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Sunday, 31 January 2016

Walls of Stone Part 7 – Banff Park South

Packing up the tents at our Palliser River camp - Mount Queen Elizabeth in the background

The next morning we set off toward the Palliser Pass. The trail wasn’t always well defined, but we would stop once in a while to discuss the possible routes. They all led to the pass, but some were more direct than others. We were still on the B.C. side and the forest was still quite dense. We passed Palliser Lake and it was prettier than I expected – azure blue and surrounded by mixed forest. After Back Lake the trees opened up and we crossed the Continental Divide for the second time in two days and into the southern tip of Banff National Park. We were into open terrain once again. Mounts Queen Elizabeth and Williams bracketed the pass. Belgium Lake lay to our left. Miles and miles of an open, wide valley and its willow lined river lay ahead.
Palliser Lake
Western Toad
There was a lot of movement in the vegetation along the river and I stopped to observe that most of it was due to the many toads living in this remote valley. I had experienced this before – in the Mist Creek valley and near Burns Creek waterfall. Toads are common inhabitants of the Rocky Mountains.

It was an easy day after that, as we moved gradually down the valley. Several times we had to navigate around places where the meandering river had obliterated the trail. We could see Burstall Pass to the east. I remember sitting just below the pass many years before with my beloved Jack Russell Terrier, Billy and staring out into the Spray Valley. I could see Leman Lake from my lofty perch and Spray Pass behind it. I thought that one day I might cross the Palliser Pass and visit the remote Palliser River valley…
I stopped to look back toward the pass once more and I saluted the Palliser valley. Good bye and good riddance…

Both Don and I had been impressed with the quality of the backcountry campsites in Kananskis Country – they had all been upgraded in the intervening years since I last backpacked. The tent pads were good, there was nearby water, there were food lockups (more convenient than bear poles) and even the outhouses were quite pleasant. You could bring your wife or girlfriend backpacking now and not have to subject her to those nasty old shacks! The food preparation has been moved away from sleeping areas on the advice of bear attack expert, Stephen Herrero no doubt. It is a bit less convenient, but much safer for both bears and people. I believe the communal fires discourage wasted wood and offer an opportunity to meet some of your fellow hikers.

We camped at the Birdwood back country site. The new standards are not being assumed by our National Parks. The bear safety facilities were good, but the rest wasn’t comparable. There were cables to hang your food, which was alright. The rest, I could live with, but camps with no water just seemed ridiculous. The back-country standards of our National Parks have definitely fallen behind both the Alberta and B.C. Provincial Parks.

We were surprised when a young couple arrive at this remote campsite. They joined us at a picnic table as we prepared dinner. John and Laura were Swiss adventurers out hiking the Great Divide Trail. They had started in Waterton and had followed us over the North Kananaskis Pass and up the Palliser. We listened to their itinerary and had to take our hats off to them both. They were probably doubling the amount of kilometers we would do every day over rough terrain. It’s no wonder most of the peaks in the Rockies were initially climbed by Swiss Guides! I was impressed. They had many tales of their adventures around the world. I felt a bit out of place as they swapped stories with Don about traveling to Iceland, Europe and Nepal.

They were gone by the time we got out of our sleeping bags the next morning. We had managed to go a couple of days without precipitation, but now it began to rain as we set out on muddy trails that had been churned up by pack horses heading up and down the valley that morning. Then it began to pour, making the going very difficult. No wonder the trails had been twinned in many places! For hikers, horses can be a double edged sword. They often leave trails that wouldn’t be open at all if not for them (such as the Palliser), but they can churn up what would be good trails and leave them in a complete muddy mess, covered with dung and drawing every fly in the valley. For the most part, I respect the horse guides. This is their domain and most of them are far more knowledgeable about this country than I ever will be. It’s “live and let live”. That didn’t stop me from cursing them under my breath that morning.
We hardly noticed Mounts Warre and Vavasour (named for two British agents who came this way on a mission to the Oregon territories) and the turn-off to historic Whiteman Pass, as we trudged through the mud. Just before Bryant Creek, we ran into a jolly group of fellow hikers who were heading up the Spray River Valley. I noticed that they hardly had any gear. They explained that they had paid for horse guides to deliver their gear and setup a camp near the Palliser Pass. One of them asked me how the trail was.  I just smiled and told them that the trail was in wonderful condition. “Enjoy!” I’m not usually so passive-aggressive. They were all in good spirits and several of them laughed at my remarks as they continued past me.
The rain stopped, and the sun came out just as we arrived at the Bryant Creek Bridge. We took the opportunity to eat and dry out some of our gear. Then we continued up a wider, better trail to our next camp at McBride’s near the Bryant Creek warden cabin. We had time to enjoy the wide open meadows and pretty mountain valley around the cabin that evening. I was already excited about the next day and my first-ever visit to iconic Mount Assiniboine.

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.

Tuesday, 26 January 2016

Walls of Stone Part 5 – The Kananaskis

It was an uneventful walk down the mountain from Elbow Lake to the busy Elbow Pass parking lot on Highway 40. I had worked diligently to plan a route that included as little road walking as possible, but it was unavoidable. We headed north up the highway for a few kilometres then we took a gated access road used by parks staff supplying the Boulton fire lookout. Later, at the intersection of three roads we stopped at a handy picnic table to eat the sandwiches my wife, Bev had brought up to Elbow Lake. We had missed her by just 5 minutes. After turning right at the intersection, it wasn’t too long before we had reached our base camp at Boulton Creek. That ended the first (and easiest) leg of our journey.

