South Chilcotins Day 1: North Cinnabar Basin, 16 Jul 2018

Trailhead I to North Cinnabar Basin: 8.25 km, +850 m, -150 m, 5h 10m

The night had been warm and I barely needed my sleeping bag, pulling only part of it over me in the early morning hours. We packed up and enjoyed breakfast in the morning sunshine, the heat of which soon had us retreating to the shade to sip our tea and coffee. By the time we pulled away, several other campers had also packed up and driven off leaving a mostly-empty campground. We followed the paved road east for a few kilometres before turning onto the gravel Tyaughton Lake road, passing Mowson Pond with views across the water to the mountains beyond, and reaching the turnoff to Tyax Lodge a short time later, where we pulled in briefly to check it out. Continuing on another couple of kilometres, we spotted our trail and pulled into a small road-side pullout. This was Trailhead I.

I made sure the car was off the roadway, though not too far off as there was a steep drop down into the forest. We pulled out our heavy packs, laden with a full week’s worth of food, and laced up our boots. (Tip: always lace up your footwear before shouldering your pack!) Now for the moment of truth: we pulled on our backpacks, checked the GPS, and sent an OK message on the InReach. This was it: we were underway!

The effort of hauling our packs had us wishing for a cool breeze, which was not forthcoming

The trail started out as a dusty ATV-width track but soon narrowed to a single-track footbed which wound its way through warm, dry interior forest. On corners the footbed was worn into a banked V-shape, the surface loose and sandy from all the downhill mountain bikers, which was not friendly to our ankles. The effort of hauling our packs had us wishing for a cool breeze, which – alas – was not forthcoming, and we paused every few minutes for shade and a sip of water. It was tough going! The last time we were carrying this much weight was probably our hike in to Mount Assiniboine, way back in 2009. And we weren’t dragging it up such a steep hill on that occasion, either. Hiking in to Cape Scott in 2016 was a long haul but it was flat; no hills to speak of there. Little to do except to keep on plodding, putting one foot in front of the other.

We were grateful as the trail levelled off and entered denser forest. There was still no breeze, but at least we had more shade to stop us from overheating. After about an hour, we reached a junction where a trail joined from the right – looking at the map we could see that it led to an alternative trailhead that required driving up an unknown logging road. For a few moments we wondered why we hadn’t tried to get up here, saving us a few hundred metres of uphill. As it turned out, it was a good thing that we didn’t park there – but that’s a story for our last day.

Now the trail began its main climb, a series of short switchbacks gaining nearly 250 metres in only 1.5 km. There was no getting away from it: it was a slog. It took nearly an hour, an hour of trudging up a hot, sandy trail with our packs at their heaviest. Whose idea was this? Oh wait, I know the answer to that one… We had a few momentary distractions here and there, such as a few stems of pinedrops, a relative of the more familiar pinesap and a flower we hadn’t seen before. I managed to take a single picture, but that was it. With a heavy pack, flower photography is always difficult and I don’t always feel like expending that effort.

A few hungry bugs added to the fun we weren’t having. But at least we were gaining elevation fairly quickly, and the forest smelled lovely – dry and slightly resinous. And as we climbed, we began to get our first good views and we were able to pause here and there to look out across the landscape. We could make out the road we’d driven up this morning, but the scene was dominated by the captivating mountain views: the Shulaps Range to the east, the Bendor Range to the south, and the Dickson Range to the south-west.

Eventually the gradient eased and for the first time that day we felt like we were hiking rather than simply plodding. The trail continued steadily upwards, the ridge above us still looking a long way up, before levelling off where a short side trail led out to a rocky outcrop. A little over two hours after leaving the car, we took the opportunity to drop our packs for a few minutes to enjoy the spectacular view. With mountains all around, Tyaughton Lake below us, and the pale turquoise of Carpenter and Downton Lakes far down in the valley, we began to feel like it had been worth the stiff climb.

With mountains all around, Tyaughton Lake below us, and the pale turquoise of Carpenter and Downton Lakes far down in the valley, we began to feel like it had been worth the stiff climb.

