Garibaldi Provincial Park, August 2006

We’ve been in Canada for four days. The first four days of a month long vacation in this spectacular land. A couple of nights in Vancouver, a drive along the sea-to-sky highway and a night on a Squamish camp site has brought us to the Rubble Creek car park under the barrier damn. We’d scouted out the trail head after dinner the night before and had learned, from a fellow hiker booting up, that today was a provincial holiday. This day, set aside and planned weeks in advance, as luck would have it, had fallen on British Columbia Day and we now stand in British Columbia. Not just anywhere in British Columbia but just a stones throw from Vancouver at the head of one of the most popular trails of the coastal range. We’ve come early to beat the crowds. Permits paid, boots laced and packs slung we lock the car, still one of just a handful on the car park, and stride off. Purposefully, because today, we’re determined to be amongst the fortunate and bag one of the forty tent platforms on the Taylor meadows camp ground. The hike had clearly taken on a different character to the one I’d envisaged. More race-like and less stress-free wilderness experience.

The walk in is easy enough. Just eight kilometres or so over clearly marked, well prepared trail. Nevertheless, this is our first time out in a while and boots and packs take some getting used to. The packs are heavy too. Although we’ve done our best this time out, we’ve packed dried food and everything, as always when with Jane I’m inclined to pack a little more luxury. Down mats, two skin tent and the Trangia are all in bag. It might be a short walk in but the climb is not insignificant for a couple of lowlanders, we’ll have to cross about a thousand meters worth of contour detail before we set up camp. Just about every step on this switch-backed trail is a lift, shallower on the straights, steeper in the hairpins, but all of it upwards. It’s not long before I’m sweating, Jane's glowing and we’re both pausing to strip off a layer and sip some water. Slow and steady is the order of the day.

The experience is most definitely North American. The trail a tight corridor through otherwise impenetrable forest with restricted views. An acquired taste I suspect and if I’m honest not one I’ve acquired yet. As wooded walks go though this ones got character. Natural growth of Douglas fir, western red cedar and western hemlock score more points than the close knit, regimented plantations of imported quick growing spruce which dot the hillsides of my youth. As the morning passes, the sun climbs higher and, though unseen, it’s effect is felt. It’s hot under the canopy. By design or by accident the pace is most certainly slow and steady.

As we climb we’re passed by several faster walkers wearing trail shoes and carrying light packs and we find ourselves moving in a loose group. Being passed as we pause for breath and passing as others do the same. The dance is accompanied by the frantic tinkling of a bear bell tied to the pack of a young girl. Bears add an extra dimension to this long loved backpacking hobby of mine. Exciting and terrifying all at once. I’d like nothing more than to see a bear in this environment. I’d like nothing less than to see an angry bear at close quarters in this environment. I’d prefer that particular wilderness experience to be on my terms. Given the amount of activity on the trail today, bear bell or no bear bell, my guess is that we are very unlikely to stumble across a bear. Still I imagine big googly eyes and twitching wet noses following our every move from strategic locations in the undergrowth. Lip-licking at the sight of two legged, bag-backed mobile delicatessens carrying fresh supplies of energy bars and minty toothpaste up to the high ground.

As we approach 1500m, with close to nine hundred vertical meters and six kilometres put behind us we arrive at a split in the path. We take the path on our left hand and climb a little further but a little less steeply. The path continues to duck and weave to left and then to right through the trees but on average it veers right and keeps on doing so until, at once, it levels out and we find ourselves contouring. First comes the edge of the wood and then comes the light. The harsh light of an early August midday made all the harsher by the clear skies and thin air. We're not above the tree line but the big trees are now behind us and , here on the shoulder of Black tusk, longer views open up, framed between tree tops and branches. Looking up I'm in the mountains. Looking down I'm in a flower garden. These aren't the hills I'm used to. Not subtle greens and greys under grey skies. Not 'ard 'n northern. None of that. No, these hills are extravagantly dressed in lush, long flowing green grass and accessorised with bright blue, yellow, red and white flowers. We're crossing the Taylor meadow in the first week of August and the display is at its best. It's an astonishing scene. Summer in caricature. I have to look up at the snow-topped points to remind myself I'm in the mountains.

Soon enough we're striding onto the board-walks of the Taylor meadows camp ground. Our chosen camp site, one of two official sights on the Garibaldi Lake and Panorama ridge trail network and the smaller of the two. we'd gambled on this one, without a lake shore, being less popular and thus that there would be room at the inn and our overnighter wouldn't become a day walk. Our gamble has paid off. There are already plenty of people milling around and quite some tents standing but we still have a choice of pitches. We drop the packs and scout around for a few minutes finally settling on a platform just off the path, partially hidden by small conifers, but in full sun. Sticking to the rules we forgo the soft green pasture and pitch on the platform. Just big enough for our tent its a hefty construction of compacted dirt and timber retainers. It's flat but I'm happy we picked up inflatable mats before heading out of Vancouver. The tent pitched we eat lunch, lounging on our mats, soaking up the sun and the scenery, insects buzzing lazily around our heads and ground squirrels scurrying frantically at out feet. I wonder exactly what it is about beach holidays I don't like?

