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.

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 – 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

Stretchy pants, cabin fever & other anniversary adventures

Let’s just say that the mountain/wedding anniversary celebrations have passed and the era of the stretchy pants has begun.

Seriously, that’s all I’ve been wearing since being away for a week in the Canadian Rockies. Things with elastic waists.  It was a daily struggle between “I want to look good naked” and “C’mon, treat yourself.”

BearStrTavernx I did have quite a bit of control over food the majority of the holiday which was spent at Baker Creek, with a kitchen to prep our own food.  Baker Creek consisted of delightful log cabins in the woods with absolute peace and quiet. So much P&Q that I was getting FAR TOO MUCH SLEEP and a little edgy by the time I finished two novels in four days (The Girl on the Train and A Man Called Ove), and played all the solitaire I could handle, and was wrinkly from hot-tubbing in the wonderful Jacuzzi in our cabin.

No TVs, no telephones and the WiFi on our various gadgets was very limited. Funny how my modern-day decompression habits include scrolling FB or IG.

I lacked the ability to fully chill, and I bugged my husband daily about going out for snowshoe treks.  Yep, I was a complete pest. Our first snowshoe day out was across frozen Lake Louise to the ice waterfall, back again to the Chateau, then up to Mirror Lake, just below Lake Agnes. He thought he was going to die.  He thought I was trying to kill him. Not exactly romantic anniversary stuff.  The trail WAS steep, but we’d done that route a gazillion times before. I guess on snowshoes was a little more challenging. Or it was the altitude. Or maybe because we are not in fab shape. Or the last time we did that was 20 years ago. Or something.KickingitonPtarmiganx

So, by the next day, he was committing to only short snowshoe excursions (which caused me to pout, stomp and act like a child) because he knew at the end of the week I’d booked us into Skoki Lodge and the only way in to the backcountry was to snowshoe for 11K and he’d have no choice at that point.  I need to rest, he said.  It drove me batty.  He was calm and cool as a cucumber.  (How does he do it??)

Returning to Skoki Lodge (read about my last foray into the snowbound backcountry with Miz J.) was an exciting prospect, as I wanted to introduce my husband to these kinds of adventures that are near and dear to my heart.  He was wary.  Very wary. No running water. No electricity.  His biggest fear was sleeping quarters.

Do I have to sleep next to a stranger, he asked.  He was recalling the summer I took him and the boys to several of the Alpine Club of Canada backcountry huts, where everyone bunks down on padded sleeping platforms right next to one another, and God forbid you’re next to the dude who farts sausage stink all night or snores like a freight train. (He experienced both).

I assured him that no, he didn’t have to share a room, and in fact I’d booked the Honeymoon Cabin – a little log cabin completely separate from the main lodge.  He was quite thrilled about that.  And then when I told him all of our food was provided by stellar backcountry chefs, he perked up even more. No noisy people, no cooking and no cleaning… all good.

FirstlookxBlessed with a bluebird day and crazy warm temperatures for January, our Skoki day couldn’t have been more perfect.  We checked out of our  little cabin at Baker Creek and prepared to go every more rustic.  I was SUPER PROUD of him for making the trek out to the lodge.  Not only was he chipper, but he booked it along and we snowshoed up and over two mountain passes and down into Skoki Valley to the lodge in 3.5 hrs arriving mid-afternoon in time for tea. Not bad!! Well deserving of a night in our very own wee cabin.

Skoki’s honeymoon cabin is – by all means – the way to go. The lodge, built in the 1920s, is charming but squeaky, with the ability to hear all of your neighbours in the adjoining rooms. The cabin’s resounding silence conjured up the epic depth and aloneness of the being the only two people in the world on a fluffy king bed with a softer than soft duvet.  Totally amorous if you had any energy left after snowshoeing in, scarfing down multiple bowls of soul-defying tomato orzo soup with homemade biscuits, guzzling lemonade, snacking on cheddar and brie and pecans and blackberries, and polishing off every last crumb of both the gingerbread AND the lemon tea cakes because you couldn’t quite make up your mind which would go better with your third steaming cup of apple raspberry tea.

We completely passed out in that cozy bed until the sun set, and we found ourselves hurriedly throwing on hut booties and sweaters a few minutes before the dinner bell at 7:00 pm. Like we could fit more food in.Firesburningx

The lodge’s great room transformed into a candlelit haven, with staff moving quietly to and fro, preparing for the evening meal.  The menu board promised halibut, spanakopita, Skoki salad, roasted vegetables and chocolate cake.  We selected seats at the long, polished table and were soon joined by our fellow inmates. My dear extroverted husband took over our social obligations and I sweetly faded into the background, observing.  We met folks from Calgary (tell me a time at Skoki where you don’t meet someone from Calgary…) and a couple from the States. There was the obligatory teen, and a few groups of friends, along with some Aussies for good measure.  Most everyone was lovely, and only a few you’d like to short-sheet their beds. Which could actually be done because there are no locks on the doors at Skoki.

A delightful affair, is dinner at Skoki Lodge. Not only because of the stellar menus created and prepared by Katie Mitzel and her staff, but because it is communal, taking us all back to the art of conversation.

