Misadventures in the Canadian Rockies with a side of Punk Rock
Coffee Grounds and Security Blankets
Truthfully, the elevation gains ahead of me combined with a backpack that seems to increase in weight every year had been weighing on my mind, and I had been fretting about it since I'd booked the campsite months before. The campsite was crucial to achieving a goal I'd set the year prior, but I had been younger then and probably full of hope and ibuprofen. Some days, even the simple act of climbing a set of stairs in my house can leave me feeling absolutely gassed, my legs burning. The thought of climbing what would likely equate to over 200 flights of stairs with a 65 pound pack on seemed downright impossible. And you're right, I could have lessened the strain by paring down the arsenal of camera equipment I had with me on top of the backpacking gear, but to choose between lenses is like choosing which kid is your favourite, and I couldn't stand the thought of leaving the spare camera body behind either. Besides, the sunrises weren’t going to watch themselves and fear about my own physical limitations wasn't going to be enough to keep me at home. So, with a backpack full of every possible luxury I could cram inside, I stepped on to the trail, cursing the younger more motivated version of myself that had talked me into this kind of suffering. I would just have to take it one painfully slow step at a time.
Considering it was well into the autumn as far as the Rockies were concerned, it was warmer than I had anticipated, which slowed me more than any heavy pack ever could. I tied my bandana around the end of my hiking pole and plunged the fabric over a bridge and into a stream to soak. The cold fabric tied around my neck brought a little bit of relief from the heat as I laboured up the switch backs step after step, after step, after step. The previous year my friend and I had done a through hike, ending our weekend in the backcountry by hiking down this section of trail. I had recalled the hike out had been long even with gravity on our side. That just meant that the way up was unrelenting. Once the forest began to thin and the views opened up, I would look back at the distance I had gained incredulously, and then I would look up at the distance I had to go... also incredulously. After hours of slogging uphill, the trail bestowed the gift of a nice long downhill section, followed by the day’s destination. My home for the next few days. Deep down I knew that regardless of my physical shortcomings, my stubborn streak would not have allowed me to give up and I would have made it to camp eventually, but it was nice not to have to set up my tent in the dark, and I knew that after a bite to eat and shot of whiskey I'd be no worse for wear than when I started.
Spectacular fall colours along the trail
As I set my pack down and wandered through the campground, whatever trepidation I had about my ability to conquer the strenuous hike was quickly replaced with a growing sense of dread. I walked down the trail peering through the trees at every single campsite and found no signs of human life anywhere. The campground was completely empty. With every offshoot trail in the vicinity inspected, the fear of even being able to make it to camp to begin with was quickly being replaced with the unease about being completely alone, several kilometres into the backcountry. What kind of stupid plan all in the name of photography had I come up with? I chided myself as a sense of dread planted itself firmly in the pit of my stomach. Logically, I knew what I needed to do to be safe in bear country, I knew the no trace principles and the camp was well appointed with bear safe lockers for food and toiletries. I also knew that if I truly needed emergency assistance, I had with me a satellite device which could summon help. Besides, any mishaps I may or may not have during the course of the next few days would not be prevented by the presence of other hikers, particularly since I knew I would avoid other people while in the backcountry almost as much as I avoided the other wildlife in the area. Still, it would be nice knowing other people were around. I checked the last of the campsites and shuffled my way back to where I'd dropped my bag, for now at least, I would be very very alone.
All by myself, don't wanna be...
I'd already tackled one fear by hiking up the never-ending switchbacks in the first place and I wasn't about to let a little bit of abject terror about being all by myself ruin my day. I made myself busy by setting up my tent and rather than worrying about the lack of other people, I made a conscious decision to focus on being grateful for the solitude. After my little camp was set up, I wandered around with my camera in silence, you could call it a meditation of sorts, and soaked in my surroundings with a slow, hesitant smile. I marveled at the small brook trout splashing around in the shallow outflow stream of the lake, their spots blending them seamlessly into the algae covered rocks just under the water's surface. I lifted my face to the sun, closed my eyes and felt the warmth on my skin while I sat in the summer bleached grasses. When I opened my eyes, they came to focus on a smattering of golden larch trees glimmering along on the distant lake shore. I grasped onto my camera should a photo present itself, but it did not. The afternoon would be for me and me alone.
Later in the day when the other campers began to trickle in, solitude be damned, I was ecstatic to see them. The hesitant smile I had been wearing morphed into a perma-grin and I finally started to relax. It's one thing to be grateful for your surroundings, but now I felt I could start to truly enjoy them. I packed away the camera which had been acting as a safety blanket of sorts, had a bite to eat and a little bourbon nightcap and crawled into bed. I was fairly confident that the racket the other campers had been making would be enough to scare away predators while I slept and seeing as how I am still alive enough to write this, I'd say they did a pretty good job.
I had learned a thing or two from my previous camping trips and opted to bring a second sleeping bag along. For once I was actually warm enough, though I still didn’t get much sleep. Once it was dark out the campers ended their duties as predator security and crawled into their tents, the sound of nylon fabrics and zippers drifted through the valley bottom as weary hikers struggled to get comfortable in their lightweight cocoons. I laid in my own cocoon and listened to the rhythmic beating of my heart in my chest, interrupted occasionally by the sound of wind pouring through the trees, a symphony of wilderness and humanity lulling me to sleep.
At 5:15 my alarm rang, and I laid in the dark listening to the sound of rain drops against the tent until I drifted off to sleep again.
At 6:15 my eyes opened again “Shit! How long was I out for?” I wondered as I fumbled in the dark for my flashlight. I checked my watch. An hour later than I wanted to wake up, I cursed myself as I hastily changed into my hiking clothes and crawled out of the tent. Silently, I navigated tangled tree roots and buried rocks along the trail to the food cache, cleaned myself up, grabbed some snacks and hit the trail. I waited until I was out of earshot of the sleeping campers before I let out a “Hey Bear” my first line of defense against meeting a wild animal on the dark passageway through the forest. A defense that ultimately worked, and I reached a nearby lake without incident.
I rock hopped along the shore, eyes scanning for compositions and bears. The lake was bordered by a steep mountain face opposite me, and a dense dark forest which created the perfect basin to corral both sunlight and wild animals. My ears strained for any sounds of movement in the area, but only a distant waterfall and outflow creek competed for the dominant sound in an otherwise silent locale. I found a suitable perch in the middle of the creek which consisted of some relatively flat rocks to keep my feet dry and cotton grass for their cheerful little personalities in plant form - although I value them mostly for their foreground potential. I dropped my bag and set up my tiny island with the usual accoutrements reserved for such an occasion - the camp stove, the coffee and the camera. While the coffee boiled, I huddled under an umbrella shielding myself and the camera from passing clouds which deposited a variety of precipitation ranging between a light drizzle and an all-encompassing aggressive mist.
Despite the harried state I had rushed out of camp earlier that day, the clouds and precipitation lent themselves well to a very leisurely morning, I snapped a few photos without the chaos that a vibrant and ever-changing sunrise will create. The clouds hung low in the sky and the light remained a constant flat, blue grey. I squirmed around on the small island of rock I had chosen to park, flipping the camera this way and that to make the most of an otherwise unchanging scene all the while my mind was on high alert. Look behind you, look to the forests, listen for movement, like a deer venturing into the wide-open meadow, always on the look out for danger. Sure, I had the ritual of the coffee and camera to ground me while I waited for the sunrise, if it should happen to light up the sky, but on this particular morning it did not. Without the chaos that erupts trying to fit every composition and exposure known to man into the time it takes for the sun to light up the sky into daylight, I had nothing to distract me from the potential dangers that most likely do not exist in the shadows of the forest beyond my island in the creek. So, I did what any logical person or deer might do in that situation, I gathered my things and went to find the herd back at camp.
