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Category: Wilderness stories

Wilmore Backcountry Adventure

Wilmore Backcountry Adventure

Submitted by: Dan

Our backcountry adventure in the Wilmore began as we parked our cars at the Rock Lake staging area. Stashing our watches and cell phones in the glove compartment, we freed ourselves from our attachments to the outside world, save for an emergency satellite phone. With only the sun to tell the time, we hefted our bags to set out for four days in the wilderness.
CPAWS Stories of our Wilderness - Wilmore
Less visited than Jasper but covering a larger area, the Wilmore offers no motorized access, leaving visitors to travel by foot, horse, or mountain bike, entering a world less frequented than the well trod trails of Banff or Jasper. A favourite haunt of backcountry sheep hunters, our early-June adventure found the place virtually to ourselves. Hiking some 20 km into the park to spend a few days exploring the surrounding peaks we saw not one other person, yet the signs of wildlife were everywhere almost in inverse proportion. Perhaps it was luck, but among other wildlife sightings, in only a few days we found a total of 11 moose antlers including one gigantic matching pair.

Working across northern Alberta as a biologist I’ve had the privilege to visit some truly remote and wild places, yet even in the furthest corners of the provinces, outside of our Parks there are few areas where a bird’s eye view fails to show signs of peoples’ widespread reach. That visit to the Wilmore was an eye-opening reminder of how incredible the truly wild places of this province are, and how important it is we maintain and protect them so they continue to exist and flourish into the future.

“Wilderness is a resource which can shrink but not grow… creation of new wilderness in the full sense of the word is impossible.”
― Aldo Leopold

Mirror Lake

Mirror Lake

Submitted by: Raj

In 2007, I returned home to Camrose, after having lived as a Buddhist monk for eight years, studying under the Tibetan Master Geshe Kelsang Gyatso. I wasn’t prepared for the shock of returning to “regular” life, and often times found the transition overwhelming as I suffered through a deep sense of loss and unknowing. My training had taught me the value of sitting still during times of upheaval, so I continued with my daily meditations and tried to let the turmoil ‘just be’. This contemplative time was often complemented by walks in nature. Just a little more than a stone’s throw from my family home is Mirror Lake, a natural gem in the centre of Camrose.

During high school, I would often whiz by the lake on training runs for cross country. At that time, I had not yet developed an appreciation for any of its features beyond the running trail. But during my daily walks, I grew to find a deep comfort in the energy of the trees and meadows alongside the lake. There is a Japanese term, forest bathing, that recognizes the subtle healing power of nature to cleanse the spirit and help us calm the many burdens we take on through the course of our lives. Over time, I grew to look forward to this gentle dialogue between my worries and confusion and the silent energy of the waters, pine trees and Russian poplars. I continued this rhythm – meditating and then going for a walk around the lake – for one year.

Ever so slowly, the meditations and forest conversations began to ease the turmoil. Over time, my daily walks alongside Mirror Lake took on a deeper character. At times it seemed that some of the luminosity that was emerging in my meditations was also shining back at me from the natural world. These experiences prompted me to take up photography to try to share and express what the lake and its environs was becoming, had become, for me.

These photographs became the basis for a book called “My Happy Peaceful Place,” that I developed the following year, which I produced as part of a new job working in mental health at elementary schools in the local area. Since then, the healing properties of the natural world continue to move me and influence my life. When I left my job and returned to complete my university studies, I was able to work closely with a good friend and professor, Dittmar Mundel, to develop a program called Spirit of the Land that seeks to integrate the spiritual dimensions of our relationship with nature with undergraduate and community education programs. This work has since evolved into an annual course and conference, open to the public, at the University of Alberta’s Augustana Campus (www.spiritoftheland.ca). We are now in the process of expanding the program to elementary schools.

Caribou in the mist

Caribou in the mist

Submitted by: Liv

2006 was a year of transitions for me. I was in the process of moving from Ontario to Edmonton. I’d just finished my Master’s and was about to plunge into the murky pool of PhD studies. I’d studied caribou in Ontario, and knew that I wanted to continue studying that species. I was between worlds – I’d just left my old world, but my new one had not yet started.

I had a chance to attend a caribou conference in Jasper National Park in early May of 2006. There were presentations, of course, but a lot of it was a chance for the small circle of dedicated caribou researchers in Canada to catch up (as opposed to just reading each other’s papers!).

