Cirque Lake: Venturing into a Mosquito War, Via Paddle Board

Articles online rave about Cirque Lake, a lake that’s tucked away in the Callaghan Valley of Whistler. It’s supposed to be amazing, so Nikki and I were intrigued. We thought it could be fun to scope it out, and think about bringing a larger group there on a Girls Gone Wilderness adventure.

Of course, others were less interested in all the effort required. To get there in summer months, you must canoe / paddle board / kayak across Callaghan Lake, then take a short trail from there. Fun!! As soon as the mention of multiple sports were mentioned, Nikki and I were stoked.

So we loaded up the Suby with 2 paddle boards, snowshoes, (we figured there would still be a lot of snow this year in July) and a beer. Onwards to Callaghan Country!

Driving up the Callaghan Lake Forest Service Road felt strange. I spent many a winter day hauling ass up here on skate skis, so it was weird and a bit too easy to be driven up.

Getting to Callaghan lake, it was beautiful. With all the focus on Cirque Lake, it’s easy to be surprised by Callaghan. A few people were camping there, and there was generally a really nice vibe.

IMG-3680

Paddling across Callaghan Lake. Photo by Nikki Johnston Beaudoin.

FML, Unexpected Adventure

As we paddled across Callaghan toward the Cirque trailhead, we remembered the advice from online: “paddle to the waterfall, then see a clearing in the trees to the right, that’s where the trailhead is.” Should be no problem. After a 25 minute SUP journey, we transitioned to looking around for the trailhead, getting off the SUP and walking around all places “right” of the waterfall, and there was nothing. After a futile 20-30 minutes of paddle – search, look at low-res map, paddle – search, we decided to ask for advice from the pair of kayakers who were floating nearby. Sure enough, they had been there, although it had taken them four hours, when the guides online said it would be two. The kayakers did a lot of bushwhacking, and it sounded like they didn’t find any sign of a trail until they found the scree field. Their advice was to bushwhack to the right of the waterfall. When I asked if we should bring the snowshoes we had strapped to our SUPs, they said there was snow most of the way, but no. I disregarded their advice. Having paddled the snowshoes all the way, I was bringing them if there was any snow!

I knew following people who had clearly gotten lost and taken 2-3 times longer than I wanted to wasn’t ideal, but we had no other information. We couldn’t see any sign of a trail, and the map we had was way too low-res. A GPS track would have been ideal, we just didn’t think it would come to this. So, we decided to follow the other misguided people’s advice. FML.

Bushwacking in Callaghan Valley

Nikki fending off the mosquito/fly attack while crawling around the forest. Photo by Alicia.

Entering the bushwhack phase, a special kind of hell transpired. A combination of flies and aggressive mosquitos swarmed our faces, especially our eyes and ears. (Side note: I don’t use bug spray.) We were bushwhacking through a marshy area, up and down gullys, while being eaten alive. I have never before encountered a situation where I was tested to my limit in such a short amount of time. It got so miserable that at one point, I asked Nikki if we should just call it a day and turn back. Who cares, it’s just a lake anyway?! We decided it was time for a snack before anything else.

A Little Snack Does Wonders

Glucose does wonders to the brain and general morale. As soon as the snack went down, we decided to continue another 10 minutes to find the scree field, as it should be really close, and the kayakers had said that the scree field navigating got way better. This is such a tiny hike (300 meters gain, total) that we should be really close to the lake by then.

And of course, as soon as we got into this headspace, we found a tiny trail — the trail!!

Cirque Lake trail

This is what the trail looks like! Note the obvious orange flagging.

While the mosquito / fly massacre continued, we weren’t bushwacking hopelessly at the same time, so it became tolerable. Following the trail, we found the scree field, enjoyed views of Callaghan Lake below as promised, and we made it to the lake from the scree field in about 20/30 minutes. (At this point, I remembered that I’ve already been to Cirque Lake, on touring skis in winter.) I was glad to have my snowshoes, as there was some traversing on snow which became much more fun and less cautious with any sort of traction. The icy, snow-lined lake was indeed pretty, but I was actually more enamoured with the huge and sparkling Callaghan Lake.

Callaghan Lake

Looking back at my favourite, Callaghan Lake from the top of the climb to Cirque Lake. Journeyman Lodge would be to the right of Callaghan Lake. Photo by Alicia.

Snowshoeing

I was happy to bring my snowshoes, it made this little traverse from the top of the climb over to Cirque Lake way more fun. Especially downhill! Photo by Nikki.

 

Cirque Lake in July

Cirque Lake in early July after a huge snow year. Photo by Nikki.

On the way back, we paid special attention to follow the trail all the way back. After the scree field, the path got thinner and thinner. At first there was tiny orange flagging every so often, then it became animal trail-like, snow-covered, and devoid of any markers. Blending in with the ground around it, it was extremely hard to notice, and we understood why it was impossible on the way in. Emerging at the paddle boards after about 30 minutes down, we were stoked to avoid the bushwhack entirely on the way down, and finally discover where the “trailhead” lies.