I had packed a pair of rubber soled bunny slippers to pad around camp with, and I donned them as soon as I arrived, located my favourite sitting stump near the lake from which I could watch the trout swim around and proceeded to laze around for the rest of the day while waiting for the sunset to arrive. Admittedly, sunsets are not something I typically `chase` as a photographer, but to venture this far into the forest and skip out on some half decent light would be irresponsible of me. After about 10 hours of lazing about, I traded my slippers for boots again and fought my way through the brush for a chance at a decent scene. I'd been thrashing around a particularly boggy part of the lake shore, feet sinking into the muck, tripod flailing above my head as I tried to navigate to a more photogenic and less quick-sand like locale when an excited photographer burst through the trees thinking all the commotion must have been a moose. I'd barely made it to firm ground and was sorting out the tangled legs of my tripod when I sensed the presence of another being and looked up in time to see the look of disappointment on her face as she realized there was no moose, only me, a very clumsy and not very subtle human. And that is the story of how I met Lynn Martel, author, photographer and all around bad ass mountain woman who, unlike me, hears commotion in the forest and runs toward it rather than far, far away. Later, Lynn had laughed at the oversized backpack I had with me and insisted on taking a photo before we parted ways, warning me that one day I would be happy to look back and marvel at what I used to carry.
The view from my sitting spot
The alarm clock rang out in the dark again, but this time I did not dare close my eyes for a second. I fumbled around in the tent for my flashlight and readied myself for the morning ahead. Once again, I tip toed past the sleeping campers until I was far enough away to begin warning any potential threats of my impending arrival. The light of the waxing moon assisted my headlamp as I picked out landmarks still fresh in my mind from the previous year. The rock slide, the sentry like old growth forest and even the crossroads in the trail, all familiar to me even though I'd only set foot there once before. I steadily hiked along the moonlit trail, a little apprehensive as always, but I did not let the apprehension slow my steps, I only let it guide my senses through the dark forest. Over the years, I`ve learned to calculate how long I will take to hike certain distances and elevations, and I arrived at the pass right on schedule. In the twilight, I could see the forest open up to a meadow carpeted with golden grasses. A border of golden larches framed the formidable mountain face to the West, gleaming in the pre-dawn light. The place was just as stunning as I had remembered, and I raced across the pass to find the foreground I had made note of the year before.
As the sun rose, any apprehension I had about the trip, the remoteness, the potential dangers, they all sank into the rocky earth beneath me along with the twilight. And though the skies were a little overcast and grey, the sun was still able to peek through and highlight certain sections of the world around me in little slivers of light, as if to showcase a little larch solo on stage right and then give the boulders centre stage their time in the limelight too. I had 360 degrees of light and shadow and rock and sky to take in, and I sat cross legged, coffee in hand while a pair of Nikons fired away beside me soaking up as much of it as I could.
In the end, the sunrise itself was nothing to write home about, the sky didn't cooperate the way I'd hoped and the light didn't quite dance with the landscape how I'd imagined it would. Even the photos I captured aren't able to come close to what my eyes took in, but maybe that's because film cannot react to light quite the same way as heartstrings do.
Some day I'll go back, maybe I'll be an old lady by then, unable to haul the heavy cameras or the luxury coffee pot up high mountain passes. I can sense a shift happening already as lenses get left behind and cameras get smaller in favour of lighter packs. It will be a gradual shift I'm sure, but some day I might learn to fully take in the mountains without the safety net those cameras and coffees cast for me.
Having a birthday in January would probably be a lot more fun to celebrate if I lived in the Southern Hemisphere, but I don't. I live in Canada where January means a measly 8 hours of daylight, snow, bitter cold and no fun unless you're a weird cold weather masochist (which I am not).
Every so often, thanks to a warm westerly wind drawn over the Rockies from the Pacific Ocean called a Chinook, I luck out and catch a glimpse of what people born in May must feel like on their birthdays:
Such was the case of my thirty-fifth birthday, it was plus 8. PLUS EIGHT. In January. Plus eight, in January, in the mountains. This hardly ever happens, and if you would like to prove how rarely this happens, you may take a look in my closet and see that I do not own any January party appropriate clothing, unless you count my awesome hat which I purchased for $2.00 from my local grocery store three days prior. It functions in all weather.
For the weeks leading up to my birthday, I was sort of tossing the idea of celebrating on a mountain summit somewhere, even contemplating the idea of spending the night alone, shivering in a tent, to facilitate the short day light hours and inevitable hours long slog through knee deep snow. Instead, two things happened: The first being that Mr. Bastard had the weekend off from work and suddenly I had a party partner. The second was that it was plus freaking eight outside! Suddenly my plans shifted from a solo trip (For the record, I have friends okay? But if you need more context, Google what introverts like to do for fun) to a leisurely weekend in Banff. We checked in to a hotel, and somehow I convinced Mr. Bastard to hike up Sulphur Mountain in the dark with me so we could watch the sun rise from the summit, drink Mimosas and eat cake for breakfast, and that's exactly what we did.
We donned our hiking gear in the comfort of our hotel room and took a leisurely five minute drive to the trailhead to begin our hike. I put on my boot spikes, headlamp and party hat and then we set out on the trail. You have to love National Park trails, they are such a treat to hike on. Despite the snow, the trail was packed down by thousands of boots before us so we didn't need to worry about post-holing, the trail was wide and despite the elevation gain it was so nicely constructed it hardly felt like you were walking uphill at all. The only off putting thing was the occasional wide open swath of snow can be an avalanche hazard at times, and some weird animal noises in the dark, it's source a cause of much debate as we sauntered up the endless switchbacks. Mr. Bastard thinks they may have been canine, I think the sounds could have been from deer. At any rate, we were not buried alive or mauled on our hike up so I will count that as a raving success.
Just before dawn we popped out of the trees and next to the Sulphur Mountain gondola and restaurant, a funny thing to see after hiking for so long. We changed in to some dry layers, added some more warm clothes and then scurried around the building towards the viewpoint. Mr. Bastard took his time to read the signs along the way, but I was almost sprinting up the stairs ahead of him.
Eventually, Mr. Bastard caught up to me and i's a good thing he did so could have an extra set of eyes with me, having never been there before I was at an absolute loss for where to set up my camera. I had no preconceived ideas of what I wanted to accomplish, no idea where the best vantage points would be and only a vague idea of what the light would do when the sun rose. Apparently I was madly unprepared for the fact that I had about 240 degrees of good mountains and light to point my camera at, and only a few minute window to capture all of it in. Whenever I settled in to a particular viewpoint, Mr. Bastard would be there to remind me to look behind me, and sure enough I would let out an excited holler, finish the exposure I was working on and then frantically set my camera up in another location.
Fortunately, I had scored a bit of beta from a coworker who had been to the area the previous summer and showed me some cell phone photos, I had determined that I should bring a second camera body and my telephoto lens along with my normal wide angle set up. It was worth carrying the extra weight, so that I did not have to waste time switching lenses, besides I actually like the telephoto shots more than the wide angle view.
As the sunrise faded in to daylight, we retreated to a sheltered place to eat breakfast birthday cake and sip on mimosas while we waited for the Gondolas to begin running for the day. After I was full of cake and champagne, I was spoiled to the easiest descent from a summit I've ever done as we floated down the slope in the gondola, our faces glued to the windows half wishing every summit had this sort of access but mostly glad they don't.
Best. Birthday. Ever.
