Tuesday 26 February 2008

Roberts Lake

Vancouver Island Backroad Mapbook - Map 40 A2

Atlas of Canada Link: Roberts Lake

Google Earth: Type in “Roberts Lake BC” and it will take you right to the lake. There is a Google Earth user photo already on the lake.

Latitude: 50°12'58.15"N
Longitude: 125°32'40.69"W

Trip Date: February 24, 2008

I leave the house at 9:30, the sun is stark in a cloudless winter sky. From the parkway above Malaspina University-College I glimpse open ocean all the way to a fogbank against the mainland. Those poor citizens of Vancouver are shrouded in mist. No sun for them, at least not for several hours. It always feels good to be heading out paddling in sunshine, but somehow doubly good when it is a fortuitous event. The random fate of weather, allowing me to seize the day, while others ponder the ceiling of grey.
Part of the pleasure is knowing that no one is thinking about me, I am a self contained expedition, master of my own destiny. Not expected back till after dark, the whole day spread before me. Solo trips are luxurious, truly incomparably deluxe. A Westfalia van passes me, a couple in their thirties with outdoor jackets and hats. I imagine they are heading for the great outdoors too and speculate on their destination. The woman sees me watching them and I smile dumbly at them, a goof with a canoe in February.

My destination is Hell Diver Lake. Last night I looked up elevations on several lakes. Hell Diver is at 132 meters. Nanaimo’s own Westwood Lake is higher than that at 164 meters with no ice, so I think the water will be open at Hell Diver, but when I get there an hour and a half later, it is frozen over.

Small Lake Below Hell Diver

A small lake below Hell Diver, but just as frozen over...

Hell Diver is a small shallow lake south of Campbell River, so I can see why it might be frozen. I head further North to Quinsam Lake, which is a large deeper lake so perhaps not frozen. But it is at a higher elevation. It’s a gamble, but I head for it anyway. On the Gilson Main I run into snow. In the dip by Gilson Lake I feel the Tracker fishtail through the ruts of previous vehicles. On the hill between Gilson and Quinsam I reconsider. I can see Gilson Lake frozen below me on the right. The ruts in the snow are deep, throwing me around, wheels spin, the load behind the back seat shifts back and forth, paddles knocking together. I look for a turn around. I’ve wasted hours finding Hell Diver and now trying to reach Quinsam. I wonder where the Westfalia folks are and hope they are having better luck. I turn the Tracker around and head back down out of the snow, trying to think where else I can try.

On the Gilson Main On Gilson Main above Gilson Lake

Larry Bowers of West Coast Canoe Company had given me a tip that Roberts Lake was a nice paddle, close to the highway north of Campbell River. I know that another lake near Roberts, Twin Lake, is at 247 meters but I had not looked up Roberts, so I’m left to speculate. I drive into Campbell River and stop to eat a Big Mac and ponder my options. It is 2:00, the sun is past its zenith, but Roberts is a deep lake, I reason, and my curiosity gets the better of me.

On the way past Menzies Bay I catch up to a transport truck, he slows down slightly as we pass a section of planted alders, the sunlight streaming through them across the road. Flash, flash, flash all down the long straight stretch of highway. When we are past the alders the truck speeds up again, the grey trunks and tawny sunshine lingering in my after image, such beauty from such dormant elements.

I watch the snow grow deeper in the ditches all the way up the long hill past the Menzies Lookout, past the turn off to Twin Lake. I am very doubtful that Roberts will be clear of ice. But then the road crests and begins dropping and shortly I see the Roberts Lake Resort sign, and glimpse the lake through the trees. I stop at the rest stop to get my bearings and see that there is a road running along below the highway, right beside the lake. I hop back in the Tracker and find the turn off almost immediately near the northwest corner of the lake.

