Mount Edziza a worthwhile challenge

With its otherworldly landscape of volcano cones and lava flows, Mount Edziza Provincial Park is a place like no other in this province, making it an enticing destination for those of us with a passion for immersing ourselves in wild settings and exploring them one step at a time.

When it was chosen for the Caledonia Ramblers' annual week-long backpacking trip, I was not going to miss out, particularly since it offered a rare opportunity to fly into the park via helicopter, cutting off two days of tough, exhausting drudgery to get to where the highlights truly begin.

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We took off from Tatogga Lake Resort, a lodge and motel on the Stuart-Cassiar Highway about 400 kilometres north of Kitwanga and two days of comfortable driving from Prince George. Like passengers in a glass elevator we watched the forests and lakes give way to imposing buttresses of red, dusty mountainside then into what's been aptly described as "alpine tundra."

"Wow," remarked one of my colleagues over the in-flight communication system. It was all that needed to be said - even the pilot, who had not flown in the area before, was enchanted by all around him.

We landed near the southwest edge of Mount Edziza and a short distance from the Coffee and Cocoa craters, two of the 30 cones that have popped up in the 10,000 years since the park's namesake last erupted.

Once on the ground, we pitched our tents next to what seemed, at the time, to be a fairly tame stream and on a strip of vegetation soft enough to make me question the need to use a sleeping pad, although I did not take the thought any further.

Our village of brightly-coloured nylon was situated on a treeless and barren plateau.

It not only meant campfires were out of the question but so was any spot where we could string our food up and away from hungry wildlife.

Countering the concern was the belief that no bear would bother to head into the high country because there was so little there to eat.

How quickly were we proven wrong.

Just a few minutes after we set off to explore the immediate surroundings did one of our entourage say "is that a bear?"

Sure enough, in the distance we saw a grizzly with its iconic humped back saunter across a field of ash and towards us.

The bear was oblivious to our presence - we were upwind.

The grizzly stopped to frolic and forage in a small oasis of greenery and flowers about 100 metres away.

The rest of us also stayed back while trip leader Dave King, who has had years of experience with the creatures, ventured to within probably 50 metres but still well out of charging range to let the bear know we were there. I thought of following up behind, but then thought better.

The bear occasionally looked up, as if it had detected something in the distance, but would soon go back to enjoying its patch of vegetation. Finally, however, we came into focus and with a jolt, it took off up a hill.

As it turned out, it was only a young one rather than a big, territorial male or a protective mother with cubs and opted for flight over fight. We never saw it again, although evidence in the form of bear poop suggested it had circled around and checked out our camping site.

Other than a few ptarmigan, it was the last of the wildlife sightings we would get until the end of our trip six days later. That was when we reached Buckley Lake, about 50 kilometres to the north, to rendezvous with a floatplane. There we saw a lone moose grazing in the shallows while the morning fog lifted from the lake, giving the scene a ghostly effect.

The closest we came to caribou was a few bones and antlers and some tracks. Given the herd amounts to just 100, that should probably have come as no surprise, but nonetheless Dave was left puzzled. He's seen caribou every other time he's been in the park.

Obsidian, a form of glass produced when lava cools so quickly no minerals can form, and valued as a cutting tool and a trade item by the Tahltan, was limited to a few shards found on the first day. (Fun fact: Depending on who you ask, Edziza is the Anglicized version Tahltan word for cinder or the sound of the crunch beneath your feet as you walk along the rock.)

Indeed, if there was one thing I was going to learn over the coming days, it was that even with the aid of a helicopter, Mount Edziza was not going to give up her secrets easily. I also learned it pays to prepare for the worst. In the days that followed, the wind was relentless, reaching gale-force speed at some points, and the rain only slightly less constant.

Unable to build a campfire, we had to find other ways to cope with the cold. At various points, each of us wore practically every bit of clothing in our possession while some of us questioned the ratings on our sleeping bags. But, as Scottish comedian Billy Connolly once said: "There's no such thing as bad weather, just the wrong clothing, so get yourself a sexy raincoat and live a little."

If functional is sexy, then we were the epitome of fashion. My rain gear did all I could ask of it and when I did get a little on the cold side, I took solace in the fact that at least I wasn't shivering and I could still move my fingers.

Of course, one of the best strategies is to keep moving and besides, moving was why we were there in the first place. On the first day, we ventured up Cocoa crater after a creek carrying a raging torrent of meltwater prevented us from reaching Coffee. On the second, we headed west over a moonscape of ash and lava to get a closer look at the formations the volcanic activity had created.

