I left August empty of art shows on purpose, with the intent of going somewhere I’d not yet been. One place removed itself from the list via a belching volcano, another because of its obscene cost, another due to its utter popularity in summer. For a lot of years, people have been raving to me about the Canadian Rockies, and the national parks in particular. They are so close, and I figured to control costs by car-camping, and backpacking. Bought a few guidebooks, a road map, and off I went.
In Jasper at the park HQ I found two very helpful rangers who got me all set up for my wilderness adventure three days hence, and made suggestions for day-hikes to toughen up. I asked the young woman who booked my wilderness campsites if she had ever done this particular loop. She said “Yes, and you have chosen a very good one”. That tickled me.
One of the rangers suggested an unmarked trail for a day-hike, up to a place called Verdant Pass. It was a long, tough climb, and well worth the effort. This trail is not on any map, and he had given me good instructions how to find it. There’s nothing better than being above timberline on a high pass in the mountains, by yourself. On the third day, I wanted to be closer to my trailhead, which was actually just over the boundary in Banff. This puts me at the Columbia Icefield, which I really did want to see. This huge glacier contributes a ton of water to the young Columbia River, but is not actually its source. That is a high pass farther to the south. What I could see of the icefield was actually just its exposed edge, and it appeared to be a couple hundred feet thick. Guessing, of course, as it was a couple thousand feet above me. It sits on the continental divide, and slopes to the west. I was on the east side, on the Athabasca River side. Its source was plainly visible right before me, in the form of six glaciers of varying sizes. This river flows north from here, draining most of Alberta, much of the Northwest Territories, and eventually flows into the Arctic Sea.
For today’s hike, I head up to Wilcox Pass, one that had been recommended in a book. Everything here is just so huge. This pass, for example, and two of the passes on my wilderness loop, are four and five kilometers long ! This one got me up about 1000’ paralleling the edge of the Icefield, and getting closer to those six Athabasca glaciers. On the way up, I met Jim and Jeannie from North Carolina. The more we talked, the more we found to talk about, and we spent the entire day together, saying goodbye back at the cars. These two are in their mid-seventies, and were climbing circles around me. Really annoying old geezers. Jim is a retired Forest Service professional, and Jeannie knows more about wildflowers than anyone ought to. They have visited the Canadian Rockies in 13 of the past 16 years.
At my little car camp that evening, the big task is to prepare for the six-day, 50-mile loop that begins in the morning. Had to make six PB & J’s, as well as decanter a litre of wine, fill my water jug, bag up some glorp, etc. I find peanut butter and jelly sandwiches to be the perfect lunch, sometimes breakfast, on backpacking trips. And a little cup of vino with the freeze-dried gourmet dinner is just the perfect thing while sitting in the middle of nowhere swattin’ skeeters
The first day was a total fiasco. As I buckled the huge pack on my back and staggered a few steps away from the car, I said “What in hell are you thinking”. As the days unfolded, and I got more and more sore, one of the things I determined to do was weigh each element, each item, every little thing in this pack when I got home. That which had been consumed would be replicated. Well, I did that, and the total was 78 pounds. That’s just ridiculous. A geologist I met in camp on the third day said his pack weighed 35 pounds when he started, and today he says, it probably weighs 28 or so. He said that “The reading book must be only ½” thick, and the one I brought this time was so boring that I burned it last night”. My book was huge, and weighed a pound-and-a-half. Of course, 17 of my pounds is camera gear, but still, there is a lot that will get tossed next time.
Anyhow, that was the first thing. Then right away there was a junction with a huge sign indicating what was down this way. Well, none of those places were part of my loop. The first day’s 8 miles was on a different topo map, and I had elected not to spend the $15 for it. Big mistake. So I did not take that turn to the right, but stayed on this gravel road that went on for a couple miles, finally ending in a horse camp with a cabin. I saw a sign nailed to a tree which had the name of my pass on it, so I felt vindicated. Meandered along this trail through the woods paralleling Nigel Creek, toward Nigel Pass for a couple more miles, then it dropped down to the creek and disappeared. Swell. No trace of the route, on either side of the creek. I see people occasionally way off in the distance, bounding along with enthusiasm. So I un-boot, find a big stick, and cross the creek. Then about a quarter mile of nasty bushwhacking, and I find the trail. I haven’t even really begun the climb up the pass yet, and already I’m seriously tuckered.
Up onto Nigel Pass, long lunch break, nice visit with a young German couple who had made the climb with their newborn. Then a tough stream crossing, and the descent along the source of the Brazeau River. My first camp is a couple miles down the river. This is really a gorgeous place. One of the first visions from the pass is this huge area of quiet waters, with reeds and very green grasses, and the water was blue with shades of green where the glacier flour was thickest.
First night I had the camp area to myself. It remains true, as crowded as the parks are, if you walk five miles, you will leave 97% of them behind. And, the ones you do meet are there for the same reasons you are. I don’t think I’ve ever met anyone in the wilderness who was annoying. Well, except for Jim and Jeannie. Started the next day with a bath in the river. It wasn’t terribly cold, and was so needed. Whenever I think, this may be too cold for a bath, I remember my summer in Europe, bathing in a stream on top of a pass in Switzerland, gazing at the glacier from whence the stream emerged. Now, that was a cold bath. All the others pale by comparison.
Today was 10 miles, most of it a gentle downstream along the Brazeau, then a climb up the Northwest Fork to Brazeau Lake. The lake is gorgeous. Nearly five miles long, a glacier carved valley, and full of native trout. The camp area is right at the outlet, which flows a couple miles down to the Brazeau. There is a pair of brothers there already, formerly of Quebec, now of BC. They haven’t seen anyone for a day-and-a half, as I have not. Their route on the same loop is going the other direction.
