Never Ever Leave the Trail
A trek through Strathcona Provincial Park

By John Kimantas kimantas-rests_725_01This may sound like simple advice, but for some reason I need to relearn it every few years. It’s foolhardy to leave the trail simply because you’re more likely to get lost, but Vancouver Island presents extra hazards because of the unforgiving terrain of thick brambles and uneven ground. A few years back, I had a week to spare and decided to head deep into Strathcona Provincial Park. It’s a place easily overlooked because it sits square in the middle of the island, but for those who like alpine hiking it is an exceptional place to explore. The simplest place to visit is Forbidden Plateau, northwest of Comox. You can reach the alpine area via paved road starting at Mount Washington ski resort, where trails lead through picturesque alpine bogs and above inspiring valley views without the need for grueling uphill hikes. Mount Albert Edward, one of the tallest peaks on Vancouver Island at 2,093 metres, is a popular first ascent for many people simply because most of the hard work can be avoided. To get the greatest wilderness experience, though, nothing beats the more demanding difficult trails deep inside Strathcona Park. Most trails lead into the peaks off Buttle Lake, which can be reached by Highway 28 west from Campbell River. The drive may take a couple of hours, but once here you will find yourself immersed in some of the best mountain scenery on the B.C. coast, even if you just camp at the park’s wonderful campgrounds at Buttle Lake and Ralph River. tenting-in-strathcona-park_725The park has a good assortment of short, interpretive trails for those who like casual strolls. The trails that lead into the alpine regions, though, are fairly demanding. On this particular trip, I decided to do an approach to the Golden Hinde (the tallest peak on Vancouver Island at 2,093 metres) along Phillips Ridge with an ascent should all go well. Of course, all did not go well. The trailhead for Phillips Ridge is next to the Westmin mine complex, which is an unfortunate eyesore in the southern end of the park off Buttle Lake. Steep switchbacks make for a grueling start, with the trail leveling out at a campground at Arnica Lake at about 1,200 metres in elevation. From there you can head it was a quick side-trip east to the top of Mount Phillips, where from the cairn at 1,722 m there is a commanding view of the surrounding countryside. The main trail, though, leads west along Phillips Ridge. As most alpine hikers know, the best time of year for these types of routes is September when the snow has disappeared. I went in early July, and found myself trudging over several metres of snow. This might not have been so bad had it not been unseasonably hot. The result was fast-melting snow, which makes for poor footholds and the hazard of snow melting from below against heated boulders, creating hidden air pockets and the possibility of breaking through. hiking-in-the-snow_725_02At the end of the third day I reached a commanding viewpoint where, for 360 degrees, there was no trace of human encroachment. Had I been smart I would have appreciated the view and turned back. I didn’t. Crossing Phillips Ridge requires going from peak to peak, which means considerable elevation gains and losses. The melting snow was making the trip hazardous, and from my high viewpoint I saw a better alternative. There, down in the valley, a river with a wide floodplain meandered toward Schjelderup Lake, a place I would eventually have to pass. So I decided to make my way down into the valley. After all, from the viewpoint it looked like a simple descent. Naturally, the climb down wasn’t nearly as easy as I first envisioned. Along a cliff face I found myself wedging my way down between a frozen waterfall and the rock using an ice pick and one crampon on one side, and handholds and footholds on the other. The last leg was a scramble through thick scrub to the floodplain. Slashed by the scrub, I pushed out to see the open floodplain before me—from atop a 20-foot cliff. There was no turning back, of course. I looked over the cliff and decided I could climb down if I had no backpack. Finding a suitable snow bank to cushion the impact, I tossed the pack down and scrambled after it. At the bottom I checked over my backpack to make sure nothing was broken. It was fine, with just one problem—my water bottle was gone. This might not have been such a problem had it not already been my spare. The first water bottle fell out of the car while I was unpacking, and was still in the trunk. With 90-degree heat and a fifty-pound pack on steep inclines, I was going through about a litre of water an hour. Without a water bottle I would have to be chewing dirty melting snow the rest of the trip—not exactly ideal. Cursing my stupidity, I trudged along the riverbank. No more than a few seconds in this depressed mindset an odd sight appeared before my feet—a water bottle. Someone must have dropped it from the trail on the ridge about a kilometer above, only to land here where it was needed. If you’ve lost a wide-mouthed bottle with a blue screw-on lid that reads “West Coast Trail, Robinson’s Sporting Goods, Victoria, Canada” while hiking Phillips Ridge in Strathcona, rest assured your loss had a happy ending. And as a footnote, the bottle has stayed with me through numerous trips since, including kayaking trips around Vancouver Island and to the Alaskan border and back. Maybe one day I’ll break down and buy a hydration pack, but I think this water bottle has a bit of life left in it yet. I’ll just be sure to keep it close the next time I stray off the trail. Which I’m sure I will.

John Kimantas is a Vancouver Island-based outdoor writer and author of The Wild Coast series of B.C. kayaking guides.

This article appeared in the January February 2007 issue of More Living magazine [Vol 2 Issue 1]