I first learned about the Lavina Fire Lookout from watching a video someone had posted on an adventure blog highlighting his families’ jeep adventures. The film featured many of my favourite overlanding activities: Easy touring, some gnarly wheeling, amazing views and beautiful camping. Immediately after seeing that video, getting my truck up to the Lavina Fire Lookout became a must-do on my short list.
The lookout sits atop Mt. Lavina in the Kootenay region of British Columbia, Canada, perched approximately 1400 metres above the Southeast corner of Duncan Lake. After locating it in my map book, I realized this was going to be a multi-day adventure with lots of off-road touring just to get to Glacier Creek Regional Campsite that sits below Mt. Lavina on the shore of Duncan Lake. I would use Glacier Creek as my home base while attempting to get my Tacoma up the trail to the abandoned firetower.
As per my usual M.O. I left Banff and headed for Vermilion Pass, following highway 93 South onto Settlers Road. After jumping onto the Ravenshead FSR, I crusied the dirt track over texas gates, past cows and cut blocks. From the Ravenshead I merged onto the Kootenay FSR and into Canal Flats, BC for a refuel. After a break in Canal Flats I found myself resigned to the pavement for a quick jaunt into the Bavarian town of Kimberley, where access to the Gray Creek Pass was a short drive away.
As always, the approach to the pass was fun and pleasant, although the skies were grey and rainy. When it comes to the sleeping compartment in my truck, it can be viewed in two different ways. If you look at it as a camper, well then, it’s small, cramped and somewhat inadequate. Or you can see it the way I see it, as a tent, an awesome tent; one that never needs to be set-up because it is always set-up. It’s totally wind and waterproof with lights, a fan for circulation, power for charging devices, running a laptop, or anything else that may need to be powered. A really comfortable mattress and a huge sleeping bag round out its camping features. So the thought of pulling up to Glacier Creek under dark rainy skies didn’t bother me much, although the weather was on my mind.
For anyone familiar with the Sulphur Mountain Gondola in Banff National Park, there is a bit of an unwritten rule. If you can’t see the top from the bottom, don’t go! It’s simply not worth the time and money to take the gondola up and stare at the inside of a cloud. Knowing this, I would apply the same logic to the Lavina Fire Lookout. Now don’t get me wrong, I am very aware that driving a modified overlanding rig, up a trail like the Mt. Lavina track isn’t the same as taking a sightseeing gondola. In this comparison, the trip up the trail should hold just as much, if not more clout than the view up top, but I had a few good reasons.
First, the trail was unknown to me except for what I had seen on a home video shot under clear sunny skies. I really didn’t know what I was about to ascend and it seemed to be challenging enough in dry conditions. Second, I was alone, no other rigs, no one riding shotgun. Finally, my right foot was still healing from a hiking injury sustained on Mt. Loki back in May. Getting out to perform a recovery on a muddy slope with a swore swollen foot was something to be avoided if possible. Playing it extra safe seemed to be a running theme throughout my 2016 overlanding season, but to be honest, I was pretty darn lucky just to be out there so recently after such an injury.
When I woke the following morning at Glacier Creek the rain was falling, the valley was socked-in and ascent attempt number one was off; logic often rules the big picture. Also, I can be pretty good at finding Plan B. I decided to stay tucked under the covers till the calling of a coffee was louder than my body’s screams to stay cocooned in my ridiculously awesome “tent”. Finally, with caffeine calling I emerged to jump into a pair of fleece lined boots and my puffy coat. I made a hot breakfast, an even hotter coffee, and hit the road toward Trout Lake, BC.
If I was lucky I might see my buddy, G, who works on the Shelter Bay Ferry. After driving on the strip of land that separates the South end of Duncan Lake from the North end of Kootenay Lake, I started heading north up Highway 31 towards Trout Lake. Shortly after turning onto Highway 31 a small gas bar and general store drew my gaze. I wasn’t really sure what is was that made me slow down and check out that old store. Maybe it was just how old everything looked; the old gas pump and rickety bench just caught my eye. But it wouldn’t be until my next attempt at getting up to the Lavina Fire Lookout that I would figure out what was calling me from that “frozen in time” general store.