Sunrise up High
I grew up with a love for music, and that love grew into a passion as I entered adulthood and picked up my first guitar. But despite my love for music, no guitar riff rumbling out of an amp or song blaring from a speaker can compare to the best sounds in life: A creek tossing water over rocks as it tumbles down a valley. Gentle rain falling onto the roof of a tent, particularly if you, the occupant, are tucked safely into bed. A pot of coffee percolating over a gas stove, the rolling boil of water crashing through coffee grounds and the hiss of fragrant steam as it escapes the pot and marks a new day. This trifecta of sounds greeted me as I woke from my nap and began to ready myself for the morning ahead.
Normally a hike in the dark would cause me a fair bit of anxiety, my heart pounding through my rib cage, a dose of adrenaline making its way through my system while I run through “what could go wrong” scenarios. This particular morning (or should I say night, 3 am should hardly be considered part of a day) the sounds of water in the form of creek, precipitation and coffee set my mind at ease, and I managed to step out the door and into the darkness with much less hesitation than normal.
A few minutes later I arrived at the trailhead, and I’ll admit to taking an extra minute to sit in the safety of my truck, administer myself a short pep talk about why this escapade was even necessary (come on Llisa, you know you could really use the self confidence boost that comes from pushing past fears and achieving a goal, think of how empowered this will make you feel) and also to remind myself that the sunrise waits for no one, and if I was going to get any photos at all I had better get a move on.
Initially, a false sense of bravado carried me up the first kilometre of trail at a steady pace, despite every inch of my body screaming to turn back to safety. My voice meek as I called out to warn wildlife of my impending arrival. Eventually, my feet found their rhythm as I trudged up the path, my voice grew louder and I was becoming less anxious as each metre of the trail faded into darkness behind me. As I gained the ridge my pace quickened, if the sun had not yet risen, its arrival was certainly impending, and I began to survey my surroundings. For most people, hiking allows people to soak in the views and connect with nature. For me, it’s a constant source of inspiration in the form of compositions, and I was searching wildly for one. My inspiration presented itself in the form of a high point on the trail with a delicate array of wildflowers. I unearthed my arsenal of camera equipment from the depths of my backpack and got to work. A crocus peering out of the grass, a cloud inversion flowing through a distant valley and the first rays of sunlight streaming through the clouds. I snapped away happily, darting from one spot to the next and hurriedly switching between two different cameras for the occasional change in perspective.
Once I was satisfied with the morning’s catch, I turned my attention to the camp stove I had brought along, and prepared a cup of coffee to enjoy alongside the compositions. I lazed in the dew tipped grasses while sipping my coffee and observing a small cloud drift over up the face of the mountain I was on, and gently roll over the ridge. Clouds and dappled sunlight passed over distant and foreboding mountain ridges, constantly changing their appearance. I stared with great interest at the different forms a singular solid piece of rock could take.
Finally, with the coffee supply dwindling, the directional morning light erased by daylight, and a steady parade of hikers making their assault on endless switchbacks in the distance, my time had come to sneak away. The magic developed by sunrise and solitude would leave the mountain for the day as hordes of hikers, seemingly unaware of their peaceful surroundings, would chatter in groups as they made their way up the quiet trail I had just taken.
The descent went quickly enough, my boots slipped down a combination of rock and damp clay for several hundred vertical metres. Plant a pole, step. Plant a pole, step. Plant a pole, step. Plant a …”Oh, yes I am coming down already. The sunrise was nice. You’re almost to the top. Thanks, hope you have a good hike too” …pole, step. Plant a pole, step. And so was the pattern of descent, and it was a good pattern until I reached an impossibly small rock band. Plant a pole step. Trip. Flail. Plant two poles. Stepstep. Smash. Ouch. StepstepstepstepSTOP.
Things had gone so well up until that point.
I gingerly felt my right temple and cheek, instantly throbbing from the face plant I had taken in to the handle of my hiking pole. I wondered if I would be arriving home with a black eye. I stood on the trail for a moment and really thought about how I felt.
"How do I feel?"
"No, not emotionally, physically. How do I feel physically?"
Once the shock wore off a little bit, I decided that I didn't feel too bad, considering the knock to the head I had just taken. I straightened up, shifted my weight around to make sure nothing else was hurt, determined that tears, hysterics or helicopters would not be necessary today, and carried on. Plant a pole, step. Plant a pole, step.
Soon, the safety of my truck came back in to view, bringing the end of the day's lesson in empowerment and gravity. My feet were thrilled to sit down and be freed of the constraints of my hiking boots, but the rest of me wished I was still on the trail, forging ahead through the wilderness trying to convince myself of my self reliance, bravery and coordination. But my bruised toes and stinging cheek needed a break, and I suppose I could use one too. I settled back in to camp, put a pot of coffee on to percolate and sat next to the creek to listen to the sounds of water tumbling over rocks and coffee grounds. I jotted down notes about the day's adventure, and as I wrote the last sentence, a passing rain cloud spattered rain across the tent roof signalling my time to go indoors.
Cold, Dark and Scary
The popular saying in the Rockies, is that “If you don’t like the weather, then wait 10 minutes.” It’s not uncommon for 30 degree temperature swings, and such was the case when I set my sights toward a campground in the Kananaskis backcountry.
The day before had been 30 degrees, and I languished in the hot sun watching Mr. Bastard and our friend Shevaun cruise up the last climbing route of the day. All three of us had required long rests on our way up the rock face, signaling our time to pack it in lest we sacrifice half a dozen quick-draws to stronger climbers. As Mr. Bastard rappelled down, I slowly stood up from the smooth flat rock I’d been sunning myself on and waded down the creek next to us to an inconspicuous pile of rocks. Beneath the rocks, chilling in the cool glacier fed creek were a trio of après climb beers, safely out of sight from a dozen or so other climbers in the small canyon, though I suspect ours wasn’t the only beer cache in the creek. I reached in to the ice cold water to retrieve the drinks from their cooler, and handed them to my grateful climbing partners, who had also opted to wander through the creek to our picnic area rather than skip across a cleverly crafted log bridge. After a quick snack, we slowly waded down the creek on our way back to the trailhead rather than scramble over a narrow, exposed trail through the canyon. A perfect way to end the day as we splashed through the water, pausing to take a sip of ice cold beer or talk about the day’s adventure. It was a perfect summer afternoon, and I soaked it in hungrily. If the forecast was correct, I would need all the sun I could get.
A mere 24 hours later, I found myself with a loaded backpack, hurriedly setting up camp before the rain began. The day had started out warm enough as I hiked through pockets of cool lush forest and pools of warm sunshine, but as I neared the day’s destination the skies began to darken and the air was thick with humidity. I knew the weather would change soon. Once my camp was set up I breathed a sigh of relief knowing that I had a dry place to sleep. The rain had mercifully held off while I set up my tent.
Not one to sit still, I packed a smaller bag with some camera gear and other essentials, and started on the trail again. There were a few lakes further up the valley that I wanted to scout. It wasn’t terribly long before I broke treeline and scanned the surrounding peaks for potential light catches. My ultimate goal was to be in this spot for sunrise the next morning, so I made note of landmarks as I wandered up the talus slopes. From a distance, the valley would look like one large bowl full of rocks, but up close there was a switch backed trail climbing higher and higher in to the alpine. Hug the trees to the left, stay south of the avalanche patch, turn right at the large cairn. I repeated the landmarks to myself, partially to prepare for doing the trail again in the dark in a few hours, but more importantly to distract myself from what could possibly be ahead of me at the end of the narrow valley I was closing in on.
