A man, an axe and eighty kilometres of
rainforest. Canadas toughest trailbuilder is booked for the
2002 Canadian National Magazine Awards
Western Living Magazine,
McPherson doesnt walk through the forest.
He bounds with the sinewy strength of a deer, striding from deadfalls
to granite boulders draped in moss, splashing up mucky streambeds
and crashing through the alders that grow thick from the gravel
of abandoned logging roads. He lugs a pack heavy with tools, camping
gear, tin trail markers and the nails needed to fasten them to tree
trunks. To keep the weight down, McPherson carries almost no water.
He prefers instead to force down a full litre at his car, then another
litre whenever he crosses a big stream.
"This is a nice pace," McPherson says between gulps, sweat
dripping from his chin. "Yup, a nice, easy, day-long pace."
sandwich and McPherson is off again through the tangled second-growth
forest above Indian Arm. He doesnt stop until he has climbed
1,000 metres above the high-tide mark. There, he reaches under a
Volkswagen-sized stump and pulls out two axes, more nails and a
pair of long-handled clippers. Now, McPherson says, its time
to get to work. He raises his axe and begins to hack a tunnel through
the otherwise-impenetrable chaos of salmonberry, spiny-devils
club and house-high firs. His route doesnt switchback or wander
like trails down in Stanley Park. It soars straight up towards untouched
old growth stands of cedar, hemlock and fir now trembling in the
up. Thats Don McPhersons trademark when it comes to
building trails. Its been 20 years since he and his climbing
partner, Phil Severy, built a route that ploughed from North Vancouver
directly up Grouse Mountain, gaining a punishing 853 metres of vertical
with only 2.9 kilometres of pathway. In places, the trail that came
to be known as the Grouse Grind had a grade of more than 45 degrees,
steeper than your average fire escape.
It was meant
to be a training course for the pairs longer mountaineering
trips. They built it without permission or help, and at the intense
displeasure of the Greater Vancouver Regional District, which owned
the land. But word of the Grind spread, and it is now Canadas
most popular hiking trail. More than 100,000 people hike the Grind
every year, and Grouse Mountain Resorts (which collects $5 a shot
for hikers who ride the aerial tram back down the mountain) has
gone so far as to trademark the name.
is small potatoes compared to McPhersons latest trail Grail.
Arm slices through 18 kilometres of glacier-carved granite and rainforest
at Vancouvers edge. McPherson wants to carve a five-day, 80-kilometre
ocean-to-alpine wilderness circuit along the flanks of the narrow
fjord, starting and finishing a half hour from Granville and Howe.
It's an audacious plan that puts your average adventure hike to
shame. Just walking MacPhersons roller coaster route will
involve more mileage than the West
Coast Trail, and more combined elevation gain and descent than the
climb up and down the highest mountain in B.C. from sea level.
one thing. But before anyone can hike the Indian Arm trail, it has
to be wrenched from the protective bosom of a fiercely tangled rainforest.
AGAINST THE MOUNTAIN
the worlds great treks, from the Annapurna circuit to the
Appalachian Trail, have been built over decades by armies of strong
hands. They were promoted by presidents, philosophers and holy men.
They were, well, legalunlike the Indian Arm Trail.
All it has
years he has spent almost every snow-free weekend labouring on the
ridges that guard Indian Arm. For most of that time he has worked
aloneeven among Vancouvers hard core hiking set, few
can sustain his pace. At 58, McPherson is tougher than you will
ever be. But the terrain along the arm is wearing him down. The
moment McPhersons trails are blazed, the rainforest begins
to reclaim them with relentless vegetative creep and rot. Meanwhile,
some people simply dont want McPherson up Indian Arm at all,
from unyielding bureaucrats to members of the Tsleil-Waututh First
Nation, who claim the land as their traditional territory.
knows he is in a race to finish the trail before his years, the
forest or his powerful detractors catch up with him.
spectacular terrain. A succession of knobby summits and granite
buttresses bounce north from the ski lifts of Mount Seymour Park,
all the way to where Indian Arm ends in the grassy estuary of the
Indian River. The east side of the Arm is guarded by its own length
of forested ramparts and steep ridges that crest the valley like
breaking waves. There are lupine-speckled alpine meadows, waterfalls,
a constellation of hidden lakes and glades chock full of the wild
berries that attract blacktail deer, mountain goat and black bear.
