Starlit Rambler - Adventure Travel Our Way
Canmore was our first stop as we merged back onto the Trans-Canadian Highway 1 from our beautiful adventures on Highway 40 in Kananaskis Country. Canmore reminded me a little of Jackson Hole, Wyoming with new development and sharp dramatic mountain peaks. Our stay in Canmore included a trip to the grocery store, a really crappy campsite (adjacent to the Interstate), and a bike ride in the area. Canmore is located on the edge of Banff National Park and seemed to be the more affordable option compared to the town of Banff. After some small talk with a local in line at the market we decided to ride at the Canmore Nordic Center because it had a wide variety of cross country biking trails nearby. The biking was pretty decent but nothing to get all aroused by; lots of fun sections but weird layout with confusing intersections frequently. Im not complaining as it was a welcomed morning to get back on the bike after time away from the mountains.
Icefields Parkway and Saskatchewan Crossing
We restocked on a few more supplies at a local health food co-op in Canmore before heading out for the next month of exploration in Jasper, Banff, and Yoho National Parks. Banff National Park was established in 1885 making it the first national park of Canada and the third in the world. Banff is also the most popular park in Canada so our arrival time of August 19th marks the busy season for the park before kids head back to school. Warned of all the crowds in Banff we drove straight past in route to Jasper National Park with plans to return to Banff a bit later in the month. While Banff is Canada’s first and most popular park, Jasper is Canada’s largest park giving us elbow room from the crowds.
In order to access Jasper from the south one must take the Icefields Parkway, which is by no means a boring drive. This 232km (144 mile) stretch of scenic pavement is one of the best in the world. Imagine miles of winding roads through mountain passes with perfect glacier fed mountain lakes, dramatic mountain peaks, glaciers around every turn, and the largest ice field in the Rocky Mountains blanketing about 325 sq km (125 sq miles) and 100 meters (330ft) to 365 meters (1,198ft) deep. The Icefields Parkway is a special stretch of Highway 93 beginning near Banff continuing through Lake Louise, Peyto Lake, Saskatchewan Crossing, The Columbia Icefields and finally ending in Jasper.
Our first stop on the Icefields Parkway was to take in the beauty of the Crowfoot Glacier which once resembled the foot of a crow but has since been receding for over 100 years. This is the sad common story of all the glaciers left in Glacier National Park and Canada, their recession has rapidly increased over the last 20 years in such a way that most will be non-existent in the next 5-10 years if they continue at this appalling rate. A bit of visual evidence for climate change. Crowfoot Glacier is where we met our new friends from Oregon. These two guys were taking 6-8 weeks to road trip around Canada in between undergrad and graduate school studying engineering. With two kayaks on the roof of their Element and 4 bikes on the back we quickly struck up conversation as tour bus after tour bus of Asians unloaded and loaded back up after enjoying the sight of the glacier for exactly 37 seconds. Here is where we learned of Saskatchewan Crossing and more importantly the potential free camping on public lands just across the border of Banff National Park.
So as the Oregon guys continued cooking a big hunk of meat on their camp stove resting on the back hatch of the Element we headed towards this “free parking” with the intentions to meet them there; only problem was no one knew exactly where this camping was and how we would know the location of each other. After turning off the Icefields Parkway towards the town of Red Deer we exited the boundary of Banff and immediately looked for this public camping just on the east side of the Saskatchewan River. Wow did we find a gem as we followed a primitive dirt road skirting the “Banff National Park Boundary” signs. Not knowing the beauty we were soon to absorb and fears of getting the Rambler stuck, I unloaded the dirt bike for a recon mission. Throttling the bike through the forested dirt road, launching off the elevations in the trail I caught glimpse of what would be dubbed “The Best Campsite.” Here I sat with the vibrations of the small 230 cc Yamaha bike between my legs as the Saskatchewan River, drastic peaks, and glaciers stared me right in the fact. No doubt we were in the Canadian Rockies where the vistas sang sweet songs of never-ending glamour! Grinning eye to eye I sped back to Rachelle to inform her of my finding and to quickly get the Rambler back to this spot. As she slowly navigated the Rambler towards the site of glamour, I drove back onto the main road to see if the Oregon guys were coming to join us in their Honda Element. They were no where to be found so I hung a note in a tree just in case and made my way back to the campsite excited to see Rachelle’s reaction to my findings. However as I rounded the corner I saw the Rambler sitting at a peculiar angle and Rachelle digging out the hitch with a small dirt spade used for digging poop holes…the Rambler was stuck! Bad enough we had our mobile home stuck on a backroad in the middle of nowhere but this campsite made in heaven was not yet obtained. Determined not to spend the rest of our lives on this forested dirt road we dug and dug until the hitch mounted motor cycle carrier came free from the grasps of dirt and rock. Continuing to dig out the hitch receiver and the pushing strength of Rachelle (have you seen her guns?!) we were free!
