Elsay Lake is the last trip in my backpacking archive! Once I write about this one I’ll be all caught up on backpacking trips. Don’t fret though, I have lots of trip plans in the works for this upcoming summer and I still have lots of day hikes and frontcountry trips to write about!
Elsay Lake is one of the more random trips I’ve done. I hiked it in July 2019 when my Howe Sound Crest trip was cancelled for the third year in a row (finally did it in 2020). Me, Emily, and Carolyn had planned to go do the trip together, but ended up having to cancel it because the last part of the trail is on private land and had been closed. Parks constructed a new trail entrance before 2020, but in 2019, you weren’t able to do the trail as a through hike.
Carolyn decided to bail on an adventure altogether, but me and Emily still wanted to do something, so Carolyn agreed to drop us off at a local trail. I did a bit of quick research and we decided to try for the Elsay Lake trail, which leaves from the parking lot on Seymour Mountain.
In the summer, you can hike up the ski run to Brockton Point (the top of the chair), where you can continue into the Seymour Wilderness. Our plan was to try and hike up to Mount Seymour and do a loop trail that brings you back down towards Elsay Lake. This was a trip where my GPS app got me into a bit of trouble.
I use GaiaGPS to track my movements every time I go on the trail. I find the app to be a great resource, but you do still need to do research because the trails on the GPS are just based off of user data and are not always up to date. From Brockton Peak, the trail continues to a branch, where you can either go down the Elsay Lake trail, or up towards Pump Peak, Tim Jones Peak, and Mount Seymour. On my app, I noticed a trail shortcut to Pump Peak, so we decided to follow that. After hiking in for awhile, the trail became very steep and we lost it, so we decided to turn back. I later learned that it’s the old Pump Peak trail that has been closed, so you shouldn’t always put all your reliability in your GPS. However, deciding to stop and retrace our steps back was definitely the right decision and what you should do when you find yourself off trail. Don’t continue on because sometimes it’s possible to continue hiking up, but becomes impossible to turn around and hike back down (or vice versa) and you can find yourself stuck.
In any case, because of the lost time, we decided to ditch the Mount Seymour plan altogether and just took the Elsay Lake branch when we got back on the trail. This was definitely the right choice as the Elsay Lake trail ended up being super technically challenging and we needed to whole day to complete it.
From the Elsay Lake trail branch, you descend down into the valley below Mount Seymour. It wasn’t raining, but it was a very foggy and overcast day when we did it, so at times it was poor visibility, but I also thought the valley looked so cool with the way the fog hung around the peaks. You hike down and down until you eventually come to a large boulder field. As we were hiking down into the valley, I would occasionally do my bear call as there were no other people around (most of the traffic is up on the Mount Seymour trail). After a while, we noticed that someone was starting to respond to our bear calls, and then they started yelling at us. We couldn’t understand what they were saying, but called back that we were on our way down.
When we reached the bottom of the valley, we ran into a slightly distressed couple. They asked us if we knew where we were, to which we responded, yes, and we asked if they were lost. They said they were – they’d been with a group of friends and they’d all hiked to the top of Seymour together. They’d been following their friend and gotten separated on the way down, so they’d hurried on towards the parking lot trying to catch their friend, but now they were confused and didn’t recognize anything.
Because we were familiar with the area and using a GPS, we knew exactly where they’d gone wrong. On their way back from Mount Seymour, they’d taken the wrong branch and headed further into the wilderness towards Elsay Lake instead of back towards Brockton Point. They just kept going further down the valley thinking they were heading back to the parking lot. They were upset because they’d been entirely relying on their friend. We explained to them where they’d gone wrong, showed them the map, and explained they needed to climb back up the valley and take the proper turn to head back to their car. They weren’t happy to hear they would have to climb back up, but at least now they knew where they were and headed back the right direction.
This is a prime example of why it’s so important to always be prepared yourself. One of the common reasons people get into trouble is because of the “expert halo”. They rely on someone else to keep them safe. I’m absolutely a fan of mentoring in the backcountry, but there are definitely some basics you need to take responsibility for. If you get separated from your expert or the expert gets into trouble, do you know how to take care of yourself? It’s easy to get separated and easy to get lost. The Elsay Lake trail doesn’t get a lot of traffic and this couple were unknowingly going further and further into the wilderness. Even close to the city, it’s easy to get into trouble. Check out my post on personal safety in the backcountry and resources from organizations like Adventure Smart to learn more.
But getting back to the trip, Emily and I stopped for lunch in the valley around the halfway mark, before continuing on along the trail. You continue along the edge of the valley for a while, before eventually heading into the woods. This is where the trail started to get really hard, after you pass the branch that heads up towards Mount Seymour (our initial plan). Elsay Lake is one of those rare trails, where aside from the first part, most of the trail is downhill. ‘Technical’ is definitely the word to describe the trail.
