Seven Summits Trail revisited

A little over a year ago, an essay I wrote for a competition hosted by Women On Writing made it through to final judging. It didn’t place in the finals, but I’m still proud of the piece. I based it on a blog post I wrote about the trip we made to Rossland a few years ago and the epic ride we undertook, which you can read about in full here.

Reading the essay again made me yearn to get out on mountain bike trails which have inevitably been closed down for the last couple of weeks. But this too will pass, and hopefully soon, and when it’s safe to do so we can drag the mountain bikes out from the cupboard again. For now, like most mountain bikers, we’ll just have to be satisfied with whetting our appetites from our armchairs. I hope I can help with that a little, and that you enjoy my essay ‘Siren Song of the Wild’ below.

Seven Summits, Rossland

Glorious vista

Siren Song of the Wild

The world around me had shrunk to a bubble of trees and dusty trail crisscrossed by bulbous roots; raised veins on a weathered hand. My harsh breath disturbed the still air; leg muscles throbbed as they contracted with each painful turn of the cranks. My head hung over my handlebars as I fought an unspoken battle with myself – give up now before I was too far in or reach deep for some spark of internal grit. I leaned into the upward slope of the trail.

We had arrived the previous day in the Canadian town of Rossland high in the Monashee Mountains, a narrow band of ancient snowcapped peaks in British Columbia that inch over the border into Washington. I had spotted a moose – a hint of the wilderness that we were headed into – slate grey in the descending twilight, nosing through dense undergrowth in a shallow ditch beside the deserted road.
The gold rush in the 1800’s had made Rossland a city but in the intervening decades its population size had shrunk to that of a small town; the people who lived there now worked and played in the abundant snow during winter and negotiated space in their gardens with the wildlife that wandered through in the summer. We planned to ride the Seven Summits trail, 35km traversing seven mountain peaks with a gain of over 1100m in elevation. Rugged and remote, it promised an intensely physical challenge coupled with the chance to immerse myself in an elemental environment, a world bigger than the one I usually inhabited.

The night before our ride, sleep evaded me. Anxiety rose like bile as the darkness inside the tent surrendered to murky dawn. Would I be strong enough? What if I had a bad fall? What if my husband crashed? Only three exit points existed along the trail, the second was in such rough shape it was advised to avoid it altogether.
Unexpectedly dense morning fog slowly dissipated and bright sun emerged, elevating our spirits. Parking the car at the far end of the trail on Hwy 22, we were then picked up by a shuttle van, transferring us with our bikes to the beginning of the trailhead. I reread the warnings posted nearby: carry water and food, no cell coverage, remote wilderness, changeable weather. Kneepads, helmet and gloves on, water and food double-checked, I hopped from foot to foot. My teeth chattered; a mix of nervous adrenalin and early morning chill. I mounted the bike and started to pedal.

Starting gently enough, the undulating trail was in places thick with dew-dampened leaves and branches that gently slapped my legs as we rode past ferns and berry bushes before giving way to stands of cedar and fir trees, oxide green in the sunlight and backlit by a cerulean sky. Cold muscles, stiff from a night tossing on a tent pad, started to warm. Intermittent birdsong accompanied us as we easily pedaled along. Not so bad.

But after an alluring beginning, the trail revealed its true nature. Suddenly angling up, we ascended relentlessly for a pitiless two and a half hours. A couple of turns of the pedals were followed by an exhausted slump as our sea-level lungs heaved in the unaccustomed altitude. Relief and jubilation converged when we crested the first, and as it transpired, most demanding peak of the day. The West Kootenay mountain range hove into view – hazy in the early morning air, home to moose, bears, mountain goats and caribou alike – a wilderness of rock and forest that pulled me onward.

