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Men of Steele

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Next time we'll bring snowboards and deckchairs.

Next time we’ll bring snowboards and deckchairs.

My friend Tom and I had been planning a trip to the Tetrahedron for about 10 years. This weekend we finally did it. In hindsight, hiking to Mount Steele cabin would have been easier when I was 36, not 46.

At the base of 5,114-foot Mount Steele, the cabin is one of four two-storey cabins in Tetrahedron Provincial Park, each built to accommodate 16 people – first come, first serve. The others are at Bachelor Lake, above Edwards Lake, and between McNair and Chapman Lakes. The cabins are connected via a 25-kilometre trail network and are maintained by the Tetrahedron Outdoor Club.

Lower Mainlanders enjoying lunch at Edwards Cabin.

Lower Mainlanders enjoying lunch at Edwards Cabin.

We set off on snowshoes from the trailhead up Grey Creek Forest Service Road. In true Sunshine Coast fashion, the Tetrahedron is not signposted from the road, despite being a Class A provincial park. That might explain why there are only three other cars in the parking lot on a sunny January weekend.

Six thousand hectares of mountains, lakes, streams, wetlands and forest, the Tet, as it’s fondly known, has long been cherished by the backcountry enthusiasts who can actually find it. We finally meet some of those enthusiasts about two hours into our hike at Edwards Lake. They’re a group of 12 skiers and snowshoers from the Lower Mainland who are planning to stay at Edwards Cabin. We stop for lunch with them there before pushing on at 1 p.m.

So far we’ve been hiking for about two hours. There’s been no new snow for a week, temperatures are above freezing and the sun’s out. The sign at Edwards Cabin says it’s just three more kilometres to Mount Steele Cabin. It doesn’t mention the elevation gain of 1,300 feet, but that much is obvious from the contour lines on Tom’s map, which look like an intense low pressure system; that and our occasional glimpses of Mount Steele – white, jagged and way up there beneath the bright blue sky.

Downtime at Edwards Lake. We opted not to test the ice.

Downtime at Edwards Lake. We opted not to test the ice.

The climb begins almost immediately, as does the sweat, pouring off me and soaking me from head to toe. The steeper it gets the happier Tom becomes. He shouts encouragement and I try to ignore the chafing of 20-year-old longjohns and the borrowed 40-pound rucksack on my back. Following tree markers, we zig-zag our way through amabilis fir, mountain and western hemlock, yellow cedar and white pine while Tom yells to me about his merino wool base layers. “Not a drop of sweat,” he shouts. “This material wicks all the sweat away!”

I don’t say anything. I’ve stopped talking to Tom.

After an hour of this I’m resting every 10 steps. I’m eating snow to try and and conserve my water. We appear to have cleared the forested section but that brings its own problems. We can’t see any more tree markers. So Tom checks his map and his compass and we decide to climb one of Steele’s lower open slopes, figuring the cabin will surely become visible as we ascend. But with no more markers in sight, we get cold feet – actually, mine are soaking wet. (Tom’s aren’t. He has merino wool socks … or something.)

So we descend, covering the same distance in 10 minutes that took us 30 minutes to climb. It’s 3:30 p.m. and for the first time all day, I have one eye on the time. The sweat is freezing on my back and it will be dark in 90 minutes. After some searching though, Tom spots a marker and we’re off again, climbing in a different direction toward a ridge that he swears will take us to the cabin. From the ridge we’re treated to views of the Tantalus Range and the markers continue to guide our way.

Mount Steele cabin, as seen from the top of Mount Steele.

Mount Steele cabin, as seen from the top of Mount Steele.

Just before 4, I hear Tom from up ahead. “I can see the cabin!”

Thank God he’s not lying, I think as I catch up a few minutes later.

There it is, its red roof standing out against so much white. We savour the last few steps. I don’t think I’ve ever seen a location quite so beautiful. We have the place to ourselves. According to the guest book, we’re only the second visitors this year. An hour later at the metal kitchen table, we’re eating curry and naam bread cooked on the wood stove, washed down with a couple of beers. The cabin is well equipped, with mattresses in the attic, firewood in the basement, a kitchen counter with utensils and a couple of sinks. We melt snow for water and turn the stove down to a slow burn. Pretty soon the entire cabin is toasty warm.

It would seem impossible to put a price on such an amazing place, but the Tetrahedron Outdoor Club came up with $10 a night, which seems more than reasonable. More than a quarter of a century ago, the club used to be known as the Tetrahedron Ski Club. Back in 1987, the club mobilized more than 200 volunteers, 45 businesses, schools, community groups and several levels of government to build the Tetrahedron’s cabins and trail network.

Beer, curry, mates - just another Saturday night.

Beer, curry, mates – just another Saturday night.

The cabins were built at Sechelt airport before being disassembled and flown by helicopter to be reassembled on site. Forestry company, Canfor, and the Sunshine Coast Regional District donated timber, Sechelt Creek Contracting provided logging service, Airspan donated some air time, Gibsons Building Supplies provided crane trucks and the Outdoor Recreation Council pitched in with chainsaws. For one of the few times in Sunshine Coast history, one great idea united governments, businesses, and local volunteers – in the midst of a recession, no less.

