Hiking on the Mackenzie Trail

Hiking on the Mackenzie Trail

In the summer of 1997 Ian Porteous, Grete Porteous, and Robert Greenwalt hiked from Eliguk Lake to Bella Coola along the Mackenzie trail. What follows is from Grete's diary written along the trail and pictures that I took.

August 9

This is our second day at the cabin. Ian, Robert and I just came back from canoing down to the Indian camp. I wanted to sneak up on the beavers that the guys saw yesterday on their walk, but no luck. We did, however, see one of the lakes bald eagles.

The lake today is glassy and calm, almost too calm for the floatplanes to take off. The weather is clear, which bodes well for our upcoming hike. Robert says we shouldn't be using up our good weather at the cabin, but that is just typical silliness.

Yesterday we had a lot of chores to do: fetching water, chopping wood, washing dishes, installing the new propane stove, and all the other things that always have to be done at the cabin. We also sealed the seams on the rainfly of Robert's tent. What a pain! I got more of the sealant on my hands and in my hair than on the rainfly. Little bugs and bits of dirt got caught in the drying silicon, making it kind of portable La Brea tarpit.

The trip to the cabin was long - 2 full days of driving, and two plane trips. The second was on one of Duncan Stewart's Beaver planes, which typically seats 6. I think the planes are a lot of fun, but mom gets terribly nervous.

We have plenty of work left to do today, so I will stop my entry here.

August 10

It is 4 p.m. and the 3 of us are gratefully lying in our tent. It is warm but blissfully free of mosquitoes and flies. Today's hike was long, but made shorter by my parents dropping us off near Basalt Lake and our premature selection of a campsite at Malaput Lake. The terrain today alternated between swamp, pine forest, and arid, rocky, fir forest. The day was unexpectedly hot and still, a haven for mosquitoes.

Our passage through the area has undoubtedly assured the survival of future generations of the pests. Robert had some dramatic reactions to their bites. I hope his immune system calms down with time, otherwise he will be a most uncomfortable camper.

We crossed a number of bogs today. When I saw the first, I said, "Oh, a meadow", which really couldn't be further from the truth. Over a 100m across, the swamp sucked at our boots. At the second bog, I tried to lead. Disaster! I lost my footing and plunged my left leg into about a foot of mud and stagnant water. After that, I followed Ian or Robert, who seem to be more surefooted, or who at least know hot to read a bog.

I was disappointed that we saw no critters today besides the mosquitoes. No grouse, moose, loons, bears, porcupines, even squirrels. I suppose all warm-blooded creatures have been driven away by the insects.

I have to say that today is bloody hard hike. The blessing of it is that you work so hard to keep moving that you don't notices the time passing. Then when you lay down you are too bone tired to worry about anything. I guess that's why were here. If we wanted Mai Tais, topical sun and well oiled cabin boys we would have gone to Acapulco. Or at least I would have.

August 11

Here we are, three smelly people huddled in a tent, the mosquitoes banging themselves against the tent! (it sounds like rain) Their hum sounds like B29s in the distance.

We hiked as near as we can figure, 25 km today, and it was bloody hard. I have learned my lesson. Flat ground does not equal easy. Flat ground equals swamps and mosquitoes. Flat ground equals dehydration and pain. Mackenzie was a lunatic. We started out fast and hard, and after about 2 hours I reached my limit. Unfortunately, we didn't stop for another eight hours. Significant amounts of trail (and time)were lost in unexpected swamps (thanks to an apparently wet spring and way too many beavers) I would cheerfully kill a beaver right now and throw its carcass in the lake to float and fester, as a lesson to other beavers.

Seriously, we had to cross a god-awful swamp today (maybe 100-150m). It was murky, disgusting water, mushy and squishy plants. Oh and mosquitoes. Robert discovered probably the only way to get across was to balance across the beaver dam.

I think somebody should tell the Mackenzie people that they don't need to blaze every tree on the good parts of the train, and instead put half-a-dozen bright yellow signs clearly visible across a swamp.