At the end of the conference, we all boarded a bus to go on a field trip to Medicine Lake. I’m told that Medicine Lake got its name because it’s magical – it often dries up and then fills up again. We were all in high spirits, laughing and reminiscing as the bus bounced down the gravel road.

When we got to Medicine Lake, an eerie mist hung over the muddy flats. The wall of mountains around us loomed like frozen giants. A few of us peered through binoculars, not entirely sure what we were looking for, or what we would find. Then someone shouted “Caribou!”

Like a group of school children we bunched together, taking turns with the binoculars, trying to spot the four blurry figures meandering across the far side of the lake. I fumbled for my camera and zoomed in as close as I could. I could see them! My heart raced. Four stately bulls walked proudly together. If they knew we were there, they didn’t seem to care. They were too busy going about the important business of being caribou. Their white manes stood out against the monochromatic background and their steps were purposeful. Soon, they melted into the trees.

Over a decade has passed since I saw those caribou. I know how lucky I was to see them, for very few caribou remain in Jasper National Park. I hope they’ll be there next time I go to Medicine Lake.

Ya Ha Tinda to Dolomite Pass

Ya Ha Tinda to Dolomite Pass

Submitted by: Matt

Throughout my younger days, I attended a summer camp based out the Bow Valley. In 2003, I hit an age where the backcountry trips got a bit longer and a bit harder. For this particular summer, a number of wildfires forced the group I was assigned to into the Ya Ha Tinda region of the Rocky Mountains for the start of a 10-day hike to the Jasper Parkway through Dolomite Pass. This hike was my experience relying on only what I could carry on my back for longer than a week and it was truly invigorating. The passion for long and extended trips into the back country has stuck with me to this day and is only stunted by the need to be gainfully employed. What I love most is the routine, the sense that everyday, you know exactly what needs to be done and your ‘work’ for that day is just hiking, canoeing, biking, or skiing. That first 10-day hike from the Ya Ha Tinda is one which sticks out more than any other as it truly was a formative experience.

Crowsnest Mountain

Crowsnest Mountain

Submitted by: Joel

One summer I was taking road trips all over Alberta, exploring and doing lots of photography. A friend and set off on one road trip with the explicit goal of climbing Crowsnest Mountain in the southern Canadian Rockies. We pulled over in a random meadow late in the evening, and set up our tent in a as it started to get dark. There was a ring of stones nearby, so we built a small fire. It was a beautiful evening under the stars. By the time our alarms went off at 4:00 am, I was ready to get off of my thin sleeping mat, that hadn’t allowed for a good sleep. We packed up our campsite in the dark and hit the road early in the morning.

The trailhead was was a makeshift jumble of unclear cutlines. We weren’t certain that we were on the right path, so we just kept moving in the direction of the mountain. Our start involved a lot of bushwhacking.  We emerged from the trees just as the sun was rising. It was a perfect time to stop for a snack and take a moment to enjoy the view. We were perched atop a little ledge, with a cliff behind us.  As we were eating, we heard some gravel shifting behind us, and turned to see a bunch of mountain goats peering down at us from up on top of the small cliff. As long as we remained still, they were pretty okay with our presence. However, the moment we got up to continue hiking, they took off running. It was incredible to see how fast they could run along the steep cliffs and scree slopes, completely comfortable. We watched them run until they were no longer in sight.

The rock on crowsnest mountain is kind of rotten. Most holds will fall if you try to put any weight on them. We went up one chimney that was extremely sketchy, because all of the rocks you grabbed onto would pull out and fall. We had to be careful, as many rocks would fall below you as you climbed. In hindsight, it is pretty obvious that we were not on the right trail.

Eventually, we found what seemed to be a decent path, and it was smooth sailing from then on. At the summit, the views were incredible. To the north, there is a beautiful ridge called the seven sisters. Crowsnest is kind of a mountain to itself, in the middle of nowhere. You could see for miles and miles. The crowsnest region is horrible for all-terrain vehicles and motorbikes, but the mountain is steep enough to create a tranquil oasis, far from all of the motorized vehicles.

Going back down the mountain was the most fun.  The rocks are so loose that we were able to scree surf on the loose rocks most of the way, not needing to use any trails. Every second step you would slide ten feet. It was as if we were skiing down the mountain. We eventually made it back to the car, and headed for home.

