Starlit Rambler - Adventure Travel Our Way
Saskatchewan Crossing #2
With the grim weather outlook heavy on our minds we stumbled once again into the Jasper Backcountry Office on September 1st. We were reconsidering our start of the Brazeau Loop, an 80 km, 5-day backpacking trip in Southern Jasper National Park. Jeremy had already determined that it sounded like an unwanted experience in such wet cold conditions; I was a bit on the fence finding excitement in the struggle. The upbeat park ranger equally increased our energy towards tromping around in the wilderness with subzero temperatures, snow at the peaks, and rain in the valleys. With confidence, we were off to conquer our next adventure, even if it might only be celebrated once we successfully finished.
Approaching the Sunwapta Pass with the Brazeau Loop trailhead nearby, our energy came to a sudden halt. It was pouring rain even at this high elevation pass with no signs of deceasing and actively snowing at the highest peaks. The thought of being drenching wet in the valleys, then hiking above the snow-line to be frozen for 5 days put a damper to our excitement. Crossing into Banff National Park, the Rambler seemed to be incapable of coming to a stop as we slowly passed the trailhead. Silently agreeing that even though the toughest scenarios are usually the ones you remember most; sometimes you should just throw in the towel. Especially without the reward of beautiful mountain vistas covered by the ongoing storm. So what better way to feed your questioning mind (if you made the right decision or were you coping out) by returning to the known beauty of Saskatchewan Crossing. Deciding on another riverside location just down from our first campsite weeks before, we found joy in the view, opportunity to catch up on some writing, and the pleasures of baking. There is a certain comfort that comes from baking in the wilderness.
Lake Louise/Moraine Lake
After a thankful dry night’s sleep and multiple exclamations by Jeremy of how happy he was to not be backpacking during this heavy storm, the rain ceased and the clouds cleared a bit. This was our brief opportunity to explore more of the beautiful mountains and glaciers along the Icefield Parkway. North Saskatchewan River trail was a great find! Within a short hike you cross a beautiful roaring river then climb up to a vista of Glacier Lake while the river meanders below. Besides the “fabulous” red chairs, placed by Parks Canada at this viewpoint, we decided an animal trail experience would be more to our liking gaining even greater vista views.
Upon our return to the Rambler we happened on Mistaya Lake, which allowed for joyous jaw dropping mountain reflections in its natural mirror, a precursor for what was to come. With a bit of urgency to beat the setting sun, we approached Lake Louise. Expectations of an overly crowded and developed Lake Louise had entered our minds over the past several weeks leading way to us almost deciding against a worthwhile visit. Our timing was impeccable! As we walked around the inviting crowd-free lake the lighting gave way to an even greater spectacle than imagined. Darkness was the only thing that carried us away to find a place to sleep for the night.
A plan was formulated for an early rise on September 3rd to take in the beauty of nearby Moraine Lake. Oh and what a beauty she is, even with our timing being less than perfect. Early in the morning, load after load of Asian tour buses transported tourists to the parking lot of Moraine Lake. This immediately worked Jeremy into a frenzy as we quickly gather what we needed and hurry off to beat the crowd. Beating the crowd was an impossible task as we joined the human train of Asians ascending the steps to view Moraine Lake. Sleepiness and general disbelief did not allow my mind to comprehend what was happening as we was approaching one of the most beautiful sceneries thus far in my life. As the hoards of human bodies overtake the spectacle of natural organic beauty, Jeremy and I dropped down the cliff to the waterside to have our own personalized peaceful experience. We stared off into the mirrored beauty, with disbelief of the crystal clear blue-green glacier waters. As we rose back to the popular viewpoint, surprisingly we found the hoards of Asians had lessened. This may be the first time that I was celebrating, instead of mocking, the strict short timeframe the tour buses allow its visitors. Backcountry exploration will always be my friend for the simplicity of solitude, appreciation of nature's gift, and time away from the rat race of modern human society.
