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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



elysiumI actu­al­ly found the prim­i­tive camp­ground for the first time after get­ting some rough direc­tions from a local. The area was mos­qui­to infest­ed but gen­er­ous appli­ca­tions of Muskol did won­ders and any kind of breeze was most wel­come to keep the demons at bay. The trail up to Ely­si­um Pass ends there, but vast mead­ow­lands dot­ted with trees made for easy hik­ing towards the first objec­tive, Monarch Pass. It actu­al­ly has anoth­er semi-offi­cial name but it dosn’t come to mind at the moment.

Camp was made next to a clus­ter of dense­ly packed but stunt­ed conifers in high mead­ows with superb views down a trib­u­tary to the Snar­ing Riv­er Val­ley to the NE. Then, some­thing moved down in an adja­cent gul­ly, and it looked like a bear to the unaid­ed eye. My field glass­es said oth­er­wise, thank­ful­ly, it was a huge por­cu­pine, wad­dling around next to a creek. After down­ing my usu­al trav­el mug of strong cof­fee and gra­nola with pow­dered milk it was off to the next point of ref­er­ence, East Derr Pass, and this was much hard­er to access as it lay at the far end of a snow and boul­der filled basin, with sev­er­al most­ly snow cov­ered lakes thrown in.

Approaching Derr PassThis place faced the NE, so lit­tle won­der it had all this snow in sum­mer, snow which I sank into up to my hips when one foot plunged into some sort of hole. The way became more dan­ger­ous as rolling hills of boul­ders cov­ered in snow had to be crossed. There were unseen hol­low areas clos­est to the big rocks so I tried to avoid get­ting too near them, but even so it was very time con­sum­ing. East Derr Pass pre­sent­ed awe­some views in the head­wa­ters of Derr Creek, with spec­tac­u­lar peaks all around, and Derr Pass, at the head of that val­ley, was my next goal. It was a much low­er pass, but most­ly still beat­i­ful green mead­ows, and not a soul to be seen. It could have been the year 1700 for all I knew. Time­less­ness was at home here. I didn’t care what time it was and it didn’t mat­ter for there was no timetable or real plan to fol­low. It was just now. Colum­bia ground squir­rels alert­ed the whole val­ley of my pres­ence with their shrill whis­tle alarms and even though it was a solo trip, I was far from being alone out here.

Low East Derr PassTo the north of Derr Pass then began the despair­ing descent of a trib­u­tary to the Snar­ing Riv­er, far, far below. Dead­fall filled forests alter­nat­ed with chest high shrubfests in which my feet remained invis­i­ble to me for hours on end, prob­ing for a sup­posed ground being the gen­er­al rule. The slopes then began to steep­en, the shrub night­mare con­tin­u­ing along the edge of dead­fall choked woods. Sounds invit­ing doesn’t it? A real walk in the park huh? I’d lost the creek way back up and beyond, but found it again fur­ther down and guz­zled its refresh­ing con­tents. Some more skir­mish­es with plant mat­ter and the val­ley bot­tom was final­ly reached and it was.….a bog­gy mess.

Monarch PassThe ani­mals had also done a pret­ty lousy job of mak­ing game trails, but what had I expect­ed, hav­ing camped in over 200 dif­fer­ent places in these moun­tains. Should have known bet­ter real­ly. My ini­tial plan of attack was to make for the Snar­ing head­wa­ters to the west but an encounter with a huge frothy trib­u­tary com­ing in from the north set my mind oth­er­wise. So, well, it was the oth­er way then, to the east we go. The river’s edge hik­ing actu­al­ly improved as progress was made down­stream, the occa­sion­al bald eagle star­tled by my inva­sion and seek­ing to roost else­where.

