Written by Dmitri Oguz
Marcin – The giddy instigator
Me(Dmitri) – The clueless optimist
During a conversation about multi-modal trips that took place sometime in the spring, Marcin brought up Churchill for the first time. At that point I haven’t even heard of it, and found the idea daunting, since it’s 2 vertical kms gained from sea level, through steep terrain of undetermined bushiness. At first I figured it sounds like excessive suffering, but the idea took hold. Eventually, after locating a suitable spot to camp before the summit push, we decided it’s a go. Phil agreed to join our silly adventure, if largely to remind himself why he rarely participates in such nonsense.
Beta on the approach was scarce, as it is a peak rarely climbed these days. Passability of the terrain could have varied a lot from the accounts of 8+ years ago as the bushes grow quickly, and most of the info found was old. I’ve been bushwhacking before on a couple occasions, and haven’t thought of it as too much of an obstacle. I figured it’ll be slow and mildly annoying, but we had to cover less than 2 kms from where we hoped the logging road takes us, to the upper lake. I did not foresee bushwhacking being detrimental.
The Time Factor-
Original plan called for an arrival at Egmont on the night before to get on the water early in the morning. That got switched to an arrival early in the morning as there was a party Marcin wanted to attend. Between ferry, being stuck behind an infuriatingly slow camper truck the whole way(who refused to use any of the pullouts!) and boat faff, we launched around 11:45AM. The paddle was very straight forward, except for the incident where during lunch break, I left my boat partially floating with the rear hatch open, and a wake from a passing boat dumped probably a liter of water inside-all was fine except my bagels ended up soggy, and therefore both less delicious and heavier. Without further incident, we arrived at Vancouver Bay, landed, unloaded boats and changed. With the towering Marlborough heights rising straight out of the ocean on the left, Churchill straight ahead up the valley, and several other mountains in the area, Vancouver Bay is an impressive place. We took in the views, checked out the route through binoculars and at 5pm set off on the logging road. Soon we learned that the logging road layout in Marcin’s Google Earth printout was generally correct,while mine from peakery.com had little resemblance to reality, despite pretending to be an actual map.
We slogged up the road under the sun that was still pretty toasty, and after a while reached the end of the active road. After crossing a bridge over a lovely little waterfall, we were onto the slightly overgrown section with some flagging. Before too long, we reached the end of that and got into prickly bush. We got through slowly but surely thanks to Phil’s trail breaking skills, while I started doubting the success of the mission and what we were getting into. We broke out of the bush and into the main creek, where a break and reassessment took place. Direction of travel was still right, but progress was beginning to get prohibitively slow. Despite the short distance left to the lake, we figured we’d be lucky to arrive by 12-1am, something I was not thrilled about, but returning to logging road to camp would for sure lead to failure, and there likely was nowhere to camp between logging road and the lake.
After reaching the creek coming out of ‘our’ lake, decision was made to go up the creek itself rather than bushwhack through the forest as it seemed easier. It seemed a good idea at the time with all of us looking for path of least resistance. After maybe 200 meters, the creek turned into a beautiful high-walled canyon, which in turn was blocked off by a massive boulder atop a waterfall. At that point it was pushing 8:30pm and again, we decided to move forward by path of least resistance and climb out to the left. That was the last in a series of factors that compounded to rule out any chance of summiting the next day. Terrain pushed us to the left, away from the creek and the mountain and then we eventually came across a logging road. Which I suspected to be the same logging road we were on before, but wasn’t sure. We marched up that for a bit until we found a nice-ish clearing and stopped to set up camp. After dinner we decided that we stand zero chance to summit Churchill, and the road we were on was pointing towards what we called “Peak X”, a nameless peak to the right of Marlborough Group, and beside the large Marlborough Lake. The Consolation Prize-
Next morning we got up with the objective realistically reduced to reaching Marlborough Lake, but we took enough gear that if we had a good shot at Peak X, we could try it. After about 30 mins of traveling through, and around, the overgrown road, we reached it’s end next to a creek and stopped for water. There we decided to cross and bushwhack uphill on the left side, rather than go up the creek and waterfalls, which didn’t look great to Marcin and me. What followed was probably the slowest progress I can remember on any trip,ever. We took turns beating our way through dense prickly bush uphill and on side slope for a couple hours, covering very little ground. At one point we decided the lake simply isn’t worth it as bushes were not getting better and terrain getting worse. As a little consolation prize, we agreed to go down the small dry drainage to the beautiful waterfall and take some photos. Arriving at the waterfall, we found it to be not only nice to look at, but also very pleasant to scramble. I thought I’ll scout ahead without a pack and then had to come back for it as Phil and Marcin passed me and slowly moved towards the lake while eating all the delicious berries they could. The saving grace of that section was definitely the berries- they were everywhere and they were fantastic. Soon I caught up to them and after a short distance up the stream we finally reached the lake.
The lake was beautiful. Flanked by Peak X on the left and multiple lesser peaks around, it made the bushwhacking seem somehow worth it. The ramps of Peak X that I considered climbing during the planning stages turned out impressive looking, but not feasible to climb. After swimming, drying, snacking and taking a bunch of pics, we headed back. We found a way down through the forest on the other side of the creek, which was a breeze compared to trying to go back the way we came. The Return-
We decided that rather than camping on the road one more night, we’ll pack and paddle back at night. Return to the boats was straight forward and all was where we left it. By 8pm or so, boats were packed and we were on the way. We said goodbye to Vancouver Bay and Mt Churchill that still taunted us like God’s own middle finger. The trip back was picture-perfect, with the impressive mountain ranges silhouetted against the sunset, layer upon layer. About half-way through the paddle it got dark and for a couple hours we paddle under the moon, with bioluminesense lighting up our paddle strokes. My previously melted chocolate has returned to a state close enough to solid and was consumed immediately thereafter. Part way through crossing one of the bays, Marcin had his first ever experience of using a pee bottle in a kayak, and it was glorious, or so I hear. Sometime around midnight we returned to the boat launch at Egmont and camped there.
A few lessons were learned about allowing enough time for each part of the trip, and how slow bad bushwhacking really is. Also, I swore that if I EVER do this again, I’ll get a machete.
I now own a machete.