or stepped over, and each featuring a short descent followed by a climb up away from the stream. We saw our first bear prints, which we interpreted as from a grizzly judging by the obvious claw marks in the mud. Thankfully the tracks seemed to be heading in the opposite direction, each paw print preceded by a short slide in the mud. How fast was this bear going? Was it running or was it just a big bear slipping on the slick surface? We followed the tracks for quite some distance, decorated here and there by a few piles of fresh poop. We called on the hollering experience gained on our previous trip to the South Chilcotins and called out loudly to alert any wildlife of our presence. We did not fancy any surprises with such heavy packs!
We saw our first bear prints, a grizzly judging by the obvious claw marks in the mud
Mixed in among the bear tracks were lots of deer prints and occasionally what we thought might be canine prints (from a dog, perhaps?). At one point, movement up the slope caught our eyes as we started a steep descent towards a creek, and we looked up to see two deer bucks checking us out as they slowly moving upwards away from us.
By now the sun had chased off some of the cloud and was beginning to bake us. Three hours after setting off, and at a little over half of the distance, we decided it was time for some lunch. We found a fallen tree in a patch of shade, dropped our packs, and sat down on the log for a well-earned lunch break. Refuelled, we continued on, ambling through more mixed forest and meadows.
Within another half hour we came to the junction with the trail to Castle Pass and beyond. We crossed the creek and explored the grassy area to the west in search of good looking camp spots but in the end decided to keep heading to Marmot Ponds. I don’t know if we didn’t explore far enough to find the good camping but all we found was some open grassy patches between the trees that didn’t really appeal. It’s not always easy to tell from the map exactly where the marked camping spots are, so it’s quite likely that we didn’t walk far enough as the guide book described it as good camping.
So up we went, a steady grind through lovely open pine forest, flowers dotting the grassy carpet around us, paintbrush and lupines standing out bright against the green. As we gained height, the forest thickened and globeflower and western meadowrue took over as the dominant blooms. Despite its unrelenting climb the trail was enjoyable to hike and easy to follow. We crossed the creek in a small wooded ravine. It looked like that bear had travelled from the upper meadows as we were still finding paw prints and some exceedingly fresh (and very green!) poop.
We burst out of the trees into spectacular meadows aglow with balsamroot, a myriad other flowers filling in the gaps
A few more zig-zags and we could sense the forest was thinning ahead. We soon burst out into spectacular meadows aglow with balsamroot, the cheery yellow flowers contrasting beautifully against the deep blue sky above us. A myriad other flowers filled in the gaps: death camas, spring beauty buds, and lots of three-flowered avens. It was glorious!
And then suddenly we found ourselves standing knee-deep in flowers with no trail in sight. Had we missed it? Or wandered off it? Nope – not all: the trail just vanished in the meadows, and we were left with the unthinkable, to pick a path through the flowers. We checked the GPS and the map and found that – sure enough – this section was marked as a route; and so with a rough idea of where to head we continued upwards, enjoying the spread of flowers around us. A piece of flagging tape on a pine tree assured us we were on the right track, and we soon levelled off, relieved that we had now completed the worst of the day’s climb.
Remarkably, and just as suddenly as it had disappeared, the trail reappeared before us, a faint track in the grass, and we followed it across the beautiful meadows. We were certainly there at the right time of day and we revelled in where we were. Behind us the mountain views were stunning in the afternoon sunshine; ahead of us we caught the first view of Fortress Ridge which we knew to be above our campsite. The path traversed a steep slope, a narrow beaten track through the flower-filled meadow, and led us back towards the forest.
Whooping noises greeted our ears as we approached the trees and we stepped to one side as a group of five mountain bikers appeared around a corner. They stopped to chat for a few minutes, telling us of the snowstorm they’d camped in the night before near Castle Pass, and of a wolf sighting. In addition to the bear prints we ‘d also seen some canine tracks, but we weren’t sure if they were dog or wolf and we’d assumed dog. Now we knew different!
