Howe Sound Crest Trail: Part II

Though we went to bed pretty early on Day 1, we didn’t get the best night’s sleep. It was definitely not cold, but Emily woke up with heartburn in the middle of the night and had to go for a little midnight stroll to ward it off. Then she proceeded to read her book in the middle of the tent with the light on, so I went and made some unsuccessful attempts at star photography. All while Carolyn slept on oblivious. She doesn’t usually sleep very well, so we were all surprised by this, but she’s also generally pretty cold at night, so maybe it had something to do with actually being warm for once. Either way, when me and Emily finally drifted off to sleep in the early morning, Carolyn was awake and ready to go at 5:45am. Yay.

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It was a pretty dismal breakfast. While we weren’t running super low on water, we were definitely conserving, so we boiled the bare minimum for our oatmeal and then packed up camp for the day. On the plus side, it was another gorgeous day and it was already hot enough for shorts at 8am, so it was probably a good idea to get an earlier start. We departed the campsite at 8:30am with somewhere between 1-1.5L of water each and 3.5km to go to the first water source.

Unfortunately, it was some of the hardest 3.5km. Between the Lions and Magnesia Meadows, the trail follows peak after peak after peak. It was gorgeous and breath-taking, but a little stressful when you’re sweating buckets, thirsty, and running low on water. If it hadn’t been so hot, I think our water would have gone a lot further and we would have been a lot less tired, but there’s very little shade along the trail and it’s still very technical, so it makes for a slow go. I had sussed out the topography before we left camp and we could pretty much see our end goal when we started, but it didn’t make the morning go any faster. The hours dragged on as we lugged our packs up and down peak after peak. Carolyn was feeling strong, but me and Emily were definitely struggling, mostly I think because of our anxiety about the water situation, but the heat certainly didn’t help.

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Finally, we started the last climb up the pass to Magnesia Meadows. We could see Mount Harvey looming over the meadow and we were just hoping the water source wasn’t located very far off the trail. We’d intended to summit Mount Harvey since we only had about 10km of hiking to do that day, but after 3.5km took us 3.5 hours of hiking, water was our main priority. We could see the red roof of the emergency hut as we crested the slope and from there we all but ran to the water source, relieved to see a small, but pretty clean water hole off the side of the trail.

We all finished off the dregs of our platypuses and then set to filtering enough water for the rest of the day.┬áSince it was now noon and we were all in need of a break, we decided to have lunch in the meadow and made the pretty much unanimous decision to skip Mount Harvey. It was a little bit of a bummer to skip it, because we were so close to it, but it also looked really steep and we were all tired, so it’s important to know your limits. Plus you know, it’s always worth leaving something to come back for.

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The hiking improved a lot after lunch. It wasn’t as scenic as the morning, but the trail was a lot easier and mostly hiked around the bowl of Magnesia Meadow. We were thrilled to discover there were still some wildflowers in bloom and had a pretty nice hike up to the branch for Brunswick Mountain. Again, we had planned to summit Brunswick Mountain, but we decided that, given the heat, we’d rather spend our time swimming in Brunswick Lake than hiking up another mountain. So Brunswick Mountain will also have to wait for another day.

I don’t regret the decision though. We ended up arriving at Brunswick Lake around 3pm and we were all zonked. We hadn’t decided in advance exactly where we were going to camp, but we’d originally been thinking Deeks Lake, which was a few kilometres further along the trail, but we’d heard from many people that Brunswick Lake was nicer. We could see the beautiful blue hues of the lake poking through the trees and as we exited the woods next to the lake, I truly could believe we were in a tropical paradise. The water was so clear and blue and looking super inviting. We knew it was freezing of course, but it still looked inviting.

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So we decided to stay there. We dropped our bags in an empty clearing and made a beeline straight for the water. As expected, it was cold, but honestly we were expecting it to be worse, so we were pleasantly surprised. We didn’t want to stay in the water too long, but it wasn’t the run-in-and-out-as-fast-as-you-can kind of cold… if you know what I mean.

The rest of the afternoon was lovely and lazy. We lounged in the sun and did a whole lot of nothing. There was definitely a lot more traffic at Brunswick Lake, especially since it was a Saturday. There were probably 4 or 5 tents when we showed up and more backpackers kept showing up throughout the day, all the way until 9pm. The last people that I was aware of were 2 girls who had hiked all the way from Cypress that morning. They said they’d been hiking for 12 hours, which I admire, but definitely don’t envy.