Almost Alone in the Mountains

Almost Alone in the Mountains

Submitted by: Pat

It was July of 1976, somewhere around my 21st birthday and while on a camping trip to hike in Banff National Park and visit friends, I decided to undertake a solo weekend hike starting at Sunshine Ski Hill. The reason I was going to start at Sunshine was that friends were working there and I wanted to visit them first.
Healy Pass, Banff National Park

First things first. I had to head into Banff and register for my hike with the Park Wardens. My plan was to start at Sunshine, hike over Simpson Pass, then on to Healy Pass, Whistling Pass and Gibbon Pass. I would camp at Haiduk Lake and Twin Lakes. Then I would hike out to the highway and hitchhike back to my car.

It had been a snowy winter and the Park Warden said they didn’t know anything about the conditions on Simpson Pass. Healy Pass was considered snowbound but passable and nobody had been over Whistling Pass or Gibbon Pass so would I please come back and report on the trail conditions.

I have to admit I started out in the morning slightly hungover. The evening before my friends had tried to convince me that the conditions weren’t very good for a solo hike in the mountains. It didn’t work and relatively early in the morning I set off. Leaving Sunshine it was hard to tell where the trail was so I basically just set off straight up the hill. The snow was pretty firm until I got up on top. There I encountered lots of melting snow and boggy ground. For a time there was no trail to speak of and I just jumped from hummock to hummock to try and stay dry.

Further along the trail was pretty easy to follow and Healy Pass was mostly clear of snow. I stopped near the top of Healy Pass for lunch and spotted another hiker coming up the trail behind me. I think he wanted to be alone because he stopped down the hill from me and also took a break. He would be the only other person I would see all weekend. After I finished my lunch I headed down the pass and onward toward Whistling Pass. The weather was good and I had good views of Egypt and Scarab Lakes.

Whistling Pass was indeed partly snowbound and following a trail buried under snow was difficult . Not that it mattered much. With no firm trail I spent much of the time postholing along as best I could. Going down toward Haiduk Lake was a bit easier as I could sit down and slide in some places. I found a clear spot at the end of the lake and set up camp. A short time later the other hiker came along and he camped at the far end of the lake. We were never close enough to have a conversation.

I enjoyed the evening solitude and had a good sleep. The mostly overcast skies meant I could only catch glimpses of the stars. In the morning I packed up and headed down the trail. I had considered going over Gibbon Pass and staying another night at Twin Lakes but my experience with the other passes convinced me it would be too much work so I hiked out via Redearth Creek. I never saw the other hiker again and there were no fresh tracks heading toward Twin Lakes. Back in Banff I duly reported my safe return with the Park staff.

It was only a weekend hike but I enjoyed my brief solo trip in the mountains.

Creating the Augustana Outdoor Education Program

Creating the Augustana Outdoor Education Program

Submitted by: William
The 70s were a period when there was a lot of activity in the outdoors field. A number of institutions had outdoor programs. I was teaching at the U of A’s Augustana campus, and would look at other institutions who had outdoor programs wonder: “why not here?”. The University’s main campus was starting to try out some outdoor programs, and were willing to take me on to complete my PhD. For two years I worked for Don Smith, who was in charge of the outdoor ed. Program at the U of A.  He basically asked me to put my ideas and background as a lumberjack into action. I had such a wonderful education there with his full support.

When I first started, the program involved tennis, badminton, golf, and a weekend trip to the YMCA camp in the fall. I was startled, we were provided with beautiful gear,and we didn’t have to use most of it camping in the cabins. Don gave myself, and a classmate who had been a scouter complete sanction to run an advanced outdoor ed course. We took a group out in the middle of winter, and set up a very fashionable stove-heated tent. The next morning, we sent them off down the frozen river in groups of five, with their clothes, an axe and some plastic pulled behind them on an army sled. They had very limited food, and after some instruction, were left to their own devices to trap and eat whatever they could find. We fished and snared rabbits, they ate anything they could get their hands on. One group was able to catch grouse using a pole with a snare loop wire on the end.

Nowadays I would have been run out of town, because these student had no idea what they were doing. Because of my background I instinctively did certain things, and refused certain things in the woods. These kids didn’t had that same knowledge. In the evening I would snowshoe around and check on everybody. Some groups had gotten off the river in areas where water was flowing up over broken areas in the ice. It is a miracle that no one went through and got swept under. I remember Randy wanted to camp alone, and I scared the living daylights out of him when I snowshoed up in the dark, he had his axe at the ready when I emerged through the trees.

