What follows here took place during the second week of September. It was planned a long time ahead. A quarter century of friendship between myself and Filip Marek would be celebrated with an adventure.
We both love mountains. The Canadian Rockies has some of the finest, and most of them have not been gelded by roads, habitations and ski resorts. A lot of them are as wild as they were when their first human explorers came upon them pursuing mammoths down the “ice-free corridor” or perhaps filtered in from the Pacific coast. But the choice of destination had to be a compromise between the cost and time of access and the degree of wilderness. I had only one week free, and Filip could spare not much more.
I chose Mt. Assiniboine, a handsome 3,618m peak in the south-central Rockies, in BC but close to the Alberta boundary. The area around it is well protected. No roads are allowed in the 4,000ha region around it. Access is limited to hiking in or out on foot, or helicopter. There are a limited number of camping places, and environmental protection is strict. All supplies must be carried in, and nothing, not even a gum rapper, should be left behind. This area is in turn surrounded on all sides by larger national and provincial parks with less stringent protection, but still kept wild. The Kanasaskis Range, protecting its eastern flank, puts it into a different world from the ski resorts and tourist trail of Banff and Jasper. From the Alberta side, it’s rather like The Wall in Game of Thrones.
Our plan was to meet at a hostel in Calgary, then take a bus the next day to Canmore, Alberta, a ski and riding resort in the Bow Valley. We overnighted there, which gave us an evening to explore the town, climbing up to some hoodoos that overlooked the town, and amusing ourselves looking at the absurd abundance of wild rabbits hopping around the town. Almost as numerous were Ford 550 cab trucks. The local library was equipped with a climbing wall — not something you expect in a library in Toronto. Its extensive local history collection revealed that Canmore was originally a coal mining town, first settled by dour-looking immigrant Finns of such prodigeous fertility that they would have inspired the envy of the rabbits. The present population is the usual multi-racial, multi-lingual Canadian mixture, with a noticeable presence of local Blackfoot, Sarcee, and Cree.
In Canmore, we faced the first strategic uncertainty in our plans. To reach Mt. Assiniboine, we would hike 28km from the trailhead, going over Assiniboine Pass to a small log cabin near Lake Magog, where we would stay for three nights. This entry hike was supposed to take between seven and ten hours. Overnighting on the trail was not encouraged, since it’s grizzly country. So we would have to start reasonably early. But to get to the trailhead at Mt. Shark, we needed to go through the narrow pass between Mt. Rundle and Ha Ling Peak, then follow a 40km gravel road. There is no public transportation along this road, so we had no choice but to get up early and hope that we could hitch-hike to the trailhead and get there with a sufficient window of daylight. Fortunately, we got a ride within half an hour, with a charming woman who knew the mountains and trails.
The second uncertainty was our physical condition. Both of us had leg injuries. I had an as-yet unhealed stress fracture in my left leg, that was still occasionally painful, and Filip has some kind of ongoing plantar problem. Filip is a big, muscular guy, much more athletic than I am. I’m a pudgy little guy, nobody’s visual image of an outdoorsman. Though I have a long history of outdoor activities, in recent years I’ve been pretty urban. My last hike on this scale — a long uphill grind in the mountains of Transylvania in 2007 — left me paralyzed with exhaustion, unable to walk the last klik to my goal. A short hike up Mont du Lac des Cygnes in Quebec, last spring, was easy enough, but didn’t indicate any great degree of spryness. Frankly, I had no idea if I would be able to do this. It’s customary for people to helicopter in to the mountain, then hike out over the pass, making most of the trip downhill. I had purposely arranged things in reverse, so that the test of our mettle would be at the start. The 28km hike would be uphill most of the way, starting with a 65m descent to the Upper Spray River, then a 650m rise to Assiniboine Pass.
Another uncertainty was the weather, always a gamble in the Rockies. We hiked under a grey, overcast sky. We were both resigned to the possibility that rainstorms or even snowfall might significantly reduce both visibility and comfort. In fact, the woman who gave us the ride had informed us that Lake Magog’s alpine valley was snowbound that morning, but was expected to melt off by the time we got there. While there was a general prediction of clearing weather in the next few days, mountains tend to chop up such predictions into micro-weather, with large variations between different enclaves.