The days prior I had been checking the trail reports religiously, through multiple sources. I was prepared for anything the trail could throw at me: gaiters for mud, boot spikes for snow and ice, hell I’d even had the forethought to pack little adhesive cushions to take the abuse level down a notch or two on my toes. No, the trail itself wasn’t much of a concern, what bothered me was the sheer number of bear sightings being reported, and not just any bears, the trail reports had specifically mentioned “aggressive bears.” A momma grizzly and her cubs had charged a large group of hikers the week before. A black bear had been reported as chasing another group of hikers well over a mountain pass. And these were groups of hikers, as someone who generally prefers to travel alone, I was not entirely comfortable with how the bears were treating large groups of people, what would happen if a lone hiker were to run into one of these so called aggressive bears? Sure enough, when I had started the hike that morning, a small post-it note on the trailhead message board had noted yet another bear on the trail not even 24 hours before.
Thankfully I’d reached the first lake without incident, and then the second lake. Finally I was nearing the third lake, its entrance guarded by a cliff band, a small canyon and a conveniently placed blind corner – all of which funneled me into a mountain bound bowl with a single point of entry. Had it been earlier in the day, I would have thought nothing of stepping through the final doorway, a beautiful location would have had at least a few other humans on which to rely on if there were danger. But it was evening, the weather was rapidly changing and sane people had gone home hours ago. The last sign of life I had seen was a group of hikers picking their way down the opposite side of the valley over an hour ago.
No. I was alone, and if there was an aggressive bear waiting for me around the bend, I would be meeting it on my own.
Not one to be deterred by the abject terror I had welling up in my chest, I let out a few desperately loud “Hey Bear!” and turned the corner. Instead of a bear, I was met with a picturesque turquoise lake, an impressive headwall and the first drops of rain.
“Of course…” I muttered to myself as I quickly picked my way down a steep bank and dropped my bag behind a boulder so that it wouldn’t roll away into the lake. My attention had rapidly switched from potential dangers to setting up the camera as quickly as possible. The tripod and overstuffed camera bag were retrieved from my backpack and I perched the camera on the tripod. Then, an umbrella was unearthed from my bag, ceremoniously opened with a FWOOMP and then balanced exclusively over the camera set up. A non-photographer might look at the addition of an umbrella to a backpacking gear list as a bit excessive, but as someone who can descend rapidly into a combination of blind fury and misery over a wet lens, the umbrella is invaluable.
Low clouds drifted down the face of the mountain ahead, threatening to shroud the face completely and ruin the shot I had in mind. I clicked the shutter as a precaution, and then took a step back to watch the cloud snake its way through openings in the mountain. Though the mountains may seem still from a distance, once you are fully engrossed in their elements, you begin to realize how dynamic they really are. A distant rock fall, a moving cloud, flowers and trees swaying in a stiff wind and precipitation in all forms come and go. Sometimes it takes the ability to be silent and still for the steady progression of the mountains to reveal itself to you. A camera can never capture the gesticulation of the mountains, it’s a moment that is revealed to you and you alone, a gift provided to those who can open their eyes, their ears, their nose and their heart and allow the wilderness to seep in.
For me, if I didn’t have a camera and a constant mission to find nice places with good light during hours most people reserve to be safe at home, I too would be sitting around a kitchen table with family and friends, or sleeping cozily in my bed, or even trading stories with other hikers safely back at camp. On this day, perhaps I would be heating up some dinner, or lazing in my tent with a book waiting for the weather to clear. My focus on the everyday tedium of life, unaware of the whispers of the mountains. Eons of secrets left unheard.
While I silently took in the views, listening for mountain secrets and camera clicks, the story back at camp was unfolding. As forecasted, a low bank of fog was rolling into the valley, at first obstructed by the cliff band behind me, but the rain was slowly intensifying and I knew the storm was rolling in. I packed up my bag and began slowly stepping my way down the field of boulders until the lake my camp was at, far below me, came back in to view. Not long after I spotted the lake, it disappeared again in to a sea of atmosphere. The forecast had been for snow, and I giggled at what might be in store for me as I snapped one last photo and walked into the clouds.
At 2 am the sound of rain beating against my tent changed. The sharp racket of rain drops suddenly dulled into a din of heavy splatters. Snow.
Being one of those people who is always cold, I probably should not have been surprised to find myself shivering in my tent all night. I was wrapped in a sleeping bag liner and my brand new North Face sleeping bag, with a -7C comfort rating, cinched tightly around me so that only my eyes and nose were visible. Over top my sleeping bag I had thrown two more down jackets. Underneath my sleeping mat I had also added a section of foam to add R-Value along the length of my core, and for a little extra warmth I had tucked a pair of hand warmers in to the waist of my pajamas. Still, I shivered violently, and I could feel panic beginning to rise. I had been too cold to sleep, and getting colder by the minute. My chin convulsed in a teeth chattering vibration. Despite the addition of multiple layers around me in an attempt to stay warm, it wasn’t working, and I could feel the fear of hypothermia well up inside my chest. I needed to get warm, but first I needed to get a hold of myself.
Deep, slow breaths. Breathe in. Pause. Breathe out. Pause. “You’re okay, you’re fine. Just move” I thought, but I curled up even tighter in my sleeping bag, cowering from the cold air outside. “MOVE!” I screamed silently at myself, and I began to do whatever movement I could inside my sleeping bag. I did sit ups and leg raises and tiny, constrained, prone jumping jacks. Finally, I could feel a little bit of warmth returning to my body, and I fell into a chilled and restless sleep until 4:15 am when my alarm clock rang.
Normally, getting dressed inside a cold, cramped tent is an exercise in flexibility and core strength as one attempts to put on a bra without touching moisture laden tent walls or tries to pull on a pair of pants with an impressive pelvic thrust while laying on a pile of sleeping bags. But I was too cold for that. Instead, I brought my cold clothes into my sleeping bag for a moment, in an attempt to warm them up, and then proceeded to disrobe and dress myself in tiny controlled movements while still wrapped tightly in my sleeping bag. The entire process took an agonizing 45 minutes, and normally I'm pretty good at dressing myself.
I knew I was probably going to be late, not entirely a bad thing since racing against a clock is an excellent way to cast fear and hesitation aside when stepping outside a safe little tent and facing the cold, dark wilderness on your own. And that is what I did. I poked my head outside and looked at the ground, it had been transformed completely by a deep blanket of snow. A cliff near the camp had been shedding rocks weighed down by precipitation all night, and with a little help from me, my tent shed several inches of thick, wet snow.
After a quick stop at the bear proof food lockers to gather my breakfast, I started on the trail. The snowfall was slowed by the surrounding forest as I methodically stepped forward, yelling out the obligatory “Hey Bear!” into the darkness as I crawled higher up the mountain. It wasn’t long before I broke treeline, and realized how difficult the next portion of trail would be. Without a pathway of trees to guide me, the way forward disappeared into a featureless white sheet. The snow fell furiously from the sky in a dizzying dance across the light of my headlamp, threatening to send me in to the throes of vertigo. I stopped and surveyed my surroundings. An avalanche gulley to my right, a few sparse trees to my left. Yep, still on trail.
I took a few steps forward, the snow beat against my face at warp speed, and nothing else was visible beyond a flurry of snow and a blank canvas. I paused again and seriously considered what I was doing. Staying on the trail as I moved through the boulder field would likely be impossible until daytime, and the risk of slipping in the snow and injuring myself if I attempted to continue through the dark was high. My main objective for the morning was to capture the alpenglow on the headwall over the third lake, but given the socked in sky, the weather wasn’t likely to lift any time soon anyway. Although I was disappointed, the risk just wasn’t worth the reward. Besides, I consoled myself, there’s always tomorrow, and I turned on my heel and started back towards camp. The view from the first lake would look identical to the morning’s objective anyway – snow, and lots of it.