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Carolyn made us chili for dinner and we enjoyed watching the sun go down over the mountains. Even though there were tons of people at the lake, we were some of the only ones who hung out on the beach into the evening. It was pretty buggy and most people were taking refuge from the mosquitoes in their tents. As beautiful as Brunswick Lake is, the real downside to the Howe Sound Crest Trail is that there are no outhouses anywhere on the trail. I’m fine with peeing in the woods and digging catholes, but there were a lot of people camping at Brunswick Lake and there are few private places to use the washroom. With so many people, I do think it’s time for BC Parks to invest in an outhouse at each of the campsites, if only to protect the landscape. Check out my recent post on Backcountry Bathrooms if you looking for some tips for when there are no facilities.

It was another warm night in the tent and I think we all slept better on the second night and actually slept in until almost 8am the next morning. We took our time with breakfast, so it was a bit of a later start, but it was nice and chill. It’s about an hour hike to Deeks Lake, passing by Hanover Lake and some beautiful waterfalls. We were pretty much done with the views for the trek, but it was nice to hike in the shade of the forest for a change. Deeks Lake is bigger than Brunswick Lake and also very beautiful, but there’s not very many campsites and they’re all in the trees, so I definitely don’t regret staying at Brunswick Lake – in my opinion it’s the better of the two lakes.

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We decided to finish off the trek with a swim in Deeks Lake. It was also very cold, but we thought it was slightly less cold than Brunswick and stayed in the water for a while. After that it was ~8-9km hike down to the parking lot. There’s not a lot to see along the trail and you undo a lot of elevation gain. In total we did about 1500 metres in elevation gain over the entire trail, but we also had almost 2400 metres in elevation loss, half of which was on the last day, so it was mostly a climb down on Day 3. It’s pretty steep for the first section after you leave Deeks Lake, but it eventually levels out a bit into a steady downhill. The last section of trail is outside of the park and mostly along old forestry roads. The very end of the trail now has a detour because of mining work happening on private land at the end of the trail. We were pretty fast coming down the trail, but I could see it being a bit of a slog if you were hiking the other direction. Though there were a lot of people at the Lake, I think the majority of them had hiked up from Porteau Cove. A handful of us had done the whole trail from Cypress, but I think we were the minority.

And that concludes our adventure on the Howe Sound Crest Trail! We didn’t summit any of the mountains we’d planned to summit, but we did still climb a lot of peaks and saw a lot of amazing views. I would do it differently in future (mostly with the water), but I wouldn’t be deterred from coming back. I think if I was to return, I’d maybe hike up from the Mount Harvey or Brunswick trailheads and camp either in the meadows or at the Lake. There’s lots of different ways to customize the trip and still lots left to explore on the trail!

 

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Howe Sound Crest Trail: Part I

I finally hiked the Howe Sound Crest Trail!

Seriously, I’ve been trying to hike this trail since 2017. We couldn’t do it as planned in 2017 because there was too much snow on the trail, in 2018 it was too smoky, and in 2019 there was an issue with re-routing the trail. But the stars finally aligned and I hiked it in mid August with Carolyn and Emily. It was not at all what I expected – I knew it would be a tough trail, but the topography was so much more challenging than I anticipated. That said, we had amazing weather for it and still had a great time!

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The Howe Sound Crest Trail is a 29km trail that runs from Cypress Mountain to Porteau Cove. It passes by several iconic peaks and is popular among trail runners. The window for hiking the trail is short, which is why we had so much trouble with it – there’s generally still snow up there in June, which is very dangerous because of snow bridges and snow wells. But what makes the hike so challenging is water access. Once you leave Cypress, there’s no water access for 14km, so you either have to bring a lot of water with you, or hike the most challenging part of the trail in a single day. 14km doesn’t really sound like that much, but there’s a lot of elevation gain and it involves crossing many challenging peaks. It can definitely be done, but I think it would make the trail less enjoyable as there’d be less time to appreciate the views. Plus the most challenging part of the 14km is the last 4km, so it’s easy to think you’re making a good pace and then get hung up at the end.

So long story short, we opted to bring extra water. I think this was definitely the right choice for us, but it was a 30 degree weekend and we drank more than we thought and ended up having to conserve at the end, so in future I would bring even more. But let’s start at the beginning. Because we were planning to do the trail over 3 days, we took Friday off work to get a head start on the trail. Generally there is no pass needed to hike the HSCT, but BC Parks has the new day pass system, so I got up at 6am to get passes for us. I managed to snag 3 passes, but they sold out by 6:01am, so you definitely have to be on the ball.

