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.

 

 

 

West Coast Trail Day 6 – #mclovin

WCT ConverseI shook off yesterday as best I could.  Today was  Sunday.  Not that days of the week really meant anything. But I had been counting sleeps.

In fact, counting sleeps is something I do not only for the anticipation of Santa, but also when backpacking. No matter where I am, or who I’m with, or what day I’m on, I mentally take quiet notes of how many sleeps down, and how many to go. I often think about my husband, knowing exactly where he’ll be at 8:00 pm every night (the bath). And the cats, where they hang out (end of the couch and in Oliver’s room). And it’s with a certain longing I recall the lovely, civilized routines of emptying the dishwasher, drawing the curtains at bedtime…

And I woke up today knowing there was only one more sleep on the trail.  Huzzah.

M. and P. were up and at ’em at a decent hour. I think they’d done their chores and started packing up before I could even haul my sorry self out of the tent.  Camper Bay was still jammed with backpackers. At least a dozen tents huddled together on the sand strip, a rowdy mash-up of hikers from each direction, everyone in a different stage: cleanliness, happiness, denial, exhaustion, etc.  And of all these characters, I quite enjoyed the little crowd that had formed around P.

P. was a social butterfly. He didn’t even have to look for a party, the party had come to him. It was a fairly large group of, oh, “middle-aged women” I guess would be the fairest assumption, who were hiking south to north.  He held court as they flitted back and forth, chatting him up as they noisily gathered their gear. From the snippets of conversation amongst themselves and with others, I figured if I had to hike with these women, they’d drive me nuts with their regimented plans and know-it-all attitudes; but if I was in a pinch, they’d always take care of me.

I sat on my driftwood bench sipping a cup of coffee (which, btw, was courtesy of P. who had shared his cruise ship collection of instant coffee with us) and watched the ladies warily, from a distance, dote over P. The French couple lounged nearby at their fire pit, Converse-clad feet up on logs, making no move to get going at all.  Mathieu caught my eye and raised his sunglasses. “These women, they’re like BIRDS. Squawk, squawk, squawk. So LOUD.”  He slipped his sunglasses back over his eyes and jammed his hat down over his ears.  Even Anne, normally full of humour in the mornings, agreed. “Thank God they’re hiking the other way.”

Eventually, the ladies wrapped up and wished P. the best, and headed northwards along the trail.  M. and P. also wanted to get an early start on the day and, shouldering their packs, made their way towards the cable car.

Hugh finally poked his head of his little yellow tent in the newfound silence.  “What the heck was going on out here?? What a racket!”  He disappeared, and started shoving his pack out from inside of his tent. However, in forcing his pack through the fly, which was still fastened at the bottom, we suddenly heard a sharp CRACK and his tent buckled. It was just a broken pole.  Not a big deal, we’d figured we’d duct tape it tonight. Better Day 6 than Day 1.

With most of the campground mostly deserted, with the exception of Mathieu and Anne, we savoured the peace.  It was a blessing to gather one’s thoughts and set intentions for the day.  Live, love, happiness – let’s roll!

I pulled on my wet socks, laced my boots and headed to Camper Creek with Hugh.  We skipped the cable car and jumped stone to stone across the creek instead. The water was low enough that it was safe to traverse. At most, your feet might get wet. And, CHECK.! they were already wet, so no harm no foul.  We scrambled along the forest paths to catch up to M. and P.

Today’s hike was Camper Bay to Thrasher Cove (8 km + 1 km off trail to the camping beach).  We had a choice today to hike along the beach around Owen Point at low tide (it is impassable at high tide), where there was some serious bouldering and cool caves to explore OR take the forest route along boardwalks and tree bridges.  Because the tides this time of year were higher, and the hiking window along this stretch of beach was tight, we opted for the forest route as the safer alternative for our group.

Hugh and I met up with M. and P. on the trail and travelled with them for a bit before pushing on ahead.

Day 6 on our own

Today’s hike turned out pretty amazing. Our route made points of contact at two beach entrances for the Owen Point route, but otherwise it was deep in the old growth forest with mud pits, boardwalks, ginormous cedars and my favourite part, the log bridges high above the forest floor.   The “bridges” were simply fallen logs needed  to traverse mucky ground or small gullies. The logs could be fat or thin, mossy or slimy. At least they were chiseled along the top and notched for a bit of boot-grip.  At one point, we travelled about 10 feet off the ground along a linked log path, with 90 degree angles at the junction points, six foot high brush overgrown all around us. “Marco!!” I’d yell before dancing across from log to log.  If I heard a “Polo!” I’d pause on a log junction until a north-bound hiker appeared and could safely pass.

