OR Our Sunshine Coast Trail Fast-Pack

The Sunshine Coast Trail (SCT) first came onto my radar in early 2004 when our good friend (and ultra-running legend) George persuaded a small group of friends to run the trail from end to end. The plan was to run about 50km each day and have a fourth day to round out the entire 178 km route. Each day, we would have a specific end-point where we would stop, drive back to Powell River for good food and good sleep and then head back to the same location the following morning to begin running the next section.

In 2004, our group of 6 Smart Asses ran the SCT. Here we are at the 100 km marker [L to R – George Forshaw, Gail (Bazeley) Forshaw, Rob Lang, Sally Marcellus]

At that time, there were no FKT records to beat and we simply enjoyed the challenge of running somewhere new. As I was new to ultra-distance running and was not mentally ready for this kind of multi-day challenge, I took on the role of ‘crew’. I drove the back roads of Powell River in search of unmarked trail junctions, met the runners at their finish point each day and took them back out each morning. I often joined them in the mornings for the first 8 – 10 km and then retraced my steps back to the truck to begin my solo-navigation to their predicted end-point. The trail sunk its teeth into me then, with its grueling climbs, rocky outcrop vistas, and ancient forests. I longed to be able to do what my team was doing and I believe that this four day experience was the seed that started my ultrarunning pursuits. From our little group of six, three of our runners completed the entire SCT – Rob Lang, Sally Marcellus, Gail (Bazeley) Forshaw. George ran for three of the four days, I ran only a few dozen kilometers in total and Bruce, who initially had work commitments, ran the final two days on the trail. For Bruce and me, the trail remained unfinished business.

Fast-forward a decade to October 2013. Bruce, Wendy and I decided to try running the SCT trail over the course of the Thanksgiving long weekend.

Sunshine Coast Trail 2013 with Wendy. We ran some sections of the trail but were caught off guard by the challenging footing, steep climbs and heavy packs.

We thought we would take advantage of the many huts now dotted along the route, allowing us to ditch the tent. No sooner had we begun our trek than we recognized how truly challenging running was with backpacks, weighed down with thick clothing and warm sleeping bags to counter the chill Fall nights. We were moving half as quickly as we planned and, by the first hut, we realized that we would not finish within the tight time constraints that we had. We revamped our running plans and completed sections at either end of the SCT but we skipped the very remote middle section, planning once again to return another time.

This summer, everything fell into place. Although we had briefly discussed running the SCT, we were vague about when we would do it, how long we would need or even what we would pack – until the weekend that we left. It was Saturday afternoon when I began to make shuttle and water taxi inquiries for accessing the remote start at Sarah Point for the following day. But spontaneity worked in our favour and we set off the next day.

At 5:00 pm on Sunday, we were met by Jesse from Sunshine Coast Shuttle as soon as we walked off the Powell River-Comox ferry.

Jesse drove us as far as his 4×4 truck would go – and much farther than I would feel comfortable driving on this rough logging road!

He has been offering his shuttle service to trail users for about two years now, willing to drive the back roads to drop off or pick up hikers or even to deliver supplies. His much-needed service allowed us to get from downtown to Sarah Point without needing a car or having to figure out the twice-a-week bus service to Lund. Compared to the cost of a water taxi, his $189 price is a sweet deal. In just over one hour, he drove us in his 4×4 truck from the ferry terminal to the very end of the rough logging road at Sarah Point – about a 15 minute walk from the 0 km mark of the SCT.

At the northern tip of Sarah Point, our journey begins. “I always like going South; somehow, it feels like going downhill.”

The Sunshine Coast Trail is a 178 km route which travels along the back country behind Powell River. Here I have noted our start and end points as well as where we spent each night.

Sunday (16 km) – We set out on our third SCT quest just after 6:00 pm. In the heat of the evening, we cruised along the arbutus-lined trails of Malaspina Provincial Park. Here, the moss-edged trail gently curves around to the east edge of the peninsula, descending down to Feather Cove and but ever-ascending up towards Gwendoline Hills, giving lovely views of Okeover Inlet. Our only option for water came at the creek outlet of Wednesday Lake (km 12). A family was enjoying a swim in the lake and had set up their tent just beside the trail in a lovely flat site. We had to load up with water for dinner, breakfast and coffee as well as enough drinking water to last until the next water opportunity the following day. With our Sawyer filter, we filled our four water bottles and the Sawyer reservoir, totaling about 3.5 liters. Little did we know at the time that this creek water tasted terrible – sort of like bread mold – but we had to tolerate it until the next day. The final 4 km of the day climbed up and down and up again over rocky bluffs.

Atop Hummingbird Bluff, we watched the sun sink below the horizon. Luckily, in July, we still had over an hour of daylight.

We paused on Hummingbird  Bluffs to watch the sun set, descended and then made our final climb up to Manzanita Bluff, where we found the amazing Manzanita Hut (km 16) which faces out towards the Salish Sea, Savary and Vancouver Islands. As we had done this section and had slept in this hut before, we knew what beauty to expect. As we rehydrated our meal, we watched the dusky sky change from amber to violet and chatted with a hiker who was taking over one month to complete the trail northbound. After a quick rehydrated meal of Mountain House mac and cheese with pepperoni, we sneaked into the hut loft, joining the three other hikers who had already hit the hay.

