I don’t know what to think when we pull into the parking lot at Cypress Mountain.
My god, what are all these people doing here?
I drive past parked cars on both sides of Cypress bowl road turn left at the switchback that takes us towards Black Mountain Lodge. Even this parking is almost half full of vehicles.
Yeah, I don’t know. I guess everybody wants to go for a hike.
Melissa waits patiently while I drive through the rows of cars, cursing and stalling the manual transmission car while I look for a place to park.
The sun is starting to win his battle with the clouds on this late September Sunday and by the looks of things we weren’t the only ones who’d gambled on that outcome.
Melissa is one of my favorite people to go exploring with. We once laughed ourselves silly watching a blue heron try and land next to another blue heron in a tree. The one trying to land would make an approach from about 40 meters out, circle around the tree and then hover awkwardly for several seconds before flying off to try again. Sometimes it would fly around the tree a few times before attempting another landing. This went on for a good ten minutes while the heron in the tree called desperately for it and Melissa and I nearly busted a gut filming and calling encouragement. Eventually, the poor bird gave up and flew off along the shore of the mighty Fraser River. After a minute or two of squawking, the heron in the tree followed.
Today we’ve decided to hike along the Howe Sound Crest Trail from Cypress Mountain up to St. Mark’s Summit, which promises stunning views of Howe Sound. I’m all about the views these days. We’ve left ourselves four and a half hours for the hike, which according to Vancouver Hiatus should be plenty of time. About 200 yards into the hike we are stopped in our tracks by the seductive grace of the pacific northwest. The backpacks come off and the cameras come out. The greenery leaning over the trail is just too much for either of us to ignore. A little further up is a magnificent douglas fir. Further still, a cedar with a particularly interesting burl protruding from it’s scaly trunk.
Groups of people pass. Couples, friends, dog owners. Melissa and I snack on granola bars and oranges before starting off again.
I have mixed feelings about this hike already. On the one hand I love that it’s so accessible and that there are so many people making the effort to enjoy it. But I also know that the very trail itself is fragmenting the ecosystem. Perhaps not in a huge way, but it’s hard to ignore the fact that the steady stream of hikers are causing at least a small disturbance.
The gravel isn’t native material, for one thing. It’s a disruption of the natural loamy forest floor and any organism that moves freely within the soil is now confined to either side of a solid 3 foot wide barrier That’s a big deal when you consider that billions of organisms live in the upper layers of soil. Secondly, vegetation has been removed in order to build the trail and for some small creatures that means there is three feet of space that stretches over 5.5 km of forest area in which they are unprotected from predators. I’d also be willing to bet that the heavy foot traffic has animals of all sorts adapting their behaviors.
The meandering gravel path gives way to a steeper, more natural trail with roots and boulders and I start to wonder if the disruption that we cause by coming to enjoy this place can be justified. There have been numerous studies about the benefits of spending time in nature, or green space. In fact, some scientists and medical practitioners are starting to call it Vitamin G and are even going as far as to recommend it as a way to help reduce stress and promote general well-being.
Part of the reason Melissa and I have decided to get out of the city is because we’d both been feeling like we needed a fix of Vitamin G. A little solace in nature with a view of the water sounded like the perfect remedy for a stressful week.
We stop often to investigate sounds that might be small forest creatures and gawk at the views of the ocean. Peek-a-boo, Howe Sound, I see you! I’m hopeful that if we take enough time, the people that are passing us will be on their way back to their cars by the time we reach the summit. We’ve overheard conversations about TV shows, dead relatives and work dramas. Lots and lots of work dramas.
We pass a small backhoe that has obviously been busy “upgrading” the steep and rooty part of the trail into the level, wide pathway we’ve just left behind. It’s already a fairly easy hike, and a gravel path will make it accessible to people who otherwise wouldn’t get up here as well as make it safer for those who come less prepared than others. From what I observe of human behavior, people who are generally in a happier or calmer state of mind tend to react more kindly to those around them. And of course, when people are presented with kindness, it’s much easier for them to project it out into the world as well. So if a hike up to St. Mark’s Summit is going help people be nicer to each other than it can’t be a bad thing.
