Thursday, April 10, 2014

Building a trail, one story at a time. The Spine Trail - A 700 km long trail on Vancouver Island

What does it take to build a trail?  Ask the good folks over at the Vancouver Island Spine Trail Association (VISTA) and they will tell you years of dedication, persistence, hard work, community support, trail stories to inspire, and a dream that never dies.  Some quick background info on VISTA: Proposing to build a trail from Victoria in the south to Cape Scott at the northern tip of the Island.  

"The route is an inland path that passes near many communities, yet retains its wilderness character, follows historic routes and uses some existing trails.  Approximately 700km long, the “Spine” is an adventure opportunity that will provide a recreational route for residents and tourists through the beautiful back country of Vancouver Island. Although it is primarily a hiking trail, some sections of the Spine are suitable for other non-motorized use, e.g. mountain bikes, horses, and skis. The route traces mountain ridges, passes through forests and alongside lakes, and is similar to other successful long-distance routes in North America.”  www.vispine.ca

The proposed route of Vancouver Island's Spine Trail

The goal is to have the entire trail built/connected for 2017 and things over at VISTA have been vamping up lately.  In May, VISTA is hosting a VI Trails Network Conference that addresses the hurdles left to jump and the people/communities that will make it happen.  Last summer there was work done to create and connect some trails in the Port Alberni area.  Most recently, VISTA has asked the Island (and beyond) outdoor community to join them on this journey to build the largest trail building community this province (BC) has ever seen by sharing #alegacyofstories through one of their social media channels (@vanisletrails @vispinetrail on Twitter, or vanisletrail on Instagram).  No convincing required on my part!

It doesn’t take a rocket scientist to figure out that the OTBP crew is excited about the trail, specifically the new trails that have been built.  My family and I have some big adventure plans for the Spine Trail but am not quite ready to announce the details just yet. (Don’t you love surprises?) What I will share is our story of a trail reconnaissance mission that is directly related to the big adventure mentioned.  The newest trail on the proposed Spine route is called the Tuck Lake Trail, an important puzzle piece in connecting the west side of Cowichan Lake to Port Alberni.  My understanding of the Spine Trail between Lake Cowichan and Port Alberni is it will use the existing historic Canadian Northern Pacific Railway grade trails that run along the Alberni inlet, the Runners Trail that was built in 2010 and connects the inlet to Francis Lake. (aprox. 20km) and the newly routed and marked “trail” from Tuck Lake (roughly 4 km from the west end of Cowichan Lake) to Francis Lake.  Aprox. trail distance between Cowichan and Port Alberni - 50km.

Our mission was to locate the Tuck Lake trail head for some first hand knowledge on the trails condition.  Because there is so little information online about what the trail is like i.e. distance, terrain, elevation gain, apron hiking time, potential obstacles, and overall shape the trail is in, it was extremely important we check it out for ourselves to make sure the trail fits in with our summer plans.  From what we saw, it fits in perfectly!

I will admit, we set off in search of the Tuck Lake trail head with a vague idea of its whereabouts. We knew through Google Earth plots, reports read via email and website updates on the trail building progress where the proposed trail was.  But no where in there did we get an exact logging road name or pin dropped on a map indicating the trail head near Cowichan Lake.  I thought the adventure would be finding the trail but those good folks over at VISTA are clever.  Nailed to a tree with an orange trail marker was the VI Spine trail sign on an access road off of Nitinat River Road…I think.  Or it could have been another logging road.  See the confusion? From then on it was pretty simple.  Follow the orange markers to the trail head.  

[Funny story. We can find a trail in the middle of Vancouver Island wild with nary a map but finding Nitinat River Falls Provincial Park with a map and endless online resources such as the BC Parks website is where we fail?  Seriously, how the hell do you get into Nitinat River Prov. Park?  Let’s just say there is some unfinished business from the reconnaissance mission.]

Finding the trail head without any trouble meant more time for hiking. Perfect! By all accounts, the beginning section of the trail stays true to the wilderness feel VISTA was looking for.  Old growth Douglas Fir, Western Hemlock and Cedar dominate the forest with old man’s beard (a type of lichen) a close second.  So many shades of green in one space; ferns, moss, boughs, lichen.  Beautiful. I wonder if VISTA knows the trail is being used daily? Elk and deer do not adhere to the leave no trace rule.  Plenty of signs…droppings…confirmed their presence.  They are doing their part though.  Slowly beating down a path that soon many others will follow.  

For two straight summers, VISTA has been working hard at developing this trail, routing its course, and marking it with appropriate trail markings.  To be honest, had it not been for the orange triangles, I would not have been able to follow the trail.  At times, there was a faint path  guiding us and then suddenly it was swallowed by lush sword ferns.  Other times the path was obvious and had actual dirt rather than moss as a base but again, disappears.  Each time the trail faded a quick glance up and ahead for that orange triangle nailed to a tree never failed us.  I know in time the trail will become just that, a trail.  Yet for some reason, right now, I kind of liked the wild feel of roaming thru the forest in search of our own path.  

Since the focus of our adventure to the Tuck Lake Trail was to gather knowledge and work out logistics for a future adventure, hiking the trail was quite a bit scaled back compared to our normal jaunts thru the forest.  Hiking distance was only about 2km because in order to continue on the trail, crossing the Nitinat River is required.  Crossing the river will be less of an issue during the summer, when water levels recede.  It was good to get a visual of what to expect but the visual was not enough, for some of us.  Joel and Ben took the opportunity to test out their footwear and technical pants in water while getting some river crossing experience under their belts.  Liv went along for the ride.  I opted to sit back and watch these fools get cold and wet.  And take photos and videos of course!  Seems the water level in April is a tad too high!  

After it was determined that the shoes and pants passed the test, we spend a few hours just hanging out by the river, explored the banks, skipped rocks, watched the eagles soar high above us, and had epic mock light saber battles.  Dad Vader vs Luc Benwalker.  

I stood along the river (avoiding the lightsabers) taking in the spectacular views and sounds thinking, what a beautiful spot VISTA has created.  I see this trail being used as an introductory trail for families to use.  From anywhere in the Central Vancouver island area, it is a perfect day trip destination.  The trail is short, has very little elevation gain, and offers a great beach for swimming in the river and hanging out on those hot summer days.  Families can take it one step further and use this section of the trail as an introduction to backpacking or back country camping.  I see seasoned hikers using the trail for thru hiking. I see mountain bikers and trail runners.  I see us, a family, passing through this very trail, crossing this river, and writing our own chapter this summer to add to the legacy of stories the Spine Trail will tell. 

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