Trail and tribulation
From poetry to BOMB squads, the Sunshine Coast Trail may hold lessons for the Elaho
By Neville Judd
Last year, a middle-aged loner left his cabin in Toba Inlet, north of Powell River, bound for Squamish on foot. Two months later he stumbled, malnourished and dehydrated, onto a logging road near Powell River.
Some residents of the mill town 120 kilometres and two ferry rides north of Vancouver doubted whether anyone but a survival expert could last two months, but no one was surprised that the man got lost.
On the Sunshine Coast, wilderness is rarely more than a few metres off Highway 101, which runs the length of the peninsula, from Gibsons in the south to Lund in the north. Economics and rugged topography — Howe Sound, Jervis Inlet and the Coast Mountains — have dissuaded road builders from connecting the Sunshine Coast's 30,000 residents with the Lower Mainland.
Trails are another matter. A century of logging has left hundreds of bushwhacked paths, dirt roads and disused railway grades. Some trails are well-maintained, either by the B.C. Forestry Service, the Powell River Regional District, private landowners like Weyerhaeuser, or volunteers. They provide limited access to places like Tin Hat Mountain with its 360-degree views of more than 30 lakes; magnificent stands of Douglas fir and yellow-cedar old growth on Mount Troubridge; and the sandy shoreline of Malaspina Inlet.
But until the last decade, there had been no attempt to link these trails into a continuous route. Critics argued that a host of issues including liability, litter and land tenure would have to be negotiated first. Eagle Walz decided to blaze the Sunshine Coast Trail anyway.
"I came here in 1972 to write poetry," says Walz, with a wry smile. "I ended up laying bricks. Poetry doesn't pay much," he adds, as if explanation were needed.
We're sitting in the Shinglemill Pub, a recommended stop in Walz's self-published guide to the 180-kilometre Sunshine Coast Trail. He indicates a circular tour of the immediate area with his index finger, pointing beyond Powell Lake at Lost Lake Ridge and Haywire Bay before looking up at Valentine Mountain where we spent a rainy afternoon hiking.
"For a long time after I came here, I thought you weren't allowed to step off the highway because the land belonged to someone else," says Walz. "It was when I realized it belonged to us, I thought of the possibilities. I thought, 'hey, we can do something here.'"
In his guidebook, Walz describes how he and a few other hikers thought of the Sunshine Coast Trail in 1992 when they realized that the last few accessible areas of old-growth forest were being logged or were threatened by logging. The region has a mixture of first- and second-growth forests, and a few pockets of old growth. One tree, known as the Toquenatch Fir, named for the Toquenatch Reserve, is estimated to be 1,200 years old.
The group formed the Powell River Parks and Wilderness Society (PRPAWS) to lobby for protected areas and to link them via a continuous 180-km trail from Sarah Point, near Lund, to the ferry terminal at Saltery Bay. Walz envisioned a ribbon of old growth, comprising existing stands, as well as trees to be planted and left untouched for future generations.
Through volunteer labour, PRPAWS embarked on phase one-connecting the existing trails by building new ones. In many places, that meant constructing bridges, some as long as 120 feet, to ford creeks and rivers.
What might have taken the B.C. Forestry Service decades to build because of lack of money and resources was hastened by a group of bloody old men — otherwise known as the BOMB squad (Bloody Old Men's Brigade). Two of BOMB's founding members, Roger Taylor, 79, and Tony Mathews, 73, spent more than 80 years between them working at Powell River's pulp mill. They credit the trades learned at the mill (Taylor was a carpenter, Mathews a pipe fitter) and a co-operative work ethic for the 46 bridges the BOMB squad has built in the last decade. (They might also have mentioned physical fitness. Taylor runs marathons and Mathews participates in 40-mile walks for fun.)
"There are about 20 guys all told, and some of us meet every Thursday to work on a project. There's always work to do," says Taylor.
"There are no bosses — we just get on with it" adds Mathews.
The building plans? "They're up here," grins Taylor, tapping his head.
Using equipment supplied by the forestry service, the men only use materials found in the forest — usually cedar for the main structure, and cedar shingles for decking. Often, the group must build skids and then use levers known as turf jackers to haul larger logs through the forest floor to the bridge site. Mathews has been known to build rafts, strip down to his bathing suit, and float timber downstream to the building site.
While the group works on bridges and staircases on other trails in the area, other members help Walz on phase two of the Sunshine Coast Trail-signs.
"In a lot of areas, you have to know where you're going," says Mathews. "It's easy to lose your bearings on a trail because there are so many trails."
As well as making signposts, the men are colour-coding the trail — orange markers for the principal route and other colours for divergent trails. Phase three, says Walz, involves giving trail-users the option of hiking from hut to hut so that carrying heavy backpacks of food and water won't be necessary.
However, there are numerous access points to the trail, so walkers can tailor the length of a hike to suit their abilities. Currently, there are three bed-and-breakfasts, one cabin, a hotel and two restaurants along the route, as well as Fiddlehead Farm, a popular wilderness hostel.