After a long break we stow the gear we don't need in the tent, raise the food and toiletries into the bear hang and head back onto the trail. We first make our way across the meadows and then duck back into the trees. It's getting busy. We're rarely alone on the trail. At first that's a little disappointing but once again the trick is to look up. Every so often we're treated to a new view of the high peaks. Soon flashes of turquoise, also framed through the green trees tell us the lake is nearby and focus our attention. After a few false arrivals we find ourselves paralleling the lake shore an loosing height. Arriving at the waters edge we cross the outfall and then, swinging to the left, all at once the lake is in view. I'm winded by the breathtaking beauty of the lake. Crystal clear and transparent in the shallows and shocking azure blue away from the shore. Dotted with stony islands some of which are adorned with stunted, gnarly pines. It so vivid. So sharp. So perfect. It looks for all the world like a bonsai display.

The camp site is crawling with trippers and the lake shore is dotted with sunbathers but, turn your back to the platform strewn slope and face the water and that's all forgotten. Across this majestic body of water the panorama ridge is in full view. The lower slopes dressed with trees the higher levels still encased in snow and ice. Gentian peak, just a meter shy of twenty two hundred glowers down at us. Here a scorching summer day. There icy winter. For the second time today we just lounge around, feet up munching snacks soaking up the view. Possibly the most photographed view in the Garibaldi Provincial Park but I can see why. Fluffy white clouds keep scudding by adding new interest to the view and I keep raising my camera to add another photo to the archive.

After a lazy hour we drag ourselves up and head back down the trail. Back the way we came, this time up hill, to the meadows. As we once again find the board walks and cross the open to find our tent we see that the holiday chaos of the Garibaldi lake site has found the Taylor meadows too. It seems that every pitch has been occupied. Even the pick-nick tables up by the bear hangs have been moved aside to pitch tents on the platforms they normally inhabit. Every shape of tent and every shape of human can be seen from our tent door. There must be a couple of hundred people milling around in this tiny corner of this otherwise pristine wilderness.

We fetch the food, filter some water and settle down to prepare our evening meal before bedding down. I like such evenings to be about quiet contemplation, a time to reflect on the days deeds, to rethink the thoughts and flick through the images in my minds eye, to take stock before locking safe and turning attention to the next day, but there's no chance of that this evening. Here, this provincial holiday seems to be about sharing this pastime, this so often solitary activity, with a host of the like minded. The evening passes with a series of “how d'ya dos”, “where'ya froms” and “where'ya headeds” from the stream of people going to and from the bear hang or the hut. We're visited by the rangers on their evening round and a young lad, never having seen one before, comes to inquire about the Trangia pruttling away with water on the boil. Our meal finished a neighbour comes and joins us for a cup of tea. She's back in Canada after a stint in Germany. Living in Vancouver and contemplating moving out to Squamish to be closer to all this. A little over an hours drive is apparently a too far away. I wonder if I´m making a decent stab at hiding my jealousy. With the festivities still on a roll we say our good-nights, brush our teeth, hang the bear bag and creep into the tent. After all we´ve got another long lazy day ahead of us tomorrow.

We rise late. Not too late but late enough that the tent is already warming up. It seems that yet more people arrived late in the evening. Now every platform and stretch of board walk which will take a tent is occupied. Four Japanese emerge from two infeasibly small tents perched on the boards under the information boards. Breakfast is more of the night before, eating, drinking tea and watching the buzz of social interaction. The schedule dictates that this is to be a one nighter. We' re booked on a ferry to Vancouver Island tomorrow and the walk out plus the drive add up to missing the boat. This evening needs to see us back in Squamish, an easy jump off point for the drive. It's not over yet though. Just along the trail is the black tusk. Further along the trail is the Panorama ridge. I'm hoping to get at least a closer look at both before turning around and heading down. We pack up the tent, stuff the sleeping bags, roll up the mats, pump some water and , taking one pack with the bare essentials head out onto the trail.

It's shaping up to be another day of blue skies and scudding clouds. High summer, high in the hills. What could be better? We cross a stream, pick up the Panorama ridge trail, a motorway amongst footpaths, and amble along it. Taking our time, making best use of the views, enjoying each moment. Arriving at the foot of the spur to the black tusk and not having fully decided on the mornings route, we ponder our options. The path up to the tusk is busy, steep and does not appeal. It only gets you as far as the base of the basalt plug and its a lot of up to get half way and come back down. On the other hand the main trail runs on through more meadows with wide views and if we press on we might make some elevation on the ridge itself. If we press on that is. We set of with good intentions but pretty soon we fall back into an easy rhythm. This place is intoxicating and, not only are we on holiday but the rest of British Columbia has decided to keep us company. We make the shoulder of the ridge just in time to turn back.
Retracing our steps we pick up the rest of the gear and head back down yesterdays trail. Not with the usual drag-footed sadness at a trip finished but with the sprung stride of a trip just begun. We've got three more weeks in Canada. Ahead lies Vancouver island and then, glory of glories, on to Ontario where we've got a rendezvous with a seventeen foot prospector. As I look forwards I can't help but think of the ridge I'm leaving behind. The greens of the grass and pines at its foot, the grey of its scree strewn slopes and its sun baked but snow streaked crest. I wonder what was over the other side. I'll have to come back to find out.


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