An Expedition up Mt. Benson
The traveller when approaching a town or city, the surroundings of which are familiar to him, is almost invariably able to tell his whereabouts long before he reaches the place by some distinguishing landmark that comes to view as he proceeds on his way, for every community more or less the world over, has its well known crag or peak or glacier, its shaggy forest or rocky headland, its shining lake or ever rolling river.
There are the Golden Gate of Frisco, the Sentinels of the Columbia and Tacoma's Mt. Ranier; the rocky shores of Juan de Fuca tell us Victoria is near and the famous Slide on the Dome indicates from far up the Yukon that Dawson lies below.
Our own little city of Nanaimo on the East Coast of Vancouver Island, overlooking a harbor that is famed for its natural beauty and safe shipping anchorage, has its distinguishing landmark in Mt. Benson, a peak over 3,000 feet in height which lies to the west of the city and some five miles away when approaching Nanaimo from the Gulf direction.
It was this same mountain that my friend George and I set out to climb one morning early in May. It is not the writer's intention to impress the reader by a thrilling story of heart breaking and back breaking packing and climbing, of the scaling of dazzling and dangerous peaks, of leaping over crevasses. This is not a tale of alpenstocks, Burgundy wine and Swiss guides, though it may be admitted that a guide is necessary to one unfamiliar with the great expanse of dark firs that cover the mountain sides, the acres of cedar bottom and the rocky gorges whose sharp, jutting flanks cut off the surrounding country. The object of our trip was to spend the day breaking through the woods where life is free and open and well worth living, where the call of the wild sounds in every tree, and crag and stream. We planned to ascend to the tempest beaten summit over wave after wave of densely wooded mountains that stretch for countless leagues in one vast, far reaching sea to the limit of vision, there to drink in the magnificent spectacle that this eminent spot affords, to secure photographs of the adjacent peaks, forests and waterfalls. This then was the prospect that led us to take the trip and while an expedition of this nature, where one is entirely dependent on one's soundness of mind and limb to gain steep ascent, or overcome the windfalls and matted undergrowth, though trails of endurance are encountered, not one out of a hundred persons will fail to benefit from such an undertaking.
Mt. Benson, which lies parallel to the coastline, is a double peaked eminence standing alone, a vanguard, so to speak, of the fine array of peaks that rise away to the south and northwest, the foremost of which show as a continuous chain.
The estimated distance from the city to the summit is eight miles and to the foot of the ascent is about four miles. After passing the outskirts of town there are tow trails by which the mountain top may be gained, the regular mountain road that leads up from the south, and McGarrigle's trail at the north which commences at the sawmill of the Ladysmith Lumber Company. The former is the more favorable of the two since the greater part of it is a regular road cut out for vehicle travel. The last leg of the climb is by foot-path. On McGarrigle's trail much loose rock is encountered and there are many logs strewn across the path indicating lack of repair.
We took the regular mountain road, as it turned out, although our plan had been to go up by the northern route. Our plan was to ride out on the locomotive that runs from the town to the sawmill, a distance of some three and a half miles, and there begin the ascent by the McGarrigle trail. The locomotive was due to leave at 4 a.m. (before daybreak). I was up at 3:15, and finding that the rain of the previous night was still steadily descending I returned to bed feeling satisfied that the trip would be off. A continuous ringing at the front door-bell, the kind that has no intention of stopping until satisfaction has been secured, aroused me from a troubled sleep some time before 5 o'clock, and when I eventually arrived upon the scene, George, quite alert and armed with camera and lunch, stood before me.
The rain had ceased, the dawn of a fine day was breaking and at 5:30 o'clock we struck out. The town, as was to be expected at so early an hour, was still asleep. Thirty minutes' walk through the Western Fuel Company's holdings brought us to the city's water dams and the beginning of the mountain road. A steady grade from this point onward was encountered and the timber became more dense so that for some rods we could see nothing but the road winding before and behind. A distinct smell of ozone pervaded the atmosphere as we mounted and very soon George, who is an ardent and promising student of the local High School, began to point out various orchids here and there, many of which to the casual observer would have passed unnoticed. They were, however, of great interest to one who followed botany and who is born a nature lover. There was one orchid, the ladyslipper, as it is commonly called in this country, that stands out from all other because of its color and formation. To see such dainty flowers standing alone among the wild undergrowth brings astonishment to the onlooker and when they are seen they are sure to be carried away. Their home, however, is not the garden and they do not stand transplanting well.