Fast forward a few weeks and push those rainy skies out of the picture and I would find myself pulling into Glacier Creek campsite once again. My route had been the same as last time and it was dark when I found a lakeside campsite. After parking, I made my all time favourite meal of mac’n cheese and hit the hay. I woke to bright sunshine piercing through the window of my truck, a stark contrast to the last time I was at Glacier Creek. Although I was still alone, the dry trail conditions and a healthier foot green-lit my advancement to the Mt. Lavina trail-head.
A few hundred metres after turning onto the Lavina FSR, I was greeted by the trail-head and a few crudely written warnings in black magic marker. Alerts such as “work in progress – use caution”, “4wd vehicles beyond this point”, “sharp drop-offs” and the most imposing “4LO, loose rock, narrow, short wheel base” signified the impending track ahead. In a subtle way, all these warnings were telling me that the trail was better suited to ATV’s, dirt bikes and Jeeps, not pick-up trucks. Although the trail was dry, the sun was shining and my foot was in much better shape than the last time I was here, my nerves were still on fire. Now, for anyone who read my post entitled “oh snap!”, these current feelings of nerves were not the same as the instinctual warnings I chose to ignore the day I was injured on Mt. Loki. Rather they were just butterflies in my stomach, a natural reaction to driving into the unknown. A feeling that I sure am glad nature and evolution installed in us to keep us alert and on our toes when faced with difficult and trying situations. Using both excitement and an understanding of my nerves I proceeded up the trail, alone.
With a few switchbacks under my belt, the butterflies in my stomach eased their flutter and I settled into the climb. I remember it being much like the climb up to the Mt. Loki trail-head, after all, they were close to each other and the emerging view through the trees was quite similar. I even recall thinking ‘this is easy’. But as quickly as I had that thought, another sign popped into view and the track got tight, real tight. This sign warned of “deactivated road – irregular hazardous surface ahead – drive with extreme caution”. All of a sudden I was back at full alert, making myself aware of as much of my surroundings as possible. I knew this was a trail that would require 100% of my attention, 100% of the time. As nerve-racking as it can be, I really love the feeling of climbing up a ridiculously steep road; when the truck is at such an angle that you can feel your bodyweight falling backward into your seat, rather than the common feeling of sitting on your bum. What a rush!
The trail continued this way for quite some time. Not that the track was overly long, but I was crawling. Maybe maxing out at 10km/h at the very most. The water bars being so deep that I was very glad to have the incredible approach and departure angles afforded to me by my locally made-to-order front and rear bumpers. On the ascent to the ridge that would take me across Mt. Lavina to the lookout, I only had to exit my truck once to clear some low-hanging dead fall which blocked passage to the other side. I pushed my way around big stumps, under deadfall, toward the tree-line and into the sub-alpine, finally emerging onto a ridge that traded a technical ascent for views that share a beauty only the Kootenays can deliver. With my nerves once again in check, I smiled at the tiny sign that told me I was 3 km from the fire lookout. I paused along the way to take photos and soak it all in.
As the firetower came into view I saw a rather large, crudely-made warning sign stating that passage beyond that point was reserved for ATV’s only. My gut told me this wasn’t the end of the road for me and my truck, but logic told me to get out and walk a bit to see what was ahead. Sure enough the last three switchbacks were too tight for my Tacoma, allowing only short wheelbase Jeeps, ATV’s and dirt bikes to advance to the tower. But as quickly as a prankster could say “gotcha”, I had a plan. I instantly remembered a trip I had taken many years ago to Takakkaw Falls in Yoho National Park. The final approach to the falls involves a few tight switchbacks on the road that are just fine for average sized vehicles but far too tight for tour buses. At some point, one clever driver figured out that a bus could avoid the tight turns of the switchback simply by reversing the bus up the next segment of the switch rather than trying (and failing) to make the turn. I would apply this method to the last couple of switchbacks on the Mt. Lavina trail and get my rig up to the firetower. I walked the entire section of the track that would require me to drive in reverse, checking for any obstacles that could lead to disaster. After a satisfactory inspection of the area I hopped into my truck and proceeded forward, then backward and forward once again to gain the summit of Mt. Lavina and the abandoned fire lookout. (both phew! and wahoo!)
