Elsay Lake Backpacking Trip

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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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!

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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.

Let’s Talk: Personal Safety

Real talk – you can die in the wilderness.

There are so many things that can happen to you when you go on an adventure outdoors. Everything from becoming injured to becoming lost. If this happens, you want to make sure you give yourself the best chance at being found and at surviving an extended period of time in the outdoors. That’s why it’s so essential to be prepared every time you go outside. Even routine day hikes can go awry and you don’t want to find yourself in a tight spot. I’d argue that day hikes have the potential to be the most dangerous as you’re more likely to have less gear with you.

So when are you most vulnerable? When you’re a beginner and when you become complacent. I’ve spent a lot of time in the last few years educating myself on being prepared, but I feel lucky nothing bad ever happened to me when I first started hiking because I just naturally knew less and didn’t understand how to really be prepared. It’s hard to be prepared when you don’t understand the risks. Search and Rescue tasks have been way up because with the pandemic, more people are looking to enjoy nature than ever before. While it’s great that more people are getting outside, it’s also super important to get educated.

But it’s not just beginners who are at risk. Those who are experienced, but become complacent in their safety, are just as much at risk. It’s still easy to take a wrong turn on the trail or find yourself hiking in the dark as you get more confident in your abilities. I’ve noticed with some of my friends, there’s a tendency to bring less stuff on hikes in an effort to lighten packs and move faster. That’s great when everything goes as planned, but you don’t want to find yourself in a situation where you left something at home that you shouldn’t have.

So whether you’re a beginner or experienced, what should you do to be prepared for a trip into the backcountry?

Create a Trip Plan

In my opinion, creating a trip plan is one of the most important things you must do. Make sure you research where you are going and outline what you expect the trip to look like. In your research of the trail or camp, you should take into consideration:

  • Seasonal conditions (will all the snow be melted? is there avalanche risk?)
  • Weather conditions (is there rain in the forecast? will it be cold?)
  • Daylight hours (how long will it take? will I be hiking in the dark?)
  • Ability (how long is the hike? how much elevation gain?)
  • Special equipment (will I need microspikes? beacon, probe, or shovel?)
  • Emergency contact (does someone know where I’m going and when I’ll return?)

Having an emergency contact who knows your trip plan is so important. If you become lost, this individual will be able to alert search and rescue quickly and advise them on where to look for you. There’s a lot of other information that can be helpful in assisting search and rescue. Leave a trip plan at BC Adventure Smart, or leave the following information with your contact:

  • Where you’ll be hiking, the route you’ll be taking, and when you’ll check in
  • What equipment you have with you
  • Identifying features of your equipment, such as jacket colour, tent brand, and hiking boots
  • Any other important medical information

10 Essentials

When I first started learning about the essentials, I thought it sounded like a lot of stuff and that it was impossible to bring everything with me on every hike. I’ve since learned that a lot of the essentials don’t actually take up that much space and many are things you would intuitively bring with you anyways.

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For example, even as a beginner I knew it was important to bring extra food and water (#1) in case the hike took longer than expected or was super challenging, and extra clothes (#2) in case it was cold at the top. What I’ve learned over the years is to always bring more water than I think I’ll need and I always bring a pack of water tabs with me as a back up (though these won’t help you on a dry hike). I also learned that your warm clothes should be more than just an extra sweater. Bring a hat and gloves, socks, a rain jacket, and warm layers made of wicking fabrics such as wool, fleece, or poly.

Other essentials that are pretty intuitive and don’t take up much space include a pocketknife or multi-tool (#3), a signaling device (#4) such as a whistle, mirror, or flare, and a headlamp or flashlight (#5). Even though it’s small, a headlamp seems to be something a lot of people leave at home. I think people just plan to use their phone flashlight if they need a light, but remember, you’ll likely be taking pictures on your phone or using it for navigation, which can run out the battery, and it may become a lifeline for you if you get lost. A head lamp enables you to be hands-free, making a dark descent safer. I recommend throwing in an extra set of batteries with your headlamp as well, just in case.

A first aid kit (#6) is also intuitive for most people, yet many hike without it. I have a pretty sizable first aid kit that I carry with me whenever I go out, but there are lots of pocket sized kits available at MEC, canadian tire, walmart, etc. Ideally everyone should have their own small kit in case they get separated and at least one person should have a more substantial kit. Some important things to carry in your kit include band-aids, blister care, dressings, gloves, medical tape, scissors, sam splint, and gauze or tensile bandage. I also like to bring polysporin, wet wipes, tweezers, electrolyte powder, and some medications (peptobismal, advil).

Essentials that can be less intuitive to bring on every day hikes include a firestarter (#7) – I bring a ziploc with waterproof matches and 2 small firestarters – and shelter (#8). I think shelter is one people could get hung up on because it sounds like you should bring a tent, but it’s really as simple as bringing an emergency blanket with you. North Shore Search and Rescue recommend pairing a bivvy sack with your thermal blanket. I keep both in my first aid kit so that I never forget them.