Monday (42 km) Amazingly, we overslept on our first night out and were shocked to awake at 8:45 am. A pair of hikers had already packed up (noisily, I assume) and left before we awoke! We had tentative plans to run approximately 50 km to the hut on Inland lake (~km 67) but this late start made us begin recalculating. As we ate a hearty steel-cut oatmeal and full grain breakfast, we reminded ourselves that this was not a race but a vacation.

Good morning, Sunshine!

The Manzanita hut view is spectacular (even if the coffee tastes foul!)

Yet our bread-mold flavoured coffee was nothing to linger over and we were off and running at 10:00 am. Luckily, within 2 km, we came across Thulin Creek and were able to dump out our moldy water and replace it with some cold, clean-tasting water. This section of trail is cruisy and gorgeous, partly because it is a gradual descent and partly because it was sun-dappled through the thin canopy of trees. Smooth trails under-foot made for easy movement and we were reeling with trail fever as we crossed Malaspina Road where the SCT Marathon Shuffle run begins each May. The SCT route markings, which were already more than sufficient, doubled at this point with the race course being marked further with red paint splotches on rocks and logs.

The SCT is very well-marked. The red/white square denote each passing kilometer (except for those in the kilometer-warp zones). The red and orange blazes are very frequent, with almost always one in view. The blue diamonds, the original trail markers, are less frequent and sometimes have hand-written distances on them.

Although we felt that we were moving well, the kilometers did not come quickly. Just as we had found with Wendy in 2013, moving quickly with a well-stocked backpack is hard work and having to stop frequently to filter water was time-consuming. After running alongside the peaceful Toquenatch Creek, which brought back a wave of 2013 memories, we began climbing up to Rieveley Pond (km 34).

Rieveley Pond hut

At the hut, we paused to eat our mid-day snack foods and discuss the ramifications of our relatively slow pace. After consuming all the huckleberries in sight, we pressed onward into new territory. The next section in Appleton Canyon may be my favourite section of the entire trail. We followed the creek for an hour or so as it rambled over lazy waterfalls and swimming holes.

Appleton Canyon offers the perfect swimming hole.

After the Theyeth Lake lookout, we dropped down to the level of Sliammon Lakes (big and little). The trail runs tightly along the shores of these lakes which, although it sounds lovely, makes for herky-jerky trail running with every footstep needing consideration as the trail snakes severely over rocky terrain. Beyond the lakes, we popped out into an old clearcut, the first that we encountered so far. It seemed such an assault on the senses to be dumped out in the hot afternoon sun after the cool seclusion of Appleton Canyon but, luckily, there are very few clearcut sections on the SCT. Soon, we began our ascent of Scout Mountain which is a steep grunt with loose footing. Mentally, it is a tough little climb since we were so close to the Powell River bridge crossing and it was hot in the direct sun. As we re-entered the trees on our way down, we could hear the chit-chat of rock-climbers on the Higgyland cliffs and then we soon popped out at the boat launch and parking lot of the Shinglemill Pub. Having been out of water for a little while, Bruce and I sneaked into the pub washrooms to refill our bottles and have quick splash baths in the sinks. We had reached the 50 km mark of the SCT but had only managed 34 km for the day so far. Despite the delicious smell of burgers and fries, we crossed over the Powell River and continued on the south side of Powell Lake, passing the evening swimmers and picnickers at Mowat Bay and Haywire Bay. The guidebook mentioned a campsite at Haywire Bay but it became apparent that this was not a SCT hiker’s campsite. Instead, it was a full hook-up RV site with a boat launch, sea-doos and screaming children. We strongly considered setting up camp here since we were both hungry, tired and recovering from hydration issues but we spied a SCT trail sign reporting that Haywire Bluffs (km 58) were only 40 minutes away. Despite our mutual fatigue and the addition of yet another climb onto our day, we took on the challenge and hiked up to the bluffs in 20 minutes. There we found a lovely, open, mossy, flat spot where we rehydrated our delicious homemade chili and quinoa/rice dinner and set-up our cowboy camp.

We spent out second night cowboy camping on Haywire Bluffs. Bug nets are mandatory for this! At some point in the night, I lay awake and watched the milky way. I love the way we have decorated the trees with all our trail clothes!

Tuesday (30 km) To some degree, the hut locations determined our mileage each day. Over morning coffee, we read through the maps, considering our progress so far, and we realized that, if we wanted to sleep at huts, we would have a few shorter days ahead of us. We set our sights on Tin Hat hut (km 88) for tonight.

This is a good representation of the trails for this first third of the SCT – sun-dappled, pine needle-covered, moss-lined, single track.