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We arrived at Cypress around 9am and there were a ton of people hanging out in the parking lot. The first stop on the HSCT is St. Mark’s Summit, which is super popular among day hikers, so we think that’s who was taking up most of the day passes. After St. Mark’s the traffic on the trail was drastically reduced. Seth dropped us off and I believe we started hiking sometime around 9:30am. I figured this would give us lots of time, but it was still almost 6pm by the time we rolled into our campsite at the 11km mark, so definitely give yourself lots of time.

Thanks to the early start we were able to hike at a pretty leisurely pace. It didn’t take long at all to get to St. Mark’s, mostly I think because me and Carolyn hadn’t seen each other in a while and we were gabbing the whole way there. We stopped at St. Mark’s for a snack break and then got lost trying to get back on the trail. Overall the trail isn’t too hard to follow, but there were definitely several sections where we ended up off course, so I was glad me and Carolyn both had GPS as we used it more than once to find the trail.

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The second stop on the trail is Unnecessary Mountain – I found this one a little confusing because there were two unnecessary mountains showing up on my GPS, the first of which was marked South. We were getting pretty hungry for lunch, so we stopped to eat when we hit the ridge, before reaching Unnecessary Mountains. Like I said, it was a hot day. We thought it would be cooler up in the mountains, but most of the trail is exposed, so it was definitely hot the whole weekend. I had a large iced tea before starting the trail to hydrate, but Emily forgot and was pretty dehydrated starting out, so she drank her water a lot faster.

The view of Howe Sound and the Lions from Unnecessary Mountain is gorgeous, but after that the trail gets a lot harder. It’s a pretty technical trail, with lots of rope sections, climbing, and steep ascents and descents. It’s a through trail (rather than a loop), so you can hike from either direction, but almost everyone goes from Cypress to Porteau Cove because you’re basically hiking from Cypress Mountain down to the highway and people want to avoid all the elevation gain.

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It may be challenging, but the section of trail leading up and past the Lions is one of the most beautiful parts of the trail. We hiked along the ridge up towards the West Lion. It was a bit of a climb, so we continued to drink lots of water with the sun bearing down on us. You can summit the West Lion along the trail – we hadn’t decided whether we were going to attempt it or not – but once we got a look at it, me and Emily were firmly in the ‘no’ category. Carolyn is much more intrepid than us and I know she would have hiked it in a heartbeat, but it was now after 4pm and the trail started with two steep rope sections, so we all agreed it wasn’t really a wise choice.

Instead we had a break under the West Lion and then started the descent down and around it. For those not familiar with the Lions, they are two iconic mountains located just outside Vancouver. The familiar looking humps can easily be seen from the city and have become a bit of a symbol of Vancouver. I’ve seen them tons of times, from the city, from other trails, and even from helicopter, but I’ve definitely never been so close to them – it felt a little unreal. Both Lions are incredibly steep, I’m not sure if you can physically hike the East Lion or not, but either way, you’re not allowed to because it’s located in the watershed. Metro Vancouver has one of the best protected watersheds and absolutely no recreation is permitted inside it. The HSCT skirts right along the watershed and the trail unbelievably enough, goes right between the two Lions.

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Between the two lions there is another smaller peak called Thomas’ Peak. The scariest section of the trail was definitely traversing down the side of the West Lion to Thomas Peak. You go down a steep section, which isn’t too bad, but then you have to navigate a small ledge around the edge of the Lion and up to Thomas Peak. It’s not terrifying, but you definitely proceed with caution. From there though there’s an amazing view down into the watershed and Capilano Lake. Some of the best city views of the Lions are from Cap Lake, so the same can be said when you’re looking back the other way too.

As we went over Thomas Peak, we were starting to get pretty done with hiking. There’s 3 official campsites on the trail, and one unofficial, which is the one we were aiming for. I couldn’t find its location on any maps and had just seen it listed as “the ridge above Enchantment Lake”. I knew it was located around 11km, so we were planning to just look for anywhere good to camp along the trail once we passed the Lions (which are located around 10km). From Thomas Peak, you can see the trail as it winds over peak after peak, but we couldn’t really see anywhere that looked great to pitch a tent.

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As we started to come down, I noticed a ridge branching off the main trail that looked promising. Fortunately, it wasn’t too far away (less than a km, as we’ve established) and when we reached the branch, it quickly became evident this was the place. We were just confused because we assumed “the ridge” was on the trail, but it’s just off to the right of the trail as you come down Thomas Peak. There’s no easily accessible water source from the trail, but there are some flat spots to pitch a tent. If you’re desperate, you can hike down to Enchantment Lake, but it’s a bit of a trek. There’s also a small pond on the other side, but it’s located in the watershed, so this should not be part of your plan.

