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The Missing Link: Connecting the Coast to Squamish

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Yellow sections on this Google Earth map indicate about 10 kilometres of work needed to complete a trail connecting Sechelt with Squamish.

Yellow sections on this Google Earth map indicate about 10 kilometres of work needed to complete a trail connecting Sechelt with Squamish.

The map looks straightforward at first. As the crow flies, little more than 50 kilometres separate Sechelt and Squamish. Then you notice contour lines, crammed together like intense low-pressure systems, numerous splashes of white, indicating icy peaks, and deep blue streaks showing alpine lakes and ocean inlets. In between are green valleys that never seem to quite connect. Old logging roads, new hydroelectric projects, powerlines and pipelines present an extra layer of complexity revealed by Google Earth.

A cursory Internet search turns up more than 100 years of failed attempts to build a road system between the Sunshine Coast and “the mainland”.

So when Geoff Breckner tells me he’s about 10 kilometres away from completing a 75-kilometre trail connector, I’m interested.

If successful, the trail would reveal a side of the Sunshine Coast unfamiliar to most residents, including a series of spectacular waterfalls between Pokosha Pass and Clowhom Valley.

If successful, the trail would reveal a side of the Sunshine Coast unfamiliar to most residents, including a series of spectacular waterfalls between Pokosha Pass and Clowhom Valley. All photos courtesy Geoff Breckner

“With 10 capable guys and permission it could be finished in a week or two,” Breckner tells me by phone from Squamish. “But there are channels to go through, rules to be followed … funding.”

Breckner is recovering from major back surgery. When his doctor advised him to exercise he began hiking into the backcountry near his home in Squamish. The 53-year-old estimates he spent 200 hours during the last two summers working on the Squamish end of the trail.

A self-described “mountainbiking nut,” and “bush rat,” Breckner grew up in Deep Cove when the sport was still a novelty. He opened Pemberton’s first bike store, High Line Cycles, in 1994. A trail connecting Squamish with the Sunshine Coast makes a lot of sense, he says.

“I thought this was a great place for a bike trail. I knew there were logging roads up there and I researched as much as I could, checking out the feasibility of a route to Sechelt.”

Geoff Breckner’s tent at the south side of Pokosha Pass, near Mount Jimmy Jimmy.

Geoff Breckner’s tent at the south side of Pokosha Pass, near Mount Jimmy Jimmy.

Visit Breckner’s Facebook site ‘Squamish to Sechelt Trail’ and you’ll see a Google Earth image of the proposed route. From Upper Squamish and the Ashlu River Road, the route first heads north over existing trail through 4,000-foot Pokosha Pass before heading south, then due west following Clowhom Lake to Salmon Inlet, skirting the Tetrahedron Provincial Park, and on towards Sechelt via the Coast Gravity Bike Park.

About 55 kilometres of double track roads, and 20 kilometres of single track trails make up the route, says Breckner. The 10 kilometres still to be cleared comprise three sections of one kilometer, four kilometres and five kilometres.

“Once complete, it would be a long ride – two days for most people, but I hope to have a hut or shelter so people don’t need a tent and can travel light,” says Breckner. “The main problem would be lack of use, rather than overuse. The more use the better, to keep trail maintained and established.”

Breckner has received numerous offers of help from this side of the divide. Doug Feniak of Tillicum Bay is among those pledging assistance.

A self-described mountainbiking nut, Geoff Breckner rarely goes anywhere without his ride.

A self-described mountainbiking nut, Geoff Breckner rarely goes anywhere without his ride.

Feniak grew up riding with Breckner in Deep Cove. “It was a dream of ours when we were young, to be able to ride from Squamish to the Coast,” says Feniak. “We hiked into the Tetrahedron in August, looking for the best way. It’s super steep into Thornhill Creek but it shouldn’t be too bad after that because it’s old roads covered with Alders.”

Trails are in the Feniak family’s blood. Wife Jessica Huntington and son Linden both build trails, the latter professionally. Daughter, Holly, was 2012 downhill mountainbike Junior World Champion.

Doug says he expects to have a group working on this end of the trail in the fall.

“It would certainly be good for tourism here and I could see the B.C. Bike Race using it,” says Feniak.

