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Sunshine Coast Trail attracts worldwide attention

Builders and promoters discuss growing challenges for one of the biggest attractions on the coast
sunshine coast trail
TRAIL BLAZER: Graham Cocksedge flies down the last stretch of the recent Marathon Shuffle, held Sunday, April 24 on the Sunshine Coast Trail. Growing popularity of the event foreshadows future challenges for the trail. Dave Brindle photo

Climbing to new heights of popularity, Sunshine Coast Trail (SCT) is world class and right in our backyard. The longest hut-to-hut hiking trail in Canada is free to use, for now.

However, that might not always be the case, as issues of maintenance and liability are being discussed by local interest groups.

“Particularly when you consider the trail’s importance as an economic driver for our community, it’s a valuable asset,” said Paul Kamon, executive director of Tourism Powell River. “How we can solve that issue may perhaps be registration and user fees to generate those funds.”

International interest is partly generated from Powell River residents, who are are quick and proud to share the area’s backcountry treasure and, more and more, SCT is being included on “best of” lists.

The biggest example of its local popularity and its growing interest outside the region is the annual Marathon Shuffle that was held on Sunday, April 24. Nearly 300 people participated in the full or half marathon, running and hiking 29 kilometres from north of town at Malaspina Road to Powell Lake Marina. They came from Vancouver Island, the Lower Mainland, the lower Sunshine Coast and Edmonton, AB, among other places.    

Prestigious, worldwide adventure magazine Explore named SCT to its list of 50 best hikes in the world; a list that includes storied treks such as Grand Canyon Rim to Rim in the United States, Inca Trail to Machu Picchu in Peru, Nepal’s Annapurna Circuit and Tongariro Alpine Crossing in New Zealand.

Now that SCT is on the international eco-tourism radar, it rivals the Powell River region’s long-established reputation for marine adventures.

“I would suggest it is one of the biggest attractions, on par with Desolation Sound,” said Kamon.

That popularity comes with a price, however.

Currently SCT is, for the most part, maintained through the volunteer work of Powell River Parks and Wilderness Society (PRPAWS).

When looking back on the early years of building and connecting trails and logging roads in the backcountry, PRPAWS co-founder and president Eagle Walz did not envision the extent of how far-reaching the finished trail would become in the hiking world.

“The user-ship and visitors coming from all over the world in the last two years has dramatically climbed and it looks like it’s spiking some more this year,” said Walz.

As SCT draws more and more attention and gains in popularity, it will also present challenges for the future, which will require conversations about funding, he said.

According to Kamon, he and Walz have discussed this issue at length.

“Right now we’re relying so heavily on the generosity of volunteers,” said Kamon. “It’s a valuable asset, so how we solve that issue may perhaps be registration and user fees to generate those funds.”

Kamon explained that SCT needs sustainable resources to address some of the issues around maintenance, insurance and infrastructure.

By comparison, West Coast Trail (WCT), part of Pacific Rim National Park Reserve (PRNPR) on Vancouver Island, requires hikers to pay a $127.50 registration and permit fee.

WCT opened about 43 years ago and is considered one of the great hiking trails in Canada and the world; it is two and a half times shorter than SCT.

“Last year, we had over 7,000 visitors,” said Jesse Hannigan, PRNPR acting visitor experience manager. “The revenue generation function exists to serve multiple purposes, not just for the upkeep and maintenance of the trail, but also for the coordinated emergency response we have on the trail.”

Revenue is also used for search and rescue. WCT hikers are required to have permits in case a response is needed for an emergency.

“The permit function is so we know who is on the trail and we’re aware of when they’re going on and when they’re coming off,” said Hannigan. “It has to do with the visitors’ safety.”

SCT has no registration for revenue generation and its maintenance and infrastructure is worked on by a group of dedicated volunteers. Permits are not required and Powell River Search and Rescue, another group of volunteers, is partly responsible for rescues.

One function of the 11 huts along the trail, in addition to providing overnight sleeping and rest stops, is to act as emergency shelters. A 12th hut is currently being completed.

At 180 kilometres in length, SCT includes 20 campsites, approximately 13,000 metal markers along the route and 800 signs to indicate various starting points and intersections with other trails or logging roads. Mount Troubridge summit is the highest point at 1,300 metres.

“It’s not a walk around [Vancouver’s] Stanley Park, and we lay no claim to that,” said Walz.

No quantitative SCT user numbers exist, because hikers can complete different sections at a time, hike for an hour or a day, or hike the complete trail from start to finish, which can take 10 to 12 days.

Walz believes at some point in the future it will be necessary to implement the same type of registration and permit system WCT uses on the SCT.


Breaking the record

Powell River resident Graham Cocksedge shattered his record in the annual Marathon Shuffle held Sunday, April 24. His time for the 29-kilometre section of the Sunshine Coast Trail from Malaspina Road to Powell Lake Marina beat his previous record by almost nine minutes.

In 2014, the 43-year-old from Powell River ran the trail in 2:22:46. This year he came in at 2:13:38.

“It hurt, a lot,” said Cocksedge. “You do practice stages on it, the hills seem short and it seems fine. Then you put it all together, it’s a faster pace, the hills are much longer and steeper; it’s a tough finish.”

Marathon Shuffle has been run for 23 years and is a fundraiser for Powell River Parks and Wilderness Society, with help from many community hiking groups. Entry for the event is free.

This year, close to 300 participants ran and hiked. Next to local participants, organizers estimated about 100 people came from Vancouver Island.

“It’s an awesome turnout,” said Cocksedge. “When you have people from the Island, hundreds of them, focusing on this to come over, I think it’s pretty good for Powell River.”

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