Back at camp, I found a place along the lake shore and began the ritual I’ve grown to love. Set up the camera and point it at something pretty, in this case it was a set of snow covered logs laying in a sea of blue light. Next, brew a cup of coffee to sip, letting flavour and warmth travel down the body from lips to tongue to soul. Lastly, while a long exposure counts down second by second on the camera, a piece of cheese is unwrapped and the first savoury bite is allowed to bring a smile to my face. This is paradise. A cold, azure paradise.
Later that morning, as I once again shivered in my tent trying to warm up under a sea of various blankets and clothing, the truth of my situation began to settle in.
Despite the extra warm clothing, high tech sleeping bag and the care I had taken to stay dry (and failed) it would be foolish of me to stay another night. The temperature was forecast to drop even lower overnight, and given my utter failure to stay warm the night before, I would likely be dangerously cold by the next morning. After the location research, the preparation, the effort and ultimately the failed execution - the mountains had won this round. I wiped away hot tears, took down my camp and began the hike down the valley, pouting slightly but ultimately ecstatic at the thought of a hot shower and dry clothes once I arrived home.
At the valley bottom, the view back toward the camp was abysmal. A solid white wall of menacing clouds. When I left the lake, the open areas had already received 10 cm of snow, I figured the total would easily reach 15 or 20 cm by the time the storm passed.
In civilization however, the weather was almost pleasant, at least compared to what I had just come from. As I drove down the highway past a perennial favourite with photographers, I had to stop. The piping hot shower I was craving would have to wait a little longer, as I pulled into the parking lot, grabbed my camera gear and practically sprinted towards the shoreline of Wedge Pond.
A mid-morning photo wasn’t normally my preference, but the storm clouds swirling around Mt Kidd were too delightful to pass up. I giggled to myself as I clicked photo upon photo of the mountains, reflection and swirling clouds. After all I had just put myself through in an attempt to get a single photo, battling the cold, the sore muscles, the fear and ultimately the disappointment -the photo I ended up capturing was a mere 50 paces from the highway.
I have been called a lot of names in my life, and "late for dinner" is most certainly among them, so when my eyes shot open in the middle of the night, the familiar sinking feeling of "I'm late" wasn't really a surprise. I fumbled around in the dark checking various clocks, and triangulated what real world time was, usually the difference of 10-40 minutes depending on how aggressive I was in blindly forwarding my clocks the night before. A method I developed over the years to always keep myself guessing as to the real time in order to avoid being late, clearly it was working out well for me.
As usual my plan was to be well into a hike, but as per my modus operandi, by the time I had anticipated starting on the trail I had barely pulled on a pair of slippers, shuffled out of the bedroom and made my way toward the kitchen. The coffee pot suddenly a more enticing objective than a cold and windy summit. As I stood by the coffee pot, watching the slow drip of life giving nectar falling into my waiting cup, I began to formulate a back-up plan, calculating driving time and distance to various scenes logged in to the back of my mind and cross checked with a handful of calendars noting the position of the sun at any given moment. I considered atmospheric conditions, I reminisced about past success and failures. I daydreamed of hundreds of kilometres of rock and ice under my boots while I stood in the glow of a dim kitchen light, my worn out slippers planted firmly on the vinyl planked floor. By the time the coffee was ready and the first taste hit my lips, I hadn’t come up with a back-up plan, but I had at least come up with a direction. I would have to play the rest of it by ear.
When I finally pulled the truck out of the garage the Eastern horizon had already started to turn pink, but having been late a time or two before, I knew I would usually win a race against the sun by hiding from its grasp among the front ranges of the Rockies. Sure enough, by the time I had turned off the straight prairie highway and onto the winding mountain road through the hills, the light had once again faded into a sparkling blue twilight. I divided my attention equally between the yellow line rushing by outside the windshield and snowy mountain peaks glowing against an azure sky. With one hand firmly wrapped around a travel mug full of coffee, I navigated the familiar stretch of highway while I contemplated a place to pull over and trade coffee for a camera. Sure, there were the old standby locations, places that consistently give ample opportunities for inspiration, but why play it safe?
I took a chance and pulled into a parking lot that I had never been before, my tires left the only tracks in the snow. Clearly this was not a popular location, and I greedily imagined stumbling onto a secret photo location. I donned my photographers outfit, head to toe layers upon layers of warm clothing, a sturdy pair of weathered old boots and an oversized back pack full of lenses, cameras, tripods and anything else I could hastily stuff inside before rushing out the door. I looked like I was ready to spend a month in the woods, but very little in my bag would be of much use for survival, it’s more to maintain mental health.
I chose a direction again, and without bothering to search for a boot beaten path through the brush, I stepped in to the forest bashing my way through snow, downed logs, prickly wild rose bushes and low hanging branches. The forest closed in and reached toward me with every step I took until I thrashed my way into an opening, ahead of me, a small pond and creek gave me hope that the photo frame I was searching for was only steps away, but as I reached the banks of the creek, the view did not open up to reveal the picture perfect mountain scene as I had hoped. Not one to give up easily, I decided that the other side of the creek looked like it might be promising, and I made the executive decision to tromp my way across the water.
I gingerly stepped into a shallow spot and water lapped around the bottom of my boot. The second step was just as delicate, but the water deepened with every inch I moved forward. By the time I had taken my third step, any hope I had of staying dry was lost, and my delicate approach to crossing the stream quickly morphed into an uncoordinated flailing of limbs as I slipped on algae covered river rocks and splashed through the water until I reached the bank on the other side. If my presence in the wilderness had gone unnoticed until then, it's inhabitants certainly knew I was there now. I crawled out of the creek, a bit damp but otherwise no worse for wear as long as I kept moving to stay warm. Through the trees I could barely see a snowy summit ridge with sunlight starting to bounce off the face in a glorious blend of light and atmosphere. I surveyed my surroundings, noting the dry brown forest, dead grass, molded old snow and surprising lack of sightlines, I decided to push forward in hopes of finding what was becoming an elusive view of the mountains. A task I did not anticipate being quite so difficult considering the general area I had chosen to wander.
Around every corner I expected the trees to open up to reveal the majesty of the Rockies, but every game trail I chose only lead to another tangle of branches grabbing at my face, a nagging worry of ticks and the sinking realization that I was most certainly going to miss out on the sunrise while wandering aimlessly through the forest. I bashed my way through soggy forest floor, snowdrifts and branches for a solid 45 minutes on the hunt for an inspiring new photo location, while the sky above me turned from blue, to a brilliant pink and then faded to daylight. The early morning directional light blasting towards the landscape could only be seen in my imagination, and after an hour of bushwhacking I admitted defeat and began plodding down the long maze of game trails back toward the parking lot. Having not even touched the camera gear in my backpack, I giggled at the fact that I had woken up at 4 am to embark on a mere scouting mission, an activity generally reserved for mid afternoon hikes with the dog, yet I still felt satisfied. An early morning spent among towering trees, listening to the gentle meander of a creek is just as rejuvenating as a postcard view and the click of a camera.
Sgt. Peanut - A (Mostly) True Story
Creepy dog has waged a war with the local squirrel, and I, by extension, have joined the battle.
It all started on Saturday afternoon when the curious rodent wandered in to our campsite. Immediately, Creepy dog had chased the Squirrel in to a tree, as is the natural order of things and, failing to understand she is a mere 14 inches tall, spent the better part of 10 minutes desperately trying to reach the squirrel who was perched a relatively safe distance up the tree (approximately 13 feet off the ground). From my own perch in a near by chair, it would appear that all is right in the world, the sun continues to rise each morning and dogs continue to chase Squirrels.
Eventually, the dog lost interest and returned to her bed while I lounged in the afternoon sun, thinking the squirrel would gracefully leap from tree branch to tree branch away from our site, you know, natural order of things and all.