I don't know how many bogs and swamps we crossed today. Everybody had an opportunity to get knee deep in mud today. I did it so many times that it hardly mattered whether I found solid ground or not anymore.

The high point of the day was the Dean River. We took a 1km detour in order to cross the river over a metal footbridge that was pretty cool. The bottom was a large metal mesh, and the cables on either side were spaced just a bit too widely apart to be useful. Water rushed below between a narrow (30m) space in the rock cliffs. There was a beautiful campsite at the Dean River, and although we took some time to get water and wash up, we had to press on. It was the most agonizing 6km of my life. We plodded on as evening drew close, I was so exhausted that I wept the final miles. Camp was set up and dinner prepared and eaten in record time. There is no breeze and the evening is warm.

There are some things to be thankful for:

  • Nobody is sick
  • Nobody is seriously hurt
  • It is not raining
  • We have plenty of food
  • We have a good tent
  • The bugs cannot get inside the tent
  • We are able to laugh
  • Nobody has thought about work all day
  • Loons
P.S. Cotton underwear really chafes.

August 12

Today was another long day. We got a late start because we had problems with the water filter. One day at Malaput and the filter cartridge seems shot - It take now like 15 minutes to get a liter of water. We have now 44 iodine pellets, enough for 22L , and of course the option of boiling water (1Lx10Min each) that is limited by our fuel supply. What a quandary! Next time, we should assure that more than one person carries iodine tablets and/or replacement filter cartridges.

The first 6km was not too bad. We skirted a meadow that the guidebook called "small" but which Robert said could probably be seen from space. Squinnes Lake is quite beautiful. The campsite where we took a break was lovely with a brisk breeze. The shore of the lake was rocky, making it much easier to get water. I was sad to leave.

The part of the hike that we all dreaded today was crossing Serpent Swamp. This swamp was named so not because of its denizens but because of the shape of the river that feeds it. But miracle of miracles, some blessed, kind people had built a beautiful bridge across it! A good thing too, because the swamp would have been impassible. These same wonderful people had built a bridge across the Serpent River. I felt like sending a substantial donation to the Mackenzie Trail association. After that point we trudged on, our 4km/hr pace from yesterday to a 2km/hr pace. The Tanya Lakes we reached after miles and miles of meadows, hot and stick, and bogs with many bugs. Imagine our glee now that the monotony of mosquitoes has been broken by gnats, flies, wasps and bees. We have learned many disturbing things about DEET-based insect repellent.

  1. DEET on you lips makes them go numb
  2. DEET destroys plastic and rubber. It is eating Ian's watch.
  3. Some bugs like DEET.

The hike along the Tanya lakes was very long, mostly because there are two long lakes and because we were bone tired. There were some high points. At upper Tanya Lake is a break in the trees. There was a great wind from the lake, plus a view of the Rainbow and Coast Mountains. A few kilometers later was a huge basalt outcropping above us called Eagle Cliff. But most of the time we trudged through dense, airless forest.

We pushed on a kilometer beyond our planned Lower Tanya campsite in order to reach the banks of the Takia river. It is a pleasant campsite and for the first time in a while, the water is clear. The mosquitoes are horrendous, but by now that is an old story. We ate dinner and fled for our tent in record time.

By the way, it is very clear we are now in bear country. There were berry-laden bear droppings, bear tracks, and what might be bear-clawed trees. At the campsite was a very serious bear-proof frame for food. Ian took a picture.

We are all pretty tired now, so I will sign off.

August 13

20 km today, from Salmon Falls campsite (next to the Takia river) to Rainbow Cabin campsite at the far end of the Mackenzie Valley. Today's journey was by far the most pleasant, as we gained altitude and a view. We climbed about 1500 feet, most of it in the beginning. We had to cross quite a lot of bogs, swamps, and wet meadows, but they were not unbearable. The nice things about today were the beautiful mountains and the clear, cold Mackenzie Creek. We mostly walked along it, and observed how it curved and twisted, formed rapids and pools and falls.

We were able to clean our filter, too, so now we can produce good water at a reasonable rate.