We spent two nights at this site since it was so beautiful (and we were afraid of getting stuck again too soon) and took the motorcycle out to explore more of the Icefields Parkway the following day. The morning of August 20th we loaded up on the dirt bike to see Mistaya Canyon, Peyto Lake, and return to the van just before the 3pm down pour of rain. We spent the rest of the afternoon blogging as Rachelle baked her signature healthy energy muffins from the protection of the Rambler. This was some of the first downtime we spent as our desire to explore was overshadowed by the weather.
After two nights at Saskatchewan Crossing we made an early departure as strong rain was forecasted for the mid morning and we wanted to minimize the chances to get stuck again. Here we were on August 21st expecting another month of enjoyable fall weather but Canada had other plans for us. Cresting Sunwapta Pass (just before descending into Jasper) at the Columbia Icefield the rain turned to snow as the pavement quickly turned from black to white. This was a proper winter storm with Utah sized snowflakes blanketing the mountains as we stared with disbelief at the unusual weather pattern.
Tonquin Valley, Jasper
Tonquin Valley was decided on for our first multi day backpack in Canada in Jasper. Many people apply for permits months before in order to secure a backcountry camping permit but we have been most fortunate with no prior planning. Even in the busiest times we were able to secure every permit we wanted with exception of Berg Lake (which ill talk about later). Tonquin Valley trail began at the base of the famous Edith Cavell Lake on the northwest side of Jasper. We spent the night in the trailhead parking lot surrounded by snow with temperatures below freezing. I think this is the point when we came to the absolute realization we were not going to be spending the winter in Canada. Tonquin Valley was an easy 3 night, 4 day backpack with minimal elevation gain and sweeping views. Day 1 of the trip we spent at the Switchback backcountry campsite after hiking with a trio from Canada and Netherlands. The park recommends people travel in groups of 4 or more in order to lessen the likelihood of a Grizzly encounter so figured we might as well join up with another group on the trail. The beginning of the trail showed all the common signs of Grizzly’s in the area with multiple piles of poop, dug up roots and claw marks in the dirt. Grizzlies are common in the area and frequent the trails. While we did not see a bear you could sense they were all around us. Day 2 we continued on to Amethyst Lake campsite known as the best on the hike. Waking up with snow still around us we welcomed the cold morning by sleeping in till around 11am or until it started to warm up a bit. Not quite the earliest of mornings in the backcountry but for some reason below freezing temperatures and lack of sunlight keeps your head planted against your neatly folded pants taking the place of a soft memory foam pillow. The trek to Amethyst Lake was somewhat un-eventful as our excitement continued to mount with the promise of “The Ramparts” mountain range a spectacle rock formation which could be viewed from the campsite. Unfortunately a well known distinct smell and haze filled the valley as we approached our awaited destination. As the sun turned from yellow to red the realization of the situation was all too familiar. Neither Rachelle nor I voiced our disappointment. Once again we were feeling the effects of a hot, dry summer as the massive fires in Washington State sent smoke over international borders without proper documentation. Canadian Customs were no match for this unwanted visitor. Our marquee campsite and views of the Tonquin Valley were consumed by the smoke of a forest fire hundreds of kilometers away.
Arriving at Amethyst Lake was not the excitement we had imagined but nevertheless we were happy to be there. This is when we met Omer who had welcomed us as we entered camp. Omer, originally from Israel, was similar in age and living in Montreal. He was filled with excitement after proposing to his girlfriend just days before on another backpacking trip in Yoho National Park. Omer and his fiancé went after quite the undertaking with little to no previous backpacking experience. In a short two week trip to the Canadian Rockies they completed 4 different, multi-day backpacking trips with nearly no rest days between trips. While I was impressed with his tenacity he was blown away by our van and decision to take time off work to explore. As with so many others, once we let him know what we have been doing his mind started turning mentally exploring if he would be up for a trip like ours. Without fail, he convinces himself, and his newly future wife, that this would be the life for them as well. Not sure if his fiance was on board but surely the one wearing the diamond ring will have the final decision.
