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

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

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

 

Cross-country skiing, drawing and some sourdough starter.

I gave Grue his weekly feed today.

Grue is a bubbling, fruity or acidic or bready smelling (depending on the time of day and mood), occasionally slightly slimy surfaced sourdough starter. I haven’t had the courage yet to turn this brooding, alive, fridge-living monster into bread. I’ve just been feeding the little tyke once a week and sticking him back into cold storage until I a) get a digital scale, essential for accurate measurements of flour, starter etc etc. and b) have figured out how to transform the grommet into something we can eat. There’s a plethora of information on nurturing your starter and how to make bread, I just need to find enough time to study it as it does seem to require in-depth observation and dedication. I’m not adverse to the investment in educational time, quite the opposite, but I want to do justice to Grue and his tenacious will to live by being at least moderately informed when I begin the alchemical and essence-of-life process of baking bread.

sourdough starter

Grue, our bubbling monster. The elastic band shows how much he’s grown. Ah, bless!

In other news I just swallowed an advil with a great gob of red wine, which I’m sure is verboten but it was the liquid I happened to have in my hand as I reached for a painkiller. I was bent over double with a sudden and excruciating stab of sciatic nerve pain so severe that I felt like I might throw up. The advil and a quick hot bath seemed to do the trick. I had gone for a run yesterday and decided that to shake things up a bit I might try sprinting every other block. A few times doing that and I was soaked in sweat and felt great. I was also stiff as a board later and spent the rest of the day sitting on my backside drawing. Cue sciatic purgatory.

The drawing has been coming along though. Sometimes I feel horribly slow but I grab what time I can and am gradually building up a stock of images, some of which I’ve started to make into greeting cards. It’s deeply satisfying and at some point I will start to sell the cards online.

Illustration of daffodils

Working on a daffodil composition

And after a very delayed start, we’re finally seeing a decent dump of snow here on the west coast. Essential for a healthy snow pack during the summer months of course but also great for snow sports. A few days ago I was out cross-country skiing. Just so beautiful and so good to be out in the sparkling, squeaky snow. The (mostly) blue sky was a lovely bonus.

Hope everyone’s week is going well!

snowy forest

Snowy forest

snow, trees and blue sky

Snow, trees and blue skies

cross country trails

Perfect cross-country conditions

 

Discovering new mountain bike trails, part two: Cumberland, British Columbia

Mountain biking Cumberland, BC

Taking a breather, Cumberland, BC

After three days of a rural retreat on Quadra Island in July, we headed for another mountain bike hub, Cumberland, the self-styled ‘village in the forest’ nestled in the Comox Valley on Vancouver Island. We were booked in for three nights at a local airbnb, a cute self-contained apartment with a full kitchen – so saving us a ton of dough cooking our own food – and oh joy, a washer and dryer; sweaty, rank bike gear no more!

I hadn’t realized exactly how close to the trail system we’d be. A step out of the door from the converted attic above a nice family home, one, two, three turns of the pedals, a couple of moments coasting down the road on a gentle incline and we were suddenly in the woods and starting up a forestry road. No driving to a trailhead, no fighting traffic, no muss no fuss.

The trails in Cumberland are excellent; well-maintained, clearly marked, extensive, fun and challenging when you want. Thanks to the efforts of the local bike club, the United Riders of Cumberland, the agreements they hold with private landowners have allowed the development and maintenance of a vast network of trails in a working forest. Additionally, the Cumberland Community Forest Society has over the last few years been raising funds to buy parcels of forest adjacent to the town and in the process are protecting an important ecological, recreational and historical area.

BC BC Bike Race, Cumberland, BC

BC Bike Race

Cumberland attracts riders from around the world. The last day of our visit the town hosted the second stage of the BC Bike Race, ‘the world’s best mountain bike race’ ~ Outside Magazine. The race next year is already sold out. We watched as over six hundred riders shot past our airbnb into the woods early in the morning, the spin of so many wheels buzzing like a vast hive of bees. The local sports field was a sea of red tents set up for the riders that night, and were just as suddenly gone the next day, on to another stage of the race in another town.

MTB trails, Cumberland, BC

Scott, Cumberland

Bike races aside, for all its popularity as a mountain biking destination once we’d ridden up the forestry road and veered off on the first of many trails we saw at most a handful of riders each day. On the second day dark clouds hove into view as a deep rumble of thunder sounded. Despite its throat clearing the sky spared us all but a spattering of rain and lightning. We traversed a web of trails that led us up into great swathes of logged, open land; stumps and replanting abounded instead of thick forest. At other times we were led back into gorgeous woods that had been temporarily spared the chainsaw or were soon to be felled, judging by the brightly coloured plastic ribbon that adorned them.

I’m conflicted about the areas we rode in. The trails are brilliant: loamy, rocky, rooty, flowy, techy, take your pick. But the cleared areas jarred. The forest society notes on their website that all unprotected forest is to be logged. Replanting can’t hide the evidence of chainsaws at work (at this point of the growth cycle anyway). Where new growth reached just over our heads, it was easier to deny the logging – the inevitable out of sight, out of mind.

In a way Cumberland is a lesson in survival and evolution (I highly recommend a visit to the Cumberland Museum and Archives, we learnt a lot in a couple of hours one afternoon). With the discovery of coal in the 1800’s, Union, as the town was once called after the Union Coal Mining Company, grew rapidly, swelled by the arrival of Chinese and to a lesser extent, Japanese, immigrants to work the mines in harsh and dangerous conditions. As coal production gradually declined followed by the depression and WWII, many Chinese returned home whilst the Japanese endured forced internment during the war years. Chinatown and Japanese Town were dismantled. Logging replaced coal mining as the primary industry. Bolstered by the conviction that the forest is now worth more standing than felled, the community is ushering in a new economy. It’s nice that mountain biking is a vital part of this latest growth; Cumberland, with its artsy, craft beer, music, outdoor enthusiasts scene will have fully evolved once again.

We’ll be back.

Vanilla MTB trail, Cumberland

GoPro screen capture from Scott of Vanilla MTB, Cumberland. Flowy, bermy, fun!