Cycling a trail of bubbles on the Spirit Trail, North Vancouver, BC

Into the marinaThrough the site of a historic lumber mill, along leafy trails and quiet residential lanes, and beside seawalls offering splendid views of Burrard Inlet and downtown Vancouver, the Spirit Trail traverses most of North Vancouver and some of West Van … for directions, just follow the white bubbles painted on the pathways.Heywood street start

We started our cycling trip by driving to Heywood Street in North Vancouver, just above the Park and Tilford shopping centre, and parking at the south end, where Heywood Street meets Third Street.  (Folks renting bicycles from downtown Vancouver can just as easily start the trail from Lonsdale Quay, heading east towards the iconic wheat-pool silos of North Vancouver, or west towards West Vancouver and Ambleside Beach).View from Third Street overpass

The Third Street overpass (no cars allowed) offers unique views into the CN rail-yards, and from there, the path leads you up a slight slope into a meandering, lightly forested path where rocks bearing bizarre and fanciful inscriptions about crows dot the edge of the trail (I think it’s meant to be poetry).

 

This is the site of historic Moodyville, the first sawmill erected on the North Shore (about 1862) and the first significant non-Native settlement on this side of Burrard Inlet.  Autumn colours on Moodyville trailFor forty years, Moodyville shipped lumber to Britain, Mexico, China, and Australia, until it closed in 1901 due to rampant over-logging of the North Shore’s lush old growth forests.  Placards bearing old photographs of flumes and lumberjacks offer insights into the era.Moodyville trail with glass barrier

The trail pops out into a residential neighbourhood with a laneway that was very cleverly designed with glass-window barriers running the length of it, affording cyclists and pedestrians a sweeping view of the downtown shoreline. Dowtown seen from Moodyville trailThe Spirit Trail is marked with signposts and telltale white “bubbles” painted on crosswalks and pathway forks, with the occasional big red dot to reassure you that you’re on the right path.

 

Oddly, it also abruptly ends at certain points, and one must flounder one’s way about until one sees the telltale bubbles again (notably around the Shipyards area, behind the Pinnacle at the Pier Hotel, just east of Lonsdale Quay).  We chose to take paths that were closest to the sea, which was the prettiest route, eventually picking up the “white bubble” trail at the very foot of Lonsdale Avenue, beside the Tap and Barrel restaurant.

 

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Once past Lonsdale Quay, rather than follow adjacent to the rail tracks, which the bubbles indicated we ought to do, we chose to cycle close to the picturesque Burrard Inlet .  We were rewarded for our defiance with beautiful views of Waterfront Park and downtown Vancouver. HouseboatsThe Spirit Trail led next into the Creek Marina, where rows of charming houseboats made for postcard-perfect pictures against the backdrop of the North Shore mountains.  Alas, the Spirit Trail is abruptly decapitated at the end of the marina, for it seems (ironically) that despite the trail’s nomenclature, some folks are very NIMBY about the trail going through their residential lane-ways.

 

One must therefore backtrack out of the pretty little marina, but not before first stopping off at the quaint High Boat Cafe, a dockside eatery with a sun-drenched patio and 18 year history (closes at 2pm on Saturday).  Silver steeples against mountain backdropWhile admiring the striking silver steeples of nearby St. Paul’s Parish (an Indian church from 1884), we slaked our thirst with a cool drink from High Boat.  Third Street, heading WestNext , we gamely headed up the incline of Forbes Street to Third, turned left onto Third (heading west) and down the wide sidewalk on the south side of Third.  At the bottom, we turned left onto Bewicke and once again picked up the Spirit Trail.

More scenic seafront greeted us as we rode into Kings Mill Walk, a very lovely dog walk park and picnic area. North shore mountains, on trailKings Mill spirit trail The trail eventually parallels McKay creek (beavers live in this area–see my blogpost about the McKay Creek beavers), wends up an attractive overpass, pops you out onto West 1st street.

beaver dam
Beaver dam, view from Spirit Trail, McKay Creek overpass
w1st overpass
McKay Creek overpass

Follow the bubbles across the street and along the road, where they’ll lead you into the peaceful green parks and path of the Norgate section of the Spirit Trail. Norgate spirit trail This, in turn, will lead you right under the Lion’s Gate Bridge and into Park Royal.  The trail continues from here, parallel to the West Vancouver seawall, but before proceeding, the Village at Park Royal  is an excellent spot to stop and sample some of the lovely cafes, restaurants, pubs, chocolatiers,  and bakeries of the Village at Park Royal and replace some of those calories you’ve just worn off.

trail_map
Our route (with plenty of photo stops, there and back it took approximately 2 hours)

