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 – 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