We cruised through the Haywire Old Growth section, down past Lost Lake and popped out on the wide gravel pathway which borders Inland Lake. We followed the trail around the western edge and circled up past the snoozy Provincial Park campground. At the dock, we dumped our gear and dove in for the most delightful swim ever. Afterwards, as we continued along the wheelchair accessible trail, we came across hundreds of Western Toadlets who were migrating across the trail to a boggy area near the lake. Each little toadlet would fit on your thumbnail and they are difficult to see unless they are hopping. We had to carefully pick our way through their migration path and hope that none were squashed in our shoe treads. We stopped (once again) to filter water before beginning to climb up to Confederation Lake. We were astonished to see dozens of invasive American Bullfrogs lollygagging in Inland Lake with tadpoles nearby the size of a fist. This next trail caught us by surprise both in its beauty and its difficulty. It is an old, old forest with enormous trees and sparse undergrowth. It is no exaggeration to say that some of the trees are more than 1 meter in diameter. As the narrow trail began to ascend, it was soft and loamy underfoot and the switchbacks were carved precariously into the sideslope. In places, the climb was incredibly steep and we would have to crane our necks to see where the next switchback would be. There were places where multiple trees had fallen over each other and it would be a pick-up stix challenge to figure out the sequence of their falls. When we finally reached the top of the sweaty climb (our swim being a distant memory), we followed the shore of Confederation Lake to the hut (km 74). Here, we filtered water from the lake, ate a Mounatin House chicken salad lunch and chatted with some hikers who were taking a rest day and luxuriating in the lake’s waters.

Confederation Lake and its new hut were a welcome respite after the grueling climb

Our next milestone was Fiddlehead Landing, way back down at the Powell Lake shoreline. The descent was no easier than the ascent and we had to slowly pick our way down the steep trail. It was a relief to arrive at the bottom and pick up the pace along an old road. We filtered water at a decent creek and turned towards Tin Hat mountain, completely bypassing Fiddlehead Landing and its lakeside hut. The climb up to Tin Hat mountain began as an old logging road but soon we were directed onto a trail thickly overgrown with thimbleberry and salmonberry bushes. Just as we started climbing in earnest, the trail turned sharply downhill, causing us to lose all of that elevation only to have to climb it again. It was here that began to notice severe chafing on my heels and had to stop to empty out my gritty socks and apply BodyGlide to my feet. We continued climbing through thick salal and sandy soil until we came to a dribble of a creek and two other hikers. Here, at the only water source near Tin Hat mountain, the black flies and horseflies feasted on us as we tried to fill up and filter as many vessels as possible. We still had about 400 m vertical to climb, some of it on gravel road but most on steep, rocky trail. We arrived at Tin Hat hut (km 88) around 7:00 pm and were treated to views of the snow-capped mainland mountains to the east. By the time we had settled in and rehydrated our dinner, the thick smoke from BC’s interior forest fires had blown over and, in an instant, it was like a curtain had been drawn across the sky, obliterating the mountain view. We sat on the hut porch and enjoyed our homemade dahl and saag paneer curry dinner, watching the amber sun set. We shared the hut with one hiker while three others slept cowboy-style under the stars.

Tin Hat mountain is the second highest point on the SCT. The hut sits ~100m below the summit. Here, you can see the line of forest fire smoke on the horizon line which would conceal our vistas for the rest of our hike.

The next morning, all evidence of the views had been erased by the smoke. This photo is looking directly west, towards Vancouver Island.

Wednesday (35 km) The entire SCT is adorned with signs denoting each passing kilometer. But as with all trail systems, the route is somewhat dynamic with occasional re-routes and improvements which can alter the actual distance of the trail. In these places, the kilometer markers are not adjusted to reflect the new distance since that would mean adjusting the markers for the whole length of the 178 km trail. Instead, on days like today, hikers can enter a ‘kilometer time-warp’ where hours of hiking result in only a few kilometer gain. We left Tin Hat hut and carefully picked our way down the sand-covered rock slope in search of a water source. From the map, we could see there was a creek about 3 kilometers away, at the base of the mountain, but it took us close to two hours to get to that water source. Other hikers speculated that six new kilometers had been added in this section. We cruised along the edge of Lewis Lake and found ourselves on a freshly-made trail, soft and ashy under foot with spanking new bridges. We crossed over Spring Main logging road and then entered the familiar March Lake trail, which I clearly remember from our 2004 run. This decommissioned road offers a gradual, shady, mossy ascent up to March Lake and was teaming with berries of all varieties. It would almost be runnable if you didn’t have 100 km already in your legs!

Replicating a photo from our 2004 journey, we stopped for a selfie at the 100 km marker and briefly discussed our upcoming Finlayson 100 km race.

We struck GOLD! Notice that my lips and teeth are already blue with blackberry juice (as well as salmonberry, thimbleberry, blueberry and huckleberry juice!) These are native Trailing Blackberries – very brambly but small, sweet and seedy.

Not all the trail is pretty. This steep, dry section heading up to Elk Lake had no green undergrowth and was a little soul-sucking.

Soon enough, the trail turns and climbs very steeply up to Elk Lake. At the top, we found a picture of paradise! The Elk Lake hut sits right on the lake where a few hikers were reading, sunbathing, swimming off the log-boom dock and feasting on blueberries. Once again, we dropped everything and jumped in the lake while waiting for our lunch to rehydrate (Mountain House eggs and bacon). After an hour’s break, we continued onwards. Here, we made our only error in navigation and, instead of heading up over Elk summit, we somehow stayed on the old ATV track which skirted the summit and looped back to join the main trail a few kilometers later. This ATV track carried us steadily downhill and we knew that the trail would soon turn away from the road and head straight up to Walt Hill and the Suicide Bluffs, but we needed to load up on our evening supply of water before that junction (little did we know that there is a water source near the hut). We arrived at Washout Creek only to find it dry and Bruce recognized that we had to retrace our steps back to Coyote Lake to get water so we ditched our packs and hustled back to the lake to resupply. Now weighed down with 6 pounds of water each, we entered the steep ascent up to Walt Hill. The kilometers went by so slowly here as we summited the hill and, when we found no hut at the top, we were confused and disappointed. The smoke obscured our views and it was difficult to have any sense of direction.

