Wilderness odyssey Hiking through the Stoltmann Wilderness is less a quest for answers than an opportunity for pondering questions By Paul Dillon "Pretty nice view... except for those clearcuts," remarks my companion, taking in the broad sweep of valley spread out 2,000 feet below us. It’s a joke we’ve repeated several times on the slog up from the Randy Stoltmann Wilderness trailhead where we’d camped the evening before, less a political or environmental statement than an opportunity to rest and consider the ribbon of trail above us, and our ancient Volvo regressing into a faint speck of red beneath our feet. Fact is, we were surrounded on all sides by lush old-growth forest, towering trees above and below, a thick carpet of needles, chock-a-block with mushrooms and ferns and other denizens of the moist Coast Mountain range. True, the mountains behind us were largely denuded of trees, cross-hatched with the lines of logging roads that had brought us to this place. I kept repeating the same mantra: We’re here to enjoy the hike, so just enjoy the hike and leave the debate to the loggers and treehuggers. It’s a difficult proposition, considering the acrimonious debate going on over the Western Canada Wilderness Committee’s proposal to protect 260,000 hectares of wilderness northwest of Squamish. But I’m on holiday, and unlike the June afternoon in a seedy Lytton bar, at the end of a sweaty six-day trek through the Stein Valley, this time I can’t be goaded into butting heads with millworkers or conservationists. We’re here to enjoy, to relax and smooth out some of the cranial kinks brought on by life in The Smoke. So far the route is much as I expected. The result of a two-year push by WCWC volunteer bush pigs, the 28-kilometre trail ignores switchback contours to climb almost directly south along a ridge above the south fork of Meager Creek, before topping out, two hours later, on an immense plateau, the Hundred Lakes Plateau, beneath the western reach of the Pemberton Icecap. We pass the Chain Lakes camp, a comfortable spot for those who start their day late, where water is readily available. Red diamond blazes wend their way aimlessly through roughly 6 kilometres of alpine. It’s a Daliesque landscape dotted with oddly shaped, nameless lakes and ponds, rich with glacial sediments. We dodge irregular slabs of melted rock, two- and three-storey high menhirs left by receding glaciers, that make me long for my rock climbing shoes. Even time starts to wild a bit, like running the wrong direction on a moving sidewalk. It’s early September and by the time we reach Mist Lake camp, grey billowing clouds are hurtling themselves against the snowcapped peaks to the south. The plateau here reminds me of Georgian Bay, granite plates are covered in spots by a thin couch of moss and peat. Mist Lake spreads out before us and the sole stand of scraggly alpine conifers to offer a wind-break cling for support, like ageing crones on their granddaughter’s elbow. We prepare camp in silence. Nothing moves but the clouds above, the only sound water whistling on the stove. There’s no life here, though we’re only at 5,000 feet; no birds or chipmunks, no mosquitoes or dragonflies. No scat or footprints at the water’s edge. The only touch of whimsy in this bleak place are the cairns we’ve followed to this spot, and they are oddly out of place. There are too many and we’re hoping the winter snows will level most of them out. It may be beautiful here during the summer but for now, there’s no room for their cartoonish shapes. That night the wind howls across the plateau, driving sleet and snow across our camp, trying to scour us from this place. There’ll be no stepping outside for a midnight pee. By morning we’re sleeved in thick cloud. Behind us, in a small pond, ducks circle and then break, disappearing into the gloom, but my spirits are raised, they’re the first signs of life we’ve seen. This morning the trail drops below the plateau, first gradually through heather carpeted meadows before turning abruptly steep, where footing is occasionally slick and dangerous. Over the 5 kilometres that will take us 2,600 feet towards the next camp there area several notable view areas, the first of which affords a wonderful first glimpse of the Elaho Valley that we’ll follow until to the trail-end. At least, so I’m told. The weather socked us in solid, reducing views to blank, flat grey walls — and somewhere far off the sound of water. I’m not a mushroomologist, but even cursory examination reveals fungi for every palate or design, some the size of woks, others, small grey caps gone condo. They’re in perfect contrast to the towering Douglas firs that line sections of the trail. We hunker down on the river opposite Last Chance camp, teeth chattering as the wind whips through several layers of water and sweat-soaked clothing. I’ll keep my drybag untouched and let the instant soup GORP and pepperoni sticks work their magic. I’ve time again to consider our WCWC trail map, written south to north, and the boondoggle getting to the Meager Creek trailhead 36 hours earlier. The directions led us — and it turns out, another couple we know — wrong, and we spent four frustrating hours trying to hoist our rear-wheel drive station wagon out of an impossible cross-ditch, one jack-placement