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, 27 January 2016

Walls of Stone Part 6 – The Palliser

“It’s always further than it looks. It’s always taller than it looks. And it’s always harder than it looks.”
(The three rules of mountaineering)

Many great men had crossed the North Kananaskis Pass ahead of us - James Sinclair in the 1880’s and a few years later, Captain John Palliser. In 1916, the Boundary Commission explored the pass.[1]
The "Boundary Pine" once marked the southern boundary of the old Buffalo Head Ranch
Adventurer, explorer, best-selling author and fellow countryman; Raymond M. Patterson passed this way in 1945. He had bought the Buffalo Head Ranch from his friend, George Poceterra in 1933. The Highwood, Sheep, Elbow, Kananaskis and Elk valleys were wild places in those days - beloved places that he knew intimately. Things had changed though, and would continue to change. In 1933, the Upper Kananaskis Lake was dammed. In 1936, the massive “Phillips” fire burned down the old growth forest in the Highwood and almost destroyed his ranch. Now a highway was being constructed… “A road wiping out the old wagon trail, came wriggling up the valley like a dusty, ill-omened snake.” [2]

Patterson sold the Buffalo Head and with his wife, Marigold took a team of pack horses across the snowy Highwood Pass, then toward the North Kananaskis. There was deep drifted snow in the Maude Lake bowl and drifts across the pass itself, but they pushed ahead through a gathering storm not knowing what lay ahead. When he reached the pass and looked past the drifts his heart soared – the Palliser below was snow-free! “True there was a shocking great drift in our immediate path, but that could be dealt with somehow when the moment came. And in the meantime –Hail Kootenay! Hallelujah!”[3] The two of them crossed the pass into British Columbia and never returned…
La Ray Creek - The Royal Group in the background
It was a steep downhill once we crossed the North Kananaskis Pass into British Columbia. We were about to lose any of the altitude we gained over the last two days and then some. I remebered that Patterson had encountered a grizzly after crossing the divide and we both began to call out, “Heeeeey! Oooohh!”.  Our voices echoed off of the summits and across the valley. I couldn’t keep my eyes off of the stunning Royal Group of mountains that lay across the Palliser River Valley as we made our long descent. . Now we were following Le Roy Creek into the edge of the Kootenay Region – a vast area in the south east corner of B.C. I noticed a trail across the scree slope to our left. Don said it went across Beatty col, past Beatty Lake and on to Three Isle Lake. It could be used as part of a very nice loop trip.

The Palliser River Valley had been one of the question marks on our journey. On the topographic map, the notes say “The trail from North Kananaskis Pass to Palliser River and north to Palliser Pass is overgrown, but passable. Not for the inexperienced.”[4] Near the bottom we forded Le Ray Creek and followed an intermittent trail to a crossing of the Palliser River, which was actually more like a tributary stream than the creek was. We were able to cross it by rock-hopping. It was strange to be in that deep valley bottom, with its spruce, fir and poplar trees after crossing a treeless alpine pass just an hour or so before. Now we would be heading once more uphill to the Palliser Pass. We turned north and set off through the thick B.C. bush along the valley bottom.

I would dare say that neither Don nor I are “forest people”. We like trees well enough, but I think we would much rather be hiking the meadows and rocky open slopes of the high mountains. At some point this would be our undoing… I think both of us were a bit tired that day. Don had endured a cold, sleepless night. The trail was there alright, but we had to constantly be looking down to follow it, which was tedious. Part of the problem was that we were unable to see our feet or any rocks or other obstacles on the pathway. At one point I stepped on a wet tree root and my legs slipped out from under me, depositing me ingloriously in the wet bush. It took a bit out of me and it was a while before I got up. By then I was hopelessly behind Don. I caught up to him at a creek crossing and he wasn’t happy. He had tried to rock-hop across and had slipped and landed on his backpack in the water. I think he had recovered quickly from that, but he had soaked his camera, which was dangling from his neck. I learned from his mistake and waded across. We proceeded ahead once more, the trail getting steeper and steeper. I dropped behind, stopping many times to cool down and catch my breath. For the first time, I was feeling utterly exhausted, but there was nothing for it. I just had to push on. 
I found Don at a clearing next to a pond. The spot looked like an old outfitter’s camp. We were just below Palliser Lake. I was relieved to see that Don had decided to make camp there. I was totally spent to a point that I was feeling ill. I felt guilty, but I had to just sit there resting while Don began to unpack and prepare supper. Neither one of us was in a good mood. 

 “Walking the hills of Lousana isn’t enough to prepare you for this”, Don quipped.

Yet here I was, I thought to myself. Instead I retorted “Crossing the Rocky Mountains was never going to be easy!”


After a while we both began to recover our faculties. We rested and (probably more importantly) re-hydrated and our moods improved. Don set up camp while I attempted to use a rock in an old rusted tin can to string up a makeshift bear pole.
“It’s a nice camping spot” Don said. I looked around and I had to agree. I could see the notch that was the Palliser Pass ahead. There was a female harlequin duck feeding on small creatures where the river flowed into the pond. It had been a long day, full of adventure. We had crossed three passes so far – there were only seven more to go!

[1] Kananaskis Country Trail Guide, Gilean Daffern, Rocky Mountain Books, 1985
[2] The Buffalo Head, R.M. Patterson William Sloane Associates, New York, 1961
[3] The Buffalo Head, R.M. Patterson William Sloane Associates, New York, 1961
[4] Kananaskis Lakes Map and Trail Guide, Gem Trek Publishing Ltd.


  1. What beautiful country. How could you be grouchy in this area? Okay. I know all the exhaustion etc. Just to make you feel better, I was always the last in the group.

  2. Bush work has never been my thing. It's just a means to an ends.

  3. You describe those high-county emotions so well: exhilaration and awe, tempered with exhaustion and fear.