Apparently I was ill informed on the inner workings of squirrel behavior. Instead of quietly walking away from the situation, Squirrel (I shall call him Sergeant Peanut) decided instead to embark on a 45 minute lecture from his lofty perch in the tree. Of course no lecture would be complete without the occasional bits of tree bark and pine cones launched in our general direction alongside the equivalent of Squirrel insults. Other campers were beginning to take note of the racket emanating from our campsite, pausing on their afternoon strolls to shoot curious looks in my direction as I tried my best to act casually. I buried my nose in my book and acted as if I was peacefully unaware of the disturbance.
Of course, being verbally assaulted by a rodent was not the most glamorous part of camping, and after enduring a barrage of chattering and bits of tree for close to an hour, I could stand it no longer and retreated indoors with the dog. When I later emerged, the Squirrel had moved on and the forest was once again a peaceful refuge, or so I thought.
Sergeant Peanut has enlisted a companion, 1st Captain Jiffy. Together, the Squirrels have advanced their enemy line a staggering 8 feet North from where yesterday's battle had taken place. This has given Sgt. Peanut and his troop a marked advantage over the dog, namely the number of trees, posts and picnic table legs to wrap a leash around, which lie scattered across the battleground. Indeed, with every squeak, chirp and nattering assault launched by the team of Squirrels, the dog's reach lessens. Her leash increasingly tangled around the picnic table and tree stumps, her tail taut with bloodlust she barks and whines and paces until the only thing she can reach is her bed. The dog lies down in a cloud of defeat while the Squirrels chatter farther and farther away high up in the tree tops.
I sleepily emerge from bed to ready myself for the day, it is early and the world is quiet. Creepy dog is happily buried under a pile of cozy duvets. I stand at the door with a cup of coffee in silence, the sun is just beginning to cast a diffuse light through the trees, revealing the destruction around camp. A light fog rises from the ground as the sun warms up the morning dew, and evidence from the previous days battle come in to view. The battle between the Free Squirrel Republic army and dog has left wreckage littered around the trunks of every tree within a 25 foot radius around camp. The Squirrels had advanced their terrirtory a staggering 17 more feet in yesterdays battle, unprecedented advancement for such a small army. Tree needles, bark and pine cone form a solid defense line against little dog feet, combined with the battle wounds inflicted with the force of a 25lb dog reaching the end of her leash at full speed, the Squirrels have a strong advantage in this war. Creepy dog, having put up another solid fight in yesterday's battle, lies in bed, fatigued, depressed, defeated. She reluctantly crawls out of bed and approaches her bowl of kibble, too depressed to eat, too exhausted to keep fighting. Upon stepping out doors in to the forest, Creepy dog's tail, nose and ears perk and she soldiers on, and all is right in the world. The sun rises each morning and dogs continue to chase squirrels.
Me? I don't really pick fights with Squirrels, least of all Sergeant Peanut. I just sit in my chair drinking coffee in the warm morning sun, weathering Squirrel insults and sticking my nose in my book to write about it in a concerted effort to act as casually as possible anytime somebody walks by and shoots bewildered looks in my direction. I wonder what those nuts will come up with tomorrow.
Looking Back on 2019
If you've been a reader of this blog over the last few years, you may have noticed something different in 2019, that is to say that I hardly posted or wrote anything.
Sometimes real life has a tendency to get away from you, between the high stress of real world obligations, more than our fair share of tragedies and a super lame bout of pneumonia (totally missed out on the nice shoulder hiking season), this year was not exactly condusive to creativity. I know that my mental health suffers when I don't set aside time to be creative, and I'm working hard to make sure I can take time for myself to get out to the forest with a camera and a notebook.
That's not to say I wasn't busy with photography this past year, in fact, I spent the first several months of 2019 hard at work to bring the Where in the World is Llisa Bastard project to several parks as one day pop up installations (A big thank you goes to the City of Calgary and Resolve Photo for their part in realizing the project) The pop up galleries were a wonderful success (as long as the wind, snow, rain and hail stayed away...) Finally seeing park goers discover that their afternoon jog or picnic in the park had coincided with a dozen or more prints scattered through out the park and seeing their surprise was a definite highlight for me this year. Each print was accompanied by a piece of trivia either about the park the installation was in or about the location of the photograph itself, so as an added bonus I have become well versed in some seriously useless knowledge. I am a hit at parties.
Another highlight of the year was my annual backpacking trip, this time my friend Mel joined me on a 55 km trek through the Banff backcountry towards the end of September. Not only were the larch trees absolutely gleaming over the 2 mountain passes we hiked through, but the snow was kind enough to hold off until the last day during our hike out. One of the locations we hiked through (which shall remain nameless) was so stunning it brought us both to tears. Relevant to note that the view also brought the pair of hikers coming up the trail behind us to tears too, so I know it wasn't just us being weepy. I'm already scheming for next year.
But you don't want to hear me talk to you like I'm writing a Christmas card back home, you're here for the photos, so without any further rambling, here's a selection of some of my favourite moments from 2019.
I know I said I wasn't going to make this sound like a letter home, but I will anyway. Thanks for your support in 2019,I hope you have a happy & safe holiday season!
Where in the World is Llisa Bastard- Roving Exhibition
Three years ago I began a project called "Where in the World is Llisa Bastard" in which a small print would be hidden somewhere in a city park or on a hiking trail. If you've been following along with the project, you'll already know how it works. A piece of trivia about the area the print was hidden in is posted to social media. One part educational, one part geocache, the first person to correctly decipher the location based on the information provided, and explore the area thoroughly enough to locate the print is invited to keep the print as a prize. It's an incentive for people to learn more about the areas we recreate in, but more importantly, to go outside and explore it for themselves. Those who learn about and experience the natural world we live in, are more likely recognise the importance of protecting it.
To date, over 30 prints have been hidden in places ranging from mountain summits to easily accessible city parks, the majority of which have been found. The feedback I have received about the project so far has been entirely positive with many long time outdoor enthusiasts commenting that they had learned of new areas to explore because of the project. My favourite story is of an elementary school class learning about geocaching, who found my print at the Okotoks Big Rock months after it was hidden and fostering what I hope will be a lifetime of curiosity and exploration.
Now, I'm happy to announce the project is expanding in to a small roving exhibition. In addition to hiding a small print for the first eagle eyed explorer to take home, you can also find a pop up gallery of some of my favourite landscape images. Think you know how to find it? Your clues are below:
Ah yes, the annual photo round up, a time of year when photographers, despite how rarely they might post on their blogs, manage to scrounge together some words in reflection of the past 365 days.
For me, 2018 was a time of personal achievements, having inched closer to reaching my goal of being a fearless mountain woman although certainly not without having my moments of abject terror. Coming face to face with a Grizzly bear comes to mind, although that moment was somehow less terrifying than trying to overcome the mental block required to do a solo midnight ascent of the East End of Rundle. I made it 2/3 of the way up before settling in to a cliff side for sunrise photos, believing that any potential predators would only be able to sneak up on me from one angle. Next year, I might make it a little bit closer to the summit before dawn and have one of those photos wind up in my best of 2019.
So, with that introduction in place, here's my favourites of 2018.
Thank you all for your support in 2018!
The alarm clock rang and my arm stretched out from under the covers to find it, I fumbled around in the dark and instinctively hit the snooze button. Not that another ten minutes of lying in bed, wide awake, would do much for me, but the promise of at least a ten minute cat nap was too tempting. Despite crawling into bed at 8pm the night before, I hadn't managed to get a wink of sleep. Instead, I closed my eyes and let scenes of "What can go wrong when hiking alone in the dark" flash across my eyelids while I waited for my 1:30 alarm. Alas, the apprehension of going solo night time hiking wasn't going to hold me back. Not this time.
