I had the hiking bug real bad and simply couldn’t wait for summer to return on this occasion, so it was time to put my skills at snowshoeing to the test, and in April(not winter, but definitely not spring either),of 1999 decided to go somewhere I knew was relatively flat and open. Ideal for snowshoeing, right? Oh yeah. And it was to be none other than the Upper Athabasca River Valley, but of course. I had explored some of that valley in the summer months and knew it to be open and flat, so figured it would be a good place to go. And it was.
My starting point at Sunwapta Falls was an easy beginning to a trip as any, the snow was very firm , crusty, and I didn’t sink into the stuff at all. What a quiet place the wilderness was when the landscape remained carpeted in a layer of white. The river flowed, but not with the volume it retained much of the summer. And the wind…ah the wind…my favourite element..an utterly calming sound which has brought me into peace’s realm time and time again. A calm and soundless forest would suddenly be transformed into something indescribably joyous as streaks of white powder migrated…tree through tree.
As the descent of the valley progressed, so did the depth of the snow. I was travelling gradually toward the continental divide, so it didn’t come as much of a surprise. The campground known as Big Bend was a great place with terrific vantage points all around. I could see a good distance upstream to where the Athabasca joined the Chaba River, and the frozen looking peaks which bordered the area. It became windy at this camp and with that came the snow, but not too much. Going to the bathroom(what’s that) involved sitting on one of those green toilets with no walls, roof, etc. and pretty much exposed to the blasts of wind driven snow coming from the direction of the Columbia Icefield. Brrrr! Needless to say these visits remained few and far between.
Of course there was nobody else out here, so the continued descent of the valley remained trackless until my newfangled snowshoes made their mark. Deep, deep, snow(over 1 metre) was now common, but luckily it was all crustily set, and the previously distant Athabasca River neared at every turn. The river and the endless flats which stretched all the way to the head of the valley came into view below the Athabasca Crossing Campground. It was perfect snowshoeing country, all open for 10–30 metres along the river’s edge, with deep forest beginning beyond that.
A wonderful swinging bridge across the Athabasca provided access to the Fortress Lake trail, a wide forest meandering which I followed all the way to the crossing of the Chaba River,though the trail was lost at this point and the descent to the aforementioned abandoned. The snow here was very deep! , the bottoms of trees were nowhere in sight. Remaining camped in one spot, the upper valley was explored as best I could, the days became increasingly warmer though, and clumps of wet snow began caking into solid clumps of ice under the claws of the snowshoes. At its worst, they had to be slapped together every few steps, else each foot felt like it weighed 20 kg. Back at camp, as the late afternoon pressed into dusk, an unexpected symphony of wailing echoed back and forth across the valley, wolves. What a truly refreshing sound for the mind to contemplate, a wild sound. They chatted for a few minutes, then all fell silent once more. The return trip to Sunwapta Falls was hard as it led me uphill for the most part, but one sight kept me on my toes all the way. Deep in the forest, in the middle of each incoming snowshoe track, was a bearprint. Had I made things a bit easier for some bruin on an afternoon foray. The tracks eventually disappeared off into the endless bush.
I only had 3 nights to complete what I had in mind this time out, so when finishing work in Jasper it was off to the Poboktan Creek trailhead immediately. I hope no one thinks I’m divulging information on secret places here as the effort required to reach the place is quite simply beyond that which the average hiker is willing to expend.I don’t expect crowds here anytime soon, or anyone for that matter.
The stream feeding Poboktan Creek at the campground was the jumping off place for the trackless adventure to begin, and the forest was open and easy until a huge area of enormous boulders embedded in moss had to be traversed. The creek now lay in open flatland, meandering its way to split at the base of a towering headwall. The NE fork was my route of choice, and hopefully I’d be returning by way of the NW fork. Heh-heh.
A wrestling match with scraggly dense clusters of conifers took up most of the morning, but alas these gave way to talus fields, and the final agonizingly steep assault to gain Swan Pass. More a col than a pass, the wind tore through with such ferocity that I was on my way down the other side in a matter of minutes, just enough time to snap off a few photos. The elevation was 2650m. Several of the lakes came into view right away, but many more lay further down, hidden by the lay of the land.