Backtracking to the main trail once more we followed it west, ignoring a junction with an incoming trail from the left, and soon began our descent through pocket meadows filled with globeflower, valerian, and other flowers. The warm breeze picked up the scent of the spruce trees and brought it to us, a real olfactory treat! The smell of these trees is definitely one of my favourite scents. As the forest opened up we could see down into the North Cinnabar valley, the creek looking a long way down and deep in thick forest that lined a steep-sided valley. I hoped we didn’t have to descend that far as I knew we had to climb again to reach the upper meadows. Despite the fact we were now descending steep switchbacks through the meadows, our views were limited by the small spruce trees. We took no photos on this section – I was simply too tired and didn’t have the energy to think about it, and I imagined that I would instead take some on our return as we’d have to rest occasionally hiking back up this slope. Knowing what I know now, of course, I wish I’d taken at least a handful.

Within half an hour of admiring the view from the outcrop, we reached the valley floor and North Cinnabar creek. Easily fordable, we hopped over and picked up the trail once more, albeit now much fainter. I felt surprisingly claustrophobic: the creek had cut steeply into the rock and soil, and on the high embankments stood stands of mature fir and spruce, which restricted our view to a few tens of metres. Perhaps it was the knowledge of being in grizzly country, or the faintness of the trail but I was a little unsettled. We crossed the creek another two times and then peeled away from it, moving uphill into a slightly more open meadow. The bugs were becoming more of a nuisance once more and I was really (really!) beginning to regret wearing shorts.

We paused for a snack break and set off following the trail again along the edge of the forest. But within a few metres we found ourselves at a dead end: the trail had simply disappeared. Had we missed a turnoff? We couldn’t be sure but looking around, we could see something that looked like a trail on the other side of the creek. We hopped over the stream and hauled ourselves up the steep earthen bank, only to find ourselves in the midst of a tangle of fallen trees and no sign of a trail. Scanning our surroundings we saw nothing that looked even remotely trail-like, realizing that we had been led astray by a faint game track and right now we were – at some level – lost.

We had been led astray by a faint game track and right now we were – at some level – lost.

For the first time in as long as I can remember hiking I had to compose myself and fight a hint of panic. We were not really lost as we had the map, GPS, and a mapping app on my phone, so we had all the tools we needed to get back to where we wanted to be. The question was what direction did we need to go, and how were we going to get there? More importantly, could we do that without hurting ourselves on all the fallen trees or avoiding the steep banks of the creek? We’d been hiking for four hours, we were exhausted by the heat and bugs, and we just wanted to find somewhere to put up our tent.

We took a long hard look at the map (the scale of which was really too coarse for the kind of navigation we needed to do) and found our position with the GPS – a process that was made much harder than it should have been, as the GPS was set to show longitude and latitude while the map used UTM coordinates. Next we took a bearing on which to start walking, and with care we picked our way over all the dead trees, soon finding ourselves in more open woodland. I can vividly remember the sensation of beginning to relax as we picked our way through the sun-dappled forest. Our route was taking us directly to where the trail should be, with the added bonus of avoiding the steep ravine in which the creek was now running. It was slow going (it took nearly 40 minutes to travel half a kilometre) but we weren’t too concerned as we knew we were heading in the right direction.

Emerging from the trees, we found ourselves at the base a huge meadow. Checking my phone, we could see our route was straight up through this meadow, the gap between two clumps of trees acting as a welcome guide. We couldn’t help but apologize to all the flowers as we picked our way up the gentle slope. There were just so many! Lupines, paintbrush, and white bog orchids bloomed all around us, ably supported by arnica and valerian. Moptops and glacier lily seed pods filled the spaces in between, remnants of the first glorious bloom of the summer. It must have been spectacular! Much as I would have enjoyed taking their pictures, I was currently fixated on getting back to the trail and was content with just admiring them as we walked, trying my best to find the small patches of bare earth in the carpet of green. Determined to get back on course, we plodded away and thankfully we intersected the trail once more, a narrow line barely as wide as a pair of boots.

Lupines, paintbrush, and white bog orchids bloomed all around us, ably supported by arnica and valerian. Moptops and glacier lily seed pods filled the spaces in between, remnants of the first glorious bloom of the summer.

