Technology doesn't have to be something that divides us from nature. It can be a tool through which we can explore the natural world...

Wednesday, 4 December 2013

My Sacred Places - Part One

Don't let the title fool you into thinking that I am a religious person at all. I was a still a kid when I decided that I was a non-believer. I used to read a great deal (I was a bit of a "book-worm") and  I got interested in Norse and Greek mythology. At some point, I realized that the old gods weren't too different from the new gods and the people who told those old tales believed in those gods as much as Christians believe in "our" god today. That realization changed the way I look at the world, but that isn't what these articles are about so don't worry - I don't have any answers and the older I become, the more I realize that I just don't know...

I am certainly not a world traveler, but I am interested in the places around me and I like to explore whenever I can get away. I live in Western Canada so there is a personal bias involved of course, but there are a couple of more far-flung places that I have included that might surprise some of you. I don't think there are too many places that I have been that I can say I really don't like, but there are some that I have grown to love. Among that greater selection of destinations, there are some that are just that bit more special to me personally. They are places that have left their mark on me and are part of who I am. I have called these my "sacred places".

 Highwood High
I will start by saying that there is no place on the entire planet that I would rather be in the fall than the upper Highwood. From the shimmering stands of aspens in the Eden Valley to the beautiful golden alpine larches of the high subalpine cirques around the Highwood Pass, the Highwood is like heaven to somebody like me. If I had just one day to show somebody our province I would take them west of Longview and into those hills and mountains. The Highwood is "my Alberta".

In the summer of 1979, I worked for Alberta Transportation painting markings on the highway. One blue sky day we drove out to Longview, Alberta. to do some work, From the moment I arrived in the small town on Highway 22, I knew this was a special place. It was love-at-first-sight. That was the year Highway 940/ 40 was being realigned and paved into Kananaskis Country and up to and over the Highwood Pass making it the highest paved road in Canada at 2200 metres above sea level. I visited the area intermittently in the years before I met my wife, then it became a regular thing. We often camped at Green Ford campground (next to the river) in the Eden Valley, which is just outside of K- Country.

Bear creek hills - Grass Pass is the notch on the right
The autumn isn't the only time to visit the Highwood River. In the early spring  we would hike the Bear Creek Hills, trudging (huffing and puffing) up Grass Pass, Fir or Marston creek and up along the crests of the hills amongst the twisted limber pines. I could see the snow covered mountains of the Great Divide and across the river down into Zephyr and Cataract Creek valleys on either side of the long ridge of Mount Burke. The pain of these early season conditioning hikes would soon be forgotten, but not the inspiration of returning to the mountains after a long winter.
Summer draws one into the high country One June we backpacked up (toad filled) Mist Creek valley and almost ran headlong into a grizzly under one of ridges of Mist Mountain while looking for the hot spring. Later we hiked Mist Ridge, which was a lovely trip, with views of the backside of Mount Gibraltar and down into the Sheep River valley. We found a beautiful spring high up on the ridge.
Arethusa Cirque

The cirques of the misty range are always beautiful places to visit in the peak flower weeks of late July. Ptarmigan Cirque is the most popular of these and is one of the most easily accessed alpine meadows in the Canadian Rockies. The first time I hiked Ptarmigan, I spent several minutes explaining a boulder made up of fossilized horn coral to a man who turned out to be a paleontologist. His wife (sensing my embarrassment) told us that he had previously been explaining the formation of the universe to an astrophysicist. I guess we all get a little bit out of our depth sometimes! Less visited Arethusa Cirque is probably my favorite.  Last year we scrambled beside a cascade and up to an unnamed cirque full of alpine flowers that I had spotted from the Highwood Ridge (across the valley) on a previous trip.