I’d like to say after a leisurely dinner that we fell into a fitful sleep from all that mountain air and good food, but alas we did not.  Bedtime at Skoki tends to take place between 9:00 – 10:00 pm, but we were wide awake following our afternoon nap and dinner.  We warmed up the cabin and did a bit of an electronic cheat, listening to the CBC’s Vinyl Cafe on my iPod, watching the battery operated twinkle lights we’d hung in the cabin windows.  It was after 1:00 am and several chilly excursions to the outhouse that we finally fell asleep….just in time to get up for our 8:00 am breakfast. Yes, breakfast.

SkokiteaxAll about the food.  The Skoki kitchen serves up both a cold and hot breakfast (second breakfast!) followed quickly by the make-your-own-lunch accouterments for either your day trips around the lodge or your trip back to reality.  We only stayed the one night, so we made off with cookies and pockets of trail mix, not bothering with the sandwiches this go around.

Our journey back was a slog up Deception Pass and then the long-haul to Skiing Louise and an endless trudge down the ski-out.  Last time, lifties put us over the mountain but this year, snowshoers had to use the ski-out…which added a ridiculous amount of time and effort. Any shine from the lodge might have worn off DH at this point. In fact, yes, yes it was most certainly gone.  There was a lot of cursing about snowshoes and walking and inconsiderate people making other people snowshoe so far just to reach cars where there are heated seats and mobile chargers.

Despite all the tromping around in the wilderness, I still managed to eat my weight in food, and upon arriving back in Banff (and massaging my legs back to life) we had a celebratory (as in, we’re alive!) steak dinner. Mmmm steak.

Hence the stretchy pants.

It might take some time to recover. I might need another week.

 

 

 

Embracing routine

I loved being in the mountains, but I missed my little “health” routine.

Oh my gosh – words of a stodgy middle-aged person??

My 0600 hrs gym workouts. The ability to drink as much water as I need to without worrying about the midnight run to the outhouse. Having a choice about the food I was eating. (What a whiner I am…)

I feel super duper accomplished to have “done” Skoki in the winter on snowshoes.  I ache for the mountains on a regular basis, and it totally was amazing to be there for a long weekend.  But it wasn’t enough.  And now I need a new anchor – a new goal to shoot for. Am thinking about this now… must come up with a fresh, awesome, hard goal.  That requires training. Something short term, something long term.

In the mean time, excited to be back to my little routines, I made a different smoothie this morning.  It was a “Cake Batter Smoothie” with cottage cheese, vanilla almond milk, a scoop of vanilla protein powder, a few drops of almond extract, some vanilla extract, ice and a banana.  It wasn’t too bad, but it didn’t have anything on my chocolate peanut butter banana smoothie

How am I going to live today in order to create the tomorrow I’m committed to?  ~Anthony Robbins

Top 5 things to do at a backcountry lodge in the winter

Happily arriving at Skoki Lodge all in one piece the intrepid snowshoe adventurers – that would be Jill and myself – now had two days to kill.  Sounds terrible when it’s put that way, but given that the journey was indeed the destination, there was now the matter of entertaining oneself in the backcountry.

I hadn’t really given it much thought as to what we’d get up to.  Summer would be easy – there are dozens of day hikes and places to explore.  Winter?  Hmmmm.  Despite my efforts to be healthy and outdoorsy, I’m not sure if I wanted to see my snowshoes again after the 11 km, 2 pass crossing endeavour to get there.

Luckily, R&R comes in a variety of forms in the backcountry.  Here are the top five:

5. Day tripping.  Put those snowshoes or skis back on and explore the area.  Skoki staff spend time each morning with guests offering suggestions or directions on where to go depending on skill, ability and time you’d want to spend out in the backcountry that day. Admittedly, we took a short venture out to the meadows chasing the winter sun for tanning opportunities but ended up drinking Baileys in the shade and sinking up to our waists when we went off-trail.

4. Add a friend.  You’re bound to have one or two things in common with your fellow inmates at the lodge.  Start with, “So, you like to ski…”  Break open the whiskey, rustle up a board game (being completely unplugged from mobile devices and the Internet, it’s time to go back to your roots.  Scrabble, Monopoly, Charades, strip Poker, etc.), read some of the ancient novels left behind by other hikers, or tickle the ivories on the old piano.

3. Stargazing.  The unbelievably clear night skies offer up stunning views of the constellations and the Milky Way.  Bundle up with a blanket outside or at least take a quick glance upwards on way to the outhouse in the middle of the night.

2. Napping.  There is nothing sweeter than an afternoon nap, unfettered by duty, chore or responsibility.  Slide under the feather duvet and drift into another world. It’s like getting your life back. Should you be travelling with a significant other, napping could take on a whole other slant.

1. Eating & drinking.  No need for dehydrated food or protein bars on this holiday… backcountry chefs create the most delicious fare for breakfast, lunch and dinner.  Don’t count the calories, you’ll be burning off that beef tenderloin, mushroom risotto and gingerbread cake & toffee sauce when you’re…stargazing.

