By Norm Wagenaar
Mount Benson looms over Nanaimo, historically, physically, and perhaps even in our collective consciousness, although that last point is hardest to measure.
First Nations peoples and Hudson’s Bay officers knew the mountain as Wake-siah, meaning ‘not far,’ according to historian John T. Walbran in his British Columbia Place Names. The Smuneymuxw knew it as Tetuxwtun in their creation tales while the present name honours Hudson’s Bay Company doctor Alfred Benson, a good friend of Captain Richardson of the survey vessel Plumper whose rights and duties apparently included the renaming of mountains.
At 1023 meters it’s a modest mountain, even by Vancouver Island standards. To the north Arrowsmith—its northern slopes showing snow even in summer, tops it by nearly 800 meters while Mount Moriarity, immediately west, is 600 or so meters higher than Benson’s summit.
Still, for those of us who aren’t dedicated alpinists, the mountain we’ll climb is the mountain that’s ‘not far’; so perhaps Wake-siah deserves reconsideration as a suitable name. A Saturday or Sunday hike up Benson is Nanaimo’s answer to Vancouver’s ‘Grouse grind’—a doable test of lung and leg fitness and a near sure-fire guarantee of a hearty appetite followed by a good night’s sleep.
Getting to the trailhead for the hike up is easy. Take Kilpatrick Road off Jingle Pot west of the city until it becomes Benson View Road. Keep going to the end, where the City of Nanaimo has conveniently placed a nice roomy gravel parking lot.
If you’re not an experienced bushwhacker and this is your first, or even second, time up the mountain, you may want to go with a guide or a friend who knows the route. In my case, it was both. Paul Chapman knows the way well, having spent two years working with Nanaimo & Area Land Trust (NALT) crews doing trail and restoration work on the mountain.
On weekends he also periodically leads NALT-organized hikes to Benson’s summit. This particular early fall Saturday there were four of us—myself, Paul, and two other climbers, Marianne, and Dawn, who had seen NALT’s advertising and opted to brave the threatening clouds to make the hike.
The first bit, getting around Witchcraft Lake from the parking lot, is relatively level but it soon gets steep for what is generally agreed to be the worst part of the hike—both going up and coming down.
The route from Witchcraft offers three alternatives for this first section of the mountain. Some of these trails are said to provide easier going by incorporating a small bit of switchbacking around the steeper bits, but the reality is that the first part is a slog. Period. We opt to take the most direct way up.
There is some non-official trail signage on this lower section but first-timers should recognize they’re climbing on crown land managed by the forestry department at Vancouver Island University. The university and the Region of Nanaimo are in talks to formalize a trail, which should one day result in uniform marking.
Once on the trail the way is clear. There’s only one way to go—up; clambering over the rocks, roots and trunks of fallen trees. This is the part of the hike where you’re reminded that the bulk of Mount Benson has been cleared at least twice—once by logging in the 1930s, in an operation that included the installation of a narrow-gauge railway, and by fire in the early 1950s. The Douglas fir has re-established itself, and there’s hundreds of acres of it—thin, young stems growing through the salal, ferns, and Oregon grape of the forest floor. Give it another 100 years and it’ll look like something.
After an hour or so of steep climb you’re nearing the end of this section. You’re also close to more Mount Benson history—hidden over to the left of the trail. That’s where, if you looked long and hard, you might find remnants of the Queen Charlotte Airlines Consolidated Canso flying boat that crashed there more than a half century ago.
Flight 112-12 smashed into the mountain in bad weather on the evening of Oct. 17, 1951. Investigators believed poor visibility led the pilot into thinking Nanaimo was Vancouver – the plane’s destination. All three crew members, and 20 passengers, on the craft died.
Onwards and upwards. Relief. The trail flattens somewhat and the terrain opens. Your trail guide takes you to a rocky outcrop for your first real view of the city, the strait, and the coastal mountains on the other side.
At this point you’re nearly at the boundary of the 523-acre Mount Benson Regional Park, purchased by the municipality in 2006 with the help of a public fundraising campaign led by NALT. There are old logging roads here, and bluffs for views, along with one of Benson’s two summits. Trails in the park are clearly marked, thanks to the work done by NALT and Regional District of Nanaimo crews, and have one thing in common—going up leads to the summit. This involves a few more scrambles over rocks and roots, but nothing tougher than what you’ve already done and the terrain is varied enough to provide the leg muscles with some relief.
Views from the top are pretty spectacular, although on the day we climbed clouds drifted in and out offering only tempting glimpses of what’s available under clear skies—the island’s mountains to the south, north and west, the strait to the east and the coastal mountains beyond.
From the summit in the park you’ll also see Benson’s second peak, a 12-acre site owned by Cercomm Electronics, where it has located transmitter facilities that serve the island’s communities.
We take a different route down, towards the north and east, under the shadow of the Cercomm towers. It’s a worthwhile detour, taking us on gloriously lush and green trails through older growth Douglas fir and hemlock. Then we double back towards the trails down through the clearcut areas that, when viewed from Nanaimo, below, a half dozen years ago, prompted a public outrage that led to the creation of the park.
The last of the logging ended in 2005. Now the clearcuts are filled with berry bushes and fireweed, regenerating nicely with the help of fir and red cedar planted by the NALT crews, who have also done some rehabilitation on a small wetland not far away, seeded native grasses on the old logging roads, and blocked off trails used by ATVs in a bid to prevent damage to environmentally-sensitive areas.
Out of the park again, and down the trails through the VIU-managed lands, we take a different route, slightly less steep and easier on the knees, although in my case it was the thighs that felt like they were taking the punishment.
A view of Witchcraft Lake through the trees signals the end of the descent is close at hand, and not a moment too soon. My legs, which felt good on the climb up, have become jelly. It is good to stop, sit, and look forward to dinner.
If you go…
As suggested earlier in this article, it’s wise to go with a guide on your first Benson climb, particularly if you’re not an experienced hiker. With all trails leading to the same destination, it’s unlikely you could get seriously lost, but the bottom section of the trail is not particularly well marked—a situation which should improve once Vancouver Island University and the Region of Nanaimo can agree on a route.
NALT leads hikes regularly through the spring, summer, and fall. Check the NALT website at www.nalt.bc.ca for details or call (250) 714-1990. NALT has also produced a map of the Benson trails available for $2 at its office at 140 Wallace Street or from Tourism Nanaimo and local retailers such as the Backyard Wild Bird and Nature Store. It is possible to access the regional park via informal trails from Westwood Lake, but these lead through Department of National Defence and privately-owned forest lands and aren’t recommended. Hikers do summit Benson in the winter and report that the views on a clear day are worth the effort. But you’ll need snowshoes, good outdoor gear, and winter hiking experience.
Even in the summer and fall, weather conditions on the mountain can be changeable. Bring a knapsack, some layers of clothing, lots of water, and a lunch. Hiking poles will ease the strain on your knees and hips. Although super fit athletic types can make it up to the summit and back in a couple of hours, the rest of we mere mortals should budget four to six hours—including stops for rest, hydration, and to take in the views.