This is a true story. The events depicted in this trip report took place in
Minnesota Semaphore Lakes in 1987 August 2021. At the request of the driver some names have been changed. Out of respect for everyone else the rest has been told exactly as it occurred.
*record scratch* Yup, that’s me wearing a plastic bag instead of the raincoat I left at home while holding an ice axe rendered useless by our inability to reach the nearby glacier, not long after having survived my first ever car crash on the way to the trailhead. How did I end up in this predicament? Buckle up (yes that’s intentional) and follow along for the story.
For most of the summer I had been planning on a Rockies trip over the BC Day long weekend. However, as the date approached the smoke situation looked to be getting out of control in the Interior, which forced our small group to come up with a last minute alternative. I had seen some promotion from the BCMC showcasing their North Creek trail/cabin and decided that seemed like a great destination in its own right. So on Friday night we (myself, Jessica, and Xavier) departed Vancouver after work with the intention of camping at the trailhead. All was going to plan as we made good time to Pemberton. Our luck, however, was about to change. As we turned onto the Hurley FSR past Pemberton Meadows, I started to notice that Xavier had a bit of a lead foot as we drove onto the dirt. I almost said something, but thought better of it as I’m no backseat driver usually. This proved to be a mistake. As we rounded a corner in the dark, the car began to slide. Realizing quickly that this was a bad thing, Xavier attempted to regain control but made a tactical error by slamming the brakes instead of turning into the drift. There was no chance of stopping in time and suddenly we were careening toward the embankment on the side of the road, with no idea what could be on the other side of the branches there. I braced for impact, terrified of the idea of going into the river or off of a cliff. Luckily, the ‘crash’ was quite short and for several seconds we sat in the car in stunned silence. The airbags hadn’t even deployed. Jessica was the first to speak up, noting astutely that we had zero clue what, if anything, was supporting the weight of the vehicle. After that we quickly bailed to take stock of our situation. We were surrounded by fairly thick brush, but were able to fight our way out and up the embankment. The vehicle was, as it turns out, quite comfortably stuck in the ditch, having glided over some large rocks on its way in. However, it otherwise appeared remarkably undamaged.
Realizing that everybody and everything was more or less intact, we had to start thinking of the next moves. We were now stranded on an FSR with no signal and it was getting close to midnight. I offered to use my inReach to contact my dad, who could then call for a tow in the morning. However, as we started removing our gear from the car to make a quick roadside camp we saw headlights approach down the road. They were going a lot slower and thus didn’t end up joining us in the ditch. Noticing us, the two vehicles stopped and we started to explain our predicament to the driver of the first one. Someone got out of the second car and suddenly exclaimed “Isaac, is that you?” in a familiar voice. I quickly recognized the person speaking as Maria, a fellow VOCer who somehow knew each of us from separate trips. What are the odds? Though I guess who else would be driving the Hurley at midnight than other VOCers… To add to the crazy VOC connection, Maria and her group would later go on to need their car battery jump-started by none other than Melissa and Shuyu in the South Chilcotins that weekend. I had lent my bike rack to Shuyu for her trip, thus unknowingly starting a super unlikely circle of good VOC karma!
We casually chit-chatted for a little bit before getting to the crux of the matter – what was the best course of action now? There was no way of getting the car out without special equipment, so Maria and company offered to give us a ride toward town which we gladly accepted. Instead of going all the way back we decided to just get into cell service range, call for help, and then hunker down for the night wherever we could find a spot. So we stuffed our gear into one of the cars and headed back toward Pemberton. Once we got into cell signal we began to look for a spot to set up a quick camp, a difficult task in the farmlands of Pemberton Meadows. Finding a somewhat low-key spot we hopped out and thanked everyone for the miraculous ride. Xavier got on the phone with BCAA while Jessica and I scouted for a camp spot where we wouldn’t get an unwelcome awakening in the morning. After getting the run-around from BCAA (how can they be so bad at finding places on a map, it’s literally their job?) we finally were told it would take until morning to get a tow truck out there. We set up a sketchy camp on the side of the road in front of an old gate that seemed to be on semi-public land and quickly fell asleep.
Despite camping in probably the sketchiest/most illegal campsite I’ve ever occupied, I woke up pretty refreshed the next morning. The tow truck which was supposed to leave at first light was nowhere to be seen so we slept in. Finally I woke up again with a start as Jessica whispered that someone was approaching. She immediately spoke to diffuse the situation, saying how sorry we were to be camped there but our car got stuck up the road. The guy outside the tent seemed completely unconcerned with our presence. In a very Canadian fashion he just made some small talk asking where we were trying to get to. Apparently North Creek used to have a different name which he couldn’t remember but I’m very curious about. Then he notified us he was about to turn on a pump to water the field and said he was sorry about the noise before walking off. Xavier got back on the phone with BCAA and we started to wander around a bit with nothing else to do.