There’s lots of climbing over tree roots as you walk through the forest and several boulder fields scattered throughout. The challenge with the boulder fields is that they’re in the trees and the boulders are very large. So even though the fields are short, it’s difficult to cross them, especially if you’re short. There were several sections where we had to slide down rocks or support each other up over them because they were so large, not an easy feat when you’re both wearing large packs.
Then the trail continues down several steep sections through the forest that we had to take slowly so as not to trip or fall. Eventually you reach a flat section through the trees at the base that we did relatively quickly, until we came to a challenging river crossing. You have to ford the river, but we were trying really hard to keep our shoes dry, so we spent a long time trying to figure out a way across. We did manage to get across and stay dry, but it chewed up a lot of time. After that, you hike through some mucky areas before finally hitting the lake and hiking around the edge to the campsite.
It was only a 10km hike, but it ended up taking us about 8 hours by the time we reached the campsite. There is an emergency hut, and surprisingly, despite barely seeing anyone on the trail, the campsite was pretty busy. I mean overall there were only a few groups, but it’s not a big campsite and it took us a while to find a space big enough to pitch our tent. It was around 6pm when we arrived, so we went for a quick swim in the lake and then made dinner. There is an outhouse and we were able to store our food in the hut, so fortunately we didn’t have to mess around with a bear cache.
Our concern now was the hike back the next day. We were exhausted and we’d completely underestimated the time the hike would take. We had pre-arranged a pick up time with Carolyn that we didn’t think we’d be able to make (this was before I had an inreach), so we figured we’d just have to do our best and hope she didn’t have to wait too long for us.
We got up early the following morning to get an early start on the day. It was dry when we got up and we were able to pack up our gear pretty quickly, but shortly after we started hiking it started to pour. It was pretty demoralizing considering we were trying to go fast, but at least it was the last day. We didn’t waste time at the river this time and instead just walked right through it, getting our feet soaked. This sucked too, but it was already pouring and we didn’t want to waste time.
The trail is all uphill on the way back, which might be a downside to some, but we much prefer going uphill over going downhill, so things actually went a bit better than the previous day. We were still really slow going through the boulder fields, but persevered. As we were climbing up we came across a second couple that were struggling. The woman had injured her shoulder and her partner was now carrying both his and her packs! I can’t even imagine how difficult this was – in the boulder fields he would basically pass each pack up to her at each section and they would painstakingly carry them across. We stopped to talk to them and see if they needed any first aid. They didn’t, so we asked it they wanted us to contact Search and Rescue for them when we got cell service (since we would be ahead of them). Fortunately they had their own inreach, so they said they were going to continue on since it was still really early in the day, but would contact S&R if needed.
At the time I thought this was a reasonable approach, but after watching the S&R mini-series on the Knowledge Network, I would definitely advise just calling S&R from the beginning. There’s no fee for S&R and they won’t hold it against you for needing their help. This was an example of a couple that was actually well prepared; they had first aid supplies and a satellite device, but one of them had been injured, which is often outside your control. Don’t hesitate to call S&R if you need them. Time is the most important factor in S&R tasks and you want to give them as much time and daylight hours as possible to reach you. This was a rainy, cloudy day, so S&R likely wouldn’t be able to help this couple with a helicopter, which means they would need more time to get in the field. Perhaps this couple was totally fine, but I think S&R would probably just have encouraged them to seek help right away.
Once we got out of the boulder fields, our day improved a lot. It stopped raining and we took a break in the valley again for snacks and to change out of our wet clothes. I still had wet feet, but I was able to finish the hike in dry clothes at least. When we got back to the trail branch, I was able to get service and give Carolyn a call that we would likely be a little late. Surprisingly we’d actually made really good time and by the end of the trail, we were only 30 mins behind our original estimate.
When she heard about how challenging the trail was Carolyn seemed reassured in her decision to skip the trip, but then she went to soccer later that night and broke her ankle with an injury that takes 2.5 years to heal, so I’m not sure how she feels about the decision now! Either way, it was both a memorable and forgettable sister trip for me and Emily. The challenges were memorable, but overall I’d say the trip was forgettable and I definitely won’t be attempting the trail again. I would like to go back some day and hike up to Mount Seymour, but personally I’d give Elsay Lake a pass. I did like the trail down to the valley, but beyond that, the trail is miserable. It was a good lesson in trip preparedness though, given that we encountered two groups experiencing trouble and that we mistakenly took a wrong trail branch ourselves. The North Shore mountains are notorious for S&R tasks, so this was a good reminder to always be prepared!
Special shout out to Emily for taking ZERO pictures of me on this hike. So all you get is a million photos of her selfish butt.