A couple days ago they saw the resident grizzly on Jonas Pass, where I will make camp a couple days hence. They were also treated to a small herd of goats, and one of the brothers told of a photograph he made with two perfect grizzly prints, and a wolf print right next to them. Cool, I say, can you show me ? Of course, everyone except me is using a digital camera these days, so he scrolled thru the gazillion photos he had made, and there they were. Perfect prints in soft mud, good shadow definition. Wolf print very large, and a couple feet away from the grizz prints. I immediately assume that these two are pals, these two are playmates. After the polar bear and husky videos of a while ago, and my experience in the Brooks range, with a wolf and a grizz doing a strange dance at eight in the morning, I’m sure these guys are mates. There is no reason on earth for either to be tracking the other.
The weather forecast for this period is excellent, and there is not a cloud in the sky all evening. Neither the brothers nor I put our rain-flys on the tent. So, when around midnight or so, I’m awaken by the sky exploding with light, I do consider rousting them to put on their fly. Trouble is, I can see all of the stars ! There is still not even one cloud in the sky. The more I look at this strange light show, the more confused I get. Constant flashes, some more intense and brilliant than others, but it rarely stops for even a few seconds. Is this the northern lights ? Too much frenzy for that, yet where is the thunder, where are the clouds ? Next morning one of the brothers says he got up and walked away for a better perspective. It was lightning, and the woods of northern BC had been already on fire for the past several weeks. This of course, made it much worse. For the rest of the trip, I can see pretty much nothing but smoke. Mountains rising thousands of feet above my valley, hanging glaciers everywhere, and I can see no detail at all.
Day 3 was a long pretty climb up John John Creek, to Poboktan Pass, and down again to Jonas Cutoff. About 10 miles, and very gorgeous, especially on the pass. One of the first things I see on Poboktan is about six little prairie dogs standing at attention, looking at me, their little hands clutching their abdomens. I stop, and engage them in conversation. You know, I say, there is a grizzly bear in the area, and you people should probably be a lot less visible, and not be making quite so much noise. I take another step, and they all disappear into their maze of tunnels. Past their mound, I stop and look back, knowing somebody will get curious pretty soon. Sure enough, “You know, if I were that grizzly, you would be toast by now”. There were hundreds of further encounters with squealling prairie dogs, but that one was the best. I really enjoyed Poboktan Pass. Got into camp at about 5:pm, and there was a party of three guys from Chicago already there. They were going the other direction also. I did some photographing along the creek this evening, and the next morning.
By now my body is getting very sore. Shoulders are screaming with protest, feet are beginning to whine, and raw meat is happening on my hips. Whenever I bend over to provide some relief for the shoulders, which I do often, my shirt rides up, my shorts go down, and there they stay. Now I have six inches of Cordura on the hip pad rubbing on bare skin. That became a real slice of heaven. So, even though it is very illegal, I make an executive decision to camp on Jonas Pass this evening. This next leg is twelve miles, and I just don’t want to do it all today. Got a late start up a 2000’ climb to Jonas Shoulder, the highest point of the loop at 8000’. It was a tough morning, made the more so by the Canadians’ dislike of switchbacks. If the direction we need to go is up, then let’s go up ! At Jonas Shoulder, I did see a genuine slice of heaven. The pass was about a thousand feet below me, and above it was a range of mountains rising three or four thousand feet, with at least ten hanging glaciers. I could see the headwaters of Jonas Creek, which flowed off to the west, to my right. Of course, this view was totally smoky, and thus not really photographable. Didn’t matter.
About halfway down, I meet my one and only human of the day. He is literally high-stepping up this steep slope. Fritz is from Dresden, and is in his mid-twenties, I think. He is on a grand adventure of two months, and most of it to be spent here in the Rockies, then some time on Vancouver Island. We talk a bit about Dresden, me saying that it is surely a modern city like Berlin now, given that it was leveled during the war. He says, no, not totally. There is a part of town north of the Elbe that was not burned up. That was the former new section of the city, now being Old Town. He asks about my huge pack, and I say, I don’t know how much it weighs, but it’s killing me. We talk about bear mace, as he was convinced to throw his away by a ranger. Bad idea, I say. Yes, it can backfire, and wind direction is crucial. But it can make the difference between life and death at the final moment of a bad bear encounter. He’s on a 10-day trip from Hiway 11 to the town of Jasper. How will you get back to your car ? I ask. Don’t have one, he says. I just stick my thumb out.
Continued my descent to the pass proper, and it went on for a good five kilometers. Just the most stunning scenery. As I get farther to the east, the creeks flowing west become smaller and smaller. I choose one good place to make camp, and it turns out to be the last water going in that direction, really the source of Jonas Creek. My camp was adjacent to a prairie dog colony, and they were gracious hosts. Being aware that the brothers formerly of Quebec had seen the grizzly here, I am very observant and careful with sending out cooking odors. Never saw him, or her. My critter encounters on this trip were somewhat underwhelming: two sets of woodland caribou antlers, several piles of elk scat, a few old grizzly prints, some grizzly scat, several wolf prints, two grizzly digs, many small marmots, hundreds of prairie dogs, and two ptarmigan hens.
Day five was a relaxing descent off Jonas Pass, along Four Point Creek, and back to the Brazeau River. I took the pack off many times and made photographs of water and flowers crashing down the slopes beside me. It was an enjoyable day, and once again, no one in the camp area next to Boulder Creek. Day six was a long eight miles up the Brazeau, up Nigel Pass, and down the creek back to the car.
This area is just huge. It would take several lifetimes to explore it well. This was a start.