A perfect spot to camp was found a short time later, and before long I was engrossed in watching a weasel in its attempts to catch some ptarmigan chicks in a boulder field, the chicks’ mother trying to distract and divert the attention of the weasel. I must have watched for over an hour, and I think the weasel gave up. The weather was picture perfect once again the next morning as I made my way through the rest of the Valley and its hidden wonders. Meadows gave way to odd rock formations and karst features such as sinking streams and sinkholes.
The hardest part of the trip lay ahead mainly due to its unknown nature, and that was to get to the headwaters of the NW fork of the stream I had begun the hike at. Mountainsides of moraine below the Brazeau Icefield were ascended alongside a creek which led to turquoise gems nestled here and there. Huge ridges of moraine led all the way to the bleak neverland expanse of East Coronet Pass(can you tell I made it up?).
This was about the same elevation as Swan Col, but there was much more room up here. Now it was time for the return journey, down there…below the pass. Extremely steep scree slopes led all the way down to an odd sort of ridge, and below that.…cliffs. Yikes! The scree continued downstream towards my destination, but there was very little give in it as it sat atop a harder substance. Stepping and sliding downslope a metre or so was commonplace. I didn’t want to slide much more because cliff bands now peeled away directly below me. Hanging scree is what you’d call it I guess. Taking my time was an understatement to getting out of this place safely, a metre of travel had to be carefully considered before taking a step. Some hours later the way levelled out, the NW fork of the creek was crossed, and the endless descent through shrubs and various entanglements brought the loop to a close.
kept ringing in my head as I was planning another excursion into the wilds of Jasper National Park. But it had to be a trail which led into remote and seldom visited country, a place where my inner cravings for challenge and adventure could be realized. So then.. a long trail which maintenance had forgotten was my goal, the Miette Pack Trail. A previous trip up the trail in the mid 90s had ended at a boggy quagmire of a meadow, so of course I had to see what lay beyond. It was September 2013, a time chosen for its lack of bugs. The weather happened to be wonderful as well, but warmer than I had expected.
The actual beginning of the trail was tucked away off the highway near the park’s western boundary, a faded yellow tag nailed to a tree marked the way. “Oh boy” I thought. This is gonna be great!! A very narrow recognizable trail zig zagged up through huge stands of aspen, their leaves fluttering and dancing in the breeze. I glimpsed my last view of the highway as the way veered north and quickly became swallowed up by the immediate sense of solitude. Yes I was alone again, and I wouldn’t see another soul for 7 days. The trail was clear for long sections, but then very dense shrubs would all but obliterate it’s presence in other areas. Thankfully, deadfall was non-existent, much to my surprise. Mud was an ever present annoyance however, the trail degrading at an alarming rate now. To be blunt, this is an extremely wet trail, and what at times can be made out to be one is at other times little more than horse hooves in slop.
My goal for the first day was to get to the site of the former Rink warden cabin, an area which held the only bit of open flat area upon which to rest my weary bones. This was reached in late afternoon, and there was plenty of daylight left to enjoy sitting around with a few shots of tequila. Hmmm or was it the Johnny Walker Platinum? At any rate one had to bring some sort of creature comfort out here, food was the usual freeze dried tastelessness. Non stop plodding was the order of the following day, a very long day which saw mud and more mud, a couple of ankle deep stream crossings, and the total disappearance of the trail, and not just once either. I finally reached the turnaround place of 1995, and it proved to be just as confusing now as it was then. The trail dead ended at a large open meadow, which upon close examination contained black pools of ooze, too deep to cross. The river flowed at my left and after some tricky footwork found my self at its bank, thrashing through dense bushes with somewhat dry ground underneath. I could not believe yellow ribbons tied to trees when I saw them, this was the trail!? The route continued to reappear in forest and disappear into wet grasslands throughout the day and as elevation increased so did my confusion. In many ways this was actually harder than my usual off trail adventures, simply because I actually had to try following something!! Before long it would descend into absolute bushwhacking, but not before I managed to finally reach Miette Lake and its makeshift campground. It was a majestic and very rewarding destination in its own right, and a campfire that night was enjoyed beyond all measure. My next goal was to get up into Miette Pass to the west, I had passed the trail sign a short distance before camp. I would be crossing the continental divide into B.C. and back again during the course of the next few days. Miette River was a tiny ouflow creek of the lake at this point and fording it was of no concern, as the trail ascended a forested slope up towards the pass. The trail then vanished for at least half the day. It was all open wet meadows, knee high shrubs and the like, bordered by dense forests. This pass is simply immense, I tried to stay as high up out of the pass proper as much as could be helped, since it was mostly boggy grassland. The sharp spike of Salient Mountain peeked out above the forest , and trees began to thin out. The trail reappeared for awhile but I didn’t pay it much mind, it was just something that couldn’t be counted on to continue.… like a full stomach or…a burning match, hehe. Some kind of raptor made this pass this pass their home, as several of them were seen soaring above, but it was also home of the grizzly as I was soon to find out. Not 300 metres away walked a grizzly, parallel to my own course. It was enormous. I had been making lots of noise, yelling and such throughout the trip, and maybe it had already heard me and was aware of my presence. I yelled out anyway, it looked at me and then just continued on its slow ambling way. Of course I immediately changed my course and began heading in the direction of Grant Pass, where I would recross the divide back into Alberta.
