Upper Athabasca River

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.

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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