Before 6:30 we had reached what is known as the foot of the mountain and farther on, the Dominion geological mark at 1,100 feet altitude. The former is marked by a small stream which flows under a rough cedar bridge. It is somewhat difficult to know why this should be known as the foot of the mountain for the actual climb begins well down the road not far from the city water dams. As we steadily mounted the timber thinned out some and from the winding road a glimpse was obtained of the south and east. Though neither of us wished to break a record we maintained a steady gait, stopping only occasionally to drink from a prattling brook, but not resting.
We soon saw that the day was not to be a favorable one as we had anticipated. A pall of fog hung in the tree tops farther up and when a chance offered we could see that the mountains to the south were capped with a dense cloud. The end of the wagon road was reached at 7:30 without incident. We came upon a tent at this spot, which we afterwards found out belonged to the Geodetic survey party. The rest of the trail was a mere footpath, indistinct in places and sometimes difficult to keep. It was here that the stiffest bit of climbing was encountered. Although the trail was rugged and strewn with logs, twenty-five minutes sufficed to put us at the topmost point of the mountain, on which is placed a flagstaff, erected many years ago. We had thus effected the entire distance in two hours and twenty-five minutes and without stops. The usual time is about three hours, and larger parties generally take longer than that.
The greatest height of the mountain, at the flag pole is 3,366 feet. Near the peak another tent was pitched which also belonged to the Geodetic party, who were taking measurements and areas of the bodies of rock, etc., that compose the mountain. A search light, erected on a stand at the foot of the flag pole, was no doubt used by the party who were making a general survey of the mountains of Vancouver Island, in taking night observation.
When we gained the highest spot nothing could be seen in any direction farther than about thirty yards distant, except a grey bank of mist. We seemed to stand on a tiny island of rock cut off from all else by the impenetrable wall of vapor, into which the rugged trees, blasted by the ice-edged gales of many winters, thrust their stunted and ragged branches as a bristling Chevaux-de-frise, on the ramparts of a fort.
The beautiful view we had expected to obtain was not in evidence. We were not discouraged, however, for we knew that the fog would eventually lift, so gathering dry wood, a fire was started and we were soon busy transferring the lunch to our hungry stomachs. There was nothing left but to wait for the mist to clear, and there was evidence of its doing this in a short time, as the sun at intervals made brave attempts to break through and disperse the mist.
The mist was only among the mountains, as several times, when the light breeze blew it clear, the lakes and rivers and salt water, not to mention the wooded country still nearer, showed up clear and beautiful. These were truly only flashes, for the veil swept over the whole scene as rapidly as it had opened out, and left us with the same grey pall surrounding us.
George was anxious to take a photograph of Crystal Lake, a small body of water in the valley behind Mt. Benson, and at the foot of Wolf Mountain. Before noon we climbed down the rocks and set the camera up. The scattered mist continued to sweep along the valley but finally, after nearly an hour's waiting, the scene was snapped, and returning to the top of the mountain we found the fog had lifted entirely, allowing a perfectly uninterrupted view of the whole panorama. From a lofty vantage point over 3,000 feet, on an early Summer day, when the various hues of the forest appear most attractive, such a spectacle has to be seen to be realized and adequately enjoyed.
No description can instill into the mind of the reader the scene as it really is. Nevertheless, a description is in order. Almost immediately below, the lakes near Wellington shone among the dark firs and lighter foliage like crystals. Nanaimo lay peacefully in the sunshine picturesque on the verdant slopes that face the harbor wonderfully beautiful, while the blue floor of the Gulf of Georgia, dotted by many islands, stretched away north to the Mainland, and southward toward the Island at Saanich. The Balinacks and Grey Rocks, the Five Fingers, Entrance and Gabriola, the nearer Newcastle and Protection Islands all stood out clear and bright, some densely wooded, others barren, yet beauty spots on the azure sea. Further away, yet plainly discernible, were Texada and Lasqueti, the home of the quartz mine and haunt of the deer. Still more distant were the numerous inlets in the Mainland, with grey Point obscuring Vancouver from view. Away to the south lay Oyster Harbor and Ladysmith and the score of Islands towards Victoria.
