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Wednesday, 26 June 2013

Red Deer RiverJourney - part two

Red Deer Lakes

Every now and again take a good look at something not made with hands - a mountain, a star, the turn of a stream. There will come to you wisdom and patience and solace and, above all, the assurance that you are not alone in the world.” - Sydney Lovett

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.

Red Deer River Trail

“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 “drummondiito 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

Tuesday, 25 June 2013

Red Deer River Journey

It's hard for me to believe that it has been ten years since I began my journey down Alberta's Red Deer River, but on June 27, 2003 two friends of mine dropped me at the trailhead near the Lake Louise ski hill. I have told the story of my preparations and that first day many times as a prelude to presenting my film "Red Deer River Journey' to various groups. Let's just say things didn't begin as planned. Between an injured back, forgetting my hiking boots and an overweight backpack there were challenges right from the start and it almost didn't happen at all.

A lot has happened since that time. In 2005, the river flooded changing its character and its course for ever. In the spring and summers since, the river has run higher than it did in the preceding years. The June goldeye fishing (that I traditionally did every year) isn't possible most years. I doubt that a journey like the one I took ten years ago would be possible at all (on many of the years since). Even as I write this, the river has flooded its banks again. The Bow and Elbow Rivers have flooded my hometown of Calgary and created an almost unimaginable disaster for the people of Southern Alberta. My beloved Highwood River has overflowed its banks yet again. This time the Town of High River has been totally engulfed and its residents have been evacuated.

In June of 2012, a pipeline burst just downstream of Sundre - dumping 3000 barrels of sour crude oil into an otherwise pristine section of the Red Deer River, threatening Glennifer Lake reservoir and the water supply for the City of Red Deer. Perhaps this year's flooding will help to wash the remaining oil from the banks and side channels.

With all of these reminders of how powerful the forces of rivers can be and how they affect all of our lives, I thought I might revisit a story that I wrote about my adventures on the Red Deer River. It's a long story, but I will post each section one-at-a-time with some italicized updates. I hope you will enjoy it.
Iconic view of the Red Deer River at Dry Island Buffalo Jump Provincial Park
 Red Deer River Journey
“To hear is to forget. To see is to remember. To do is to understand” - Chinese proverb
I have lived in Alberta for most of my life and the Red Deer River has always fascinated me. As a boy, I dreamed about canoe trips along its waters. Its badlands captured my imagination and viewing the fossils found along its banks inspired visions of becoming a paleontologist. As an adult I visited the Dry Island Buffalo Jump, Midland and Dinosaur Provincial Parks. I explored the Hand Hills and YaHaTinda. I fished the “West Country” for trout and whitefish and the river’s middle section for goldeye and walleye. I found myself living near the Red Deer River and working in the city that bears its name. I have seen the river valley in its many different states and in every season of the year. I have learned even more about the river’s nature by my association with the Red Deer River Naturalists.
I’m not sure where the idea of traveling the Red Deer River’s entire length came from, or when I first thought of making the journey. I became inspired to finally make the trip when I was in the Wells Gray area of central British Columbia. I discussed the idea with a member of the Kamloops Hiking Club, while I was visiting the Trophy’s Lodge. He urged me to make the journey “before it was too late”. I am middle aged and the days of my being able to complete a voyage like traveling the entire Red Deer River, were certainly numbered (as I was to find out when I attempted the trek).
Much planning and research were needed before I would be ready. The decision to record the entire trip and perhaps make it into a film made things even more difficult, but by the end of June 2003 I was ready to begin my journey.
The Mountains
Skoki Lodge
“A journey of a thousand miles must begin with a single step.” - Chinese proverb
It was June 27, 2003. After work, two of my friends drove me up to Lake Louise, where we stayed for the night. After planning everything for months and organizing my equipment into groups for the different legs of my trip, I realized that I had left my hiking boots at home. I was a little apprehensive at this point and this caused me to worry out of all proportion to the size of problem. What else had I neglected to do?
We got up early the next morning, had breakfast and waited for the local sporting goods store to open. Luckily they had some very decent light weight boots for sale. In the old days, new boots would have been a problem on a long backpack trip, but modern methods and materials used in the manufacturing process create boots that require very little breaking in.
We met up with the Skoki Lodge/ Lake Louise Ski Hill bus at the Fish Creek parking lot. I lifted my heavy backpack up to the young and athletic young driver atop of the van and my friends wished me luck before I climbed aboard for the drive up the access road to Temple lodge. We passed a grizzly sow and her two cubs along the way and picked up two frightened hikers. I hoped that I wouldn’t be encountering any more bears once I was on foot.
The bus left me and several other hikers at the end of the access road and I began a slow ascent, through subalpine forest to aptly named Boulder Pass. At the summit of the pass I found myself on the western shore of Ptarmigan Lake( where I stopped for lunch). I gazed back across the Bow Valley toward Mount Temple. I could hear the “eeeeeeep” of the Pikas who scrambled about the scree slopes of the pass area. They were busy going about their daily routine of gathering vegetation for their various stashes, hidden among the rocks. As I prepared to continue on, I noticed a Clark’s Nutcracker gliding down to the pass from the summit of Ptarmigan Peak to my left. These gray and white birds with black wings like the high alpine environs and are usually associated with the white barked pines that grow at high altitudes. They are named for the famous American explorer, William Clark.
I continued hiking around the north shore of Ptarmigan Lake and through a thoroughly alpine landscape. There were still patches of snow to be negotiated at this time of year. At one point, while crossing a patch, I put my foot through the crusty surface and found myself with one leg in wet snow up to my crotch. This was made more difficult by my heavy backpack and video camera and I was afraid that I had hyper-extended my knee. I managed to struggle out of this awkward position and continue on with no injury.
In this part of the mountains, it was early in the hiking season and there was a possibility that your way could be blocked by snow at the high passes. I was happy that this was not the case on this occasion, as I veered northward and began my ascent to Deception Pass. I threw down my heavy burden when I reached the summit and looked back down the Ptarmigan Valley, past Boulder Pass and towards the Main Range summits near Lake Louise. The view ranked high with some of the best that I had experienced in the Canadian Rockies, and I paused for a while to rest and take it all in. There is plenty of room for further exploration and I plan on revisiting this region again one day, with a lighter pack and more time.
View from Deception Pass
The summit of Deception Pass is at an altitude of 2485 metres. This was the highest point of my trip and I joked to myself that it was all downhill from there. One of the inhabitants of this high mountain pass was a hoary marmot, who appeared briefly to have a look at me while I rested. His whistle rang out, echoing off of the surrounding peaks and he disappeared from view. I began a gradual descent into the Skoki Valley and soon I was back among the trees and drawing close to the day’s final destination.
Hoary marmot
While I was planning out my trip, I noticed Skoki Lodge on the backcountry maps. One of the proprietors of my local outdoor shops suggested, that( if I stayed at the lodge)  I would be eligible for the bus ride up the initial access road to Temple Lodge. This alone sold me. I found Skoki Lodge to be a pretty good deal. Factoring in the comfortable surroundings and a soft bed, along with breakfast, supper and a bag lunch, this little bit of luxury at the beginning of my journey was well worth the extra expense and I was glad that I had booked myself a room. It was the best night’s sleep that I would have for a few days…
next time Red Deer Lakes