A while back I had Dave Waddell as a guest writer on the site to write about the rules of Beersbee because I felt he was the best for the subject matter. In the case of this article I was in the middle of one of my main events of the year and couldn’t pull away for an adventure that weekend. I knew Chris Emmerling was going backpacking and asked if he would write an article, simply because I know he has experience at it and its something I would love to tag along on one weekend next summer. Enjoy!
July 31 – August 1st. Hike: North Kananaskis Pass.
There are many quoted reasons to dash to the mountains: to escape the city, to see spectacular wilderness, to taste a bit of adventure. These are all lofty ambitions, and I definitely have my own reasons to hike, which I’ll tell you about at the end of the article. But most of all, and don’t let my diction fool you, its damn good clean fun.
I am lucky to share the interest of hiking with a couple of my buddies, both of whom I have day hiked with before. And after they experienced a bit of the alpine, throughout the off-season they both expressed an interest in overnight backpack hiking. I decided to choose a slightly challenging backpack near the Kananaskis Lakes called North Kananaskis Pass. While this hike certainly demanded physical effort, nothing about the route was terribly technical (no exposure to heights, no super-sharp ascents, no scree slopes, no real route finding or orienteering). Yet, that doesn’t make the hike easy. Like many hikes in the Kananaskis area, it features a super-steep switchback section that will prove daunting for the unprepared (523m el. in 3 km)
Hiking with newbies proved to be an interesting experience for me. Having been on a number of backpacks, I had slowly acquired enough gear to get me through pretty much anything. And so the first overnight hike is always difficult for a newbie: what gear do I pack? What do I shell out to buy? What can I really expect?
Obviously, it’s unrealistic and financially impossible to have all of the “appropriate” gear, but this leads into a big problem: a) Proper gear makes backpacking much more comfortable and safe, but b) its hard to know what gear is really required without actually backpacking first. Therefore, it’s a trial and error process, made much easier when you hike with buddies who can make mistakes you can learn from.
Like checking your gear prior to packing it. One of my buddies decided not to open the seal on his new sleeping pad. He discovered that he had purchased an inflatable pillow instead of a full body length pad, which is utterly essential for keeping warm in the cold alpine nights. Fortunately, Boulton Creek Campground had a store which opened bright and early, allowing my buddy to purchase a simple foam pad.
After double checking all of the gear (finally), we launched into the trail, hoping to finish the first day in roughly 4 hours. The opening section of the trail is a gradual slope to the Forks Campground, slowly rounding the Lower Kananaskis Lake. On the way, we encountered a touristy-looking group who asked us a question about the trailhead for Mt. Indefatigable. I tried my best not to scoff at their suggestion, as they clearly were not equipped for a strenuous 1000+ meter elevation, scramble up a mountain with sheer drops straight into the heart of prime grizzly territory. But luckily, a sign post at the beginning of the trailhead hopefully would have struck terror into the hearts with menacing warnings about bear encounters. But this brings up another good point for newbies: remember to check a relevant recently written guidebook on trails (Mt. Indefatigable was closed as of 2008), and also check-in/phone a local office prior to heading out.
And while I’m at it: speaking of bears. I’m proud to say that this was my umpteenth hike in a row without a bear encounter. Despite all of the bear sightings that people mentioned when we reached Turbine Campground, we encountered none. This could be luck, or my insistence on making LOUD NOISES the entire way up the trail. I don’t mean talking. I don’t mean those retarded bells people refuse to give up (try hearing a tiny bell 10m away from a raging waterfall). I mean bellowing noises that echo across the valley. You may feel like an idiot the first time you try it, but give it an hour, and you’ll find the bellowing noises are more comforting than any other bear gadget you carry. So far it’s working for me!
Anyways, back to the trail. Views really started to appear once we left the 7km mark of Forks Campground. Launching up the steep switchback, the valley began to open up to more expansive views (you gotta pay if you want to play…). I was beginning to struggle a bit with the climb, but luckily my one buddy took lead and encouraged us to keep moving. This is another reason hiking with friends is so rewarding: Everyone brings a talent to hiking, and sometimes an athletic boost is what you need to keep focus.
