Autumn is ideal for hiking Joffre Lakes Trail
Plop, plop, fizz, fizz… Here’s a novel way to liven up a cocktail party: put a shard of glacier ice in a drink and watch what happens. Oxygen compressed in the ice over the eons by a glacier’s gargantuan weight is suddenly released with enough fizzy action to rival the classic Alka-Seltzer commercial. Problem is, where to source a glacier?
In the early 1970s, following the opening of the Duffey Lake Road (Highway 99) between Mount Currie and Lillooet, that same quest, though with an entirely different purpose, motivated the Vancouver Alpine Club—now a regional club section of the Alpine Club of Canada—to blaze a trail to the Lower Mainland’s most accessible glacier: on the flanks of Mount Matier, a 90-minute drive north of Whistler.
In 1988, B.C. Parks designated the land through which the trail to the glacier runs as Joffre Lakes Provincial Recreation Area. Once mining claims were settled, this 1,460-hectare wilderness tract became a full-fledged provincial park in 1996.
Fall is the best time of year to follow the 5.5-kilometre-long Joffre Lakes Trail, which leads from the lowest of three lakes (Lower, Middle, and Upper Joffre lakes) to the base of the Matier Glacier. By now, all traces of the clouds of mosquitoes that bedevilled visitors this summer have vanished. Water colour—prompted by sunlight reflecting off microscopic grains of glacial “rock flour” in the lakes—intensifies to a deep turquoise.
With snow season approaching, now is the time to fine-tune one’s fitness program to emphasize leg strength. For those who have already spent the summer exploring hiking routes, the Joffre Lakes Trail is the gold-medal reward for months of panting and muscle burn. Not that this is the toughest hike around: far from it. In the case of the Joffre Lakes Trail, visual rewards, not energy output, vault visitors onto a granite podium.
The trail’s route to the glaciers is not to be undertaken lightly. An extended stretch of talus slope between the lower and middle lakes offers no level ground. However, its off-kilter collection of boulders provides an ideal place to work on connective-tissue-strengthening lateral motion. Think hips, knees, and ankles. With this in mind, don’t attempt the hike in flip-flops—as some slackers invariably do, with predictable results. And although Joffre Lakes is one of the few backcountry provincial parks in the Sea to Sky corridor where dogs are still welcome, this field of rubble presents as much of a challenge to four-legged companions.
When the Georgia Straight visited the park late last month, both day-trippers and overnight campers alike, conversing in sundry tongues, had their sights set on reaching the uppermost and largest of the lakes. Two sets of parents, originally from Thailand and now Vancouver residents, were making a return visit after first venturing there a decade ago, this time with their preteen children. Upon arrival at Upper Joffre Lake, they expressed surprise at the extent to which the glacier had retreated up the slopes of Mount Matier. Where chunks of ice once calved directly into the lake, a 30-minute scramble is now needed to reach the glacier’s toe.
“My father told us he used to be able to hear the ice cracking off into the lake,” Destin San remarked. That was then, this is now. The spry nine-year-old—along with his brother, Preston, and companion Jasmine Siriwanpakdee—far outdistanced the adult members of their party. The threesome were more than happy to scamper ahead, particularly around the rim of Middle Joffre Lake, where a variety of approaches, including a mountain hemlock’s floating trunk, offered tantalizing views of glaciers belted around Joffre Peak and Mount Matier’s spires and draped on the slopes below.
From Middle Joffre, all that is required to reach the alpine zone is a short, steep stretch of single-track trail. To their credit, B.C. Parks staff appear to have put in considerable effort this past summer to keep the pathway brush-free—no small feat, given the mess of blow-downs, slide alders, and poison-spined devil’s club that chokes the forest floor. Green runways interspersed among the trees bore silent witness to the power of avalanches to clear long chutes into the narrow valley below. At the shoreline of the uppermost lake, the tumbling sound of Joffre Creek, whose voice can be heard along much of the trail, gives way to an almost identical sound of wind sifting through tightly packed groves of fir and spruce.
During the past three decades, the urge to spend the night by the lake has grown well beyond climbing parties to include groups of local Lil’wat First Nation elders and their charges, young couples drawn from throughout the Squamish-Whistler-Pemberton corridor, and tour groups, all in search of the sense of completion that comes with dreaming beneath the stars. Given that level ground is at a premium, plan an early start on weekends between June and Thanksgiving or risk discovering on arrival that all 24 campsites are already occupied. Nothing to do then but fill a cup with glacier ice to nurse diminished expectations. (But bring your own drinking water: water from lakes and streams must be boiled for at least two minutes to ensure potability.)
Access: The Joffre lakes lie 183 kilometres north of Vancouver via Pemberton on Highway 99. For more details on Joffre Lakes Provincial Park, visit the BC Parks website. Note: B.C. Parks also cautions visitors to pack along toilet paper, as in these times of budgetary restraint, outhouses are not regularly maintained. Also, visitors are cautioned to expect winter conditions from November until the end of May, so dress and equip yourselves accordingly.