Since moving to Vancouver Island three years ago I’ve heard legends of Mount Albert Edward’s epic alpine views. To be honest, I didn’t take them too seriously. What does an island dweller know about scaling glaciers and taking peak selfies? Sure, I’ll trust their opinions on organic beer and bike lanes. But mountains? Please, I’m a northern girl.
So a couple of weekends ago, I set off for what I was sure would be the most disappointing hike of my life. At least I was going with one of my favourite people: novice mountaineer, master Dutch Blitz player, part-time MEC employee, and full-time cat mom—Bonnie Sawyer.
We left Victoria around 1 pm on Friday. After a three hour Taylor Swift and Rhianna marathon, we found ourselves about 1000 meters above sea level at the Raven Lodge parking lot near Mount Washington Ski Resort. We put our collective Geography receptionist and soon-to-be Social Studies teacher skills to work to assess the park map:
We decided that we would stay to the right, passing along Lake Helen McKenzie and the Ranger station, and taking what appeared to be the most direct route to Kwai Lake—our destination for the day.
About 3km and 2 renditions of our hit single “Wilderness Woman” later, we realized we had taken a wrong turn and were somewhere along Battleship lake, and headed towards Lady Lake, Croteau Lake, and Murray Meadows.
Bonnie wasn’t complaining because she’s all about the lakes and meadows. I was pretty content too because I found some alpine blueberries.
Thanks to the frequent boardwalks and beautiful lake views, the 7.5km hike to Kwai Lake flew by. We arrived at camp hungry but happy, about 2.5 hours after leaving the parking lot.
Our campsite was arguably one of the best in the park, perched on the edge of Kwai lake and just the right distance from the outhouse. Our day ended with chewy rice, Toblerone chocolate, and a few obligatory rounds of Dutch Blitz.
This is when I made two important discoveries. First, our tent spot was beautiful, but certainly not level or root-free. Second, my sleeping bag had a temperature rating of 13 degrees. Bonnie freaked out, “Meghan, the HIGH is thirteen degrees!”
“I’m a northern girl!” I explained with false confidence.
As I tried to fall asleep, I used my elbows to anchor my body against the sloping terrain and juggled a small heat pack between my fingers and toes. Midnight came and went and my brain was still more committed to checking my limbs for frostbite than to falling asleep. I spent the next early morning hour debating the merits of unzipping at least five zippers, risking bear attack, and loosing my precious heat pockets, in exchange for bladder relief. Finally, I went for it. No regrets.
Our second day started off with more blueberries!! After a rough night, this cheerful bowl
and this cheerful face:
(Okay there would be a picture of Bonnie here. But she has a strict “no camping selfies” rule.)
was all I needed to motivate me for a full day of hiking. We got a late start, leaving Kwai around 9:30 am and arriving at Circlet lake about 1.5 hours later. The legendary pristine Circlet lake! We hastily snapped some photos…it was nice, but kinda just an average smallish lake…if we were being honest.
This is when dudes with day packs started showing up. Yup people do this entire 32km round-trip hike in ONE DAY. We were so overwhelmed with disbelief that we missed the turn off for the Circlet Lake campground and started trekking up the steepest section of the trail with our full overnight packs. We didn’t get far before we noticed our mistake and back tracked. Also it turns out, the lake we had spotted was not Circlet lake at all. We checked the map.
“It’s called Duck Pond.” “Duck Pond?” “Ya it’s not even a lake.”
It turns out Circlet lake is a few hundred meters off of the main trail. It’s also much more impressive than Duck Pond. By the time we showed up, the campground was already teeming with weekend backpacking traffic. We quickly picked one of the remaining sites with a decent lake view, set up camp, and scarfed down lunch.
The next hour of hiking was an intense ascent into alpine with Mount Washington Ski Hill at our backs and the imposing Castle Craig ahead.
Finally, the steep switchbacks and scrambly trail broke out into a breathtaking alpine meadow. We caught our first glimpse of a snowy ridge, but Albert Edward was still nowhere in sight.
The next kilometer was a welcome break. The trail flattened out, meandering through dried up creek beds and stunted evergreens. We scrambled up the final steep incline, and found ourselves finally on top of the ridge where we caught our first glimpses of the magnificent, Mount Albert Edward.