Thinking that this was Walt Hill hut, we were truly disappointed. We found out later that this emergency shelter is known as the Walt Hilton and the real hut is 2 km farther along the trail.

We came across an emergency shelter, which resembles a large outhouse, and we briefly considered hunkering down for the night but I insisted that the Walt Hill hut was further along. We pressed on and began to lose elevation, regain it and lose it again as we wound around the edge of this rocky bluff. Occasionally I swore I could hear laughter and wondered if I was starting to go mad but then we came to a sign directing us towards the hut and the peals of laughter ended up being real. We came across Walt Hill hut (km 123) and a party of 5 friends enjoying the evening. Bruce broke out the small flask of scotch whisky and we toasted our progress before enjoying a tasty Mountain House lasagne meal and hitting the hay.

Upon finding the real Walt Hill hut, Bruce brought out his flask of scotch whisky and we toasted my navigation skills.

Thursday (46 km) Sleeping in the huts is no easy feat since other hikers are noisy, the plywood floor is hard, the heat is unbearable and often there are bugs feasting on your tired body. On this night, I slept barely a wink as I was endlessly woken up by biting insects. Over the next few days, the tracks of bug bites flared up all over my body. Bruce was unaffected as he slept in the impermeable SOL bivvy but me, using my down sleeping bag as a partial quilt, I was exposed and attacked. I have to wonder about what is living in the walls of that hut. With Mt. Troubridge hut (km 158) as our goal, an early rise had us on the trail at 8:00 am. With the sweet combination of finally being in shape after 3 days of fast-packing and a long, gentle 20 km descent (mostly!), we flew along easily with the kilometers clicking by.

Smooth trails edged with enormous trees

One lump or two? We came across two tables (red tablecloth in the background) with a full china tea service. Later on down the trail, we read that it is a memorial to a local well-loved hiker.

At the Lois River crossing, we chatted with one of the PRPAWS trail maintainers who gave us a run-down on the up-coming trail conditions and various options for shortening our route. Lois Lake offered a beautiful, easy-going running route with views of houseboats all along the lakeshore. There were a few under-used recreation campsites right on the lake and good sources of water throughout.

It was impossible to cross over creek without dunking our heads and soaking our hats. Try doing this move with a 50 lb pack!

We were on the edge of a clearcut as we followed the shore of Lois Lake. This was our first view (!) of Mt Troubridge and our climb up to Elephant Lake.

Eventually we left the lake and headed up alongside Creek 4. We came across the brand-new, still unfinished Golden Stanley hut (km 145) and stopped briefly to rehydrate a late lunch. We refilled our water and continued up towards Elephant Lake. Initially this is a mountain bike trail, complete with jumps, bermed corners and bridges, often steep and gnarley as it follows Buckwheat Creek. But then, it flattens out and becomes a wide, overgrown road with a constant grade, making it easy to fall into the rhythm of climbing. We stopped again to eat that rehydrated lunch and carried on up to Elephant Lake. The lake was inviting but we simply filled our water bottles and continued up the next pitch to our highest point of the trail, Mt Troubridge. Predictably, the climb steepened as we gained elevation and the sweeping switchbacks brought back memories of the Diez Vista ridge ascent. When we arrived at the junction to the hut, we were disappointed to see that Jocelyn Pond, next to the hut, was almost dry and that they biting flies were rampant, making sitting outside nearly impossible.

Mt Troubridge hut is a gorgeous log cabin, complete with pellet stove for winter nights. Although we would have had the hut all to ourselves, the bugs and lack of water chased us away.

Since it was only 5:30 pm, we decided to press onwards to Rainy Day Lake hut. We had once again entered familiar territory, having run this section with Wendy in 2013. The descent is shady and the trail is pine-needle covered with berry bushes all around. I would often round a corner to see Bruce picking a bush clean of berries while waiting for me. The 10 km descent was tiring and, as we hit the power line access road, I was completely spent. The final 3 km to the hut were fueled only by the draw of a swim in Rainy Day Lake. We arrived at the hut (km 169) and immediately headed down to the dock for a refreshing swim. There were two other parties at the hut and one group had already gone to bed (before sunset!). After a homemade chili and quinoa/rice dinner, we pitched the hut’s emergency tent just outside the hut and hunkered down for a well-earned sleep.

Friday (9 km) We slept well in our bug-free tent and spent time chatting with the other hikers at Rainy Day Lake before heading down towards Fairview Bay. With less than 10 km left to go, we took our time and started around 9:30 am. The final section dropped us down to the ocean where  we were hit by the lovely salt air as we approached Fairview Hut (km 172). In typical coastal fashion, the trail carried us up and over rocky outcrops, inland and back out to the seaside.

The Fairview trail hugs the sea shore and gives lovely views of Jervis Inlet and Nelson Island – even through the smoky haze.

We could see the Saltery Bay oyster farms and the local ferry as it headed over to Earl’s Cove, on-board car alarm screaming through the morning quiet. The terrain is so much like Finlayson Arm or any other southern BC coastline and we reveled in the beauty that is right here in our backyard. We rolled into the Saltery Bay parking lot and took a photo at the SCT trailhead kiosk.