Awakening the next morning at Amethyst Lake, with suspense I optimistically peeked my head out of the tent in search of clear air. “I think it’s clearer than yesterday,” I announced to Rachelle, as I internally determined it was about the same. Packing up our things with no haste as we still kept faith, we met Rick and Trisha, the other campers at the site. Rick and Trisha turned our 10am departure into a noon departure as we shared stories and life lessons. Rick was born and raised in Kentucky but was calling Montana home as was Trisha. Rick, as we sooner dubbed “Ranger Rick,” was a retired long time park ranger and wildland firefighter with a carefree attitude and a smile resembling “Goofy” from Micky Mouse Club. Trisha was a very successful lawyer with an open mind to the conflicts of the world. The four of us shared a very similar outlook towards the world with its wastefulness and consumer nature, while still recognizing we fed the machine. Hours later we decided we had better hit the trail to make it to our final campsite at Portal before the sun retreated for the day. Ranger Rick and Trisha headed the opposite way towards the route we had came the day prior. We left the unexpected 2 hour conversation feeling enriched and fulfilled as once again our open timeframe had allowed us the patience to share thoughts and ideas with 2 strangers in the backcountry. Finally on the trail we spent our final night, once again having the entire site to ourselves and the sky began to clear. Personally I really enjoyed this site as it sat on the river, protected by valley walls, and had a calmness to it. The final day of the hike was all downhill so time went by relatively fast as we approached the end of Tonquin Valley and the slight hope that our motorcycle was still safely there.
Originally our plan was to leave the motorcycle at the end with one helmet and I would take it back to the Rambler while Rachelle waited for me. However once on the trail we realized we both wanted to explore the Edith Cavell glacier which was just a little above our starting point. This is when our brains started churning and orally discussing a possible new plan. So here is was, “Do you think we could both ride on the motorcycle and have both of our large backpacking packs on as well?” Now I want to remind you our motorcycle is really a small 230cc Yamaha dirt bike which we had pegs welded onto the frame (in order to accommodate Rachelle’s feet) which is meant for a small rider in the 100-150 lbs, 5’2 - 5’6 height category. So here we are contemplating riding double up a windy road with a combined weight of 290 lbs and another 70-80 lbs of gear…sounds like a winning plan! With grins on our faces I loaded onto the dirt bike as I place my oversize backpack on my belly side after transferring just enough material to Rachelle’s pack so I could barely see over the top of my pack. Now it was Rachelle’s turn to load with her overstuffed pack on her back as with the help of gravity it tried to pull her off the rear of the bike. At this point the suspension was beyond maxed out as we exchanged a glance to silently say, “Is this a good idea?” Without fully digesting this shared thought, as it might change our minds, I slowly throttled the bike while letting out the clutch…we were off as we swayed back and forth until our land speed increased. We giggled as we could only imagine what passing motorists thought of our idea of transportation. If only we were in Vietnam or Thailand we would be conservative motorists on the streets with a minimal load. As oncoming motorists approached they saw a large blue backpack with arms operating the motorcycle (I’m convinced my head was not visible) and as they inquired through their side and rearview mirrors after passing a purple backpack was all they saw. Quite a funny sight as we powered the 4 stroke 230cc motor up 15 km of windy steep mountain roads in route to the Rambler. The Vietnamese would be proud as I am sure the Canadian tourist were probably frowning on our decisions as they judged from the safety of their rental car.
After returning safely to the Rambler we loading the motorcycle and found a handwritten note from our 2 guy friends from Oregon we met at Crowfoot Glacier and were supposed to camp with them at Saskatchewan Crossing. Alex was sorry they missed us camping but left his number in order to link up in Jasper. Before heading up to Edith Cavell Glacier we decided to walk down to the lower lake in order to see it from another angle. As we made our way down the short steep trail the screams and yelling of youthful voices filled the air of the sunny day. Approaching the edge of the lake was a group who had decided to go for a swim, a very short swim, actually more like a plunge, in the glacier fed lake. After a 4 day backpacking trip the icy water on this sunny day looked too inviting to pass up so I also went for a swim, or should I say a plunge, before we headed up the road to explore the actual glacier that fed this numbing beauty.
Berg Lake, Mount Robson Provincial Park
Berg Lake trail was not located in Jasper National Park but actually in the neighboring Mount Robson Provincial Park in British Columbia. This was a hike we kept hearing about from locals as a must do if you can make it happen. The trail is about 21 kms in length as it climaxes at Berg Lake which sits in the first flat area below the peak of Mount Robson. Berg Glacier begins at the peak and snakes it’s way down to the lip of Berg Lake with often times a large piece of the glacier floating in the lake. Simply put…it is exceptional and a favorite of most in the area. However the campsites are quite busy this time of the year so our only option was to secure a campsite in the wild land backcountry of Jasper. Camping in Jasper would cause us to hike an additional 5 km past Berg Lake in order to rest our heads for the evening, making our total trek in one day 26 km. After exploring Edith Cavell glacier near Tonquin Valley we knew Berg Lake was not one to miss. We made our way back to the permit office in the heart of Jasper in order to successfully secure a two night camping permit for August 26th and 27th for camping in Jasper near Berg Lake.