We hiked a bit with Ange and May, the Calgary girls, and were lapped by Mathieu and Anne, who were like antelope on the trail.  We stopped for lunch and a couple of extended rest breaks but didn’t see M. and P. so we kept on moving forward, leaving our leaf faces now and then.  By about 2:00 pm we’d  reached the junction for Thrasher Cove.  Here, I’m sure, many decisions have been made.  The end of the trail was only 5 km south at the Gordon River ferry crossing.  Many hikers buckle down and continue on to complete the trek on their final day. We knew Thrasher Cove was only 1 km away, and that was home for the night, so we took a right on the path towards the beach.

That last 1 km to Thrasher Cove took a looooong time.  We began to lose elevation almost immediately, and it was with a sinking realization that we knew to get back to the junction would require a very steep hike first thing in the morning.  The trail down to Thrasher was arduous, rooty and muddy.  My knees creaked anytime I had to make really long steps down off rooty edges.  The finale came in the form of several tall ladders, and then poof! we arrived blinking in the sunshine, feet on sand, dazzlingly happy.

Beach!  Seriously! Awesome!  I dropped my bag and walked straight into the ocean up to my knees. The cold water seeped through my boots and my socks, rejuvenating my feet and my mind. I splashed for a bit, washing off my boots and pant legs as well. Freedom.

The beach was already fairly clogged with tents, and the southern, sunnier end had filled up with brand new hikers who’d just started their adventures.  We trudged north along the sand, crossing the trickle of freshwater, and pitched camp across the wee channel from Mathieu and Anne.  They were  already completely set up, and were sunning themselves down near the water’s edge.   We threw hiking poles, Hugh’s tent fly and a few other bits of our stuff onto the sand near our spots to hold space for M. and P.’s tents.  Hugh immediately went about organizing a campfire for M. and P.’s arrival, digging out an old fire ring, gathering driftwood and shaving kindling.  He took about a dozen trips further north along the beach to procure all sizes of driftwood.

Day 6 on the beach

While Hugh prepped the fire, I washed out clothes, hung damp things to dry, set up the tent and re-organized my food bag.  I’d budgeted fairly well for my food. For each day I’d rationed 1 bag of trail mix + 2 bars (ie. Clif Builder Bars, Luna bars, Kind bars) for the trail, and then 1 breakfast and 1 dinner. There was also a handful of trail/lunch extras like Moon Cheese and beef jerky.  Hugh and I shared a lot of our trail food, so if I ran out he had more and vice versa – it just depended who had the easiest access to the snack when hunger struck.  I had two dinners and two breakfasts left (I think I’d skipped a dinner somewhere along the way) and no trail mix/bars.  Hugh had a bag of trail mix and some Ichiban noodles.  We pooled our rations and planned on finishing up most of it tonight and tomorrow morning, leaving the trail mix for the walk out.

Hugh’s tent pole didn’t cooperate with our duct tape and stick splint ideas, so we decided he’d share with me tonight. My tent did sleep two, and was a palace for one, so there was no problem fitting him in.

M. and P. arrived at Thrasher Cove around supper, and it was fantastic to see them. We had the opportunity to sit around the fire for a bit and swap stories of our day.  Supper didn’t take to long to make and consume, and Hugh continued to feed the campfire with driftwood.

Day 6 Thrasher Cove

It was both a relief and a sadness to be spending only one last night on the WCT.  Home is a good place, you see.

I wandered the beach a bit, chatting with the south-bounders.

Day 6 awesomesauce The hikers heading north all looked so bright-eyed and bushy-tailed, not to mention, CLEAN.  Yep, I wanted no part of that. Haha. As well, I had no desire to get on my soapbox…I wanted them to experience everything for themselves, no expectations.  (And I’m also recalling all the “helpful” soapbox advice we received from passing hikers about the journey = 25% useful, 50% misguided, 25% grandstanding.)

We passed our last evening watching the tide creep in, to ensure our tents weren’t sucked into the ocean.  P. and H. had both gone to sleep a little earlier, M. stayed up to take photos. After the all clear, I headed to bed.

Good night, WCT.

