Hiking Much of the Sawback Trail

They say if you never bail out on a hike you’ll eventually regret it, but they don’t say that when you do you’ll regret it anyway.

Even when I sprained my ankle hiking to Norvan Falls a few years ago, I finished going to Norvan Falls (though when it happened I was almost there anyway). But after four days of lousy weather, failed gear, and a sleepless night before a steep and dangerous-seeming day far from help having just seen somebody else hurt himself, my nerve failed me and I went home early. As a result this is not the full Sawback Trail, from Banff to Lake Louise; just a lot of it.

One can’t A-B test these things. No Control Ben pushed on to either hurt himself or be fine, so I shall always wonder. Writing up my diary for the trip I found I was justifying the decision to myself. The humble reader is welcome to judge, and I am actually interested in your judgement if you do, but the Inner Adventurer forever remains unsettled.

It was a real hike. Four days towards my goal before finishing up at Badger Pass Junction and returning. 43 miles, mostly short days, and a great deal of spectacular country. The Sawback Trail is recommended, but my luck was out: every day it rained hard. I lost my Kindle and broke my phone, which meant that I had heck-all to do while pinned in my tent.

I’ve been rained on in the Rockies plenty, but I’d never had a trip where it was just always raining; apart from the electronics problems I managed well, and that was good too. Failure can be as interesting as success. Right?

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Making My Own Food for the Backcountry

I like food (response from anyone who’s met me: we know), and backpacking cuisine is a frequent topic. From the cruise ship passengers who gawk in awe when I say I’m going off-grid for three nights and ask “what do you eat?“, to big-time through-hikers who get really good at assembling weeks worth of reasonably nutritious meals at gas stations, everyone’s got questions and some people have answers. It’s a very personal topic. Most beginning backpackers pack their fears, and in no case more than food: there is a fairly irrational terror of going hungry in the woods, when really all of us are fine if we hike and fast for a day. The authorities always recommend that we pack at least a day’s worth of extra food when we’re in the woods, and even allowing for that, it’s very easy to overestimate how much we actually need.

Today we can go to any outdoor store and buy lovely prepackaged meals of dehydrated deliciousness, which most backpackers do. However, those meals are expensive and their convenience comes at a cost beyond money. I’ve taken to making my own meals at home and packing them along. When I mention this in conversation, the next logical question is “oh, you got a dehydrator?” and the answer there is no: dehydrators are expensive single-use appliances, but there are loads of good dehydrated ingredients on the market today which anybody can use to assemble meals that are cheap, nutritious, filling, and yummy.

When packing food, and everything else, you make tradeoffs. However, after all these years, I’ve hit a system that works for me. I do not hike as hard and fast as a real through-hiker, but I do pretty well and am used to packing and hiking for two weeks between resupplies.

Strolling Lake Minnewanka to Mt. Costigan

An easy out-and-back hike beside an artificially-dammed lake. Lake Minnewanka in Banff National Park is very popular, but not a glamorous spot for the hardcore hiker.

Most backpackers like a little struggle to give them that sense of achievement when they eat a freezedried meal and hide out the storms in their little nylon shanty. All else being equal they’d rather be alone, and out-and-back hikes are a chore. Since there’s no trail around the south side, Lake Minnewanka is popular, easy, and an out-and-back by definition unless you shoot the Devil’s Gap and come out pretty far from anywhere, near the South Ghost Recreation Area. Plus, though it’s an ideal shoulder-season hike, the Minnewanka trail is restricted to groups of four or more most of the summer to mitigate against the many, many, maaannnyyyy bears that congregate in the abundant and convenient berry bushes to get their feed on. So it’s a logistical hassle too!

I went because I was curious and because, since I had a few days at the beginning of July, it seemed like a good one to check off the list. I’d planned to do the whole thing, out and back, as far as the Ghost Lakes, but I didn’t. Too bored. So there’s an anti-recommendation.

However, dull though the hiking is, the camping is lovely. The easy trail, too, makes this probably the single best beginner’s backpack I’ve ever seen. Curious about this Rocky Mountain lark but understandably reluctant to brave bears and lightning when you don’t really know what you’re doing? Come to Lake Minnewanka! It’s so, so easy to get to, it’s as easy as hiking gets, and it’s rewarding! The hike is anything but a waste of time, especially when you’re in camp, sitting on the beach with your food and your book, watching the sun play across that vast lake. Want to bring the kids? They’ll have places to play and splash around, and the days can be almost as short as you want them to be.