At the end of the switchback, the trail evens out again in an expansive alpine valley. Here, the views really took off. The trail begins rounding a series of lakes, each more impressive than the last. Putnik Pond, more impressive than the name implies, looks dazzling next to the sharp mountain walls of Mt. Putnik. After a quick lunch, we passed the amazingly large Lawson Lake, just before Turbine Canyon Campground. I can’t say I’ve seen a larger, nicer lake in the alpine Rockies. After a long switchback, it sure looked like an inviting dip. Which is exactly what a few female hikers in front of us did, much to our surprise/delight. Being the gentlemen we are, we gave them time to scramble to find their clothes before we continued up the trail any closer. And trying not to be creepy, we decided to put away the cameras, despite the fact we were obviously trying to snap pictures of the long muscular ridgeline beside the lake, and not of the busty sirens emerging from the crystal clear waters.
Turbine Canyon campground is an impressive site. Mountains tower over the small campground and it features a few picnic tables with bear-proof caches already installed. Visible are hanging glaciers, and a fast moving river which dives deep into Turbine canyon proper: a heart stopping drop invites anyone who dares to venture to the edge of cliff side.
After a quick hot meal at the campsite, along with filtering some water and enjoying a quick pipe-smoke, the rain set in for the night. It sucks to get rained into your 3 man tent, but at least we were dry, and we played cards to pass the time until sleep. Or at least until we had to dig a trench around our tent site to prevent pooling. While we thought we had selected an excellent site, well defined with wood planks, we forgot to take into account these might actually create pooling, and the site pad suffered from rain erosion already from the year’s rain. Regardless, we dug deep and managed to redirect the water enough to prevent our gear from getting soaking.
The next day, we decided to eat a quick breakfast and venture to North Kananaskis proper. Despite a light rain, things were clearly visible along the valley. And the short jaunt to the pass, free from our backpacks, was invigorating. Bright explosions of wild flowers dotted the entire area surrounding the trail. Beatty Glacier, a large hanging glacier, provided dramatic views until the pass. The pass itself was one of the best I’ve seen in the Rocky Mountains. The lovely Maude Lake sits beneath the pass, also amazingly stocked with Cutthroat Trout at some point. Apparently, people were catching fish that weekend, and merits bringing a collapsible fly rod in the future. The mountains surrounding the pass were vibrantly green, mimicking Scottish highlands. And on a clear day, you should be able to see expansive views into British Columbia’s Height of the Rockies provincial park. We briefly set foot into BC, but the trail beyond was sketchy and steep, and so we hung around Maude Lake, stopping to think about what we might do on a clearer day in this wondrous pass.
The rain didn’t stop, so rather than risk another downpour, we decided to pack up while the afternoon weather was still clear. The hike down was just as entertaining as the hike up, and provided open views at the switchback which were not available when hoofing it up. We reached the car in just over 3 hours, right when threatening clouds were moving in over the pass. Our hunch about the weather turned to be correct. Sometimes, instinct is the best knowledge when hiking.
We rewarded ourselves by driving to Canmore and stopping at the Rose and Crown for a few pints and greasy food. A menacing thunderstorm moved over the small resort town, taking out television signals and pounding the area with heavy rainfall. That could have easily taken out our tent, high in the alpine. Why would one take such risks (and invest money) to be so left in such a vulnerable place?
It’s a question that’s hard to answer, but I found one possible way to do so during this hike. While ambling through a viewless forest section, I began talking about my uncertainties in life, especially concerning my future prospects in jobs and education. Thoughts began to cloud my mind as we bounded on, that is, until I reached the sharp switchback. And like a light switch, my mind was suddenly focused at the task at hand, the views exploding from all sides, the strain throughout my body. This is meditation at its finest: a focus on the now… and a reprieve from the second guesses that litter the routine of the average twenty-something individual.