Plans to camp up at Miette Pass were changed owing to the grizzly encounter so the campground at Colonel Pass would be my objective. A good solid trail actually appeared as Miette Pass was descended, and a strange landscape began to unfold. The trail took an odd line through beautiful tree lined ravines with towering cliffs replete with waterfalls. It looked like a scene out of Lord of the Rings, but at no point was I jumped by Smeegle or whatever his name was, whew. The trail vanished as the forested access to Grant pass was reached, and I was left once again wandering aimlessly through meadow and forest alike. The notch of Grant Pass was obvious up ahead so I just forged my way through rockfields and more bush, bits of trail here and there aiding somewhat. Colonel Pass, also on the divide, sits at the headwaters of the Snaring River and this was my goal for the day. I was very late in arriving and barely managed to set up the tent before dusk. This place was solitude, the coming and fading of the lofty winds accentuating this feeling, that I was absolutely alone. I stayed here for a couple of nights, exploring around, enjoying a nice campfire, thinking about life and so forth. I also enjoyed the fruits of my endeavors with more than several shots of some liquor, staring into the glowing embers, just absorbing the energy of the place… and it was good. I retraced my steps the entire journey back, but the highlght of the trip had to be my encounter with not one but two wolverines up in Grant Pass!! One just doesn’t see these critters, they are reclusive to the extreme. Two strange creatures approached me in a strange galloping gait, and they were large, too large to be a marten or fisher. They immediately took off up a side hill and were gone in an instant. Amazing timing to say the least, on a truly amazing trip. I camped at Miette Lake a few more nights, though not surprisingly I didn’t find the trail down, instead I picked my way down through thick dense bush with deadfall, forded the Miette River outflow creek and stumbled back into camp. Of course it had to be this way… i was a bushwhacker!
Vine Pass in Jasper National Park is not a particularly rewarding or scenic destination, but I did find it to be an obvious place to begin this daring jaunt into the wilds of Jasper. I had ached to explore beyond this pass many times before, but I had been stopped by extreme rainy weather and deep snow on other occasions. But this was August 2011, and the only real barrier was one of tolerance, especially for the many mosquitos plaguing the mountains at this time of year. My exact route was unknown, hidden obstacles would no doubt present themselves, and I would have to make judgment calls on where to go and what to do.
I was alone out here and this was the first time that a satellite messenger device was brought along, to let people know where I was, and when I was there. They could track my progress through the wilderness and know that I was alright, thanks to a pre-arranged message. I was getting older, 50 now, but still in great shape, and had been weight training since my early 20s. One simply needed to be in shape for this sort of thing, its not like normal hiking, no guidebook to let you know whats up ahead, no established campgrounds waiting, you had to also be prepared mentally to be able to cope with your smallness and aloneness in the vast wilderness. Loneliness might not enter many people’s minds when they think of being surrounded by nature’s beauty, but when you are cut off from civilization by lack of a trail, you know you are really alone, even though you may not be that far away, as the eagle flies.
