I’m a quitter & I’m okay with that today

Powderface 42It was a Forest Gump moment extraordinaire. Halfway through my half marathon trail race, I just stopped.

Sounds dramatic, but it wasn’t.

I could see the medic and the sweep carefully assessing me and my decision. It was, after all, their job to make sure I wasn’t bleeding or broken in some way. Sure, there was some minor discomfort (hey, it’s running) like swollen hands and being lightheaded in the heat, but no real emergency. I’d just had enough that day.

I was enough that day.

And so I took a knee, and dropped out of Powderface (that’s a big DNF – officially) after seven miles of straight up and straight down, flats through wildflower meadows, gradual descents through the trees and brush, slow inclines along rocky paths, and chance encounters with young elk. Beautiful day.

It was the strangest thing to do, and very uncharacteristic for me. If you’ve been following my blog, you know that I have a ridiculous record of finishing even if it means I’m dead last and/or the clock ran out. I just keep going. I’m a bit stubborn that way.

“Is this your first trail race?” asked the sweep, rather cautiously. I was tempted to lie. But I told her no, I’d done a 5 Peaks race before. “Where are you from?” (ie. was I a Flatlander? Had I ever seen a hill?) was the next question. The sweep was lovely – saying all the right things, and giving all sorts of helpful advice for future training. I appreciated every last bit of it, but was anxious to get on my way. I was done for the day.

While I was quite willing to walk back to the race staging area along the highway, the race crew at the aid station intervened and radioed in a medic ride. After a quick drive, I handed in my race bib at the finish line. I walked by the aid station stacked with boxes of mini pies, bowls of sweet, juicy fruit and salty chips, and past all the 5 Peaks mugs and Buffs set out for the finishers.

Me = officially not a finisher.  Pie is for finishers.

I had kind of a neutral feeling about that. No victory dance, yet no regret.  Perhaps just a little meh. [Insert shoulder shrug here]

I hopped back into my car, drove out of the mountains back to Calgary to pick up my husband, then headed north to Edmonton.  The future of me and running still to be determined.

Have you ever dropped out of a race?

Would you still wear the race t-shirt if you didn’t complete the race?

Have you and running ever taken a break?

Lake Louise larch #wonderfall

Larch season beckoned.

Sometimes you just need to go.  To the mountains.

It doesn’t matter that it’s not planned or perfect or comfortable. It’s about throwing it all to the wind, getting in the car and driving.

Screw the 10K race I’d signed up for.  I’d already missed a weekend hike in Lake O’Hara with M. due to a cold, and knew this might be the last chance to hit the backcountry before the snow flew.

Hugh said he’d come with me, along with his friend, Migs.

We didn’t end up leaving the city until 8:00 pm on Friday night. Normally that in itself would be discouraging… the boss keeps you late, the boys are’t packed, etc. But you know what? I wasn’t going to let that slow us down.

Driving under the starry skies, along the long lonely roads of David Thompson country and then through a wild rain storm, we reached Lake Louise around one o’clock in the morning.  We pitched up to the campground in the downpour, and snagged an empty campsite in the darkness.  The boys slept in the car, and I curled up in Hugh’s pup tent.  ZzzZZzzzZzzz.

The next morning we fuelled up at Laggan’s deli and bakery in the village – one cannot have too many pizza bagels and brownies for the trail – gulping down coffee for a quick pick-me-up. We left the bakery quite content, and took our time adding in granola bars, cheese and chocolate to our packs before hitting the road again for a quick drive.

Parking at the Fish Creek trailhead near the ski hill, we began the monotonous ascent up the gravel access road that would take us up and around to the back bowls where we found the trail marker to Skoki Lodge.

Lake Louise wonderfall

Having hiked through Boulder Pass and Skoki Valley with Hugh just a few months ago, I was in awe of the magnificent change in scenery.  While Alberta doesn’t get the brilliant red hues like Canada’s east coast, the larches pretty much make up the difference.  The back bowls were scattered with towering golden larch trees, burnished in the autumn sunshine, standing out against a bluebird sky.

Boulder Pass itself transformed from green to gold.

Boulder Pass wonderfallThe air was crisp. Our moods were light.  I was a broken record: “This is sooooo beeeooootifullll.”

