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.

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 – Badger Pass Junction to Wildflower Creek (Day 3)

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

Start point: Badger Pass Junction campground (Jo29)

End point: Wildflower Creek campground (Ba15)

Distance: 10.3 km

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

Highlights: Fantastic views, trailfinding 101

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

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

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

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

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

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

He asked if we’d seen any bears.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Tomorrow: Wildflower Creek to Baker Lake

 

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

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

Start point: Luellen Lake campground (Jo19)

End point: Badger Pass Junction campground (Jo29)

Distance: 6.3 km

Elevation: Gained ~25m…flat day!

Highlights: Meeting Mr. D, resting

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Tomorrow – Badger Pass Junction to Wildflower Creek

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

Before heading out on bigger hikes this summer, it was time for my youngest son, Hugh, and I to put our gear, our bodies and our general hiking compatibility to the test.

We’d booked in for 6 nights total in the front-range wilderness, hiking from Johnston’s Canyon through to the village of Lake Louise.  For the first four nights, home would be backcountry campgrounds, while the last two nights of our Sawback trail adventure would be spent at Skoki Lodge.

We stopped in at Lake Louise the morning of the trek to take care of a few last-minute things, and of course, what’s a visit to Lake Louise without dropping a wad of cash at Laggan’s Deli & Bakery? We stocked up on fresh roast beef sandwiches, pizza bagels and cookies to take as our lunch on that first day. All was not lost on this little detour.

With the last minute housekeeping details out of the way, we were off by 10:00 am on a wicked hot day (highs of 32C!!) to climb into the mountains.

Start point: Johnston’s Canyon, 1A highway between Banff and Castle Junction

End point: Luellen Lake campground (Jo19)

Distance: 17.4 km

Elevation: Gained ~550m

Highlights: Da bears. Walking upstream in my newly baptized boots. Discovering we had no bug spray.

Trail notes: Taking the well-trodden tourist path through Johnston’s Canyon was a nice but sweaty way to start the day.  With the weight of a full pack, I had great gobs of sweat dripping off my brow as I huffed up past the lower falls, then the upper falls.  Already I was comparing myself to the backpack-less visitors who smelled super clean (mmmm wafts of perfume and aftershave and dryer sheets). Day 1 Johnston's Canyon

I feel that sometimes the very beginning of a hike gets brushed aside in the urgency to get some miles under the feet. Johnston Canyon was that for us.  We barely stopped at all along the trail and catwalks above the cavernous, carved canyon …there are some seriously cool fossils to be found in the limestone walls, and of course, the lovely cave and falls at the lower part, and a rainbow-filled pool at the upper falls. We motored through, looking to put the tourists behind us as we climbed up and out of the gorge and through the forest.

Day 1 Ink Pots

The Ink Pots – our next checkpoint – while unique, are not crazy spectacular…lightly hued blue-green mineral pools with a quicksand bottom and a constant temperature of 4C.  We ditched our packs between the Ink Pots and the stream that feeds the falls, and lunched on our Laggan’s stash amongst the tourist-built cairns.  (Depending how much of a trail purist you are, you might be inclined to kick over these cairns that were simply built for fun, not for direction.) Day 1 Leaving the InkPots

It was now that the adventure truly began, with our bellies full, water re-filled and seeking the faint trail through the willows that would lead us creek-side, all the way through the valley from the Ink Pots, past Larry’s Camp and onwards to Luellen Lake, our destination for the night.

The heat, I must say, was absolutely stifling. Hardly a breeze, not a cloud in the sky. Usually this is a blessing in the Canadian Rockies, but with a forecast of 32C, it created an all-around instant exhaustion.  I was soaked already, and could wring my buff out quite substantially.  By the time we hit Larry’s Camp, we fell to the forest floor and panted.

After a 30-minute rest and recuperation with elevated feet, water + Nuun tablets, we reluctantly hauled our packs back on and made our way across Johnston’s Creek and onwards through the valley.  The spiders were nuts along this trail. We were, I guess, the only ones silly enough to tackle this particular route today, and Hugh kept getting the sticky webs across the face and chest as we moved through the trees and bushes.  It caused him to yelp many a time, and my heart would jump because I thought it was a bear.  “Spiders are worse,” he informed me. And I concur. Day 1 Spiders

Bit by bit, we slowed down. It was hot. The packs were heavy.  We seemed to have made every little bit of civilized conversation already.  About 3 km out from Larry’s Camp we wound our way through the forested trail and Hugh stopped abruptly.  “Mom. MOM.” Oh boy, I thought. Another spider.  But not this time.  “Mom, there’s a bear on the trail.”