What a relief! Forty-five minutes after that first sensation of feeling lost, we could get back to just walking. Our minds and bodies relaxed once more now that we were in more open terrain and could move more easily, just putting one foot in front of the other. I could feel the tension and anxiety drift away, helped by the fact that the surrounding meadows were a riot of flowers, radiant in the afternoon sunshine. We walked on in search of a good camping spot but nothing was catching our eye. Even when we came to the place that was marked on the map as a campsite, we weren’t convinced it was a good place to set up our tent – a bare patch close to the trail, scratched out next to some trees – so we kept moving.

But we were running out of options: we were now well past the marked spot and we were still not finding anything that looked suitable. In retrospect, we hadn’t appreciated the degree to which the camping here would be, well, rustic, and I think were expecting to find well-defined camping areas. Yet this valley isn’t even in the provincial park, so how would there be anything remotely official? The South Chilcotins were teaching us a few lessons that day. Eventually we just had to make a decision. It was 5 pm, we were hot and tired, and the mosquitoes had moved in with a vengeance.

I couldn’t help but notice some glacier lilies off to our right and would have loved to have gone over for a closer look, perhaps to take some photos, but the mosquitoes were just way too bad to consider struggling to take flower photos while wearing my full pack. You know they must’ve been bad for me to not even take a single photo! At this point we were too tired to keep going, and decided to make do with whatever decent camping we could find where we were. That turned out to be tricky as we didn’t want to camp too close to the trail, plus the ground was too slopey there. In the end we decided to pick our way through the meadows and find a spot where we might do the least amount of damage to the flowers. It wasn’t a great spot, although it was nice and flat, and we felt awful for setting up on the flowers but we were spent and we just needed somewhere to sleep.

(In terms of Leave No Trace, we justified it – rightly or wrongly – like this. It was well off the trail, over 150 m, so the chances of us being seen were quite small, thus not tempting anyone to reuse this spot. In addition, it was only for a single night and we moved on as soon as we could the next morning. We also tried to keep our wandering around the tent to a minimum too so as not to wear in a path.)

We were relieved to get the tent set up, despite the drawbacks and pangs of guilt, but the bugs were driving us (and especially me) nuts. It was time to find a place to eat dinner and try and get away from the worst of them. We wandered through a thicket of low willows towards the upper reaches of the creek, reaching the confluence of two forks. Here we found a few well-placed rocks by the stream to set up our stove and boil up some water for dinner and hot drinks.

Our hopes of leaving the bugs behind were somewhat naive and we were very glad we’d brought our head nets, even when the little bloodsuckers managed to find a way to bite my ears through the mesh. After a less-than-fulfilling dinner (topped up with the lunch we hadn’t eaten on account of – you guessed it – the bugs – did you notice we didn’t mention lunch?), we brewed some tea and I explored our surroundings in search of flowers to photograph. Western anemone (flowers and moptops), spring beauty, sweet coltsfoot, globeflower, marsh marigolds, valerian, and even a few glacier lilies – I was happy at last.

Our hopes of leaving the bugs behind were somewhat naive….

The sun dipped below the ridge surprisingly early and the air cooled as the day drew to a close. The ridge to our south was still catching the evening light, its ruddy slopes glowing a deep reddish brown. In the distance to the east, the peaks of the Shulaps Range looked spectacular.

We filtered water for the morning as we drank our tea, thoroughly enjoying the burbling water and calm of the evening. But the bugs were too much and as soon as we were finished our drinks, we packed up and walked back over to the tent, calling off at a group of sturdy trees on which to hang our bear-resistant food bags. And then it was back to the tent to get away from the whining airborne menace. We fell inside and proceeded to spend the next few minutes squashing every mosquito that had followed us. Now, at last, we could relax, and it was such a relief!

We watched the sunset light on the Shulaps peaks, fading until the sun had dropped below the horizon.

Once we’d stopped fidgeting we laid there in silence, a total blanketing and blissful silence. We left one side of the tent fly unzipped so we could watch the sunset light on the Shulaps peaks, fading until the sun had dropped below the western horizon. We waited until the sky grew pink and then faded to blue before zipping up the tent and settling down for the night now that we were comfortable and – finally – bug-free.

It’d been a hard day and had came close to having us really question why we do this; after all – this was the first day of our holiday! Thankfully the peace and stillness of being in the tent restored our balance and, as always, looking at where we were had us thinking that we’d rather be nowhere else.

On to day 2….

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