South Chilcotins Day 3: Windy Pass, 18 Jul 2018

Windy Pass: 6.5 km, +380 m, -380 m, 4h 30m

Well that was a really comfy and quiet night, and I slept perhaps as well as I’ve ever done when backpacking. At one point I thought I heard the sound of hooves in the meadow but it was faint and distant and I soon drifted off again. (Also my ears sometimes play tricks on me when it’s quiet.) We came round as it got light but our meadow was in the shade until nearly 9 am, and we revelled in a lie-in to recover from yesterday’s long day.

We spotted something that made us instantly wide awake and alert. On the far side of the creek we caught the unmistakable profile of a bear which we concluded was a grizzly

We crawled out of the tent and walked back over the meadow to our dinner spot from last night. The sun was already hot so we were glad to discover that we were able to eat in the shade. Breakfast was a very leisurely affair, lounging around in the meadow enjoying our tea and coffee with a grandstand view of the mountains. We watched as a deer wandered along the edge of the trees across the creek. A short while later we spotted something else wandering that made us instantly wide awake and alert. In the meadows on the far side of the creek we caught the unmistakable profile of a bear which, judging by its colour, size, and shape, we concluded was a grizzly. Our first backcountry grizzly sighting!

As experienced hikers, we’ve encountered quite a few black bears on the trail and are fairly confident in knowing how to deal with them. But grizzlies can be a very different affair, and we quietly discussed what our options should be, trying not catch the bear’s attention. The excitement of seeing the bear soon turned to anxiety as we realized we’d made a real rookie mistake: our bear spray was still in the tent, which happened to be, oh you know, 100 m away, and about half way between us and the bear! So there was no way we could retrieve that without alerting the bear to our presence. We decided to remain still and quiet and hoped that it didn’t cross the creek. We finished dealing with our food bags and, when the bear wandered out of sight into the forest, we quickly moved to hang them again, well away from where we had eaten.

The excitement of seeing the bear soon turned to anxiety as we realized we’d made a real rookie mistake: our bear spray was still in the tent, which was 100 m away, and about half way between us and the bear!

With the bear now out of sight we relaxed a little, although we knew it probably hadn’t gone far. But just as we were about to return to the tent to collect our backpacks, the bear reappeared from the trees and walked across the meadows, retracing its steps back upstream. Not only that, but it was heading towards the trail that we were planning to take up to Windy Pass. This made us nervous again.

Just as we thought about making the move back to the tent we heard a loud whoop from across the valley; it sounded like it was coming from the trail to Windy Pass, and most likely from a descending mountain biker. Oh, this was going to be interesting, we thought. We watched as the bear first ignored the noise. Then, several whoops later, the bear stopped in its tracks and looked in the direction of the sound. After a moment it then took off at a run in the direction of the mountain biker! Oh, shit – was it going to attack? For a few long seconds we stood frozen to the spot and watched the bear run over the meadow and then just disappear into the nearest patch of willow and trees. The mountain biker continued on whooping but there was no sign of the bear. Ah, we thought, maybe the bear was actually wanting to take cover, to hide from any humans? That would be a more comforting explanation.

With the bear now gone from sight we relaxed again – as far as we could tell, it hadn’t seen us at all. Of course, there was still a chance we might encounter it as we set off on our hike, and, once we’d collected our backpacks, we made sure to keep the bear spray in hand as we walked. We’d learned two very valuable lessons from this encounter: the first was the make sure that we had bear spray on us at all times! The second was that, in order to alert a bear to our presence, we needed to be making much more noise. Based on how loud the mountain biker was whooping, we decided that if our voices weren’t echoing off the sides of the valley, we weren’t being loud enough. (Since then we’ve startled a few of our hiking friends with the amount of noise we make!)

With bear spray and air horn in hand, we set off on our afternoon hike (at the decidedly not very early time of 12:45 pm!), practicing our yelling as we went. Heeeeello! we yelled. I was surprised how easily I could get the required volume, especially considering how quiet my voice is otherwise.

We found ourselves in rich flower-filled meadows, brimming with paintbrush, valerian, lupine, and cow parsley

The trail dropped down to cross the creek, which was shallow enough to splash through without getting wet feet. Immediately on the other side we found ourselves in rich flower-filled meadows, brimming with paintbrush, valerian, lupine, and cow parsley. We dawdled as we climbed away from the creek, making noise as we went, keeping our eyes and ears peeled for any sign of the bear. As we approached some trees, we gave a quick press on the air horn, its piercing blast reverberating around the valley. Yup – that was loud enough!

As we wandered through the willow and flowers, we couldn’t help but think we were going in the wrong direction, so we stopped to check the map and GPS. Sure enough, we’d picked up a side trail that went, well, who knows where? It certainly wasn’t going the way we intended… We backtracked to pick up the correct trail and continued climbing through forest and meadows. A patch of bare earth at the edge of the meadows caught our eye and, as we reached it, we realized the ground had been raked over by something with very sharp claws – most likely the bear we’d seen a short time ago! We could make out the claw marks as well as a couple of clear paw prints in the freshly tilled soil.

That was the last sign of the bear’s presence that we saw, and we relaxed once more as we hiked up towards the pass. We soon began leaving the trees behind and found ourselves flanked by steep slopes covered with verdant meadows that seemed to extend all the way up towards the skyline far above us. Absolutely beautiful! The creek meandered alongside us, later carving a more pronounced ‘V’ into the landscape as we gained height.