Long-time local trailbuilder, Richard Culbert, says a trail to Squamish is “common sense”.

Culbert built the trail to the summit of Mt. Elphinstone, opening it on his 70th birthday. Now at 75, he’s busy clearing a trail up 4,700-foot Polytope Peak, which connects with Rainy River Road and Port Mellon due south. He believes that a trail from Squamish stands a better chance of completion if it veers south to Port Mellon, rather than to Sechelt.

Salmon Inlet from the top of Gray Creek Forest Service Road, looking north across Thornhill towards Clowhom valley. It's about 60km from here to upper Squamish.

Salmon Inlet from the top of Gray Creek Forest Service Road, looking north across Thornhill towards Clowhom valley. It’s about 60km from here to upper Squamish.

“The trail I’m working on is about a kilometer from a logging road, which appears to connect with this route,” says Culbert pointing at a printed version of Breckner’s route. “It also avoids Thornhill Creek [near Salmon Inlet] where the road is covered in alders.”

Warren Hansen concurs. “That gap after Salmon Inlet is some of the most rugged terrain I’ve ever walked in,” says Hansen, forester/area manager for Chartwell Consultants and an avid trailbuilder. “A lot of that area was logged in the 60s and 70s, so we’re talking about logging roads half a century old – many of which have been heavily deactivated and are covered in alder.

“I admire following an idea, but I worry about the sustainability of it,” adds Hansen. “The skeptical side of me thinks that there won’t be enough people using it. It will need to be on a lot of people’s bucket lists to make it sustainable.”

Hansen identifies with Breckner on one level.

“I believe in unfettered access to crown land. You live in the city, you can’t do this and that, but you have spoon-fed amenities. In a rural environment you don’t have those amenities, but you do have unfettered access to crown land. You can hike it, bike it, pick mushrooms in it, build trails. So you use it as you see fit, knowing that one day, it might be logged.”

Perhaps the person most excited about a possible connection is Bjorn Enga. The Granthams Landing-based filmmaker is the founder of Kranked, an online store for electric-assisted mountainbikes. They may upset purists, but bikes capable of climbing mountains in minutes, as opposed to hours, are catching on, says Enga.

“I’ve been riding on the Coast since 2000, and it’s an amazing coastline,” he says. “Suddenly, I’m thinking how much more I can see up there riding an e-bike. Imagine how phenomenal it would be to offer overnight tours with a fully charged battery for the next day.

“The Sea-to-Sky Corridor could become the e-bike capital of the world.”

Enga is helping Breckner with route planning and believes that trail completion is a matter of when, not if.

“Geoff goes way back to the start of mountainbike culture, before the glamour of the parks,” says Enga. “He’s done the hard part and one way or another, the trail will happen.”

In the meantime, some adventurers will continue to blaze their own trails. It seems as though everyone on the Sunshine Coast knows “a guy” who knows a route to Squamish. But their identity can be as elusive as the route.

More falls in the backcountry between Squamish and the Sunshine Coast.

More falls in the backcountry between Squamish and the Sunshine Coast.

Not so, Todd Lawson and friends, whose epic three-day trek from Lake Lovely Water, Squamish, to Sechelt via Clowhom Lake and Salmon Inlet, was featured in a 2014 issue of Mountain Life magazine. The trio packed inflatable stand-up paddleboards for the trip, which featured untold hours of bushwhacking through endless alder roots and Devil’s Club – an experience Lawson described in the story as “torture”. (He also wrote of the route, “It looked good on a laptop.”)

A different hazard awaited Denis Rogers of Sechelt, and fellow Coasters Mark Guignard and Al Jenkins, who hiked to Squamish in 2004 after being dropped by boat at the head of Narrows Inlet.

“It took us five days,” says Rogers, whose group followed a route from the head of Tzoonie Valley to a 4,800-foot pass, and then down to Falk Creek and a logging road leading to the Ashlu River and Squamish beyond.

“The third day was an interesting one,” recalls Rogers. “I fell in a lake and broke my watch, and Mark, the only one of us who didn’t bring bear spray, had an encounter with a black bear. Mark was about 20 yards ahead of us, picking his way through the boulders, when we shouted to him that a bear was taking an interest in him.

