Words by Samantha Rae Harriss
Photos by Samantha Rae Harriss, Kate Waddell, Justin Waddell, and Vicki Waddell
Queenesh origin story from www.komoks.ca and Comox Valley Indigenous Education (https://indigenouseducation.comoxvalleyschools.ca/apps/pages/index.jsp?uREC_ID=1064875&type=d&pREC_ID=1357946)
I wake to the harsh sound of my alarm beeping. It is 4:30am and I have no time to do anything but wipe the sleep from my eyes, dress myself, grab my bag, and jump in my car, driving to the head of the Comox Glacier trail. A challenging 18 kilometre hike to the iconic glacier that overlooks my hometown, the Comox Valley, the Comox Glacier trail is no easy feat with over 2,500m in elevation gain. Nevertheless, on August 16th 2020, my good friend Kate, her family and I decided to attempt the trail.
The Comox Glacier is an iconic symbol of the Comox Valley, a community of 66,000 on Vancouver Island, British Columbia, Canada. Its name originates from the K’ómoks First Nation, who have resided in the area for thousands of years and refer to the glacier as Queneesh, meaning whale.
According to the local First Nations story, the legend of Queneesh describes a great flood that occurred thousands of years ago. In the story of Queneesh, the K’ómoks people had to pile into their canoes as the rain relentlessly fell and flooded the Comox Valley, with the water rising even taller than their totem poles. As the rain continued to pour and the waters rose higher and higher, eventually the water reached the level of the glacier, almost covering it completely. But then, all of a sudden, the glacier began to float and swim through the flood, taking life as a beautiful white whale: Queneesh.
Soon after, the rain halted and gradually the high waters drained, allowing the K’ómoks people to return to their homes. Looking back to the mountains, Queneesh had settled in place again upon the mountaintops, looking over the Comox Valley like a king on his throne. To this day, the Comox Glacier, or Queenesh, is honoured by the K’ómoks First Nation and is a significant symbol of their origin story on the land.
Growing up almost my entire life in the Comox Valley, the Comox Glacier was a focal point of the landscape of my childhood and youth. From Glacier Greens Golf Course and the local Glacier Kings hockey team to roads named Glacier View Drive or Queneesh Road, references to the great glacier overlooking the Comox Valley can be found all over town. Even my elementary school was named Queneesh Elementary, after the huge white whale. Looking up to the glacier in admiration and awe nearly every day, from childhood right up until when I moved away for university, the view of the mountains and the icy mass resting on top became both a comforting scene of home as well as a revered and mysterious place ever so slightly out of reach. It wasn’t until my friend Kate proposed the idea of hiking up to the glacier that I realized it was even possible to experience this looming ice form, such a strong symbol of home for me, from a closer perspective. After some research we discovered it was possible to hike to the glacier as either a day hike or a multi-day overnight trip, and we instantly committed to completing the hike later that summer.
It’s now 6am on August 16, and I’ve driven the long and rough logging road to the trailhead where I meet Kate, her mum, and her brother. We’ve ambitiously decided to attempt the trail to the glacier as a day hike, knowing that the logging gates will close at 8pm- regardless of whether or not we’ve made it back to the car in time. The sun is slowly rising in the sky and gradually warming the air as we begin to trek through the trees, gaining elevation quickly as we move through seemingly endless uphill switchbacks. I still shiver in my shorts and t-shirt, the trees’ shade sheltering us from the light, and I already know this is going to be a demanding and physically exhausting day. My body is pumping adrenaline and I’m working hard to keep pace with the others, a little nervous about the long hike ahead, but ultimately excited by the thought that I might get to reach what has become a distinct symbol of my hometown and life in the Comox Valley.
By about 8am we had reached the end of the switchbacks and had made it to an elevation of about 1300m at the top of the ridge leading toward the glacier. Pausing briefly to admire the view from our new position, we soon carried on, marching along the ridge with eager anticipation. Century Sam Lake, a popular short day hike leaving from a similar trailhead as the glacier trail, came into view and we looked down at the tiny figures of hikers surrounding the turquoise-blue lake hundreds of meters below. So high above, we already felt a sense of accomplishment in the ground we had covered. The glacier was now clearly in view, visibly in reach, yet we still had a long way to go.
With the sun rising higher and higher in the sky, we continued to move with urgency; the possibility of not reaching the glacier with enough time to hike back to the car and drive past the logging gates before their closure was in the back of our minds. We marched on, both losing and gaining elevation rapidly as we climbed down multiple steep gullies and scrambled back up with ropes on the other side. Finally we completed the last descent, before a big push up the rock face to the top of the glacier; legs aching with exhaustion from the relentless up and down peaks, I slogged steadily upward toward the snow.
And just like that, after about 5 and a half hours of gruelling hiking, scrambling, and climbing, we finally stood atop the Comox Glacier. Looking around at the panorama of rocky mountains, snow and ice, forested valleys, and the little urban conglomeration of the Comox Valley was an incredible feeling. To stand on the glacier that I’ve admired every day growing up, and to see my home from above, is a feat that few others can say they have done. We refuelled with lunch atop the glacier, bathing in accomplishment and the hot sunlight. A slight wind cooled our bodies as we sat on a rocky outcrop eating, enjoying the few moments we could spare on the peak before beginning the descent to the car. My legs throbbed intensely from the stress of the final uphill scramble, but the feeling of making it to the top and looking out over the landscape overrode any pain I was feeling in the moment. We had made it, and it felt amazing.
Our downhill climb went much quicker than anticipated, and we easily reached the car in time to make it past the logging gates. The final leg of the hike down the endless switchbacks in the trees was a brutal test for our knees and mental strength; exertion, hunger, and aching was at an apex. Eventually, ten hours after setting out that morning, we returned to the trailhead and celebrated our great feat.
We made the long and bumpy drive back into town and headed straight for Goose Spit, one of our favourite local swimming beaches, where we rinsed our sweaty bodies of the day’s grime in the salty ocean water. In a perfect end to a demanding but beautiful day, I lay back floating in the water, gazing up at the outline of the mountains with the sun fading behind. My eyes drifted to the figure of the glacier, the great white whale Queneesh, and the feeling of knowing I was standing there just hours before brought a smile to my face.
Now, every time I return home and see the glacier, I am reminded of my summer trek with Kate and her family to the summit. That hike was one of the most challenging trails I’ve ever hiked, one of the most awe-inspiring, and one of the most rewarding. Reaching the summit and gazing down at the valley I grew up in below, and then being able to always look back up at the same icy summit and know that at one point I was there... it’s a phenomenal feeling. Ultimately, it’s a sense of accomplishment that many can relate to: the mental and physical exhaustion of putting yourself to a difficult task, working hard to accomplish it, and upon reaching that summit--maybe one that once felt entirely out of reach--feeling wholly satisfied and content.