Miles’ Good Night 2021 Campout: Snowshoepacking Walt Hill
Faced with an unusual amount of fresh snow and below-freezing temperatures, Miles and friends incorporated snowshoes into a self-propelled sub-24-hour adventure for this year’s Good Night 2021 campout. Find their story and photos from the trip here…
Additional photos by Nathan Reimer (@____nathan____)
Justin and I had been discussing potential options for a Good Night 2021 campout but never really landed on anything concrete. Winter camping in the Pacific Northwest is tricky business. Most winters see a lot of rain and temperatures hovering just above freezing, which is a recipe for disaster. We were pretty set on utilizing one of the huts on the Sunshine Coast Trail, similar to what Emily and I did for last year’s Good Night campout, but with temperatures well below freezing, we weren’t too thrilled about the prospect of huddling around an outdoor fire.
At some point, the idea to make our way to one of the higher elevation huts was suggested, and plans quickly solidified from there. Powell River is home to a pretty expansive system of huts—all maintained by volunteers—and a good number are insulated and outfitted with pellet stoves for winter use. Walt Hill, one of the easiest to access on bikes from town, was the obvious choice. Within a few days, we had a group of four ready to take on the challenge of riding logging roads as far as we could before transitioning to snowshoes for the hike up to the Walt Hill hut—a cool 20-kilometre journey with over 3,000 feet (914 metres) of elevation gain. The majority of the ascent would be on the last leg of the journey where we had little intel on the conditions, whether we could ride it at all, or how much snow there was leading up the hut. Shortly after sunrise, Justin, Kristjan, Nathan, and I threw on some backpacks and turned eastward away from the ocean and toward the coastal mountains that tower behind Powell River.
Knowing we’d be ditching our bikes in the forest at some point in our travels, we opted to leave all bike bags at home and piled everything we needed in some hiking packs instead. The route out of town followed rolling gravel roads that see a fair amount of traffic, and to our surprise, the freshly fallen snow was packed down and made for a quick ride. It took us just over an hour and a half to cover 15 kilometres, leaving right from Justin’s front door and ending just a few kilometres from the Sunshine Coast Trail access point we were aiming for. Expecting our shifter cables to freeze, we set our drivetrains into a gear that would get us home the next morning, covered our rigs with a small tarp, and continued on by foot.
Snowshoes don’t weigh much, are easy to strap to a rack or pack, and pair up nicely with any type of boot. Early on in my van life days, I got rid of most of my winter gear, so ended up wearing my Specialized Rime Flat shoes alongside some Endura shoe covers and borrowed gaiters from our friend Andrew. Since the shoes are lace-up and are quite roomy, I layered a thin polypropylene liner sock underneath my DeFeet Woolie Boolie socks. This combo kept my feet warm and surprisingly dry the entire time, plus the setup was lighter than a big hiking boot, so it was a little easier on my hip flexors. Riding in the snow isn’t easy, no matter how you spin it, so ditching the bikes and strapping on snowshoes was a relief in some ways.
As luck would have it, there was a group ascending the same trail ahead of us, making for easy mileage on the way up toward the cabin. This leg of the journey took a bit over two hours and we covered five kilometres, gaining nearly 2,296 feet (700 metres) of elevation. The final kilometre is pretty much straight up Walt Hill, following the same optional hike-a-bike on the Powell River Sampler route that we tackled last summer, and it felt great to do it without pushing a loaded bike this time. Our group moved swiftly, only taking a few short breaks for water and photos, constantly in awe of our surroundings. The higher we climbed, the deeper the snow became, and for a mild coastal community like Powell River, these types of conditions were somewhat foreign to a group that mainly sticks to two-wheeled pursuits.
The crisp air reminded me of where I grew up in Ontario. It felt great to get out and enjoy it in a unique way with such a good crew. Trips like these remind me just how spoiled and fortunate I am to live in such a cool place. Usually, it’s too mild or too icy to play much in the lower elevation snow, but the days leading up to this outing kept well below freezing, so the conditions were perfect. At one point we passed a gentleman who grew up in Powell River and he mentioned he hadn’t seen this much snow or temperatures since a record-setting storm back in 1996. Over on Vancouver Island, just a ferry ride away, temperature records were also broken—surpassing the lows set back during that same storm 25 years ago.