The views were stunning: ahead of us the valley sides rose steeply up to the ridge lines, while behind we could see down towards Eldorado meadows and up to Harris Ridge above it, a place we were hoping to explore later in the trip. The meadows were just so full of flowers, including a few we hadn’t seen before. There was some late-blooming arrowleaf balsamroot, their wonderful bright cheery yellow flowers contrasting against their sage-coloured leaves. Closer to the ground and much less conspicuous were three-flowered avens, many of which had set seed, the flower heads now sticking up like fuzzy candle flames.

Up and up we hiked, a steady but slow climb through beautiful scenery.

The scale of the landscape was immense

Up and up we hiked, a steady but slow climb through beautiful scenery. We were still feeling the effects of the last two days of hauling our full packs and our legs carried us with distinct reluctance. More flowers – spreading phlox, paintbrush, western anemone – and more views – the red-tinged rocks of the ridge line above us contrasting against the perfect azure sky. Marmots whistled in the meadows, and we spotted a few standing sentry on rocky outcrops. Closer to the trail, we saw mountain goat wool caught in the willow twigs which prompted us to scan the slopes around us for white shapes but the only white we saw was of snow.

The scale of the landscape was immense, and it reminded us of the Skyline Trail in Jasper National Park with its easy hiking and gentle ridges, much like the terrain around us. We crested the rise and found that Windy Pass wasn’t a clearly-defined saddle between ridges, but more like a shallow bowl, still lined with a huge crescent-shaped snow patch, and we had to follow the trail another couple of hundred metres or so before gaining a view off the other side. Even then, it wasn’t a straight drop into the next valley; a broad ridge that ended in a line of jagged rock outcrops stretched out ahead of us, inviting us to explore further. We nicknamed it Stegosaurus Mountain for those rocks (as did one of our hiking friends who’d visited the year before). The main trail descended into meadows to its left, eventually leading to Spruce Lake, which was still hidden behind the Stegosaurus Mountain.

But Windy Pass did live up to its name which had us seeking shelter behind a patch of small spruce and juniper so we could enjoy our lunch. Unfortunately we later found that we’d missed a sign requesting hikers not to go beyond a small rope to limit erosion, so we looked like a pair of uncaring hikers. I felt bad about that as I like to set a good example to other hikers but, in any case, we do always make an effort to have as small an impact on the land as possible.

We used the map to identify as many mountains as possible and made note of the trails leading to them with an eye to planning future trips.

The best thing about this spot was the tantalizing view of so many other areas in the park. We used the map to identify as many mountains as possible and made note of the trails leading to them with an eye to planning future trips. To the west we could see the double-peaked Mount Sheba; around to the north-west we could make out Mount Cunningham, the very distinctive Castle Peak, Cardtable Mountain, and the forbiddingly-named Fortress Ridge. They all looked far away and we weren’t sure how we might visit them, but we knew we were going to find a way! (And we found a way alright! Twice!)

After an hour of lounging and relaxing, we packed up our lunch gear and began to retrace our steps to the pass. The distinctive sound of a de Havilland Beaver reached our ears as a float plane flew right over the pass on its way to Spruce Lake. That got us thinking and gave us an idea of how we might actually reach some of the more distant sections of the park. We met some hikers as we returned to the trail and chatted for a few minutes with them, exchanging itineraries and camping spots. They were down at the Potato Patch near Spruce Lake and were on their fourth day of exploration. On one of their days they had explored Sheba Ridge, which sounded very appealing to our ears.

Our spirits soared as we walked, absorbing the scene before us as much as possible, trying to hold on to the feeling of being here, now.

We went our separate ways and began our descent. Now we had views that really filled our eyes! As if we hadn’t already filled our eyes… Our spirits soared as we walked, absorbing the scene before us as much as possible, trying to hold on to the feeling of being here, now. We paused occasionally to admire the trailside flowers and began to make noise again as we approached the scene of the grizzly digs, readying the bear spray just in case. Thankfully we didn’t see the bear again and were soon back at our tent, barely an hour after leaving Windy Pass. All that effort to get up there to find that the hike back was so easy.

The first order of business was to freshen up again, and to filter some more water before returning to our dining spot in the warm early evening sun. We later noticed a group of four hikers stopped near the creek, and it looked like they had set up camp there (too close to the creek if I’m to be picky). We waved but they didn’t seem to be looking our way. We boiled water for dinner and tea, noting how the bugs had found us again, but thankfully, they weren’t as bad as the first night. That doesn’t mean they weren’t irritating, though, and with dinner finished and tea drank, we were quick to repack the food bags and hang them back in the trees. I wandered the meadows in search of more flower photos – lupines, wood betony, paintbrush, and larkspur all ended up on our memory card.

With the light now off the meadows, it was time to escape the bugs and crawl into the tent. We relaxed awhile, leaving the fly unzipped so we could enjoy the view of our surroundings. The shadows crept up the mountainsides and, just like last night, a deer ventured out of the forest across the creek from us. We watched it for a few minutes as it grazed the meadows before it disappeared again. By now the chill of the evening was beginning to descend, and we zipped up the tent to settle down to sleep after a wonderful and exhilarating day.

The shadows crept up the mountainsides and a deer ventured out of the forest across the creek from us. We zipped up the tent after a wonderful and exhilarating day.

On to day 4….

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