Joe Schwartz revs up the Husqvarna, its 30-inch bar slightly overkill for bucking the blown-down alders blocking the logging road—but in the backwoods of Vancouver Island, there’s no such thing as too much saw.
A few kilometres beyond the two-stroke fumes, Joe’s Tacoma becomes buried to the running boards in snow on a shaded corner of the Kweishun mainline. We haven’t made a single turn on this ski trip, but have already checked three requisite boxes of any great Island mission: poaching private gated logging roads, chainsaws and stuck pick-up trucks.
Locked down during a pandemic winter provided the opportunity to look at my Vancouver Island backyard with fresh eyes. And by backyard, I mean the Comox Range, a group of tantalizing peaks rich in lore and legend, and clustered around their namesake Comox Glacier, the largest remaining on an island of vanishing glaciers. Straddling the divide between private forestland and Strathcona Provincial Park, this range is like a forbidden kingdom concealed behind locked gates on logging roads. Which of course, only makes it that much more appealing.
We leave Joe’s truck in the lower Kweishun Valley, a hallowed place in the shadow of the Comox Glacier that, I had been told, is flanked by Yosemite-like walls further up the valley. Our plan is to be back here in three days’ time.
With one truck stashed, we jump into Dave Silver’s Expedition to shuttle the steep Carey Lakes logging road, hitting snow sooner than hoped but excited to get the skis on and leave day-to-day concerns in the rearview mirror. Pre-kids, Dave and I skied a lot together; post-kids, getting into the mountains feels like a rare treat. Our foursome is rounded out by Sam Lam. He’s young and fit and, I surmise, useful for trail-breaking and other grunt work if needed.
Upwards we skin, occasionally removing skis to cross bare dirt, or to stop and admire a rock cut where someone had spray-painted a cock and balls; the universal declaration of male insecurity and a difficult-to-ignore trail marker.
Far below, the Cruikshank River winds through a valley of stumps and slash. The terrain levels as we glide through one last cut block towards virgin timber. Where logging ends, Strathcona Park begins. Once among this old forest of yellow cedar and hemlock, I feel a primitive relief setting in, a shift in mood from agitation to calm. The tree trunks seem stout and resilient, but also not, as the cemetery of stumps behind us proves.
Back in 1911, the visionaries of BC’s first provincial park wanted Strathcona to replicate the tourism bonanza of Banff National Park, with steamboats shuttling affluent guests to a Candian Pacific Railway-style chateau at the end of Buttle Lake. Rugged landscape and remoteness thwarted their grandiose dream. But this commercial flop was a conservation win, and citizens were left with this wilderness playground.
By 1928, members of the newly formed Comox District Mountaineering Club built a log cabin on the eastern shoulder of Mount Becher as a base for deeper ventures into the park’s mountainous backcountry.
They slashed out trails and made many first ascents. But the bigger peaks of the Comox Range—Harmston, Celeste, Iceberg—proved beyond reach for most at the time.
A century of logging dramatically altered the landscape around the park but within its borders, not much has changed. Beyond Carey Lakes, a dry, restless wind prowls the mountains, turning the snow surface into a shifting landscape. A small clump of witch’s hair lichen tumbles past my ski tips into a tree well. Delicate tracks, a pine marten perhaps, imprint a patch of soft snow, the silent signature of its passing. I immerse in these details, forgetting for a moment that I have kids, a wife, and any other responsibilities other than being here in these mountains.
Above treeline, we follow a narrow ridge that has been pulverized into a knife-hard crust, then battle our way to a nameless summit. A rock cairn clings stoically to the mountain like a forgotten Scottish castle. The wind nags at us, creating tension where otherwise there would be none.
After checking the map and a chilly snack break, we agree to descend into the cirque of Lake McQuillan and some hoped-for respite from the wind. Vancouver Island’s mountains are complex. Like a topographical Rubik’s Cube, they are both frustrating and infinitely rewarding. Our evening’s destination is gated by basalt crags, threaded with chutes. Some funnel into cliffs, others slip through rock walls with entrances difficult to discern from above. After some sideslipping and traversing, we find a promising couloir that plumb-lines to the lake shore.
