Early risers into region’s alpine areas weigh risk, reap rewards
Perhaps it’s incomprehensible to people stuck in the sweltering lowlands, but snow has been blocking portions of popular Northwest alpine backpacking routes in the Cascades and Rockies as late as this week.
Snow-related hiker deaths and accidents requiring rescues have occurred in the past month in the North Cascades. Early-season hikers can break through summer snowfields and crash into underlying rocks or they can slip and slide to trauma on steep slopes.
Streams are running high and cold and can be difficult to ford.
My doubts about planning an early July trek in the Canadian Rockies were confirmed on July 3 with a call from Kootenay National Park in British Columbia. My July 5-10 backcountry camping reservations for hiking the Rock Wall Trail – one of the most scenic high routes in the region – were being canceled.
“There’s 2 feet of snow at the Floe Lake campsites,” the park employee explained. “We can try to reschedule you for the next week, but most of the campsites are already reserved, and you must camp at designated sites.”
I’d gambled on an early thaw, and I lost.
Normally, I would not plan a five-night backpacking route through high mountain passes until late July or August, especially in national parks. My daughter and I already had racked up more than $100 in nonrefundable permit and backcountry campsite fees.
But constrained by her tight schedule and trying to comply with her desire to relish the mountains above timberline – she works in the United Arab Emirates – we were going to the Canadian Rockies one way or another.
Every multiday loop we could find in the contiguous Kootenay, Banff, Jasper and Yoho national parks required hiking over high passes. However, a close look at maps revealed routes that could take advantage of lower passes.
Zeroing in on the Skoki Loop in Banff National Park near Lake Louise, Alberta, our luck changed.
Campsites were available on a circuit that included Baker Lake, Merlin Meadows and Hidden Lake. And there was an early-season bonus: “So far, you’re the only one with reservations at those sites,” the park staffer said on the phone.
Being on the leading edge of the area’s hiking season paid off.
“That’s one of the most beautiful hikes I’ve ever been on,” Brook said as we hiked out after four days on the route.
Much of the beauty was in the options. Every campsite offered side trips to scramble up peaks or hike to lakes, ridges or glaciers.
Some backpackers are deterred from the Skoki Loop by 4 miles of hiking one must do on Lake Louise Ski Area roads or snowcat routes before the route narrows into conventional trails.
On the other hand, many hikers are lured to the area by Skoki Lodge and cabins, a summer-winter backcountry accommodation renown for exquisite food. Twenty years ago, this rustic mountain cabin – built in 1931 – was declared a national historic site of Canada.
In 2011, the lodge was graced with a royal visit by the Duke and Duchess of Cambridge.
Most of the hikers we saw on the trail were toting light packs on the 7-mile route directly to the lodge, where they’d find lodge rooms or cabins, beds with linens and food fit for a princess, if not a queen.
Brook and I were taking the longer, cheaper dirtbag approach.
The change of plans had left us with two days at the front of our Skoki trek, so we did a shakedown overnighter up Hawk Creek in Kootenay Park toward Shadow Lake in Banff.
Ice crashed down from the hanging glaciers on Mount Ball that afternoon and runoff rumbled under the ice sounding like a runaway freight train.
A hiker had slipped on a snow patch on the north side of Ball Pass leaving a telltale trail into the rocks below. “It was pretty scary, but I’m OK,” he said when we passed him later.
We were the only ones in the campsite below the pass – the only humans, that is.
During breakfast in the designated eating area 100 yards from our tent site, Brook and I took down our food from the steel poles and cables the park service had installed to hang food away from critters.
We were in the middle of breakfast when my attention was caught by a grizzly bear rising on her rear legs above the brush poking her nose 7 feet high for a good sniff. She was 20 yards away, and when she dropped to all fours I could see two cubs.
“Good momma bear,” I said as she ushered her offspring away for everyone’s safety.
Brook texted home when we hiked out later that day: “Mom, you would have been proud of Dad. He grabbed his bear spray, not his camera.”
The incident reinforced our rule of carrying bear spray with us everywhere, even on short off-trail jaunts to pee.
