Hiking, canoeing, camping: three trips into BC's wild West Kootenay
I grew up just down the road from the granite-flanked Valhalla Range, and I feel their pull every time I go home. These were some of the first hikes I did as a kid, long-limbed and wide-eyed, usually poorly-equipped in sneakers, hauling full loaves of dense rye bread and big glass jars of slowly fermenting hummus into the backcountry. But first hikes leave an indelible impression: when I think of mountains — of cold camps and steep trails and stunning alpine vistas miles from anywhere — these are the ones that first come to mind. These are the mountains of home.
The Valhallas are a relatively small mountain range, a subrange of a subrange, tucked away into a quiet corner of BC's southern interior. With only a few access points and relative obscurity, it's generally pretty quiet compared to most other mountain parks. But while we canoe and camp down the edge of the park every year, it had been some time since I had hiked into the backcountry. I was long due for a return, and it felt damn good getting back.
The following are brief accounts of three trips we did into the Valhallas this past summer.
BEFORE YOU GO
There are basically only three maintained trails into the Valhallas, but with a bit of experience reading topo maps and a decent 4x4 the mountains can offer a multitude of surprises. An old family friend, Andrew Stevenson, has spent the last few decades exploring the backcountry, and he is a great resource for places to discover and stories to enthrall. When he heard we liked taking photos he suggested taking us on a day hike to one of his favourite places he found by topo map: Bannock Ridge. Directly across a steep narrow valley from Gimli, Midgard and Prestly, the ridge has front row seats to some of Valhallas most signature peaks.
We met up in the morning and clamboured into his truck. Like most hikes in the Kootenays it was a long drive in on old labyrinthine FSR roads, and access varies from year to year depending on washouts and logging activity. But access is currently pretty good, and once we were parked it was just a short slog to a ridge. We walked along that ridge and up onto another. Mountain views awaited us in all directions, with the great granite slabs of Gimli and Prestly dominating the view. I had been up to Gimli a couple of times, but this view was novel. Gimli had lost its sheer walls, its sail-like shape. From this angle it looked like a big tooth, a grinding molar. The light was hard but this place inspired an undeniable awe and raw beauty. I would love to spend a night there!
We ate lunch and had a quick midday snooze before continuing along the ridge and bushwacking a route down to the truck. Scraping up our legs on branches and staining our hands and mouths with berries, we followed an old creek down and down through the thick brush. Success.
ON THE WATER
Valhalla Provincial Park is bounded on the east by a long stretch of deep cool lake. This was the fifth year in a row I've canoed down the lake with my mom, but the first we had cool and rainy weather. Whereas in previous years we'd get sweltering days with an occasional quick evening thunder show, this year we had all day rain and drizzle. It was a welcome change! The clouds were low and moody, and it felt like an entirely different lake and an entirely new adventure with new challenges.
We took our usual 5 days, camping in the rain and becoming fairly adept at setting up a tarp on the beach. I still went for a swim every chance I got, and without the urgency of impending heat stroke the swims had a slower, more luxurious feel to them. The water was cool and silky and smooth, a delicious shock to the skin.
Storms raced down the valley, large squalls of rain flattening the lake with a roar, throwing the mountains in staggered relief, teasing out a bright glowing green colour in the water. It was beautiful. On the last day the sun returned and we got to dry out our stuff and go for a million swims and nap and read on the beach eating chocolate. The previous rainy days grew into a hazy distant memory. How is it that life can be so good?
It was a terrible and devastating year for forest fires. A short dry winter led to a long hot summer and before long the tinder-dry forest was raging all over the region. Over several days the air had been slowly filling with smoke from a dozen nearby forest fires, and one night during a storm the rain fell black with ash. The smoke would periodically build then recede, depending on wind patterns. But the wind had shifted in our direction once again and forecasts were grim, with air quality warnings all over Southern BC and large swathes of Washington. It was bad and quickly getting worse. The perfect time for a hike!
So off we went, into the veritable jewel of the Valhallas: the Gwillim Lakes. On the first day the smoke lent a nice gauzy dream-like quality to the mountains. We took our time on the ascent, stopping for lunch at Drinnon Lake, gorging on big black trailside huckleberries, gazing at the views. With that pace the hike of course took quite a while, and we arrived up at Gwillim as the first fingers of dusk started to fall. We made dinner in the shadow of mountains called Lucifer and the Dark Prince, and met some folks from Washington who had come up to escape the worst of the smoke. As bad as it was, it had been much much worse in WA. Night fell and we set up camp with deer grazing nearby in the glow of the moon. As darkness took hold it seemed as though the sky was getting clearer, the smoke moving on.
But the smoke accumulated as we slept. Waking up with stinging eyes in thick ashen air, it felt as though we were survivors of a dim and distant apocalpyse. Visibility was virtually nil. Our throats began to burn, our eyes lined in red. We had considered doing another hike but, worried for our lungs, decided to just head down in hopes that the air would be clearer near valley bottom. It wasn't, at least not for several days until the wind changed direction again. All the usual landmarks were obliterated, wiped from view. The sky was a thick pinky yellow grey, the mountains nonexistant. We get hazy air every summer, but I had never seen it quite like that. The tent and all our gear smelled like campfire for weeks afterwards.