We caught a break on the morning of the third day when the clouds gave way to sun, producing a glorious view of the Boundary mountains to the west and a glorious feeling in our hearts. It stayed that way long enough for us to pack up and move to our next campsite about eight kilometres north. As we walked, the weather worsened and stayed that way for the rest of the day and into the next when we once again packed up and headed to our next camp.

It was a bit of a forced march as Dave wanted to keep us ahead of the weather and the rising water that filled the creeks as the days wore on. Following a series of cairns, we covered 15 kilometres hiking over a varying pattern of lichen, grass moss and divots of ash, broken up by a progression of crossings over running water at the bottoms of small ravines.

After the first few forays, I felt quite skilled in selecting which rocks to set foot on and where to plant my hiking poles. Like the rock climbers do, I avoided the dynamic moves whenever possible and looked for places where I could step rather than jump, although I did sweep a toe through some water at one point. Others weren't so lucky, but other than to say the injuries were minor and they were able to dry out, I won't go into any detail.

At one point we encountered a bridge of thick blue ice formed by one of Edziza's glaciers and soon dumped our packs, pulled out our cameras and took a closer look. Of course, we could not help but walk underneath. Given that it had probably been there for decades, the chances of it collapsing just as we were going through were slim we reasoned, and we were right.

Packs back on our backs, we continued on until we reached a camping spot roughly north of Edziza. I had made the mistake of placing my heaviest item - the bag of food - near the lowest point in my pack, and suffered for it for most of the day until I realized why the pack simply hung on my shoulders rather than rode on my hips and back.

The next day was just as windy and rainy as most. The trip had turned into a test of survival to an extent but by then, most of us had adjusted and were ready to get a good close look at the surroundings.

We reached the foot of a glacier off Edziza's north flank, crossing a creek not once but four times and then climbing up a steep hill to get there. The wind seemed a minor inconvenience as we gawked at the ice and took pictures like a group of victorious mountaineers.

We topped it off by then walking up the nearby Tsekone Ridge, a knife-edged mass of black lava from which you could see for miles on both sides. For every step we took, a dozen photos were taken, or so it seemed.

Two of our more ambitious members made an attempt on climbing Edziza itself, equipped with rope, crampons and ice axes.

They made it about three-quarters up before turning back because of the high wind and poor visibility. Neither was disappointed; they were just glad to get up onto the glacier and poke around on the ice.

Wind. Rain. Cold. Sore legs. Sleepless nights. Suddenly it all seemed worth it.

Of all the things to take on a trip to Edziza, quite possibly the most important is earplugs. Lucky for me, I had some and did not feel left out the next morning when those around me related stories of putting up with the sound of wind and rain battering the sides of their tents.

It was also cold overnight and, as if to confirm what we had felt, we woke up to a dusting of snow on the nearby mountain. With the sun shining, it made an astounding sight.

Originally, the plan was to hike 12 kilometres to a horse camp that day and then the rest of the way to Buckley Lake the next day, with the aim of meeting up with the float plane at noon. But with the weather the way it was, we decided going the full distance in one day was the better idea. But first, we had to go up Eve Cone, so perfectly symmetrical it seemed man-made, like an Egyptian pyramid or an Aztec temple.

To avoid adding to the many paths that have been stamped out on its side, we followed the one set out by B.C. Parks. At the top, we looked down into the cone's crater and out at an expansive view of the surrounding area before we headed back down, because we were on a schedule and because we wanted to get out of the wind.

At one last outcropping of lava, we stopped for lunch and looked back in a panoramic view of Mount Edziza, its cap still covered in cloud, then headed for lower elevations. The tundra gave way to stands of willow, then spruce as we descended into a more traditional kind of forest.

If there was a small blessing, it was that it was not raining that day. We were following a trench-like trail dug into the soil and if it was raining, it would most certainly have turned into a small, muddy waterway. As it was, we got our share of muck where horses had recently passed through and churned up the dirt with their hooves.

By the time we had reached a hunters' campsite on the edge of the lake, we had walked 25 kilometres and few if any of us were interested in going any further. It was a good thing we made the distance in one chew - the plane was able to pick us up the next morning and, as it turned out, the lake's water had gotten too choppy for a landing by the noontime meet-up originally planned.

As if to give us one last send off, the clouds cleared for a moment to give us a clear view of Edziza before coming back in once again. The flight out, like the chopper ride in, was scenic and as a bonus, recognizable, as it retraced some of the steps we had taken over the previous days.

To say Edziza had reserved the best for last would be a case of anthropomorphizing gone wild. But there I was, certain she had given me a wink as we flew by.

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