Cotton, Cirque, Chateau: today’s hike is brought to you by the letter “C”

Let me just say, if you feel like going on a little day hike, but you only happen to have, like, the first edition (circa 1971), of your Canadian Rockies trail guide, chances are things have changed. Important things. Like trailhead locations.

Sounds improbable, right? Ha. Well, I won’t bore you with the gory details, but my dear friend, Miz T., her faithful sidekick, Cotton the dog, and I ended up wandering along the Trans Canada highway near Banff in the blazing sun looking for a trailhead that had since moved due to a road extension and fencing off of a drainage underpass.

We gave up – wisely – after about 40 minutes and thumbed through the outdated guidebook from our Chateau Lake Louise staffer days to pick another hike. We wanted something that wouldn’t kill us, with a nice view or destination, and relatively short so we could do a few camping chores that afternoon in Canmore.

We settled on the C-Level Cirque up on the east flank of Cascade Mountain that was easily accessible from the Upper Bankhead parking lot off the Lake Minnewanka Road near Banff.  This trail promised a bit of Bow Valley coal mining history and a pretty cirque to boot. The hike was ~7.8 km return and we figured we could knock that off no problem.

Well – I was sweating like a madman in the first kilometre, wondering why on earth this felt so hard. Ha.  But seriously, this is a graded, well-maintained trail – it was just a little steeper than I expected.  There were lots of people on the trail so I had to stand up straighter and look casual while trying not to pant heavily as they – fresh, perky, etc – passed by.  Let’s blame the altitude, shall we?

We happily immersed ourselves in history – aka catching our breath – as we checked out the remnants of an old building dating back to the mining days in Banff National Park shortly after the 1 km mark.Bankhead

The Canadian Pacific Railway thought it would be more cost effective to supply CPR locomotives by opening its own mine at Bankhead in ~1905.  The coal mining operation included a coal mine and town on the lower slopes of Cascade, and it produced half a million tonnes of coal a year. In Bankhead’s heyday, the mine employed 300 men and the town’s population peaked at 1,500 people with taverns, a pool hall, a hotel and a school.  The Bankhead mines closed in ~1922, and slowly the town began to disappear.  Not long after, in 1930, all mining activity within the National Parks ceased.

Along C-Level Cirque hiking trail, there is plenty of evidence of coal mining in the area from days gone by starting with our rest stop.  The graffiti added to the feeling of an abandoned world.C Level graffiti

Follow a faint trail through the woods behind this building to a large coal slag heap, which is the perfect viewpoint for a distant look at Lake Minnewanka and the valley below.C Level Minnewanka

Rested after our little diversion, we got back on the trail and almost immediately discovered several ventilation shafts from the C-Level coal beds.  It was part eerie and part Goonies for me.  The shafts were fenced off, but you could see the tops of that chain link were bent as people had climbed over to explore.  Although unsafe, I can totally understand the lure of those vents.C Level mine vent

We kept on with our altitude battle, Cotton giving us the occasional disdainful glance as she pulled us onward and upward.  The best part was passing folks on the way down who told us we were barely halfway there…lol.  But all in good company, Miz T. and I got caught up on so many things.  I can hardly believe we worked together for Canadian Pacific Hotels & Resorts more than 20 years ago!!

Our youthful adventures back in the day took us on a crazy ski road trip to Montana in search of Whitefish but somehow we ended up in Great Falls delivering newspapers with some kid at 0500 hrs; hitchhiking through the mountain parks to the Lodge at Kananaskis where we stayed in an executive suite for the staffer rate of $30, and ate room service in the hot tub; hiking up Castle Mountain and sleeping under the stars at Rockbound Lake, watching a silent storm pass by, sheet lightning illuminating the massive rock walls; taking my little boys – 2 and 1 years of age – on their first backcountry camping trip to Ribbon Creek and watching them giggle as we hung Huey’s diapers from the bear pole… and so much more.  Isn’t life amazing?

Soon enough the trees began to thin out along the trail to the cirque, and we caught glimpses of Cascade Moutain high above us.  The whole grand rock bowl appeared as we emerged from the trees at the base of the formation.  Cirques are typically carved out of the side of a mountain by glaciers or erosion. This was a lovely example of a cirque, with a tumbling rock garden down the centre.  On the left is a faint trail down to a wee tarn, and on the right the trail continues steeply up along the treeline for even better views.C Level Cirque

Miz T. and I hung out at the tarn, throwing sticks in the water for Cotton to help her cool off on this stinky hot day.  C Level Cotton

We ate our lunches and lounged for a bit in the sun, watching Cotton play.  Afterwards, we made good time returning to the car and on to Canmore for a browse through the second-hand store, shopping for dinner stuff and a water fill up at the Canmore Nordic Centre… and then back to the Bow River campground for some R&R.