“After you Joe,” I say, feeling generous.
Without hesitating, he slashes a turn on the steep-sided gulley, then arcs across to the other side. His lurching second turn tells me all I need to know, and I follow tentatively. Within 100 vertical metres, I ski ankle-nipping powder, breakable crust, sun-softened shmoo, and everything in between—variety that massacres technique. Still, the four of us make it down without incident and cross the frozen lake, wind in pursuit. Dave and I soon wrestle the tent into position, as Joe and Sam stake out theirs nearby. The sun quickly dips below Rees Ridge, bringing the temperature with it.
Cocooned in the tent, I listen to the gust of wind and ponder this wild and rugged country that has always had a mysterious appeal for me. So close, so visible from my home, yet also so unattainable behind a veil of locked, gated roads, the reasons for which stem back to the early days of Canada as a country.
The turn of the 19th century brought boom times for Scottish baron Robert Dunsmuir in the form of the E&N land grant (referred to as “the great land grab” by the Hul’qumi’num Treaty Group), a complex deal to bind the country coast-to-coast and encourage development. It gave Dunsmuir ownership of 8,000 square kilometres of Vancouver Island, including the mountains around Comox Lake. Extracting coal and timber from the lands enabled Dunsmuir to build a family castle in Victoria but for the working class, those coal shafts were also killers. Tired of watching good men perish, labour activist and shit disturber Ginger Goodwin lobbied for better wages and safer working conditions. His protests put him on the wrong side of Dunsmuir and the elites, and Goodwin became a marked man. In late July 1918, he escaped to the woods at the end of Comox Lake, but was eventually tracked and shot by a government deputy. There were no witnesses to the murder, but it turned Goodwin into a martyr whose legacy lives on—union activists gather annually at his tombstone in Cumberland.
Similarly, the legacy of the E&N land grant, long since parceled up and sold to different logging companies, endures. When we ski the backcountry of the Comox Range, we do so as trespassers. To gain access beyond the yellow gates, you either need to know someone with a key, or join the Island Rangers—a group of volunteers deputized by the private forest landowners to be their eyes and ears on the ground.
Months earlier, I had volunteered Joe to apply as a sort of double-agent Ranger (he’s a ski guide, and cleans up much better than I do) but admission into this all-access club seemed to take longer than winter would last so we procured a key through anonymous backdoor channels. Which makes each new zone explored that much sweeter.
We wake the next day to mercifully calm skies. After a quick breakfast, a scenic ridgeline above the lake makes for easy travel until it terminates abruptly in a rocky cleft.
“Pretty icy. Skis on or off?” Sam wonders out loud. We choose the latter, downclimbing a few metres by punching our boots an inch-deep into the crust. With skis back on, we slide to a stop above an exquisite 45-degree chute and launch, one by one, into a narrow ten-turn wonder. It ejects us onto a broad low-angled face below Mount Celeste, and another transition. I fight with skins that are losing their stick, then scramble to catch up to the others.
An hour later, we top out on Celeste’s broad pyramidal peak. From there, the full expanse of Vancouver Island’s rugged spine is visible from coast to coast. Golden Hinde, the apex of the island, punches the skyline like a white sail in the heart of Strathcona Park—yet another addition to a growing tick list of Vancouver Island summits.
Late that afternoon, we leave our overnight gear on the slender divide between Mirren and Milla Lakes, plans incubating as we survey the surroundings. A sinuous white line slashes diagonally from Mount Harmston’s north face. Argus, one of the peaks that cradles Comox Glacier, is sliced by stiletto couloirs each capped with a locomotive-sized cornice.
“We have lots of time for a lap,” I say, pointing to the obvious pocket north glacier that draws eyeballs toward Argus.
After skinning for half an hour toward the bergschrund, we regroup on a bench beyond the reach of cornice fall—we hope. For the first time on this trip, our efforts are rewarded with powder, consistent top to bottom. I open the throttle, greedily claiming as much of this alpine face as possible. A half-dozen turns below me, a plume of feathery snow billows behind Joe, catching sparkles of refracting light.