Our 178+ km journey was complete and it was a fun challenge to do it fast and light over four and a half days. It would be a completely different challenge to do this over 10 days, as the guidebook suggests, but this is what appeals to us at this point in our life.

And we are done! This was such a beautiful, challenging and fun vacation. I hope we add it to our annual event list.

Once back on pavement, we refilled our water bottles at the ferry toll booth and then headed to the lone bus stop where a few patio chairs beckoned. Being a dead-end road, there is very little traffic heading into town outside of the ferry rush but luckily the third car to pass us with our thumbs out picked us up and drove us the 30 km back to downtown Powell River. I guess the sight of sweaty backpackers and dirty legs is fairly common in Saltery Bay. We had completed the loop of our trip and had time to enjoy a pub lunch with a local Townsite IPA (or two!) before walking on the ferry home.

Extra Thoughts

  • water sources were our main concern for the entire route. Approximately four times each day, we needed to find and filter water which swallowed up a lot of time. Many streams are seasonal, making July/August a challenging time to hike
  • the huts are wonderful and every hiking party that we came across was welcoming and accommodating, despite our late arrival times. I would highly recommend Manzanita, Confederation Lake, Elk Lake, Rainy Day Lake and Fairview Bay huts as destinations
  • Eagle Walz’s SCT hut-to-hut guidebook is invaluable and essential. Divided into 30 section hikes, he points out the history of each area and key things to look for. We cut the book apart and carried only the small maps with us. newer editions of the book have a SCT Odometer at the end which gives a kilometer-by-kilometer run-down of camps, water sources, key junctions and points of interest
  • our complete gear lists are posted in Tips from a Lightweight

While Bruce and I fast-packed the Sunshine Coast Trail, every time we met other hikers loaded down with 50+ pound packs, we were predictably asked how we were able to manage with such tiny backpacks.

Are we even wearing backpacks? You would never know from the front view!

As the days rolled by, we mulled over many possible answers and came up with this sweet sound-bite:

When you backpack, you can either have comfort while you hike or you can have comfort while you camp.

We opt for comfort while moving in order to move quickly and we are willing to sacrifice some luxuries in order to achieve that. Don’t worry – we still brush our teeth and eat three meals a day! And truly I don’t think that we were at all uncomfortable due to reduced gear. At the beginning of our 178 km trip, my pack weighed 14 pounds and Bruce’s weighed 19 pounds (before adding the weight of water). This includes all our cooking, eating and sleeping gear for our five nights out as well as food and clothing. We even had a few extra meals in case our plans changed or an emergency situation arose. Of course, camping with a good friend allows you to shed even more gear weight since you only need one stove, one bottle of deet, one tent, etc.  We opted to hike without a tent and use the huts each night. Although that was a fine choice, next time we would opt to bring a super lightweight tent (no fly) like our Big Agnes Seedhouse just so we could get a better sleep than the huts offered. I should add that this hike was done at the height of summer and the forecast called for full-sun and high temperatures all week long, which allowed us to be without raingear. In fact, it hasn’t rained here in many weeks, making fire danger very high and water supply very low.

Here is my gear list:

Lightweight Martha’s pack weighed in at 14 pounds at the start and an unbelievable 10 pounds at the end.

Pack – Terra Nova Laser 20 L backpack (321 g)

Clothing – I wore the same thing every day – technical shirt, running skort, running bra, wool socks, La Sportiva trail shoes, running cap. In my pack, I carried a synthetic puffy jacket, a thicker technical top, thick leggings, sleep socks, arm warmers, buff, sun glasses and trekking poles. [In the future, I would pack an extra pair of running socks so that I could wash a pair once a day]

Camping GearSea to Summit Spark 1 down sleeping bag (which was way too warm for this trip!), a tiny hourglass-shaped thermarest, headlamp, extra batteries, collapsible bowl, spoon, inflatable pillow x 2, ziploc for accumulated garbage, 30 section maps cut out from the SCT guidebook.

I cut apart the SCT guidebook and bound the 30 mini-maps onto a ring, complete with a page of hand-written ferry/bus schedules, phone numbers and other pertinent info. This 3rd edition did not have the SCT odometer which would have been enormously helpful in our daily pursuit of water sources.

Personal Care – mini containers of suntan lotion, deet, body glide, hand sanitizer, toothpaste, Dr. Bronner’s biodegradable soap and face cream; ear plugs, toothbrush, dental floss, end of a toilet paper roll, small piece of a nail file, 6 salt pills, 4 ibuprofen, 4 Aleve. All of this fit in one zip-loc baggie.

Food – we carried a mixture of Mountain House meals and homemade, home-dehydrated food. I carried 4 dinners, 3 lunches, 3 oatmeal breakfasts, 1 pound Costco trail mix, 6 long pepperoni sticks, some pork jerky, 3 Clif bars, 3 Vel bars, 1 tube of Nuun, 2 tubes of Clif shots

Each packaged meal was re-packaged into zip-loc baggies or in Food Saver pouches and we brought only one rehydration bag which we used for every meal. For dinner and breakfast, we boiled 2 cups of water and poured it into the rehydration bag so no real cooking took place (and no dishes needed washing!)