A rough narrow trail led north away from the Vine Pass campground and began its slow descent towards Whitecap Creek, which I decided to name since there was a Whitecap Mountain at its headwaters. Dozens of downed trees of all sizes crisscrossed the trail, reminding me that this route was no longer maintained. The weather was good, a few clouds, some sun, just the way I liked it. I plunged out of the bush and onto the gravelly, shrub covered bank of Whitecap Creek. The trail was no more, now began the trackless upstream journey into who knows what. Snacking on some nuts, I looked out across the creek to a completely burned out mountain side, that of Cumnock Mountain, probably caused by a wildfire. Blackened trees stood in silence above me, occasionally creaking with a sudden breeze, then silent again. Somehow it was spooky, I just couldn’t put my finger on it though. The creekside hike now began and it wasn’t too bad at first, flat shrub covered areas that I could just wind my way through. But all that vanished after a few kilometres, it got more hilly, the creek now bordered by dense willow growth. The forest away from the creek was sloped and mossy, and this was where I had to go. This was very time consuming and sometimes the creek would bend back on itself, so I opted to veer deeper into the bush and push up valley in this manner. Pushing into what though? It was a long way to treeline, elevation gain had been gradual so a place to camp had to be found amidst this bush someplace, sometime soon! It was getting late and nothing was flat, until a small and more open area right next to Whitecap creek was found. I sent a signal from my satellite device and set up camp. Besides a tent I had also brought along a small mosquito shelter, a place where I could eat and drink coffee in relative bug free comfort, except for the bugs that discovered a way under the netting. I relaxed after a freeze dried dinner with a few shots of tequila! Oh yeah, well worth the weight of a couple plastic flasks of the stuff. Soon the bugs weren’t the only ones buzzing. lol.
The forested hiking continued the next day, until open boggy areas began appearing, trees thinned out, and a long grey wall of peaks loomed in the distance. A waterfall poured down from heights unseen, it looked like it would be a hard climb up next to it, but it turned out to be ok. Thankfully, because it was the ONLY way up. It was a very steep climb however, and finally I left the last of the trees behind and found myself looking at Whitecap Lake, backed by the soaring cliffs of Whitecap Mountain. I wondered if anyone had ever been up here, and if they had, were they sane? This was nowhereland, albeit a beautiful, and very peaceful one. Several more lakes lay further up, before the approach to Whitecap Pass, my intended route out of here. I found a nice flat place to set up camp on meadows with stupendous views across to the cliffwalls. My voiced echoed many times while yelling for the heck of it.
An unbelievable tour de force began in the morning with the ascent towards the intimidating Whitecap Pass. Snow filled gullies of packed snow made the hiking so much more bearable than the loose rocks next to them, and in no time at all I was kicking steps into hard snow to gain the pass, which was actually a col, a gap between two mountains. It was a great relief to see that snow gullies actually continued down the other side of the pass, but first I had to slip up on some down shelving slabs of rock with scree on top, which offered no purchase whatsoever, and down I went. Luckily I only scraped my hand and didn’t slide down anywhere. The descent on the snow led down into what looked like a rock quarry on an asteroid, so bleak was the scene. An endless sea of rocks was traversed until I could make my way up into another basin next to the base of Mount Thornton. Up here there was no meadow, no lakes, just rubble and a small creek coming down from Thornton Pass, a foreboding gap at the head of the basin. It was kind of early so it was decided to push on and see what was over this pass. This one was much harder and steeper than Whitecap Pass had been, even though snow gullies did aid my ascent up to a point. The final slog was extremely steep and my 60 lb. backpack kept threatening to drag me backwards. I had to stop and lean on one leg every 10 steps or so, so exhausting was the climb. The top of this pass was unusual to say the least, it was like looking down into an arena of packed scree with a very small tarn in it. There was a large hill of rubble at the far end of the arena, a gap on each side of it, none of which looked inviting. Gulp! I removed my backpack and neared the edge of one gap and it plunged away into nothingness! Definitely not this way! A 5 minute walk to the other gap confirmed a disappointing reality, cliffs prevented my continuing on in this direction. So sadly I would have to return to the base of Mount Thornton, set up camp and decide where to go next. It took no time at all to get back down there, and was I going to have some tequila tonight! The only sounds were rockfall and wind as I sat atop a large boulder and filled shot glass after shot glass, staring down into the Cumnock Valley, whose headwaters I now occupied.