We made good time up the pass and around Ptarmigan Lake. We didn’t meet too many people at all along the way which was surprising given that it was the weekend, and such a short window for the larches.

Ptarmigan Lake wonderfall

This was a little slice of heaven.

Atop Deception Pass, the siren call of a scramble beckoned the boys skyward towards Ptarmigan Peak.

Scrambling near Ptarmigan

They disappeared and reappeared for about 45 minutes, each time popping up higher and further away than the last. I hunkered down in a nest made of backpacks, wearing all my gear to keep warm, watching through the zoom lens on my camera.

After the scrambling break we headed down into Skoki Valley, looking back over at the Wall of Jericho, and to the ridge they’d explored.  A drove of mountain sheep sprang out of a gully and near scared the life out of us, and trotted up the slope for a brief survey before disappearing.

Mountain sheep Skoki valley

Onwards into Skoki Valley, the trip was still lovely, but not as pretty as Boulder and Deception with all the larches. By the time we’d reached Skoki Lodge we were getting tired. Only one more kilometre to Merlin Meadows, our home for the night.

We decided to pop our heads into the lodge to see if they had any hikers’ tea left. Despite it being after the given time, the Skoki staff loaded up plates of muffins and three kinds of cakes for us, plus all the tea we could drink. I was grateful for being so spoiled, and more appreciative of this hospitality than ever when I’d actually stayed as a paying guest at the lodge.  After being warmed by the wood stove and hot tea, and stuffed with baked goods, we needed to get moving.

Merlin Meadows was only a short distance from the lodge, and it didn’t take long to set up our tents. The weather was still pretty cool, and nobody wanted to go for any more day hikes, so we packed it in for the night.

Merlin Meadows

Migs and I worked on starting a fire, but it was a challenge, as the backcountry campground had been picked clean over the summer of all the natural deadfall. What bigger pieces of wood remained were soaked. At least we killed some time, and soon enough we all went to our tents.

For breakfast I hauled out the big guns: Starbucks instant pumpkin spice lattes (so we could all feel like teenage girls), biscuits, bacon and eggs.

Backcountry breakfast

Can I just say BACON?  Why didn’t I do this every trip? I guess I felt a little indestructible on a one-night backcountry trip…normally I wouldn’t want to haul bacon/bacon juice around through the woods.

It was a slow and easy start to the day, savouring our last morning in the backcountry. Once we hit the trail we made for Skoki Lakes.

Across the bridge at Skoki Lodge

Another crisp, cool morning, and the walk to the lakes was nothing short of magical.

En route to Skoki Lakes

Hiking with Hugh and Miguel 08

Hiking with Hugh and Miguel 13

Hiking with Hugh and Miguel 11
We spent the rest of the day lounging at Zigadenus Lake, and the boys scrambled the ridge up to the glacier. They were gone forever, and I only had a minor panic attack in their absence…haha.  Next time, I’ll scramble, too…

It was late Sunday afternoon when we slung our packs back on and headed up over Packers Pass.

View from Packers Pass

Every moment – so worth it. By the time we got to the Fish Creek parking lot, it was evening. It was ridiculously late.  But it felt amazing. Talk about maximizing a weekend and disappearing into the woods.

We drove home in the dark, watching the reddish glow of the lunar eclipse, and crept into the house well past midnight.  Back in the city.  Tired. Happy.

Tonquin Valley tales & toenails

I finally lost those two toenails.

It is, after all, November.  The toes had it coming. They were crushed, mashed, marinated and stomped during an August hiking weekend through Jasper’s Tonquin Valley.

I should’ve pulled them off when they were still bendy and juicy.  Instead, I had high hopes they’d hang on.

No such luck.

So, I pulled both of them this morning.

Hiking Jasper’s Tonquin Valley brought long distances, frozen feet, mucky bogs, and unexpected wild beauty. It was actually the most sensational yet challenging hike for me all summer – one of those ‘perfect storms’, I guess you could say, to assault the senses.  There were times of great beauty wrapped in an exquisite sense of loneliness and mental exhaustion.