Walz's efforts appear to be inspiring increasing numbers of locals to take to the trail. Last year, in what he calls the Tour de Powell River, Walz walked the length of the Sunshine Coast Trail in nine days, camping along the way. Suitably impressed, two local doctors, Jacques Du Toit and Barrie McDonald, decided to run the course with a canoe portion thrown in for good measure.
"We called it the eco challenge — our wives called it the ego challenge," says Du Toit.
"The first leg, from Sarah Point to the Shinglemill, was 52 kilometres, which we figured would take five to six hours," says McDonald. A mixture of fatigue and time spent admiring scenic views, slowed the pair to 13 hours.
"We were lying there at the end when three ladies between 70 and 80 years old came wandering out of the trail from the opposite direction," says McDonald. "They'd hiked the whole trail in stages."
The pair slept the next day before embarking on the canoe leg, normally a five- to six-day event involving portages. After finishing it in 16 hours, both decided to leave the rest of the course for another day.
The pair, both members of The Powell River Running Club, encourage their patients to get out on the trail. Both have noticed more people out jogging in the last year, an observation shared by Taylor and Mathews.
However, not everyone is enamoured of the Sunshine Coast Trail.
Colin Palmer, chairman of Powell River Regional District, admits he's not much of a hiker, but that's not why he's concerned about the Sunshine Coast Trail.
"It's a heck of a good idea but the board has issues with it, the main one being that this trail crosses eight jurisdictions," he says.
These jurisdictions include Crown forest land, Powell River Regional District land, private land owned by Weyerhaeuser and Pacifica Paper (operators of the mill) and Sliammon Indian land.
"Until volunteers sit down with these bodies, issues like liability and maintenance worry us. You can't just go building trails and announcing they exist, especially if hikers think they're protected when they use it. I'm not sure, but these volunteers could be personally liable if someone hurts themselves and decides to sue."
However, Don Day, risk management officer for the Greater Vancouver Regional District, says there are few precedents for successful lawsuits, at least within the Lower Mainland's park system.
"Anyone will sue anyone for anything, but most people accept the risks inherent in pursuing outdoor activities and that's what the courts tend to look at in civil liability cases."
Heather Gorrell, recreation officer with the B.C. Ministry of Forests, is an avid hiker but she reels off a list of concerns over sanitation, access and trail marking. The lack of environmental consideration worries her most.
"Ten thousand people will flush out a lot of wildlife. Maybe some areas should be closed seasonally because of, say, goat habitat or marbled murrelet habitat," she says.
Gorrell has doubts about Walz's vision of a ribbon of old growth. "Who wants to walk in a strip of trees? If you're from Ontario, like me, parts of the trail will blow you away. It's beautiful — great mountain views, quiet lakes. But if you're expecting a West Coast Trail experience you'll be disappointed because it's not like that. It doesn't touch the shore."
Gorrell says the trail could be promoted on its merits, and established according to section 102 of the Forest Practices Code, which sets out guidelines to encourage a planned approach to trail construction and maintenance. "The code isn't there to be awkward; it's just about communication," stresses Gorrell.
Rod Tysdal, division forester for Weyerhaeuser, believes most of these issues will be resolved eventually, but he says the idea of a ribbon of old growth isn't feasible.
"We've never supported that idea. There are lots of ways to protect beauty but trying to maintain old growth all the way along the trail is like trying to hide something. There are places where there should be young trees, where people can see good harvest practices and silviculture practices at work."
Faced with so many issues to resolve with so many groups, Walz has a question of his own: "Would the trail have been built if we'd settled all these issues first?"
Without bothering to answer himself, he continues. "If we had had active support instead of passive support we'd be a lot farther along by now. It will eventually come from the regional district and municipal government and various stakeholders because the pressure for it will be greater when it becomes obvious the trail is a money-maker. We are doing this for the benefit of the community and the environment."
Walz hopes that as word of the trail spreads, increased numbers of visitors will re-ignite the area's flagging economy, meaning more bed and breakfasts, hotels and restaurants and jobs. Last month, Pacifica Papers, which runs the town's paper mill, announced it would be cutting 103 jobs this year.
"We don't want to see millions of dollars leaving in stumpage when millions of tourism dollars could be circulating instead," says Walz.
He sees no reason why the Sunshine Coast Trail couldn't become as famous or as popular as the West Coast Trail or New Zealand's Milford Trail. He accepts that he must deal with ownership and tenure issues before he can make a concerted marketing effort, but he sees signs of progress. A community advisory group headed by Weyerhaeuser is in the formative stages of collecting public input on how the trail should be managed and, thanks to the lobbying efforts of PRPAWS, several stretches of old growth will be protected under Victoria's Protected Areas Strategy.
In the meantime, Walz finds little time for poetry. He holds down a full-time teaching job in Powell River and is writing a new guide to the Sunshine Coast Trail. "The previous four editions sold out, and I loaned my last copy," he says.
His family has learned to accept his passion for hiking. "My wife doesn't like to hike and my daughters — they say 'why would we hike when we can drive?'"
For an organized introduction to part of the Sunshine Coast Trail, the seventh annual Marathon Shuffle is on May 7. For more details about this and the Sunshine Coast Trail, contact email@example.com or visit sunshinecoast-trail.com