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.
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.

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