BCAA had some bad news for us. Our tow would take hours to arrive. We cleaned up camp and found a trail down to the river, where we decided to hang out in the meantime. Thankfully it didn’t end up taking that long, as Xavier got a call maybe an hour later that the truck was on its way from Pemberton. When it arrived the driver would only allow one person in the cab, so Xavier hopped in and we sadly didn’t get to witness the daring rescue of his car. So Jessica and I just kept waiting by the river. After another hour or hour and a half we heard a honk from the road. Peeking through the brush we saw the tow truck, and, more importantly, the car itself. The tow had apparently gone fairly smoothly and there was no discernible structural damage, just some relatively minor aesthetic damage. All in all the tow cost ~$150, not a bad deal considering how we had started out that morning.
With no obvious vehicle problems remaining, we decided to go for it. North Creek was still calling our names. Taking things a little easier this time we once again drove onto the Hurley and made our way to the junction with Lillooet FSR.
You might be thinking: Wait, wasn’t the first photo at Semaphore Lakes? Yeah, it was. Turns out, instead of finding our way to the North Creek trailhead we only found more disappointment. At the junction with the Hurley the Lillooet FSR was shut off with a closed gate.
Turns out when it’s hot enough out they close this whole valley due to landslide risk (*important note for anyone looking to visit this area in the future – the road is now open again according to the province’s FSR conditions report). Xavier took a closer look at the gate mechanism and found it was unlocked for some reason. But we decided not to push our bad luck by driving further up the road. Instead we now had to return to Pemberton to research a Plan C. A bit demoralized, we drove all the way back and stopped in at a cafe for some wifi. After some coffee/tea, snacks, and discussion we determined that the most realistic new destination was Semaphore Lakes as we were now running out of daylight. For the third time we drove onto the Hurley and parked at the start of a conga line of cars at the Semaphore Lakes trailhead.
There was not a ton of time to find a campsite so we soon headed up the trail. The hike is not particularly long, though it is fairly steep. Soon after getting into the subalpine we were at the first lake.
At the lake we ran into a strange woman. Seeing my camera she asked me to take a few pictures of her with her phone. Not that unusual a request at first. But she quickly rejected the photos I had taken and asked for a reshoot. I made the mistake of obliging this request. She ended up demanding the photos be retaken multiple times, apparently looking for the perfect Insta shot or something. One photo was almost right but had a “bump” i.e. the tiniest bit of her stomach sticking out. I was very close to asking for a photographer’s commission to proceed and if I ever end up in a similar situation again I’m definitely going to just walk away haha. It also didn’t help that her phone was broken and would only save one or two photos at a time – just not a good situation. Eventually she was satisfied and/or got the hint that we were about to continue hiking.
We did manage to glean a bit of important beta from Insta lady – she noted that the upper basin was very crowded. This turned out to be quite accurate, at least from my point of view. Not surprising given the ease of the hike and the long weekend, but still disappointing for someone like me who does trips like these to get away from crowds. We encountered campers just about everywhere as we made our way up the basin.
I really wanted to camp away from people and so pushed to explore the moraine at the base of the huge waterfall as it seemed further out of the way. The others were skeptical but eventually decided to humor me. At first things looked very rocky and unpromising, but as we crested a ridge I spied a fairly flat area that would work perfectly. The waterfall was loud here, drowning out any noise from others nearby.
After setting up camp and having dinner we decided to make an attempt on Locomotive Mountain. Instead of going out of our way to find the trail we took a direct route up the talus.
As we hiked higher and higher the terrain got increasingly sketchy. We dislodged a worrying amount of rocks as the slopes became steeper. As we reached a bench about 2/3rds of the way up we realized the futility of our attempted route. There we saw a bunch of steep snowfields blocking the summit. To get to the top we’d have to traverse around and find the actual trail on the other side of the mountain. Making things worse, the daylight was almost completely gone. I had no desire to find the route down through the scree/talus in the dark and so we had to head back without reaching the summit. Just another disappointment to add to the long list from this trip!
We made our way back to camp, just beating the sunset. While we were sad about not getting Locomotive, at least the next day had the promise of attempting Face Mountain and getting some glacier practice on Train Glacier. Keeping with the theme of everything going wrong, that turned out to be overly optimistic once again. Oh, did I mention that neither Jessica nor Xavier had remembered to bring sleeping pads? Xavier made a pad out of his glacier rope and Jessica slept on dirty clothes.
Things somehow got worse the next morning. We woke up to a fairly thick smoke blanketing the basin. Nevertheless we wanted to at least get on the glacier and so made our way to the route up Face Mountain. We did not get very far. The creek, which formed the beautiful waterfall, was roaring and we could not find a place where all of us felt comfortable crossing. For the final time we were forced to turn around in disappointment. To add insult to injury it started to rain and I quickly realized I had left my raincoat in Vancouver. With that discovery we decided to admit defeat and head home. Sometimes it’s best to pack it in and try again next time.
When it rains it pours I suppose. I think our only real victories that trip were getting some good views and making it to Mile One Eating House in Pemberton before they closed. But sometimes trips like this happen, and I believe it’s valuable to analyze and learn from them. As long as you make it back in one piece it’s usually worth the experience and crazy stories.