Third Time’s A Charm
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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).
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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!
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
- 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