Finding yourself lost on unfamiliar trails in the middle of the woods as darkness descends is not a pleasant experience.
It’s happened to me a number of times while hiking the trail systems around Nanaimo over the years, particularly the trails on the 1,023-metre Mount Benson, that iconic big hill overlooking the mid-Island city.
It had intrigued me ever since I moved to Vancouver Island more than 20 years ago, and I was determined to find my way to the top.
But there was no one organized trail system at the time to guide hikers along the whole route to the summit.
Most of the trails had been laid by individuals or small groups to meet their specific needs, including trails created by mountain bikers to ride on, but no one at that point had made any efforts to make sense of what trails were in place.
Being in much better physical shape than I am these days, I began a quest to try the trails to see if I could find a way to the top.
I got lost many times over several weeks of attempts as trails would end in dead ends, others would go partway up the hill and then descend before reaching the top and some others even just went in circles.
But I was unperturbed and keep trying.
I found myself confused and disoriented a few times, especially as night comes on fast on the eastern side of Mount Benson, but I always managed to find my way out.
Finally, while out for the umpteenth time trying to get to the top, I encountered one experienced hiker who knew the disorganized and disjointed trail systems well and had just recently begun strategically placing ribbons in the trees to indicate what trails hikers should be on to make it all the way to the summit.
I followed his ribbon trail and finally made it to the top.
The view was spectacular and I could see Vancouver to the east and almost all the way to the west coast in the other direction.
The community, or at least part of it, came together awhile after that and began fundraising campaigns to buy bits and pieces of the land on the big hill from forest companies and private individuals to keep it safe from development, while teams would go in to work on making a proper trail system with signage, and the entire project has proven successful.
North Cowichan is now embarking on its own project, along with community partners, to designate official trails and create trail markers and maps to make accessing and using the unorganized trails on Maple Mountain and Mount Tzouhalem easier.
Like Mount Benson, both of these popular hiking destinations in the Valley have many existing trails that were created with no approval from the landowners for years, with no organization or proper planning, and the municipality hopes to change that practice.
Ernie Mansueti, the municipality’s director of parks, forestry and recreation, has pointed out that the number one request by residents over the years is more and better trail systems in North Cowichan.
Organizing the trails on Maple Mountain and Mount Tzouhalem is a good first step.