We had to do a bit of water assessment after we set up our tent. Emily had drained her 2 litre platypus around the West Lion, but me and Carolyn were still on our initial supply. We had each brought 4litres. It was enough, but only because we put a lot of effort into conserving towards the end. My logic had been 2L for the first day, 1L for overnight, and 1L for the 3km the next day. We had brought sandwiches for lunch to avoid needing water for cooking, but had forgotten to take into account water for our oatmeal (only 150ml a person, so not the end of the world), but we hadn’t taken enough for how hot it was. Also, the 3km the following day was SUPER challenging and ended up taking us 3 hours, so we really could have used more water for that as well. It’s not a great feeling having to conserve water, so if I did it again I would bring 5-6L. We might have had a different experience on a cool day, but always plan for the worst.

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Our campsite was amazing though! We shared it with one other group of 2 women, who we’d been passing back and forth on the trail all day. We were located right under the Lions and it was dreamy to watch the sun set over the Sound and then watch the stars come out around the Lions. I thought there would be too much ambient light for stars, but the stargazing was actually great – though there was still too much ambient light for star photography (at least for a notice like me). So overall, it was a challenging, but fun first day on the trail and we were thrilled with the location of our campsite! You definitely need nice weather to hike this trail though, I can only image how slippery and dangerous it would be in the rain – plus camping would be very exposed in any adverse conditions. But luckily for us, all we had to worry about was heat management.

I’ll end the post there for now – check back in for my next post on the second half of the trail!

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Categories: Life in British Columbia | Tags: , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | 2 Comments

Let’s Talk: Backcountry Bathrooms

Okay friends, let’s talk about using the bathroom in the outdoors. I’ve done a lot of overnight trips without bathroom facilities this year and I’m shocked by the amount of bathroom waste being left in the wilderness. I’m a wastewater engineer by trade and a passionate advocate for leave no trace camping, so let’s get dirty and talk about it!

You’d think using the bathroom in the wilderness would be intuitive, but it’s absolutely not for a lot of people, and that’s totally okay. You don’t need to feel bad if the prospect of peeing and pooping in the wilderness is scary or overwhelming for you, but you do need to do your research about it to be prepared. So I’d like to use this post to talk about some tips and proper leave no trace principles, so that we can all commit to a healthy and clean wilderness and so that Carolyn doesn’t have to avoid stepping in HUMAN POOP the next time she tries to make a bear cache.

Tip #1: Do your research about the trail

Before you go anywhere, always research the trail so that you know what to expect and ensure that the trail is within your ability. This includes checking if there are any facilities along the trail where you’ll be hiking or camping. I would say that generally, most hikes in southwestern BC have outhouses at the trailhead. There are hikes that don’t, but most hikes within provincial parks will have a toilet near the parking lot, so make sure to use it before you start your hike. Fewer hikes have outhouses at the end destination, but if it’s a popular backcountry camping location, odds are there may be an outhouse there too. Unless you have digestive concerns, for most people, access to a toilet at the start and end of the hike is usually sufficient, just make sure to bring toilet paper and hand sanitizer with you, because these are rarely guaranteed to be available.

Tip #2: Plan ahead

If access to toilets are limited, pay attention to your surroundings along the hike. If a hike has a long open section, you may want to consider using the toilet before you get to that section because there will be limited privacy later. Keep an eye open for more private areas where you can hide behind a tree, or if you need to poop, pay attention to the ground conditions and look for a spot that would be easier to dig. Take into consideration where the water sources are and avoid them or go downstream of where you collect your water. Planning ahead also includes making sure you have the right supplies with you, both for using the bathroom, and for disposing of your waste. I always bring a ziploc bag with toilet paper and hand sanitizer, plus another ziploc bag for my used toilet paper. Bring a trowel for digging catholes, or a waste disposal bag if catholes are not possible (see below).

Tip #3: Properly dispose of all bathroom waste

In my opinion, this is the hardest part and the part that most people get wrong. Never ever leave waste. I know pee tissue is gross y’all, but it’s not as gross as a beautiful trail that’s cluttered up with half de-composed pee tissue. There’s no getting around this one, unless there’s an outhouse, you just have to take it with you. Use an extra ziploc bag, double bag it, or bring an empty pringles container along with you, whatever you have to do to make it bearable. But you have to take it with you. If this is really a challenge for you, consider using the drip dry method or getting a pee cloth (see below).