The trail thereafter bisected meadows liberally endowed with alpine wildflowers: lupines, Indian paintbrush, alpine daisies – blotches of purples, reds, whites, and yellows – before plunging into dark, dense woods, then shooting out suddenly to grassy sunlit slopes. A gentle breeze whispered as buff trail segued into a large, stubborn patch of snow we skittered and crunched across on foot as we shouldered our bikes, then into slate and sharp rock we rattled across, stones bouncing off wheel rims with a sharp clink. Sporadic clouds chased the sun, forcing us to stop and put on jackets in the sudden chill, before grinding to a halt to rip them off again as we started to overheat. We devoured sandwiches, trail mix, chocolate, shot blocks, water and energy drinks on frequent breaks. I rode as much as I could and when I was too scared of the precipitous drops to the side of the trail to pedal, I walked.

Gradually, mentally and physically drained, a kind of dogged determination took over. After 18km, an innocuous junction marked the final chance to leave the trail or carry on. We paused for a moment. I was numb with tiredness but automatically remounted, the rejected exit route tempting me back for the first few pedal strokes before I got my anxious thoughts under control. Pedal, rest, pedal, eat something, pedal, stop to look across vast treed mountainsides, pedal.

At last we crossed over a local forestry road, the sign we were nearing the end of our ride. A deep rumble of thunder sounded from the right. Panicked, we quickened our pace, the air heavy with the scent of ozone before the first drops of rain fell. Descending a steep cut, tense with fear, I hit a rock and flew over my handlebars. I stared up at a sky cleaved by fingers of lightning before heaving myself up, shaken but unharmed.

We picked our way down what was now a muddy mess of tight and narrow switchbacks, our aching hands barely able to hold onto the handlebars. The inevitable screeching of wet bike brakes heralded our arrival as we were abruptly spat out onto asphalt, steaming now in a warming shaft of sun. Eight hours of exhaustion and euphoria, glorious views and generous dollops of fear and it was over; the taste of wilderness like fresh spring water, the thrill of achievement thrumming through my body for hours, days, and months afterwards.

Keeping busy

Moutain biking

Mountain biking deserted trails

It’s a fuzzy, out of focus shot, Scott wanted to be quick; there were only one or two walkers behind us on the otherwise deserted trails, but we wanted to keep moving, to stay well out of their personal space for their sake, and ours.

A few days prior we had driven to the trailhead in the hope we could squeeze in a bike ride. Like everyone else we were desperate to be out in the sun and fresh air, but there were too many people and the trailhead was far too packed, it would be impossible to keep the prescribed six feet of distance between us and the next person. So we turned around and opted instead to set the alarm early on a day that was forecast to be rainy and cold. Our gamble paid off, the area was virtually deserted and the occasional walker we met either pulled way off the trail for us or vice versa. We rode well within our abilities, taking no unnecessary risks, and kept the ride shorter than usual. But that hour or so of puffing up steep inclines, negotiating veiny roots on the forest floor and breathing in the misty, oxygen-laden air is something I am so grateful for, particularly as we live in a tiny bachelor with no balcony to speak of and certainly no garden to hang out in. We’ll try to go once a week, as long as it’s safe for us and others to do so.

In the meantime as – along with thousands upon thousands of others – I was laid off last week for goodness knows how long, I’ll continue to use the extra time to draw, practice yoga online and join in with streamed circuit classes.

Keep well, keep safe.

drawing of trumpet flowers

Trumpet flowers

 

Winter medley

Pausing for breath

Pausing for breath

A photographic winter medley of cross country skiing at Callaghan Valley just outside of Whistler. A couple of fantastic days of fresh air, piles of snow and exercise to the point of exhaustion. We skied as much as we could, ate a sandwich by a warming fire pit next to a red double-decker bus that will (hopefully) soon become a hip cafe, then skied some more. An apres-ski combo of a hot bath, good food and wine never felt, or tasted, better!

Gorgeous snow

Great trail conditions, and no one around!

Snow bridge

Snow bridge

BC ski trails

Slightly sketchier (read icier!) ski trails lower down.

fire pit

Warming fire pit, a good place to stop and devour a sandwich and hot tea

Red bus at Alexander Falls Touring Centre

An unexpected place for a red double-decker bus! It’ll be a cafe at some point soon. At Alexander Falls Touring Centre, Callaghan Valley

Thistle sketch

Thistle sketch

Line drawing of a thistle

I’ve been awol recently; work, holidays and life in general has got in the way of writing a post or two. And I’ve been waiting to get up into the local mountains to either cross country ski or snowshoe, but it’s been either a blizzard or raining, and on the odd amazing day of fresh powder and blue skies I’ve been at work. Never mind, it’ll come around.