I want to spend a bit of time talking about the last two essentials; navigation (#9) and communication (#10), because it’s something I’ve given a lot of thought to over the past year. Also, please note, depending on the activity, your essentials list may need to expand to include other specialized gear such as PFD and spare paddle if you’re boating; transceiver, probe, and shovel if you’re in avalanche terrain; or ropes and harness if you’re climbing (as examples).

Navigation

Most people use a cell phone for navigation and communication, myself included until the past year. Options for navigation range from a map and compass, to your phone, to a GPS. Having a map is important because it will set you up for success from the beginning. It’s good to check the map in advance to identify any areas where the trail branches so you can be sure to take the right fork. Maps can become less useful if you become lost and don’t know where you are on the map (unless you’re good at identifying topography, which I still think is an important skill), which is where a GPS can become more useful.

With a GPS, you can track your steps from the very beginning, leaving a digital trail for yourself to follow back if you become lost. The good news is, you don’t really need a dedicated GPS for this and there are lots of great apps you can use directly on your phone. I don’t personally have a GPS and always use my phone, there’s just a few things you need to do in advance to make sure it will work for you in the field.

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If you’re relying on a GPS app, make sure to download the map offline before your adventure and to turn on location services. A lot of maps load from the network and you don’t want to find yourself without navigation because you forgot to pre-load the map. You also want to make sure your battery is going to last if you’re using your phone (especially if you’re also relying on your phone for communication). Make sure you have full battery before you leave and bring a power bank with you. There’s lots of trail apps out there, I personally like the GaiaGPS app. Just be aware that the trails on many apps are based on user data – just because you see a trail on the map doesn’t mean it’s safe; some trails may pass through climbing routes or only be used for winter travel, so you still need to do your research.

Communication

Communication is probably one of the hardest parts of emergency preparedness. It’s expensive to purchase satellite devices, so understandably a lot of people rely on their phones or the fact that they’re hiking in a group and have left a trip plan. The obvious problem with relying on a cell phone is that you may not always have service. If you only hike near cities with good cell service, then it’s probably fine – just make sure you know how to get your GPS coordinates off of your phone in the event you need to be rescued.

If a cell phone is your only communication device and you’re not sure if you’ll have service, then hiking in a group and leaving a trip plan with someone you trust can reduce your risk. By hiking in a group, it’s easier to manage injuries on the trail because it’s usually possible for one of your hiking mates to provide first aid or to turn back for help. It won’t be great if you have an emergency that requires a quick extraction, but at least one of your fellow hikers should be able to go for help faster than having to wait for your emergency contact to raise the alarm when you don’t check in. And in a scenario where your whole group gets lost, you still have the safeguard of your emergency contact to send Search and Rescue to look for you.

However, if you’re going to be spending any extended time in the wilderness – where help or your check in time with your emergency contact are more than a day away – then you should really either buy or rent a reliable satellite communication device for the trip. They are expensive, but it could literally save your life.

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I’m not an expert on satellite devices, so you’ll definitely want to do your own research. Options range from the SPOT, to the InReach, to a personal locator beacon. I recently purchased an InReach Mini from Garmin that I’ve been very happy with. The InReach is more expensive to buy upfront, and costs ~$15-25 a month for a basic subscription. If you won’t actually be using the device that much, you can suspend your subscription for months at a time, which is a nice feature. SPOT has a cheaper upfront cost, but I understand the annual subscription can get pricey and I haven’t heard very good things about their customer service.

The main difference between the two is that SPOT is a one way communication device, so most likely you’ll only be using it to notify your emergency contact to how the trip is going, or to activate the SOS function for emergency rescue. The InReach is a two-way communication device that works like SMS. It has the SOS function as well, but you can also send and receive texts to anyone with a cell phone or email address. Both are great if you find yourself running a day behind schedule or you have a non life-threatening injury, because you can notify your emergency contact. However, my InReach saved us a lot of grief this summer when Brandon’s car broke down on the forestry road to Cape Scott, because after hitching a ride back into town, I was still able to communicate with the group stuck on the forestry road. Plus in an emergency, it’s reassuring to get an immediate response back when you activate SOS, being able to communicate with you enables rescuers to be more prepared for your situation.

Grow Your Knowledge

That pretty much concludes this blog post – I just wanted to note that while the internet is a great resource, there are lots of hands-on ways to grow your skills as well. There are lots of organizations that offer group hikes focused on skill development and I’ve seen a lot of webinars popping up with safety and skills based workshops. Red Cross offers several first aid courses – I don’t recommend their emergency first aid course as it’s too basic, but I’ve done both their standard and wilderness first aid courses, which are excellent. If you spend a lot of time skiing or snowshoeing, I’d also recommend taking Avalanche Safety Training, or if you canoe or kayak, to take the respective training course from Paddle Canada.

Finally, check out the new docu-series on North Shore Search and Rescue, which you can stream for free on Knowledge Network. North Shore is the busiest S&R in Canada and the documentary does an excellent job showcasing the work that they do and the importance of being prepared in the backcountry. Happy adventures everyone!