Approaching the cabin was surreal. At this point, the area was socked in with clouds, blocking the 360° views that normally greet those arriving at the cabin. Everything was white. Having not given it much thought ahead of time, I was surprised to see so much snow on the steps leading up to the cabin. It didn’t take long to dig things out, as we were all pretty eager to get the pellet stove going and get rid of some of our layers.
I knew going into this trip that pellet stoves can be temperamental, but I assumed we’d figure it out. However, I didn’t think it would take over two hours of coaxing a small, pathetic flame. Kristjan and I clearly weren’t that great at hiding our worried looks as our bodies began to cool off from our sweat, and the cabin felt even colder than outside. All I could think about was how I was going to wear every piece of clothing I brought in order to survive the night and how early the sun might rise so we could get down.
Thankfully, after more than two hours, we finally started seeing some progress and the cabin began to warm up. The stove required almost constant attention during the first few hours. Kristjan had a real knack for adding oxygen to the fire, equipped with goggles to protect his eyes from smoke and sparks, while we all took turns feeding the small pellets of compressed sawdust into the hopper on top of the stove.
I took it upon myself to record a few standout moments in the cabin’s log book, which I’ve added in below:
December 28th/29th: Bike to Snowshoe Epic
- 1:00pm: Arrival (Temp -10°C)
- 2:00pm: Losing confidence (Temp -6°C)
- 2:15pm: Burnt gloves (Temp -5°C)
- 2:50pm: Game Time (Temp 0°C)
- 5:00pm: Hot Yoga, Anyone (Temp 10°C)
- Max Temperature: Praise the pellets (Temp 15°C)
—Miles, Kristjan, Nathan, and Justin
The next few hours were spent huddled around the stove and eating snacks. We made use of the stove’s integrated oven to cook up some burritos that Justin made ahead of time, which worked like a charm, and for the first time in a while, we were almost too full to finish our second. That evening, the clouds finally lifted and we all had a chance to stand outside under a clear sky. The stars put on a show to remember, with clear views of several constellations, the Milky Way, and Kristjan even caught a glimpse of a few shooting stars.
The only worry we had was keeping the fire going during the night and we devised a plan to add pellets if anyone woke up. The last thing any of us remember was the sound of pellets dropping down through the hopper into the stove, the sound of the fire dying, and then bursting back to life, and a few chuckles. Surprisingly, our group slept through the entire night, save a few of the regular tosses and turns in search of a comfortable position that usually never comes.
Like most cold starts, our group was quick to get stoves roaring and water boiling for the essentials: namely, coffee and oatmeal. We made quick work of packing our gear, giving the cabin a sweep, and preparing for the descent back to our bikes. With no fresh snow on the ground, our trail was well-packed and made for a quick hike. There was almost no need for snowshoes at this point, so we opted for steeper alt lines between switchbacks. Awkwardly running downhill through powder in snowshoes with friends is something I hope everyone can experience at some point. Our giggling band of snowshoepackers was something I was proud to be a part of.
Once we made it back to our bikes, we transitioned out of our snowshoes in record time and took off back toward town. The roads were still snow-covered and packed, but slightly more slippery this time around. The cold air bit at our faces and tore through my non-winter-rated gloves. After a few glove swaps (thanks for the warm mitts, Nathan!), we settled into a sporty pace along Duck Lake Road back to Justin’s. We didn’t really need to rush but we were all hungry and Nathan had an appointment for a massage that none of us wanted him to miss.
Another successful Good Night Campout in the books! It’s been so fun following along the #GoodNight2021Campout hashtag on Instagram and especially inspiring to see so many folks getting out in the northern hemisphere—braving the snow and cold for one last hoorah. A big shoutout goes to Justin, Kristjan, and Nathan for openly and enthusiastically joining me on this little adventure. It would have been just as easy to sit inside and drink tea instead.
Our Walt Hill Overnighter Route
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