Sunday, December 29, 2013

A 50 mm walk in the park

My lovely wife gave me the gift of music for Christmas. Specifically, she gave me the promise of music since I've now set out to reacquaint myself with an instrument I haven't touched since high school, almost 20 years ago. Practice sessions during the past couple of days have left the fingers on my left hand not quite bloody but certainly numb. The D chord seems to be winning, for now.

They say practice makes perfect after all.

Unfortunately, I haven't been getting a lot of practice behind the lens of late. The doldrums began as many as two months ago in late October. Maybe you know the drill: too much to do, not enough time, too dark, too much rain, too much sun, nothing to photograph. Slump.

I nearly dropped some cash on a new lens to get me in the mood when a familiar adage began to ring in my mind. Learn to love the gear you have. Master your equipment. Anyone who's read any number of photo blogs will be familiar with this advice. The underlying message is to suck it up and shoot.

I grabbed my camera and a 50 mm lens with a yearning to narrow my focus. I've shot some big scenes this year. Landscapes don't often get much larger than Mt. Rainier, the Grand Canyon, Zion National Park or some of the great trips I've taken on Vancouver Island. If the "nifty-fifty" made the trip, it inevitably stayed in the bag.

Ruckle Park  really does have something for just about everyone. It occupies the site of one of Salt Spring's earliest homesteads. A caretaker family oversees the operation of an active farm and a web of trails leads through forested areas and along the coast. It's a great place to bring family or any group of people with varying levels of comfort with the outdoors. If the place worked with father-in-laws and great uncles, it was probably a perfect spot to start something special with my forgotten lens.


Sunday, December 22, 2013

Into the heart of southern Strathcona: Part three

Part one is here
Part two is here.

Dawn rose clear for another glorious summer day in the alpine. With a big walk in store, it wasn't long before three of the five people in our group quietly set off for the Red Pillar to celebrate BC Day in grand style.

Looking south toward camp from the Red Pillar's south-ridge approach
Walking along the ridge toward our objective followed familiar territory from the day before, like a strolling through the old neighbourhood. We made excellent time on our way to the Pillar's southern approach, where a series of diagonal ramps that lead up the summit block. The formidable rock face we'd watched from a distance thankfully revealed many weaknesses as we approached. With occasional flagging and the odd cairn, we only had two or three what-now moments. Not really a problem since most of those wrong turns ended at precarious drops that left us few alternatives. 

The route meanders amidst a series of jagged rock ledges, with a few scrambly sections on the final push to the summit. It wasn't always a thing of grace, but we each managed to wrestle our way up the Pillar's narrow rock strewn couloirs in our own way. The greatest hazard were the dinner plate-sized rocks that gravity swiftly funneled downward at the slightest touch. A helmet is a good idea for those considering a return trip.

Looking west to Nine Peaks (left and RosseauéSetimus (right) from the Red Pillar

A few hours after leaving camp, we were seated on the broad summit, admiring the heart of southern Strathcona. We took our time to savour the long-coveted citurs-infused chocolate bar. These things always taste so good on a peak. Soaking up the mountain vibe for a good hour put a kick in our step as we headed back to camp

We finally met the rest of our party just before it was time to head out at 1 p.m. They had enjoyed a mellow morning by writing, sharing stories and taking photos around camp. They too, it turned out had a BC Day to remember. But the fun wasn't over yet; It would take another three or four hours before we reached the canoes for the smooth paddle back to where it all began. Made for a stellar long weekend and, hopefully, the start of a new tradition to spend BC Day in the heart of Strathcona Park.

Could the Golden Hinde be a future BC Day destination?

Sunday, September 15, 2013

Into the heart of southern Stratcona: Part two

See here for part one. We awoke before dawn on day two, hitting the trail by a few minutes after 7 o'clock. We came across a water source fewer than five minutes farther along the ridge. Ten minutes later, the water looked even better. Within about 90 minutes, we were sipping fresh snow melt off the rocks.

Morning snow cups
The route climbs over point 1707M and down to a small col below the Red Pillar. We faced a few possible routes, eventually choosing to contour along a mix of snow and rock on the west side of the Red Pillar. We made good time until reaching a pinch point, directly west of the Pillar's official summit. Attaching our crampons, confronting our fears and constructing a minor marvel of snow engineering, we finally stepped onto the upper Cliffe Glacier.

Pinch point
Reaching the Cliffe Glacier offers a spectacular alpine experience, without much technical requirements. Though we spotted a few impressive crevasses near the top of the upper Cliffe, our route felt more like a sprawling snowfield. The heat of the day was upon us and we strove to make up some time now that we were out in the open. We tried to make up some more time by climbing over the rocky ridge that descends from Mt. Argus to reach the lower Cliffe Glacier. Though it seemed like a good idea at the time, the way back revealed that passing through an opening at the base of the rocky arm was the route of least resistance; it was also the only source of water past the pinch point.

Looking over the lower Cliffe Glacier
We reached the base of Harmston's South-East Ridge route by about 2 p.m. It was later than any of us had hoped and we'd long given up on our summit hat trick. An ascent of the Red Pillar would have to wait until the following morning, but it was clear we wouldn't get a shot at Argus until the next trip.

Looking towards Mt. Harmston (South-East Ridge route on right)

At this point our group elected to split up, as two members decided to begin the long slog back to camp while three chose to make a break along the chossy Sout-East Ridge for Harmston's summit. Within an hour we'd made it to the summit, where we kicked back for 20 minutes or so to take in the well-earned view. The South-East Ridge is a non-technical route over extremely loose rock. On more than one occasion, members of our group inadvertently set large rocks down the mountain side.