Don and I had both agreed that we would consider it a success if we completed our trip across the mountains without seeing any bears and so far, so good… My wife however could not say the same. On the kilometer and a half trail up to Elbow Lake, she had run head-first into a grizzly that was attempting to avoid some picnickers – two women and their children. The bear doubled back into the bushes then crossed the trail below her, while a group of annoyed tourists hissed at Bev and told her to get out of their photos. A grizzly can be a ferocious creature, but luckily they can also be tolerant. Her amusing account made us laugh, but it does make me wonder where it will all end. Not well for the bears I fear.

Packing for the second leg
I had planned a two-night, one day stopover with proper food, showers and all the luxury my little travel trailer could afford. Don and his wife, Marie (who had joined us) took a side trip to Picklejar Lakes and saw a grizzly sow and cubs. We were due to set out to The Forks of the Upper Kananaskis River after a day’s rest, but it was raining so hard that we decided to wait another day and then make a longer hike past The Forks and straight on to Turbine Canyon backcountry campground. We took advantage the extra day to have a nice dinner and drinks at the Kananaskis Delta Hotel.

The rain was still pounding down the following morning as we hiked through the Interlakes parking lot and past Upper Kananaskis Lake. We were now following the upper Kananaskis River. The journey so far had gone well, but really it was only a prelude, a warm-up for the more serious hiking that lay ahead. It had been a bit of a dawdle as the English would say. That was about to change.
Kananaskis River
It was still wet when we arrived at The Forks campground. We stopped for a bite to eat and then pushed on. There are two routes from the forks – one to Three Isle Lake and South Kananaskis Pass and the one we were following toward Lawson Lake. We passed a group of athletes jogging out from the Beckie Scott Training Centre, located at the foot of the Haig Glacier. The trail began to get steeper and there was a series of switchbacks. Don pushed ahead and soon I could no longer see him. It was a cold wet day, but now I was feeling hot in all my rain gear. I stopped to sort out my clothing and gear, then continued the climb up the grade – stopping several times to catch my breath and rehydrate. I caught up with Don on the downhill stretch to Lawson Lake. We could see the lake through the rain and mist. 
Lawson Lake
I stopped to shoot some time-lapse video for my film. The shot captured the moment when the weather began to change. Fog began to lift as the sky cleared. By the time we got to Turbine campground, the skies were blue and we could see all of the mountains that surrounded us. There were quite a few other travelers at the campground – some were American kids on a tour of the Canadian Rockies. 

This was all new territory for me. I could see the backside of Mount Black Prince. I long ago hiked the cirque on the other side of the mountain.  In 2000, I visited the grave of the Black Prince, at Canterbury Cathedral. I believe the mountain is named for the battleship that bore his name.

I was ok in my new sleeping bag, but Don had a very cold night. He was finding the older sleeping bag he brought was not always enough, even with the liner he used as a supplement.

The next morning I went to check out the interesting canyon that gives the campground its name. The creek flows down into a crevice in the limestone and has carved a deep slot canyon that is hard to see below the stone. It is even more difficult to capture on video, but I did my best. I couldn’t resist jumping the canyon - which is perfectly safe, but it did make my heart pound.

We had a long difficult day ahead of us and Don was keen to get going that morning. He headed off up the trail, while I fiddled with my gear. I followed him, stopping to get some footage of the Beatty Glacier along the way. We were near the summit of the Kananaskis drainage and surrounded by scenic alpine country in every direction. 

Maude Lake is situated in a high bowl between two limestone ridges. I could see the narrow gap of the North Kananaskis pass across the pretty blue alpine lake. Thirty years before, I had pored over maps and read descriptions of this trail. An instructor at the Southern Alberta Institute of Technology had told me of his fishing trip to this very spot. I had long dreamed of visiting this high mountain lake and here I was! 
Maude Lake
Yes, there I was, but where was Don? I looked up the trail and I could see him sitting next to the pass on the edge of a scree slope. I figured he would wait. I got off the trail and setup my camera to get some ultra-high definition footage of the lake and do a time-lapse of the clouds rolling across the Divide. There was no place in the entire world that I would rather be at that moment. In the midst of my time-lapse shot, Don headed back around the lake toward me. I was perplexed when he continued down the trail and right past me. Surely he had seen me. He seemed annoyed. Had he forgotten something back at camp? I finished my shot and headed around the lake to the pass to setup some more shots. A hoary marmot ran across the tundra as I arrived. Finally I could see Don coming back up the trail. 

I had the camera ready for a “title shot” of Don and I crossing the Great Divide into British Columbia. I could tell Don was annoyed when he rejoined me at the pass, but by then we both realized what had happened. He had missed me. I should have yelled at him, but I was sure he had seen me. Any way he had cooled down by then and I put on my pack, started the camera rolling and we both walked across the North Kananaskis Pass together. 
I went back and grabbed my camera and tripod. When I checked it later, the shot had turned out very well. It will definitely be the title shot for my film, when it is completed. Now it was time to move on. We still had a very long, hard day ahead of us. We headed down the mountain and into the wild Palliser River Valley.