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Trip Report: Splitboarding North Vancouver Island

A few weeks in the Mt. Cain backcountry with Tamo Campos and Friends.

Words: Tamo Campos // Photos: Eva Brownstein

 

Winter has been fun, albeit different. I can’t say anything about the past pandemic year has been normal. I’ve been keeping busy, working on a master’s degree in environmental studies, doing a mentorship program with Story Money Impact, and all the while volunteering countless hours to wrap this The Klabona Keepers film which is set to release in the fall. These projects can feel pretty draining at times but I’m grateful to have my splitboard to recharge from the insane amounts of virtual computer time.

Tamo Campos

Tamo - all smiles.

Moody tour through the clouds

Tamo in the white room.

This past winter, I updated my house on wheels. If you’re unfamiliar, I used to rock a modified ambulance that ran on waste cooking oil. This year, my friend Laura and I bought this 1997 converted bus. It's a conversion project and we’ve got the engine modified to also run on waste cooking oil. It also has a wood stove for heat and a cozy little kitchen & bedroom area. Lucky for us, the past owner did a custom 4WD retrofit which can be necessary in the coastal mountains.

 

My first trip with the new rig was to Vancouver Island. I’ve always loved riding there as the mountains are rugged and rise straight up from the Pacific Ocean. Snow can be hit or miss depending on the temperatures but there are not many places you can surf, skate and splitboard in one day. My first winter stop with BGB “big green bus” was Mount Cain. It’s a little mountain nestled in the territory of the Namgis First Nation. The Namgis are one of 198 distinct Indigenous groups in British Columbia and their territory covers parts of the North East island with other Kwakwa̱ka̱ʼwakw nations. I was excited that renowned Haida /Kwakwaka’wakw/Irish weaver and snowboarder Meghann O’Brien, who grew up in the area, would be joining me for some riding on the trip. Her family history goes back far on the north island, as she grew up in Alert Bay and learned to ski at Cain. 

Tamo at home in his bus.

tamo on his bus

Wood stove on the bus for cold nights. 

Tamo in the Mt. Cain lot with his bus behind him. P: Eva Brownstein

Mount Cain is a little hill with an old-school vibe and incredible backcountry. The mountain consists of two “too often” broken down T-bars and its nonprofit vibes are felt right away. It’s one of my favorite hills and I’ve always described it as Trailer Park Boys meets snowboarding. Camping is allowed in the lot as long as you donate to the Build a better bathroom fund. Every bit counts when you’re a little nonprofit North Island mountain.

 

I camped out up there for a few weeks getting immersed in the Cain spirit, although, the weather certainly wasn’t cooperating. Nightly winds shook the bus to the point where it was hard to tell if we were in a vehicle or a boat. Temperatures hovered just above zero (32 Fahrenheit). At one point, it was raining so hard that our friend Jasper radioed the bus asking if he could borrow the canoe on top to do a lap in the parking lot.  A few minutes later we saw Jasper out the window getting ready to splitboard with a wetsuit on. Alas, Mount Cain, never a dull moment.

Jasper ready for a wet splitboard mission.

Deep snowpack.

Stoke in the Mt. Cain lot.

My friend and talented photographer, Eva Brownstein, and her partner Trent joined for a week in January.  We had the mountain to ourselves with the lifts not running mid-week. Unfortunately, we spent the first few days waiting out a bad rainstorm. To pass the time we found ourselves splitboarding down to an old sauna. Built with spray foam, some driftwood, and a rickety little hole-filled wood stove; it was a sauna of legends. We had originally toured down in raingear but as we emerged from the sauna the temperatures had shifted and massive flakes were beginning to come down. We were elated and although this character-filled sauna probably already had a name we nicknamed it Ullr’s Sauna because of its magic in bringing in the snow.