Some slopes along the fjord were logged in the last century, but
Indian Arm remains a showcase of mid- and high-elevation old-growth
yet crosses the length of either side of the arm. This is a dangerous
place to hike, and getting lost is a constant risk for all but the
most experienced mountaineers. It is also hard country to build
in. Rocky ridges give way to impassable cliffs and canyons that
plunge hundreds of metres towards Indian Arm, particularly above
its western shores. Rangers in Mount Seymour Park warn hikers and
skiers to stay on those ridges if they lose their way, but the canyons
are notorious for swallowing unwary hikers.
creek gullies get steeper and more dangerous the farther down you
go. If you get sucked in there, it just might be the last trip you
make anywhere," says Jerry Brewer, a retired search-and-rescue
manager for Vancouvers North Shore Rescue. Brewer is not exaggerating.
Rescue teams have been called for over a hundred search and rescues
in the area behind Mount Seymour in the last 20 years. There have
been dozens of severe injuries and missing hikers, and at least
thing, drifted snow can linger in some gullies until August, transforming
them into perilous couloirs. Hikers start to slide on that snow
and just dont stop, like 18-year-old Phillip Gander, who skidded
more than 300 metres in 1996. He woke up after 19 days on life support.
Experienced hiker Debra White died on a similar slide in 1999. At
least her family knew what happened to her. Retiree Charlie Muso
wandered off alone here in 1982 and was never seen again. Then theres
Steven Ebbey, a young man who went for a solo hike behind Mount
Seymour in 1991. Ebbeys body was discovered in a creek gorge
near Indian Arm the next spring. Without a head.
the 1970s, an 86-year-old Norwegian immigrant named Halvor Lunden
got the notion of cutting a proper trail around Indian Arm. Lunden
has built dozens of popular routes on the Coast, and is a kind of
godfather to the indy trail-building scene. But Lunden never made
it much past Eagle Ridge on the southeast end of the Indian Arm
loop. There were never enough weekends. Nobody would help him, and
he had other trails to maintain. Lunden eventually passed the torch
on to his protégé, a City of Vancouver power engineer
named Don McPherson.
is much the same as I am. We work alone because we work twice as
hard as anyone else. We hike in early and come back late, and we
dont stop," says Lunden with a chuckle. "I admire
Don for taking this on, but its a much scarier job than anyone
thinks. Its tough, tough country."
B.C. Parks has never had the resources to put in a proper trail
all the way around the arm. But a couple of years ago, parks planners
encouraged McPherson to check out a route. They couldnt pay
him, but they gave him some maps and a slap on the back.
went for a reconnoiter. He walked alone along the height of land
from Mount Seymour to the Indian River. ("Good going over spring
snow," he recalls.) He scrambled across the bluffs that rise
from Indian Arms western shores. ("Wildly cliffy and
dangerous. Youd need to blast rock to get a trail along there.")
He tramped for weeks, and realized that the logged lower hillsides
along the fjord were so thick with rain-fed brambles that they were
impossible to climb through without an axe. So he started to carry
one. Route finding begot trail building, which begot, well, obsession.
has already hacked a route from the Indian River estuary up to the
crest of the 1,300 metre-high Fannin Range north of Seymour. Now
McPherson is working his way down the northeast end of the fjord.
By the time you read this, he may already have connected with Lundens
trails on Eagle Ridge.
I am the
first company McPherson has had on his trail in months, and after
pursuing him up the side of a steep, forested buttress he calls
Grand Ridge, I get an idea why.
one thing to make the four-hour trudge into base camp. But McPherson
doesnt let us stop there. He hands me an axe and, with packs
still full of gear, food, water and trail markers, we forge our
way up through the undergrowth. At times I cant move without
chopping. Thats when the black flies catch up with me: hundreds
of them scratching for blood behind my ears and dive bombing my
nostrils and the corners of my eyes. When they land in my mouth,
I swallow them out of spite.
doesnt swear at the bugs, or the cruel, grasping spines of
the devils club, or the heat of our July afternoon. He says
"Doggonnit," when he gets frustrated. He wont stop
working to gaze with you across Indian Arm to the snow-speckled
Fannin Range. He pauses only to wolf down a tuna sandwich. Fuel.
Then hes swinging his axe again, steam rising off his sweat-soaked
shirt as he pushes on up into the old growth, where the roots of
the mountain hemlocks cling to massive boulders like starfish to
shells. He works until the sky turns pink and the valley below melts
into a lake of deep purple shadows, and then he falls into his tent
and sleeps without conversation.