Day 6 tide watch

Tomorrow – Thrasher Cove to Gordon River

 

 

West Coast Trail Day 5 – #pissedoff

0410 hrs, Camper Bay

Awake. In the dead of night. Drained from frustration.  Dirt under my fingernails – again. Stinking like a latrine.  An angry, sticky, stinging red rash on the inside of my thigh.

OMG. Why am I awake at this hour? It’s been a crap sleep following a crap day.  I’m a prisoner of my own mind.

Where do I start describing this past day’s adventures?  If I was to pull out my journal, you wouldn’t read a thing about the splendid suspension bridge at Logan Creek and the towering sets of ladders at either end. You wouldn’t know that we skidded along slick, moss-covered, broken boardwalks, some at crazy, rollercoaster angles. You wouldn’t see how we crossed a bog filled with mud pits and stunted trees, or traversed elevated log bridges suspended over a blanket of ferns.  You wouldn’t have even thought I was on the WCT. You would’ve thought I was pitching a fit in, say, traffic, or because my Starbucks order was wrong.

Day 5 grumpy kat

There just wasn’t a lot of joy on this day.

First, the spiralling-out-of-control hygiene issue. I think Bill Bryson captured it best from A Walk in the Woods:

You go through a series of staged transformations – a kind of gentle descent into squalor… At the end of the first day you feel mildly, self consciously grubby; by the second day, disgustingly so; by the third, you are beyond caring; by the fourth, you have forgotten what is like not to be like this.

And let me tell you, by the fifth day you can truly not even stand the chunky tang of yourself.  You catch a whiff of that juicy pong emanating from some unknown crevice and your head spins.  How, HOW in this modern world could I possibly not smell like fresh eucalyptus or baby powder?  I came to adore my tiny bottle of hand sanitizer because it had a faint after-scent of an orange orchard. I would often walk, just smelling my fingers, in order to feel human.

Second, there was pace.  We all have different gaits, and I was not in my groove.  At all.  Day 5 was our very first short day: Walbran Creek to Camper Bay (9 km), and also our first day hiking on the technical side of WCT.  Well, that 9 km hike took us 11.5 hours.  ELEVEN AND A HALF HOURS. I almost lost my mind. Admittedly, it came down to expectations. I didn’t realize it would take the four of us that long to complete this section.  They say the WCT is 30% physical and 70% mental. Well – I hadn’t budgeted mentally to be on the trail an additional three to four hours than anticipated that day. Nor did I set aside enough trail food for that length of time (read = hangry).

Third, pain.  While the true battle raged on in my beady little brain, after about eight hours on the trail, the body started to fight back as well.  I developed a long chafing rash on the inside of my thigh.  Hugh’s feet began to ache – as if on cue – and he was suffering terribly the last few hours. We were both pretty damn miserable.

If I had had the courage, I would have talked about how I felt with my hiking companions, or split up and hiked alone for a bit. To walk it out. To decompress. But I didn’t. And that probably added to my total vexation…not knowing how to be honest with myself or the group.  M. was silent. P. barked at us for jumping on the suspension bridge. Hugh bitched about his feet every 15 minutes. I was seething.  Good times, no?

We arrived together at Camper Bay sometime around 8:30 pm, the sun long gone.  All of our usual travel buddies had pitched camp between 3:30 – 5:00 pm which reconfirmed my crazy exasperation at how long we took.

To boot, the beach was NOT the utopia promised by hikers we’d met who’d travelled from the south, raving about the wonders of Camper Bay. Little did they know, the best was yet to come in terms of beach camping, and quite frankly, Camper Bay was a crowded, over-run, shanty town of tents squeezed onto a strip of sand behind a natural beach/rock wall so that you never really had easy access to the ocean. The water source was a stream and a pool (oh yes, guaranteed someone washed their stinky arse in that drinking water).  The best sites, of course, were already taken.  (Ummmm, mind you, I was so damn grumpy by this point, I may kinda have had a corrupted view on Camper Bay…)

Day 5 shantytown

We threw our packs down near our hiker buddies, avoiding one area of beach that apparently regularly got pummeled with rocks from the nearby cliff.  The French hikers, with great kindness, welcomed us to share their fire and offered up their large bag of filtered water so we could refill our bottles and prepare supper right away. Hugh and I gratefully accepted their generosity. We popped up our tents and ate, chatting back and forth with the friends from Montreal.  Hugh disappeared to bed after dinner and after taking some Advil for his bruised feet, and was out for the count.