Snaring RiverVery steep river­bank slopes some­times forced an inland detour, involv­ing dense con­cen­tra­tions of sapling trees, with bare­ly enough space between for me to pass. Nobody heard my curs­ing, of this I’m sure. At no time was I will­ing to bash all the way down to the Snar­ing Camp­ground, espe­cial­ly with my knowl­edge of the canyons and gorges fur­ther down. No, it would have to be anoth­er trib­u­tary back up to Monarch Pass. Gulp! What hid­den hor­rors lay and wait? After con­sult­ing the map, the best choice seemed to be a major creek to the east of Mt. Knight, deep in the Snar­ing hin­ter­land. I was con­stant­ly clap­ping to alert the wildlife, but they were prob­a­bly going yeah, yeah, we heard you com­ing from Derr Pass idiot! Idio­cy was a tru­ly appro­pri­ate term to describe the inane strug­gle of end­less bush­whack­ing up this for­sak­en val­ley.

Snaring camp0055All the usu­al cast of obsta­cles were there, with cameos by tus­socks & bogs, knee deep mossy cush­ions, and the final half walk-half crawl through tan­gle after tan­gle to uncer­e­mo­ni­ous­ly enter the mead­ows below Monarch Pass. I felt that at the very least, per­haps a brass band should have been there wait­ing. The griz­zly encounter atop Monarch Pass was the last thing expect­ed at this point. We just met at the sum­mit, it waived its nose in the air and stood on its hind quar­ters for a moment before charg­ing off down the mead­ows from where it had come. Thank good­ness. It van­ished into the dis­tance in no time till a lit­tle brown dot was all that remained. From then on I could see lots of lit­tle brown dots, none of which turned out to be a bear. One more relax­ing camp was made high in the mead­ows below Mt. Oliv­er, and the next day, in the pour­ing rain, the end­less mead­ows once again descend­ed to the Ely­si­um Pass camp­ground.


Sto­ry and Pho­tos sub­mit­ted by: John Boehm


Edith Cavell Adventure

Here are some shots from the clas­sic route of Edith Cavell. This amaz­ing moun­taineer­ing adven­ture is by far my favorite achieve­ment. The trip took 17 hours round trip with lots of breaks and one mishap.

Cau­tion is advised for this adven­ture. Climb­ing knowl­edge and no fear of expo­sure is a must! Of course the com­mon sense to hire a moun­tain guide if your abil­i­ty is not up to par.

This trip start­ed at 1:40 am at the park­ing lot of Edith Cavell. A short hike to the first snow patch that leads to the east ridge in the full moon is breath­tak­ing. We put on our cram­pons and start­ed our accent. This where my epic began, near­ly reach­ing the ridge, my foot­ing failed and I slid down the corn snow in the dark and think­ing to myself “this is it!” After 80 or 90 feet of high speed (it felt like 100 miles per hour) decent los­ing the ice ax right off the bat was not in the plans. Some­how, some lucky turn of event I stopped short of slam­ming into the rocks where we just crossed. Big sigh of relief and adren­a­line rush­ing through my veins was def­i­nite­ly hap­pen­ing. A dis­tance call from the ridge, “…EDDIE!”

Lucky for me that I packed a spare ice ax, with the adren­a­line that was cours­ing through my sys­tem I start­ed my accent again, col­lect­ed the ax where I had start­ed to fall and short­ly was on the ridge where Mike was wait­ing patient­ly and per­plexed at what hap­pened. I showed him my Huge road rash on my left fore­arm and out came the first aid. As you can see from these pho­tos, we con­tin­ued our accent. When­ev­er there were snow I was very slow going. Can you blame me?

Sun rise at 6:30 am, this sight was to be remem­bered for­ev­er. The First Step to the peak was so intim­i­dat­ing that talk of turn­ing back was spo­ken, but not real­ly in our plans. The inter­est­ing parts were just begin­ning, hang­ing out there and look­ing under your arm pits and see­ing the Cavell pond beneath you is some thing that I can­not be cap­tured in words.

The sum­mit was reached at NOON! After a paparazzi ses­sion and lunch on top of the world, the ugly decent of the west ridge was to begin. But that is anoth­er story…back at the vehi­cle by 7:30 pm.

by Eddie Wong
August 17, 2000