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The Blazer

Don McPherson doesn’t 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.”

An inhaled sandwich and McPherson is off again through the tangled second-growth forest above Indian Arm. He doesn’t 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, it’s time to get to work. He raises his axe and begins to hack a tunnel through the otherwise-impenetrable chaos of salmonberry, spiny-devil’s club and house-high firs. His route doesn’t 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 morning breeze.

Straight up. That’s Don McPherson’s trademark when it comes to building trails. It’s 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 pair’s 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 Canada’s 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.

The Grind is small potatoes compared to McPherson’s latest trail Grail.

Indian Arm slices through 18 kilometres of glacier-carved granite and rainforest at Vancouver’s 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 MacPherson’s 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.

That’s 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.

ALONE AGAINST THE MOUNTAIN

All the world’s 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, legal–unlike the Indian Arm Trail.

All it has is McPherson.

For two 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 alone–even among Vancouver’s 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 McPherson’s trails are blazed, the rainforest begins to reclaim them with relentless vegetative creep and rot. Meanwhile, some people simply don’t 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.

McPherson knows he is in a race to finish the trail before his years, the forest or his powerful detractors catch up with him.

This is 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 rainforest.

No trail 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.

“Those 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 Vancouver’s 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 six fatalities.

For one thing, drifted snow can linger in some gullies until August, transforming them into perilous couloirs. Hikers start to slide on that snow and just don’t 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 there’s Steven Ebbey, a young man who went for a solo hike behind Mount Seymour in 1991. Ebbey’s body was discovered in a creek gorge near Indian Arm the next spring. Without a head.

Back in 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.

“Don 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 don’t stop,” says Lunden with a chuckle. “I admire Don for taking this on, but it’s a much scarier job than anyone thinks. It’s tough, tough country.”

Cash-strapped 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 couldn’t pay him, but they gave him some maps and a slap on the back.

McPherson 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 Arm’s western shores. (“Wildly cliffy and dangerous. You’d 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.

He 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 Lunden’s trails on Eagle Ridge.

TRAIL AS METAPHOR

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.

It’s one thing to make the four-hour trudge into base camp. But McPherson doesn’t 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 can’t move without chopping. That’s 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.

McPherson doesn’t swear at the bugs, or the cruel, grasping spines of the devil’s club, or the heat of our July afternoon. He says “Doggonnit,” when he gets frustrated. He won’t 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 he’s 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 McPherson’s forehead and, plump with blood, spiral slowly to the tent ceiling.

McPherson 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 California’s San Gabriel Mountains. It gave McPherson a taste for adventure. He wandered north, logging, building homes and climbing mountains, until he found Vancouver.

By 1965 McPherson was one of the West Coast’s 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 it’s the Grouse Grind of rock climbs.

Whether 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: “Don’s trail engineering is magic. Watch him. He’s 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.

“And he is always thinking of the hiker. Fifty miles into the backcountry he’ll drop a tree across a creek, flatten it and pound chicken wire into the surface, just so you don’t fall and break your nuts, or mess up your hike by cracking your head open.”

More than anything, a McPherson trail is defined by its unwavering efficiency, says Severy: “There are no flat spots. Don absolutely eliminates waste motion.”

Every trail is a reflection of its builder’s 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 don’t like to fool around with a lot of switchbacks. I like to get up that hill as fast as I can. After all, we’re here for exercise, aren’t we?”

But you have to think of your hikers. You have to build a trail that people want to follow, or that trail will die. McPherson’s 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.

“[BC Parks] thinks this is going to be a nice stroll and attract casual hikers like the West Coast Trail. It won’t. 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.”

A race. 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 there’s Harvey Nelsen, who at 67 years old charged up the Grind 50 times in one week last year.

If 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 don’t come, if they don’t 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 MOUNTAIN GROWS

Word on 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. (“It’s the least we could do,” says resort president Stuart McLaughlin, who estimates that he now pulls in about $500,000 every year from Grind hikers.)

But getting the word out isn’t always such a good idea in B.C., where trail building has long been considered a political act. It has been one of the 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 McPherson’s 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.

Then the province introduced what some hikers have dubbed the “kill the WCWC” law. Section 102 of 1995’s Forest Practices Code made it illegal to build or improve trails on Crown land without permission of the Ministry of Forests.

Meanwhile, the spread of illegal mountain-bike trails into Vancouver’s 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 home.

Another 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-Waututh’s 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.

Then there’s 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.

In July, 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.

Everyone–from the guys at North Shore Rescue to the members of mountain-club trail committees to BC Parks staff–says they know who built that trail, with its steep, McPhersonesque grades. Nobody’s saying who it is, but some are talking about shutting the rogue trail builder down. “We’ll be dealing with it in an enforcement manner,” says B.C. Parks Vancouver area supervisor Larry Syroishko.

Sometime 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 weekends.

A thick, 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 he’s not using a map or compass, and that ridge crest has been “just over the rise” for hours. He can’t see where he’s 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.

“These 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.

McPherson isn’t much of a talker. He doesn’t have time for consultation committees, public process or paperwork. He isn’t building trails to stop logging, and says he doesn’t stop to think about liability lawsuits or trail-building fines. His motivation is simple.

“You 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 don’t, 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 won’t simply close in and swallow his work the minute he stashes his tools and trudges down out of the clouds.