The view from the top is beyond words and photos hardly do it justice. It’s a view that inspires awe and instills a feeling of calm and peace. The recently installed park bench looking south over Kootenay Lake, with its memorial plaque and the fact that the trail is maintained by a Provincial four-wheel-drive association are indicative that others have a similar sentiment. After taking in the view, and checking out the old generator shack, complete with some forgotten building supplies and a dismantled yagi antenna, I approached the abandoned tower. The bottom level was much like the generator shack, housing some old fixtures and maintenance supplies. I ascended the exterior staircase to the wrap-around balcony and peered inside. The hospital green walls and rusted-out bed frame made me think I was a paranormal investigator stepping foot into an old haunted asylum. But one look out the panoramic windows which run 360 degrees around the upper level quickly extinguished the creep factor and I could imagine what a place this must have been to spend a summer. Opening the visitor log revealed both recent and not so recent guests. Rifling through the pages to see if I could spot the oldest possible date, I found a page of looseleaf dating back to 1980. This page allowed me to peer back to before I was even born; I was stepping back in time. With the unmistakable beauty of the Kootenays as far as the eye could see, an amazing and challenging ascent and written memories from 36 years ago I felt lucky to have had this experience. I felt privileged.
After a satisfactory sit-down on the park bench, I headed back to my truck for the descent. Slowly but surely was my theme for the drive down. I reversed my truck down the section of switches that were too tight for my Tacoma to turn into, which made me grateful for my experience so many years ago at Takakkaw Falls. I followed the ridge back to where the main descent begins, put my truck in first-gear-low and let my rig run me back down Mt. Lavina to my lakeside campsite at Glacier Creek. Upon my return to camp I made a meal, went swimming in Duncan Lake, watched the sunset and the stars emerge. As my small campfire began to fade, so did I; I was one tired kid. I retreated to bed, thankful for having had such an awesome day!
The next morning I woke early and hit the road north towards Trout Lake. Not long after turning onto Highway 31 I spotted that old general store once again. This time I was in-need of a coffee refill, and the two gents sitting on the bench out front with coffees in-hand told me I was in the right spot. I excited my truck with coffee mug in hand. One of the men on the bench knew exactly why I was there and before I could even get in a ‘good morning’ the man rose to his feet and told me he’d put on a fresh pot and hot brew was just a few minutes away. I thanked the proprietor and walked inside with him, feeling kind of bad for interrupting his morning coffee with his friend. After walking inside, I started to inspect the shelves of the general store. There were your standard food items, your not so standard Elvis Presley wall-art and other unique items that one might find in a rural general store. Then I turned a corner and saw it sitting there, alone, with a small note on it saying. “Please ask to play”. An upright piano was taking up some floor space where another shelf of merchandise could be. I walked over to the store owner who had been making the coffee and interrupted him once again to ask him if I could play the piano. As I approached to ask, I thought for sure this guy would be a bit miffed at me for first, interrupting his morning cup of joe, then again to ask I could make some noise on the store piano. But to my surprise, after I asked if I could play, he looked up at me with a giant grin on his face and said, “Yes please!” The look on his face said it all; he was happy to have someone play the piano. And for me, well I was super stoked to have a piano to play. I sat down and hit the keys, not playing anything in particular, just jamming out a c-major special. As I played the room filled with morning song and the smile on the owner’s face was sustained like the notes ringing through that tiny general store. A few seconds later the proprietor’s wife came over and said, “You just made my Mom very happy, this was her piano and you made her happy by playing it.” I didn’t know what to say, so I thanked the couple for letting me play. I could immediately tell that I was welcomed in their shop and I hadn’t been an interruption to their day, I had helped to put smiles on their faces just as much as they put one on mine. Even though I couldn’t see the piano from the roadside, I felt like it called me into the shop, not for any other reason than to allow a few strangers to pass happy grins and make better an already great day.
By Alex Bodogan