The Hills are Alive with the Smell of … Campfire!?

An overnight hiking trip to Elsay Lake, in the Seymour backcountry, during forest fire season

We had made plans, and I’d be damned if I was going to break them. As a Vancouver hiker, you have to be pretty flexible when it comes to trails, as, even in the middle of summer, a torrential downpour can force a change of plans. But this was different. The forecast said 28 degrees, and I could see how hard the sun was trying to shine down on us, but despite the celestial effort, wildfire smoke from record-breaking fires in Washington and Oregon had blanketed our lovely mountain city and cast us into a smokey-gray wasteland of vague silhouettes.

It’s sort of artistic in a gross, ashy kind of way…

Heavy rain was one thing, but smoke? Optimistically, we rationalized that this weekend’s trip – an overnight hike to Elsay Lake, behind Mt Seymour in Vancouver’s North Shore – might allow us a glimpse of clearer skies. “The mountains have their own micro-climate,” we argued, and “maybe it will be clearer at a higher elevation.” We were sounding boards as we talked each other into it.

The day began, for me anyway, at 6 am. With the new day-pass system implemented by BC Parks since the onslaught of Covid-19, one of us had to wake up at the dot of 6 to obtain park passes for the group. While I’ve heard many reports of sold out passes at 6 am for popular parks, I was able to secure the 4 passes I needed. This time anyway.

We met in the early afternoon in the hazy lot of Mt Seymour Ski Resort. It was quiet, which was to be expected for such a day, and with restricted use via the pass system. Our passes were actually checked at the trailhead at least, which left my early morning chore feeling somewhat justified.

While Elsay Peak is a trail I’ve done before – beautiful, varied, and surprisingly long – Elsay Lake was a new one for me. The lake lies well behind Seymour. To reach it, an established trail branches off to the right from Seymour before the first peak (it’s marked with a signpost). This trail takes you downhill for pretty much the entire 7.5 km trek to the lake (8 km to the campsite), flanking Seymour, Runner, and Elsay on the east. Steep descents, gentle rolling forest walks, and ominous boulder fields await you on the journey, making for an interesting and quite lovely hike. And the net decrease in elevation made us quite happy on day one with our heavy packs, but a little nervous for day two’s ascent!

So green!

Perhaps unsurprisingly, the smoke never cleared. As we ascended the Seymour trail, we could smell burning wood, and, honestly, I tried to relish the smell of campfire and not think about my lungs. I didn’t notice any deterioration in my cardiac ability however; I like to think that the heavy exercise was a net gain over the detrimental effects of inhaling that smoke, but perhaps that’s naive! As we descended the Elsay trail to the lake, the smoke seemed to clear a tiny bit, and the smell decreased. It certainly wasn’t clear, but that didn’t prevent us from remarking on the moody, mysterious, and beautiful scenery.

Some clear creeks as you approach the lake.

We reached the far side of Elsay Lake – the camping area, complete with emergency shelter – in about four hours from the Seymour parking lot. I was eager to explore the hut, as backcountry huts always contain a hilarious and fascinating assortment of objects. We laughed over some entries in the guestbook, tried to decipher graffiti on the windows, debated whether a pool floaty left behind was sea-worthy, and explored the sleeping loft like children playing on bunk-beds. A jaunt around the shelter revealed a number of other features: plenty of cleared, flat spots for tents, prime lakeside access, an outhouse (not disgusting either), and some winding trails. In the distance, tall and smokey, Elsay peak loomed over us, and I remembered the October day years ago when we had climbed it and looked down cautiously over the knife-sharp edge towards this round, blue lake.

Elsay Lake, with Mt Elsay looming in the background.
Filtering water at the campsite.

We spent a pleasant night doing what hikers do best – talking and whiskey. An early bedtime and fantastic sleep left us refreshed and ready to tackle the trail the next morning.

There was no break in the smoke as we shouldered our bags and headed home, but the stoke was still high, and we made short work of the steep trail. After a solid warm up on semi-flat terrain, passing cool streams and a few bogs, we hit the hills in earnest. The final push up the shoulder of Seymour to gain the main trail at 1325 m was tough, but, collapsing on a rock for a snack break at the Elsay/Seymour junction, we commiserated over our sore legs while declaring that we also felt fantastic. I’m a firm believer in the amazing psychological lift of some solid cardio.

Crossing one of the many talus and boulder fields as we head back to Seymour.

As it always does, the last few kilometers down the Seymour trail felt long, but we hit the parking lot in good time. In total, day two was about the same time as day one: four hours. We felt proud at our ability to knock off a good climb. The day ended as it usually does for me after a hike: burger, beer, hot bath, and couch. I’m a creature of habit I guess, but I was very glad that I took a chance this time on smokey skies. It was a reminder that, views aside, what I love most about the mountains is that incredible spiritual lift of nature, cardio, and good friends.

Pretty pink alpine flowers.

In total, the trail to Elsay Lake is about 20 km round trip, and very roughly about 1200 m of cumulative elevation gain (to the lake: about a 300 m climb on the Seymour trail to the high point at 1325 m, then mostly downhill (but small ups too); from the lake at 740 m: a 600 m climb back up to the high point, plus more ups and downs). Note the elevation scale on the map.

This trail could be completed as a day hike (allow 8-10 hours), or an overnight (allow 4-6 hours each way). As the campsite was lovely and there are some prime swimming opportunities at the lake, I’d definitely recommend camping.

Did the smoke keep you inside, or did you brave the air and get out to explore? Let me know in the comments below!

4 thoughts on “The Hills are Alive with the Smell of … Campfire!?

  1. carolinehelbig says:

    I agree that mountain hiking has many benefits beyond just the views. I felt that way late last week hiking/camping in Manning with a friend. It was quite hazy due to smoke (though not nearly as bad as earlier in September), but it was still a wonderful immersion in nature, especially with the fall foliage.


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