Friday, January 9, 2015

Vancouver Island Pilgrimage Trail

While researching for my last blog on forest pilgrimages, a Google query did not yield much about forest pilgrimages across the world. It did yield one ambitious pilgrimage trail idea almost in my own back yard that I did not know about. The Vancouver Island Spine trail intends to be a pilgrimage trail that traverses the entire length of Vancouver Island.

The trail is a good idea and it is in keeping with the sustainable forest management concept of gaining social and economic benefits from the full natural capital of the forest. It is a major project with many and considerable challenges to overcome. To realize the vision we will look at some of these challenges.

Vancouver Island is not a wee island. It is approximately 300 miles or 500 kilometers long and 50 miles or 80 kilometers wide as the crow flies. Although Vancouver Island is elongated in shape and mountainous, the spine trail suggests a ridge of mountains that runs the length of the Island. The geology of the Island is complex and there is no uniform central ridge, but rather complex mountain topography broken by valleys that run in many different directions. Routing the trail is not a simple issue and there multiple options over the entire length. A more easterly route would take the trail closer to the communities on the more populated east side of the Island. This would take the trail through private forest land. Although most forest in BC is public one of the largest blocks of private forest land in British Columbia is in the Esquimalt and Nanaimo Railway E&N land grant on the east side of Vancouver Island. It was a questionable piece of public land enclosure and investment advice on these lands sometimes notes that the private ownership is tainted. Hopefully the owners will be agreeable. While it is a major challenge to connect a single trail the length of the Island, a more realistic long term view would be a network of trails with optional routing giving a choice of easterly or westerly routes or valley bottom versus mountain top.

The spine trail site notes that traversing coastal rain forests on rough terrain is difficult and simple trails are required. Planning, constructing and maintaining trails on Vancouver Island is far from simple. It is mountainous and there are major rainstorms. Although the east side gets lower annual rainfalls, it gets major rain storm events. These have to be considered in design, location, construction and maintenance. A trail is really a narrow road for people to walk on. Like a road it has to be designed for the machines or animals that will use it. Although some humans can climb up overhangs, most fit people can maintain a marching or flowing gait on gradients up to 15% (15 up for every 100 along).  Foot action tends to gouge trails above 15% unless they are armored, and problems of erosion from water flowing down the trail increase exponentially when the gradient gets above 15%. Trails seldom have all the usual drainage bells and whistles in the form of  drains and culverts that you find in wider vehicle roads. Therefore the location of trails has to be done with greater care than a road. The other major limitation of the human walking machine is that is is barely evolved to remain upright. The trail tread or surface needs to be free of projecting rocks or tripping hazards. Some Park agencies follow the 4 by 4 rule for trail surfaces meaning that there should be no rocks greater than 4 inches within the top 4 inches of the surface. Larger rocks wear out of the surface and become tripping hazards. The most difficult soils for building trails are coarse soils or soils with a lot of rocks. These are the norm over most of Vancouver Island. See: Trails on rocky soils    The following site on planning Sustainable Mountain Trails provides essential advice. Enlisting experienced help such as forest engineers to plan and locate trails would be advantageous. Inexperienced trail locators often have little concept of gradient control. Use instruments such as clinometers to measure gradient. Do not include unnecessary downhill sections in a route that is heading uphill.

There are thousands of kilometers of forest roads on Vancouver Island. Some of these are little used or deactivated and could from part of a trail network. While the forest industry is much criticized, it has been using forest engineering principles and instruments for a century and although there are erosion problems on some forest roads, most forest roads have controlled gradients and the little used or deactivated ones are ready made parts of a trail network. The same cannot be said for trails located in Parks or protected areas.

The Vancouver Island pilgrimage trail is a good idea, but it will take much planning and considerable local volunteer work in the dirt to construct and maintain the trail or trail network.

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