Sawback trail – Wildflower Creek to Baker Lake (Day 4)

The original plan for Day 4 was to hike from Wildflower Creek through to Merlin Meadows in the Skoki Valley; however, looking at the distances, 6.1 km to Baker Lake looked a lot more appealing than 13.9 km to Merlin.  We decided to play it by ear, but pretty much as soon as the topic was broached, we were all for keeping it short and sweet, knowing that today’s hike would include trail-finding, wet feet and, well, distance.

Start point: Wildflower Creek campground (Ba15)

End point: Baker Lake campground (Sk11)

Distance: 6.1 km, give or take some meandering

Elevation: Gained ~420m

Highlights: Trailfinding 102, teamwork, Percy the Porcupine

Trail notes: Hugh and I anticipated today as being our most challenging on the trail because we knew from the Parks folks that the trail disappeared and re-appeared at various points. Not to mention that there was no bridge across Wildflower Creek at all, due to floods in the past years.

Objective #1 was to get out of the campground.  We packed up and stood on the bank of the creek. Wildflower Creek is not especially wide, but in the narrow bits, it’s deep and fast flowing. Our goal was to cross without getting 1) hurt and 2) wet.

The logs thrown down by previous hikers in place of the bridge were not especially thick in girth, and were very smooth and slimy, having no bark left at all.  Mr. D. removed his pack to test them by taking a few tentative steps across.  The flimsy logs buckled and swayed beneath his weight – and he was a slender fellow! This was not the ideal crossing place.

We checked upstream and down, and our best option was slightly downstream where there were rocks already protruding from the water.  Hugh passed Mr. D. two pieces of deadfall, both still with bark, and together they created an elevated bridge using the stones.  A few steps on the bridge, two steps on the rocks, a helping hand, and a jump to the far bank = we were all across!  Go team Wildflower!

Riding high on the first obstacle conquered we made quick time through the forest and came out blinking into a large, bright meadow.  This sub-Alpine meadow was home to a massively braided stream, and despite efforts to keep to the trail along the right hand side, we lost the forest trail almost immediately and were forced into the meadow.Day 4 braided meadow

Objective #2 was to cross the meadow and find the trail in the forest at the foot of the pass on the other end.  Both online suggestions and Parks advice was to stick to the left side of the meadow, beneath the east ridges of Anthozoan Mountain, and then seek out the forest trail somewhere along the tree line once at the other end.

We got right royally soaked fording the streams through this meadow. All crisp, clear, lovely and cold – but wet.  Mr. D. had all-leather boots, and the water sloshed about in his footwear like a deviant whirlpool.  It was a somewhat enjoyable zig-zag across the meadows. Being together and using our noodles made it more Nancy Drew than Into the Wild.

It ended up taking us 2.5 hours from leaving the Wildflower Creek campground to reaching the hidden forest trail head at the far end of the meadow. We hadn’t actually travelled a great distance, but the route-finding took time. Cairns along the forest entry really helped out to pick up that trail again.

We hiked up a steep, rooted trail through the trees to a great, wide meadow. This has to have been my favourite view of the entire trek.  A total treat to glimpse our first look at the Skoki area, with Fossil on the left and the extended ranges on the right.Day 4 beauty

Ogling all this stunning scenery as we tramped through the meadow, we arrived at a trail junction sign in no time at all.  Here was the decision: carry on to Merlin Meadows, or stay at Baker Lake.  I got a surge of energy and was okay to go on, but Hugh reined me in, and we decided to go to Baker Lake. I’m glad he suggested this, because, as trail magic works, I was dog tired by the time we reached the campground.

We pitched our tents slightly off-site, hung up our clothes, aired out our boots and performed other camper rituals.  Being somewhat close to Lake Louise (only 13.1 km away) and the evening being right before a stat holiday, the campground had a half dozen tents and a quiet buzz of activity.  This was a lot of people compared to our last few days of hiking.  The sites are all in a clearing, close together in a ring. Not the nicest, I’d have to say. In fact the whole campground had a kind of disregarded air about it, like visitors were a bit careless…everything from bits of paper strewn about to food garbage tossed down the outhouse hole…not cool.

Note: I did feel slightly guilty about staying at Baker Lake without a reservation, since our two sites were reserved over at Merlin Meadows.  We were prepared to move, if needed, but in the end there were 4 empty tent pads that night, so we did not displace any fellow campers.Day 4 pretty

After an afternoon rest – counting mosquitoes buzzing between my tent’s net and fly (39) – we popped out for dinner.  We were still kind of prisoners in our tents due to the lack of bug repellent, so resting and hiding were serving an equal purpose.Day 4 pitch n pork

Mr. D. was already prepping his meal when we arrived to eat, and had a small visitor waddling about his picnic table.  Baker Lake’s resident porcupine (we call him Percy) tended to come out in the evenings, we learned, and would do his rounds at each site, checking out what campers may have left outside their tents.  Later, he would return and pretty much chew anything vaguely rubbery, such as boots or flip flops or even grips from hiking poles.  Percy wouldn’t hesitate to go right under your fly into the vestibule – even in the dead of night.  Apparently he scared the pants off some campers the night before doing just that. We hung our gear up in the trees or stashed it in our tent.

