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Cold play

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The Tetrahedron Outdoor Club ensures a warm welcome for visitors

Reached by ferry or floatplane, the Sunshine Coast, north by northwest from Vancouver on Canada’s west coast, is the kind of place people visit to get away from it all. The Tetrahedron is the kind of place Sunshine Coasters go to get away from it all.

As backyards go, the Tetrahedron tends to be on the large side. Six thousand hectares of mountains, lakes, streams, wetlands and forest make this Class A provincial park the perfect place for backcountry enthusiasts to explore.

It also makes the Tet, as it’s fondly known, an immensely challenging place to maintain for visitors. Charged with that formidable task is the Tetrahedron Outdoor Club, a hugely dedicated volunteer organization committed to maintaining the park’s four rustic cabins and the 25-kilometre trail network connecting those cabins.

“B.C. Parks owns the cabins and it’s their provincial park,” explains club president, Gerry Marcotte. “We are the stewards of the park and a have great working relationship with B.C. Parks, which goes a long way to keeping these cabins and trails up to date.”

Taking the long way around to avoid cornices, a snowshoer ascends Mount Steele, 5,114 feet above the Sunshine Coast, northwest of Vancouver.

The latest major project keeping the club’s volunteers busy has been the installation of a three-ton bridge spanning Steele Creek. Lowered by helicopter and installed by club members last month, the bridge cost about $20,000 – $12,000 of which was partially funded by a grant from the Sunshine Coast Community Forest Legacy Fund.

It would have cost more but for the donations of businesses – structural engineering, welders and lumber milling. The mix of grants, donations, partnerships and resourceful volunteers continues from a blueprint established more than 35 years ago.

In the mid-1980s, amid an economic depression, a group of backcountry enthusiasts united to mobilize more than 200 volunteers, 45 businesses, schools, community groups and several levels of government: their goal, to build cabins linked by a trail network.

The Tetrahedron Ski Club, as it was then known, secured more than $150,000 in federal funding and another $20,000 from the province, to build the cabins at Sechelt airport. The cabins would then be 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 airtime, Gibsons Building Supplies provided crane trucks and the Outdoor Recreation Council pitched in with chainsaws.

The tireless volunteers of the Tetrahedron Outdoor Club carry in culverts during a recent work party in the park.Tetrahedron Outdoor Club photo

An army of volunteers mobilized to clear trails while 18 people worked on the cabins, gaining valuable carpentry skills and learning about surveying and wilderness first aid. By the time the cabins opened to the public in 1987, the club had raised more than $300,000 for the project. Perhaps more remarkably, a single great idea had united governments, businesses and local volunteers.

So, what motivated such efforts back then and what continues to drive the club’s volunteers now?

“There are a lot of people in the Tet for pure recreation,” says long-time club member, Melissa Rayfield. “I think the difference with volunteering is that it becomes purposeful recreation. I think any volunteer would feel the same way, it’s part of their social life, part of pleasure and the fulfilment of getting something done.”

Melissa’s husband, Danny Fleischhacker, agrees, adding that the solitude and the elements amid the Tet’s wide-open spaces are hard to resist, especially in winter.

“Getting out into the backyard, being out in nature there’s a sense of throttling back, tapping the brakes and going slow, but looking around,” says Danny, who admits that he also likes to go fast. “I really love skinning in a blizzard with the wind blowing at me. (Skinning is the practice of sticking synthetic skins to skis, climbing a trail, then skiing down. Danny and fellow club-member, Sam Preston, are particularly fond of exploring ski terrain deep in the park and immortalizing perfect runs with names like “Heaven is a Halfpipe”.)

Melissa and Danny are stewards of McNair cabin, visiting about once a month for maintenance and monitoring. (Visitors are asked to clean up after themselves but that doesn’t always mean that they do.) Gerry and his wife Ellen steward Bachelor cabin. In between are Edwards and Steele cabins, each with their own stewards and the latter cabin being the highest, situated at the base of 5,114-foot Mount Steele.

It’s not uncommon to have to dig your way into the Tetrahedron’s cabins and outhouses, especially on Mt. Steele.

The cabins accommodate 12 to 16 people, are first come, first serve, and are well equipped with mattresses in the attic, firewood in the basement, a kitchen counter and a sink. The wood stove usually has the place toasty warm within an hour.    

Panther, Steele and Tetrahedron peaks loom over the park’s 10 lakes and some of the oldest trees in the country. Amabilis fir, mountain and western hemlock, yellow cedar and white pine can all be found here.

For Melissa and Danny, winter in the Tet means fun; summer means work. “It can take a herculean effort by a small number of people to accomplish some of the projects,” says Melissa. “Trail-clearing is never ending.”

(Veteran club member, George Smith, recently spearheaded a new trail to provide day-trippers with a beautiful new winter-touring option past Mayne Lake.)

Nor are the volunteers getting any younger.

Cheers to a job well done! Tetrahedron Outdoor Club volunteers toast the completion of the Steele Creek bridge crossing. – Tetrahedron Outdoor Club photo

“When you look at the group photos from the Steele Creek bridge project, you realize the average age of the volunteers is low-60s,” says Danny. “We need to bring down that average age, not that our volunteers aren’t uniquely capable – there are some extremely hard-working 70+ people. We all love the Tet and are very supportive of each other. There’s never a shortage of camaraderie.”

Funding is also a perennial concern for the club. Snow removal costs between $6,000 and $12,000 a year. Firewood is airlifted to the cabins at a cost of $18,000. Community members donate the wood, which is cut and split by club volunteers. (Visitors building winter bonfires outside of the cabins are a particular source of frustration for the club.) Then there’s cabin maintenance and major projects like the Steele Creek bridge. A bridge will soon be needed across Chapman Creek.

Danny Fleischhacker in his element at McNair Cabin, where he is a steward with his wife, Melissa Rayfield. Tetrahedron Outdoor Club photo

Cabin revenues of $10 to $15 a night help but the club’s major source of income is from the annual Banff Mountain Film Festival held at Elphinstone Secondary School in Gibsons. Tickets are on sale for the February 3 event, (see below for details) which is also a good opportunity to learn more about the club and consider volunteering. Otherwise, the best way to join is online at tetoutdoor.ca.

“We welcome everyone with open arms,” says Gerry. “We moved here in 2016 and were warmly welcomed and encouraged by the club and it still holds true today. The people we have come to know, the friends we’ve made – it’s absolutely awesome!”

Welcoming sunrise from the peak of Mount Steele on Canada’s west coast.

Visiting the Tetrahedron

  • Four-wheel drive and chains are essential for visiting the Tetrahedron during winter. For more information about conditions, visit the club’s Facebook page.
  • For information about the park, visit bcparks.ca/explore/parkpgs/tetrahedron/
  • There can be a significant avalanche risk in the park. Before heading out, visit www.avalanche.ca

Banff Mountain Film Festival tickets

Tickets for the Banff Mountain Film Festival, (February 3, 2023 at Elphinstone Secondary School) are available at:

  • Alpha Adventures, Wilson Creek
  • Elphi Cycles Gibsons and Sechelt outlets
  • High Beam Dreams, Gibsons
  • Trail Bay Source for Sports, Sechelt

Related stories: Men of Steele and Cabin Fever

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.

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.