Tonquin Valley can be explored in a loop, but for a one-car quickie weekend hike, M. and I parked at the Portal Creek trailhead, where we’d return in a few days, and began our trek in towards the Maccarib backcountry campground.  Hiking into Tonquin up and over the 7,100 foot Maccarib Pass is reputedly the more scenic of the ways and we weren’t disappointed.

Towards Portal Creek

The route began with a slow ascent along Portal Creek, through the forest and up across rock slides. After the first 8.5 km and 350 m of gained elevation, we stopped for a break at the Portal Creek campground. I was cooked. And surprised.  I didn’t expect to be that wiped out after only a few kilometres.

TV cowgirlsAfter a break to refuel, and to discover the al fresco toilet options, we started the climb up Maccarib Pass.  We passed a handful of other hikers, and a convoy of supply horses.  Not too many folks on the trail.  I stopped a lot to take in the views and catch my breath.

Reaching Maccarib Pass was a total rush, and it was heady to soak up the expansive alpine meadows and multiple peaks. You could even see the lovely Mt. Edith Cavell from the top.  From there on it was a downward jaunt out of the pass, down through the next valley, all with a teaser of our first glimpse of the Ramparts. Total shot of energy, like the first 8.5 km didn’t even happen.

First glimpse of the Ramparts

We reached the Maccarib backcountry campground around the 19 km mark, to wrap up our days’ hike.  M. and I chose sites across from one another – both with a wonderful view of the tips of the Ramparts. The evening was spent eating and talking, and going for a walk to the lake to check out the mountains, which were truly magnificent in stature, and fantastical in name:  Drawbridge Peak, Bastion Peak, Dungeon Peak, Parapet Peak, Thunderbolt Peak, to name a few. Essentially the Ramparts is a sub-range of a dozen or so impressive, towering peaks upwards of 10,000 feet ringing the Amethyst Lakes.

Evening walk Tonquin Valley

Early the next morning, I woke up to the delicious patter of rain on my tent fly. Which then became the vaguest whisper of snow.

I pushed out of my tent to the most exhilarating blanket of white covering the ground, the tent, the trees, the view. The soft, heavy, wet snow plummeted down. I walked alone through Maccarib, absorbing Mother Nature’s amazing display.

Summer wonderland

My affection for the summer storm, however, began to wane as the morning progressed. We weren’t done with Tonquin. We’d only just arrived, and it was time to pack up and move on to the next campground, Surprise Point, about 9 km away. My tent was wet. My mittens and boots were wet.  And if I stopped moving, I was going to get cold.

I really hate being cold.  My mind hates being cold. It becomes a little obsessive.

What ought to have been an easy valley walk to Surprise Point became a bit of a snowy slog, with no view, no perspective.  The low clouds and swirling snow hid the Ramparts, in addition to covering the path.  M. led the way, breaking trail.  For me, it was mentally exhausting to tramp through the snow and squishy mud.  My feet were absolutely soaked through, and the inside of my shell was wet and clammy against my skin. I could feel my overall body temperature dropping even though we were on the move.

We broke our rhythm for quick look at the Amethyst campground (apocalyptic in the snow – flattened, with not a sign of civilization) and then for lunch at the Clithero campground, which seemed even more socked in (M. raised my spirits by sharing his chicken soup = lifesaver).  The snow lightened up and eventually stopped, but we still couldn’t see a single mountaintop despite being surrounded.  The last bit to Surprise Point was across uneven terrain beside the lakes, where occasionally the path bordered small but deep, black pools of water.

It was here my right foot slid left in the slippery snow, and I wiped out hard, backpack swinging out and gravity pulling me towards the pools.  I was going in, I was sure of it. It took every ounce of energy to fight my body weight.  I ended up in a heap on the snowbank, my face suspended above the water.  M. paused and looked around. He took a few steps towards me and cocked his head.  “Well, what are you doing down there?”  Then he turned and kept walking.

Undecided as to whether I should laugh or cry I rather ungracefully pushed off my hands and knees to get to my feet, and struggled to catch up.

Surprise Point

We arrived at Surprise Point as the clouds began to lift.  I was relieved to be home for the night, and both M. and I hung our gear out to dry on the trees around the campground. Once we’d set up camp, we walked over to the lakes to check out the Ramparts once again.

I could spend a week just watching the sky move and the light change.