If you’re visiting from out of town and don’t own a bicycle of your own, you might be able to rent at Endless Biking in North Vancouver, or you can rent a bike from the plethora of bicycle rental stores around Stanley Park and either catch the Seabus over (bicycles are allowed on board), or, if you’re in really good shape and very enthusiastic, cycle through Stanley Park and over the Lion’s Gate Bridge to Park Royal.

harbour seals
Harbor seals, sunning themselves just off-shore of Kings Mill Walk

 

The enchanting charms and astonishments of Davis Bay, Sechelt, BC

It’s a faerie wonderland of huge cedars rubbing shoulders with old hemlocks, picturesque creeks fit for water sprites, and sandbar beaches where ocean nymphs might be swimming offshore, among rare Jurassic glass-sponges.

low tide mission creek beach
Low tide, Mission Point Park

Snuggled on the narrow isthmus which separates Sechelt Inlet from the Salish Sea, the town of Sechelt on the Sunshine Coast derives its name from the shíshálh First Nations word that means “land between two waters.”

aerial of mission park beach
Davis Bay, & Mission Point, & CAP3 (upper left)

Flying into Sechelt offers extraordinary views of the Strait of Georgia and the Sunshine Coast, backed by snow-capped mountains on the mainland and Vancouver Island.  For those without their own wings, fly a frog:  C-Frog is the registration mark of the plane belonging to Fly Coastal, a local flight tour company that, with the appropriate magic words and gold coins (or plain old Canadian dollars), can get you airborne and bewitched with the views.

cap3_overview
Aerial of CAP3 (Sechelt airport)–the red circle delineates the start of the lovely Chapman Creek trail

For fly-in pilots, the Elphinstone Aeroclub at Sechelt airport (CAP3) has great facilities for an onsite picnic breakfast or lunch (bring your own groceries; red-riding hood not required).  

Just behind the airport’s south boundary fence is the perfect place to walk off granny’s baked goodies– the upper trailhead for the Chapman Creek trail.start of Chapman Creek trail

This charming trail wends its way through shady forest, down gullies, and over a little bridge that spans Chapman Creek.  At every sylvan turn, one expects to meet hobbits or glimpse dryads peeping out from behind moss-covered boulders and tree-trunks. upper Chapman Creek trailThe trail will, apparently, lead the enthusiastic hiker all the way down to Davis Bay.  (Alas, we’ve not yet been enthusiastic enough to confirm this).Chapman creek upperIf a sun-drenched stroll along the beachfront appeals more than a forest hike, a magic-carpet-ride from CAP3 airport to Mission Point Park will whisk you to the seaside for about $12 (as of October 2017) by calling Sunshine Coast Taxi Sechelt: (604) 885-3666.

landmark toilets
The unique and distinctive washroom facilities, adjacent to Mission Point Park

Cut through green and leafy Mission Point Park to the beach, which is a slim sandy crescent at high tide, and at low tide, a robust rocky sandbar.

Mission Creek park
The grassy picnic area of Mission Point Park

There’s magic beneath those waves: reef forming glass sponges, believed to have been extinct for over 40 million years, that exist nowhere else on earth.  Glass sponge reefs once covered vast areas of the prehistoric sea floor, back when lizard-like giants roamed the earth.  sponge-reefIn the late Jurassic period, a glass sponge reef that was the largest biotic structure in the history of the world stretched 7,000 kilometres across the sea, all the way to where Europe is currently located.  But somehow, somewhen, it all disappeared… or so we thought, until in 1987, when scientists discovered four massive glass sponge reefs in BC, and in 2001, some smaller reefs in the Strait of Georgia.  Some of the individual glass sponges out under those very waves in the Strait of Georgia are the size of VW beetles.  Some of the larger ones in the Hectate Strait are 9000 years old, cover 1,000 sq. kms and reach the height of an eight-storey building!! 

doggy path at beach

Alas, you must imagine all this as you stare across the panoramic Strait of Georgia… unless you visit local underwater wizards and have them work their magic with you, to take you beneath the waves:  The Scuba Shack   and The Seadog Divers Den

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Back on land, north of Mission Point Park, directly across the Sunshine Coast Highway (there are pedestrian controlled crosswalk lights to briefly halt the flow of charging tin dragons that roar up and down the asphalt), is Brookman Park, an off-leashing romping ground for Fido and friends.creekDelightful riparian trails meander alongside Chapman Creek, and yes, we actually glimpsed two bearded dwarfs en-route.tree stump carvingThis is the lower half of the trail that apparently links up to the airport.  Again, we didn’t follow the full length of it, choosing instead to walk only a portion.  We stayed on the leafy “ungroomed” trail rather than take any forks that led away from the root-gnarled path (save for where the river bank precipitously dropped away).  Some of the signposts marking the trail actually lead to roads–we preferred to stick to the leafy creek-side trails.  seawall walk

We then returned to Mission Point Park and strolled the length of the sea-walk, right to the Davis Bay pier. the Pier

We spent a delightful hour or so on the pier itself, gazing at sea-sprites disguised as jellyfish, fry, and fingerlings.