AND if you didn’t place the latch on the outhouse door when you were finished, Percy would eat all the wood in the outhouse, too!  Half of the toilet seat platform had been stripped away already, and I’m surprised the whole thing hadn’t caved in yet!

Hugh had the Hawaiian rice with chicken again, and I had a Southwestern macaroni with beef.  Huzzah for Hugh, and YUCK for me. Not even extra cheese could save that gross Southwestern macaroni.  The mozzies were pretty bad, but Mr. D. strolled over and lent us more Bushman cream.  That helped a lot. And the fact that I wore my raincoat and a hat…

After dinner, I hung up the food bag and filtered some water at the lake. It was so very peaceful at Baker Lake… I watched other campers go through similar rituals, then headed back to tuck in for the night.  As we lay in our tents that evening, chatting and listening to all the crazy birds, Percy came through to check us out.  We told him to scram, and he did.  Nothing juicy left in our site for him to nibble upon.Day 4 percy

Sleep came fairly quickly that night, but at midnight, I woke up because it was dead silent and pitch black.  Absolutely not a buzz, tweet or bump in the night.  It was so peculiar.

And then a flash. Six counts later, a roll of thunder.  More flashes, more thunder, penetrating the otherwise silent campground.  Hugh was awake, too, and we ventured that this finally was a product of the insanely hot days we’ve had in the Rockies all week.

The silence was broken once more by a distant rush…something let loose and heading our way in a mighty wave, until a mammoth squall burst over Fossil from the Skoki Valley and unleashed itself upon the Baker Lake campground.  The wind howled and buffeted and tore at the treetops, lightning crackling overhead, thunder pounding.  The gale was crazy strong, and surprisingly warm, yet our tent flies were barely ruffled.  All the action was heaven-ward.

As quickly as the squall came, it left, continuing on towards Pulsatilla Pass, taking the thunder and lightning with it. And then then rain came: heavy, hard and endless.  We fell asleep to the downpour, waking only once it was all over at about three or four in the morning.  A wickedly awesome way to end the night!

Tomorrow: Baker Lake to Skoki Valley

 

Sawback trail – Badger Pass Junction to Wildflower Creek (Day 3)

Day 3 of our backcountry adventure, and Hugh and I had fallen into a pretty easy routine. For me, it was very Camino-eque… hot, long days of walking, followed by lingering hours of rest, conversation and easy solitude. At home, we’d simply find something to play or do or clean. But in the wilderness, other than the basic chores of caring for our clothes and gear, and preparing our food, we rested our bodies and minds.

Start point: Badger Pass Junction campground (Jo29)

End point: Wildflower Creek campground (Ba15)

Distance: 10.3 km

Elevation: Gained ~320m, lost ~515m; highest point was Pulsatilla Pass at 2,345m.

Highlights: Fantastic views, trailfinding 101

Trail notes: We were pretty stoked to be hiking up Pulsatilla Pass. After the long slog through forests and endless raptor-bushes (willows), we would get our first pass of the hike, and hopefully see some mountain vistas from the top, rather than the bottom of the valley.

I think our peanut and raisin oatmeal was still lurking somewhere in our stomachs from yesterday morning, so we opted for an easy breakfast of nuts and protein bars. The heat had effectively killed our appetites, and although we were definitely getting enough water, this is probably the least I’ve ever eaten on a hiking trip.

Mr. D. had already left for Pulsatilla, and the three uber hikers were off in the opposite direction.  We were the last to pack up camp, and were quite pleased to see low cloud cover this morning, with a bit of drizzle in the air.  The temperatures, while still muggy, were slightly less and much more amenable to hiking up and over a mountain pass.Day 3 on the road

The path out of the campground hooked up with the main trail in the meadow along the valley floor where we left off the day before, and after a quick water bottle refill from the creek, we moved towards the pass.  Our reward for two days of tree/bush-hiking was now a lovely forest trail that opened into a narrow, flowered meadow divided by a bubbling stream leading up the pass.  The incline was moderately steep, causing us to stop and take in the view multiple times.  The low clouds swallowed the terrain we’d left behind, and the cool mist felt amazing on our warm skin and sweaty heads.