Brain vs. mountain

Well.

I lived. Am here to write about it.

Jill and I arrived in Lake Louise super stoked about snowshoeing out to Skoki Lodge. Woohoo – January challenge is in da howse!  After checking in at the Lake Louise Ski Area reception and cramming into the gondola with our packs, snowshoes, poles and three other boarders that we squashed against the windows, we made it up and over the mountain to Temple Lodge, a log cabin restaurant/bar on the back side of the ski hill.

For some reason, the directions from Temple to the Skoki Lodge trail head just didn’t seem logical. We ended up screwing around for a bit looking for the trail head, and it was in the that moment… that exciting rush of “we’re going to do this!”… that I freaked out. Silently.

My pack was heavy: “better safe than sorry” had been our packing motto. The air was thin. Bloody thin. There were skiers & boarders zipping by us from every direction. Lots of curious stares. The day was already passing quickly (gotta go! gotta go!) which meant the later we started, the later we got there (aka in the dark). My glasses were fogging. The one night stand I had with Rock Creek Dry Cider wasn’t offering any strength to fall back on. And we couldn’t find the trail head.

Turns out that the little sign indicating the way to Skoki is about 100 metres up Larch run #143. We marched – vertical nightmare – up that damn ski run and every cell in my body screamed for oxygen. My legs felt like lead. My lungs could barely suck in enough air. Sweat dripped from my brow as I stood heaving in front of the sign that pointed to a pretty little path through the trees.

At that point, I didn’t care. Not a bit. I took a photo of the sign for posterity, and shoved my camera back in the pack. Jill lead the way, and I followed, feeling sorry for myself. I couldn’t do this. I couldn’t keep up with her and I couldn’t breathe. I quietly suffered. Or maybe I wasn’t quiet. I might have bitched and moaned but I don’t remember.

All I know is that it was HARD.  It made every bit of “training” I did seem like a joke. I was sad.

He loved mountains, or he had loved the thought of them marching on the edge of stories brought from far away; but now he was borne down by the insupportable weight of Middle-earth. He longed to shut out the immensity in a quiet room by a fire.

~J.R.R. Tolkein, The Lord of the Rings

At that point it became very much an individual sport. I locked into my own world and just walked. One snowshoe in front of the other. When my heart hammered too excessively I stopped and I took long steady breaths, and then started up again when ready. (I felt awesome standing still – I just had trouble with the moving part).

The trail gradually looped up through the evergreens and out into an alpine meadow bathed in sunshine and gloriously warm temperatures for January. I caught up to Jill and we talked to passersby (uber fit skiers, dogs with little jackets) and soaked up the sun as we stood in the middle of the trail eating beef jerky, cheese and energy shots (mmm… Salted Caramel GU).  This break came around 4 kms into the snowshoe.

This was my first experience of athleticism being a mind game  as much as a physical ability.  I calmed down, I accepted what I could do today, and then I did it.  Wasn’t a race, it was a marathon.  It truly did become the journey over the destination.  My body no longer exhibited signs of fight or flight, and I just kept moving slow and steady.

Following the gradual climb to the alpine meadow, we began the short ascent of Boulder Pass, winding up a fairly steep route between boulders capped like massive snow mushrooms. At the top of the pass, frozen Ptarmigan Lake stretched out in front of us with the trail  leading up and over Deception Pass at the far end.

This was my moment of joy.

Not because the lake crossing guaranteed absolutely no incline, but because there was something delightful in front of me.  A couple of the people who’d passed us earlier on the trail were now skimming across the icy surface on their snowboards attached to giant, brightly coloured kites.  Kiteboarding!  How awesome was that?  The thought that people were willing and able to hike into the backcountry in the dead of winter to a frozen lake at several thousand feet above sea level for FUN… So cool. I loved it.

We motored across the windblown lake at a good clip and began the slog up Deception Pass.  One. Two. Three.  Four.  Five.  Six.  Seven.  Eight.  Stop.  Repeat.  That was all I could manage.  Tired?  A bit.  But just not able to physically do any more than that.  Not far behind us was a father-son duo also headed out to Skoki for the night.  Climbing the pass on their backcountry touring gear proved to be challenging for them as well.

Deception Pass rewarded us with stunning views from the top, looking over Skoki Valley and the peaks beyond that would be our backdrop for the next few days.  We had only a few more kilometres to go before reaching the lodge, and all were downhill!  We stopped for a celebratory swig (or three) of peppermint schnapps.  Papa Bear and his son swooped past us on their skis as we continued to snowshoe down into the valley.  Gravity blessed them with a time advantage on the flip side and they made it to the lodge a whole hour before us. (Not that it mattered…but Papa Bear pointed that out to us over dinner later that night…)

We arrived at Skoki Lodge, about 5 hours and 15 minutes from the time we began.  A bit weary on my part, but pleased.  And totally within the suggested travel time to Skoki of “three to five hours”.  Overcoming my own mind seemed to truly be the biggest challenge.  Silly brain.

The only person you need to be better than is the person you were yesterday.