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Wednesday, 20 January 2016

Walls of Stone Part 4 – The Upper Elbow

Rae Lake

We decided to take a side trip to Rae Lake. Don had never visited before and it had been years since I had been there. Cotton grass lined the shore near the outflow from the lake. Last time I was at the lake, a beaver dam blocked the mouth of Rae Creek – raising the water level. The dam was gone, perhaps washed away by the 2013 downpour. There are signs of that historic storm almost everywhere in Kananaskis country these days.

Don has a degree in entomology, but botany seems to be his passion now he has retired from teaching. He spent some time shooting stills of the many and varied flowers near the lakeshore. I took some video of the lake backed by the Palliser Limestone cliffs of Mount Rae. There had been a couple of goldeneye ducks at Tombstone Lakes and there were more at Rae Lake. I tried to sneak closer to the waterfowl to get some footage. I had left my strongest zoom lens at home…

We returned to get our packs and food at Tombstone Creek, and journeyed west into the upper Elbow River valley. We both knew this mountain valley well and enjoyed walking the rocky trail and recounting stories of the numerous times we had each hiked this high country. The upper valley is open, grassy country, dotted with wildflowers and pockets of willow and krumholtz. The fledgling Elbow River cuts through limestone outcrops and splashes over rapids and small waterfalls. Off the trail, there is a hidden marshland frequented by moose. I have never visited the Highlands of Scotland, but it is how I imagine they might be.
Piper Creek Valley
The most spectacular views are the ones to the north of the river and up Piper Creek. The valley is bracketed by Mount Elpoca to the west and Tombstone Mountain to the east. Mount Jerram is visible at the northern head of the valley and I could see the valley’s alpine meadows in the distance. At certain points, the pass we had planned to take across from the West Fork was visible – a dip to the right of a mass of softer reddish Kootenay limestone. This beautiful valley is named for Norma Piper – Calgary music teacher and would-be opera diva and wife of George Poceterra. George was the owner of the Buffalo Head Ranch in the early days of the Twentieth Century. In those days the upper Highwood valley was his backyard and most of Kananaskis Country was his wild Alberta kingdom. Along with Nakoda Indian; Paul Amos (Spotted Wolf), German Adolf Baumgart and Englishman Raymond Patterson he explored, hunted and fished his way all around this country and into what is now the Elk Lakes and Height of the Rockies Parks in British Columbia.

We made our way across the ice-cold waters that flow from the ever diminishing Rae Glacier and then crossed the small footbridge that crosses the infant river just as it flows from its source; Elbow Lake. The campground next to the lake is the busiest backcountry campground in Kananaskis Country and I recommend booking well ahead if you are planning a stay. The lake is at Elbow Pass, situated between Mount Rae (the most northern peak of the Misty Range) and Mount Elpoca (the most southerly mountain in the Opal Range).
Looking across Elbow Lake and back down the Elbow Valley
After we made camp, it began to rain again and was quite cool, so we sat by the fire and chatted with a young woman from Calgary and her Czech boyfriend. We saw them both again the next morning, before we set off down the mountain to highway 40. They were heading out into the open high country that we had just traversed. We gave the novices a bit of advice about the realm we knew so well. I recalled how it felt to be so young and arrive in that lovely high country for the first time and I envied them both.


  1. I wish I had backpacked in this area. I know now, that I really missed something.

    1. Yes you did Keith, but you still can go. I have to go very slow up that hill but in no time, I am at the lake. Then I sit for a spell and then walk around it and towards Piper Creek. Very very easy walking. We should go.