The grassy meadow gave away for the last bit up Pulsatilla, where we picked our way along the rocky path and through snow patches to the top.   Waiting for us on the other side was a broad hanging meadow dotted with tiny Alpine Forget-me-nots, buttercups, Pulsatilla (Western Anemone), and Indian Paintbrush, surrounded by peak after peak layering into the hazy distance.  Water burbled down the pass into a glassy aquamarine lake, where one just wanted to loll and spend the afternoon.  An earnest discussion was had regarding future trips, and the packing in of an inflatable dinghy.Day 3 Pulsatilla

Perched on a cliff above the lake, we were just finishing up our snack break, when Mr. D. came down the trail behind us. We’d assumed he was well ahead of us but it turns out he stopped along the creek early on to have a cooked breakfast.

He asked if we’d seen any bears.

Our bear radar was turned on pretty high, and no, we said we hadn’t.

“There are bear prints on top of your boot prints heading up Pulsatilla,” he advised.

Well – what the heck??  Pulsatilla Pass is a bottleneck, essentially, so if a bear (and friends) needed to get though it would be pretty noticeable. I’d even read a blog previous to setting out on this trip how a party heading to Pulsatilla turned around because a grizzly and her cubs needed the space to get through the saddle, and mama was not a happy camper to see humans as an obstacle. That party actually then turned around and hiked out Johnston’s Canyon that day – yowza, long hike! On the flip side, we learned yesterday how silent those massive bears could be even walking within 20 feet of you…sooo…

Hugh and I scanned the meadow.  Once out of the saddle, there was lots of room for the bear(s) and the hikers to continue on the lake side.  Nothing seemed to be moving…nonetheless, we continued on, but constantly checking out our surroundings with due diligence.

Following the meadows, we began to descend into the valley to meet up with Wildflower Creek.  The descent was super steep and long…pity the hikers who would come up from this direction over the pass.  Our paths crossed with Mr. D. once again, and we set forth all together to thrash through seven-foot willows creek-side.  Seriously.  Not my cup of tea. Raptor bushes all over again.

The trail was muddy and full of wet branches swatting us in the face. We came to an easy creek crossing – meaning, not deep – but then to pick up the trail on the other side became a challenge.  We worked hard to spot cairns – thank goodness for the cairns – but this is the part where I actually got turned around 180 degrees.  It’s that feeling where you are dead set that you should be heading the opposite direction from where you should really be going. And thoughts such as, gee, I should’ve been practicing with my compass as we walked… To be sure/unsure. Yikes.

Hugh and Mr. D. explained their reasoning as to directional choices, and we moved ahead on the very faint trail beside the creek (in the right direction!).  We continued to do a bit of trail finding through the brush, watching for cairns or other indicators such as broken branches, footprints, etc.  There was always a concern that we were following a game trail, too, versus the actual trail.

For the next several kilometres our movement was slow-going, cheerless bushwhacking through willows and mud puddles. We walked this way for at least two hours before the trail entered a more forested but open mossy area and descended steeply back towards Wildflower Creek.  Knowing from the map that this campground was low, at about 1,830 m, it was a good sign we were close.

We arrived – QUITE JOYFULLY – to discover a very quaint little campground with neatly organized sites next to a tumultuous creek, a squeaky clean outhouse, and a charming food area with a fire pit.  The ground between the trees was almost sproingy with moisture and rot, and lent quite a cozy, woodsy feel it it all.  The campground was distinctly under-used, more than likely because nobody was crazy enough to make this hike.Day 3 Wildflower

Each of us pitched our tents immediately and peeled off our wet stuff. I swear a strange sucking sound emanated from my boots when I pulled my poor, puckered wet-fish feet out of them. We were all soaked to the bone.  Not five minutes after settling into our tents in our warm, dry clothes, then the rain started.  For two hours the rain fell steadily, as we hung out in our tents, napping.

It’s funny…dozing next to such a tumultuous creek, and having the constant pitter-patter of rain on the tent fly, deep in the forest, you begin to sense a pattern, a rhythm or thrum of a presence approaching, or perhaps voices. But in the end, it’s just the water.  (Island? Others?)Day 3 Wildflower tents

At supper time, Hugh and I emerged, quite relaxed, and set up for dinner. Hugh started a nice smoky fire to chase the mozzies away, and I prepped dinner.  Rays of sunlight found their way through the trees, and the whole forest smelled fresh and clean.  The heat returned fiercely, though, despite the earlier reprieve.

For dinner, we had another win-win: Shepherd’s Pie and Hawaiian Rice with Chicken.  Both super yummy, and perfect for the night.  After we hung out at the fire for a bit, we cleared away our things, did some washing and re-hung our food bag at the bear poles provided near the back of the campground.Day 3 supper

And off to bed by 7:45 pm to listen to some Vinyl Cafe, then slumber.

Tomorrow: Wildflower Creek to Baker Lake

 

Sawback trail – Luellen Lake to Badger Pass Junction (Day 2)

Completely knackered from our first day of the Sawback trail, Hugh and I had a nice, short (but hot!) day 2 ahead of us, hiking to the next campground.