Getting back to the paddleboards, I removed the beer from its natural cooler in the cold lake, and off we paddled back across Callaghan, searching for a bug-free area in this paradise to down it. All in all, this trip was hilarious and super fun. It tested us in new ways, and turned into an adventure we weren’t expecting. Definitely not bringing a big group here!

Things I would do differently!

  • Note follow the “route-finding” of misguided people who were clearly lost. Instead, have a GPS track of the route. It will save 1 hour of bushwacking!
  • Bug repellant!!!!
  • The best decision I made was bringing fleece pants. Pants were crucial for bug protection, having fun sliding in the snow, and for warmth when we got up higher.
  • Bring orange flagging tape to re-mark the route and trailhead as I go to help the next people!
  • Have 2 beers instead of 1.

For anyone who wants to do this and avoid the bushwhack / mosquito hell, the “trailhead” is in between two streams of the waterfall: it’s to the right of the main waterfall stream, and to the left of a smaller outflow. (Mind you, this is in early summer after a big snow year.) Of course, you will not see a trail sign or any indication of a trail there, but it is the path of least resistance, with minimal alder.

My Arm Flew Into a Rock: hitchhiking from the Spearhead Traverse

The day was young, and there had not been nearly enough coffee.

At 7am Mike, Nate and I were galloping shuffling through Whistler Village, with our eye to completing the Spearhead Traverse, a hugely popular ski route.

Except, we didn’t have skis, and we weren’t planning on getting any. On this September day, we were planning to generally follow the idea of the popular ski traverse, but as a run & hike alternative. Skirting below the glaciers and above the trees, we thought we could do it in about 40-50K, one adventure day.

The goal is to get over to that ridge across the valley, through the path of least resistance. Photo credit: Mike Rose.

The goal is to get over to that ridge across the valley, through the path of least resistance. Photo credit: Mike Rose.

It was all Mike’s idea. With a summer off completing any big 100 mile run and months spent cooped-up in injury, he was jumping at the bit to run as many big Sea to Sky routes as he could before snowfall. He had just pioneered this other great run, Elfin Lake to Garibaldi Lake, and he was on a mission to complete as many grand Sea to Sky traverses as he could. Part of what made it exciting is that you just don’t find trip reports of people doing these traverses as a run. Mike’s adventures were entirely new, exciting, and full of unknowns.

Just the start of the adventure.

Just the start of the adventure, reaching the hut at Russet Lake.

I had just suffered from a cold from running one too many laps around Buntzen Lake, but I seemed fine enough to join the party. So at 4am when the alarm sounded, I jumped out of bed immediately, ready for the fun.

Loaded down with tons of gear, we slowly ran the first part of the route, the standard trail up to Russet Lake near the top of Whistler Mountain. From there we could roughly see where we wanted to go, the ridges of the Spearhead Traverse, which lead all the way to Blackcomb Mountain, across the valley. It seemed so close yet so far, all at once.

And now... how to get there? Photo credit: Mike Rose

And now… how to get way up over there, just under the glacier?
Photo credit: Mike Rose.

Passing Russet Lake, our first task was to find a nice line across to the Blackcomb side, skirting under Overlord Glacier. As actual legit skiers, Mike and Nate are naturals at picking out lines in the alpine, and they looked ahead at the slope, determining which ways we could ascend. I stared ahead and sort of followed, thankful that these guys have much more of a knack for the alpine.

Our first obstacle was a little steep rocky slope. Maybe 45 degrees, for about 100 feet. Falling here wouldn’t be life-threatening, but you could get a few good scrapes or maybe hit your head if you descended awkwardly. I immediately entered Gramma mode, which led me to crab-walk down a small gully formation in the rock, only after spending a good two minutes frozen, holding up the whole group with my ass facing down the slope. (!!) Finally I got into a good crab-walk down the gully, and things were looking up. I got 50 feet down, and yelled up to Nate that he could start descending.

The rocks of wrath. As usual, they picture always looks so benign, how could anything bad happen here? Photo credit: Mike Rose.

The rocks of wrath. As usual, they picture always looks so benign, how could anything bad happen here?
Photo credit: Mike Rose.

Then, a rock came flying down the gully where I was perched, about the size of two grapefruits. It was my worst nightmare. Of all the places the rock could travel on this huge slope, it was coming– right for my head. I had no time to think, react, or change my position. The next second, the rock rocketed forward and hit me good in the upper arm, and immediately I was in shock. Perched on the slope, suddenly lightheaded and my right arm totally numb, I felt helpless and useless. I wanted to get off the slope, but I couldn’t move. I think I let out some kind of audible surrender.

Somehow I slid my ass down the mountain and started mowing my chocolate croissant to regain the upper-hand over my body’s physiological upset. By now, Nate was talking good sense into me, suggesting that him and I could turn around right about now. I knew Mike was going to continue one way or another, and I wanted nothing more than for him to complete the adventure. Still feeling lightheaded, I started to weigh the options. Don’t be a wimp, I thought to myself. Some curious thoughts floated around my head. Maybe, finishing this adventure is a kind of dividing line between being tough or not… maybe this moment will define me… But thankfully, Nate’s voice countered those stupid thoughts.

