Upper Athabasca River

Upper Athabasca River

Fortress MountainI 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.

MtAs 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.

upperA 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.

Story and Photos submitted by: John Boehm


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