There possibly existed another way to get into the next valley, via yet another pass which could be gained by bushwhacking down the Cumnock valley a short distance then traversing up into another alpine basin. So… thats what I did. The rocky abode was left behind and the trees once again became my companions, they provided handholds in steep open forest with rock slabs. I crossed a large flat area next to Cumnock Creek, then ascended a shrubby, rocky ridge to gain the high country once more. Curiously I hadn’t encountered any wildlife so far, but maybe it was all the for the best. I was clapping and yelling every now and again, mainly for the bears. The meadows I entered now sat at either end of the basin, the middle area being a giant rocky trench, as if carved or scooped out by giant hands. No sign of water and I had to get some, so down into the trench I went. A few pools of water were found and then I began the ascent toward Rowand Pass, my last chance at progressing further to the NW. It was ill fated due to impossibly steep slopes and I just didn’t like the feel of the place. One has to rely on their instincts out here and mine clearly said, “don’t do it.” The pass descended into a side valley which would lead into another valley, and that was the valley I wanted, but this time, I wouldn’t get there. Descending the Cumnock Valley was my only choice at this point, and a loop would be completed by crossing Cumnock Pass, fording Whitecap Creek and once again returning by way of Vine Pass. Hmmm.…“Cumnock was burned” kept ringing in my head. Yikes!
The nightmarish hike to get to Cumnock Lake, a small lake half way down Cumnock valley, began by clambering down steep deadfall filled bush next to a small creek draining the meadows below Rowand Pass. It took forever to even get a short distance through the tangled vegetation, and then it rained… I kept going though, this was no place to stop for a picnic lunch. I reached the creek at a point where it had just exited a gorge and entered forest, so my navigation had been uncannily lucky to say the least. Then the downstream plodding began, huge open areas of dense shrubs with deadfall and water underneath. It was so yummy I could have gobbled it up. lol. Of course the mosquitos now joined in the show, no applause for this production however. Cumnock Creek had remained on the other side of the valley for the most part but now its course veered over to my side, so I just crossed the thing, walking through it outright. I had sneakers with me, but kind of liked having them dry for my feet at camp instead of soaked and under a rock. I found rusted empty tin cans on the far side of the creek, so amazingly people had actually been here at one time. They must have been lunatics! The say that Cumnock Lake was disappointing was an understatement. It was surrounded by reeds and a black sludge, and there was no place whatsover to set up camp. I followed the creek as it exited the lake and decided to see what was up at the top of a boulder covered avalanche slope. There was one spot that would have almost been ok for the tent, but it just wasn’t flat enough. There was no water, and that was the main reason for heading back down to the creek. Extremely dense conifers slowed me down to a snail’s pace, although even slime wouldn’t have done them anygood. I ended up in dense woods again, camped on a fairly open mossy area next to the creek.
It was extremely difficult to figure out where to begin climbing up to gain Cumnock Pass. I tried going up higher and soon regretted it, nothing but deadfall filled, moss covered steep slopes. Eventually the creek showed up again, and then.. a trail!! Out here? It had to be an old remnant from some bygone era, but it was better than nothing and I eagerly began following it uphill into the forested mountainside. The trail vanished into shrubs and was unrecognizable, then the burn zone appeared out of nowhere. I was now entering the burned out mountainside I had gazed up at from Whitecap Creek at the beginning of the hike, and it was not pleasant. My boots crunched deep into charred dry ashes of what was moss at one time, and blackened trunks dotted the rolling hills for as far as I could see. The deadfall was atrocious, mostly at waist level and at all angles. I needed a giant who wanted to play pick up sticks. The soles of my feet burned from being wet and from the steep hiking. It seemed like forever, then I saw Whitecap Creek and ended up at exactly the same place I had begun! Even though exhausted I continued back up the trail to camp at Vine Pass again. The next day on the way out, a lone wolf appeared in the forest, looked at me for a short time, then darted off, as if to say, “farewell.”