 

The following day we woke up to over 2 feet of fresh snow. The stoke was at an all-time high! We toured up the main ridge and found ourselves riding the east bowl as the sun was rising and the west bowl by the end of the day. Although the storm snow was a little unnerving due to the snowpack we found ourselves playing in this beautiful old-growth forest called 3 O’clock trees. The trees are beautifully spaced apart and the north-facing aspect allows for some beautiful snow. There was no shortage of “hoots” and “hollers” as Meghann, Trent, Eva and I weaved turns underneath the moss-covered cedar and Douglas fir trees while sharing some of the best turns of the season so far.

As the snow began to settle over the next few days, we discussed and went for a few bigger objectives. There are some fantastic lines in the west bowl with names that ring true to the Mt Cain style; “Big Boi”, “Coffin Nail”, “Why Shoots” to name a few. Our first thought was Coffin Nail but unfortunately, we had to wait out the weather and the snow was feeling a little unstable. We decided a shorter shelf line would be our destination in the west bowl. It was the lone line on what was a beautiful rock cliff formation. We asked around and it seemed no one had ridden it before.

 

My newfound friend, Jeremy, who had been camping beside us in his car joined me for the mission. The top section was extremely steep and we wondered about how the transition would be to strap in but low and behold there was a massive cave with a tiny entrance invisible from the bottom. Giant icicles came down and it was a great spot to hide out from the wind that had begun to pick up. Unfortunately, the clouds rolled in, and although Eva was in the right spot for the shot across the valley the thick fog never cleared. As the day was drawing to an end, we strapped in inside the cave and ripped some turns down the shelf. 

Caves are a perfect spot to transition.

It was great to ride with Meghann in West Bowl and 3 O’clock trees. We’ve been fortunate enough to weave projects together over the years that combine our love of the mountains and splitboarding with passions outside of sports in arts and activism. We often find ourselves talking about how splitboarding is such a unique way of connecting with the mountains. It helps lift our spirits, but we also found ourselves debating the difficulties of navigating the privileges within the outdoor community. There is an innate love of the mountains that I know I certainly grew up with but also a very real disconnect of who's land we are on and the history of land theft that allowed for parks, protected areas and ski resorts to exist. How do we reconcile this within a framework of wanting to "explore" the "wilderness" and summit and "conquer" mountains? 

Meghann O'Brien weaving. P: Eva Brownstein.

Meghann in the tress. 

Tamo cliff drop mt cain

Tamo sending. 

As we toured up the mountain together, I’m struck with Meghann’s perception of this place.

 

"Cain is like a magnet for all the best people I can think of, as they are all so laid back and positive. The mountain kind of has reciprocity built-in because of the nature of how it runs as a nonprofit and was built by local people for local people. But outside of this gem, I wonder how can we create a more multifaceted appreciation for the places that give so much joy to us in the winter? In general, even shifting perspective slightly towards the plants that live there can be powerful in terms of recognizing that we exist in relationship to the mountains and can acknowledge and give back to either the plants or the people who have lived there or been in a relationship with it for generations. For me, I really love going to see the same spots and groups of trees in summer and seeing their personality and how it all exists even when we aren't there.  There are so many kinds of berries to harvest it's amazing they live under the snow all year."

 

Wise words to reflect on with someone who has spent their life at Mt. Cain.

 

I know boarding has always brought me happiness and good times but what are my responsibilities when it comes to riding here on stolen land? After a few weeks at Mt. Cain sharing the rain, snow, and stories with friends; I feel refueled and ready to go back to school and work. Many questions were answered, and new ones brought up.

 

spark flames blog

Tamo Campos is a filmmaker, community organizer, and extreme sports athlete. His films include The Radicals (2018), A Last Stand For Lelu (2016), Northern Grease (2013) & over 50 short films. Campos grew up in North Vancouver, British Columbia, where the mountains became a part of his life from the very beginning. At 11-days-old, his dad took him in a backpack and went on an overnight backcountry ski trip, an introduction into a world that would later dominate his life. After chasing backcountry slashes and contests across North and South America for the last ten years, Tamo is now focusing his efforts on both environmental and community organizing, founding the organization Beyond Boarding. His latest project - The Radicals - is a perfect example of how Tamo blends his passion for splitboarding and activism.

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