In the meantime I’ve started a ‘back to basics’ art class, just to get the momentum going again. Good to be restricted to graphite pencil and line drawings, I’m so used to coloured pencils and blending endlessly that I’d pretty much forgotten how to wield a good ‘ol regular pencil. For two hours I got lost in drawing, and it felt really good.

Autumn/winter drawing

Acorns

Acorns

From an autumnal drawing of acorns to an overnight ferry ride to see our good friend in Victoria – on the most perfect of days, the light low, sun skipping off the water back up to the sky …..

ferry ride

Ferry ride back from Victoria

…to a drawing of rosehips intended for a winter greeting card. It’s been quite a busy couple of months. And all whilst contending with a back that has nerves jumping and skipping (possibly a bulging disc/sciatica issue, probably from pushing too much on the bike) until I can’t sit still anymore and have to go for a walk.

open ocean

View from the headland, Portmeirion, Wales

Amidst scaling back temporarily on activity (which has me looking with frustrated yearning at my mountain bike), I managed to fit in a trip to the UK to see my mum with my sister. Work was mad before and after the trip and it was, as always, too short a visit; but lots of walks in Welsh woods and along a sublime coastline with family fed my soul. Sometimes you just have to slow down, a little bit.

rosehips

Rosehip drawing

Under the walnut tree

Walnut tree

The walnut tree

The dusk descended quite quickly, it was after all already Labour Day when we booted it out to the Okanagan for two nights camping. As the sun dipped low, the trees became silhouetted on the ridges of the nearby hills. We stood up from our chairs under the expansive walnut tree, where the sun had only a short time before filtered through the canopy of leaves overhead, to watch the darkening sky.

Setting sun

Setting sun

The sound of intermittent honks drifted across to us and we spotted long V formations of Sandhill Cranes emerge from the valley below. The migrating birds rose higher into the sky, headed south for the winter along their usual route over the White Lake area. As we watched, a murmuration of starlings, their chattering almost drowning out the honks and bugles of the cranes, flew as one from the nearby electricity pylons, to the riparian marsh down the hill and up again to a single tree, turning it’s spikey outline into a fluttering mass of wings, like so many waving handkerchiefs.

It’s amazing how much wildlife can thrive when given some space to do so. And how nourishing it is to just sit under a tree and listen and watch events unfold. We had a tent set up in a nearby campground but were visiting our friend who lived on a slight rise overlooking a small valley, and we sipped beer and wine as we caught up on news whilst a slight breeze rustled around us.

Hot during the day (a last blast of summer!) and still warm at night, we drove back after the sun had set to our campground. The chorus of crickets didn’t diminish until the early hours and sometime during the night I heard some howling and yipping – coyotes? – and what I think was probably a screech owl, and the nighthawks calling. It was the clear night I’d been looking for; out of the corner of my eye I saw two meteors and gazed at the hazy light of the Milky Way. Full of stars we finally crawled into the cosiness of our tiny tent, burrowing deep into the sleeping bags.

We woke to the curious ‘Chi-ca-go’ early morning call of the California Quail that bobbed and weaved through the campground, occasionally plumping down for a quick dust bath, and noted some small dusty footprints on the car windshield. Apparently some racoons had been playing around during the night. We sipped coffee and wandered over to the river behind our site and watched the whirl and eddies of water along the riverbank.

Okanagan River

River alongside the campground

Mount Kobau

Mount Kobau, and the remnants of wildfires.