Start point: Luellen Lake campground (Jo19)

End point: Badger Pass Junction campground (Jo29)

Distance: 6.3 km

Elevation: Gained ~25m…flat day!

Highlights: Meeting Mr. D, resting

Trail notes: Without dinner the night before, we woke up peckish and took on the mozzies at the Luellen Lake eating platform.  We boiled water for our oatmeal, which was Backpacker’s Pantry Peanut & Raisin Oatmeal.  Totally stodgy – as perhaps a little more water was needed – but we forced it down knowing we needed energy for today’s hike.Day 2 breakfast

Today we were only going a short ways, about 6.3 kilometres, and pretty much flat, but we were still wiped out from yesterday’s heat and hike, so a short day was totally welcome.

The bugs discovered us halfway through breakfast, and we packed up our gear in a buzzing frenzy, making a quick exit – so long, Luellen Lake, and thanks for all the fish!  (The lake actually did have fish…lol).Day 2 fish

Another merciless day of 30C was upon us, even early in the day, and the first few hours were an absolute slog in and out of the shade, with little pleasure in the treed surroundings.  We stopped about every 20 minutes!  Seriously, it was that bad. Plenty of water and rest was our best defense.

We saw loads of bear prints and scat right along the mucky trail. Half of our energy was used to sing-song back and forth: “Hey Bear!” “Bear-bear-bear!” We dared not stop the repetitive chorus.  Truth be told, the dense trees muted our voices anyway.  We’d more than likely fall on top of a bear before it heard us coming. Day2 bear print

When the trail did emerge from the trees, more of the valley and mountains were revealed but the actual path was surrounded with three foot willows – or “raptor bushes” as we called them.  Walking through these we totally expected to be ambushed by velociraptors. No joke.Day 2 raptor bushes

After our final creek crossing of the day – this time with a wooden bridge, no wet feet required – we entered a wide meadow exposing all of the mountains on either side and onward to Pulsatilla Pass.  Badger Pass Junction campground was close to the end of the meadow, up on a tiny rise.

With commanding views of the meadow, and in a copse of knobby pines, Hugh and I pitched our tents at site #1, side by side, doors facing each other so we could chat while hiding from the mosquitoes. Another day of being drained by the heat!Day 2 Badger Pass Junction

Day 2 RnRWe chilled out for a few hours, feet up on our packs, chatting and listening to a podcast of the Vinyl Cafe with Stuart McLean.  Not a shabby way to spend the afternoon.Day 2 Vinyl CafeDay 2 at home

The outhouse door was a little wonky in this particular campground, like it had been jarred and then settled off-kilter. You kinda had to fight to get in and out, with tremendous screeching noises from the wooden door as you yanked it open.  Nothing subtle about outhouse visits on this one… (BTW – the outhouse at the last campground, Luellen Lake, was FULL of spiders…eeeeek)

By dinner time, we were joined by three hardcore, lightweight campers, and a lone Australian who thought he’d give this trail a go as something to do while visiting family in the mountains.  He did the epic version by starting the Sawback in Banff, at Mount Norquay.  Mr. D. took pity on us when he saw the backs of Hugh’s arms covered in bug bites, and lent us some of his Bushman bug cream…80% Deet = made for tropical killer bugs.  Our dinner was a million times more enjoyable that night!  We ate in peace without being bothered too much by our little winged friends.Day 2 Bushman

Hugh had “baco” cheese mashed potatoes and I had a Roma pasta = both amazing. It’s always a delight when you enjoy dehydrated food in a bag.  We invested in long-handled spoons as well, which makes digging the food out far less mucky.Day 2 dinner

We hit the sack early, watching the sun set and the stars come out one by one.

Note: We’d read that Badger Pass Junction campground doesn’t have a readily available source of water for campers, and were, of course, worried given the hot hiking days we had.  We thought that meant we’d have to walk back to the bridge crossing or something to get decent water; however, we found a stream offshoot from Johnston Creek just down the hill out of the campground.  Great, fresh water and not too far at all, ie. less than 3 minutes walk.

Tomorrow – Badger Pass Junction to Wildflower Creek

Sawback trail – Johnston’s Canyon to Luellen Lake (Day 1)

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). Day 1 Johnston's Canyon

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.

Day 1 Ink Pots

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.) Day 1 Leaving the InkPots

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. Day 1 Spiders

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.

Hugh groaned. “What if all it says is ‘be sure to drink your Ovaltine‘??”Day 1 trail along Johnston Creek

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.Day 1 Luellen Lake

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

Sawback Trail & the gear that got us there

Prepping for a long-distance trek can be intimidating.

“Long distance” meaning any adventure more than 2 nights for me…!