That was the beginning of the advanced outdoor program at the U of A. I was supposed to prove my mustard before I graduated, so I wanted to take a trip on the north Saskatchewan with students. Fortunately, because I had gone spent the summer instructing at pioneer ranch camp where I canoed in moving water and learned about performing in rapids.

My father gave me a rowboat when I was twelve. He called me down to the river and said “son, look across at that island, do you see all of the timber piled in front of it? You have to go across to the left and down to avoid being swept under.” I had no life jacket, but I spent hours in my boat that I was so proud of, learning how water flowed.  I also watched my father as a lumberjack, his life was on the river. You internalize the people that you grow up with, and what they would do in the same situations.

By the time we started the trip, I was fairly comfortable on the water. We had some students in kayaks and some in canoes. The plan was to start in Rocky Mountain House, and travel all the way to Edmonton, not realising how arduous it would be. Our group of 30 was making history, the school had never done a trip even close to that long before. We had many wild experiences, as in those days there was no control on the river. Every time it rained the water rose up and you would fly through the rapids. The river tested us, fortunately I had two women and two men to help me.  One of my helpers was a whitewater racer, and that helped a lot in terms of covering dangerous stretches of river. Three quarters of the way, we came across the river camp of the St. John’s boys school. The was a revolt within the group, half wanted to be picked up, and the other half wanted to continue on. The white water racer took half of the group to finish the trip, and I stayed with the others who felt it was a bit too much to be picked up.

One top of my PhD, i was working at a provincial training school in Hinton. I spent a number of assignments out there teaching canoeing, and how to find your way in the wilderness. Every time I went there I learned something new. By the time I finished my PhD, I had a number of major experiences in the wilderness and a strong sense of leadership and decision making.

When I returned to teaching at Augustana, I was sanctioned to create and teach outdoor courses.  My friend pastor Lundy, the football coach, and Dave Larson got on board to help me. Dave was well trained in handling a canoe in fast moving water, and I knew the wilderness that he didn’t know.  We made a good pair. The program started out with nothing. My wife Dorothy taught sewing for the city, and we made all of the gear ourselves. Tents, sleeping bags, rain gear, wind gear, she sewed it all. Initially, all that we had was plastic, axes, a couple of tin cans from the cafeteria and canoes gathered from wherever we could find them. The canoes weren’t balanced by any means, and the equipment wasn’t top quality, but we persevered.

We had a fall introductory course where we went into the badlands and learned orienteering and how to treat the environment, an introduction to camping and hot to light and handle fires. Then we had a canoe trip down the North Saskatchewan.

The second course was basically winter survival in the outdoors with a very limited amount of food.  The Rotarians gave us ski boots and poles, which initiated a whole chain of action.  Students could travel over the winter landscape, trap their own food and sleep in quinzies they built.

We had another fall course camping in a small canyon along the Battle River. We would have a big tipi, and the students would make lean-tos. The sides were made of plastic, and you had a fire in the middle, and the smoke would go out the top. One year one of the guys found it hard to sleep, he looked over and the girl on the other side of the tent was on fire. Being the hero that he was, he  leapt to his feet, grabbed her and rolled around in the snow with her to put out the fire.  I had one guy that just had blue jeans, he just about froze to death. I had taken everybody down with a truck, and they were to come home from there by pulling their toboggans and their gear. If they had taken it, they would have known that some of their things were inappropriate. If I was more experienced I would have went over everyone’s gear.Their small toboggans were piled very high, and would topple over every time they went over the ridges to cut the bends in the river. They would make it back in their own time.

In ensuing years, the program developed a whole array of courses. We had a four week course in the spring, where we learned to climb and navigate the mountains. Dave Larson got permission to teach a course on nature. We also had a whole section on the river, where we did rescue, survival and all of those aspects. From all of our experiences out tripping, I came to the conclusion that the techniques that we were teaching these students were very small compared to what they needed, which was to learn how to function together as people.

Over the years, many of my students continued on in the outdoors field, some attending the National Outdoor Leadership School, and then returned to help the program grow. I always valued the opinions of my emissaries.