Paradise Valley
Mount Tyrwhitt(upper left) Grizzly ridge(left)
Highwood ridge(right)
Pocattera Cirque, Grizzly Col and Ridge along with Paradise Valley and Highwood Ridge can be arranged into different hikes, in the area immediately west of the Highwood Pass. The views in this region are unsurpassed anywhere. The last time there, I hiked the length of the Highwood Ridge in nothing but a t-shirt, which is a rare experience at that altitude! I walked south from the summit. To my left, the peaks of the Misty Range were my constant companions. Below me to the right was pretty Paradise Valley backed by Grizzly Ridge - the site of a near fatal mistake, when I tried to shortcut off of the ridge. Behind the ridge, the summits of the great divide form a wall of rock that extends from Mount Tyrwhitt to the south. It was definitely one of the best days in my hiking career.

Pocattera Cirque in the fall
Thinking back, there have been so many adventures along the Highwood that it is no wonder that is a huge part of the person that I have become. There was the time that my wife and I got "lost" during a traverse of Cataract Creek one October day. We spent too much time fishing and ran out of daylight. We got tired of crossing back and forth along the creek so we detoured up to the ridge of Mount Burke where we teetered precariously along in the dark with just an emergency pen-light I had in my pack. The battery quickly expired and we were in the dark again so we just followed our trusty Jack Russell along and down the northern end of the ridge. Billy's white hair was our beacon. We arrived at a meadows between Cataract and Zephyr Creeks. We could hear a flapping sound in the building Chinook wind and see a dark form in the center of the meadows. When we approached the form we saw that it was teepee shaped and made up of many straight spruce poles. I revived my flashlight long enough to see that many colorful "flags" of colored cloth were tied to the poles. It was a sun dance lodge - probably belonging to the Stoney or Nakoda Indians of the nearby Eden Valley reserve. This was their  place, so we left to cross the freezing cold, rushing waters of the Highwood River (in the dark) to our waiting truck.
Third Picklejar Lake

There are places that we visit again and again. There are the Picklejar Lakes - four interesting high lakes that we first visited on a Thanksgiving Sunday, Cat Creek Falls and just walking along the river in the autumn. We often cross the freezing waters of the river to visit the pictographs of Zephyr Creek. By the time we get to the other side we can never avoid calling out in pain, clutching our frozen legs and feet. The pictographs aren't that spectacular but there is something about the place... My dog (Kenner) abandoned us once after swimming the river and ran back to our Jimmy. When I arrived and opened the passenger door, he immediately jumped into the back seat, curled up in a little ball and shook until he warmed up. The Highwood is a painfully cold river, even in the middle of summer.

The valley itself is usually cold at night especially in the fall (no matter how warm the day). One evening we had a huge fire going and the dogs were looking at us whining and I realized they were out of water. I filled their large aluminum 4 quart dish. An hour later they were  whining again. "They can't be out of water..." I checked the dish and it was frozen solid as a hockey puck!

The upper Highwood isn't a great fishing stream, but I have spent many hours happily fishing its waters and walking miles along its reaches. Occasionally I have had a decent day with a few pretty cutthroat trout and the occasional big bull trout. In October the spawning whitefish come to the deep pools of the Eden Valley. There are also introduced brook trout in Cataract Creek. I have watched them, fighting their way up the falls during the fall spawn like miniature salmon.
Grizzly Sow

There are still some parts of the Highwood that I have yet to visit and I suppose there always will be. I will save them for another day. For now, no matter where I am or what I am doing, I can think of that place where a crystal-clear, ice cold stream flows down a valley surrounded by towering peaks of  gray weathered limestone. A place of grizzly bears, eagles, bighorn sheep and elk A place of adventure and exploration, of  peace and sanctuary... my Highwood River.



  1. This was a great tour. I have been to the High Wood pass a few times but have never been in the area you describe. Obviously I really missed something. I road my bike up the High Wood pass one time wit 37 gr. sevens. needless to say we didn't see grizzlies.

  2. I share your enthusiasm for the Highwood. It is truly one of the great Alberta places. Wish I could still get into some of those places.

  3. I have resolved to get into some more of these places over the next couple of years - while I still can! I am making a list...

  4. Thank you for sharing this. I've never been there, but maybe one day..

  5. Great post, Phil. Can't wait for spring. I can't climb winter snow now, but have good memories of doing so.