Return to the West Coast Trail

I don’t usually hike big trails twice, but 2023 is shaping up to be a major backpacking year. Therefore I wanted to do something in May, to see where I was at and get my legs under me in advance rather than relying on classic Ben Massey hiking-myself-into-shape-in-the-Rockies. May means no mountain backpacking, or at least none I wanted to deal with. So hey, why not the West Coast Trail again? Besides, I had unfinished business from last time. I had taken safe, boring forest routes when I did the trail for the first time in 2017. I wanted to see Tsusiat Falls in their glorious full flow rather than the September trickle. I wanted to do more beach stuff, in particular the nasty route around Owen Point from Thrasher Cove to Camper Bay. I wanted to see a little more of the coast, in particular the ferry from Bamfield to Port Alberni, which I missed last time out. I wanted to not get my tent flooded out from under me. I wanted to have a little less anxiety, and a little more time to experience the beauty. There were even some souvenirs that I have started collecting since 2017 that I wanted to pick up.

Things did not go entirely according to plan.

In September 2017 I was in some of the best hiking shape of my life while in May 2023 I was flabby and not physically ready for a harder trip. I had forgotten some of the difficulties of the trail and neglected all pre-trip training and preparation. Whereas in 2017 I reached Pachena Bay in perfect condition, in 2023 I finished bruised and battered, but luckily not broken, with torn-up pants and chastened pride.

Which does not mean for a second it was not a wonderful, entertaining experience. Just a different sort from what I expected, and very different from 2017.

Visiting Canada’s National Parks by Train (lol, lmao)

I am a train enthusiast who hates flying. If I can reasonably take the train, I shall, and if it’s not reasonable I might do it anyway. Especially when hiking: you can’t fly with stove gas or bear spray, never mind checking your backpack and wondering if it’ll meet you on the other end.

This is not a politics post, but it starts that way: the National Post‘s Chris Selley recently reposted a July 2022 article about Environment Minister Steven Guilbeault’s rash promise to “cross the country by rail listening to people’s ideas about climate change,” reminding us of the Liberals’ 2019 campaign promise to “partner with VIA Rail to make [camping at national parks] accessible and affordable for more families.”

Neither trains to national parks nor a whistle-stop eco-tour happened, because Quebec-Windsor elites don’t know what the rest of Canada is. 95% of Canada has less frequent, less reliable, and slower passenger service than before the First World War. The High-Frequency Rail plan is peeling off the parts of Canada’s passenger network that get attention into a public-private partnership and the rest of the country will do what it can with a roll of quarters and 70-year-old train cars. When a politician says “I’ll take the train to Banff, how long could it be, six hours?” he’s not even lying, but ignorant.

Which is funny, because the trains are responsible for the mountain parks. The Canadian Pacific Railway built many of the trails in Banff, constructed hotels and tea houses, and literally opened Yoho’s Twin Falls with dynamite, but you’re not taking the train to Yoho anymore unless you work on one. In 1991’s The World of Lake Louise, one of Don Beers’ iconic Canadian Rockies hiking guides, he laments that “passenger train service is confined to weekends in the summer months. The trains stop only at Calgary, Banff, Kamloops, and Vancouver; the rail station at Lake Louise is closed.” In 1991 this seemed like an unbearable cutback; in 2023 we shout “RETVRN!”

You can still get to national parks by train. The adventurous can do a little more. Here’s what there is.

The Culture of Narcissism and Bears

Bears are smarter than many people, and stronger than most. This past August another Problematic Bear at Garibaldi Provincial Park learned the knack of shimmying up BC Parks’ official bear hangs and bringing the bags down. Several hikers lost whole backpacks until conservation officers shot the bear.

