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An Attempt on Puzzle Mountain
Strathcona Provincial Park
Strathcona Park covers a large chunk of remote north-central Vancouver Island. It is home to the highest of the mountains on Vancouver Island, and fortunately for us, the area was made into a park (in fact, it is the oldest provincial park in BC) instead of succumbing to the intensive forestry and mining use to which most of the rest of the island is subject. Although there has been some industrial development in and around the park, it is still a wonderful and wild place to visit. There are very few maintained trails in the park, and most of the mountains have no official trials at all. In contrast, my own corner of the woods (in the Adirondacks, for example), this is a remote and uncrowded mecca. If you are interested, here's a link to the BC parks webpage for Strathcona.

We first drove up the coast highway to Campbell River, a fairly large settlement on the east coast of Vancouver Island. We stocked up on foodstuffs for both camping and hiking, and then headed west on highway 28 - the only highway that cuts across the park. We set up camp at a spot called the Buttle Lake Campground, one of the few official campgrounds in the park. It has large campspots and is not busy (well, not when we were there, anyway), and is situated in a nice mature forest.
Buttle Lake Campground
Buttle Lake
We set up camp, explored the surrounding area (our campspot was a very short hike from the shores of a beautiful view down Buttle Lake), and had a tasty camp meal for dinner. Our plan for the next day was a peak called Puzzle Mountain, a medium height (in terms of rank with the other mountains in the park) mountain and with a [seemingly] straightforward ascent description. There was no official trail to the summit, like most mountains in the park, so we would have to routefind in places.
The Elk River Trail
The next day, which again was completely clear, we started our attempt on Puzzle Mountain. We started off on the Elk River Trail, one of the few major maintained trails in the park. It follows the Elk River valley into the heart of the highest mountains on the island. According to my guidebook, we were to follow this trail in for a couple of kilometres, and then strike off up on a route towards puzzle mountain.
Beautiful old-growth trail
The trail started off as a meticulously constructed path through beautiful virgin old-growth forest - a real pleasure through which to walk. As the trail made its way up-valley, it gradually became less and less maintained and more rough - but never horribly so.

When I reached what I thought was the location to strike out on our off-trail portion, I was unsure. I saw no cairn, no hint of a herd path, and the terrain looked pretty brushy. I thought perhaps I had the wrong drainage and maybe it was the next one along - so we hiked another kilometre or so and again I didn't see anything that looked like a way or a route. We backtrack a kilometre, looking carefully for anything. Puzzle mountain was indeed turning out to be quite a puzzle! Eventually enough time passed that I realized we weren't going to have the time required to achieve the summit. So, after several hours of poking around, we decided to alter our plans, and to simply hike the entire length of the Elk River trail to its end at Landslide Lake, a scenic glacial lake at the head of the valley.
Fungus and Footpath
My mistake, as I now realize it, was to assume that "off-trail" routes in Strathcona park were like the off-trail routes in busier mountain areas out east, like the Adirondacks. In the Adirondacks, an "off-trail" route simply means that there is no officially maintained trail, but in all likelihood there is a well-worn (and sometimes even partially signed) path. In Strathcona, the level of visitation means that an off-trail route is just that: off trail - as in, no trail, no herdpath, no indication of previous human travel at all. If there's bush, you bushwack; if you don't know which way to go, then consult the topo and your guidebook and forget about cairns and such things. I had not made that mental switch in my mind, and I was looking for some sort of faint path. In the future, I'll have to accept the fact that we just bushwack up as best we can, following the easiest way through the terrain.
courtesy PChen
courtesy PChen
Andrew takes a break
Well-built switchbacks
Streaky Bark
Anyhow, instead of our Puzzle Mountain climb, as I said earlier, we decided to hike the entire length of the Elk River trail. Since it followed a river valley's bottom, there wasn't much elevation gain, but it was long - 10km each way, and it did get somewhat rough in its upper sections.
Rougher but still pretty
Near the very head of the valley the trail breaks out into a few open areas and follows along the edge of a rushing torrent coming out of Landslide Lake. And then, we reached the end : Landslide lake, a brilliant turquoise color from glacial flour, nestled under the jagged bulk of Mount Colonel Foster, one of the meanest and harded of the mountains on Vancouver Island.

Pu had never seen a glacial lake actively being fed by an active glacier, so he was quite surprised and taken by the brilliant color. The source glacier for the lake was a little higher up at the base of Mount Coloner Foster, which we could only see a bit of from our vantage point at the lower end of the lake. There was obviously a slightly higher lake above Landslide Lake, but we could not see it from here.
Opening up
Elk River Torrent
Landslide Lake
Also visible from this spot was a huge scar of open rock on the far side of the lake. This was the famous 1950s landslide to which the lake owes its name. High up on a northern flank of Mt Colonel Foster, a huge slab of mountain gave way, slide down and over ups and downs of terrain, and eventually right down and into the lake, leaving the huge scar (see picture). Impressive. We spent a lazy three quarters of an hour snacking, enjoying the fabulous views, and skinny dipping (well, Pu skinny dipped - too cold for the rest of us).
Landslide Scar
Landslide Scar Explained
Remnant Glacier
Our hike back was long, somewhat tiring, and uneventful, and it was somewhat gratifying to reach the Toyota after a long 24-ish km day (we had done a lot of extra back-and-forth trying to locate the route up Puzzle Mtn, don't forget). Sleep would come well tonight!
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