Water – I carried 2 x 650 ml water bottles, 1 platypus bladder (1 L)

Emergency Supplies – driver’s license, $50 cash, credit card, space blanket, lighter, tea light candle, matches, 2 gels, 2 Emergen-C packets, small swiss army knife, whistle, back-up light, large band-aid, cell phone. [I need to add in a piece of Leukotape and a golf pencil with duct tape wrapped around the end]

Bruce’s gear list is similar to mine in terms of clothing, food, personal care and emergency supplies. Here are a few differences:

Lightweight Bruce started with a 19 pound pack and finished with a 14 pound pack.

Pack – Raidlight Ultra Olmo 20 L backpack with pole holster (630 g)

Camping Gear – GPS, GoPro camera, pepsi-can alcohol stove with stand and wind guard; titanium cooking cup (~600 ml), 500 ml denatured alcohol in a collapsible bladder, foldable sleeping pad, SOL bivvy sack, bug net hats x 2.

Food – 150 ml scotch whisky in a plastic flask

Water Sawyer filtration bladder (1 L), water scoop and filter, 500 ml collapsible water bottle

One hiker asked what one thing could he focus on to reduce his pack weight and size. Bruce spoke to him about his pot/stove/cooking set-up and encouraged him to rethink the amount of fuel (# of canisters) he would ultimately need, which is a great place to start. I also think that hikers need to consider all the packaging and bags they are carrying. They could probably reduce their pack weight significantly if they just removed all the stuff sacks (especially those hefty dry bags I saw!). Also, pay attention to the weight of your pack alone. It is easy to find a pack that weighs more than a kilogram empty! (ours were both around half that weight empty) Make sure that each item is either 1] multi-use (like a towel/chamois/buff) or 2] essential (like a meal). You should expect to sweat and be stinky. You can swim in your hiking clothes. You can walk around camp in your hiking shoes. There is no need to bring a second pair of shoes, a bathing suit and a second set of hiking clothes. There is a fantastic little book to set you on your way to light-weight camping and I highly recommend it to everyone as a place to start:

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We own this little book and refer to it often when planning a trip. Check it out!

OR Coyote Backbone Trail 100

With the months of difficult winter training behind us, Bruce and I headed south to sunny California in March to run the first edition of the Backbone Trail 100. There have already been two previous 68 mile races along this route but this was the first year that the longer distance was offered. All together, there were only 35 folks taking on the 100 mile challenge, toeing the start line beside 168 runners in the 68 mile race.

The Backbone Trail (BBT) has just recently (2016) been awarded status as an established park trail. The trail begins at the northern edge of Los Angeles, at Will Rogers State Park, and runs north along the backbone of the Santa Monica mountain range on the edge of the Pacific coast. It ends 68 miles later, back on the coast in Point Mugu state park, just south of Oxnard. The 68 mile race follows the Backbone Trail from end to end while the 100 mile course adds in the extra 32 miles at the end in three unique loops of Point Mugu park before heading over the ridge and down to the seashore. In true Coyote fashion, race weekend was selected according to the lunar calendar so that we would be able to run through the night under a full moon.

While up in BC, we had been dealing with more than usual snow [in fact we had to dig ourselves out of our driveway again on our way to the airport], southern California had been having record amounts of rainfall. As we began our descent into Los Angeles, we were struck by the Irish emerald-green forests below. We were prepared for torrential downpours, wet feet and plenty of poison oak – but at least it wasn’t snow. We pulled into the Point Mugu group campsite, set up our tent, arranged our race gear and enjoyed our dinner while listening to the ocean waves crash.

‘Early’ on this race day meant 3:45 am. We stumbled out of our tent and over to the sign-in table, gave weary hugs to good ol’ friends and acquired our race bibs before hauling ourselves onto one of the big yellow school buses. The drive to the race start was – you got it – 68 miles long. We arrived at the start line with just enough time to visit the washroom and dump our drop bags before the race briefing began. The race started about 30 minutes late, after some fun Coyote shenanigans, like handing out the prized (or dreaded?) propeller hats to the predicted front-runners and back-of-the-packers. Soon enough we were heading up onto that dusty single track trail.

The pre-race start line photo. 168 runners are running the 68 mile Backbone Trail and 35 runners are rounding up to the nearest 100.

There was much chit-chat and a feeling of comradery between the runners as we headed out for our day of fun. The trails were in great shape, edged with green grasses, a few cookie-dough mud sections and even trickles of creek water under some of the trail bridges. But rain was all a memory by mid-morning. With the sun higher in the sky, the heat turned up and even the local Californians were commenting on the heat. It turned out to be a hot day, even by their standards, but for Bruce and me, it was glorious. This was the hot holiday that had pulled us through the winter months.

The race unfolded as races do. There were climbs and descents, views and valleys, great aid stations and great conversations. I was struck by how remote the trail seemed, considering how close we were to Los Angeles. At one point, I thought I could hear a race car track, with engines revving up and screeching, but soon we popped out on a winding, two-lane back road with cars ripping it up on an otherwise quiet Saturday morning. I think this was Topanga Canyon Blvd which the RD note had warned us about crossing with care and attention. While mostly very secluded and remote, occasionally the trail would give us peeks of elaborate mansions perched on hillsides with ocean views and shock us back into the reality of how others choose to live.

