Red Deer Lakes
|Oyster Lake - the source of the Red Deer River|
The next morning I passed between Fossil and Skoki Mountains and into the drainage of the vast Red Deer River system. I made camp when I reached the Red Deer Lakes campsite and set about exploring the area.
At this point the river is not much more than a small creek. I noticed that there were small trout, probably introduced eastern brook trout in the crystal clear waters. Nestled in the valley surrounded by the summits of Cyclone, Pipestone and Skoki Mountains, and Oyster Peak, there are three Red Deer Lakes, two of which appear to drain into the Red Deer River. The other (most easily accessible) lake drains into Pipestone Creek.
One thing that I noticed immediately about the upper valley was the swarms of mosquitoes that plague the area.. I must have used half a bottle of deet that first day. This may have been the worst epidemic of mosquitoes that I have ever encountered in my Rocky Mountain travels. Usually the lack of insects is one of the things I like most about the high mountains, but this spot and the entire upper valley seem to team with the cursed parasites.
Despite the mosquitoes, the Red Deer Lakes is a very pleasant area. There were mule deer in this upper section of the valley and I found grizzly tracks and diggings. Columbian ground squirrels abound. There were also plenty of song sparrows and Oregon juncos in the region and a pair of solitary sandpipers at one of the lakes. That lake also teamed with large fish that jumped out of the water every so often, landing with mighty splashes. I wished that I had brought my fishing rod.
When I returned to camp there were some fellow hikers setting up tents and preparing dinner. I cooked up my freeze dried supper - not quite up to Skoki Lodge standards, but it was all right. Somehow I was hoping backpacking foods had improved in the years since I last tried them, but they don’t seem to have advanced much. Usually I don’t have to resort to freeze dried foods on short trips, but I had a heavy load and a longer way to travel this time.
I retired to my sleeping pad which wasn’t that great either. How did I ever sleep on those “ins-o-lite” pads when I was younger? These air pocket sleeping pads were infinitely more comfortable than those were, but my middle aged body had a hard time adjusting to even these relatively comfortable conditions.
“The clearest way into the universe is through a forest wilderness.” - John Muir
The next morning set a pattern for the following mornings of the hiking segment of my trip. A freeze dried breakfast and instant coffee preceded packing up everything and stuffing it all in my backpack. Then I hit the trail.
The first day was a good one. I passed the Cyclone Warden Cabin and headed eastward down the Red Deer River Trail. I crossed the river and took a side trip up a glacial creek to the Natural Bridge. The bridge of limestone frames the top of a waterfall, which has cut through the valley’s headwall instead of just flowing over it. I couldn’t resist standing on top of the bridge and looking down into the icy waters beneath my feet. I gazed back down the valley and across the Red Deer River to see part of the Drummond Glacier in the distance.
Later that day, I passed the mouth of Drummond Creek, where the milky glacier melt waters mixed with the clear waters of the upper Red Deer River, doubling the flow of the river. The glacier, mountain and creek get their names from Thomas Drummond(the first botanist to visit the Canadian Rockies). Many species of plants bear the suffix “drummondii” to their scientific name, in honor of this Scotsman.
The valley below the glacier and between Mounts Cyclone and Drummond is a spectacular sight and I would have liked to explore its upper reaches. The remains of pit houses(which are believed to have been built by prehistoric hunters) have been found near the foot of the Drummond Glacier. I’m sure there is probably still much game to be found in the area. Melt water cascaded down spectacular cliffs to the valley bottom to form Drummond Creek. I waded across its icy waters, picked up the trail on the eastern edge of the valley and continued on.
That night’s camp was across the river from Douglas Lake, near a quiet backwater. I contemplated visiting Douglas Lake, but the river was high at this point and crossing it alone didn’t seem like a smart idea.
The following day was much like the day before, but I made more progress (as it was without side trips). The Red Deer River trail is a surprisingly good one considering its remoteness. The only place that I had to do any real thrashing was near Skeleton Lake, where a good deal of deadfall blocked the trail and forced me to detour through the trees. Luckily no one was around to hear my cursing. At some point I lost my bear spray when it fell out of its holster. The thought of encountering a grizzly was never too far from my mind and the loss of my “security blanket” was a little unsettling.
Later in the day I passed park warden Ivan Phillips who was traveling in the opposite direction. He had a chainsaw and said he would clear that section of the trail on his way back to the Cyclone Cabin. He is the only other person that I saw during my entire trip down the Red Deer River Trail.
I passed two sections where the force of the river has cut narrow gorges through sections of limestone. At this point the river has gathered force and volume due to the contribution of its various tributaries, entering from side valleys. It was no longer the trickling creek that I first encountered near the Red Deer Lakes. Now its mighty rumble could be heard throughout the valley. I spent some time exploring the gorge and found some beautiful yellow mountain columbine growing in the mist of its cataracts.
The nature of the forest had changed by this section of the trail. I had lost some altitude and descended from a thick subalpine forest to a sparser montane environment. The feather mosses of the upper valley are replaced by kinnick-kinnick and there are more Douglas fir and some lodgepole pine in this lower section. I saw one area where a huge herd of ungulates had passed through (probably elk). The damp ground was churned into mush by the feet of hundreds of animals passing through this part of the valley, probably on their way to higher ground.
I crossed McConnell Creek just before I made camp that evening. It was beginning to cloud over before I went to bed and the next morning I awoke to the sound of rain on my tent. I lied in bed for an hour or so, hoping that it would let up and sure enough it did. When I got out of my tent I could see snow on the mountain slopes surrounding the valley. I later received an e-mail, from the warden, saying that it had snowed at the Cyclone Warden Cabin in the upper valley. I was glad that I had only received rain - wet snow would have made the going much more difficult.
Soon I was on my way again and even after my late start, I was determined to be out of the park and into YaHaTinda by the end of the day. I crossed Divide Creek after an hour or so and looked up this side valley toward its summit. The side valley allows hikers to cross over into the Clearwater River valley and is hemmed in by Mount Tyrrell on its eastern slope. Shortly after that, I hiked out of the narrow path in the forest and onto the wider Cascade River Fire Road. This road is closed to motor vehicles and continues to the south for about 60 kilometres and emerges on the road between the Banff townsite and Lake Minnewanka. It allows those on foot or horseback to access the remote Banff Park Front Ranges and a network of rugged hiking trails. I was at a turn in the road where it headed east, following the Red Deer River valley to YaHaTinda. I embarked on the road and over Tyrrell Creek, through a burned out forest toward a growing gap in the mountains ahead of me. Soon I was out of Banff National Park. I found a bleak, windy spot where I made a makeshift camp and retired for the evening, hoping my tent wouldn’t blow away in the night.
Following the upper Red Deer River through the front ranges of the Rocky Mountains while carrying a heavy pack and video camera had certainly been an arduous task. Traveling solo through the wildest area that I have ever visited was at once a beautiful but haunting experience. My only regret was that there was little time for side trips and to explore the surrounding valleys, lakes and ridges.
next time YaHaTinda