In the white
glow just before dawn, the mosquitoes lift from McPhersons
forehead and, plump with blood, spiral slowly to the tent ceiling.
has spent hundreds on nights in a tent like this one. He was born
in 1943 in Yerrington, Nevada, the son of a prospector. When the
boy was in his early teens, his father took down the family clothesline
and tossed it in a backpack. They used it as a safety rope on their
first climb together, up a 4,500 metre peak in Californias
San Gabriel Mountains. It gave McPherson a taste for adventure.
He wandered north, logging, building homes and climbing mountains,
until he found Vancouver.
McPherson was one of the West Coasts great rock climbers,
establishing new routes up stone faces in Squamish and in Washington
State. His signature piece follows 300 metres of sometimes-overhanging
cracks and chimneys up Liberty Bell, a granite monolith in the north
Cascades. Climbers now consider it one of the most aesthetically
pleasing rock climbs in North America. "Liberty Crack"
is so popular that on summer weekends, parties wait in line for
their turn on the rock. You could say its the Grouse Grind
of rock climbs.
you are charting a course up a rock face or through the forest,
route finding is a creative act, a fusion of physics, troubleshooting
and aesthetics, says Grind co-builder Phil Severy. And McPherson,
he says, is a master of that art: "Dons trail engineering
is magic. Watch him. Hes always looking at the vegetation,
the soil mass, the possibilities and everything you need to consider
to go up a steep hill without degrading it. When Don puts a rock
in a trail, that rock is going to be there in 50 years time.
he is always thinking of the hiker. Fifty miles into the backcountry
hell drop a tree across a creek, flatten it and pound chicken
wire into the surface, just so you dont fall and break your
nuts, or mess up your hike by cracking your head open."
anything, a McPherson trail is defined by its unwavering efficiency,
says Severy: "There are no flat spots. Don absolutely eliminates
is a reflection of its builders character. The old trails
on Grouse, the ones that dip and wander, always annoyed him, McPherson
tells me as he pounds a foothold into a steep bank with the blunt
end of his axe. "When the going is tough, I dont like
to fool around with a lot of switchbacks. I like to get up that
hill as fast as I can. After all, were here for exercise,
have to think of your hikers. You have to build a trail that people
want to follow, or that trail will die. McPhersons steep and
mean approach was a formula for success over on the Grind, where
people came looking for a good workout. But the Grouse Grind strung
together a dozen times or more? McPherson admits his Indian Arm
route is not the walk in the park that some planners envisioned.
Parks] thinks this is going to be a nice stroll and attract casual
hikers like the West Coast Trail. It wont. You can run that
trail in 11 hours," he says. "Nobody is going to run this
one in 11 hours. If you straightened out every wiggle and bend,
a person will raise his foot and put it down over about 50 miles
of dirt. But with all the rise and fall, I figure doing my trail
will give the same vertical challenge as climbing from sea level
to the top of Rainier and back. This is for your adventurous sort,
people who want a challenge. There might even be a race here someday."
McPherson is into feats of personal endurance, and likes to rattle
off adventure anecdotes. Like the one about the guy who ran all
the way around Mount Rainier in 30 hours. Or the "young fellow"
(Derek Reed) who ran up the Grouse Grind in 27 minutes and 19 seconds
in 1997. Then theres Harvey Nelsen, who at 67 years old charged
up the Grind 50 times in one week last year.
the tough hikers come, if they tell their friends and they come
too, the trail will take on a life of its own. Then, perhaps, BC
Parks might adopt it, put a little money into it, shore it up, put
it on the map, says McPherson. If people dont come, if they
dont wear it in, the trail will simply fade away again, consumed
by the roots and brambles and incessant growth of the rainforest,
a fate shared by countless other trails in the Coast Range.
the Indian Arm trail is already out. Some in the local hiking community
are talking about passing around the hat to help McPherson out with
supplies. Grouse Mountain Resorts offered to fly McPherson by helicopter
into the most remote portions of his route, free of charge. ("Its
the least we could do," says resort president Stuart McLaughlin,
who estimates that he now pulls in about $500,000 every year from
the word out isnt always such a good idea in B.C., where trail
building has long been considered a political act. It has been one
of environmentalists key weapons in the fight against logging.