It was too hot to ride, so we wandered off on a slow-paced exploration of Mount Kobau, part of the South Okanagan Grasslands Protected area, scoping it out for future mountain bike rides. We startled a large, glossy black bear that disappeared abruptly down a steep treed embankment with barely a rustle of leaves. Later, we swam in Skaha Lake, picking up a few odd pieces of garbage that we deposited in the garbage can, and from the campground in the afternoon watched as ominous clouds gathered over the hills. The promise of a change in the weather was fulfilled that night as great cracks of thunder sounded above us and flashes of lightning pierced the thin fabric of the tent, so bright that it seemed as if a torch was pointed straight at our eyes. Rain pounded down, and still the crickets chirped on.

We emerged from the tent the next morning to a freshly rinsed sky and tangy air, shafts of sunlight playing across the river where clouds of winged insects hovered just above the surface. Sipping on the last of our camp coffee (the best kind of java), we lingered as long as possible before packing up and heading home, stopping briefly by Mahoney Lake to walk in the woods and breathe in the pine-scented air, completing a short but full break from the city; a couple of days where nothing and everything happened.

Mahoney Lake

Mahoney Lake Ecological Reserve

Colour study

Drawing echinacea flowers

Echinacea flowers

Instead of embarking on a drawing that I’m already planning to turn into a greeting card or postcard, I wanted to take some pressure off and just play with colour and shading. It was a good reminder to keep the drawing light-hearted and less stressful. It’s a looser feel, and always easier to draw when relaxed. And it’s so important to keep practicing and learning.

The Trans Canada Trail: testing my mettle.

riding across kinsol trestle bridge

Kinsol Trestle Bridge, spanning the Koksilah River

Mid-July rain pattering against the window, I pick up a pencil and apply myself to the latest drawing. Botanical illustration is something I love and pursue in the spare time I can carve out from work. My legs feel restless however and I realize I’m missing the spin and whirr of pedals, the hum and clatter of wheels and the days where we rode for hours, finally stopping for the day and a hearty meal before passing out and getting up to do it all over again. Not having to think much beyond that was a genuine detox from work, screens of various kinds, information overload in general.

An open valley on the Cowichan Valley Trail, part of the Trans Canada Trail

Open meadows, Trans Canada Trail (Cowichan Valley Trail area)

We’d promised ourselves a relatively local cycle tour. Door to door, on the bikes with no transportation other than a couple of ferry rides. We chose to ride the Trans Canada Trail on Vancouver Island from Nanaimo to Victoria via Lake Cowichan, then back to Vancouver with a side trip to Saltspring Island, roughly 400kms in a little over a week, including several rest/chilling out days.

I don’t think I’ve ever worked so hard on a bike. A 75km day on mostly gravel trails is probably equivalent to about 100kms day on tarmac. I developed my first ever saddle sore from hours bouncing around on rough, choppy portions of the trail. Apart from a couple of nights booked in an Airbnb, we camped the rest of the time and in taking all that we deemed necessary – tent, sleeping bags, sleeping mats, cooking gear, some basic food, copious snacks, clothing for variable weather conditions – we managed to weigh our bikes down an exorbitant amount. In the end we used everything so I felt justified in our choices, if amazed that I could even steer the unwieldy, bucking piece of metal that my bike had become.

Ladysmith

Setting sun over Ladysmith high street

We got lost on the first day on a deserted ridgeline outside of Nanaimo. Abysmal signage – an issue confirmed by other tourists and residents – had led us astray. And hours later, near the end of the day, we found ourselves riding the shoulder on the busy, fast, noisy highway. We finally staggered up a brutally steep hill (a theme that was to recur) to our first overnight stop in Ladysmith as the sun began to sink. I wouldn’t choose to ride from Nanaimo again unless the route was improved, but I’d visit Ladysmith again without hesitation; a delightful small town, unspoilt, quiet, stuffed with rose-filled gardens, a pub devotedly English in style and a bakery packed with locals queueing for pastries, birthday cakes and rustic loaves.

freshwater marsh

Freshwater marshes, Cowichan Valley Trail

We fared better on the Cowichan Valley portion of the trail. It’s (mostly) well signed, and obvious, albeit with long, sometimes confusing connecting stretches on roads. A gravel trail generally follows former rail lines, a new kind of riding for me on a regular touring bike with smooth tires. A gradual upward gradient toward Lake Cowichan and the resistance of gravel meant slower speeds, hunkering down to hours of doggedly turning the legs, the sound of our heavy breathing accompanied by the percussive clink and ping, rattle and clatter of loose stones bouncing off our wheel rims. The scent of fir, spruce and cedar emanated from dense stands of trees that hemmed us in on each side of the trail, breaking rank only occasionally to reveal meadow, freshwater marsh and hillside.