After confirming our backpacking plans for the following morning we set off in search of food, we were hungry and not in the mood to cook. A buffet style Indian restaurant on the main drag looked fantastic and no wait for food was an added bonus. Here is where our paths with our two new Oregon friends crossed again as they had the same idea for food. Sharing stories over 4 plates of Indian food we were sufficiently stuffed. We eagerly shared our "stealthy" parking location right in the center of town by the train station with our new friends, the only problem was is the train goes by about every 20 minutes.
So after a poor nights sleep I woke up early morning and began driving towards Mount Robson Provincial Park about an hour from downtown Jasper to the Berg Lake Trailhead. Luckily the first 7 km of the trail was bike friendly so we loaded up our packs, jumped on our mountain bikes and began the pedal. Now this bike ride was not terribly steep but it is amazing how a 35 lb pack can really make the legs burn. We kept telling ourselves, “We are really going to be loving we biked up, when we are on the way down in a couple days.” After 7 kms and 2 bee stings we arrived at Kinney Lake campground. Kinney Lake could have been the main feature on many other hikes as the views were exceptional with this being the furthest we could take our bikes. Locking up our bikes, we began on foot entering the Valley of Thousand Falls, properly named as waterfalls cascaded off the steep valley walls into the river below. Emperor Falls was the largest, most impressive of the many waterfalls in the valley as we ascended a steep pass to the base of Berg Lake. From the final plateau we were treated with our first sight of Mist Glacier with Berg Glacier and Lake soon to follow. Once at the base of Berg Lake the sheer size of Mount Robson can be hard to characterize with the peak 8,000 feet straight up. Mount Robson is the highest peak in the Canadian Rockies coming in at just under 13,000 feet of pure beauty. My words cannot do the area justice so I’ll let the pictures tell the story from here.
Once we came down from our blissful visuals of the striking peak we continued another 5 kms past Berg Lake to Adolphus campsite, crossing the border from BC back into Alberta and Jasper National Park. Approaching 23 kms the trail turned back into the Alberta forest for another 3 kms to our campsite. Adolphus was a bit disappointing after we just walked through one of the most amazing valleys we have seen to date. These last 3 kms was the first time we were bored as the vast views were taken away.
The next morning was slow moving as we slept in to help our bodies recover from the long trek the day before. Our plan was to tackle the well regarded Snowbird Pass, a 19 km day hike with 2100 feet of elevation gain to a pass at 7900 feet and an estimate 6-7 hour round trip passing the Snowbird Glacier and finally overlooking Reef Icefield, but our motivation was on the decline as our bodies begged for a rest day. We finally packed up camp around 12:30pm deciding we were better off to camp on the BC/Alberta border (closer to Berg Lake) in order to shorten our trek out the following day.
Unfortunately this wasted a bunch of daylight as we moved at a snails pace to complete these activities assuming we would not have time to complete Snowbird Pass we decided to just hike up the trail a bit. Soon we realized this Snowbird Pass trail was something special and instantly our energy increased along with our hiking speed. At this point I was getting a bit upset that we did not start earlier so we would have the time to get to the Reef Icefield. Stopping, I looked back at Rachelle and could see the joy in her face as we approached the Snowbird Glacier. Looking each other in the eye, independently we had both already decided, we would not be satisfied unless we made it to the icefield. So with 4 1/2 hours of daylight and a 6-7 hour hike in front of us we put the rubber to the trail and completed the trek in 4:45 minutes rivaling the pace of professional power walkers. The effort was rewarded in the greatest manner as we looked over the vast Reef Icefield at 7900 feet.
As we descended the Snowbird Pass and regained level ground near Berg Lake we decided to hike up a small bluff and cook dinner utilizing the last remaining UV light soon to escape the valley. Here the magical day was coming to an end as the full moon crested above Snowbird Pass and shined off the Snowbird glacier. A perfect day in every regard as we enjoyed our Pad Thai in the bright moonlight a few kilometers from camp, the fun finally ended with a joyful music filled night hike to our tent.
Our final day we awoke before sunrise to cloudy skies and the threat of rain. Slightly disappointed we would not get a good sunrise we were still both buzzing from the day before. We spent the morning cooking breakfast at the shore of Berg Lake further absorbing the beauty of this special place. As the rain set in we started our 21 km hike back down the mountain towards our bikes locked up at Kinney Lake. By this point we were soaked so the final 7 km on our bikes was an exciting change of pace as we blasted past fellow hikers that started hours before us but were not utilizing a bike. Arriving back at the Rambler with full hearts and muddy smiles, Berg Lake and Snowbird Pass had engraved our souls with the complexity and absolute beauty only found in nature left untouched by the hands of humans.
Stay tuned for the rest of our adventures in Banff NP, Yoho NP, Golden, and Mount Revelstoke.
Author: Jeremy Wilstein
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