Tuesday, May 10, 2011

Passby Creek 1

I gave the Passby Creek Trail a try yesterday. This trail is pretty weak on references: all I had was a recommendation from S---, who had snowshoed it, and a verbal description from the bcnorth.ca website dated was pre-2005. There was no entry in the original Trails To Timberline, and no entry on followyourpath.ca. I set out to follow the verbal description and see if I could just find the roadhead. I took snowshoes because on north-facing sloes the snowline seems to be still down around 2000'

I've been thinking about mapping trails without a GPS—a sort of variant on “Games Climbers Play” that I'm calling “Games Map-makers Play.” It's about going back to the technology of 1990: no computer, no Google Earth, no GPS. Just map and compass. So I took a compass, and the 1971 topo map.

Here was the verbal description:

Drive north from Smithers on Highway 16 for 24.4 kms and turn left on the Kitseguecla Lake Road. Turn left again after .7 km and cross the railway tracks on the 6000 Forest Service Road. About 1/2 km past the 6008 sign, turn left on the small Forestry Road. After driving 2.3 km past some fields, bear right at the "Y" onto the 608 Road, drive across a small bridge and turn left at the 4 km sign on a small road behind a corral to an overgrown landing in the cut block. The trail starts from the southwest corner of the landing and follows the creek bank south to the edge of the timber. After about an 1-1/2 hours hike, turn left on the beaten track. The old main trail goes straight ahead down the hill to Passby Lake.
You'll notice it sounds like you somehow get from the Kitseguecla Lake Road to the 6000 Forest Service Road, but in fact they're the same thing. It's marked with the little yellow kilometre signs: “6001,” “6002,” etc. Four tenths of a km past the 6008 signs (yes, this road seems to have been posted twice, and there are two signs in slightly different places for many of the kilometres) was the left turn described, but it turned out also to be the turn posted “Hankin-Evelyn Backcountry Trails Parking, 9km.” I'd noticed this last fall and wanted to check it out: it's the gladed, skins-only, backcountry ski area developed over the past few years by the Bulkley Backcountry Ski Society.
45 minutes from the house at this point.
This turn-off was already signed from here as the 608 Road, and right off it had one of those scary yellow signs giving a radio frequency: “608 Road; Call Empty; 159.42”. At if that wasn't going to give me enough of a pause--picturing a head-on collision with a a logging truck because I have no such radio--there was also another sign close to the ground on the same post, red one, saying “Road Temporarily Closed To Recreation Traffic.” Oh, Geez.
I went down there anyway, slowly, watching and listening for logging trucks. (Some doubt if this actually works.) Partly it was me being indignant that recreation sites should not be limited to people with forestry radios; partly it was me impatient to know what was down there. I met no one. I crossed Trout Creek, passed through some fields, and ascended through snowy forest. Snowline is at something like 2000' on these north-facing slopes. It was unclear where the “Y” was, but I did pass a turn-off to the left for a “602 Road” and that might have been it.
At 4 km there was the mentioned bridge and small corral. Leading up behind the corral, which was mired in snow, was what was probably an old road between young (maybe 20 year old) pine and spruce. It was unplowed and certainly undrivable. (The snow was about two feet deep here.) I decided that, for today, this was the roadhead, and parked on the road margin, leaving plenty of room for the hurtling logging trucks of my imagination. I donned snowshoes, shouldered pack, and set out to explore “a small road behind a corral to an overgrown landing in the cut block.”
There was an old track of snowshoes going up there, perhaps from a week before, and I followed these. I passed a yellow “deactivated road” sign, and after about ½ km I came to what might have been, seven years ago, a “overgrown landing:” it was full of aspen rather than coniferous trees. Here I shot a bearing to the Nipples and to the highest point on the ridge across the valley, so I could figure out later where the “landing” was.
From here, “the trail starts from the southwest corner of the landing and follows the creek bank south to the edge of the timber.” I poked around in the far southwest corner, but the place was only about the size of a small parking lot, and the snowshoe tracks continued confidently up a narrower corridor between trees a bit more at what I would call the “mid-point” in the south side of the landing. Oh well. I followed the tracks, and found myself in a distinct corridor between trees, narrower than a road but about the right size for what would have been a pack trail 70 years ago. I looked for blazes but found none. The trees were still “recently” planted, but a little bigger now, maybe 30 years old. There was no creek in evidence, but I thought I could hear one off to my left.
One piece of evidence that would help in figuring this all out would be a map showing cut blocks and the years they were cut.
Varied thrushes and some kind of warbler were calling. I saw a hare ahead, already gone brown. After a while the snowshoe prints left the corridor between trees and forked through denser pine right up a little ridge nose. I followed them for a hundred metres or so and got a view out over the basin I was walking through. I could see I had indeed been following a stream, and that I was in a big area of light green (a warm green) trees, but on the edges there were taller, dark green trees: “the edge of timber.” I'm pretty sure that in the local lingo of forestry, “timber” specifically means the uncut, mature trees, rather than trees period.
It looked like a long way to the edge of timber. I'd accomplished what I came for, and I'd forgot my gaiters, ski poles, and dark glasses, so I turned around. But first I went a bit further up what appeared to be the trail corridor and found I did come out on the creek itself. It was melted open and made a lovely, inspiring Spring sound.
Descending, I was struck by how much the place was like the canyonlands at that moment. Across from me to the north, the ridge seemed sere, bare and melted out, like something you might see above White Canyon, or the Escalante Road. The whole area was unnaturally quiet, as if I was a long way from civilization. I was standing on two feet of snow, but life was surging up all around. My hands smelled of pine and cottonwood where they'd brushed branches, and it was just about enough to make me feel good about having survived Winter.
At home I called the BC Rec guys, Kevin and Ben, and found out the 608 road is temporarily closed for the melt (they call it “break-up” ), so vehicles don't tear up the steep section near the Hankin-Evelyn Parking lot, which was 5 km beyond where I went. They don't know of any logging planned on the 608 Road in the next few years, so that's good news.
The triangulation proved totally inaccurate to locate the “landing.” I was off by kilometres. Instead I located it using (embarrassed!) a GPS track of this trail I found on my server, perhaps donated originally by a colleague at BC Parks. Do I need a better compass? A plane table? A sextant? Must work on this.
Here's what I knew at the end of this first day: 