In the heat of the day, I felt strong as the trail took us up a steep, sun-exposed gravel road after Piuma AS (25 miles). Although I was very hot and sweaty, I was managing my food and hydration well. Around this point, I realized that I had made a big error about which drop bag to put my headlamp in. Our choices were the 25 mile or the 52 mile stations and the former had seemed too early so I had placed it in the Mishe Mowka drop bag at 52 miles. Although I was moving well and feeling strong, I could calculate that it would be dark before I reached there. (Luckily I had a back-up handheld light which got me through the dusky hour). When I rolled into the Kanan Dume Rd AS (38 miles – which was listed as a water only but was a full-on, full-service oasis!), the captain there told me that I was the first place woman for the 100 miler. This was news that I didn’t want, especially this early on in the day, and I told her so. I tried to file that information deep in the back of my brain and carried on as if I still had 72+ miles to go.

When I arrived at Mishe Mowka AS (52 miles), I had a made-to-order burrito from an amazing chef and I took off my shoes to deal with the beginnings of a blister. Bruce arrived soon after and, together again, we headed off over Sandstone Peak and into Point Mugu park. We chatted and compared stories of our day so far and were thankful to be in the cooler dark of early evening. Once past Butt-Crack rock, we enjoyed the long descent towards Danielson Ranch, getting briefly disoriented in a creek wash-out area and then back on track. The Danielson Ranch AS (60 miles) is in a cold river valley and it did not take us long to get chilled to the bone. All the staff were dressed in down jackets and toques but cheerily served us spicy Italian Wedding soup and cold grilled cheese sandwiches.

Martha arriving at Danielson Ranch (mile 60) around 10:30 pm, ready to take on the three loops of Point Mugu park.

Bruce looking strong and happy at Danielson Ranch – mile 60

This aid station is where the 68 and 100 mile races diverge. While most runners had only 8 miles to go, the 100 mile racers had three clover-leaf loops to do, always returning to this aid station between loops. We were told that we were 8th and 9th place in the 100 mile race . As we resupplied, the first place 100 miler came through the aid station, having already completed two of the three loops. We headed out onto the Coyote Loop (7 miles long), finding a few other runners along the way. The ridge of the Three Foxes trail offered warm breezes which finally took the chill out of our bones. But soon, we dropped back down to the cold valley to return to the Ranch AS. As we approached the station, we planned to simply check in and out to avoid getting cold again.

At 12:40 am when we entered the aid station for the second time, Mauricio welcomed us but then gave us the terrible news that we had missed the cut-off for that loop by 10 minutes. We were astonished and, with all the pent-up emotion of the day, I was instantly in tears. How could this be? Weren’t we still in the top 10? Wasn’t I first place woman? The explanation took a long time to sink in and it still doesn’t make a lot of sense to me but, in a race, rules are rules.

With the creation of park status for the Backbone Trail, the state park put more demands on the race organization. They insisted that a state park officer be in place, in uniform and paid an hourly wage at every single aid station along the race route, being paid with our race entry fees and probably RD personal funds. As a result, the cost of putting on this race sky-rocketed and the race committee had no choice but to shorten the opening hours of each station in order to reduce the cost of state park personnel. Although we still had 11 hours to complete the final 50 km, the aid stations between us and the finish line had to close and those cut-off times were put in place in order to keep the race afloat. The cut-off times were well-publicized and it is my own error to have not studied them more carefully. I know full well that I could not have moved faster and, in fact, I had been proud of myself for reigning in my excitement of perhaps placing in a race this long.

But being told that our race was over did not mean that we were done. We were still deep in the hills of Point Mugu park and we still had to climb up and over the ridge and then run the Ray Miller trail to the finish line, 8 miles away. With the energy sapped out of us and confusion still ripe in our heads, we walked and talked, debated and lamented our situation. But, the moon was full and Ray Miller was as gorgeous as ever. We crossed the finish line around 3:00 am but, by then, who was counting. We are very grateful for being credited for finishing the 68 mile event and those bonus 7 miles will simply be a story we will keep to ourselves.

We were up the next morning in time to witness our friend Derrick Carr (far R) and his pacer Scottie Mills crossing the 100 mile finish line in 27:18 and placing 5th (out of 6 finishers).

There are many lessons to be learned from this race experience:

  • Firstly – and most obviously – I need to study the cut-off times, even if they aren’t usually relevant.
  • I can train through a Canadian winter, in short 14 kilometer segments, and still feel great after 75 miles on race day. I’m pretty sure that those last 25 miles would have hurt but I know I could have done them.
  • As any chicken-keeper should know, never think about my placing in a race until three quarters through (at the earliest) since some plans will not hatch. In hindsight, I think I managed the first place excitement pretty well – and I did end up winning first place woman in the little-know 75 mile race.
  • Keep your buddy close. Once again, Bruce was at my side for much of the race, my guide through his old stomping grounds in Pt Mugu and my rock when our race went sideways.

    Sadly, I didn’t earn the coveted Coyote Backbone 100 buckle but all of this swag was part of completing the BBT 68 miler.

The Backbone Trail is a gem and I am thankful to all the trail users who have worked so hard to piece together this trail system from end-to-end. The co-RDs, Mike Epler and Howard Cohen, put in thousands of hours of work to make the race all come together and we will never know about all the hurdles that they had to overcome. Thank you for the opportunity to enjoy your trails!