After that, I just moved in slow motion. I’d caught one or two where-had-the-sun-gone snaps before it got too dark, just after we arrived. Otherwise, night was closing in.

Day 6 last of the sun

I still had to put the food away, visit the loo and all sort of other chores that seemed to take forever.  I hadn’t even taken my boots off.  I tried to shake off the day. Instead of the have-nots (no bathing, no post-hiking down time, no patience, no courage) I had to concentrate on the haves (alive, breathing, injury-free, kindness of fellow hikers, food and water in my belly).

It was 10:30 pm, sitting in the darkness by the driftwood campfire of the Calgary girls, when I finally peeled off my boots and my wretched, soaked socks. They stoked up the fire so I could hang my socks on sticks to dry. (Which truly is all aesthetics – nothing really ever dries on the WCT. ) I just sat and stared at the flames while they told stories of their day. When I finally rolled into my bed, or rather, on top of my bed, trying to air out my horrible rash, I could barely stand the smell of myself (how is it that I reek like an outhouse???) and I was exhausted by the ramblings and battles of my own mind.

Holy, I need to CHILL OUT.  A new day is about to dawn in two hours…

Tomorrow – Camper Bay to Thrasher Cove

West Coast Trail Day 4 – #keelykeelykeely

I was deep in another world.

It was vaguely post-apocalyptic, and sort of Waterworld (without Kevin Costner) but civilization had mostly ended and scattered populations floated upon the ocean. Hugh and I had sailed to the aircraft carrier that was now Great Britain and were to make contact with his Internet friends he’d met while gaming online for hours on end. They were going to help us “…because it’s raining out, but it’s not as bad as it sounds when you’re in the tent.”

It was M.’s voice blended with the rapid pitter-patter of rain on my tent fly. I struggled to pull myself out of such a deep sleep to comprehend what he was even saying. “…tides…leave by eight-thirty.”

“Right! Yes! Okay!” I tried to act like I was lucid. I shook myself awake.

Rain. Crap.

Yes, it’s the WCT, and rain is really the norm. We’d been blessed with our mild weather and gorgeous sunsets. If you want to talk Achilles heels, mine are not mud, heavy packs or long distances… mine would be dealing with group dynamics, and me/my gear being wet and being cold.  Now I’m sitting in my tent, strategizing how to pack up my stuff while keeping it as dry as possible.

We’d literally pitched camp where we fell last night right out in the open on the beach. No extra tarp cover. No forest cover. Just rain.  I typically pack up everything outside my tent, so I needed to switch up my method. I changed into my hiking clothes (always an awkward dance inside the tent), and started packing my sleeping bag, mat, camp pillow and clothes.  I tucked away my book, and because I didn’t know what to expect on my first day of rain, I also packed my camera (I’d just pull out my iPod for quick snaps).  I unzipped my tent screen and awkwardly put on my hiking boots in the vestibule.

Taking a deep breath, I unzipped the tent fly… it was grey out there.  A totally faded morning with drizzle from the sky.  M. was right – the rain was not as bad as it sounded from inside the tent.  I crawled out onto the wet sand, then propped my pack up on a log and threw my pack cover over it.  I trotted over to Hugh’s tent for a wake up call and gave him the morning weather report and timeline to get on the trail.  Time was important today for the tides.

With orientation for the WCT, each hiker is given a map with the tide tables – to match our hiking dates – taped inside. Some of the beaches are impassable when the tides are high, and it’s not worth getting stranded for hours on end, or wet.  Or in a worst case scenario – drown.  Today we were heading from Cribs Creek to Walbran Creek (11km) mostly along the beaches.

I wasn’t too excited about the rain.  It wasn’t hurting me, of course. But even though I had a waterproof coat and pants, I have this annoyance with being wet and cold, and today had the potential to suck.   I did my best to seem cheerful to Hugh, and he was keen to get up and get moving.

We both finished packing up in fairly good spirits but that fine sand stuck to everything it came in contact with…it was a total pain to fold up a wet, sandy tent that weighed a whole lot more now.   We ate a cold breakfast of trail mix and granola bars, not wanted to fuss with the stove and doing dishes in the drizzle. M. and P. are a solid pair, and took their time to prep a hot meal.  I didn’t have that patience.