“The bear started down towards him, but then turned back. We suggested that perhaps the bear had been deterred by an offensive smell.”

Some hazards you won’t find on any map.

Creature comforters

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SPCA branch manager, Cindy Krapiec, with Chicklet.

SPCA branch manager, Cindy Krapiec, with Chicklet.

“The greatness of a nation and its moral progress can be judged by the way its animals are treated.”

–          Mahatma Gandhi

At three feet tall and 200 pounds, Jiggy is hard to ignore: especially when he’s hungry. He’ll nudge you if you’re in his way and he’ll wag his tail when he’s happy. Only a cruel person would say he waddled. He sashays.

Jiggy is a Vietnamese pot-bellied pig, formerly known as Jerry. A while back, Jiggy achieved local notoriety on the Sunshine Coast when the SPCA sought a permanent home for him. That search ended in West Sechelt where Jeri Patterson provides a home for some of the Coast’s unwanted animals.

“Two Jerrys would have been too weird so I renamed him Jiggy, but a lot of people remember him as Jerry,” says Patterson. “He’s considered a farm animal and most rescue properties prohibit farm animals – chickens, pigs, etc. My property is part of the Agricultural Land Reserve so after several foster homes, he came here. Now he’s home!

Jiggy - not a hungry pig to be truffled with.

Jiggy – a hungry pig not to be truffled with.

“All of us want to be made to feel special. Animals are no different.”

Patterson loves animals. Thankfully she’s not the only one who cares. Volunteers up and down the Sunshine Coast care for unwanted animals. Some open their homes, taking in abandoned cats, dogs, bunnies and the like. Others help by knitting toy mice or by raising money via yard sales, recycling, trivia nights and sponsored dog walks. Their work is essential because on the Sunshine Coast, the number of abandoned pets is rising.

It’s a pattern repeated during economic downturns, says Patterson. “When you see food banks so busy you realize that some people are barely able to feed themselves, let alone their animals,” she says. “It’s cheaper to help people keep their pets than to care for them in a shelter.”

In 2013, the local SPCA attended more than 50 investigations of possible animal cruelty, many of them requiring multiple visits. January 2014 has already been record-setting with 13 cruelty investigations. In Gibsons the same month, 37 stray dogs were reported by the district’s animal control officer.

“Thirty-seven strays is a massive amount for a community of 5,000 people,” says SPCA manager Cindy Krapiec. “I think most animal lovers and pet owners are aware of the extent of the problem with unwanted pets, especial through social media, but otherwise people have no idea.”

Happy Cat Haven volunteer, Marcia Timbers - aka The Cat Whisperer.

Happy Cat Haven volunteer, Marcia Timbers – aka The Cat Whisperer.

Together with her three staff, Krapiec run the SPCA in Wilson Creek, fulfilling the organization’s mandate of ‘speaking for animals’ by caring for abandoned creatures, investigating possible cases of cruelty, and educating the public about spaying, neutering and animal care. They receive no money from the government and rely almost entirely on fundraising. Far from being beleaguered though, Krapiec considers herself lucky to have “stumbled into” a job that brings something different every day.

“Even after three years, the learning curve is massive,” she says. “We spend a lot of time speaking with potential adopters, meeting animal owners and following up on cruelty cases. We try to educate first to find a solution. Litigation is a last resort.

“There’s a lot of science-based research to provide the best care for animals and that’s constantly changing, too.”

And then there’s the “never-ending” cleaning at the Solar Road facility, which last year handled 447 animals, including 196 dogs, 178 cats, 17 puppies, 36 kittens and 11 rabbits.

Krapiec acknowledges the extraordinary network of volunteers working alongside the SPCA, from business and community fundraisers to front-line animal rescuers like Clint Davy and the Gibsons Wildlife Rehab Centre, Violet Winegarden and the Happy Cat Haven, and Pam Albers of Pawprints Animal Rescue.

Violet Winegarden in her element at the Happy Cat Haven.

Violet Winegarden in her element at the Happy Cat Haven.

Then there are the veterinarians. “Local vets absorb a ton of cost,” says Krapiec. They are also among the first places she calls when homes are needed for abandoned pets. At the end of the line are people like Meghan Graves.