This is the second-best recent British Columbia “bear defeating bear-proofing” story. The winner was at Akamina Creek in 2021, where a bear was caught non-chalantly opening bear-proof lockers right in front of several hikers (private video on the Great Divide Trail Hikers Facebook group). A few years ago Andrew Skurka shared a spreadsheet on Yosemite bears getting food from the portable hard-sided bear canisters. Most incidents involve user stupidity, but far from all. Given time, a cliff, a manufacturing defect, a slight fault in procedure, a plastic container weakened by UV, or just one that’s smarter than the av-er-age bear, that food is gone.

Traditionally this is when the author brags that he does it right. My food is all dehydrated meals and packaged snack bars, kept in an OPSAK resealable odour-proof bag that’s in turn tied inside an Ursack, hung on or stored in permanent infrastructure whenever available. Sure enough, a bear has never eaten my food (raccoons ate some once).

Except OPSAKs pick up odours from handling even before the openings fail, which they always do. Ursacks can be defeated when overfull, tied improperly, or a bear has four hours to work on the thing.

The author of this post is neither a bear expert nor highly experienced. In the wild he does what seems like it ought to work well enough. However, like most people who’ve lived in the world the past few years, he has a well-developed contempt for the narcissism of the expert. Responding to the Garibaldi incidents, the CBC quoted unnamed “advocates” whose words had no relevance to a bear climbing up the bear hang. Whenever a bear gets away with someone’s food wiseacres say “he probably didn’t do it right” and insist that if you follow these fourteen weird tips faultlessly every time you’re sure to be safe. It amounts to endlessly trusting the plan.

Memory and Photography on the Trail

Five years ago (good grief) I hiked the West Coast Trail. On my second night out, after a very rainy hike to Walbran Creek, I woke afloat in the midst of a flash flood. Diving into the pouring rain to move my tent out of the new lake I snapped the pole twice and tore the fly to ribbons, spent an extremely miserable night in the ruin, and tarp-camped the rest of the trip. I replaced the tent with a cheaper, better one I still use, what was scary at the time turned out to be a great adventure, and almost all was well.

But sadly my nice old camera drowned in that flood, and the SD card with two days of pictures on it could not be read however I tried. For five years those two days have beem memorialized only by some bad phone photos. I re-read my own blog posts and relive the memories once in a while; that’s half the reason I publish them. I always felt that loss. The only photo I had for beautiful day one hardly bears thinking about.

One day, five years later, I was at the office testing software by plugging SD cards into things to bring photos off them. It was testing and therefore frustrating, and after my nth fix I grabbed the SD card off my desk, plugged it into the tablet, swore again because the right pictures weren’t coming up… then realized they were my West Coast Trail photos. I’d thought I’d thrown that SD card out years ago, and I did have a card in my office that I knew didn’t work, that I kept meaning to put in the trash but never did, and it just so happened this Android device could read it, and I got my photos off.

Before the flood I ended my diary for the day “God loves me and wants me to be happy.” When I got flooded I thought that was dramatic irony; it turned out to just be true. Those snaps set me remembering, and that set me wondering.

Touching Grass on the South Boundary Trail

The South Boundary Trail. To some those words are instantly evocative. They mean history, grandeur, self-reliance, and solitude.

Jasper National Park has beautiful backcountry, from Skyline to the Brazeau to the Tonquin Valley; the South Boundary’s isn’t the same. The scenic highlight is Nigel Pass, which is also a day hike and easily backpacked on the Brazeau. Otherwise, there are wonderful moments but not constant stimulation. No 3,000-foot climbs, no camps above treeline.

The South Boundary just feels different. The ninth Earl of Southesk put it on the map in 1859 when, recovering from injury, illness, and the loss of his wife, the 32-year-old peer explored the Front Ranges, defined a great Rocky Mountain backcountry trek, met legends of the Canadian West, read Shakespeare and Bulwer-Lytton, and wrote his account with a personality that any fan of obscure backcountry content will recognize. The hunters with him had hardly the vaguest idea where to go: they were experts, not guides, and the earl pioneered this route.

As Jasper matured the South Boundary became popular until, around 1994, the parks began their long retreat from the backcountry. Wildfires in 2003 and 2006, and a flood in 2013, decimated the trail, and little was repaired. Reports discussed how difficult the path could be to find, let alone hike.