at a time. To get there, drive past the Meager Creek parking lot. Roughly 76 kilometres from the Pemberton Petro-Can, you’ll cross a bridge and come to a Y intersection. Turn right and almost immediately you’ll cross a second bridge on the northwest side of a clear-cut valley. I’m not sure that my instructions are any better, but if you get confused just remember that the river should be flowing on your left as you climb the logging road to a T-junction. Turn left, cross a number of shallow cross-ditches and approximately 2 kilometres later there is a tiny cairn indicating a spur to the left. Fifty metres below is the overnight parking area. If, for whatever reason, you start crossing radical, deep cross-ditches, you are on the wrong path. Only a sewing machine on wheels should have problems negotiating the road. Following lunch we cross Last Chance Creek on a rope log bridge, the sand beach camping area and begin a steep climb up the south ridge, aided by fixed ropes. The next few kilometres hover above the creek and then dart into snow forest before reaching forgettable Lost Creek Camp at 2,400 feet. We pushed on through swampy terrain, dominated by Jurassic skunk cabbage and ferns of every shape and hue of green. Above, yellow cedar support the blazes. We dally over this 2 kilometre stretch and opt to overnight at Canyon Camp, snuggling up against a yawning hole in the canopy that reveals the Elaho roaring below. It’s a beautiful spot, but one that again reinforces the need for a good groundsheet. There are four or five camps here, some tucked away beneath trees, all but one located in hollows deep enough to turn a tent into an ark. The following day the clouds lift in time for a view of Blueberry Falls, throwing itself off the cliffside opposite to the river 70 metres below. There are several small streams, none of which look very appealing for drinking water, and a dense canopy that will act as a humidifier over the last 10 kilometres to the Elaho Giant, a massive piece of Douglas fir that marks one of the last sections of the trail. We reach Rocky Camp after two casual hours beneath dense red cedar and western hemlock. A good camp for those with free-standing tents that don’t require pegging, it also offers views of the Elaho Valley. The trail turns east, up Impassable Creek, to a rope-aided express route to the valley floor. A marvellously constructed rope and pole bridge, its anchors located 70 metres above the rushing waters, links us to the south shore and a crumbling route again supplemented by rope aids that regain the high ground above the creek. A short while later, we pass the sign for the Douglas Fir Trail, a 2 kilometre circle route that takes you through a cathedral of over 50 old growth Douglas firs that are sure to put a crimp in your neck. We break at Lava Camp, the finest overnight spot on the trail, offering magnificent views, flat ground and a selection of tenting sites. The only drawback is the steep trail to the creek and the only source of water. If you’re heading south late in the season, load up. The creeks and streams that cross the trail over the final few kilometres are suspect at best. That view was confirmed by a written warning posted at the Elaho trailhead, that no one had bother to post at Meager Creek. Over the next three kilometres, which begin with another descent/ascent to a creek bed and back to 1,700 feet, we wander through changing forests of fir and rare western white pine. Several bridges are immense firs and cedars, which likely toppled more than a century ago. An hour into this final stretch we arrive at the spur trail for the Elaho Giant. As impressive as this 10-metre in diameter behemoth is, we’re left feeling flat. The rope around it, the large blue tarp and well-worn trail spoke to the people who took advantage of the WCWC’s guided day-trips to the Stoltmann trail. Red and black flagging tape has appeared marking the proposed route for a logging road into the wilderness and the Giant has to be roped off and protected from the very treehuggers who claim to want to preserve it. In one area north of the Giant, ’dozers carving a route into the area have already pulled back the dense canopy. But, throughout our walk, and particularly in the alpine, is clear evidence of hikers who have strayed from the trail to blaze their own routes, damaging fragile heathers and exacerbating water damage that is inevitable come spring. So, who’s right; what are we supposed to do with the Stoltmann wilderness? Are there any absolute truths here? I’m no closer to answering a question I didn’t want to deal with in the first place. The flagging tape and the roped off tree are both inert representations of a living battle of philosophies that no amount of bafflegab and talk about sustainable this and inherent values that is going to solve. I say leave the place alone. Forget about the valuable timber, let nature erase the trail and leave the woods to the frogs and shrooms, and the alpine to the moose and bears. We walk the final section in silence, until suddenly the curtain of trees and moss and mushrooms and ferns and forest critters and everything else lift, ending in a clear-cut valley indistinguishable from the one we’d left three days earlier. Pretty nice view... except for those clearcuts.