After driving to the Fish Creek trailhead near Lake Louise, we set out for the Skoki Loop, and more early-season wildlife experiences.
Hoary marmots and pikas were active, feeding on the first grass sprouts and flowers along the edges of still-receding snow as we hiked up to snow-patched Boulder Pass.
Two bighorn rams entertained us a hundred yards away during a lunch break overlooking Ptarmigan Lake. They looked ragged in the transition of shedding the coarse-hair winter coats nature gave them for insulation to sleeker, shinier summer hair that forms a better barrier to biting insects.
We were alone that night at Baker Lake camp, or at least it seemed that way until we heard the riveting call of a common loon. A pair was nesting on a barely-above-water-level mat of reeds.
A snowshoe hare romped through the camping area and we spooked a band of mule deer as we pulled our food up and out of any bear’s reach at the food storage pole.
A porcupine greeted us when we returned to the tent. The porcupine can’t “shoot” its quills, as some people believe. You have to walk into one or prompt a slap from its tail to get stickered. But they can be destructive.
I told Brook I was bringing my boots into the tent that night, hanging my hiking pole and protecting my backpack and its sweaty straps that porcupines crave.
Brook followed suit, except her hiking poles were hung too low.
During the night, the porky came back with a friend, pulled the poles down and chewed on the wrist straps and plastic handles.
“If you smack them with a stick it just makes them mad and they flare their quills and hunker down,” a Canadian mountain guide told me later. “But if you throw a pot of water on them, they’ll run away.”
After exploring the area the next morning, we headed to our next camp at Merlin Meadows on a trail that goes past the Skoki Lodge buildings. Our timing was perfect for the 1:30 p.m.-3 p.m. open house when hikers can check out the historic lodge interior.
Skoki was built by the Ski Club of the Canadian Rockies as the country’s first commercial backcountry ski lodge in Banff, Canada’s oldest national park.
While the food is world-class, the rustic experience hasn’t changed much in 80 years.
Guests still take sponge baths with basins and pitchers of warm water delivered to their rooms or cabins each day. Visitors must ski or hike the 7 miles into the lodge and do their business in a privy.
Prince William and his bride, the Duchess of Cambridge, were exceptions to the rules. The Canadian government cleared them to be helicoptered across the national park into the lodge, which normally is allowed only one flight a month for delivering supplies.
Another helicopter flew in a bathroom: a special pod with a claw-foot tub and toilet to make sure the royal couple weren’t infested by common hikers.
Brook and I continued another 15 minutes to our campsite at Merlin Meadows, where we camped in the shadow of glaciated peaks – once again, alone.
This is the perfect base for several days of exploration, as the founders of Skoki Lodge obviously had scouted out.
We hiked along the Wall of Jericho to the ridges around Merlin Lake, which is filled with turquoise water from the Mount Richardson glaciers. The lake has no outlet, but the water finds its way through the ground, bursts out of a rock wall and rushes into Castilleja Lake below.
We scrambled up the rocky Skoki Mountain that sprouts bare and bald from the subalpine vegetation to a small summit and a 360-degree, knock-your-smelly-socks-off view. We soaked up the scenery that includes seven lakes in the surrounding valleys and countless summits and options for further exploration.
We finally departed, regretting we didn’t have another night at Merlin Meadows to scale Fossil Mountain or stage a day-hike circumnavigation of Skoki Mountain that would wind through the Red Deer Lakes.
Several groups of cheery hikers bound for Skoki Lodge passed us on our way south as we crossed the snowfield lingering on Deception Pass, elevation 8,117 feet.
Our last night, at Hidden Lake Campground, was a reintroduction to society. We shared the spaces with two couples, a small group of Boy Scouts and a larger YMCA group of middle school boys.
The lake is a third of a mile up from the campground, where Brook and I retreated from the campground crowd in the evening to get one last dose of solitude.
Ice still rimmed the lake. Wildflower shoots were just pushing up out of the tundra-like shores.
It’s hard to say whether the best of the Canadian Rockies was yet to come, or whether we had already experienced it that week.