My methodology is to plan, plot and then start actually making piles: sleeping gear, footwear, clothing, first aid & toiletries, food & utensils, various gadgets…. and then the test: does it all fit?Gear list

This is the part where things get tossed out of the pile. Agonizingly. Or sometimes with great fickleness.

To be honest, my pack list doesn’t vary too much from trip to trip.  There’s always duct tape involved, for example. But here are some factors to consider:

Know your trail:  Get a topographical map, check out a guidebook and search online for blogs or other trail reports of your destination. Get the low-down on how wet, boggy or mucky a trail really is, or what obstacles seem common along the route. Maybe you’ll need to add something to your list because of this.

Prepare for all weather: Even if it’s calling for 30 degrees in the mountains, pack a raincoat, bring a toque.  Weather changes can be quick and fierce.

How’s your endurance?  And I mean smell-wise. Ha.  Do you need 4 clean shirts and your Axe Dark Temptation body spray or can you work with just one hiking outfit, one relaxing/sleeping outfit, a couple extra pairs of socks, and the pungent odour of awesome and epic?

Creature comforts rule. There’s often a fine line between the necessity and the luxury.  For me, it’s battery-powered snowflake-shaped LED string lights for my tent interior.  Yep. Call me crazy but this makes me feel at home.

For the Sawback trail I recently did with my youngest son, Hugh, we had ahead of us four backcountry campgrounds running along the front-ranges wilderness from Johnston Canyon through to Lake Louise, in Banff National Park.  Upon reserving the campsites for this trek, Parks Canada folks did say to expect some trail finding and creek crossing along our journey, but otherwise business as usual.  This is what I brought for a four-night backcountry trek:

  • Sleep
    tent (mine is a two-person but perfect-for-one kind of tent)
    sleeping pad (Therm-A-Rest NeoAir XLite)
    sleeping bag (-10, down-filled)
  • Food & drink
    4 dinners and 4 breakfasts (pre-packaged) + an Ichiban noodles as a back up
    8 granola/protein bars
    4 baggies of trail mix (mixed nuts, yoghurt raisins, peanut M&Ms + pretzels)
    a block of cheese + 1 baggie of jerky
    backpacking stove + 1 fuel cartridge + 1 pot + matches
    1 bowl (with measuring increments) + 1 long-handled spoon
    knife
    2 wide-mouth 1-litre water bottles (Nalgene)
    water filter + water purification tablets
    flavoured Nuun tablets
    a drawstring food bag for keeping it all together + for hanging/storing food at camp
  • Clothes
    hiking clothes: quick-dry long pants, tank, long-sleeve shirt, socks, boots, with alternating hat with brim/Buff/bandana
    in the pack: fleece pants, thermal shirt, 1 extra undies, 2 extra pairs of socks, warm jacket with hood, toque, gloves (all in a compression sack, which doubles as my pillow) and then easy access at the top of my pack is a rain coat and rain pants
  • First aid
    duct tape
    extra blister pads
    Polysporin
    AfterBite
    BandAids
    alcohol swabs
    Advil
  • Personal stuff (all teeny tiny versions)
    sunscreen
    lotion
    deodorant
    facial wipes
    foaming soap paper sheets
    toothbrush
    toothpaste
    bug spray*
  • Gear
    hiking poles
    pack cover
    topographical map + compass
    bear spray
  • Extras
    flip-flops for around camp
    DSLR camera with a wide angle lens + 2 batteries, waterproof zip soft case
    journal + 2 pens
    twinkle lights + batteries
    headlamp
    Therm-A-Rest Z Seat
    paracord survival bracelet (made it myself!)
    10 foot of light rope
    a couple extra Ziploc baggies for nasty wet socks or food garbage
    1 large black Glad garbage bag…you never know when you might need to glissade down a snow patch!

Things I thought would be good in past hikes but turned out to be just agonizingly (mentally) heavy due include a small tripod (never used), a deck of cards (never played), a flask (never drank), a travel towel (just drip-dried) and a book (never read). All of these were unused due to my general exhaustion at the end of each day. I’m pretty much capable of getting supper down the hatch and then passing out. Am not so sociable, per se…something I could work on.

I rarely crack my first aid kit (knock on wood) and I didn’t even use my foaming soap flakes to wash anything, but I think I’d still bring them along for the next trip. Just in case.

All of the list above fits into my 65L Arcteryx pack. Fill up those water bottles and oomph – that pack is sufficiently heavy!!  I’m guessing it came in around 45ish pounds with the water bottles filled up. Felt heavier, mind you.  Next time I’ll weigh it for sure, so I can think about every pound as I walk…

How heavy is your pack?  What can’t YOU live without?

*Hugh is even more fickle than I when it came to jamming things into his pack. He tossed his raincoat, sunscreen, toothbrush, deodorant and bug spray. Hm. Which do you think was the most vital for early summer in the backcountry?  Discuss.