The Ramparts

Tonquin Valley

M. was set up to take photos for a while, but I was slowly losing steam. My feet were still soaked to the bone, and my skin was cold. I had to throw in the towel, despite the beautiful surroundings.  I hustled back to the campground and got my stove going. I needed to eat something and get into my sleeping bag before I froze to death.

Don’t get me wrong, it wasn’t actually cold outside. If I’d had dry feet I think the situation would’ve been different. My boots just had no defence against the wet, wet snow.  I ate something, and filled my Nalgene bottle with boiling water to use as a mini furnace inside my sleeping bag. I stored my food in the campground food locker and headed off to my tent.  I put on all my long underwear, warm layers and hat.  It took me almost two hours to stop shivering. Miserable. Seriously.

Despite a restless night (with many thoughts of “why is it that I do this??”) I woke to a brilliantly sunny, happy, bluebird day.  The world had essentially transformed from snowy chaos.  I stuffed plastic bags bags in my boots and slid on a pair of dry socks. We were out for three nights/four days, and I’d brought three pairs of socks. I had to ration accordingly.

We left our camp set up and hit the trails for a day hike to check out the local glaciers.  A couple of ladies we met who were staying further along the trail at the ACC Wates-Gibson hut admired our tenacity to camp in the snow. I simply had cabin/roaring fire envy.  The Alpine hut was a few kilometres down the trail…Even though the day was sunny and warm, I had that cold misery imprinted on my being from yesterday and my mind was struggling to shake it off.

Back at Surprise Point around midday, we packed up our gear and returned down the trail towards Amethyst campground.  The terrain we’d travelled through was unrecognizable from the previous day: grassy meadows, 360 degree views of the mountains…. By now, the frozen paths had thawed into some serious mud pits.  Most of the time it wasn’t a small muddy patch where you could skirt around the edge; rather, it was a full-on mud fest, with deep churned guck which comes as part and parcel when you trail-share with horses. There was no way to fight it. Just walk through the middle. Get dirty, get wet.

Amethyst campground had melted back to normal with only small moats surrounding the tent pads as evidence of yesterday’s snowfall.  We set up our tents across from yet another glorious view of the Ramparts. Regardless of the close proximity to the lake, we had no bugs on this summer trip. I’d even packed a bug net, having read accounts of voracious mosquitoes, but I didn’t need to use it at all. Not only bugs, but we didn’t see caribou or bears, either.  Quite a quiet trip for wildlife, really.

Tonquin Valley teeth

While Maccarib had a handful of campers and Surprise Point had been deserted, Amethyst was actually full to capacity.  It was a real treat to visit with others on the trail, but also a little trickier to plan trips to the (open-air) loo…ha.  That night, when nature did come calling at 0200 hrs, I stood outside in amazement to watch dancing ribbons of the Aurora Borealis morph across the night sky.  The green bands of light held steady in the north for as long as I watched.  How can you bottle that feeling? Finally, I crawled back into my tent, zipped up my sleeping bag, and dozed off.

The next morning, an equally stunning display welcomed the day while we ate breakfast.

TV sunrise

A liquid gold sunrise in the Rockies.

Liquid gold sunrise

And home time. My last pair of dry socks sunk into wet boots.  It was a long haul out of the mountains that day, at about 25 km, but a gorgeous journey retracing our steps out of Tonquin Valley.  I felt quite humbled by this trip. My feet were in rough shape from all the long distances and being constantly wet. I was so appreciative of the fact that summer was winding down, and this was going to be one of my last hikes of the year.  On every hike I’ve had this year, I’ve bumped into fellow hikers from out East or overseas who make a trip to the Rockies as their one big annual vacation, with months of planning and preparation.  How spoiled was I to just get an email from M. saying, “how ’bout Tonquin?” and we could zip away for the weekend?  So lucky.

 

 

 

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 – Skoki Valley to Lake Louise (Day 7)

Home time!!! Despite the beauty of the Rockies, the crazy amazing hiking, and the lovely lodge atmosphere of Skoki…we wanted to go home.