Cowichan River

Cowichan River

The subtle downhill slope from Lake Cowichan the following day was our reward for the previous days grind up, gravel, rock and stone giving way to smooth earth at times. A spike of adrenaline spurred on our legs when we heard the trail was favoured by the local bear population, and that Lake Cowichan had experienced an increase in human/mountain lion conflicts as logging invaded yet more of their territory. With many kilometres to cover before we reached Goldstream Campground for the night we stopped only to admire the view from the several bridges we crossed –including the spectacular Kinsol Trestle Bridge – spanning deep gorges the oxide green river water flowed through.

emerging from Malahat Connector

Scott emerges from the Malahat Connector

The joy of moving from one kilometre to another under our own steam, reeling in forest, valleys and mountainsides, couldn’t even be dented by the heinous gradients we encountered at the Malahat Connector in the Malahat Nation or the Sooke Hills Wilderness trail. But as my front wheel skittered sideways on loose shale yet again whilst I pushed my bike up another 20% hill, I wondered why I was doing this to myself. For hours. And hours. Tired, hot, as I planted one foot in front of the other, the answer wasn’t completely available to me then of course. It’s always only later that I fully appreciate the experience.

In the simplest terms, it’s because I’ve been on an adventure, and my legs are ready for another.

riding the Cowichan Valley Trail

Author on the Cowichan Valley Trail, part of the Trans Canada Trail network

 

A flower drawing, and a video on saving our planet.

Lately, I’ve been working on a drawing of a hollyhock flower. I loved learning how I could keep the delicacy of the flower petals intact (lots of patient layering of colour), and for the first time used masking fluid to make sure I kept the white areas free of colour as I drew. Messy at first but ultimately it seemed to work. I also learned that hollyhocks not only are good providers of nectar for pollinators, but also offer up a much needed start to the life of the butterfly, providing a home and food to the caterpillars.

hollyhock flower

hollyhock flower

And I had to include a very good short film in this very short post.

 

Green idyll

mountain bike trails

Heading into Dead End Loop

Slumping over the handlebars, I stopped to regain my breath before I began to ride into Dead End Loop. Tiny white and black butterflies flitted across my vision (cabbage white?) and as my eyes focused on the air before me, I noticed small mists of winged insects drifting around. I took it as a good sign, with the deep concern surrounding declining insect populations (and the efforts made to reverse that trend in surprising areas) it was good to observe such obvious signs of life. Perhaps the recent rains had helped after an overly dry start to the spring.

skunk cabbage

Good ‘ol skunk cabbage

We were back up in Squamish, and after the first foray of the year a couple of weeks previously when the vegetation was shockingly parched and sparse, it was a relief to see the familiar fresh, verdant green appearing; as well as a few salmonberry flowers.

salmonberry flowers

Salmonberry shrub

We pushed ourselves; three hours of riding the trails in Squamish that included the notorious Bypass trail – basically a short but mean slog up a hillside that I usually have to stop on at least once. For whatever fortuitous reason – more rest, stronger legs that day – I managed to thread my way up the trail after a fun, fast bounce around the root strewn Dead End Loop. Topping up my iron levels too over the last year or so has helped too, I hadn’t realized I was low despite the tell-tale signs of lightheadedness and sheer tiredness on rides (no matter how much I ate) until on a whim I had it tested. Gotta love those iron supplements!

Woodland, Canada

Squamish woodland

The temperature was perfect, just warm enough to ride without a jacket; the sun chased by a very few clouds. A lucky day before the rain and cloud moved back in the very next morning.

mountain biking

Scott on the trail