Race report – Melissa’s Road Race 2014, Banff

I’d known about Melissa’s Road Race for years but always thought it too big, too epic for the likes of me. Well, since 2014 is all – CHANGE THYSELF – I figured I would make it so.  I knew I would more than likely be running it alone, and yep, that’s how it turned out.  But in the end, it’s just what I needed.

It was my second and final long race of the year. This one was a 21K road race compared to the 25K trail race I did in May.  And, really, my first true road race of the season as I’ve mostly stuck to the trails.  This course was out of the Banff Rec Grounds, along the Bow River, past the Bow Falls, two loops around the Banff Springs Hotel golf course, then back again.  95% pavement. Something new.

Organization: From the online registration through to the package pick-up, this was a quick, slick operation for those in the know.  Back in the dead of winter, credit card at close hand, I dutifully watched both the Melissa’s and the Running Room websites for the announcement of the registration. From what I’d heard, this race would sell out in a day or so, and I wanted to be ready.  For 2014, the registration opened on February 18 and the 10K sold out almost right away, and the 21K a few days after.

I didn’t train very well for this race. I was a little bit lazy, in fact.  I did do a 14K trail race two weekends prior, but otherwise wasn’t running daily.  I really should have been, but I’ve been in a bit of a funk with exercise, and it worried me somewhat that I was being silly in following through with this commitment… but at the same time, I signed up. So, I was going to do it.

Package pick up took place in Calgary leading up to race day and in Banff at Melissa’s the day before. I elected to head straight to Banff and it was a quick number pick up and scan right at Melissa’s restaurant.  Not a lot of touchy feely stuff going on, and if you had questions you kinda just kept them to yourself…the volunteers’ main purpose was to get through the line, I gather.

On race day, the start/finish was located in the Banff Rec Grounds.  I was quite morose to see the beer tent not open pre-race. Don’t they understand I need a cold one to calm my nerves??  I picked up my very own Melissa’s shirt with the awesome autumn artwork, then checked my bag. Huzzah for bag checks.

A trainer from the Banff Springs Hotel started a warm-up session, which was awesome. It helped me shake off the nervous excitement and warm up my body.  I had to laugh though – the warm up was like a whole workout session for me….lol.  I was worried that I had expended precious energy!  And that was it – – – >  we were off!  The 10K race left at 10:30 am and the 21K race started 10 minutes later.

My run: Rewinding a bit…Despite having lived in the area for seven years, I’d never actually eaten at Melissa’s Mis-Steak, so I decided this was a good place for my pre-race carb loading.  Spaghetti Bolognaise – pineapple juice is their secret weapon in this sauce – bread and garlic butter, Caesar salad.  Did the trick.

The day of the race, I brought my little backpack with gels, watermelon Spark, salt packets, etc.  When I saw the bag check, I weighed my options against the course map. There looked to be enough water stations to safely forgo bringing my own H2O, and my jacket had pockets to bring the gels.  The three salt packets from Wendy’s were a new addition to my running repertoire.  Miz J. told me that her totally amazing brother-in-law used salt in his long distance running. I sweat out SO MUCH salt.  21K was long distance enough for me, and because I didn’t want calf cramps like my last race, I figured I’d give this a go.

I seeded myself at the back!  The slowest pace bunny was 2:45. (My 25K took me 3:59 so I was aiming for about 3:00 hrs for this race.)  No walkers were permitted, although there was evidence of such, complete with walking sticks.  The main reason would be because of Parks Canada restrictions, and the time allocated for the race was limited. I would later learn how serious they were about this time limit.

Off and running, I was so excited. Seriously. A half marathon!  SO COOL.  And in the mountains, my favourite place on earth.  After I simmered down a bit, I found my legs, and I had to pass the 2:45 pace bunny and the 2:30 pace bunny. Not sure how wise this was, knowing I had so many kilometers to go.  I found a girl in purple with a long brunette ponytail to follow. She had a good solid pace and I kept time right behind her.  My right heel was sore, so I was trying to carefully place my foot, and even when I started to tire (hello – this is me we’re talking about…I get TIRED) I concentrated on keeping up with her.

Side note: I remember reading the question “Do you like to chase or be chased?”  I think I prefer the chase. I get way stressed out when trying to keep ahead of other runners coming up from behind me!

Passing a water station, I grabbed a cup and stopped at the garbage can to chug it back and to chuck out the cup.  Purple Girl didn’t take any water nor did she stop, and that’s when I lost her. And the little old Japanese lady.  And the sweatpants guy. I was soooo unhappy about that. Purple Girl was truly keeping me going.  Things started to go downhill.  I became so sluggish. I felt mentally defeated. It hurt to lift my feet. I was achy.  I’d already taken a gel with the water, and needed to save the others for later in the race.  People I hadn’t previously seen started passing me.  I shuffled a few more kilometers all grumpy like this.

