From a backpacker’s perspective, Kokanee Glacier Provincial Park has it all. The 79,160-acre gem in the Selkirk Mountains north of Nelson, British Columbia, has enough helicopter-serviced bridges, potties and facilities to attract novice and hard-core adventurers alike – with minimal impact.
Options begin with hiking on- and off-trail into nooks of raw forest or alpine solitude and sleeping on the ground at 11 walk-in campsites.
The developed backcountry campground at Kaslo Lake ($10 per person per night, $5 kids) has food storage lockers and a nifty new day-used shelter for cooking out of the weather and away from the healthy crop of mosquitoes.
On the other end of the scale, visitors shack up in three backcountry cabins, including one of the finest on the Canadian Alpine Club’s rental list. For $25 a night and a three-hour trek, backpackers can bask in the relative luxury of a million-dollar cabin complete with flush toilets and electricity.
Land a reservation for one of 20 bunks in the Kokanee Glacier Cabin and you can enjoy a shower, full kitchen and lights as well as treated potable tap water –hot and cold.
A hidden micro hydropower generator and a sewage treatment system take advantage of the water that pours down to Kaslo Lake from surrounding snowfields.
After years of planning and fundraising, the cabin was completed by BC Parks and the Alpine Club and commemorated in 2003. The investment has minimized the year-round impact of thousands of visitors into fragile alpine lakes and meadows.
A group of Spokane families has been booking the cabin for an annual summer adventure starting about 10 years ago when they had children as young as 11.
“Some of the kids balked at hiking in to a cabin,” said co-organizer Nancy Janzen. “Then it got to where they wouldn’t miss it. Now they’re grown and bringing back their boyfriends and fiances.”
Having the cabin as a base allows the hard-core contingent to hike, climb and glissade on snowfields to their hearts’ content while others take the day easier, plowing through a book, casting for fish, making easier walks or cooking something exciting for the evening group meal.
A few of the 30-some lakes in the park were still partially covered by ice even in late July, and the mosquito season was just getting a good buzz on as the Kokanee Cabin visitors arrived to a retro experience: The sewage system was plugged.
Showers were prohibited by the cabin host. Gray water had to be hauled out and guests had to use the outdoor vault toilet until technicians could be helicoptered in to fix the problem.
Danielle and Bob Riggs were undaunted.
“We’ll rinse off the old-fashioned way,” Danielle said, heading out the door in her swimming suit for a quick plunge in icy-cold Kaslo Lake.
That was a flashback to the decades of primitive cabin dwelling before the Kokanee Cabin was built.
The Spokane Mountaineers are among the groups that had traditions of applying in a lottery to book time in the nearby Slocan Chief Cabin.
Built by miners in 1896, Slocan Chief gradually was taken over by the province when the park was established in 1922. It became popular with hikers, climbers and skiers who volunteered to upgrade and maintain it. By the 1960s, visitors could count on finding a group in the cabin, especially from November through May.
“The powder snow in the Selkirks is fantastic, and you could ski right out the cabin door,” said Mary Weathers, who organized about 20 annual Mountaineers week-long trips to Kokanee Glacier.
Once helicopter service from Nelson became reliable, the lottery was needed to handle the demand.
Groups wanted to play hard, eat heartily and sometimes drink liberally to facilitate the deep sleep needed to make it through the night in the one-room Slocan Chief Cabin, she said.
A group of 12 Mountaineers would squeeze side by side in the loft to serenade each other with snoring, belching and farting through the night as rodents scurried over the sleeping bags.
“Bill Fix had a rat run over his head,” she said. “Packrats were always a problem. One of them took my Walkman and hid it in a crack.
“One time a pine marten got in and really tore things up.”
Before a metal roof was installed, powder snow would drift through cracks onto their faces as they slept in the loft, she said.
“The loft planks were rough and they would puncture our Therm-a-Rest mattresses.”
Slocan Chief’s big central wood stove was eventually replaced to end the need for wood cutting.
“The little propane stove in the corner didn’t always cut it,” Weathers said. “On one trip when the temperature dipped to 25 below, we had the itty-bitty stove cranked up and waterbottles were still freezing on the other side of the room.
“You needed a group for warmth,” she said. There were limits, though. “We loved Virgil Emery, but his snoring was so loud and obnoxious we built a snow cave and banished him to sleep alone outside.”
The Slocan Chief Cabin has been retired for overnight visits but still stands as an historic site for hike-in visitors with artifacts and photos of people enjoying its relative comforts in the good ol’ days.
“We had so much freaking fun in that cabin, I can’t tell you,” Weathers said.
Nearly all guests at the new Kokanee Creek Cabin visit Slocan Chief before returning to an immaculately clean, warm and rodent-free environment with a refrigerator, stoves and ovens – even electric coffee pots.
About the only things the guests would change, the host said, are adding a sauna or hot tub and replacing the vinyl-covered sleeping pads that announce all movement sleepers make in the night.
“Those changes aren’t going to happen,” she said, “but we appreciate suggestions on anything else.”
The Spokane group of families had driven up the rough 9.7 mile road from Highway 3A near Kokanee Creek Park on Kootenay Lake. From Gibson Lake Trailhead, hikers in their teens to their 60s hiked up a well-maintained trail, gaining about 2,000 feet to Kokanee Lake where a waterfall tumbles down cliffs from another thousand feet above into the deep blue waters.
They continued for a total of 3 hours to Kaslo Lake and the cabin at elevation 6,430 feet. Each person claimed a bunk in the unisex dorm. Maps came out and games on the shelf and a guitar were put to use.
They day hiked for the next three days, especially to Tanal and Sapphire lakes and to the toe of the Glacier and a rugged route up The Keyhole route to the ridge overlooking the glacier.
Rarely were they out of ear shot from the tinkle or roar of running water.
And if water suddenly came down as rain, they would retreat to the cabin and life at Kokanee Glacier would still be good.
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