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Wednesday, 10 February 2016

Walls of Stone Part 9 – Surprise Creek

“Thousands of tired, nerve-shaken, over-civilized people are beginning to find out going to the mountains is going home; that wilderness is a necessity…”

(John Muir)

In every journey, there are parts that exceed expectations. When I traveled the Red Deer River, the section that took me parallel with the “Coal Trail” (Alberta Highway 595) a road that I drive every day, seemed like just a necessary link between “The Canyon” and the Badlands. It turned out to be one of the best days of my entire journey. The same could be said for the couple of days we spent hiking the lesser-known areas of Mount Assiniboine Provincial Park.

Cerulean Lake
The day began with breakfast in the Mount Assiniboine cook shelter, with people from every imaginable part of the world. Several languages were spoken in the shelter that day. We shared a table with a couple from Belgium. There was an Indian ex-pat from Chicago with his “crew”. We first met them at Wonder Pass and he told us all about the places they had visited in the park. We saw them later in camp and they seemed very urban and out of place, with a boom box that they carried everywhere blaring out some sort of Indian pop music – the type you might hear in a Bollywood movie. They were out there doing it, though and they certainly were enjoying themselves! I laughed when they put on their packs after breakfast – two each, one in back and one in front, all stuffed full of gear. To nobody’s surprise, they were taking the chopper out.

Log book from Surprise Creek cabin
There was discussion about the Simpson River Bridge or lack thereof. I made the remark that I was planning the crossing “hell or high water”. I meant it, even though Don and I had discussed a contingency plan that would involve either heading back to the Smith-Dorrien or heading out at Sunshine. A doctor, who I later called “Dr. Know-it-All” made the comment that “this is how amateurs get into trouble”. Luckily, I didn’t hear the comment. I have been a hiker for more than a couple of years and Don was one of the few people that could actually claim to be a professional hiker, if there ever was such a thing.

Sunburst Lake

We set out, hiking past Lizzie Rummel’s cabin at Sunburst Lake and beyond lovely Cerulean Lake, which are destinations in their own right. We continued through Mitchell Meadows Campground and began the climb to Ferro Pass. We found ourselves once again in total solitude. It would be days before we saw another person.

Ferro Pass proved to be a total delight. I think we were both surprised by how much we enjoyed this narrow strip of meadow, framed between Indian and Nestor Peaks. We sat at the pass, snacked and looked at topo maps and out toward the summits across the valley. There were views down to Wedgewood Lake, in the forestry below. We said our farewells to what would be our last view of the summit of Mount Assiniboine. 

On the oposite side of the pass, I could just see our destination of Rock Lake, tucked into a rockslide on the eastern side of Indian Peak. The beautiful flower meadows on the north side of the pass were perhaps the most beautiful we would see on our entire trip. They certainly stood up to comparisons with meadows I had once encountered on the slopes of Bluerock Mountain and below the avalanche gullies of Piper Creek - meadows that stuck in my memory from years before. They were like traditional English gardens, which are more higgledy-piggledy and less organized than the formal ornamental gardens of the continent.

Rock Lake courtesy Don Wales
Rock Lake held a decent though rustic campsite on its shore. Both Don and I really enjoyed a return to isolation after our visit to the busy Mount Assiniboine campground the night before. The rain showers had begun again and it was a cold night. We sat by the fire and chatted about this and that. The closed bridge and crossing at the Simpson River were uppermost in our thoughts.

The next day was the shortest and easiest of the entire journey, but a necessary one. We arrived at the Surprise Creek campsite to find a very nice B.C. Parks cabin, empty and available for use. It certainly was a “surprise” and a pleasant one at that. Of course we both headed straight to the closed bridge over the Simpson. There was a sign and tape barring our way and some of the planks were removed from the bridge. We found a possible ford upstream of the bridge that looked a bit unpleasant, but was not un-crossable. We would sleep on it, but nothing there was going to stop our traverse of the Rockies, and that was a relief!
We spent the day drying things out and exploring the area around the forks of Surprise creek and the Simpson River. I enjoyed the Simpson River and spent several hours shooting footage – some of it in slow motion. The river reminded me a lot of another British Columbia stream; the Lussier River near Skookumchuk. It cut through the surrounding glacial till at its many bends and rocky pools. It might be a good cutthroat stream and the fisherman in me plotted my return in neoprene waders, rod in hand. I could while away many days on a stream like the Simpson…It was still rainy and cool and I stoked up the small wood burning stove (perhaps a bit too much) and set it ablaze before we retired to our bunks that night. 
The next morning we tidied up the cabin, then crossed the dilapidated bridge and hiked among the burned out stumps, half-living trees and deadfall (the results of a 2001 fire)into Kootenay National Park and down toward highway 93. We crossed the bridge over the Vermillion River and stopped for a snack before we turned right and had to trudge up the highway for several kilometres. It was the first road we had seen in over a week. 
the cozy environs of Surprise Creek cabin
A sign proclaiming “burgers ahead” put a smile on my face. We checked into our room at the Kootenay Park Lodge and hit the restaurant for much needed burgers and beer -thus ended the second leg of our crossing of the Rocky Mountains. We had two nights at the lodge and a day to rest and recharge. Four high passes and some of the most grueling hiking of the entire trip still lay ahead.


  1. Dr. Know-it-all was a lucky man that day!!!!!

  2. I will have to look at where you went from Mt Assiniboine. We came in from Sunshine and out Wonder Pass

  3. Cool website, found it from your log book entry at Surprise Creek. The bridge has now been removed, but I was able to cross on an ice bridge last weekend. Had to laugh when I saw your picture of the log book map on this page - I have the same picture :)

  4. It's sad that the bridge has been removed. I have seen worse in my travels. I guess lawyers rule the earth these days... thanks for updating us!