The peak appeared impossibly far. As my optimism began to wane, Bonnie’s heels began to blister, and I started looking for viewpoints that might offer a rewarding substitute for the summit. But of course, we’re both too competitive to quit.
For the next hour, we picked our way over the otherworldly landscape, finding and losing the path with every step. One misdirection brought us to the edge of a steep crevasse.
The views were increasingly breathtaking (in more ways than one).
Of course, the plan to reward ourselves with treats at the top broke down about 200 metres from the summit. Time for a snack break.
I’d like to say that our final push to the top was self-motivated, but really it had more to do with the sight of other backpackers scurrying along the ant trail below. No way were they going to beat us to the top.
Most mountains have a false summit. You know that rise before the peak that you think is the top, so you pace your energy and willpower to reach that point, only to fall into tears of despair when you realize that the peak is still out of reach? Well Mount Albert Edward is NOT like that. Mount Albert Edward has an honest summit. So when we reached the top, the first words out of my mouth were: “Is that it?” Which mostly just confirmed that I am a total mountain snob.
Bonnie gave me this face:
But in all seriousness, the view was undeniably worth it.
The Strathcona mountains spread out before us. Who knew an island could have such big mountains?!
We had the peak to ourselves for a good fifteen minutes before some one showed up to take our mandatory summit photo. We’re both no good at selfies.
Then it was time for the long trek down. There was less water along than trail than I had been expecting, which is probably usual for late summer, but my miscalculation meant I had to carefully ration my water intake until we made it back to the tree line. We hit snow before we hit water and I tried to convince Bonnie that I had found a short cut down the mountain. She insisted that I return to the trail.
The descent was not as quick as we had expected. Finding footing on the rocky mountain ridge was almost as slow going down as going up, and several sections of the subalpine trail were a bit too steep for carefree hiking. By the time we reached Circlet lake, the sun was too low in the sky for the lake dip we had been planning. Bonnie’s blisters had worsened and if that wasn’t bad enough, she was also developing the early stages of a cold. So we whipped up some Pad Thai in a bag and tucked ourselves in for a much comfier camping situation, thanks to the wooden tent pad.
We woke up to the sounds of hungover backpackers eating porridge and bickering over dish duty. Bonnie and I took it easy. We had planned on exploring Circlet lake a little before hiking the measly 11km back to our car. But our timing couldn’t have been worse. The sky had gone to bed as summer and woken up as fall. Thick fog blanketed the lake and the mountains were no where to be seen. Bonnie’s cold had worsened too. Little did I know, but she had been up all night coughing. Still, we’re type A people, so as scheduled we pulled out Dutch Blitz and enjoyed some time in our tent by the lake side.
The rain started as a gentle pitter patter on our tent.
“It’s one of my favourite sounds,” I confessed whimsically.
As the rain got heavier we agreed to make a run for it. We packed our bags and forwent the departing selfie since we were both looking a little worse-for-wear. This time, we took the trail we had intended to take the first day. At Kwai Lake we stayed at the junction and traveled between Mount Brooks and Lake Helen McKenzie. Big mistake. The Lakes and Meadows route had been full of boardwalks and berries. This trail was all roots and hills buried in dark cedar forests. On a sunnier day we may have been able to appreciate it.
“At least I get to use my rain gear and gortex!” exclaimed Bonnie, ever the optimist.
I grimaced, too scared to admit that my aqua rain coat was more fashion than function.
I thought we might find respite from the gusting wind and sideways rain at the Ranger Station, but the door was locked. Instead we scrambled up an rickety plank and perched ourselves in the covered firewood alcove at the back of the building. I’ve never felt more like an owl in my life.
By the time we reached the car, I was soaked through to my underwear and Bonnie had developed new foot injuries to balance out her blisters…not to mention her cold had intensified. I couldn’t have been more thankful for heated seats and that sweater Jakob keeps forgetting to take out of the car.
The best decision of the day was to stop for hot apple cider on the way home. Without the Bayside Cafe in Courtney, who knows if Bonnie and I would still be friends…but you know what they say: friends who hike Mount Albert Edward together stay together.