Backpacking the Monashees

Field Notes

Erin Miller, Senior Writer, Canada

30 December 2019

The trailhead for Monashee Provincial Park is in the middle of nowhere. When I say the middle of nowhere, I mean it is two hours from the nearest major population center and over forty kilometers up a maze of Forest Service Roads.

We expect no one to be there, it’s far away from anywhere, and Canadians aren’t typically backpackers, so trailheads are usually empty.

We are shocked to discover twenty-two cars in the parking lot. I do the math: ten spots at Spectrum Lake, five at Little Pete Lake, ten at Big Pete. It’s going to be tight. We debate leaving and going elsewhere, but I don’t have a backup plan. Ultimately we decide to make for Big Pete Lake, 14.5 kilometers up the trail; it’s the furthest away and the most likely to have a spot.

Little Pete Lake

Photograph by Erin Miller

Past Spectrum Lake, the trail is a steady climb through serene stands of old-growth cedar and hemlock, past babbling brooks, and sparkling white waterfalls. In avalanche shoots, we get the occasional peek-a-boo view of Mount Fosthall.

Two-thirds of the way up, I am dying. It dawns on me that my desk is quite literally killing me. Speaking of desks, why am I out here and not at my office? I have so much work to do. What am I doing out here?

Spring has just sprung at this elevation. On the sunny side of the lake, tender green shoots of grass compete for sunlight amongst an explosion of sunshine yellow glacier lilies. On the far side of the lake, large patches of winter snow linger in the shade of the sleepy forest. The lake, as calm and flat as glass mirrors the world around us with such precision, I’m convinced it’s not so much a lake as it is a portal into another dimension. There are no people, we have, thankfully, left them all behind, way down below at Spectrum Lake. It is just us, and so we stop for the night.

We set up camp at the tent pad closest to the lake. As I cook dinner on our little camp stove, the answer as to why I am out here and not at my desk comes to me…

…Into the wilderness, we must go, to free our minds and calm our soul.

Work can wait, my soul and my sanity cannot.

“…Into the wilderness, we must go, to free our minds and calm our soul. Work can wait, my soul and my sanity cannot.”

Sunday morning, we awake to a cloudless blueberry sky. By eight a.m., it’s too hot in my sleeping bag.

I make a breakfast of rehydrated eggs and sausage in tortillas. While it rehydrates, we plan our day. Big Pete Lake is two and a half kilometers up the trail, Margie Lake is another four and a half beyond that.

When we were coming up the mountain, two men going down had warned us that spring had not yet come to Big Pete Lake; there was still over three feet of snow on 99% of the trail, but they had shoveled out site number ten should we decide to camp there. They had not attempted Margie. The trail notes mention that the bridge over Little Pete Creek, “may have been damaged over the winter.” We pack some lunch, ready to see where the day will take us.

Approaching Little Pete Creek, I see the old wooden bridge, mangled and warped, through the trees.

“Oh, I will not be crossing on that…No, no, no….” I tell Carl, slowly shaking my head.
Luckily, we find a new steel bridge just upstream. Although some of the lateral supports appear to be missing (judging from the overly springy boards in the center of the bridge), it’s more-or-less structurally sound, especially by comparison.

On the far side of the bridge, I turn and snap a photo.

“You know what I’m calling this photo?” I ask Carl.

“Bridge Over Troubled Waters?” he answers. I smile; the man knows me too well.

I like this bridge. It dawns on me, as we turn and disappear into the snowy forest, that I like this bridge because it’s oddly representative of life. It’s messy, warped, and storm weathered, but if you’re daring enough to cross, it will eventually carry you to the promised land. Or spit you out on a whole new path somewhere downstream. Either way, it will be an adventure.

A bridge over troubled waters. The old crossing over Little Pete Creek.

Photograph by Erin Miller

It takes longer than it should to reach the campground at the end of Big Pete Lake. The snow is soft yet firm, but every now and then, we unexpectedly sink up to our knees. Through the meadows, the tracks of the men we’d met the day before have already melted into oblivion. In most spots, the only sign a trail exists at all are the little orange reflectors nailed to trees every few hundred yards.

Near the campground, we find a snow-free patch under a healthy young pine. I pull out my book to read and enjoy the peace and quiet. Carl sets up his camera.

“You know we’re only the fourth people to be here this year?” I ask Carl.

“Yeah, that’s cool,” Carl says, smiling.

It is late afternoon. By now, all the backpackers at Spectrum Lake have packed up and gone home. The weekend is in its final hours. It dawns on me that we are likely the only people in the entire 22,722-hectare park. Heck, we are likely the only two humans in a fifty-kilometer radius.

Most people find this unnerving. It brings me an enormous sense of peace.

It’s not that I dislike people; it’s that people overwhelm me. My tiny little brain cannot handle people; it needs space and silence. It craves it. It has not escaped me that one day I will, in all likelihood, become a hermit. I smile at this thought and turn the next page of my tattered book.

My brain has finally become as still as the wilderness around me.

We eat lunch at Big Pete Lake, and debate carrying on to Margie Lake. The going was slow, just getting this far. We doubt we will make it all the way there and back to camp before dark. Instead, we pack up and slowly make our way back to camp, drinking in the silence as we go.

Back at Little Pete Lake, we discover that the cute, furry ground squirrels that have been happily frolicking through the meadow around our camp are, in fact, tiny little psychopaths. While we out, they managed to chew eighteen holes in our tent, destroy the nipple on my water hose, and chew clean through the tube on our gravity filter.

“I don’t think they want us here,” Carl says as one side-eyes us from a nearby rock while we eat dinner.

“Well, hopefully, they don’t kill us in our sleep,” I respond in jest, carefully watching as one of the sneaky little buggers tries to distract me so his friend can climb into the food bag at my feet.

In the morning, while Carl is out in the forest using el baño, A gang of ground squirrels comes at me from all directions. They seem determined to steal my coffee, or maybe they want the cup, I can’t be sure.

When Carl returns, it is to find me running around in circles, yelling, “I see you, you little bastard… stop eating our stuff! Go away!”

“I heard you yelling, and I thought a bear came into camp,” Carl laughs.

“I wish,” I reply.

The ground squirrels laugh as we pack up and leave. They won this round, and they know it.

By mid-afternoon, we find ourselves back at the now deserted Spectrum Lake campground. We weren’t planning on stopping here; completely lost in thought, somewhere up the trail, I missed the turn that skipped the lake and went directly back to the trailhead. We are happy for the mistake; void of life, the campground is surprisingly peaceful.

It’s no wonder a Scottish Prospector named the Monashee’s as he did. Monashee: from the Gaelic monadh (mountain) and sith (peace.)

I do not want to leave the mountains. I do not want to go back to my desk. I do not want to go back to having a mind so busy I forget to truly be alive.

I want to turn around and run back to the silence and peace of serene lakes and wild rivers, of towering peaks and snowy valleys. I want to explore, push further, see things yet undiscovered, to forge my own path. I want to sit so still and so silent that for even the briefest of moments, I feel that we are all one.

Laying down on a makeshift log bench, I stare up at the pines gently swaying in the breeze, the wind playing at their limbs, whispering ancient secrets to the forest.

And I greedily drink it all in, in the hopes that I can carry it with me, somewhere deep within my soul, until we by chance meet again.


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