As it turned out, the cool, grey weather was a blessing. The upward trek was not nearly as difficulty as I had feared, and we made rapid progress without working up a sweat. After only a few hours, we came upon a bull-moose. This was somewhat unusual, as moose are nocturnal. I have had a lot experience with this charmingly stupid animal. This one was a young male, with a rack of antlers raw red from either fighting or scratching. I wasn’t sure if it was rutting season here, but I knew it was so back in Ontario. Moose can be dangerous, if you get too close to them, especially rutting males, and we had turned a corner that brought us quite close to him. But he looked at us with bored disdain and walked away. This was to be our only encounter with a large animal. We had purchased a can of bear spray in Calgary, since it is more or less required, because there are numerous grizzlies in the area. However, grizzly-human encounters are rare. Usually, they hear the noise of humans from far off, or smell them in the air and avoid them. We met two parties of people making the more popular downward trip. At approximately the half-way point, the valley we followed climbed out of the forest and opened up into alpine meadow, hemmed in by spectacular cliffs. Only the last portion, where the trail had become muddy and narrow, and the climb over Assiniboine pass, rather steep, broken up, and still snowy, was any sort of challenge.
We made it to the cabin in good time. The snow had mostly melted, but Mt. Assiniboine was still invisible, hidden behind a mist of clouds. We were tired, but not exhausted. There was already a fire in the stove, and we met our cabin mates. We could not have been luckier. They were a charming family of Métis background: a husband and wife, a teenage daughter by an earlier marriage, and a dignified elderly aunt. The husband had once been a ranger at Assiniboine, and knew the place by heart. Two sons were with them, but were tenting in the bush, rather than staying in the cabin. They all had the quiet, soft-spoken calm and confidence that would make them an idealized sample of exemplo familia canadensis. I had expected to share the cabin with the inevitable Australians on walkabout, or some noisy macho types. This family was a blessing to us, making the whole experience significantly better than expected.
The following day was still overcast, and Mt. Assiniboine still remained hidden. The Lakes around the mountain are charmingly named: Gog, Magog, Og, Sunburst, Cerulean, Marvel, Gloria and Terrapin. Each is strikingly different in appearance. Given the weather, we decided to spend the next day walking the mostly level and undemanding trail to Og Lake, which turned out to be slightly creepy-looking and desolate, surrounded by bare rock and a wide beach of pebbles. By the time we returned to the cabin, my leg was acting up. I passed on a second hike, and spent time relaxing around the camp, while Filip headed up to Wonder Pass. He returned just as it was getting dark. He had actually crossed the pass and was able to look down at Marvel, Gloria and Terrapin lakes, but Mt. Assiniboine remained shrouded in cloud. We bunked down for the evening. I had worried that my chronic snoring would be a social problem, but it turned out that everybody snored. In the middle of the night, I woke and went out to pee. The sky had cleared and stars come out. The Northern Lights were shining. Not a spectacular display, with multi-coloured curtains, but at least a vivid glow and flicker. I told Filip about it, and he went out for a look, then the young girl came out as well.
The next day was clear and sunny. Mt. Assiniboine emerged fully and grandly. With it’s Matterhon-like shape, it dominates everything. The ice-bound pyramidal peak, even in a clear sky, leaves a smoke-like white plume of ice particles as the wind swirls past it. That’s why it’s named Assiniboine. The Assiniboine are a plains tribe who never lived anywhere near it. But George Dawson, Canada’s eminent 19th century geologist and explorer (author of Geology and Resources of the Region in the Vicinity of the 49th parallel from the Lake of the Woods to the Rocky Mountains, with Lists of Plants and Animals Collected, and Notes on the Fossils from the Killadeer Badlands) thought it resembled an Assiniboine teepee with smoke emerging from it’s top.