Then I remembered the salt.  I touched my face, and already a crystal layer was building up.  I took a salt packet from my pocket, ripped it open and poured the contents under my tongue. So gross.  But so good.  As it melted into me, I felt so much better.   And that’s when I had the conversation with myself. Yes, it hurts now but pain is temporary. You want to finish this race?  Then just go. Stop feeling sorry for yourself. All this is temporary. The accomplishment of finishing this race ON YOUR OWN is something no one can take away.

Generally, these kind of pep talks don’t work on me. (You don’t really want that cookie…) I think being there alone, with no one to motivate me or hold me back, it was all on me. I was going to make or break this run.  And you know what?  I didn’t want to be last.  Again.  So, I ran. (Well, let’s be honest, I never actually RUN, more like shuffle/jog).

I picked my pace back up a bit and found my stride.  Surrounded by new people now…an older couple, a trio of 30-somethings, pink lady with the fanny pack, etc.  Partway through the first loop on the golf course a wave of runners loped past: the 21K-ers on their second loop already!  Loved this!  So amazing.

I almost didn’t do my second loop – the junction with the two water stations didn’t have clear markings, and I started to head down and out of the golf course. I caught myself in time and asked for directions.  I got straightened out but as I was talking to the volunteers, another wave ran through, including the 2:30 pace bunny (damn!!).

From there on I just kept at it – periodic salt and gel, water when it was offered.  I appreciated all the water stations and the musical volunteers along the route.  Kinda made you want to sit down, kick up your feet and stay a while!  Finally, I hit that junction again and was on my way back to the finish line.  The 2:45 pace bunny caught up to me and passed me, but then he ran back again.  He was having trouble keeping to his assigned pace, and was constantly going back and forth.  He did offer some nice advice to stand up straighter…I must have been hunching at this point. (Hunching, as in, let me lay down in the fetal position for a while)

Coming up past the Bow Falls I chatted with a walker (who walked as fast as I ran) who had actually run the loop THREE times due to the directional challenges at the junction – poor thing!  And then, that’s when I spotted her: PURPLE GIRL!!!  She was still running, and not too far ahead of me.  I told the Triple Loop Lady how I was following Purple Girl at the beginning, and she was like, oh! let’s catch her!!  So we ran together until we reached Purple Girl.  I said hello, but Purple Girl was lost in her own jammin’ earphone haze.  And that’s when I realized that Purple Girl was going pretty slow. And that I could keep moving.

I picked up my pace again and ran the last kilometres back onto the Rec Grounds.  Lots of cheering, lots of love from people I’d never met.  They announced my name and my town, and I crossed the finish line at 2:39 hrs.  WOW.  SO AMAZING.

Conclusion: Oh, heck ya, I’d do this one again.  I feel so at home in Banff and would be thrilled to do it.  The race had loads of draw prizes as well, many of which to encourage you to return to Banff, such as brunch certificates, etc.  Would you believe I didn’t go back to the beer tent?  So unlike me.  Or was it?  Perhaps I finally figured out I didn’t need it.

I forgot to switch off my running watch, so I’d wandered about the grounds eating my free race banana, stretching etc before I turned it off. I totally appreciate the way Melissa’s operated their food section.  You shuffle through fencing one by one, receiving a plastic bag, then volunteers in turn fill it with fruit, yogurt, granola bars, juice, etc.  There was no worry at this race of having the food plundered by faster runners from shorter races.

When I’d had enough, I started to walk back to the Banff Springs Hotel through the woods and back along the Bow River where we’d already run.  Coming towards me on the forest path was a little old Japanese lady with a giant pink balloon in her hand.  She was one of three little old Japanese ladies wearing matching t-shirt I’d seen sprinkled through the race.  She was followed by a volunteer in a golf cart. I suspected she was one of the last ones.  I put my stuff down and cheered her on as she came close.  It was a little weird, me, alone in the woods cheering on this stranger.  When she passed me and offered a tired smile, I started to cry.  I don’t know why.  Maybe because I was tired, too. Maybe because she was awesome. Maybe because she was running for someone who was no longer here. Maybe because I’d finished so many races alone and last. Maybe because I was alone today.

I walked – rather gingerly at this point – along the Bow then headed back up to the road.  That’s where I bumped into another runner.  She was off course, and she was pissed.  By the time she’d finished her two loops and was heading back into town, all the race markers had been removed due to time restrictions, and there were no longer any volunteers or directions in place. She’d been walking because of an unexpected hip injury.  Angry and defeated, she was trying to get back to the finish line. I pointed the way, and wished her luck.  That sucked.  I felt bad for her.

And that’s Melissa’s from September 27, 2014!  A fun race, good organization, a cool t-shirt, neat prizes, and lots of good time.  I’ll sign up for this one again next year.