Winter Recreation: Sunshine Coast Trail, BC
By Catherine Evans & Ailish Evans
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Despite living on the Sunshine Coast for nearly thirty years, I had never experienced the iconic backcountry hut-to-hut hiking path known as the Sunshine Coast Trail (SCT). This 180 km route stretches from
Sarah Point, Desolation Sound, which is just North of Powell River, to Saltery Bay, where a ferry terminal connects to the lower Sunshine Coast via Earl’s Cove. The majority of hikers tramp late Spring to early Autumn and choose a small section of the trail to cover in hikes ranging from several hours to several days. Though it presents unique challenges, such as overcast and cold weather, winter can be so beautiful if the weather is right. With this in mind, I began plans for a December adventure along this trail with Ailish, one of my outdoor enthusiastic children.
After researching, we decided to tackle the Tin Hat Mountain loop due to its panoramic view at the hut and summit. We knew that any kind of challenging hike or backcountry overnight experience would require advance preparation. This involved dehydrating food, including apples, oranges, and Thai curry to reduce pack weight. We planned meals and snacks that would provide energy including dried fish, seeds, nuts, and lightweight carbohydrates. We bought gear from local and Canadian outdoor shops (Alpha Adventures, Source for Sports, and ethically sourced wool base layers and down sleeping bags from Altitude Sports in Quebec). To test our gear and our grit we did some practice hiking in places like Mount Elphinstone, which is only 2 km from our house. It was on this first rainy reconnaissance hike that we learned that the boots and wool socks worked well at keeping us warm and happy, while the jackets proved to be…less than waterproof. We made sure to correct our clothing based on this outing.
Once we had crossed over to Powell River, another scouting day was scheduled, and this time on a section of the SCT. We accessed the West Mt. Troubridge section of the trail by driving up a logging road until we hit one of two connector paths leading from the road. We parked along the logging road when we hit the snowline and accessed the SCT by means of one of the sign posted connector trails. Delightfully, we found the trail easy to follow with the red trail markers spaced every 10 – 20 meters. The snow made it easy to see wildlife tracks that included a rabbit and squirrels. Some bird species were actively feeding in the conifers, and it was hard to miss the lively and large flock of pine siskins that entertained us during lunch. The presence of snow gave us the prefect opportunity to try out our recently purchased snowshoes, though on the advice of the information centre about trail dynamics, we ultimately decided against bringing them on the Tin Hat trek but what a great way to move through deep snow!
On December 13 we set out at first light up the logging road to the Tin Hat Mountain trail head. We knew the route as we had come the day before to ensure we knew where to park. The first few kilometers passed through moss-covered forests, past springs, near small waterfalls, and over creeks. Our first respite from hiking was found at Lewis Lake. A picnic bench allowed us a moment to take in the serene beauty of our surroundings, amplified by the large flakes of snow that began to fall on the water as we sat there. At a foot bridge across a small white river, we came across a sap-sacker with a bright yellow belly. Although out of winter range for the Red-naped Sapsucker, we believe that is what we saw. This was a very exciting discovery as this is the first time I have seen one.
Other birds in the forest we came across included a Red-breasted Sapsucker, Pacific Wren, and a Spotted Towhee. On the coast or on the lakes we saw cormorant, buffleheads and surf scouters. Easy to see in the mud or snow were the tracks of a bobcat, coyote, and frequent piles of elk droppings.
After crossing a logging road, the trail began to climb. We would stop every couple of kilometers to rest, snack, and rehydrate. The snowline appeared after 7 kilometers and the increased incline made the distance feel longer and longer between km markings. While up in the higher altitude, we were rewarded by the sight of two species of grouse: the Ruffed and the Spruce grouse. With effort and the help of ropes, we made it to the ridge of Tin Hat Mountain, but our ambitions of reaching the actual summit were thwarted by thigh high snowpack and dwindling daylight. Ailish found a camping spot beneath one of the large cedars. We set up camp with our plastic footprint, two-person tent, fly sheet, thermal pads, down sleeping bags, thermal sleeping inserts, a set of dry clothes. Using a camp cooker Ailish brewed some hot chocolate by melting snow. It helped warm us up as I admit to being slightly hypothermic. It took me about 4 hours to warm up to the point of sleeping but after that I slept until 7 am.
We decided on a slow morning, taking time to make snow-melt hot coffee and a porridge with chocolate, dried fruit, and seeds that would make Jamie Oliver proud. We changed from our dry clothes back into our wet clothes keeping a pair of dry socks ready for the mid-way point. Rather than risking tramping across the snowy ridge of unknown to complete the loop, we decided to return the way we had come. The fresh snow through the night added to the beauty of the ridge thick with snow. Fortunately, the way back was made easier by slight depressions in the snow where we had traversed the day before. The way up took us almost 8 hours of walking and climbing, and the way back 5 ½ hours with the last 2 kilometers lit by headlamps after dusk.
The joy and sense of satisfaction arrived upon reaching our car and the trail head. We changed into warm clothes and made our way down the access road. Soon into the drive we saw red animal eyes eight feet above the ground. Our headlights illuminated a herd of elk crossing ahead. The final bonus was surreal and emotional.
There were no other trail walkers encountered during our three trekking days making us feel a bit crazy for our endeavours. While I would not encourage a mountain climb or overnight on an alpine ridge in a tent at this time of the year, we found our well-prepared hiking trip was fraught with rewards.
For trail information and updates
There are no fees to hike the Sunshine Coast trail, and the paths are maintained by dedication of volunteers so before the end of the year we will make a donation. Our gratitude for preserving and maintaining this treasure is appreciated.
We believe that no two adventures are the same. However, if you want to recreate Catherine's and Ailish's experience with your own personal twist, be sure to check out Tours of Exploration's 3-4 Day Sunshine Coast Trail Itinerary.