Feeling satisfied with the luxuries of human amenities, Jeremy and I took strides back into the backcountry of Banff National Park on September 4th. For the next three days we would explore the sensations of a snowy, wintery, 40km hike within the Skoki Valley. The snow fell all three days in the backcountry, with exceptionally hard snow our second day and night. With freezing temperatures at hand and dusk approaching rapidly we reached our first night’s camp of Baker Lake. We were quickly invited to join, the welcomed fire, of three guys from the States on their annual boys’ trip. Before long the other group in camp came over to appreciate the fire, it was clear that the brisk night's air would keep us all huddled close to the warm embers. The evening and morning meals were prepared in close proximity to the fire, without remorse of overtaking the guy's established setup or the fact that fires are technically not allowed at this site. The general consensus within the camp was the frigid temperatures seemed to surpass any rules.
Day two was filled with increased snowfall and little visibility of the surrounding peaks; we continued to make assumptions of the potential beauty. After skipping past our permitted Red Deer Lake campsite, for fear hypothermia would set in if we stopped moving, 13km (8 miles) later we approached the next closest campsite of Merlin Meadows. Proceeding with our normal camping duties, we changing into dry clothes and set up the tent. I began to notice Jeremy acting a bit strange. He was unusually complaining during our hike regarding his freezing cold feet and extremely wet hiking boots. Suddenly, it silently became clear that hypothermia was trying to set in, so I immediately insisted that he gets into the tent to try to warm up in his sleeping bag. Several hours later, with a bit of body heat and warm food, he was back to his old self.
Day three we poked our heads out of the tent to take in a proper winter wonderland. Around midday the skies began to clear but still held onto their snowy overhang, views were finally captured of many snow covered mountaintops and lakes as we ascended Deception Pass. Before descending we caught a few dry, warm moments over lunch as we talked with four guys from Calgary who had also camped at Merlin Meadows the night before. Here we learned of Lake O’Hara, in the neighboring Yoho National Park, being the favorite and most beautiful hike in the Canadian Rockies, according to these locals Calgary gentleman. Sharing stories we indicated we were from Utah and traveling in a van. Finally we reached the Rambler, back in the parking lot, after a rainy last descent. Here we were met by the impressed Calgary men all worked up about our van. They admitted to picturing us with an old beat up rig with some random items thrown together inside; I thoroughly enjoy when our creativity surpasses our apparent slouchy appearance.
Emerald Lake/Emerald Basin
Sleeping in the overflow parking lot, outside of Lake Louise, gave us quick access to the visitor center and a delicious gluten free, multi-grain pancake breakfast at Trailhead Café. Following breakfast, we set our sights on landing a bus ticket and campsite at the recently acclaimed Lake O’Hara, within the incredible Yoho National Park. Surprisingly our wish was quickly fulfilled with a start day of September 9, 2015, just as the weather was forecasted to clear. Our plan was to catch the early morning bus on the start day, which plays out like this: Jeremy awakens at the first sound of his alarm, jumping out of bed ready to start the drive to our destination with enthusiasm. He drives to the destination with myself gently being awoken by the bumps and curves along the road. Finally, we reach the destination where I slowly, and a bit reluctantly arise out of the bed to gradually embrace the early morning light with no particular excitement in my step.
The morning went as planned but to our dismay the weather did not. Arriving for the 8:30 am bus we tried to make a clever educated decision to wait and take the 5:30 pm bus instead. The decision was based on the Calgary gentlemen’s advice, that clear weather would be necessary for an optimal Lake O’Hara experience. Feeling confident in our change of plan, we proceeded to discover the tiny town of Fields, tucked perfectly into the Rockies, and the delicious food of "Truffle Pigs". Breakfast at "Truffled Pigs" was so delicious, we decided to dine there for three additional meals, within four days. Full bellies from a delicious breakfast we meandered our way around the nearby, beautiful Emerald Lake with a 9.2km (5.7 miles) side hike up to Emerald Basin.
Now with the weather clearing, we were officially ready to take the 5:30pm bus into Lake O’Hara. Excitement was building with every marked kilometer the bus passed; finally coming to a screeching halt at the campground. We dropped our bags with one thing in mind, Lake O’Hara. As we walked by a small pond that held so much mystical stunning beauty, Lake O’Hara came into sight. Wow! It is truly a spectacle to behold. As we spent the remainder hours of daylight walking around the entire lake, our appreciation for the raw beauty of nature heightened. The experience did not cease here. Dinner led to conversation by the fire with a father of eight, which holds immediate respect, from Northern Calgary who was on his annual solo-hiking trip. Sometimes the words of a stranger, who leads a completely different life, are right on cue with your thoughts regarding the questions and decisions of life; it was a beautiful surprise. These are the joys that put pep in my step.