. This was our big day. The weather was perfect. Sunny, but never too hot. The air was as clear as crystal. All around were spectacular mountains, cliffs, gorges, forests, glaciers, lakes, rocky wastes, mountain meadows, bogs, rivers, and giant boulders that might have been tossed by the gods playing marbles. But Assiniboine loomed over them all, like a mother surrounded by her children. First, we walked around lake Magog to the foot of the great boulder field that descends from the glaciers. Filip took a dip in the frigid lake, while I more rationally soaked up the sun in the mountain meadows, mentally playing Mahler’s fifth symphony in my head. I tested out the boulder field, but determined that it was far too unstable and crevace-filled to safely spend much time on. One boulder was about the size of a small house and looked like it had been lobbed to its place by a giant catapult. Every few minutes you could hear something falling off the mountain, the noise echoing on the surface of the lake. The area was so beautiful, it was difficult to force ourselves to move on, but we found and followed the trail that would take us around the northern flank of the mountain and past Sunburst Peak to a chain of three lakes, Sunburst, Cerulean and Elizabeth. Each of these lakes has a different character. Cerulean nestles against the gigantic, jagged wall of Sunburst Peak. This wall looks like a huge mountain, looming over the lake splendidly, but it is actually nothing more than an outlying arm of Assiniboine, dwarfed by the later. Elizabeth Lake is named after Elizabeth von Rummel, a Bavarian aristocrat whose family was dispossessed and impoverished by the outbreak of World War I, and fled to Canada to work as ranch hands. Elizabeth grew up to be the “Baroness of the Rockies”, an expert mountaineer and naturalist, utterly devoted to Assiniboine. We found her cabin, hardly any bigger than the one we were sleeping in, where she lived until her death in 1980.
Again, my leg started acting up, and I rested while Filip climbed a ridge that gave a view of Nestor Peak and some more valleys to the north and west. Filip pointed out that my tendency to take a faster pace probably brought on the pain. Usually, I pulled ahead of him on the trail while he kept to a slower pace, but in the end, he was often able to climb where I couldn’t. But forcing myself to slow down was difficult. After seeing the three lakes, we started up the switchback trail that led to high ridges called the Niblet, the Nublet, and the Nub. By this time, our beauty-experiencing circuits were overloaded, but every time we climbed higher and the forest momentary opened up for a view, there was another jolt of it. Finally, we came to this:
This is what we had been seeking, and we had found it. A place that would express, not only our friendship, but the best things within us. When you are at such a place, you realize the insipidness of most human pretensions to wisdom. The silliness of organized religion and ideologies, and the pathetic, childish squabbles and squalid obsessions that we find ourselves enslaved to, all become nothing in the cold, pure air around these hundred thousand cathedrals of nature. When some fatuous ass claims to be able to know all about God’s commandments, or the infallible Market, or the predestination of the Dialectic, or whatever else the marching morons are peddling this week or next, I will always have this scene in my head to keep me sane and unswindled.
Tired, but happy, we made our way down to the cabin. After another night’s rest, we climbed up again to the Nublet. Filip made a try at the higher vantage of the Nub, but gave up. We came back in time to pack up and ready for the helicopter. The pilot took us up, but took a less direct path in order to search for a hiker reported injured somewhere. Sometimes we seemed to be making close approaches to peaks and ridges. From above we could see range after range of mountains, into the infinite distance, for this was a great ocean of mountains, into which you could throw a dozen Switzerlands and lose them. We had seen but a tiny, insignificant corner of it. And that was too big for us to grasp, too beautiful to find words for.
I am profoundly grateful that I was born, grew up, and live in this country, which has given me a wealth of beauty and a feeling of freedom that not even vermin like Prime Minister Harper can take away from me. Filip’s Facebook page has better photographs. He has a better camera and is a better photographer.
Tuesday, September 29, 2015
A love-letter to Canada
Phil Paine's great mountain adventure. This post is mainly for archival purposes. See the illustrated version at Phil's blog. . If you are on Facebook, see Filip Marek's pictures.