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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.

Cabin fever

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Snowshoers make their way to Mount Steele Cabin, one of four cabins built by the Tetrahdron Outdoor Club in 1987. Reynold Schmidt photo

Snowshoers make their way to Mount Steele Cabin, one of four cabins built by the Tetrahdron Outdoor Club in 1987. Reynold Schmidt photo

 

“We came in by the light of the benevolent and gibbous moon waxing to near fullness. The skies were clear and the spirits were high, peeling laughter for 48 hours and sleeping for six.”

–          An entry in the Bachelor Lake Cabin, Tetrahedron Provincial Park

Some people move to the Sunshine Coast to get away from it all. The Tetrahedron is where Sunshine Coasters go to get away from it all. Six thousand hectares of mountains, lakes, streams, wetlands and forest, the Tet, as it’s fondly known, has long been cherished by backcountry enthusiasts.

In 1987, a group of those enthusiasts banded together to mobilize more than 200 volunteers, 45 businesses, schools, community groups and several levels of government: their mission, to build cabins linked by a trail network.

Back then, they called themselves the Tetrahedron Ski Club. A quarter of a century later, they’re the Tetrahedron Outdoor Club, a group justifiably proud of the legacy created northeast of Sechelt. Last summer, club members marked the 25-year milestone with dances, parties, pancake breakfasts and numerous trips down memory lane.

Tannis is one of 10 beautiful lakes in Tetrahedron Provincial Park.

Tannis is one of 10 beautiful lakes in Tetrahedron Provincial Park. In June, the lake was still partially frozen.

Now they’re enjoying the snow.

“Early December, after that first big dump of snow; that’s my favourite time to go,” says club president, Reynold Schmidt. “I usually go with club members, friends – before the crowds.”

It’s June when Reynold and I visit Bachelor Lake Cabin, a one-hour hike from the trailhead up Grey Creek Forest Service Road. With snow more than a metre deep in places, I’m grateful for snowshoes. Partially frozen Tannis Lake is a testament to the cold, wet spring endured down at sea level, 1,100 metres below. At least the mosquitoes are still asleep.

Tannis is one of 10 beautiful lakes in Tetrahedron Provincial Park. There are three mountain peaks – Panther, Steele and Tetrahedron – 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. So, too, can the club’s four rustic, two-storey cabins each built to accommodate 16 people – first-come, first serve. They can be reached via a 25-kilometre trail network and are located at Bachelor Lake, above Edwards Lake, between McNair and Chapman Lakes, and below the summit of Mt. Steele.

A 25-kilometre trail network links the Tetrahedron's cabins. Views are good any time of year. BC Parks photo

A 25-kilometre trail network links the cabins in Tetrahedron Provincial Park. BC Parks photo

Inside Bachelor Cabin, we stop for lunch, seated on a long wooden bench at a metal table. There’s a wood stove and firewood. Above us is a sleeping loft with foam mattresses. From the kitchen window, looking across frozen Bachelor Lake, it’s hard to imagine “crowds”. We haven’t seen a soul all day. But weekend and holidays during the winter can be busy at the cabins, confirms Reynold, a natural resource officer with B.C. Ministry of Forests, Lands and Natural Resource Operations.

“We’ve had our problems with vandalism over the years, people coming just to party and not cleaning up after themselves,” he says. “There has been a lot of debate within the club to create a reservation system, but some members are adamant the cabins remain for everyone’s use.”

This year, the club has appointed stewards, two people per cabin, responsible for maintenance and regular monitoring. “They’re regular backcountry users who get to use the lockboxes to store their gear, so they don’t have to carry stuff in each time,” says Reynold.

“It helps dispel the sense that these are party cabins,” he adds.

Naturally, the cabins are there to be enjoyed. How they came to be there is a different story, far removed from pristine mountain air – below sea level in fact!

A basement in Franklin Road, Gibsons, is where George Smith pitched his idea for a cabin and trail network. In 1985, George had skied Mount Steele with his friend Ian McConnell on June 1 weekend. He was struck by the quality of the snow and the potential of backcountry recreation in the area.

Bachelor Cabin, the closest of the four cabins to the trail head.

Bachelor Cabin, the closest of the four cabins to the trail head.

“The Sunshine Coast was in the midst of an economic depression,” recalls George. “People weren’t exactly light and breezy, but I thought this idea made sense.”

George approached his Franklin Road neighbor, Wayne Greggain, the titular head of the Tetrahedron Ski Club. After a heyday in the late 1960s and 70s, mostly skiing Mount Elphinstone courtesy of a Tucker Snow Cat and 600-foot lift purchased from Hollyburn Mountain, the ski club was all-but defunct by 1985. Wayne agreed to host a meeting of ski enthusiasts in his basement where George explained his vision.

The prevailing mood, recalls George, was: “We don’t know how good an idea this is, but if we don’t do it, someone else might and they won’t do it right.”

The group agreed that if George could secure funding for the project, the ski club would run it as a non-profit. By the fall of 1986, George – then a sometimes reporter with the former Coast News – had secured more than $150,000 in federal funding and another $20,000 from the province.

Yet another Franklin Road resident, Paul Anslow, was contracted 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 air time, Gibsons Building Supplies provided crane trucks and the Outdoor Recreation Council pitched in with chainsaws.

A small army of volunteers mobilized to clear trails while 18 people during the course of the project worked on the cabins.

George describes former club president and long-time member, Victor Bonaguro, “a force of nature” who could “build anything”.

“Part of the reason we were able to get funding was because we created an 11-point education plan for the workers, so they would have the tools to go out and find work afterwards,” says George. Aside from cabin-building, workers learned valuable lessons in surveying and industrial and wilderness first aid, thanks to time donated by local experts.

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By the time the cabins opened to the public in 1987, the club had raised more than $300,000 for the project. But perhaps more importantly, one great idea had united governments, businesses, and local volunteers in the midst of a recession, no less.

The Tetrahedron was declared a Class A provincial park in 1995. And in 2004, recognizing the year-round activities of its members, the ski club changed its name to the Tetrahedron Outdoor Club.”

“This resource is at least as good today as when it was first built,” says George, who’s still in love with the Tetrahedron.

“I feel lucky. When you walk in a forest that’s never been logged, it just feels different. It’s wonderful to be there.”

 

Summer comes late to Bachelor Lake, pictured here in June.

Summer comes late to Bachelor Lake, pictured here in June.

Written by nevjudd

January 19, 2013 at 11:06 am