Snow Cave at Century Sam Lake

I’m an hour and a half into a 2 hour ascent to Century Sam Lake near the Comox Glacier.

A bead of sweat runs off my forehead and down my nose. I’m doubled over leaning on my hiking poles. My heart is hammering and my lungs are wheezing like an old vacuum. I’m thinking “Holy Crap, this is a steep hike”. I check my GPS, more to give myself a few more seconds rest than anything, but it’s given up the ghost claiming ‘no satellite reception’. Looking around at the steep and towering mountains surrounding me I guess I’m not surprised it can’t get a signal.

Glancing up the trail I see the smiling face of my dog, Chase. He loves this sort of thing and seems to draw a special smug satisfaction in staring down on me from up the trail silently saying “come on….lets go…what’s the hold up?” Ya, ya, ya…I’m coming. If I had his power to weight ratio, 4 wheel drive and built in crampons I’d be way up there too. If the smug little bugger comes any closer I’m going to grab his tail and make him haul me up the mountain!

For the 10th time I wonder how I managed to be here, in my own personal 9 km of vertical pain. It didn’t look this ugly on Google Earth!

The idea for this trip started several days ago. Reading a blog on the Vancouver Island Spine trail lead me to their website. There I saw a photo of some people hiking up near Forbidden Plateau. Thinking this looked like a very pleasant way to spend a day I did a little research on Google which lead me to post about the Century Sam Lake trail with some gorgeous photos. Making this destination even more intriguing was talk of snow caves in a small glacier at the end of the lake…how could I pass that up? A bit work on Google Earth and Fugawi Navigator and I had some tracks laid into the GPS. I was up early on Sunday morning and off to adventure.A quick hour drive brought me off the Island Highway near Courtenay and onto the North side of Comox Lake. I was half expecting to be turned away by the guard at the gate but there was no sign of anyone. After a 20 minute teeth-rattling-bone-jarring-kick-the-crap-out-of-my-truck- haven’t-you-guys-ever-heard-of-a-Grader-stupid-rough-ride, the road turned away from the lake up Cruickshank Canyon and got smoother. Another half hour and I was at the trailhead. Most of the road would be fine in a 2wd but the last km was deactivated and heavily ditched so it was pretty well 4wd territory only.

By this time I was almost an hour into the bush and had only passed one other vehicle, heading out (not a good sign). Parking the truck and strapping on my hiking and photography gear I was feeling a little alone, wondering perhaps if it was such a good idea to be so far in by myself. The feeling was short lived, however, when I walked over a rise in the road and discover a number of other trucks at the trail head.

After my painful 2 hour ascent through mostly dense bush, I emerged out on rock outcropping near the lake….wow! The place was drop dead gorgeous! Towering peaks under a clear blue sky enclosed a beautiful aqua-marine lake fed by a small glacier. Fall colors provided contrast to the predominantly blue and green scene. Ascent pain forgotten, all I could think of is how lucky I was to have such a unique and beautiful place available on a day hike.

I made my way past the lake to reach my true destination…the snow cave. The glacier sits in a pocket of the surrounding mountains. It was high noon and yet I was standing in shadow at the mouth of the cave. Could it be true…had I finally found that most mythical of places…‘where the sun don’t shine’…funny, this wasn’t how I’d pictured it.

The glacier has a large cave hollowed out in it, presumably made by snow melt. As I entered the cave I heard a large, heavy sounding ‘thunk’. A small warning to keep an eye overhead perhaps? A couple of quick pictures and I got out of there. I had no desire to be some future anthropologists ‘20th Century Man’ a few centuries from now. On my way back out I couldn’t resist the temptation to walk on the glacier….bad idea. I hadn’t gone 4 steps before I was on my arse sliding back down. Momma, your boy’s going to be sore tomorrow!

A glance at my watch let me know that it was time to head back down. An hour later my shaky legs finally brought me back to my truck and the trip home. From front door to glacier and home again in time for dinner….you have to love Vancouver Island!

Gear for this trip

GPS:  nice to have but not essential.  The trail is well marked but the GPS was very useful in sorting out which logging roads to take in.
Hiking Poles: almost essential.  This trail has only 2 states: up or down.
Camera:  essential.  How could you not take pictures of a place this gorgeous?  For this trip I carried an SLR body, 10-22mm, 24-105mm and 70-200mm lenses but ended up only using the 10-22mm.  A tripod would be nice since many photo ops in the bush and in the snow cave have low lighting.
Hiking Boots:  nice but not essential for when I went (Oct 4).  The trail was pretty dry reflecting the recent weather so there was only a couple of muddy places.  However, if the weather has been wet I could envision this trail being very muddy.

Travel Times

Nanaimo to Trail Head: 2 hrs
Ascent to Century Sam Lake: 2 hrs (less if you are fit)
Descent from lake: 1 hr

Links of Interest

Other photos by Tim Penney

Directions to the trail head. This links describes how to get the the Comox Glacier Trail but the trail heads are the same.

My Flickr site.