Running a 100 miler in March in California – what a delightful idea!

Back in October, as B and I talked ourselves into signing up for the Coyote Backbone Trail 100 Mile event, these are some snippets of conversation that we exchanged:

What a great way to enter into spring! An early season ultra!

It will be a way to escape those last throes of winter!

We’ll miss some of March’s 140+ mm rainfall at home.

March in California brings to mind daytime heat and perfect nighttime running temperatures.

H’ard puts on a great race. I’d love to be part of any event that he organizes.

I fantasize about having to wear shoe gaiters and having foot issues like dust between my toes.

It is a stretch to picture myself wearing shorts and a t-shirt after months of tights, wool and rain jackets.

I can almost taste those freshly-picked, straight-off-the-plant, local strawberries that will be available at every aid station.

And don’t forget about the avocados that ripen right along the trail!

The views will be awesome. There will be incredible views earned with every climb!

Do I even need to mention the Ray Miller trail? That amazing trail will lead us right to the finish line.

Buoyed by these visions, we each entered the race and ramped up our training.

Me and B all bundled up for our New Year's Day fat ass run. I can't wait to show off my True North Strong and Free white legs in March!

Me and B all bundled up for our New Year’s Day fat ass run. I can’t wait to show off my True North Strong and Free white legs in March!

But soon, the reality of training for an early season ultra hit us hard. Two factors quickly reared their ugly heads.

First – the dark. We live a dozen miles south of the 50th parallel. We are treated to long, long days in the summer where it is light enough to be busy outside without a light until after 10:00 pm. At that time of year, we also get used to the early light of the morning where our rooster begins crowing around 4:30 am and blackout curtains are required for sleep (and earplugs too!).

But, in the depths of winter, it is dark on the way to work at 8:00 am and dark on the drive home at 4:30 pm.

This picture was taken on the Winter Solstice 2015 at 07:50 am. We have some pretty fearless hens!

This picture was taken on the Winter Solstice 2015 at 07:50 am. Our hens ain’t afraid of the dark!

We have never really gotten used to the fact that weekends are the only time we get to enjoy seeing more than those next 10 ft of trail. Although running in the dark is possible, thanks to many lumens of flashlights and headlamps, it does sort of suck the joy out of it. I am constantly telling myself that I will rock the night section of this race since my entire training has been done in the dark.

A typical post-work run

A typical post-work run – at least it is only raining!

Second – the wet. Here, on the Wet Coast of BC, we are awash in rain. It is wet all the time and sometimes it is very wet. But, on the upside for us running folks, you can train in the rain. If you can get yourself into the right head space, you can run probably 360 days of the year on dirt and take just 5 or 6 days off due to our two annual snowfalls.

To some, the idea of a snowfall might sound like fun but here, in our coastal paradise, it is no fun at all. To us, snow is what we call the stuff as it falls from the sky but, as soon as it hits the ground, its name changes to #%@! (I wish I knew the Inuit word for this #%@! kind of snow) It gets wet and heavy – sort of like wet concrete – and then, due to our typical near 0°C temperatures, it melts, freezes, re-melts and re-freezes, making it either slippery slurpee or blocks of solid, immovable ice.

Winter trail running wavers between fancy footwork and having your life flash before your eyes

Winter trail running wavers between fancy footwork and having your life flash before your eyes. It would be easy to go head first into this guy’s maw!

This pattern continues until the next torrential rain storm finally washes the #%@ away. Usually this happens all within a 48 hour time frame. But not this year.

Just last weekend, early January’s dump of snow/ice/concrete finally disappeared and we were able to actually run 30 km on dirt. It was a low elevation run with only minor climbs but it was still a trail run! But today, as we dig ourselves out for the fourth time in two months and prepare for yet another ‘snow day’, I really wonder if it will be possible to run 100 miles after having trained in 10 km snippets with almost no hill work. Almost all our plans for long runs have been thwarted by weather.

Yes, yes - we have opportunities to train in the snow but it is a stretch to go for more than 20 km in this terrain.

Yes, yes – we have opportunities to train in the snow but it is a stretch to go for more than 20 km in these conditions.

During the last dump of snow, I resorted to running 27 loops of our property in an attempt to get a few miles in. This is me, teetering on the brink of madness.

During the last dump of snow, I resorted to running 27 loops of our property in an attempt to get a few miles in. This is me, teetering on the brink of madness.

This is the hard reality of being a non-professional ultra runner who works full-time (in a job that I love and for which I am very very thankful!). But right now, it feels like I have been tapering for this race for more than 3 months!

I heard a saying that goes something like ‘you can suffer through the training or you can suffer on race day‘. Although I can attest to having suffered already through my pitiful training, I know that race day will take it to a new level. You can’t fake it for 100 miles.

So, until then, over the next 4 weeks, I will be motivated by pure fear and that long list of delights that I mentioned above. I sure hope they have plenty of strawberries for me!

Most of our imported strawberries come from Ventura County, CA, minutes from the finish line.

Most of our imported strawberries come from Ventura County, CA, minutes from the finish line.

“Strawberries, you say?! Are they at the end of this snow tunnel?”

The Happy Wanderer

My Paths on Strava

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