Snow quality is like a mood; fleeting, it comes and goes. For a second or two, I lose track of space and time. Is it possible that such wild and wonderful ski terrain exists on this island in the Pacific? Post-run, the four of us pause on a bench to navel-gaze like adolescents, looking back up at tracks, knowing they will soon be blown out of existence, as ephemeral as the spirits that some believe dwell in these mountains.
The K’omoks First Nations people know Comox Glacier as Queneesh. They tell stories of an ancient flood that prompted them to load canoes with provisions and tether their boats to the glacier with cedar ropes. Torrential rain fell, and the waters rose until just a tiny patch of ice remained. That ice then began to move, taking the form of a white whale and swimming with the rising water, thus saving the K’omoks. Since then, Queneesh has sat watching over the Comox Valley—resolute in legend, but not in reality. Doctor Brian Menounos, a leading BC glaciologist, told me recently that by 2050, the Comox Glacier and the rest of Vancouver Island’s glaciers will have disappeared. And that’s a disconcerting thought for a winter soul like me.
Light fades as the camp stove hums. From our alpine perch above the Kweishun Valley, we watch the amber lights of Comox town flicker and fade in the distance, analogous to the stars above. The mountains around us loom dark—shadows in the windless night. The next morning, we linger over breakfast, reluctant to leave. Eventually I shoulder my pack and start skiing toward the low point in the divide, making a single turn on a convex roll still steel-hard from an overnight freeze. My skis rattle uncomfortably. Suddenly, I double-eject in a slow-speed unspectacular fall, then watch as my mint carbon-fibre Blizzards torpedo silently over the ridge.
“Fuck,” I say quietly and to nobody.
My partners find me sitting motionless and gazing at my boots that now feel like anchors.
“That’s a bummer,” Joe says, sympathetically, but also likely relieved not to be the one facing a full day of post-holing.
Dave continues downslope without a word. “I see one,” he shouts out, a few moments later. One is better than none.
Not long after, Joe finds its mate speared into the snow halfway down the headwall. I give a nod to Queneesh, for lack of any other deity to thank.
Like a receding flood, my mood shifts and we get back to skiing. In the morning shade, we zig-zag up a steep moraine below Mount Arthur Evans, geological evidence of the glacier that would have snaked thousands of years ago to the valley bottom. I eye up another couloir, a perfect pencil line and wonder if I’d have the moxie to ski it, sometime in the future and earlier in the season, before the cornice has time to grow into the overhanging monster we see before us.
“Maybe,” Joe says, reading my mind.
Instead, we rip Super G turns on a wide, planar slope as buff as freshly groomed piste. By 1:00 p.m., we’re gliding across Mirren Lake, exiting the upper Kweishun just ahead of the baking spring sun.
This wild, looming valley proves a humbling place, a shooting gallery without cover. The scale seems disproportionate, out of place on Vancouver Island. Icicles drip from high on Mount Arthur Evans like giant frozen tears. Car-sized chunks of cornice sit monolithic in the valley bottom. So, we move quickly and quietly, as though conversation could trigger catastrophe.
I ponder the fate of Comox Glacier—Queneesh—aloft above our heads, looking more anemic with every passing summer. As vulnerable as an ice cube on the counter, it’s doomed—like the imminent passing of a terminally ill friend that I feel powerless to prevent.
Safely past the precarious, corniced “hang fire” areas, we meander through the shade of cedar and hemlock. The air is fresh and citrusy. Meltwater gurgles beneath the snowpack. We leave Strathcona Park, slipping between worlds, from primal protected forest to the primal destruction of logging where spring sun blazes with cruel intensity and stumps make for moguls. The stark transition brings the pandemic, family, deadlines, and the infinite other details of life nudging back into my consciousness, while the mysterious valleys of the Comox Range begin receding like a dream locked behind the yellow gates of history and the future of a warming world.