Then, in 2019 Stuart and Evelyn Howe recorded a two-and-a-half hour video of their hike. They found Rocky Pass, navigated the washouts, made it to the old paths above the Southesk burn, then got down to the bridge. They showed what victory looked like, posted their GPS tracks, and more would-be hikers were inspired to follow them. In the years since the trail’s been better-marked by cairns, markers, and flagging, and the park has made a couple maintenance trips. One hesitates to call a 75-mile trail with chancy fords, multi-mile route-finding, primitive campsites, unbrushed trails with six-foot willows, and one thoroughly remote trailhead “easy.” But it mostly is.

This was the second part of a 14-day, no-resupply hike that I started at Fiddle River. There’s a synopsis of my earlier adventure ahead but start there if you want the full story.

Coping with the Fiddle River Trail

Hiking Jasper’s Fiddle River trail in mid-August had a simple object: to reach the South Boundary Trail without a three-hour taxi ride.

Living a long way from the Rocky Mountains, I get at most one hike out there a year and the Fiddle River would never make the cut. However, it suited my South Boundary goals perfectly: take a taxi to Miette Hot Springs, hike for three days, cross Fiddle Pass and emerge on the Grave Flats Road less than eleven miles from the Rocky Pass trailhead. It made for 14 days on the trail and about 111 miles (179km) of hiking, with a garbage bin en route but no resupply.

Thus the Fiddle River was not really a “trail” to me: it was an approach. Every niggling inconvenience—and there were a few—wasn’t part of my adventure, but part of my commute. I didn’t realize what a difference that would make mentally until I was at Medicine Tent campground four days later and magically felt better. Carrying a pack with two weeks of food and fuel didn’t improve my mood.

For all the frustration the trail did create some fond memories. Fiddle Pass is lovely, the rivers and creeks are distinct pleasures, and if you want backcountry nights that are private and rugged but not too “out there” I suggest Utopia and Slide Creek campgrounds. It’s just thru-hiking it with a big pack was the wrong way to go, when you could experience the parts you’d like on a less frustrating out-and-back. When you tie the whole trail together, trying to get from one end to the other, Fiddle River is a hassle.

This trip was a single 14-day hike to me, but as it covered two trails at Jasper National Park, joined by a half-road-walk half-hitchhike, I’m dividing it into two posts for readability. The South Boundary Trail post, which will be much longer, is on the way.

Replacing Pole Shock Cord in my MSR Hubba NX Tent

As I might have mentioned I love my old MSR Hubba NX very much. It was the last of the Good Hubbas, before they started screwing up the seams and making it into an Elixir with an uglier fly, and I got it on clearance. It’s been with me on the Chilkoot, Skyline, the Rockwall, and many other one- and two-night trips. It’s still in pretty good shape, give-or-take a hole in the bug netting, and I’m looking forward to bringing it on the South Boundary.

The only problem’s been the cord that connects the tent poles which, after a couple seasons of use, lost its elasticity, leading to slack lines and difficult pole assembly. I got rather good at working around this, but clearly an elastic tent cord with no elastic was a failure waiting to happen. I knew I’d have to replace the cord, but that involved open-heart surgery on a tent that was pretty much working and I kept putting it off and putting it off, until I went camping in July and got fed up. Then I went home and replaced the cords, and not only was it was so easy I felt like an idiot for waiting so long, but I felt better knowing one more thing about how my gear works.

Here’s a guide on replacing tent cord on MSR Hubba-family tents. The principles will help you with many other tents as well, and the most important principle is: don’t be afraid. This is an easy job which not only makes your tent stronger, but helps you know your gear in case anything happens in the field.

Book Review: Canadian Rockies Trail Guide (Tenth Edition)

It is 2022. Every trail of consequence in the Canadian Rockies has been shot through with YouTube videos and dissected by bloggers, and every park has detailed descriptions online. A book becomes dated with every spring flood and summer fire, while the forums and the Facebooks carry updates in close to real time. Do you still need to spend $29.95 on a trail guide?

When hiking a maintained trail, even a long and difficult one, the answer has to be no. You can learn everything you need for free, provided you can endure clickbait, trash, and crass self-promotion in some stranger’s report. It’ll even be more detailed. There is no park-spanning guide that could surpass anything focused on a single trail, not without being 50,000 pages long.