Hugh extracted himself from the comfy bed of our Skoki Lodge detour and returned his Handbook of the Canadian Rockies to the bookshelf.  We munched and chatted our way through breakfast, and packed a hefty lunch to take along with us on the hike out. I took one last swing on the Skoki swing. We signed the guest book.  We left tips for the staff. Our gear was back in our packs. Our bellies were full. The sun was shining. We were ready to go.Day 7 swing

Start point: Skoki Lodge

End point: Village of Lake Louise

Distance: 17.2 km (3.9 km in the van)

Elevation: Gained ~309m, lost ~938m

Highlights: beauty of a day, icy cold root beer

I’d told Hugh about the Skoki Lakes route up to Packer’s Pass as an alternate to going back over Deception Pass but he was more comfortable going back the way we’d come, wanting to expedite our departure from the backcountry.Day 7 Skoki lounging

With our only elevation gain going up and over Deception, we made excellent time down past Ptarmigan Lake and Redoubt Mountain, down Boulder Pass and through the meadows.Day 7 heading home

It was another hot day, so we stopped and refilled our water bottles at the halfway hut, but otherwise just kept moving.  We passed hikers with crisp shirts and smiles on their faces. We saw dogs out for the day with their owners.  We witnessed an entire Japanese family trekking along from age 9 to what appeared to be 90. Everyone having a delightful day.

Hiking up to Ptarmigan Lake is a very do-able day hike from Lake Louise (I did it last summer); and believe it or not, I met several people in the winter who skied in to Skoki Lodge for tea and then skied out again, all in one day. Such a pretty area and is totally a must-do on any Canadian Rockies bucket list.

There are grizzlies living in and around Skiing Louise, and the Skoki Lodge trailhead is on the back side of the (ski) mountain.  We kept our eyes peeled, but didn’t see any bears at all.  Now – being a lodge guest, we had the option of catching a shuttle van from the Skoki trailhead on the mountain down to the Fish Creek parking lot, or walking the 3.9 km fire road.  I’ve walked up that fire road before, and let me tell you, it’s not too much fun. All gravel, steep and few opportunities for views of the surrounding mountains.  We opted to wait 1.5 hours for the shuttle van to come and fetch us.

By the time the van arrived, most of our fellow Skoki Lodge inmates had also shown up for the ride down the mountain.  It was bumpy and dusty and squishy, but better than walking down.  Our legs were done for this week!  The driver couldn’t take us any further than the Fish Creek parking lot, and our fellow hikers all had full cars, so we hiked from there to the village of Lake Louise.  Boy, we were happy to see Laggan’s for some pizza bagels, brownies and cold drinks!

We sat and watched tourists in the village as we waited for the Greyhound to Banff.  Thoroughly entertaining… Our bus was about an hour late (apparently the eastern-bound Greyhound out of Vancouver is almost always delayed) but soon enough we were on our way to meet the family in Banff – sooo great to see them!  After dinner out in Canmore, we headed on to Kananaskis where we stayed for a night in a tipi at Sundance Lodges.

Following a refreshing shower, Hugh wanted one last night in his own tent…so he set it up and turned in early. Day 7 one last tent night

Jim, Oliver and I sat and chatted for a while.  I was very aware of a new twinge in my lower back. By the time bedtime came, it was extremely painful, and even to get in and out of the tipi I had to crawl rather than bend down.  Lowering myself into bed was excruciating if I moved a degree too far to the left or right.  What the heck??

This was a disappointing turn of events, because the very next day in Kananaskis, I had a half-marathon trail run, Powderface. I’d registered for this event months ago and was totally looking forward to the challenge of this course.  And here I was, not even able to move properly from bed to standing, from standing to car, etc.  What a rip off!  Part of me wanted to go check in the next morning to at least get my race package, but eventually I made the decision to not participate in the race, and to head home one day early.  Sad face…the boys, mind you, were totally fine with that.  Hugh couldn’t wait to get home, Oliver had things to do, and Jim missed the cats…

And thus the Sawback Trail is done!  Such a neat experience to hike through the backcountry from Johnston’s Canyon to Lake Louise.  All in all, our trail kilometres added up to about 70 km over the 7 days we took to hike and explore.  I loved being able to hike with my son. I think that was the very best part.  (In the end, backcountry trips are all about the company …)

Sawback trail – Baker Lake to Skoki Valley (Days 5&6)

Our detour into the Skoki Valley was not really part of the SawbackTrail.  To wrap it up, we only had to hike 13 more km from Baker Lake down past Ptarmigan Lake and Boulder Pass, through the Lake Louise ski area and to the trail head at the Fish Creek parking lot.