As the sky began to lighten, I reached a scenic clearing along the trail and I had to make a choice. I could either press on, not knowing how far I had to go before reaching the lake, or stay in a clearing which at least afforded me some views. If I pressed on, I ran the risk of not being able to see anything when the mountains began to glow, and so I opted to stay put. The decision was a wise one, as the early morning light burst through the clouds shortly after I had set up my camera. Soon, the light dulled and I, having run out of the courage and will power to see what was around the next corner, scurried back down the trail towards home. It wasn't until months later, when a girl friend and I had made the trek up Paradise valley, over Sentinel Pass and down to Moraine Lake, that I saw just how close I had been to reaching the lakes before dawn. I vowed that next summer I would make it.
My headlights shone in to the numerous cars in the parking lot, their windows white with condensation from the occupants sleeping inside. "I wasn't aware we were allowed to camp out in the parking lot now" I thought, as I killed the engine and moved my seat back so I could pull on my boots. The rain pelted my windshield and I wiggled in to my rain suit before stepping outside and turning on my headlamp, illuminating the dizzying mist falling from the sky. I left the sleeping beauties behind and strode past the lodge and up the trail, reaching the first switch back with ease, and then promptly stopped. "This is stupid" I muttered in to the darkness, it's raining, it's dark, it's scary, will it even be worth the effort? I turned on my heel and ambled back toward the parking lot. Instead, I set my sights on the near by Consolation Lake, a much closer and lower elevation destination. If I was too cold and wet, at least the hike back to the warmth of my truck would be far shorter.
I strode past the lodge again, past the sleeping beauties in the parking lot and up the trail, reaching the junction to Consolation Lake with ease. I picked my way down a small hill and in no time, reached a small boulder field and then promptly lost the trail in the dark. It might have been helpful if I had done this hike even once before in my lifetime, but I had not, and I turned on my heel and headed back toward the parking lot again.
Now, I was getting annoyed at myself, and set myself towards the original goal for the morning. I strode past the sleeping beauties in the parking lot, past the lodge and up the trail in the other direction again and that's where I lost my nerve altogether. With rain falling gently down on me, I stood heartbroken on the trail in the dark, cursing my lack of resolve. Through the trees, I could see headlamps beaming from the sleeping beauties, they had woken up and were beginning their assault of the famed rock pile on the shore of Moraine Lake. None of them ventured toward me. Determined not to take the same photograph as the rest of the crowd, I wandered along the shoreline away from the crowd, but never out of sight, before settling in for sunrise. It was better than nothing, still I left feeling dejected, and vowed that next time I would make it.
Despite carefully calculating the time I would need to reach my goal before dawn, I was running late. I had hit the snooze button a few too many times in an effort to stave off reality ten minutes at a time. As I started on the trail for the third time, the sting of my previous attempt was still fresh in my mind and I had no intention of failing again. Not this time. I paused briefly at the information board to make sure it wasn't mandatory to hike in a group of four, and then began picking my way up the switchbacks at nearly double my regular pace. As I made my way up the trail in the dark, a rustling noise in the brush made my heart flutter from adrenaline. Fortunately, the only pair of eyes glowing in the light of my headlamp were from a small animal, and I muttered "it's only a marten" to calm myself. It wasn't long before I surpassed the turn around points from my previous attempts, and a pink glow formed on the horizon. I was nearly running through the alpine meadow, my heavy pack laden with camera gear jostling on my back.
Across the valley, a pair of lights appeared on the glacier of Mt. Fay and I watched fascinated as the lights moved up the glacier towards the summit before disappearing from view. "Crazy bastards" I thought as I continued up the trail and the lakes came in to view. I settled in to a small patch of gravel near the shore and set up my camera just as the sun began to peer through the clouds.
I turned the switch of my camera on - nothing happened, and my stomach sank. I reached in to my bag and grabbed a back up battery and popped it in to the camera. I turned the switch, again, nothing happened and panic began to rise in to my chest. I blew on the battery like an old Nintendo cartridge, but again, nothing. "At least I made it" I thought, as I snapped a photo with my phone and held back tears. Finally, I jammed the battery in with force to make the connections and the camera turned on. I breathed a sigh of relief and turned my attention to the view before me, raising my arms up in celebration and complete awe.
Soon, a pair of hikers appeared, and we excitedly marvelled at the light,"It's a hell of a way to start the day!" my grin stretched ear to ear as I set up a composition. Not long after the hikers left, a pair of photographers came to share the view and we exchanged elated high fives as the light danced around us. Though the camera continued to threaten to fail, I managed to snap a few photos and my heart soared at having finally reached my goal. The marvellous light certainly didn't harm my good mood either. Setting the camera aside for a moment, I made myself a cup of coffee and sat down to soak in as much of the scene as I could until the weather changed and the views were replaced by a late summer snow storm. Finally, I became too cold to stay any longer, and I packed my bag and left the dreamy scene to return to reality. On my way down the trail, I vowed to make it to this magical place more often.
Assiniboine Pt I
I hadn’t made it out of view of the parking lot before I began to question my decision to carry a pack nearly half my body weight over a mountain pass. How was I ever going to make it? More importantly, how would I make it home again? “It’s a mental challenge more than a physical one” I told myself, and took another feeble step.
The weight of the pack sent razor blades across my back, after a hundred steps I’d had enough, I plopped to the ground and shimmied out of its grip. The contents of the bag were spilled along the trail and I tried to remember every internet article I had ever read about backpacks and how to pack them. It turns out, I had unknowingly become well read in the art of packing a backpack for a trip, I’d just never done it in real life. Once I had reorganized and balanced the weight of the gear, I sat on the trail again and shimmied back into the shoulder straps. In the parking lot I had put the pack on without issue, but I had used the tailgate of my pick-up truck and put it on while standing. Here on the trail, figuring out how to stand up was quickly becoming a bit of a conundrum.
60 pounds of cameras and cheese
The nearby helicopter pad was busy shuttling Assiniboine bound passengers and they buzzed overhead while I flailed around helplessly on the trail like a turtle flipped onto its shell. I could imagine the laughter from the comfortable passengers ascending over the trail above me, their conversations turning to the days ahead of them as my flailing arms and legs became mere dots on the landscape. I grimaced at my awkward performance as I worked on gaining enough momentum to roll over on to my stomach. Finally, I rolled over, my knees ground in to the gravel with the weight now on top of me and I reached for my hiking poles to begin the mile long crawl to a standing position. The pack felt slightly better, though the redistribution hadn’t made it any less heavy. I looked at the trail behind me, I looked longingly at my truck sitting in the parking lot. I still had the opportunity to give up, maybe check in to a nearby hotel so nobody would know I had given up so quickly. I could claim my camera batteries weren’t charged when I came home in a few days without photos. Instead, I took another step West, followed by many more steps.
The promise of a break at Watridge Lake kept me moving forward for the first few kilometres, but when the lake passed by on the trail I didn’t stop. Instead, I decided I would stop at the next creek crossing –whenever that might be, despite nearly every part of me screaming in protest. I began to descend a very long hill as panic set in with the realization that what goes down, must go up again. What if I couldn’t make it back up this hill again in a few days? A future problem, I rationalized, as a refreshing creek came in to view. Somehow, I had managed to make it to the half way point of the day’s hike before taking a rest, and I celebrated with the delicious sandwich I had been promising myself since buying the ingredients a week before.