We said farewell to the last people we’d see for three days and continued on our way, now surrounded by trees. The guidebook had mentioned the presence of many mature whitebark pines and we marvelled at the huge gnarly trees, festooned in glowing green wolf lichen. The trail continued to climb, sometimes steeply (though never for long) which sapped our rapidly-depleting energy levels. We passed through damp pocket meadows where spring flowers were only just pushing through the soil, mostly globeflower and the first signs of valerian and corn lilies.
Ahead of us lay one final climb and its ascent seemed to last an age. I cheered as we levelled off at the forested pass, then immediately stooped to photograph the first blooming western anemones we’d seen. The mournful whistling of hermit thrushes echoed through the trees around us. With considerable relief, we descended slightly and emerged from the forest into open grassy meadows, lit up by the warm afternoon sunshine. The trail was indistinct but flagging suggested we should head up to our right into the lumpy meadows, crossing a soggy marsh before climbing gently to the so-called Marmot Ponds. We’d heard some marmots whistling earlier in the day and wondered if it was coming from here, but we neither saw nor heard any.
Seven hours of hauling heavy packs was over. We pulled out our food bags and devoured our flattened cinnamon buns.
We came to a small level patch and immediately dropped our packs. We’d made it! Seven hours of hauling heavy packs was over. Yay! The first thing Maria and I did was pull out our food bags and devour our flattened cinnamon buns, which tasted absolutely heavenly! (Thank you Solly’s!) Refuelled, we scouted around for good camping spots. Despite its appearance, it was surprisingly difficult to find good camping spots for a pair of tents. (We wanted to stay close together, again due to being in grizzly country.) What didn’t help was that the meadows were full of flowers, barely visible in the grass: forget-me-nots, three-flowered avens, buttercup, cut-leaf anemone, and strawberry. Invisible male horsetail stalks were everywhere, and almost impossible to avoid.
After a few minutes we settled on a level spot near the trail with few flowers and a great view of the snow-capped mountains to the south, and pitched our tents while fighting with the wind that had picked up. We could even glimpse part of Spruce Lake. With our shelters established, it was time to relax and we returned to that first grassy spot. Brenda boiled water for her dinner while we filtered some water from the tiny gurgling creek that bisected the meadows. I also took the opportunity to change into dry socks, which felt so luxurious. Never underestimate the sense of well-being from pulling on dry socks!
Never underestimate the sense of well-being from pulling on dry socks!
Our comfort lasted maybe ten minutes and a frigid rain squall hit us out of nowhere. We scrambled to pull on rain gear and stow our other gear in the tent to avoid a soaking. Thankfully it lasted only a few minutes but we were so glad to have put up our tents first – that’s a valuable lesson when backpacking, for sure.
Satisfied that the weather was going to remain kind for us for the rest of the day, we returned to the nice flat grassy spot to make dinner and a hot drink. Afterwards we sought a couple of trees down the slope from our tents and tied our bulging food bags tightly around their trunks. By now the temperature was dropping (after all, we were at an elevation of over 2000 m) and we crawled into the tents to keep warm, admiring the evening sunlight on the distant mountains, the clouds lifting high enough to reveal some fresh snow on the flanks of Mount Sheba.
We laid down with full bellies and listened to the hermit thrushes singing all around us. The wind still ruffled the tent, occasionally giving it a good shake with a quick blast. There was a stereo-like effect as we heard the wind approaching through the trees on one side of the tent, hitting us and then disappearing into the trees on our right. We hoped that our repairs from the Mount Assiniboine rodent-chewing episode would hold! Maria read while I made notes from the day, and, as the night fell, we settled down to sleep. A rumble or two of thunder caught our attention briefly, though we heard no more.
The wind continued through the night while the first-quarter moon lit up the tent, casting tree shadows on the fly sheet. I was just getting used to it when I sensed that the moonlight suddenly disappeared like a light had been switched off. Moments later another shower passed over, this time with snow and/or ice pellets mixed in. Were we going to wake up to white meadows? A couple more showers came and went and then the wind died down and quiet descended.
So peaceful, the only sounds now were the rustling of our sleeping bags and the distant gurgling of the creek. And, unlike last night, I soon fell asleep.