Eventually we make our way to the summit and as we near the first view point I immediately stop worrying about sharing the view because it’s absolutely spectacular and I realize there’s enough awesomeness up here for everyone. There is a group of people posing for selfie’s near a gnarled pine on the left so Melissa and I find a spot on the right to take it all in. Then, we do what we do best when we hang out which is take photos and eat. We’ve got oranges and a box of mixed nuts to snack on and there is a precarious outcrop with a large group of people sprawled out, soaking in the late afternoon sun that we point our cameras towards.
Before I’ve had time to snap more than a couple photos, we are bombarded by whiskey jacks. Whiskey jacks are curious little birds in the jay family that are known to take food right out of your hand. We quickly abandon the photo op and squeal in exclamation as between us we have a total of four grey and black birds eating nuts and dried fruit out of the palm of our hands. It was a total sensory overload for a couple of excitable animal lovers. We were so busy freaking out over the whiskey jacks that we don’t even notice the chipmunks until one had jumps up onto my leg and launches himself into the open container of nuts.
Melissa and look at each other in disbelief. Without a second thought we both grab handfuls of nuts and are feeding fearless chipmunks with one hand and greedy whiskey jacks with the other. Euphoria. Below us we can hear the mysteriously playful sound of ravens calling.
If you had asked me hours prior whether I condoned feeding wildlife my answer would have been a very vehement “no!” Every wildlife institution I’ve ever come across has discouraged it. First of all, you could be causing malnutrition in wildlife because no matter what you feed them, it’s going to be different from food they would naturally forage. Especially if it’s bread or other processed food, which can be quite harmful in large amounts. Second of all, the animals loose their natural instinct to forage for food. That’s not good considering this trail is seldom, if at all used in the winter months.
So to sum up the afternoon, I spend a few self-righteous hours along a popular hiking route being very elitist about my experience in nature being lessened by the presence of others and fretting about the ecological implications of building a more accessible path so that more people can enjoy the same hike. Then, upon reaching the summit, I waste no time essentially behaving like the most ignorant tourist on the mountain for half an hour, loudly exclaiming how much fun I am having feeding the wildlife.
Here’s the thing: I am in the best mood as we begin our descent back to the Cypress Mountain parking lot. I mean, I’ve just held a wild chipmunk in my hands for goodness sakes – an adorable, wild chipmunk! Being upset about anything after an experience like that is like trying to say “cupcake” without smiling just a little bit. It can’t be done. I’m thinking about other hikes I want to do, and other places I can go explore nature, I’m saying hi to people on the way down and I’m generally excited about life.
So my question is this: Obviously I’m a total hypocrite, but how bad is feeding those animals, really? Is having a bird feeder on my balcony any different? Granted, most people aren’t feeding them $10 worth of ridiculously high end trail mix, but surely the animals will be fine in winter. The chipmunks are likely making caches and the whiskey jacks can easily fly down to the resort in winter to get fed or eat the seeds they haven’t had to forage for yet1. Is improving the trail system going to make this more of an issue? And most importantly, is this enough to justify the ecological impact of having a high volume of hikers traversing this wilderness area?
Honestly, I am asking… is it?
Hiking St. Mark’s Summit
- How to get there: The Cypress Mountain Parking lot is at the top of Cypress Bowl Road. Head west on highway 1 out of Vancouver towards Whistler and take exit 8, which is Cypress Bowl Road. Stay to the right and take this all the way to the downhill ski area at the top of the mountain.
- How to find the trail head: The trails are well marked once you are up there and the simplest thing to do is just follow the signs. The big map at the bottom of the run is your firsts stop. From there, head across the ski run parallel to the main lodge and follow the signs that lead to the Howe Sound Crest Trail.
- What to Bring: The usual stuff: Food, water, decent hiking boots/shoes and layers of clothing. Bug spray in summer.
- The Stats:
- Trailhead coordinates: N49.395863, W123.203891
- Distance: 5.5km to summit, 11k return trip
- Time needed: 4-5 hours if you want to enjoy the views
- Elevation Gain: 460 meters
- Difficulty: Moderate. until the upgrades are completed
- When to go: late spring to mid fall
- Other Links
1. Fun fact I discovered after writing this post: Whiskey jacks also store food for the winter! back