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Although there is no Prancing Pony Inn where one might find a cup of mead and Gandalf the Grey, there are several cafes right across from the pier if one needs fortification of the caloric kind.  The Gourmet Girl Cafe boasts a variety of “sexy” soups, salads, burgers, sandwiches and sea-salt fries, and the Pier 17 Restaurant offers much the same, with draft beers but no promise that their food is sexy.  local cafesWhen pilots are done hiking, strolling, beach-combing, eating, and fish-gazing, a taxi from the pier back to the airport costs about $18.

For those non-pilots who really want to experience the fantastic scenery of the Sunshine Coast from the skies, fly to Sechelt via Harbour Air or  Sunshine Coast Air or maybe even Tofino Air  Note: some of these are float plane services which will take you into Sechelt itself, an approximate $60 cab ride away from Davis Bay and Mission Point park.  Blackcomb Helicopters may also helicopter charter service to and from the Sunshine Coast.

For those who are wingless and don’t wish to take to the skies, to reach Sechelt from Vancouver, catch a 40 minute ferry ride Horseshoe Bay in West Vancouver, then drive for 27 km up Highway 101.

Exploring the wild, magical Horne Lake Caves of Vancouver Island, BC

Horne Lake 2Nestled at the foot of the spectacular limestone cliffs of Mt. Mark, with willows and grasses edging the riparian areas while elsewhere spruce, cedars, pines, and arbutus–peeling their unique layers of red and green bark– offer shelter to deer, waterfowl, cottages, and campers, Horne Lake is an idyllic spot.  It offers picnics, kayaking, swimming, camping, and hiking through lovely forested trails.

trail route enroute
The tour starts with a lovely hike up several switchbacks, to reach the cave

But what is truly special about this regional park is the plethora of wild caves to crawl and scramble around in, all rife with glittering limestone stalactites, crystals, and cave dew.limestone gloryLocated approximately 30 minutes north of Qualicum Beach airport, the caves of Horne Lake are largely undeveloped.  There is no lighting in their dank depths and the floors are an uneven tumble of damp, often loose, rock.  leaving the caveOverhangs wait to decapitate the unwary and strictures remind one of one’s perhaps-too-heroic girth.  Spelunking helmets with lights are crucial, as is good footwear, a sense of wonder and adventure, and warm clothes (the caves are a constant nippy 8 degrees Celsius).

first glimpse of cave we'll descend intojpg
Yes, this is the entrance, and yes, that’s what you descend into!

David and I opted to take the `easiest’ tour on offer, the 2 hour Riverbend Explorer.  The word `easy’ is used very loosely.

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The Sacrificial Stone, named thus because it is the only limestone formation in the cave that visitors can touch

Throughout the fantastic tour, we were scrabbling about like drunken spiders, sliding down on our bums, and often walking like half-blinded gibbons as we followed our guide through the crystal formations of the cave.  calcium aliens It was challenging and magical and–I stress this–the easiest cave tour available.  Signs make it clear that self-guided exploration is permitted in two of the caves, but that said caves are much more rugged than the 1, 2, and 3 hour guided tours.  Personally, I wouldn’t want to attempt it without a guide!

calcium straws
Cave Straws

Much more adventurous tours are also offered, such hair-raising excursions as rappelling down a seven story waterfall inside a cave; scampering around a subterranean playground of ladders, swooshing down Canada’s only in-cave slide, and belly-crawling through squeezy-tight underground rock formations.

little limestone buddha
Baby Buddha overlooking a tiny pool, in the caves

For every tour, reservations are highly recommended http://www.hornelake.com (read: crucial.  The tours sell out each and every day because they’re limited to small groups for each tour).

the limestone cowboy
Our tour guide, with “The Limestone Cowboy”, en-route to our spelunking adventure

To get here from downtown Vancouver, a ferry ride to Nanaimo is necessary, and then a 1.3 hour drive (or ferry to Victoria and 2.5 hour drive) click here for BC Ferries Schedules   Or, fly into Qualicum Beach via KD Air    click here for KD Air schedule   or Orca Airclick here for Orca Air Schedules and rent a car from Parksville Budget Rent-A-Car.