Day 4 IG shots

We left Cribs in the cool drizzle, walking along the beach. It was wet and slow-going. I found the shifting sand combined with a snail’s pace to be frustrating. By the time we reached the short segment of forest leading to the Carmanah Point lighthouse, Hugh and P. were ready for a break. They parked it at the fork in the road while M. and I went to check out the lighthouse.  Just like Pachena Bay’s lighthouse, it was like entering the compound of the Others, from Lost. Manicured lawns, flowers, fuel tanks, a house, a swing set; general neat, tidy organization in the chaotic world of the WCT. Oddly enough, it held no appeal to stop and stay. We were barely at the start of our day – time to keep moving.

I was already wet. The raincoat was waterproof but my sweat created a cold layer against my skin. When we emerged from the forest onto the beach, I was thrilled to see Chez Monique’s, the second food stop along the WCT, and its spiral of smoke from the roof of the tarp shack. Hallelujah – a wood stove! I was freaking freezing. We sped up to cross the crescent of sand, eying up the handful of small boats clustered in the sheltered bay – always a back-up escape plan in mind…

It was still a little while before lunch, so the options were breakfast or burgers, and then anything from the extended convenience-store style menu.  We grabbed a free table, and set our wet packs off to the side. Hugh and I went to the kitchen and ordered hot vegetable soup, fully-loaded burgers and a handful of treats including Power-Ade, chocolate bars, butter tarts and gummy worms. I paid.  We spent about $70 there. Seriously.

I peeled off my raincoat and hung it over the back of the plastic lawn furniture. I went over and stood by the stove, which was outfitted with a dryer hose as a chimney.  There was a minor fire while we were there…and a conversation about a new shipment of supplies coming in soon.

Like the last stop, kids were taking orders and delivering food. But Chez Monique’s had a decidedly different feel than the crab shack.  Maybe it was the rain, maybe it was the vibe… The kitchen was the happiest area of the place. Monique was there taking orders and managing her folks.  The remaining cluster of shacks had a very communal feel, complete with a roaming barefooted toddler sporting dirty curls and a bearded drifter who was one day short of his two-week commitment to Monique, and didn’t hold back in sharing that he couldn’t wait to get off the trail. It was a place that could be more oppressive than idyllic if one was to stay longer than just for lunch.

The highlight – the absolute highlight – of Chez Monique’s was a young Aboriginal boy with the clearest blue eyes and the most delightful confidence that only a grade 5er could carry off. That perfect moment in time, that quintessential 11 year old boy archetype – confident, free, innocent and unabashed. Clad in boarder shorts and a sleeveless Hawaiian t-shirt with palm trees, despite the cooler weather, he was a busy little employee, running to and from the kitchen, answering questions and visiting as he went.  He wouldn’t let you take the burgers from his hands, but insisted upon placing the food down in front of you.

I would totally hike the WCT again next summer just to see if that kid is still around. I would also make t-shirts and hats with his picture and wear them proudly. He was that cool. I will never forget his little voice, calling my name: “Keely! Burgers for Keely! Keely, Keely, Keely!”

We ate up and warmed up.  And then we left.

Hugh and I surged forward, fuelled and free. The next 8 or so kilometres were all on the beach. We walked at a comfortable pace, chatting amiably, stopping for rests and to reconvene with M. and P. every two kilometres or so, to ensure everyone was doing alright.  This pace worked so well for us, and really helped Hugh’s feet, and lifted our spirits on this dreary day.  We skipped the cable car, jumping across the stream on the beach. We rounded point after point, making our way to the evening’s camp. We walked on soft sand, hard sand, pebbles, rocks, boulders and tidal flats.  We saw beautiful rock formations exposed at low tide, with trees growing out of top; a handful of baby otters and an eagle; loads of sea urchin shells and pretty pale green, blue and white sea glass.  An unexpected journey, these beaches.

Day 4 going home

We arrived at Walbran Creek at a civilized hour, with the sun breaking through to give us two hours of complete and total humanity.  Hugh and I hung our gear out to dry on great driftwood logs before finally pitching our tents and setting up camp.

Day 4 beach life

The evening ablutions ran their course; water gathering and feeding took place. Hugh retired early, and P. and M. went about their own chores.  I did a lot of sitting and staring out at the ocean. I missed the grey whales from the past three days. The sun set once again, and I settled in to my little home, tent fly open to the ocean, to read.

Day 4 tent life

Day 4 Reflection 02Tomorrow – Walbran Creek to Camper’s Bay

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 – 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!