The real story began the next day, September 10th, as we rolled out of the tent, before daybreak, ready to begin the Alpine Cirque surrounding Lake O’Hara. The Alpine Cirque encompasses four different cirques (Wiwaxy Gap, Huber Ledges, Yukness Ledges, All Souls’) with the reward being unbelievable breathtaking views of the surrounding mountains, lakes, ceaseless smiles, and the pumping sensation of your heart. Each cirque offers a new breathtaking experience with changing views of blue glaciated lakes, reflecting dramatic snow topped peaks, that drive sharply up towards the clouded blue sky. There are plenty of side hikes which add to the experience, such as the Opabin Lake Highline Trail. And oooh the colors of the Larches! If you ever spend fall in the Canadian Rockies you will surely become spell bound by the earthly gift of changing colors within the Larches (type of deciduous conifer).
Eight glorious hours later we reached our final peak, within the fourth alpine cirque. Taking in the last spectacle of sight, we prepared to make our descent towards the final bus departing from Lake O’Hara. Initially we choose the trail straight up the peak's rocky face but after many moments of exposed vertical scrambling it slowly became clear that this was not the main trail. What a relief, because the elderly hiker we passed earlier created quite the puzzling thought on how he climbed such a route. The idea of what we thought was the “main trail” became quite humorous as we descended rapidly with our hour long, mountaineering detour nearly caused us to miss the last bus back to the Rambler. This minor detail would have made for a less than delightful 12km additional road walk out after a ~1051m (3448 ft) ~11.7km (7.27 mile) day. The actual vertical gain and distance of the alpine cirque did not seem so challenging, but with all the picture taking and awe inspired views we put in a full 8 hour work day. Do you ever want to work overtime after a full workday? Exactly.
Rejoicing in the beauty of the day, we came to a hault by the Spiral Tunnels. This engineering accomplishment, completed in 1909, allowed trains to climb the steep grade of Kicking Horse Pass gradually through the use of 2 side-by-side separate spiraling tunnels, each being over ½ mile long. I was truly overwhelmed by this unique site, as a train entered the two preliminary straight tunnels, then the two spiraling tunnels (that circle in opposite directions). Just imagine, a train over 2 miles long, stretched through all tunnels at the same time. At this point, we had really worked up an appetite for meal 2 at Truffle Pigs. Let me preface with, Jeremy and I rarely eat out (for many reasons) but the unique vibrant flavors of Truffle Pigs captured us at quiche, home-made granola, pork belly nachos, pear gruyere potatoes au gratin, and Thai spiced lamb ribs, to name a few. It is truly incredible that such a place could exist in the small, two business mountain town of Fields...but oh what an incredible find! Rolling out of the establishment feeling more nourished than usual the decision was made to sleep exactly where we had parked.
Now it was, September 11th, time to head up to the Yoho and Kicking Horse Rivers confluence and onward to the Iceline Trailhead at the base of Takakkaw Falls. The confluence held such peace, while I basked in the sun, on the warm rocks by the water; sometimes you need a moment alone. These necessary yin moments allow for inward reflection, which resolve any quarrels in a relationship, while any strife seems to melt away when you surrounded yourself in the beauty and simplicity of nature. Refueled we were ready and eager to explore the famous Iceline Trail.
Iceline was another raved trail that became part of our “Must Do List” upon recent suggestions from several local backpackers. We ascended through the dense forest, following the Yoho River upstream, and popping out at the 30m (98ft) Laughing Falls. The continuous climb to follow was a bit less inviting, especially when I was feeling quite sick for the first time all trip. Finally we arrived at the Little Yoho backcountry campsite with dismal excitement for the most recent part of the trail and the “hoards” of hikers entering camp behind us. Realizing we had been spoiled so far, by camping remotely with limited neighbors, here we were greeted by five other groups camping in the same area giving similar feelings of an RV park. The two large groups tromped into camp setting up almost on top of each other and those of us who were already established. It seemed as if the boy scouts young and old came out for the weekend as the group of 6 men over 50 and 6 boys under 18 tripped over each other. After long conversation with two seasoned local mountain men (who have been backpacking for a minimum of double my lifespan) and a lovely couple from Calgary on their seasonal trip away from the kids, all was right with the world again.