Mike ran and got me some glacier ice for my arm, which gave me a good ten minutes to decide whether to carry on, or turn back. I couldn’t lift my right arm, but that didn’t matter to me. (Runners don’t need arms! I thought.) More concerning was that I still felt a bit lightheaded from the shock, and I was already in sub-optimal condition to begin with, recovering from being sick. Now I was a bit of a liability. And there was so much uncertainty about what lay ahead. Looking forward, we didn’t know what was on the other side of the ridge in front of us.

Suddenly it felt dumb to continue, with so much uncertainty about the challenges ahead, coupled with a whole list of known ailments. And suddenly, I realized this could become a hitchhiking adventure!

Choose Your Own Adventure: find your favourite line around the glacier! Photo credit: Mike Rose.

Choose Your Own Adventure: find your favourite line around the glacier! This is a shot looking back at the base of MacBeth from where Mike carried on solo. Photo credit: Mike Rose.

I absolutely love hitchhiking, I’d say, equally to the amount I love running. And so, with a fresh opportunity to hitchhike and with Nate as a poor sucker of a friend to come along, I decided the remained of the day would best be spent as an urban, gas-fuelled, stranger-filled adventure.

The second our thumbs flipped up, we were scooped up on the side of the Sea to Sky Highway. Our hero was Ramon, a Mexican entrepreneur/father from Mexico City, who had moved to Canada to help his family escape sketchiness in Mexico City. For the entire drive to Vancouver, we were treated to the inspiring story of how Ramon moved his family to Canada, how he had suffered from fraud with his first venture here; a restaurant he purchased which he had to bankrupt, and how he was not even acknowledging any setbacks, now a Locksmith to support his family and planning a second Mexican market and deli. We told him about running and biking on trails, and we were the first people he had met who do long distances. At the end of the car-ride, he said we somehow had inspired him, that he was going to start running in North Vancouver. In that moment, I didn’t care about the Spearhead Traverse. Connecting with Ramon, and hearing about what constitutes a great tamale, was so much cooler.

And what about Mike? Of course, Mike completed the route. Going most of the way solo, it took him about 10.5 hours including the first aid picnic, and he didn’t have to cross any glaciers, or anything sketchy.

Mountain or urban, it doesn’t matter. The Sea to Sky brings nothing but great adventures and inspiration, even on a day when things go south.

Up high. Photo credit: Mike Rose.

Up high.
Photo credit: Mike Rose.

Solo Camping for the Momma’s Girl

This week I was randomly gifted with a week off, which meant that I needed to quickly come up with a fun, adventure-packed vacation plan, something I could do solo because everyone I know had work commitments. I thought about heading to the Chilcotins, to Stein Valley or down to Mount Rainier, but I hesitated. I pictured myself being alone in a bivvy sack, and attempting long-ish solo remote runs near Grizzlies, and it just seemed really dumb. Suddenly, Whistler was the obvious choice. It’s beautiful, so much fun, and it’s busy enough everywhere that you can visit these amazing backcountry places, but still feel the security of seeing other people from time to time, even on a weekday. (Plus there’s cell phone reception all over!)

I decided to pull out all the stops with safety while I was at it. Here’s how I made my mom super happy with my adventure choice, and you can, too!

  1. I bought a SPOT device from MEC
    The SPOT seems great for tracking whereabouts, so far! Because of the awesome battery life, I kept it on and with me at all times when I was camping or running. Ask me for the link if you want to track me!

    Alicia's SPOT

  2. I brought multiple maps
    I love maps, and having a paper map of the area is a must. Even in summer and our mild climate, my phone got too cold and died (with battery 3/4 full!) at 7am in the campsite. I typically use a map AND RunGo, it’s nice having both.
  3. I camped in the easiest backcountry spot– Cheakamus Lake!
    My camp spot was only a 4km hike in, so it was super close, if I did need help for some reason (or a beer). That lake is one of the most beautiful, quiet places and in my opinion, you can’t get a better place in terms of reward-to-effort ratio. (Good to know, there was even a bit of cell reception in there!)

    Camping at Cheakamus Lake!

  4. On my solo runs I stuck to classic backcountry trails, all routes that are well-defined and that I’ve done before at least once. It’s hard to go wrong with running 1,300m up to the alpine on the Singing Pass, or running shoulder to shoulder with Black Tusk from the Helm Creek trailhead. I also brought every piece of emergency gear I own– spare jacket, light, maps, SPOT device, cell phone, emergency kit, and lots of food. It’s peace of mind, and if I don’t need it, I may be able to help someone else.

    Running Along Panorama Ridge

  5. Obviously, I told people where I was going, and whenever I changed my mind I phoned to let my emergency contact know of my change in plans.

So that’s my little summary of how to do a fun solo camping trip, and maximizing all the peace, quiet and adventure, while minimizing complaints & general anxieties from mom.