A long time ago I was told by a very wise and respected lady from one of our First Nations bands here in Port Alberni, on Vancouver Island, that Mount Arrowsmith is so much more than just a mountain. To the First Nations Mt. Arrowsmith is a landmark but also a very spiritual place. She told me that if you look very closely at the outline of the rugged peaks you can see a chief laying there to rest high up amongst the clouds.
That described image has since always stayed with me and each and every time I drive out of town, and around in the valley with the mountain in full view, I see the chief. If you look to the right you can see his face and nose, and as you let your eyes follow the outlines to the left you will see his hands on his chest and as you move along to his legs and feet. To me that will never change because I am a firm believer in traditions and cultures, but please do not quote me on this legend that was told to me, myths or legends have many variations. Regardless it did affect me in a positive way.
The chief was always calling out to me to come and visit him, he lays so tall over the majestic rugged landscape, the rays of the sun constantly paint him with golden violet light as the sun is setting every evening here in the beautiful Alberni Valley. The chief is calling out to explorers and adventurers, inviting them to climb up and visit him and enjoy the breathtaking views as he sees them through his eyes. After living here on Vancouver Island for almost 17 years I decided that it was due time to pay him a visit.
One day he was calling out to me. I could hear him whispering my name through the winds that were coming down over the rugged mountain sides and through the old growth Red Cedars and Douglas Firs that are nestled within the mountain slopes. Finally I accepted his invitation, but I knew that going alone was not an option so I invited my partner and decided to bring my four legged therapist as well. He is a bigger dog, and only 8 years old, so I knew he would be able to do the hike.
The chief is very accommodating for explorers. He reaches a height of 1817 meters and he covers over 1400 square hectares of rugged rocks, but is still surprisingly accessible all year around. We had three trail routes to choose from approaching chief’s massif, the Saddle Pass, Judge’s Route and Rousseau’s Route. One of my local friends suggested that we should approach the Saddle Pass. He said it makes it for a nice day hike and is a little bit more adventurous - it has steep sections but there are ropes to aid you on the way! I thanked him for the tips and started to prepare for our new adventure.
Sunday morning at 6 am the sound of birds chirping by my bedside told me that it was time to get up. I was already wide awake with excitement knowing that today was the day, so I jumped out of bed and got the coffee going while I started to prepare a lunch. Since we were going to climb a mountain we needed lots of nutrients and definitely lots of water since there is limited source of water along the way, but also my grandma always told me to bring offerings of food when visiting with friends. I still was not sure how high we would make it considering it was only the beginning of June and there are still some patches of snow up there. As we were packed and ready, we checked over that we had the important things we needed to do the adventurous hike; bear spray, walking sticks, first aid kit and change of clothes (including our food and water supply of course).
It was a glorious morning and the sun was just rising over jagged rocks and the chief, and the rays were just beginning to light up his face as we were driving out of town towards the hump. As we approached the hump, we turned right on to Loon Lake main, an old bumpy logging road that here and there gets graded, which is a true blessing. After a few kilometers we reached a fork. “Cameron Main” is the pass so we turned left and headed up the mountain. Soon we heard the cascading Cameron River and crossed over and continued up the old logging road. The sun was getting warmer and we were so excited about our visit with the chief, we came to a sharp left turn where there also is a sign saying Mt. Arrowsmith. If you choose to go straight you will end up at Labour Day Lake which also is a wonderful area to explore (I will write about that one another time).
It was really starting to get warm and we were hoping that we would beat the heat; after all we were going to climb a mountain with an elevation of 400 meters. The temperatures were already reaching a high of 30 Celsius but there we still snow up there so we hoped for the best. We reached the Valley view and it was a stunning clear day, we could see all the way to Qualicum and Parksville but the most stunning beauty was Sproat Lake, Great Central Lake, Cameron Lake, Loon Lake, not to mention the inlet. The edge is very steep so driving along it takes practice because that view on a clear day like this is out of this world. As we reached the top of the valley view we came to the “Big” corner where there is a lot of parking. The trail head looks like an empty river bed this time of year. There are some ribbons marking the trail head but they tend to fade or disappear due to harsh weather and other visiting spirits.
Oh my, this was going to be a challenge. Standing before the chief taking in him in all his glory was very impressive, he looked so peaceful amongst the old growth Red Cedars, Douglas Firs and Hemlock which are nestled so perfect and compact on the rugged mountain side creating a different but most enjoyable scenery and alpine landscape.
We got our backpacks and started to walk up the very rocky river trail head. There were lots of beautiful alpine flowers greeting us at the entrance. After walking up the little hill we crossed a smaller river, it was good to see that there was still a lot of water this high up the mountain, because this past winter we were not blessed with a lot of snow or rain and we will need as much as we can as we are hitting the hot summer season. Shortly after the river we saw another empty river bed to the right and a red ribbon, but we were not sure if that was the trail or if we should continue straight ahead. Since neither of us had been up there before we stayed on the path and continued straight ahead. We realized quickly that this trail was taking us away from the chief so we turned around and walked back to the empty river bank with the red ribbon.
The branches made a neat canopy over the empty river bank so in some spots we had to duck down to make it in through this mystical and yet beautiful rocky path. As we kept walking up the rocky river bank eventually it turned into a nice gravel path where you can stand tall again. As I looked up to the chief wondering if we would make it all the way, he replied with and intriguing path of second growth forest that were all were covered in the old man’s beard, a moss that lingers around the threes like a second bark. I took a deep breath and my lungs filled with so much fresh air that I had to stop for a minute to take it all in. After a little while the gravel path comes to an end and there before you, stand the gorgeous tall trees granting you access along the path and through a shaded area that was very welcoming. It was starting to get steeper and there were a lot of long big thick roots that you want to watch carefully as you step over them.