Skoki Valley offers a whole whack of quintessential Rockies eye candy waiting to happen.  So close, we couldn’t pass up a couple of days exploring this destination…with a solid roof over our heads at night. As a less-than-roughing-it way of ending our hiking trip, we reserved our last two nights at Skoki Lodge, a 1930s-built backcountry log cabin which serves homemade meals and provides shelter from the elements, all in the heart of Skoki Valley.

Start point: Baker Lake campground (Sk11)

End point: Skoki Lodge

Distance: 6.5 km

Elevation: Gained ~224m, lost ~310m

Highlights: Clean sheets, four walls, bottomless watery lemonade

Trail notes: How quickly the body and mind adjust to new routines: walk, rest, eat, sleep – repeat. I’m ready to go from Baker Lake fairly early. Part of this need to get up, however, is due to an aching body of hours invested inside the tent. I’m sore, wanting to stretch and run and move. My clothes-sack-as-pillow is proving to be not as comfy as I remember it.  I wake up every time I need to shift and/or and turn over – which is often. I think I’m getting old.Day 5 leaving Baker

Funny thing when you know you’re going to be back in “civilization” – even if it’s just backcountry civilization…  I’m acutely aware that my sleeping bag smells like sweaty Doritos. I haven’t even seen my own face for days. My socks can stand on their own. I need to do a serious bird bath at the lake before smoothing out my least-offensive hiking shirt and heading to Skoki.  Hugh and I were looking forward to Skoki and the change of scenery. In particular, Hugh was still very bear-aware and was happy to be sleeping safe and sound tonight in a lodge.  I was more about the clean sheets and having someone else making the food.

We said goodbye to Mr. D., who gave us a parting gift of Gouda, an extra fuel canister and the coveted Bushman bug lotion. Woot.   From Baker Lake we could get to Skoki Lodge by hiking around Fossil Mountain or over Deception Pass – Hugh and I decided to go up and over Deception. Day 5 view to Skoki valley

It was a steep start but with fantastic views of the valley ahead, blue layer upon blue layer into the distance, and a gentle descent into the valley to the lodge passing by glaciers, lakes, creeks, meadows and endless trees.Day 5 Skoki arrival

Skoki Lodge check in is pretty mellow. Take your boots off at the front door, poke your head into the kitchen, and they’ll tick your name off their guest list, give you the brief verbal tour (outhouses out back, dinner at 7:00 pm, etc.) and let you find your room.  We’d booked a lodge room – Deception – with two single beds.    We arrived at teatime, which meant a little buffet of salsa & chips, cheese & crackers, scones, cake, fruit, and all the lemonade, tea and coffee you could guzzle. We plunked down at the long polished dining table to snack before heading upstairs to our room.

Our packs would undoubtedly be the biggest here as most people bring little more than a day pack to Skoki since everything is provided.  We gratefully emptied out our things in our room, rinsed and hung up any offending clothing and stored our tents and sleeping bags under the beds.  I fetched hot water in the jug provided in our room, and we washed our faces. Bliss!

Hugh immediately curled up in bed, and I took a wander around the lodge.  The two-level lodge houses the dining room and lounge on the main level, and above are bedrooms.  Several log cabins for both guests and staff are close by, within ringing distance of the dinner bell.  Just behind the lodge are outhouses for men and women.Day 5 Skoki interior

It was my first time at Skoki in the summer season having stayed twice before but only in the winter, hiking in via snowshoes (skiing is the usual method for winter, but a few snowshoe).  Pretty much the same. The most notable difference was that winter’s tea includes a hot soup and the lodge has a slightly more cozy feel with snow packed all around.  Summer leaves the lodge much more accessible to passerby hikers and campers, and there is much more foot traffic in the valley than in winter.

After a quick walkabout I went back up to our room and fell into a deep slumber on a soft bed with a deliciously fluffy duvet.  Hugh and I both dozed, shaking off sleep just minutes before the dinner bell rang.  Day 5 dinner at Skoki

At dinner, we met a few families, several sets of couples and a group of friends out for a few days away.  Everyone was quite nice, and shared stories of their hikes and outdoor trips.  We socialized for a bit, and when dinner wrapped up we hit the sack.