The mists behind us disappeared almost completely before long, showing a long wave of hill and valley covered with fir and cedar, spruce and hemlock, with here and there a line of snowy ranges; all the well known peaks, Green, Wolf, Admiralty, De Cosmos, Spencer, Black Jack, Moriarty, Brenton and others, were visible. Altogether we could see fully 5,000 square miles of the earth's surface. A good photo of the town and outlying islands was obtained, and then George proceed to secure one of the species of Liliaceae - the yellow Dogtooth Violet, with white antlers, similar to the regular white 'curly lily' that abounds hereabouts. George has artistic tastes and felt bound to get a good picture of the flowers, for he had a special lens along with his camera for this purpose. While the lilies were still patiently posing the sound of the shrill whistle of the little locomotive came up the mountainside, and we knew that a ride home was out of the question. About 2:30 p.m. we came down the rocky draw that was partially filled with snow, and began the descent.
Mountain trips are for the most part alike in that when you are struggling slowly, but steadily upwards, your breath is coming (or going) fast, your legs weaken, your feet drag - and you long for a down hill stretch; but when you are on the down grade you think the descent is more distressing than the climb. The going was good for some time, the trees stately and open with little or no undergrowth, and plenty of moss that acted as a carpet; the grade could have been much worse.
Such easy traveling was too good to last, however; the grade became sharper and the speed more rapid. Stopping was more difficult than starting and the lithe step with which we left the summit merged into a leaping, sliding and cuttling race. Ahead lay a wild ravine filled with dark firs, into the gloomy depths of which we plunged until brought up by a stream.
We were near, as it happened, to a thick patch of ladyslippers, so George set his camera up, and commenced operations. He told me he was particularly fond of photographing flowers and I believed him, for he lay on the wet moss with his black cloth over his head for upwards of half an hour, adjusting the special lens, and getting a focus some twelve inches distant, on four innocent and pretty little ladyslippers, which stood the strain very well, but naturally began to droop their tired heads at the expiration of that time, some yellow violets, all the time with saucy faces, taking in the whole scene.
The grade was easing off perceptibly, yet the undergrowth was more dense, and "salals" were more numerous as we neared the bottom. The beauty of it all, however, could not be overlooked. Dainty green leaves of the salmon berry bushes and jack pines and dark firs, the climbing honeysuckle and pretty spirea, the wild currant and graceful fern and yielding moss and the rays of the afternoon sun glancing through it all, combined to form a scene of real beauty, sublime and peaceful enough to satisfy the most ardent critic.
Two legweary and perspiring forms, emerging from the trail above were not too weary to appreciate this, yet the second falls, on the McGarrigle Creek, reached after leaving the trail and breaking through the woods, was by far the prettiest bit of scenery on the whole trip, and I venture to say that these falls, as we saw them, cannot be surpassed in point of beauty by anything of the kind in this wide Province which contains many waterfalls and much beauty.
The volume of water that flows over these rocks is small in comparison to many, but in judging beauty, the amount of water is not considered. The very secluded location - a little corner hollowed out of the rocks and not seen until a few paces away forms a novel and remarkable feature. Nature had draped its three rocky walls with trailing vines and creepers dripping and crystal-like from the waters of the fountain alone. As though placed by touch of a master hand the delicate salmon-berry and spirea bushes interlace overhead. The filmy stream that flows over the rocks with delightful music and falls fresh and pure into the deep clear pool, then over the gravelly little bar into its bed, edged with ever-present fir and cedar, and lighter tinted foliage, constitutes a forest setting, I say again, unsurpassed.
Farther down the stream we came to the first falls, not possessing the beautiful surrounding of the upper yet a sight worth seeing, and one that would rank among the best of water scenes.
A glance at the falls assured us that we had left the mountain side and were again among coal measures. The entire bed of the stream consists of a hard kind of shale which makes the scene as interesting as it is beautiful.
To get to the main trail again a good deal of underbrush, scrubby firs, fallen logs, deadwood, and salmon-berry bushes, had to be gone through. The sun's rays were making it warm work, for we were not lagging any. A fast pace was maintained all the way. Some two and a half hours after our departure from the summit, we emerged at the Ladysmith Lumber Company's sawmill and for the balance of the way hit the ties of the lumber railway until we reached the town again. Thus the trip down, irrespective of stops, took approximately the same length of time as the climb in the morning, and we reached home about 6 o'clock.