“I have no shame about calling Meg with a litter of animals,” laughs Krapiec.

Graves is a registered animal health technologist and the office manager at Sechelt Animal Hospital. She’s also vice-chair of the SPCA’s community council, which meets monthly to organize fundraising, community relations, and advocacy. At home with her husband and two young children, she’s fostering two rabbits (in addition to one she owns) in her living room, along with two dogs, Winnie and Gunnar, plus five cats – all abandoned at some point.

“You end up doing stuff like that,” says Graves. “All staff at the clinic fosters or have fostered. It gets very personal. It’s never ending.

“There are not many jobs where you take this kind of work home with you. You stay up all night long. It’s like having a newborn, or multiple newborns.”

As for the family dynamic, Graves admits that Winnie and Gunnar don’t get quite so many walks now she has two young children. “But they get story time now, which they both seem to really enjoy!”

Smooshie refuses to say 'cheese'.

Smooshie refuses to say ‘cheese’.

Violet Winegarden can surely relate to a home full of animals. On a tour of her Gibsons home I lose count of the number of cats but Winegarden – who knows them all by name – estimates there are 55 to 60. Outside there’s an HIV pen for Laredo, Clancy, Blue and Rebecca. In a neighbouring pen are Chamberlain, Whiskers, Tiger and half a dozen more all crowding around Marcia Timbers, a Happy Cat volunteer to whom Winegarden refers as “the cat whisperer”.

“Violet works harder than anyone I know,” says Timbers. “Her phone never stops ringing from people asking advice about spaying or neutering.

“So many people say they just want their cat to have a litter. There’s no reason for a cat to have a litter,” Timbers adds, exasperated.

Inside the home, Winegarden shows me the Seniors Room for cats as old as 26; the Forever Room for sick cats like Bijou, (“27 pounds, fat and happy,” says Winegarden) who are in their final days; and the Adoption Room for healthier cats. In between is the kitchen where two cats take up residence in my camera bag as other cats wander in and out.

Amid the clean litter boxes, medical equipment and bags of cat food I notice a Governor General’s Award hanging on the wall. Since 1992, Winegarden and her band of volunteers have cared for more than 7,000 animals. During that time she’s witnessed the effects of unspeakable acts of cruelty. She’s bonded with countless cats, including one that used to play the piano with her. And with the help of Dr. Justin McLash of the Sunshine Coast Pet Hospital, she’s ensured that cats are spared unnecessary suffering.

black cats

“I can tell when cats are going to die,” she says. “We shouldn’t have to suffer to die.”

At 85, Winegarden continues to rise at 5 each morning for long days of cleaning, caring, fundraising and managing a sanctuary with monthly expenses of $12,000. I’m tempted to ask why, but during the course of a long conversation that afternoon, I don’t have to.

“I think I was born this way,” she laughs. “I’ve been in trouble over animals all my life. I just don’t see animals as any different from us. We’re all the same beings on earth. We’re here to be together.”

It’s hard to imagine one person taking over Violet’s work, just as it’s difficult to contemplate the Sunshine Coast without the SPCA and other pet-rescue organizations. Jeri Patterson knows as well as anyone that SPCAs do close down. After Chilliwack SPCA closed, Patterson, once a resident of Agassiz, got involved with cat and rabbit rescue at her licensed kennel at the request of the municipality’s animal control officer. (Surrey’s SPCA has also closed.) She continues to look after animals from that jurisdiction.

“People need to know this about the SPCA: If you don’t value it, you may lose it.”

  • There are numerous ways to help those helping abandoned animals. Visiting http://www.spca.bc.ca/branches/sunshine-coast/ is a good place to start. So is spaying and neutering your pets. If you witness animal cruelty, call 1-855-622-77221-855-622-7722.
  • Drop off grocery receipts and Canadian Tire money at Happy Cat Haven collection boxes at IGA, Super-Valu and Clayton’s stores. Or drop off cans and bottles for recycling at Happy Cat Haven, 760 School Road, Gibsons, between 7 a.m. and 3 p.m. Yard sale items can also be dropped off. To volunteer, call 604 886-2407604 886-2407.

Written by nevjudd

April 5, 2014 at 10:10 am