Day 6 dayhiking

Start/end point: Skoki Lodge

Distance: 7 km roundtrip (estimated)

The next morning came rather early due to our neighbours being up before 0600 hrs.  There is no way to mute the other inmates when you’re sleeping in a lodge room. The walls are thin and you can hear every cough or sneeze; the floorboards creak with each step taken; and then there’s the stage whispering… so, either get earplugs or book a cabin.

Breakfast at Skoki appears in two courses: one – oatmeal, yogurt, fruit salad and granola; two – something cooked, usually involving eggs.  Most of the time I’m skeptical about the cooked stuff despite my love of eggs, so I skip it and have another round of the first course.  After breakfast, I sat down with one of the Skoki crew and they drew me a map for a hike to Merlin Lake. I’d wanted to do the hike to Skoki lakes instead, hearing about the waterfall the night before at the dinner table, but the staffer was pretty insistent about Merlin, and that I should save the Skoki lakes hike as an alternative route back out instead of Deception Pass on our departure day. I dutifully took the Merlin map, but had every intention of hitting the trail to the lakes instead.

Hugh was a happy camper in our lodge room, and had no desire of leaving it – ever.  So, he skipped breakfast and was completely content with hanging out and reading all day.  He’d found a book on a shelf in the lounge by Bow Valley’s Ben Gadd, Handbook of the Canadian Rockies, and was learning about everything from bears to lichen.  I packed my hiking snacks from the picnic lunch prep buffet and headed out solo to check out “the Skoki lakes.”

These lakes are actually named  Zigadenus Lake and Myosotis Lake on my map, but interestingly enough, the trail from the lodge to the lakes is not marked on my map. This semi-hidden gem is for those in-the-know apparently, and from what I understand, Skoki staff will share a roster of neat off the grid hikes and scrambles as they see fit.Day 6 bridge at Skoki

My day hike started over the bridge at the fork in the road, literally, a stone’s throw from Skoki on a well-worn trail with only one sign marked “Packer’s Pass.”  Day 6 fork in the roadThe trail wound through the forest for a short time, and popped out in a wide meadow, with a rock wall and waterfall at the far end.  Cairns were my best friend at this point, marking the way frequently through a creek and a rockslide.Day 6 cairn spotting Can you spot the cairns?? Sometimes they really blended in…  Upon arriving at the lovely waterfall, I was a little stumped. Because the Skoki staffer gave me instructions for Merlin Lake, not the Skoki Lakes, I lacked details of this hike. What appeared before me was a rock wall with a rushing waterfall, and no apparent way up.

However, upon closer inspection, there were cairns leading right up to the falls.  I began to follow them, one by one, and slowly made my way on a very easy trail right up beside the waterfall, under a huge boulder, into a hidden chimney and boom – on top of the falls!  What a thrill!Day 6 up the waterfall

I skirted the lower lake, Myosotis, and following the cairns made my way up another rocky incline to the upper lake, Zigadenus.  Day 6 Skoki LakesI parked it at the top and hung out in the sunshine for almost an hour beneath the Wall of Jericho, eating my lunch and watching ice crack off the hanging glacier and tumble towards the water.Day 6 upper lake

I didn’t meet another soul until I began to pick my way down to the lower lake, and head home. Other Skoki guests were using this route as their way back out to Ptarmigan Lake and onwards to the trail head at Fish Creek.

This was a charming little day hike and my photos just don’t do it justice.Day 6 upper lake 2

I headed back to the lodge for tea, a rest and then dinner (so much food…).  Hugh was still engrossed in his book and not willing to give that up for socialization at dinner.  He skipped dinner as well, with the promise he’d come down for breakfast in the morning.

My sleep was restless that night. I was bitten several times by some sort of tiny midge that ended up leaving massive bumps on my arms and legs.  Yuck.  How ironic to survive the nasty mozzies for many days with only my tent to protect me, but then get taken down by another biting sort within the “safety” of the lodge.Day 6 back to the lodge

Tomorrow – time to go home!

 

 

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