Suppose you wanted to hike the famous Milford Track in New Zealand but couldn’t afford the time or airfare to fly Down Under?
Or you planned to do the vaunted West Coast Trail on Vancouver Island and found there was a long wait list? Now, thanks to an Eagle and his gang of intrepid volunteers on the Upper Sunshine Coast northwest of Vancouver, you have a third alternative.
The Milford Track is arguably one of the world’s most famous walks. Guided walkers take five days and four nights to complete the 53-kilometre track. Perhaps its greatest allure is the three public accommodation huts and three private lodges on the track that allow for overnight layovers.
Planners laying out the Sunshine Coast Trail in British Columbia have copied the New Zealand model by providing shelters at appropriate spots along the trail. But they have gone one step further. Not only can intrepid trekkers enjoy a comfy cabin with a view, those so inclined can easily opt out at any time to enjoy the pleasures of urban life in the nearby town of Powell River.
Eagle Walz has been exploring the wilderness around Powell River for several decades. Eagle, along with fellow volunteer retirees called the Bomb Squad (something to do with Bloody Old Men…) is one of the founders of the 180-kilometre trail that traverses the mountain ridgelines from Desolation Sound in the north to Saltery Bay in the south. Most of the northern section of the trail is moderately difficult but the southern 75 km of the trail is reputedly quite challenging. (I confess I didn’t hike it.) Perhaps the most intriguing aspect of the trail is that it is virtually undiscovered, but that secret is not likely to last long.
The idea to build an extended trail on the Upper Sunshine Coast began in 1992 when local outdoor enthusiasts decided that old growth forests were disappearing. They formed the Powell River Parks and Wilderness Society (PRPAWS), a registered non-profit society, to set aside protected areas linked by corridors. The new trails quickly became popular with locals since they allowed entry into areas only accessed by bushwhackers or loggers.
The SCT starts at Sarah Point just north of the little fishing village of Lund, renowned as the beginning (or end) of the 15,000-kilometre Pacific Coastal Highway that runs all the way south to Tierra de Fuego. It’s a 20-minute ride from Lund by water taxi, followed by several days to a week if you hike all 180-kilometres of the entire trail. There are viewpoints and lakes scattered everywhere but what sets the SCT apart from most long distance trails are 20 access and exit points along the route. If you want to bail out, or can’t afford a whole week, or simply want to devour a plate of fresh seafood in town, bring a cellphone and call a cab.
Perhaps one reason why the trail is virtually undiscovered is the reputation Powell River earned over the years as a stinky pulp mill town. However, the mill long ago cleaned up its act and today the air is as fresh and clear as the surrounding rivers and countryside. Mill employees long ago became famous for their civic volunteer efforts, not only in the outdoors but also in arts and culture. These days the region is full of musicians and artists, and newcomers are opening eco-tourism shops and fine restaurants with an eye towards becoming a destination for hikers, kayakers, divers, equestrians and rock climbers, somewhat like Squamish before Whistler became a world-famous resort. The elegant Patricia Theatre remains the oldest continually operating theatre in Canada, playing first run movies normally found only in hip big cities. Cafes, deli’s and B&B’s abound.
Perhaps the most surprising aspect of this surprising little town is the fact that access to their challenging trail, and use of the overnight shelters their volunteers built, is completely free. And until the word gets out, as it certainly will, there are no waiting lists either.
For more information, contact www.discoverpowellriver.com.