I really injured my right Achilles tendon yesterday, and it got worse today. After a few hours of increasingly bad pain that Tylenol would not touch, I switched to Percocet. It worked pretty well, well enough to keep me walking at a respectable pace. Later in the day, Robert also got problems with his right ankle, so we made quite a pair. We stopped for rest and refueling at one of the Mackenzie creek fords - beautiful cold water! There was even a handy steel footbridge across it. We trudged onward up the valley, and the mountains were truly spectacular. Reddish, arid peaks on the left and dark peaks with ice fields on the right.

When we arrived at camp, there was already a party setup, a large one of perhaps half-a-dozen. One of the men showed us a place to make camp, which was ok. Then as we did our routine 2 other fellows wandered by separately to chitchat. Kind of strange. One guy seemed utterly clueless about where he had started from and where he was going and the other seemed convinced that there was a 7000m peak nearby. He also offered me a candy bar that turned out to be some health food herb and fruit bar. Serves me right for taking candy from strangers... they seemed so odd that Robert said he felt they were casing the joint. We brought the GPS and camera into the tent just to be safe.

Oh and the bugs here are bad. Mosquitoes have mostly been replaced by biting flies of various sizes. The flies don't give a damn about DEET. At least the evening is cool. We should sleep well tonight.

August 14

Today we crossed over Mackenzie Pass and to the Bella Coola valley side of the Mackenzie trail. Although we all needed a good night's sleep to tackle this significant climb (1800 ft in a few miles , plus innumerable rolling hills), we did not get it. The wind in the Mackenzie Valley last night was intense. It buffeted our tent and shook the walls, often waking us up in the process. Finally, at about 3am, Robert got up to readjust the tension on the tent's stays. We were all awake, and he told us to come outside to look at the stars. Instead, Ian and I stuck our heads out the back door- what a sight it was!

The sky was black and absolutely clear, and there were more stars than I have ever seen in one place. The Milky Way glowed, and we even got to see a few shooting stars.

We started hiking a little before 10am. It was slow going at first because Robert's ankle was still bothering him. Very soon we were all going slow because the trail got very steep. Gradually, we climbed out of the valley, with a lovely breeze and a minimum of bogs. It was a refreshing change to have a view and to be able to track one's progress by watching landmarks. Lack of both of these makes forest hiking particularly hard, you might as well be walking in circles.

As we climbed, the trees became sparser and shorter, and we began to see many beautiful alpine meadows with wildflowers and streams from melting ice fields higher up. Eventually we passed the timberline and climbed from cairn to cairn to Cariboo Pass. On the way, I was delighted to see two hoary marmots,, small, fat , furry creatures that inhabit higher elevations. They were awfully cute, and their protective coloration was perfect when they were not moving.

At Cariboo Pass (which precedes Mackenzie Pass) there is a small lake where we stopped to eat lunch and filter water. With its stunning view of the valley it would have been perfect but for one thing - that's right, bugs. The only bugs hardy enough to withstand the stiff wind at the pass were big, gross horseflies. They hitched a ride on the ouir packs and hats and just seemed to follow us everywhere. And they didn't give a damn about DEET.

We climbed further, and eventually made it over Mackenzie pass where we got our first good look at the spectacular coast mountains of the Bella Coola Valley. What stretched before us was an uplifting sight: alpine meadows, copses of small firs, and clear creeks. We walked for a very long time (10km but it felt like 20) going up and down, and up and down from cairn to cairn. The trail was fairly easy to follow, but a few times we had no idea where the next guidepost was. We finally descended into a forested trail area, and lost our way only once when crossing a meadow.

We were all very sore and tired by the time we arrived at out camp at Cabin Lake (unnamed on the map, it gets its name from an impressive broken down cabin next to the trail that is of unknown origin.) For once, the lake water was clear and not filled with algae and other unmentionables. We are grateful for small blessings.