We truly felt the elevation change as we started to hike up this steep trail and we reached the section with the ropes. I looked up to make the decision as to if my four legged therapist would make it on the very steep rocky hill. I was confident that he would. Before we started to use the ropes to aid us climbing any further, we took a break by the side of this beautiful waterfall that comes over the rocky side beside the ropes. We all had a drink from the fresh and cold water and decided to continue. I went first and my therapist was right behind me, the ropes had knots on them so it made it easier to have a firm grip. Honestly, I would not want to attempt this section in the rain for safety reasons. We all made it up safely and the trail continued on the side of a slope. Once we came over that rocky part we stopped and was in awe of the view that welcomed us.
“Please feel free to explore the neighbourhood,” the wind whistled between the dense alpine forests, “and please come back again soon, the chief would love you to visit and hear of your adventure all the way up to the peak”. We stopped and had some water but it was hard to concentrate because the views were astonishing. We were spoiled with amazing views to the west of the Port Alberni Inlet, the Mckenzie and Beaufort mountain ranges and the Coastal range. Blend in Western and Mountain Hemlock, Yellow and Red Cedar with Douglas Fir to create a picturesque scene with basalt rocks as the canvas. You can see it right?
The sun was beating down on us now. We knew we should try and beat the heat but we just couldn’t take our eyes off this gorgeous landscape so we continued admiring the amazing display of alpine hemlock and beautiful flora that covered the rocky platform we were standing. We decided to have a quick snack before we continued. We looked for a shaded spot and nestled ourselves in between the mossy rocks and alpine hemlock. As we sat down to enjoy our sandwiches, birds were starting to fly in from all over. They were Whisky Jacks and they weren’t very shy - they sat on our legs, backpacks and I took the courage to hold out my hand and three of them suddenly flew up and sat down very gently stating to pick away at the little bread crumbs. It was an amazing feeling to see them so up close and to have three of them on my hand at once. This was very a special and powerful feeling. I was wondering if the Chief had anything to do with this, maybe it was a way for him to say thank you for coming? Or maybe it was a kind gesture of him saying “Welcome”? It was hard to leave this lovely lunch spot with the birds, but we had to, the sun was almost unbearable and even if we thought for a moment that we should head back down. We decided that regardless of the heat, we had to continue because turning back now would simply be rude. Especially after being rewarded with stunning views of the oceans and mountains and feeling the gentle love from the beautiful Whisky Jacks.
Now the trail was getting easier and less steep. It felt more like a stroll through the trees. All of a sudden we heard this really strange sound “hum, hum, hum, hum, hum, hum”. It was not scary but both of us couldn’t figure out what it was. For a moment it sounded like First Nations drums on rawhide..but the beats were too regular and it was only in this part of the forest. We looked around but couldn’t see anything. The branches this high were less dense, so you could see clearly through the trees. All around us we could see snow patches on the lower hillsides and nothing unusual was around to create that sound. So we continued curiously wondering if we would see anything further ahead.
We came to a small steep section, but the trees were kind enough to let us use the branches to aid in getting up. Once we got up, we were greeted with SNOW..yes you read right S N O W!!! It didn’t completely cover the ground but the patches were all over, we stepped on to the snow and discovered that it was still compact and hard, so in our runners we crossed slowly over this smaller patch. My dog loved it; he ran around eating the snow and it didn’t take him long before he laid down and rolled around in it. Smart dog. What a great way to cool off. We decided to do the same. Imagine now if someone would have seen us, a dog and 2 people rolling around in the snow patch high up on Mt. Arrowsmith. Now that would have made the Front Page of the local newspaper in the valley, ”what happens on Mt.Arrowsmith, stays on Mt.Arrowsmith”
We were enjoying the cold snow so much we did not hear the man approaching us. At least not until he said, ”You 3 are the most strangest sasquatches I have ever seen in my whole life”. We all burst out laughing. It was not crazy to think that you would meet another person up here, but the whole time we had been on the trail we had not seen anything but flora and fauna. It was good to see this trail being used by others.
The man introduced himself as Andrew. He was carrying a pair of cross country skies on his right shoulder. He told us that he had been skiing all morning and now he was heading back to Sproat Lake for a swim. Nowhere else but here on Vancouver Island would you be able to do that - skiing in the snow high up in the mountains in the morning and swimming in a clear clean lake in the afternoon. We also asked him about that sound we had heard and he said that was probably a Grouse. He quickly imitated the “hum” sound we had heard and we smiled, yes, just like that. We all laughed again. We were grateful to know that nothing bigger had made that sound through the trees we had passed. Then we asked him how far away we were from the saddle and he said that we were only 15-20 minutes away. He said that the snow was very slippery and if we didn’t want to risk it (not being prepared for a snow climb) he wouldn’t recommend that we continue. We agreed with him because he was right. From the beginning we were not sure how far we would make it because of the snow patches and looking at them from town they do not look like much. But that close to the top, they were enormous.
Andrew wished us well and started to make his way back down the mountain. For a moment we stood there in silence taking in what Andrew had said to us and the views of the snow just below the peaks, and the larger snow patches we could see taking shapes through the trees. So, maybe after all we wouldn’t make the visit to the Chief. It was a hard decision to make because we were so close, but we both knew that scrambling over snow patches in runners was not a great or safe idea. Sadly we decided to turn around. It was with a heavy heart that I had to whisper to the chief that unfortunately we wouldn’t make it all the way today. We gathered our back packs and started the climb back down. After our snow roll we felt refreshed. We didn’t beat ourselves up because we weren’t able to make it all the way. How could we when we had been blessed with so many amazing things on our hike up there. We felt so fortunate that we call this simply gorgeous area home. We thanked the chief for his hospitality and promised that we would be back soon again.