Tip #4: Research proper cathole technique

I recommend using leavenotrace.ca for proper techniques, but to summarize here, the two most important considerations are location and technique. As discussed in Tip #2, find a location away from the trail, that has good soils, and that is away from or downsteam of your water source. I’ve found that soil type really is a big consideration because it influences how easy it will be to dig the cathole. Organic soils are best because they will help decomposition and are easier for digging. As for technique, the hole should be 6-8 inches deep (length of the trowel blade) and 4-6 inches wide. It’s not necessarily better to dig a deeper hole as it will be harder for the waste to decompose. Afterwards, fill the cathole with the removed dirt and disguise with other native materials. You can bury your poo tissue in the cathole, however, try to use as little as possible as it does take a while to decompose and some people recommend just taking your poo tissue with you too. For the same reason, do not try and bury your pee tissue from earlier as it’s just too much material. Overall, it is better to pack the tissue out as much as possible. Lightweight trowels are easily available at camping stores, Canadian Tire, Walmart, etc. I have a plastic Coghlan’s trowel that literally cost me $3.

Tip #5: Be prepared for your period

You can absolutely go hiking and camping on your period and it’s smart to be prepared for it. First of all, even if you’re not on or expecting your period, bring supplies for it. Hiking and camping are a big change to your normal habits and can cause your period to come early. Otherwise, dealing with your period on the trail isn’t really that different from anywhere else. Take extra care in washing and sanitizing your hands both before and after you use the toilet and pack everything out, including used tampons and pads. These will not decompose in an outhouse or cathole and may be dug up by wild animals, so they need to be packed out. Bring something a little more heavy duty for waste disposal (a pringles can instead of a ziploc) and mask the smell with other garbage, like used tea bags. As with all garbage, you need to keep it in your bear cache overnight. If you use a menstrual cup (see below), you can use a cathole to empty the cup. REI has a great article about menstruation in the backcountry if you want to read more.

Tip #6: Proper squatting technique

Some of you may laugh at me for including this one, but I still believe it’s not necessarily intuitive to everyone. The sitting position that we use on the toilet is not really a natural position for using the bathroom. Don’t try and mimic a toilet position in the wilderness, it’s tiring and not as effective. I’ve heard some people will bench against a tree for support, but my recommendation is to squat with your knees out so that you get your bottom as close to the ground as possible. Try and keep your feet a good distance apart and use your hand to brace against whatever is nearby. If you’re on a slope, pee downwards to avoid the pee running back into your shoes. Likewise, if its super windy, pee with the wind. If you still find squatting really difficult, consider getting a pee funnel to make it easier. Some people really love these, just make sure you give consideration to how you will clean and store it.

 

That’s it for my tips, but there are 3 more backcountry bathroom considerations that I’d like to discuss:

1. What to do when it’s not possible to dig a cathole? There are some situations where it’s just not possible to dig a cathole, primarily in the alpine where it is mostly rock. Fortunately I haven’t been in this situation very often and I usually try and plan ahead (i.e. poop in advance when it’s possible to bury it), but unfortunately in some cases you will just have to take your poop waste with you as well. If it’s a short haul, use a sealed container like a pringles can and dispose of it when possible by burying it or dumping in an outhouse. If it’s a long haul, consider getting a proper waste disposal bag. I don’t have experience with these myself, but there are waste disposal bags, such as the wag bag, on the market.

2. What’s the deal with menstrual cups? Menstrual cups are definitely not for everyone and if you’d prefer to continue using pads or tampons, that is totally great, though I’d recommend against free-bleed in the backcountry for wildlife reasons. Essentially, it’s a silicone cup with a stem that collects menstrual blood and is removed, dumped, and cleaned up to every 12 hours. Personally, I’ve been using a menstrual cup for several years and I absolutely love it. I find it more comfortable than tampons or pads and I like that you don’t have to change it as frequently. It’s great for the backcountry because it’s easier for disposal and you only have to carry the one little cup with you instead of a stash of products. But it’s definitely messy and that can be a challenge to manage. Always wash your hands before inserting or removing. It can also be hard to wash the cup in the backcountry, so I usually just give it a wipe with some toilet paper or pour some water on it if I’m only out for a day or two. There’s lots of cups on the market, I have only tried DivaCup, but I love it.

3. What about pee cloths? I don’t personally have experience with pee cloths since I don’t mind just dealing with pee tissue, but I’ve heard a lot of people really love them. It’s basically a microfiber quick dry cloth that can be used multiple times and then laundered after the trip. If you have one, you can carry less toilet paper and subsequently, less pee tissue. I won’t get into it because I don’t have any experience with them, but I’ve heard Kula is a great brand and recommend checking them out if you want to learn more about it.

 

And that concludes my bathroom talk. It’s important to take care of ourselves and the environment, so it’s also important to normalize talking about it. I hope you learned something and always do your best to be prepared in the wilderness!

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