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