Over the last 20 years, the Western Canada Wilderness Committee
and other environmental groups have pushed trails into contentious
valleys on both sides of the Coast Range. Get the city folk into
the forest and you create a whole new front in the battle for preservation,
goes the reasoning. Back in 1992, just a few hills east of McPhersons
trail, the eco-activists marked a route from the Mamquam Valley
east of Squamish, clear through to Coquitlam. They succeeded in
getting the area protected as parkland in 1995, just as they had
already done with the Stein, Carmanah and Walbran valleys.
province introduced what some hikers have dubbed the "kill
the WCWC" law. Section 102 of 1995s Forest Practices
Code made it illegal to build or improve trails on Crown land without
permission of the Ministry of Forests.
the spread of illegal mountain-bike trails into Vancouvers
North Shore has raised provincial park managers hackles about
unauthorized trail building. And much of the terrain along Indian
Arm was declared part of a new, 6,800 hectare park in 1995. Under
the Park Act, the fine for illegal trail building can be as high
as $1,000,000 per offence, with a year in jail to drive the point
thing. The provincial government opened Indian Arm park without
permission from the Tsleil-Waututh First Nation (or Burrard Indian
Band), which claims much of the land as traditional territory. The
North Vancouver-based band was pretty upset about not being consulted
about the park. Instead of suing, the Tsleil-Waututh signed a park
co-management agreement with the province. Band councillor Justin
George says a loop trail around Indian Arm is part of the Tsleil-Wautuths
eco-tourism development strategy. Elders would love to get band
youth working on such a trail, and the band has already applied
several times for provincial grant money, unsuccessfully. Nothing
should happen along Indian Arm without band permission, says George.
Especially not trail building.
liability. In January, 1999, six hikers were caught in a snow slide
on the Grouse Grind. Twenty-five-year-old Rory Manning was killed
in the avalanche, and his family sued the GVRD, RCMP and other agencies
for wrongful death. The case, which has yet to go to court, continues
to remind land managers that they are at least partially responsible
for the safety of hikers.
three women went for an afternoon hike in Mount Seymour Park. They
told a friend not to worry about them until sundown. Midnight came
with no word from the women, so North Shore Rescue sent out a search
party and helicopter. They found the women eating breakfast in a
shelter at Elsay Lake, eight kilometres into the bush. Turns out
they had hooked onto a new trail which took them north along Indian
Arm rather than back to their car. A BCTV news report blamed their
"harrowing" experience on the illegal trail they had followed.
the guys at North Shore Rescue to the members of mountain-club trail
committees to BC Parks staffsays they know who built that
trail, with its steep, McPhersonesque grades. Nobodys saying
who it is, but some are talking about shutting the rogue trail builder
down. "Well be dealing with it in an enforcement manner,"
says B.C. Parks Vancouver area supervisor Larry Syroishko.
soon B.C. Parks will sit down with the Tsleil-Waututh, the District
of North Vancouver, private landowners and the Ministry of Forests,
and start negotiating a master plan for Indian Arm Park. The plan
could take months, or years, to complete. In the end, they may all
simply decide to upgrade a trail that people are already using,
that some lone maverick may have carved around the fjord on his
Scotch mist settles in on McPherson as he chops his way through
widening glades of mountain blueberry on Grand Ridge. The bugs are
swarming something awful, buzzing around his head by the hundreds
in the close air. The crest of Grand Ridge is just over the next
rise, McPherson says hopefully. But hes not using a map or
compass, and that ridge crest has been "just over the rise"
for hours. He cant see where hes headed in the mist.
The world is reduced to a green-gray dream of thick blueberry bushes
and knarled hemlock. He stops to hammer extra tin trail markers
on the uphill side of tree trunks.
folks who are hiking back down are tired, and probably out of water.
You want to get them out safely," he says, as though he can
see them now, a procession of tired wanderers stepping down through
a curtain of mist.
isnt much of a talker. He doesnt have time for consultation
committees, public process or paperwork. He isnt building
trails to stop logging, and says he doesnt stop to think about
liability lawsuits or trail-building fines. His motivation is simple.
just hope somebody will follow you, somebody will come and use your
trail," McPherson says, wiping the dust and sweat off his brow.
"If they dont, I know this will all just fade back into
the forest." He pushes on, as though the rules and the years
and the relentless forest wont simply close in and swallow
his work the minute he stashes his tools and trudges down out of