Suspension bridge
Suspension bridge at the beginning (and end) of your journey

Note: Parksville Budget Rent-A-Car needs reservations in advance and we strongly recommend you call them at least 30 minutes before your expected arrival at the airport, so that you’re not waiting 1 hour for them (they move on `Island Time’).

squeeze entrance
Yes, the crack to the right is what you go down (the crack to the left is what you come up, at the end of it all!)

Here’s a wonderful video of our mini-adventure: Horne Lake Caves video.

If you’re a private pilot, consider flying in for this fantastic spelunking adventure.  Here’s how we did it:

  • 11am: We landed at Qualicum Beach airport (CAT4  traffic 122.80)
  • 12noon: Our Budget-Rent-A-Car arrived at CAT4 (if you’re a Budget Fast Track member, arrange with them to leave the car for you at the airport and the keys with Orca air.  If you’re not a member, they’ll pick you up and take you into town to fill out all the paperwork, but be forewarned: this adds another hour to your trip).
  • Noon to 12:40pm: We drove along Highway 19 (Inland Hwy–speed limit 120km which is great) to exit #75, drove 20 minutes along a winding dirt/gravel forestry road to the clearly marked  Visitor’s Centre (not to be confused with the Regional Park, which is 1 km before the Visitor’s Centre).
  • 1:00pm: We took the memorable tour, $42per person, helmets and headlights included.
  • 3pm: After the end of the tour, we popped down the beautiful lake for photos.
  • 4:40pm: back at CAT4, after returning the car to Parksville (they gave a shuttle ride to the airport).
  • Cost of car: $34/day for a compact vehicle (4wheeldrive isn’t necessary for the trip) and an additional $44 if you buy insurance off of them.  We put in about $9 of gas to top up the car tank upon return.

 

For more info on Qualicum airport, click here

 

 

 

Historical balloon logging in North Vancouver–forestry by dirigible

While recently rambling along the short, pretty forest trail that circumnavigates Parkgate Park at the bottom of Seymour Mountain, an unusual picture artfully decorating a large metal electrical box caught our eye: a sepia photograph of what looked like a dirigible, hovering over the stumps and felled trees of a swatch of logged forest.balloon picture on electricalWe were instantly intrigued.  Had such a delightful invention as logging by dirigible really once been employed on our local mountains?  A visit to the archives, along with some research, confirmed it: balloon logging on the steep, difficult-to-reach slopes of the Seymour Watershed had once been an experiment conducted in the 1960’s by the Balloon Transport Company, after hurricane Freda extensively damaged the Lynn Ridge area.  Deemed at that time the worst storm on record in the Pacific Northwest, the typhoon caused today’s equivalent of more than $600 million in damages, seven storm-related deaths, and felled over 3000 trees in Stanley Park alone.hurricane Freda damage

Convinced that a state-of-the-art, aerial load-lifting apparatus would revolutionize the lumber industry,a gentleman by the name of Chester R. Matheson filed patent US3221897  on July 10, 1962 and introduced balloon logging to forest-rich British Columbia in 1963.

picture for patent for balloon logging
Figure 1 of Charles’ patent

His helium balloon measured 137 feet long and 52 feet wide and could lift up to 8.5 tons of logs. After only three days of operation, however, the $100,000 balloon tore loose and drifted west to Grouse Mountain, where a cedar tree eventually snagged and split it.  With the balloon ruined, the Balloon Transport Company was forced to suspend its logging operations.

floor of balloon making factory
Workshop floor of Airborne Industry’s balloon-making factory

The setback didn’t deflate the intrepid Balloon Transport Company, however; it gamely resumed its salvage operation once more in October 1967, with much cinematic fanfare, with a balloon one third the original size.  Click here to watch a wonderful original old clip of: 1967 Film of revolutionary balloon logging device!

The balloon portion of the aerial load-lifting apparatus was manufactured by Airborne Industries, a privately owned British company that originally manufactured and produced barrage balloons during World War II under the name Leabridge Engineering.

factory worker examining inside of balloon
Balloon seam inspection

Leabridge Engineering reformed in the 1960’s as Airborne Industries Ltd.  Based in Southend-On-Sea in England, the company still designs, develops and manufactures a unique range of products, such as parachute training balloons and target-practice inflatable, life-size army tanks, a product it has been my very great loss to not know even existed, hitherto this moment.inflatable-tank-600

Alas, despite Mr. Matheson’s enthusiastic and optimistic predictions, balloon logging was never widely adopted in British Columbia. Apparently hikers in the Lynn Ridge/Seymour Watershed area can still spot the old fire access road and the remains of this experimental logging operation; if anyone knows where it’s to be found, I’d love to know!