August 15

The last camp, Hump Lake, day 6. It is a pretty neat campsite, right next to Hump Lake (very clear water) and with a fantastic view of Stupendous Mountain with its glacier cap. Today's hike was not so long as other days, but it had its own share of challenges. There was a lot of up and down climbing on slippery, rocky slopes. The final 5km before the camp was a path scraped into the side of a mountain. At points much of the Bella Coola Valley was visible before us, an amazing site. You could see from the path more than 3000 feet below to the valley floor, with its road and river. The path was rocky and taxing, and by this point all of us are injured in one way or another - me and Robert with our ankles, Ian with his knee.

Oh, and we saw a small eagle or falcon today just a few dozen feet away from the trail. It was catching thermals from the valley and looked like it was having fun. Everyone's spirits were high today we anticipate showers, real food, and a good be tomorrow.

August 16

We finally made it!

We all woke up at about 6am, unable to sleep, but knowing it was too early to get up. We read Dune to each other until 7:30. No oatmeal this morning - I swear I will never eat oatmeal again. Instead I had a very unappetizing power bar. We had 8km to complete today, a small distance but a very long descent, about 3500 ft.

We left camp at 9am, and almost immediately started climbing down. The trail went on and on, steep and treacherous. Apparently the people who created this trail did not understand the concept of "switchback". Their trail consisted of long steep portions interspersed with short parallel portions instead of vice versa. On top of that there were loose rocks all over the ground that regularly slipped out from under our feet. I came close to falling several times, as did Ian, and Robert was forced to use his hands to catch himself more than once. Luckily, the trail had less exposure than yesterday's trek, which made me feel more comfortable.

Eventually we reached the end of the trail, which quite unceremoniously dumped us on highway 20. We walked about 100m down the road to the Mackenzie Picnic area next to Burnt Bridge Creek. It was nice, cool, and had few bugs. We waited from 12:30 to 3:00 for the taxi to arrive. In the interim Robert prepared himself one of the two remaining hydrated dinners: Louisiana Red Beans and Rice. He learned that rehydrating food is not as easy as the master chef makes it look. You've got to watch out for the unmixed dry chunks.

We also tried to burn off the remaining stove fuel. An hour and a half on full power and the stove was still going strong. Good to know.

The taxi arrived on time. We all piled in feeling somewhat sheepish about our disheveled appearances and unwashed smells. The driver was a pleasant fellow, who would not stop talking. I had the bad luck of sitting next to him, and thus was forced to make small talk for the entire half hour. I was in no mood for this - all I wanted was a hot meal and a shower. But what could we do?

And so we took the scenic trip through the Bella Coola Valley. We saw all seven churches. We saw an old farmhouse that Norwegian immigrants had inexplicably moved from one side of the road to the other ("It's a museum now" said the driver). We learned that July was very rainy, that tourism was on the upswing, and that three to four murders occur in Bella Coola in a lifetime. We stopped on one of the numerous bridges over branches of the Bella Coola river to watch the spawning salmon. They were enormous and so numerous that it must be a major problem for fisherman not to trip on them. We saw the Snootti Salmon hatchery ("10 million salmon release every year"). We drove onto an Indian Reserve to admire the murals painted on the walls of a new school. We learned that Nuxälk but had a Norwegian name I had never heard and cannot now remember. We learned that about 3000 people live in the valley, about half of them native.

Bella Coola Valley was a spectacular sight. It was kind of like an undiscovered Yosemite Valley, with sheer granite faces, waterfalls, and creeks.

Once in Bella Coola, we were given the grand tour, then checked into our motel. It turned out to be run by this Russian women out of her kitchen but it was serviceable enough. We bought T-shirts and toiletries and cleaned ourselves up. Then, we went out for dinner.

Everybody had bacon cheeseburgers with fries. Ian and I split a jug of beer. Even Robert had a glass. [This was one of Robert's first beer's for those of you who knew him back then] Oh, and Rob had a chocolate milkshake. Like the showers, it was heavenly.

On the ferry from Vancouver to Victoria the next day the guys bough a bunch of backpacking and outdoor magazines. I guess they are trying to plan our next trip. I think they've gone bananas.