For all the day’s exertions, I can’t sleep. After midnight I set up my tripod outside and try and capture Mount Steele by moonlight with varying results. Fog covers Georgia Strait but I can see lights twinkling on Vancouver Island. There’s no bite to the breeze blowing and I feel like the last person on Earth. I may be delusional. I go back to bed.

The moon over Mount Steele. Sometimes not sleeping isn't so bad.

The moon over Mount Steele. Sometimes not sleeping isn’t so bad.

In the morning under clear skies we hike to the top of Mount Steele. It’s difficult to reconcile this rugged terrain and such epic landscapes with the place I call home. For me, the Sunshine Coast typically conjures images of rainforest and beaches, not jagged peaks and frozen lakes. But then visiting this place would surely alter anyone’s perceptions.

Tom vows to bring his snowboard next time. I’m thinking a deck chair. We pack up, sweep up, and head out for the descent to civilization. Yesterday, it took us six hours to get here. Today we’re back at the car in just over two hours.

I relish every step of our tracks with a smile.

  • For more information about the Tetrahedron Outdoor Club, visit www.tetoutdoor.ca
  • Four-wheel drive and chains are essential for visiting the Tetrahedron. For more information about the park, visit www.env.gov.bc.ca/bcparks
  • There can be a significant avalanche risk on Mount Steele. Before heading out, check with www.avalanche.ca/cac/bulletins/latest
  • For more on the history of the Tetrahedron Outdoor Club, visit my earlier blog post here.
  • If your fitness is kind of sketchy and you’re inexperienced in the backcountry, consider taking Tom with you. I couldn’t have done it without him.
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White and wild on Dakota Ridge

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If cross-country skiing is a little slow for you, tobogganing should get your adrenaline racing on Dakota Ridge.

Forty minutes ferry-ride from West Vancouver, the Sunshine Coast is better known for The Beachcombers, scout camps and verdant shorelines. People don’t typically associate this 140-kilometre peninsula with snow. But there it is, several feet of the stuff, just waiting to be played in.

You just have to look up.

There's cross-country skiing for all ages on Dakota Ridge.

Poking through the clouds about 1,200 metres above the beaches and pretty parks is Dakota Ridge, one of the best cross-country ski destinations in the last place you’d expect to find it. Between November and March, if it’s raining at sea level, there’s a good chance it’s snowing up there.

And it’s only a 20-minute drive from sea level.

“You can come up for a couple of hours and be in a completely different world,” says Craig Moore, a cross-country skier and long-time member of the Dakota Ridge Winter Recreation Society, a non-profit group working to promote the area. “For cross-country skiing it beats anywhere on the west coast.”

It’s pretty good for tobogganing and snowshoeing, too.

A 620-hectare (1,532 acres) plateau atop a working watershed, Dakota Ridge offers a rolling landscape of stunted old growth hemlock and yellow cedar. On a clear day you can see the North Shore mountains, the Gulf Islands and Vancouver Island beyond – even Mount Baker down in Washington State.

There are 13 kilometres of groomed trails for cross-country skiers on Dakota Ridge.

Cross-country skiers will find 13 kilometres of groomed Nordic trails, all of them signposted and colour-coded according to degree of difficulty. Professional engineer Reidar Zapf-Gilje, who prepared Callaghan Valley’s 2010 Nordic Olympic course, designed Dakota Ridge’s trail network.

“In many cross-country skiing areas you’re skiing through woods and you don’t see too much,” says Zapf-Gilje.

“Dakota Ridge is way up there in terms of esthetics. Its real strength is its potential for recreation and citizen [cross-country] races.”

Jamie Mani hopes that potential will be realized. Mani owns Alpha Adventures, a Wilson Creek outdoor-adventure store specializing in guided snowshoe and cross-country ski touring on the Ridge.

When it's not snowing, the views from Dakota Ridge can be spectacular.

“One of the great things about this place is its proximity to so many other activities,” says Mani. “Someone can literally be out snowshoeing in the morning up in the mountains and then golfing or kayaking in the afternoon.

“And for Nordic skiing we have excellent potential because of great snowfall and a blend of flat and rolling trails. We have been skiing on the Ridge as late as May in previous years.”

Snowshoers will find their own trails and there’s plenty of room for hiking and tobogganing. You’ll find a parking lot, warming hunt and toilet at the trailhead.

The turnoff for Dakota Ridge is at the top of Field Road in Wilson Creek, about half way between Gibsons and Sechelt, and 20 kilometres drive from BC Ferries’ Langdale terminal. For many years, the unplowed access road to Dakota’s trailhead made it a ridge too far for some. In recent years the 11-kilometre road has been upgraded to allow for regular plowing, but four-wheel drive vehicles equipped with chains are still the way to go.

Or take advantage of Alpha Adventure’s shuttle service.