Roberts Lake Looking North

The water is as still as I have ever seen a lake be. There is literally not the slightest breeze. In the bay there is a small amount of floating clear ice but I take down the canoe and head out onto the water craning my neck to see the snow covered mountains to the east and north. I paddle out across the lake towards the farthest north-eastern corner where a creek drains Cecil Lake. I want to see if it is possible to paddle or portage up the creek to Cecil Lake. Along the northern shore I cruise carefully looking at large rocks just under the surface. Some have black tops, with dead algae below. I deduce that they stand above water part of the year, the algae line indicating the usual water level. The lake is full but the water is clear and still, I can see the rocky bottom as it curves steeply over a sharp underwater drop into darkness.

In the bay near the creek a wooden structure stands on a point, bones of a summer camp. Buoys float without moving in the lake. I imagine that in the summer boats, power boats even, dot this shore, oil spilling across the pristine surface. I listen for voices, laughter, splashing children, but it is quiet as velvet, only the small whisper of the creek running out across gravel.

The sound of the hull contacting with the gravel rouses me and I clamber out to stretch my legs. I spend some time examining stones along the shore. The gravel is uniform in size but sharp edged. This is a young place, the stones have not been smoothed overly, they are recently cracked apart, but the uniformity is pleasing.

Back in the canoe I paddle down the eastern shore, past another long dock and along a small island. Then, in the distance a large boulder on the shore catches my eye and I paddle towards it. Someone has constructed a very precarious looking diving board on top of it. I look into the water below it and can not see a bottom. I look at the shore to discern a camp or building. There is no obvious clearing.

I paddle around the point and towards the second inflow. There is another point, then a sandy bay, then a cluster of shrubs with red branches. As I paddle closer I see that the branches are a variety of shades from orange to pink to red. These bushes are worth the whole trip. I rest my paddle and stare at them, the canoe gliding silently, the sun angling towards the horizon.

Roberts Lake on a sunny February day consumes my visual field. Dark grey almost black rocks roughly cut but slightly smoothed, bleached logs, rippled sand, dormant vegetation armoured in color, the sun drawing out all pigment, exposing subtle variations in texture and pattern.

My muscles warm as I paddle back across the lake to the vehicle, the sun winking out behind the hill. Like an unexpected jewel on a grey stony shore, this unexpected winter beauty has been mine all day, and if feels as if no one else knows about it. A gem sitting in plain view along highway 19. It would be a nice place to set up a Westfalia.

More pictures of Robert Lake are located on my Flickr pages at:

Text and photos © Richard R. Powell

Sunday 10 February 2008

Book Review

Canoeing the Adirondacks with Nessmuk: The Adirondack Letters of George Washington Sears, edited by Dan Brenan with Revisions by Robert L. Lyon and Hallie E. Bond.

This slim collection of letters originally published in Field and Stream magazine is a record of canoe trips taken over several years by the plucky old woodsman George Washington Sears. Each year he used a different feather-light canoe made of thin strips of wood, mostly cedar, which were believed by their maker, J. Henry Rushton, to be so insubstantial as to afford little or no room for mishap on Sear’s long journeys. Sears himself, despite his obvious pride in the delicate crafts, and despite his great pleasure in showing them off to anyone and everyone who was interested, never the less referred to them quite often as ‘egg shells’. The journey’s consisted of paddling and portaging hundreds of miles, mostly by himself, from lake to lake in the Adirondack wilderness, an area that is now a state park but that at the time was a booming recreation destination for hunters, fishermen, and sufferers of consumption.

The letters range from a very entertaining description of a “typical” guided tour of the lakes, to straight forward descriptions of the landscape, to complaints about the hardships of wilderness travel, and to Sear’s own feelings on land management. After 120 years the letters still read remarkably well. The simple prose reveals a voice old in experience and timeless in convivial honesty. It is not difficult to imagine yourself paddling alongside the slight, almost fragile, elder as he idles away his time fishing and exploring lake after lake.