Along Harmston's South-East Ridge
After dinner the previous night, we'd made a pact to split one of three chocolate bars on each summit, mint-flavoured for Harmston, salt for Argus and orange for the Red Pillar. With the mint bar behind us we set out to catch up with the rest of our group, which could be seen as two specs walking along the glacier below.

We followed the glacier around the rocky ridge that leads down from Argus to gain access to the upper glacier. The opening to the upper Cliffe offered a change to reload our water supply for the trek up the glacier. We met the other members as they had just finished passing through the pinch point obstacle. With a few hours to go we wasted little time to make it home before sun set, a good 13 hours after setting off.

Another mountain curry and a few laughs under the stars before hitting the hay ahead of what promised to be another big day; there was, after all, orange-infused chocolate to be had atop the Red Pillar.

Part three is here.

Into the heart of southern Strathcona: Part one

Vancouver Island continues to amaze. Where else can one go three days on a long weekend in the summer without running into another party? We weren't even hiding out in the bush; Our five-member group sought to explore three historic island peaks folded into some classic Strathcona Park terrain.

Mt. Harmston (1,980M/6,500FT) is listed among the Alpine Club's Island Qualifiers, Red Pillar (2,031M/6,665FT) is known for its stark profile and Mt. Argus (1,980M/6,500FT) offers a challenging scramble up an imposing ridge. The mountains' proximity to one another offers the ideal stage for a long-weekend peak bagging hat trick.

Heading up from Oshinow Lake
The "end of the road" comes after a nearly one-hour drive along the Ash River Mainline, accessed off Highway 4 west of Port Alberni. Plenty of people camped along the dusty logging road, hanging out in lawn chairs and watching the traffic go by but not a canoe in sight by the time we loaded our two boats and hit the water to cross Oshinow Lake.

Aside from the novelty of a multisport weekend, the canoe approach adds a spectacular transition to the backcountry. It's a gentle warm up for body and mind after the big drive out of the ordinary. There's a sharp contrast between the calm waters and the anticipation of getting the climb underway, whereas the way out offers some sweet relief to both soul and soles.

The trailhead is beyond the end of the lake, off to the right a short way up the Ash River, just before the river becomes unnavigable . The hike starts in spectacular old growth forest along the north side of the river until the trail takes a sharp right and climbs steadily to the ridge.

Our group of five got into a good rhythm, chatting and grunting our way up to the ridge, taking short breathers every 100 metres of elevation gain or so to regroup. An abundance of blueberries and huckleberries made the well cut trail even more enjoyable.

Things became more complicated just before the ridge as we broke through the treeline. The open terrain made it easier to keep heading up to the ridge, though a damp fog had moved in to seriously limit visibility. We'd initially sought to camp near a highpoint along the ridgeline called 1707M but were getting pretty hungry, tired and thirsty. We sought to drop the packs, though the hot and dry summer had obviously taken its toll along the ridge given that it took us a while to find a water source. We found some tenting room beside a snowfield that was stubbornly holding out against the August heat. We set up camp, cooked and ate dinner as the fog only occasionally offered glimpses of the surrounding terrain. We chatted and laughed, content to be in the mountains again, until retreating to our tents to await sunrise and the big day ahead.

See here for part two.

Along the ridge, towards Red Pillar

Thursday, February 7, 2013

The local hill: a walk up Mt. Erskine

Everyone should have a local mountain, a place that looms large in a person's everyday physical and psychological landscape. The mountain need not be climbed on a regular basis or ever at all. It doesn't have to be especially challenging and can have offer a variety of methods to reach the top. Come to think of it, a local mountain doesn't even really have to be a mountain at all, any old hill can suffice quite nicely. What's important is the mountain's ability to inspire the imaginations and the wonder of those who live in its shadow. It's prominence can inspire, it's presence can reassure and, if all else fails, it can always be a great spot to spend a Saturday afternoon.
The view from the top can offer an inspiring view at any time of year.
Salt Spring Island offers a handful of local-mountain contenders. Mine is Mt. Erskine, a rocky outcrop that overlooks a good stretch of the island's eastern shoreline, some Gulf Islands to the north and the busy little pulp mill town of Crofton, B.C.

I can usually spot the summit on my way to work on all but the foggiest or darkest of mornings and it's elevation of a mere 410 metres (1,345-feet) always plays the temptress. It's common to see people head up one of the two trails to the summit during lunch or after work, even in winter when the rain and early nightfall do their best to keep people near a warm pot of tea and a comforting wood stove.

Foggy scene on the way to the summit.

My preferred route is the Jack Fisher Trail, accessed across the street from a small pullout along Collins Road. At times, it's tough slog, but the trail is easy enough to follow and a little persistence can get most people to the top in an hour or so. When in doubt, keep heading uphill and the trail will eventually spit you out at a rocky summit where a comfy wooden bench and stone-carved dog bowl reward two- and four-footed hikers alike. There's also a log book amidst the rocks for anyone inspired to mark their visit in prose.

Despite its consistent presence in my daily viewscape, Mt. Erskine offers an ever-changing display of people and scenery over the course of the year. You can meet everyone from the athletically inclined who are after new personal speed records to folks out for a casual walk, alone or with friends. I've even run into a couple of people over the years who've climbed the mountain in their bare feet.

Perhaps they'd learned a thing or two from those elusive Erskine fairies.