Before heading out on bigger hikes this summer, it was time for my youngest son, Hugh, and I to put our gear, our bodies and our general hiking compatibility to the test.
We’d booked in for 6 nights total in the front-range wilderness, hiking from Johnston’s Canyon through to the village of Lake Louise. For the first four nights, home would be backcountry campgrounds, while the last two nights of our Sawback trail adventure would be spent at Skoki Lodge.
We stopped in at Lake Louise the morning of the trek to take care of a few last-minute things, and of course, what’s a visit to Lake Louise without dropping a wad of cash at Laggan’s Deli & Bakery? We stocked up on fresh roast beef sandwiches, pizza bagels and cookies to take as our lunch on that first day. All was not lost on this little detour.
With the last minute housekeeping details out of the way, we were off by 10:00 am on a wicked hot day (highs of 32C!!) to climb into the mountains.
Start point: Johnston’s Canyon, 1A highway between Banff and Castle Junction
End point: Luellen Lake campground (Jo19)
Distance: 17.4 km
Elevation: Gained ~550m
Highlights: Da bears. Walking upstream in my newly baptized boots. Discovering we had no bug spray.
Trail notes: Taking the well-trodden tourist path through Johnston’s Canyon was a nice but sweaty way to start the day. With the weight of a full pack, I had great gobs of sweat dripping off my brow as I huffed up past the lower falls, then the upper falls. Already I was comparing myself to the backpack-less visitors who smelled super clean (mmmm wafts of perfume and aftershave and dryer sheets).
I feel that sometimes the very beginning of a hike gets brushed aside in the urgency to get some miles under the feet. Johnston Canyon was that for us. We barely stopped at all along the trail and catwalks above the cavernous, carved canyon …there are some seriously cool fossils to be found in the limestone walls, and of course, the lovely cave and falls at the lower part, and a rainbow-filled pool at the upper falls. We motored through, looking to put the tourists behind us as we climbed up and out of the gorge and through the forest.
The Ink Pots – our next checkpoint – while unique, are not crazy spectacular…lightly hued blue-green mineral pools with a quicksand bottom and a constant temperature of 4C. We ditched our packs between the Ink Pots and the stream that feeds the falls, and lunched on our Laggan’s stash amongst the tourist-built cairns. (Depending how much of a trail purist you are, you might be inclined to kick over these cairns that were simply built for fun, not for direction.)
It was now that the adventure truly began, with our bellies full, water re-filled and seeking the faint trail through the willows that would lead us creek-side, all the way through the valley from the Ink Pots, past Larry’s Camp and onwards to Luellen Lake, our destination for the night.
The heat, I must say, was absolutely stifling. Hardly a breeze, not a cloud in the sky. Usually this is a blessing in the Canadian Rockies, but with a forecast of 32C, it created an all-around instant exhaustion. I was soaked already, and could wring my buff out quite substantially. By the time we hit Larry’s Camp, we fell to the forest floor and panted.
After a 30-minute rest and recuperation with elevated feet, water + Nuun tablets, we reluctantly hauled our packs back on and made our way across Johnston’s Creek and onwards through the valley. The spiders were nuts along this trail. We were, I guess, the only ones silly enough to tackle this particular route today, and Hugh kept getting the sticky webs across the face and chest as we moved through the trees and bushes. It caused him to yelp many a time, and my heart would jump because I thought it was a bear. “Spiders are worse,” he informed me. And I concur.
Bit by bit, we slowed down. It was hot. The packs were heavy. We seemed to have made every little bit of civilized conversation already. About 3 km out from Larry’s Camp we wound our way through the forested trail and Hugh stopped abruptly. “Mom. MOM.” Oh boy, I thought. Another spider. But not this time. “Mom, there’s a bear on the trail.”
Well, how about that.
Hugh stepped to the side, and I could see – not 20 feet ahead of us – a grizzly just along the trail with his head down, completely preoccupied. He had no idea we were there. We started talking to him: “Hey, bear. Looking good today, bear.”
The bear glanced up and eyeballed us.
A couple of seconds passed.
And then he began walking directly towards us.
“Hey bear, not today, bear! Whoa bear!” Shoulder to shoulder, in an attempt to look as big as possible, we slowly began to back up as he got closer, but still talking loudly, firmly. Hugh had long since pulled out his bear spray, and had the safety off, just in case.
I totally forgot I even had bear spray, fascinated by this whole encounter. A million things run through your head all at once when you are confronted with a situation you can influence but not control.
Remarkably, the bear veered off to our right with his slow, rolling gait, passing us by going off trail through the woods. He was still only about 15 feet away when he ambled by so quietly. His profile confirmed he was indeed a grizz with that prominent hump. He appeared to have a yellow tag or collar on…I was trying not to be too obvious, gawking, as to stare him down. He had little to no interest in us, and carried on down the path from whence we’d come.
Hugh and I just gaped at each other. Well. Textbook, I suppose. And over in less than 3 minutes.
Suddenly, we didn’t feel so hot or tired anymore. The adrenaline kicked in and we marched forward like the Von Trapps, talking loudly, singing and most of all, making space between us and the bear. The trail became muddier the further we got away from the meet n’greet and rapidly disintegrated into squishy pools. I slipped in a deep one, dunking myself and half my pack into the muddy goo. Soon we were forced around and through the tangled woods instead as puddles became too deep and sticky.
The trail eventually disappeared entirely – due to the 2013 floods – as the area became a braided stream with fast-flowing, crisp and clear water over smooth white and grey stones. We didn’t even hesitate and plunged right in, wading ankle deep upstream. The cold water seeped through our boots, cleaning off the mud and cooling us to the core. We marched ahead, scanning for signs of a trail, and about a kilometre or so later, we picked it up once again, squishing through the forest in our water-logged boots. This was the beginning of the wet feet – something we had daily on this trail!
Onwards we trudged, the heat and exhaustion catching up with us. The trail is a tough one – mentally – as for the most part you’re enclosed in the forest, with no pretty views or end in sight. We criss-crossed back and forth with the creek, and after what seemed like a million years, we hit the coveted trail marker.
But we were in luck. The trail sign jived with the map. Onwards to Badger Pass Junction, back to Larry’s Camp or a side trip to Luellen Lake. Only 1km to the Luellen Lake campground. We’d already done 16.4 km. And that last kilometre – as fate usually has it – was up. Up, up, up to the lake. We crossed our last bridge, filled up on water, and then began the slow climb. It took us forever, completely bushed and now victims to hundreds of mozzies that seemed to come out of nowhere.
The short path up to Luellen Lake may have been the longest I’ve ever walked. So hot. So tired. Pack so heavy. When finally stumbled upon the lake, it was truly beautiful… a long blue-green mirror fringed by Engelmann spruce and Alpine fir, beneath the craggy cliffs of Helena Ridge.
However, with the mozzie army at our heels we headed right through the empty campground to site #1, pitched our tents and threw ourselves inside for protection…from mozzies, bears and the elements.
Did I mention that the bug spray was mysteriously left behind? Small regret going on…small regret…
This crazy long day ended quite uneventfully. Once inside his tent, Hugh didn’t emerge until morning. I got out periodically to brave the bugs and rinse my hiking clothes, hang the food bag, eat a granola bar and set our wet things out to dry. Sleep came so easily that night!
Tomorrow: Luellen Lake to Badger Pass Junction