Some things are lacking in his reports, noticeable details omitted because of his own personal assumptions about what his readers should already know, and there is a lack of some of the conventions we now take for granted in travelogues. For instance while Nessmuk (Sear’s pen name) visited numerous lodges, hotels, and rustic guide camps, he refers to almost all of them simple as ‘camps’, giving only scant descriptions and no details about their operations. We don’t hear, for instance, a word about the beds, bathrooms, manner of lighting, or significant architectural details. We don’t hear about the customs, atmosphere, or clothing styles of the time, and we certainly don’t find out anything at all about the quality of construction in the buildings, the plumbing, or if the structures had stone foundations, or outbuildings. There are not even any indications of whether the camps are cleared, have grounds, or are still rustically situated in raw forest. The included pictures fill in some of these details, but Sears himself gives nary a jot to the subject. We do hear as much as anyone could care to hear about all the trout and venison that were consumed, and we do get a good glimpse of the make up of the meals (Nessmuk confesses his culinary prowess and a well laid table is obviously of some interest to him), and we do get colourful portraits of particular guides and camp operators. On the other hand we get almost nothing about the shadowy tourists who are reported to be so numerous at the camps as to make Mary and Joseph sleep out under their canoe.

It is fun to join Nessmuk in secret forays to lakes and ponds, “not on any map” and I reflected about my own 100 lakes project and how detailed and numerous are the options for locating water of interest. The freely accessible online Atlas of Canada, for example, gives me so much information on my chosen landscape that there literally are no ponds and lakes off the map. I imagine Nessmuk’s eyes would bug out at the detail available from this and similar resources.
I’m glad I read Nessmuk, his values of environmental preservation, his matter of fact statements on the absolute necessity of idleness to good health, and his folksy evaluation of guides and their customers felt comfortably candid. He distains dullards, braggarts, and pothunters but sings the praise’s of trustworthy guides who practice courtesy and truthfulness. In so doing I felt reassured about the kind of folks who populate the wilds, felt there was hope yet if such good eggs could hold sway still.

Nessmuk’s pride in ‘going light’ and in the merits of his diminutive canoes is endearing. His fondness for his Spartan camp list and fragile craft is balanced nicely with his recommendations; well really his insistence, on comfort. Comfort and an uncomplicated schedule are to be sought only in as far as they do not violate enjoyment of remote locations to idle and fish. This balance strikes me as being rather noteworthy and hints at why the man is held up as an example to follow. His illness, and his resoluteness to soldier on in spite of his illness, makes him roundly human. I like this frankness and find it believable, partly because he is also willing to quit when his illness is too severe. This is a frail, courageous, passionate man engaged in a pursuit he loves. The qualities that I like most in him are his honesty, determination, and preference for and acceptance of people of good character. He likes the good guys, tells us why they are good, and in so doing encourages us to live in a similar manner. His enthusiasm for nature in infectious, and I could not get out of my head the idea that some day I would meet him or go on a trip with him. Of course he is long gone and only his written words carry on. Still, I know that as I paddle past a spot I think he would have liked I will smile and imagine he is with me to enjoy it, this small man in one of his tiny canoes, a true companion in the ways that matter.

Here are a few choice quotes from the book:

“just under my eyes as I write, there is an island in the river some twelve rods long by six wide. It is well timbered with spruce, balsam, hemlock, cedar, pine, birch and maple. It is one of the pleasant spots that nature makes and man neglects.” – Pg. 36, 37

“Now, I like to cook, can do it well, and I wanted a quiet place to lay off, paddle, fish, float and possess my soul in peace.” – Pg. 56

“Yes. Let us leave the hot pavements, the baking, blistering walls and sweltering sleep, or sleepless, rooms. Let us, i’ God’s name, take to the cool waters and calm shades of the forest.” – Pg. 69

“if you have an eye for nature, the time will not be lost.” – Pg. 116

“I dressed and walked down to the landing, where I made a fire against the rock used as a washing station by the House of Sabattis, lighted a pipe and resumed my favourite exercise of sitting on a log.” – Pg. 122

“We, the “outers,” who go to the blessed woods for rest and recreation, are prone to handicap our pleasures in the matter of overweight; guns, rods, duffle, boats, etc. We take a deal of stuff to the woods, only to wish we had left it at home, and end our trips by leaving dead loads of impedimenta in deserted camps. I should be glad to see this amended. I hope at no distant day to meet independent canoeists, with canoes weighing twenty pounds or less, at every turn in the wilderness, and with no more duffle than is absolutely necessary.” - Pg. 138