Strathcona in Strange Times

A year like no other in our lifetime. In September we venture forth to Strathcona Provincial Park in the middle of Vancouver Island. The pandemic continues, the weather is weird, and Cathy is limping, but we find comfort and joy as we paddle a canoe, sleep in our tent, and hike in the mountains for eleven days. The sandhill cranes and wild blueberries are a bonus.

Learning to walk

“It’s good to have a goal,” says physiotherapist Madeline, and this is ours: canoe-camp for one week on Buttle Lake, then backpack for three days at Forbidden Plateau. It’s a gentle, cautious adventure, our first expedition since covid changed the world and since Cathy’s bike accident in May. After three months in a wheelchair, she’s learning to walk, but full recovery is still a few months away.

Our oldest park

Although it is the oldest provincial park in British Columbia (established in 1911), most of Strathcona Provincial Park remains a vast wilderness of snow-capped mountains, deep valleys, and dense forests. Two areas, Buttle Lake and Forbidden Plateau, are the most accessible to visitors.

Narrow, twenty-three kilometres long, and bordered by steep, forested cliffs, Buttle Lake is Strathcona’s major body of water. Two car campgrounds, five marine campsites, and several boat launches provide access for lake users.

Forbidden Plateau is a busy, well-developed area, with trails for all ages and abilities. One two-kilometre trail is fully accessible by any type of mobility device, and wheelchairs and a special trailrider are available to borrow. 

Hide-and-seek campsites

“I can’t believe we are really here,” says Doug, as pitch our tent on night one. Covid-related closures and travel restrictions cancelled our four planned summer trips, and then Cathy’s bike accident sent us further into hibernation.

You can’t get lost on Buttle Lake, but finding the marine campsites can be a challenge at today’s water level. The lake was raised five metres when Strathcona Dam was built in the 1950s. The marine campsites, built for those higher water levels, are now well-hidden in the trees, and access requires some scrambling. Why is the water level so low? Power demand, fish hatchery requirements, and disappearing glaciers are explanations given by the various boaters we meet.

At Rainbow Island we snag #5, the premier site, with a south-facing view down the lake. Wolf River campsite is near a waterfall; its air-conditioning is welcome, as we experience hot and muggy weather throughout the first half of our Buttle week.

It’s a full house at Phillips Creek on Friday night. Canoes in various states of repair are stashed in the bushes, this being the trailhead for day and multi-day hikes to Marble Meadows. Mount Titus has lovely wooded campsites one kilometre from Phillips Creek; the sign is well-hidden, and those in the know would like to keep the location a secret.

Submerged stumps are a hazard in this lake, especially in windy and low visibility conditions. The Strathcona Park Lodge rental person, from whom we rented a kevlar canoe, will be happy to know that we navigate the minefield of stumps without a single kiss or a scratch.

Surprises

“There’s never a north wind in the morning,” says long-time boater Richard, wearing a Jimi Hendriks tee-shirt. Afternoon north wind, yes, but a northerly in the morning happens only on the day we decide to get an early start and paddle 20 kilometres north. Nasty weather is approaching, and we want to move closer to our take-out point, in case we are storm-bound for a day or two. With a strong wind from the north, why is thick wildfire smoke moving in from the south?

Backcountry people are usually quite predictable, but these are not ordinary times. The pandemic has brought new and different people into the outdoors, and we observe some clothing and backcountry behaviour we’ve not seen before: trail runners in matching high-tech gear, hikers in flip-flops, a Standup Paddleboarder in a meditative trance, dogs with varying levels of obedience training. During our week on the lake one marine campsite is trashed during a weekend party. Backcountry etiquette tip: used toilet paper goes in the outhouse, not on the ground.

What is backpacking?

If you carry your tent just eight kilometres on a busy, manicured trail, is it still backpacking? With Cathy still in rehab, we choose a very gentle three-day hiking route, with family-friendly Lake Helen Mackenzie as a base camp.

We shuffle and trim our gear from capacious dry bags into minimalist backpacks and depart from the Paradise Meadows trailhead, the most popular access point into Strathcona Park.

The eight-kilometre Helen Mackenzie-Battleship Lake Loop is an easy, level walk through sub-alpine meadows, with boardwalks and bridges to reduce erosion in this heavily-trafficked area. Midway in the loop is the Lake Helen Mackenzie campground, which features boardwalk and spacious wooden tent pads, well-designed and constructed by the Comox District Mountaineering Club as a millenium project. For Doug’s investigation there’s a toilet with an interesting conveyor belt.

“I love the sound of rain on the tent,” says Doug. The gentle pitter-patter escalates to an all-night downpour. Rain was definitely not in the weather forecast, but it clears all the wildfire smoke from the mountain air.

Thursday we hike out-and-back (10 km, return) to Kwai Lake. The Kwai Lake Loop is rated an easy hike, although it does have sections of dirt and rock and a bit of elevation gain. Guard your trail mix at Kwai Lake! The whiskey jacks are numerous and bold.

Unexpected treats

At Lake Helen Mackenzie we discover two unexpected treats:

  • a flock of migrating sandhill cranes, large birds that look and sound prehistoric.
  • wild blueberries. Thanks, bears and others, for leaving some of these tangy late-season berries for us to enjoy.

Weight bearing as tolerated

So, how did we do with Cathy’s physical limitations? The actual paddling was easy. Hopping in and out of the canoe, crawling in and out of the tent, hovering over the outhouse seat – these required a bit of effort. Cathy walked slowly and limped a bit, but then, after the ten-kilometre hike to Kwai Lake Doug was limping, too. Is his limp sympathetic, or a reminder that his 80th birthday is approaching?

Many thanks to the family, friends, and health professionals who are supporting us in these strange and challenging times. We are beginning to see the light.

10 comments

    1. Your pictures and adventures are very inspiring. I’m sure many of your cousins dream of hiking along with you two. Hope the limp is improving. Blessings!

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  1. It’s fantastic that you were able to get out with Cathy and that she is on the road to recovery. It looked like you managed to get around the bad air, mostly. The group hasn’t been out because of the air quality, but we’ll resume tomorrow. Your photos remind me of my backpacking up Marble Meadows, at the mouth of Phillips R., and of the great adventure at the top of the trail – the 1200m ascent with a load was no fun, but once up there, the scenery is remarkable.

    Keep getting into the ‘right’ kind of trouble, George

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    1. Thanks for writing, George. We were very lucky with the smoke — only had a couple bad days on the lake and almost none up in the Plateau. We would have loved to go up to Marble Meadows — maybe another time. We planned to go to Cape Scott this year too, but the shuttle bus wasn’t running. Guess you guys provided your own transportation to the trailhead. Did you check out the Northcoast Trail while you were there?

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  2. Great to hear and see photos of your latest expedition. Doug and Kathy you really are remarkable in so many ways — courage, stamina, photography, intelligence — and yet we still love you! I particularly enjoyed the photos of the Sandhill cranes, birds that I adore, we used to see them around Candle Lake in Saskatchewan; I remember whiskey jacks stealing food from resting skiers at Whistler many years ago. We look forward to visiting with you soon.
    Dorothy & Paul

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