Dad's specialty sandwich and a view- this is the life
Refreshed, I waited for the last of the hikers in the area to move out of sight before I clumsily donned the pack again, and began the second leg of the day. The sun beat down on me mercilessly and I lost any hope I still had left of smelling nice on this trip. After hours of trudging along, I replaced my bear call with “Are we there yet?” and I yelled into the forest. The answer was a resounding silence which I took to mean “No”
After modelling inefficiency setting up camp and feeding myself while increasing the day’s kilometre total by another 10, I was finally where I wanted to be. Plunked down on a lake shore with a camera.
Smoke & Mirrors
In a mood, I cancelled my sunrise photos in lieu of an early start. The night had been cold, despite wearing a base layer, down jacket, rain suit and toque inside my -7 sleeping bag I had shivered all night. I had barely slept, and I wanted nothing more than to be tucked in to bed in a nice cozy hut. The thought of a nap spurred me out of bed and onto the trail ahead of schedule for the day’s slog over the Assiniboine Pass. I grumbled back on to the main trail, a few years too old to be stomping my feet and pouting. It wasn’t long before I passed by the National Park Wardens Cabin nestled in the trees alongside Bryant Creek. The view from the historic structure was marvelous in the early morning light, and I delayed my early start and fished my camera out of the pack. Maybe this hiking business wasn’t so bad after all, and my mood lifted as I meandered around with the camera.
The camera had been a nice momentary distraction, but the amount of ground I had to cover that day weighed heavily in my mind, and I wrestled into the pack once again. I moved rather quickly along the valley bottom in the cool morning air and I congratulated myself for my efficiency – until another scene caught my eye and my forward progress was halted in favour of the camera yet again. At this rate, I’ll fill my cards up before I even get to Assiniboine. It was tempting to turn on my heel and head home, but I knew the best was yet to come.
It wasn’t long before I regretted leaving so early in the morning, or heading on the trip solo altogether. It had been hours since I had seen another person, and the narrow trail I was on had me wading through shoulder height berry bushes. If this was the open trail, I shuddered to think what the closed portion of trail looked like, as this was some of the nicest bear habitat I had seen. I needed to increase the amount of noise I was making in order to travel safely, and I nervously yelled a stream of consciousness into the dense brush. It wasn’t long before I had crafted a rather fatalistic bear call. “Step Right Up!” I yelled, “Berries here, get them while they’re ripe!” Oh god, I thought, what if they know English. The thought of the stampede of bears rushing towards me in page boy hats, waving five dollar bills made me chuckle nervously. “Juicy, juicy berries, great for bears! It’s a limited time offer, get them while they’re ripe!” As much as I craved the safety knowing another person was around, I cringed at the thought of running into them now as I pitched my berry sale up the pass.
Sure, this seems safe...
The uphill, while generally a gentle grade, was relentless. I tackled the steeper sections with slow, small steps, pausing to rest often. The views weren’t great on the trail, but wildflowers were in abundance and I admired them anytime I stopped moving. Unfortunately, the bugs were also in abundance and my rests were often cut short to get away from the little pests. I was part way up a particularly steep portion of trail when a strange noise made my heart leap into my throat. I was woefully unprepared for an encounter of this sort and my mind raced at what I would do if I was attacked. The noise became louder as I inched forward, on the trail ahead of me was a danger I had not anticipated. Bees. Hundreds of bees. Like the bees near the lake the night before, they hovered just above ground, and I waded through them carefully. “Don’t stop – just keep moving” I urged myself, though I was in desperate need of a rest to catch my breath. I emerged through the cloud of bees without a single sting and the buzzing noise faded behind me. “Nobody is ever going to believe you.” I thought. Hell, I hardly even believed me.
After what seemed like an eternity of slogging uphill while descending into madness, I reached the top of the pass marking my long imagined entry into Assiniboine Provincial Park.
It was here that I finally ran into another group of hikers, and my heart rate slowed down. After a quick lunch and a chat, it was quick and easy travelling to the day’s destination, I was comforted knowing a group had recently travelled through the area. After years of dreaming about it, I finally made it to this beautiful corner of our country. My first order of business was to settle in to my bunk bed for a nap.
Assiniboine Pt II
I woke with a start, my head nodded rhythmically with my heart beat as I sleepily came to terms with my surroundings. A bustling group of women, four long time friends, had burst through the door of the hut and jolted me awake. I sat up groggily and checked the time, the women apologized for waking me, and then continued their conversations. It would be the theme for the day, the women later gabbing well in to the night. I didn’t sleep much anyway, tossing and turning throughout the night. Finally, at 3:30 am I exacted my revenge, unintentionally of course. I tried to be quiet, but as it turns out, extracting oneself from a sleeping bag and exiting a top bunk on little sleep, in a strange place and in the dark was harder than it sounded. A few bumps and bruises later, I snuck out the door to finish readying myself for the day in the cook shelter.
After a gut wrenching breakfast of sugar bars and a sugar drink loosely resembling coffee, I was on the trail. I hadn’t come this far to be denied a sunrise photo and I yelled my way towards Nub peak. Occasionally, I choked back fear as my head lamp illuminated a small path for me through the forest. A mother Grizzly and her cubs had been calling the area around the Assiniboine Lodge home all summer, and I was petrified by the thought of running in to her in the darkness. As the sun began it’s appearance for the day, I crested the Niblet, a scenic high point overlooking the valley and my goal for the morning. I set my camera up and began to settle in for the show. I glanced at my watch, then at the glowing horizon. I looked up toward the next high point on the trail, a few hundred metres up the trail, then down at my watch. This view could be better, I thought, and I should have just enough time to find out for sure before the real show begins. I gathered my things again and practically sprinted up the final slope. The views, as I suspected, were much better. I busied myself shooting as many compositions as I could find. Like the first night on the trail, the smoke from nearby forest fires wasn’t doing any favours for the view, but it did make the golden hour last for nearly two.
Forest fire smoke made for crappy views, but interesting colours
A marmot came to join me on the grassy slope, and he foraged for breakfast while I foraged for photos. Evidently used to humans, the marmot nibbled grass until it was nearly an arm length away. I snapped a few photos of my new found model before quietly sneaking away and giving the animal its space back. How nice of him to share this place with me, but its demeanor makes me think he’s seen a few too many hand held goodies in his lifetime. I glowered at the lack of respect shown by hikers before me, but my mood couldn’t be dampened for long. I had spent a glorious few hours in solitude in this mountain kingdom, and I grinned from ear to ear back to the hut.
I had settled into a routine of taking short cat naps rather than bother trying to sleep, and after moving my things to the next hut for the night, took another nap. My new dorm mates woke me up again, but at least they made an effort to be quieter than the last group. Despite their efforts, I was awake again although not entirely motivated to wander too far from home base. I gathered my things and made my way over to Gog Lake to bask in the afternoon sun. I found a perch at the base of a waterfall to dip my feet and scribble in my notebook for a few hours. I considered calling in dead to work and attempting to eke out a living from the base of the waterfall for the rest of my life, but a small group of hikers interrupted my daydream and I took their presence as my time to move on.
I returned to Gog Lake after dinner that night, but rather than scope out a suitable foundation to build my new home, I simply settled in to photograph the evening light and hopefully bring a memory home with me instead. I found a particularly scenic place at the lake’s outflow and spent hours waiting for the sunset light to show itself. The light was nice, but I was convinced the best was yet to come and I was torn knowing that I had one more sunrise to shoot, followed by a very long day of hiking the next morning. I didn’t want to stay up too late, but I also didn’t want to leave empty handed. I would pack up the camera, move up the trail a few feet only to have the light change or a new composition unveil itself only to unpack the bag and set up the tripod again. This happened several times. Finally, I had to make a grown up decision and drag myself away from the scene and into bed despite the numerous, perfectly good photographs I walked past on my way back to the hut. I had to at least try to sleep.
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