Lyle Benson returned, and took over the personal development aspect in terms of leadership and functioning with others, that became a major focus of the program. Randy returned and questioned my use of the axe, so we completely uprooted the way we did things and started to focus on sustainable land use ethics.  Morten Asfeldt returned, and did trip after trip with me, contributing a lot of outdoor knowledge. I ran that program until I retired, and it is still runs and continues to evolve today, under the direction of Morten Asfeldt.

Immersing in the Wild of Kananaskis

Immersing in the Wild of Kananaskis

Submitted by: Don

I’ve always been fascinated with mountains and wilderness, spending many summers of my restless youth wandering the wilderness of the Sierra Nevada of California. That fascination led me to pursue an education in biology as I moved north to explore the Cascade and Rocky Mountains. In 1970 I came to Alberta to continue my graduate studies in alpine and subalpine ecology and fell in love with the mountains of the forest reserve south of Banff National Park in what is now Kananaskis Country. I found a beautiful valley in the upper Elbow River drainage that was off the beaten track and more than suitable for my study area.

In each of the summers of 1971 and 1972 we made a low-impact camp in the subalpine just below treeline and spent six to eight weeks doing our work, only returning to civilization for a couple of days at a time to resupply. Much of the work involved evaluating the habitats of various creatures, including identifying and mapping the distributions of plant species. When not working, we explored the magnificent countryside: the high mountain passes, the deep glacier-carved valleys and the many possibilities for adventure.

Many evenings were spent sitting around our campfire, drinking tea, watching the dazzling stars and marveling at the many night creatures, such as a Saw Whet Owl who would return each evening to dine on the mice that came to clean our outdoor kitchen floor. Those summers were special experiences my wife Betty and I will always cherish, and fueled our later explorations of Canada’s wild places, including backpacking trips into Banff, Jasper, Yoho and Willmore Wilderness. As well, it opened our eyes to the importance of wild places to our environment and our souls.

 

 

Canoeing the Athabasca River

Canoeing the Athabasca River

Submitted by: Derek

On a hot sunny August day in 1971 my two brothers, father and I were paddling our canoes down the Athabasca River. We came through a long large gorge in the river. Our topographical maps of the day said the gorge was about 600 feet high. The Athabasca river was quite strong through there like it was all along the river. In the hot August sun tears of oil were oozing out of the hot sands on both sides of the river. These tears of oil oozed down the gorge to the river surface where the current whisked the oil downstream. Quite the sight. Where was this gorge? Eight days by canoe UPSTREAM from the little town of Fort McMurray. Eight days. Twice along the river we camped near a naturally occurring natural gas vent and a long slow bubbling tar pit.

The Oil Sands in Fort McMurray are a lot bigger than people think. we were shocked at the size and extent of the oil sands.

Wildlife however was not affected. We saw deer, moose, bears, wolves, eagles all drinking the water or eating fish from the river. We drank from small streams flowing into the big river and ate a lot of fresh fish .

To this day our Athabasca river adventure is a life time stand our for my brothers and I.

Alberta Mountain Adventure

Alberta Mountain Adventure

Submitted by: Carol

In 1971 we had a wonderful opportunity to travel to Alberta, Canada. At the time we were living in the north eastern town of Billingham, Teesside, England and had only travelled within the British Isles. It was certainly a wonderful opportunity for us and we would be reunited with family in Alberta. There was only one charter plane owned by Wardair which left in July for Edmonton, Alberta, Canada and returned five weeks later.

In July of 1971 our adventure began. First we attended a family wedding and then our vacation to Banff, Jasper, Lake Louise, Emerald Lake and Mount Robson in BC commenced about one week later. We travelled with my husband Norman’s parents and camped for about ten days.

We were captivated by the beauty of the mountains and lakes. We saw many animals, but only one baby bear on our way to Emerald Lake. I also remember the moose steaks cooking on the open fire and the sound of the rain from a thunderstorm pounding on the metal roof of our camper​. ​I had never experienced a loud storm in the mountains​ and it seemed to go on forever.​

The next day we would wake up to bright sunshine radiating down through the mountain peaks. One of my happiest memories was riding and walking on the Columbia Icefields. I could never have envisioned that years later our son Nicholas, who was born in England the next year, would ski over those icefields.

In 1975 we did immigrate as a family to Alberta, Canada and so began many visits to this magnificent area and more adventures. However, that is a story for another day.