Energized, we completed a suggested morning side-hike 12km (7mile) up to the Kiwetinok Pass, then we begin the actual “Iceline” portion of the trail. Given our outstanding recent experiences at Berg Lake and Lake O’Hara, we were feeling a guilty, snobbish, less than impressed intrigue by the Iceline Trail. Reaching the first peak in the Valley of Glaciers, we overlooked vibrant blue lakes and the 850ft Takakkaw Falls, causing our feelings to softened. As dusk fell we completed the 20.6km (12.8miles) 2,260ft vertical hike with tired feet and sore backs, our thoughts fell back towards the cuisine of Truffle Pigs. Exhausted from our backpacking trip we drove straight back to Truffled Pigs to enjoy, yet another exceptional meal in the small town of Field.
Heavy rain fell as we rambled further and further West from the Canadian Rockies on September 13th, beginning to pursue the temperate coastal weather. Along the way we made a few stops: Golden, Glacier National Park, Mount Revelstoke National Park, and Whistler. The pleasantries of the outdoor scene, in the town of Golden, led to our disappointment with the current rains. Golden is home to paragliding, mountain biking, whitewater kayaking, snow skiing, hiking, and many more; no less its brilliant proximity to Yoho, Kooteney, Banff, Jasper, and Glacier National Parks. Kayaking is always a solid option in the rain but besides the glacial waters, less than inviting temperatures, our sights had been set on paragliding. Unfortunately any paragliding pilot, with half a brain, will not fly during such inclement weather conditions so mountain biking presented the best option.
The word around town was the CBT trails would be the driest option, which held true with only minor mud puddles during intermittent downpours. We have learned quickly that in the northwestern part of North America, if you wait for a sunny day….you might find yourself never doing anything. Settling into a nearby cozy campsite we decided to stay for a few days in one spot. Feeling good about our campsite, a plan was formulated to maximize our current location. It was Jeremy’s 29th birthday and we wanted to ride as many of the local trails, rain or shine. After a birthday dinner, two days, and many miles of trails our time in Golden was a success. It was time to move on….
September 15th, the views over Rogers Pass, in Glacier National Park were breathtaking. Visualize rock cliffs rising dramatically from the earth, forming jagged snow covered peaks. Backcountry skiing is renown here and for good reason. Hikes are vertical stairways to the heavens with floating luxurious descents. The general consensus was a return to experience such joys but for now we would only bask in the mountains’ glory, while letting our imaginations run wild.
Revelstoke has always been on my winter wonderland dream list with foretold stories of epic skiing. Catching this thriving winter town in the middle of fall, September 15-18, (in between rainstorms) did not do justice to my ideas of Revelstoke. The town’s experience included:
Pemberton, Whistler, Squamish
Not allowing the weather to discourage us from the most scenic driving route, we took BC Hwy 99 towards the coastal mountains. September 19, 2015, a short break in the morning weather allowed us to pursue a recommended hike up to Joffre Lakes. Joffre Lakes gave us a beautiful reminder of the glacial lakes and mountains we were still surrounded by but with the realization of increased crowds from Vancouver. Pemberton, another known paragliding location, where you soar above glaciers and vast wilderness was also passed through due to heavy rains with no sign of subduing. The infamous Whistler beckoned a stop even in the conundrum of poor weather. However after a soaking evening, morning walk around the village, a $75 overnight parking ticket (our first!), and a detour to the local eclectic bookstore, we decided to keep moving. Squamish received even less attention as the Rambler swiftly passed through with only screeching stops at red lights and mention of the local climbing scene. It seemed tragic to have your only experience of these imagined places blurred by with no stop to explore its beauty. Once again, we kept hope that we would have an opportunity to return and experience, first hand, these areas.
Stay tuned for "The Proposal on The West Coast Trail!" - Yes Jeremy finally popped the question!
Author: Rachelle McEwen
Having Fun Yet?