Thursday, May 5, 2011

Winter River

Although it's covered in snow, you can see that no trees or bushes grow in that strange, long, thin, wandering field that goes down the centre of the valley. After your car has warmed up and the heat is working, you can relax as you drive from Smithers to Quick, and notice that no fences cross that field. If you have lived in Winter all your life you might wonder about it. And by March it sometimes feels like we have lived in Winter all our lives.

Rivers get closed down in winter. Like an amusement park where the rides are boarded up, silent and still, the river goes under its white tarp for the whole season. The employees are gone, the children are gone, there's no noise or light. We drive past put-ins or over bridges and pay no attention, as if there were a sign saying “Closed until Spring.”

You won't learn that the river is there in the winter by listening to people tell stories about it. You hear that flow went up quite fast one week on May, that a certain rapid got washed out, that it took four hours one September to go from Walcott to Telkwa by canoe. Someone talks about coho making it past Moricetown, or which hole always contains a steelhead; another tells a story about going from Morice Lake to the Skeena in a kayak. There are guides to paddling, books about fishing... Perhaps the river is just a summer phenomenon.

Come examine the winter river. It's quite silent here. The ice is lumpy and jumbled along the river edge. It piles up in strange shapes which, like snowflakes, never repeat and don't last long. The air is cold and a slight breeze blows from the south. Snow is moving in. Like the curving back of a big beast, water surfaces briefly in the centre of the channel, grey and muscly. It rides along in the air for a few metres, then dives again beneath the ice.

You shouldn't go down there in the dark water, but someone has; and we know that down in the gravels, steelhead are waiting out the winter silently, holding their territories. Salmon eggs are hatching. The nearby Lake Kathlyn elementary school sets up a tank to hatch salmon eggs, and it is completely covered from light, a refrigeration tube inserted into it to keep the water frigidly cold. Quietly bubbling outside a classroom for months, it reminds us what it's like on the bottom of the river.

Up on the surface people are skiing on the ice, or perhaps just meandering down the edge of the river, cautiously avoiding the uncertain centre when ice can be thin. In Telkwa a snowmobile trail gets set up on the ice of the Telkwa River, and the village has a new trail for a few months. When it's solidly frozen, the river could be the ideal highway for dog sleds or foot travellers because, as I said before, there are no fences.

You might think that the size of the river is the same in winter, but don't be fooled. In winter, the river is a much different size. It's not smaller. It's bigger. Because what is a river? It's the contiguous waterbody as far as it stretches. In summer it stretches merely from bank to bank; but in winter, water, in some form or another, frozen or liquid, continues contiguously far beyond the bank. Sure, there's liquid water in the riverbed, and then ice on top; but there's snow above that, and the unbroken blanket of snow continues, climbing the banks and setting off across the fields and through the forest. It's all river now, all river water, getting ready to flow downhill, sagging downhill already. There's nowhere you can draw a line and say, “This is river and that is not.” We are inundated: the snow and ice in turn stretch up the hill, around your house, over your car, across the road, up the mountains, over the pass, down to other rivers. It's all river now. And the summer river is a mere remnant of the real river, the Winter river.