Well, how about that.

Hugh stepped to the side, and I could see – not 20 feet ahead of us – a grizzly just along the trail with his head down, completely preoccupied.  He had no idea we were there.  We started talking to him: “Hey, bear. Looking good today, bear.”

The bear glanced up and eyeballed us.

A couple of seconds passed.

And then he began walking directly towards us.

“Hey bear, not today, bear!  Whoa bear!” Shoulder to shoulder, in an attempt to look as big as possible, we slowly began to back up as he got closer, but still talking loudly, firmly.  Hugh had long since pulled out his bear spray, and had the safety off, just in case.

I totally forgot I even had bear spray, fascinated by this whole encounter. A million things run through your head all at once when you are confronted with a situation you can influence but not control.

Remarkably, the bear veered off to our right with his slow, rolling gait, passing us by going off trail through the woods.  He was still only about 15 feet away when he ambled by so quietly.  His profile confirmed he was indeed a grizz with that prominent hump. He appeared to have a yellow tag or collar on…I was trying not to be too obvious, gawking, as to stare him down.  He had little to no interest in us, and carried on down the path from whence we’d come.

Hugh and I just gaped at each other. Well. Textbook, I suppose. And over in less than 3 minutes.

Suddenly, we didn’t feel so hot or tired anymore.  The adrenaline kicked in and we marched forward like the Von Trapps, talking loudly, singing and most of all, making space between us and the bear.  The trail became muddier the further we got away from the meet n’greet and rapidly disintegrated into squishy pools.  I slipped in a deep one, dunking myself and half my pack into the muddy goo.  Soon we were forced around and through the tangled woods instead as puddles became too deep and sticky.

The trail eventually disappeared entirely – due to the 2013 floods –  as the area became a braided stream with fast-flowing, crisp and clear water over smooth white and grey stones.  We didn’t even hesitate and plunged right in, wading ankle deep upstream.  The cold water seeped through our boots, cleaning off the mud and cooling us to the core.  We marched ahead, scanning for signs of a trail, and about a kilometre or so later, we picked it up once again, squishing through the forest in our water-logged boots. This was the beginning of the wet feet – something we had daily on this trail!

Onwards we trudged, the heat and exhaustion catching up with us.  The trail is a tough one – mentally – as for the most part you’re enclosed in the forest, with no pretty views or end in sight.  We criss-crossed back and forth with the creek, and after what seemed like a million years, we hit the coveted trail marker.

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

But we were in luck. The trail sign jived with the map.  Onwards to Badger Pass Junction, back to Larry’s Camp or a side trip to Luellen Lake. Only 1km to the Luellen Lake campground.  We’d already done 16.4 km.  And that last kilometre – as fate usually has it – was up. Up, up, up to the lake. We crossed our last bridge, filled up on water, and then began the slow climb. It took us forever, completely bushed and now victims to hundreds of mozzies that seemed to come out of nowhere.

The short path up to Luellen Lake may have been the longest I’ve ever walked. So hot. So tired. Pack so heavy.  When finally stumbled upon the lake, it was truly beautiful… a long blue-green mirror fringed by Engelmann spruce and Alpine fir, beneath the craggy cliffs of Helena Ridge.Day 1 Luellen Lake

However, with the mozzie army at our heels we headed right through the empty campground to site #1, pitched our tents and threw ourselves inside for protection…from mozzies, bears and the elements.

Did I mention that the bug spray was mysteriously left behind?  Small regret going on…small regret…

This crazy long day ended quite uneventfully.   Once inside his tent, Hugh didn’t emerge until morning.  I got out periodically to brave the bugs and rinse my hiking clothes, hang the food bag, eat a granola bar and set our wet things out to dry.  Sleep came so easily that night!

Tomorrow: Luellen Lake to Badger Pass Junction

Sawback Trail & the gear that got us there

Prepping for a long-distance trek can be intimidating.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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.