Yet, should you hike the Canadian Rockies, absolutely get the Canadian Rockies Trail Guide, the long-awaited tenth edition of which has been released in May 2022. Because there are things only trail guides do. The limitations of two covers, finite pages, and infrequent updates allow the creation of a resource which other media theoretically could match but never, ever do.

They capture information concisely and clearly in one place. They let you find the trail you’ll want to hike next summer as well as plan the one you’ve already decided on. They show routes and possibilities videos only gesture at. They let you scheme, and dream. In this edition Brian Patton and Bart Robinson not only provide some much-needed updates but, with a handsome new layout and full colour on every page, given us more room than ever to fantasize about hiking and then make those fantasies real.

Five Years of Hiking Inflation

I recently found an old spreadsheet from when I began backpacking in 2017, listing everything I needed to get started in this hobby. It’s one of those accidental historical documents, because of the things I thought were important once upon a time (“I’ve got to get one of those portable medical splints!” said I, quite seriously) and all of the fads which turned out to be busts (“wow, UV-treating water on the trail is amazing! It’s more expensive than a filter, it’s about as annoying, it’s not much faster, and you have to pre-filter it anyway to get the leaves and sticks out!”). The things I spent a lot of money on, like my solar panels and my first lightweight tent, which sort of sucked, and my fancy down sleeping bag, which despite all the dire warnings against using down in wet climates has been worth every one of the many pennies.

Oh well, I was learning to backpack and I made mistakes, and few of them were expensive. I did something smart: I’d buy something big, heavy, and cheap, and I’d find out what I hated and what I liked and I’d upgrade where I needed it. This definitely saved me money compared to people who buy several blue-ticket items from trendy ultralight manufacturers until they find one they like or suffer in poverty.

Saving money’s more important than ever. In addition to the items, I wrote down their prices, in 2017 dollars, so I could budget for them, and what an eye-opener that is five years later. Getting started backpacking certainly felt expensive at the time, but it’s gotten so much worse.

Planning the South Boundary Trail

This time of year, people talk about their backpacking plans. The luckiest souls plan to be out most of July and August, and I cope and seethe for like most of us, I get at best one good backpack a year. So naturally I plan it out to avoid being hosed by the booking gods, running down my list of must-do hikes every January and finishing on one can-do for August that’s as fun as I can make it. Moreover, this year I felt a hankering to get as close to the all-summer hiking crowd as I could, to make my one trip a real marathon.

My Western Canada backpacking bucket list goes something like:

  1. The North Coast Trail. The trailheads are reachable by the Cape Scott Water Taxi; unfortunately, hiring them out for a solo hiker costs a fortune. I’ve looked in the past at joining others, without success. Maybe someday.
  2. Jasper’s North Boundary Trail. The Berg Lake Trail, at the west end, is closed until 2025 thanks to 2021 flooding. The North Boundary’s lost two more important bridges and, at the rate Jasper National Park works, might be closed indefinitely. This one is probably out of the question for a while.
  3. Banff Sunshine Village to Mount Shark via Mount Assiniboine. I had this booked in 2020, but COVID. White Mountain Adventures may or may not be running their shuttle to town from the south trailhead in 2022; if they don’t, you can actually hike this out all the way to Canmore along the Spray Lakes Reservoir, which sort of sounds like fun, but it just didn’t get me this year compared to…
  4. Jasper’s South Boundary Trail. I’ve never had as deep a bug for the South Boundary, somehow. But it’s still two weeks in the woods, two weeks of solitude and challenge, route-finding and river-fording and rain and maybe snow, and above all the beautiful Rocky Mountains.

So it’s the South Boundary for me in 2022, because I want to do the North Boundary and can’t.

Book Review: Backpacking in Southwestern British Columbia

If you hike the Lower Mainland and use the Internet you’ve seen the name Taryn Eyton, whose Happiest Outdoors blog is very prominent indeed. Far from the selfie-seeking Instagram influencer trying to get photos on Panorama Ridge and sell t-shirts; Eaton has done the trails, including the unglamorous ones, knows her stuff, and shares her knowledge with the hiking community even outside her website. I also infer from some photos that she owns the same previous-generation MEC TGV 2 four-season tent I do, which speaks well of her taste.

The compliments go up top to soften the blow when I say that I’ve never liked that site: it’s too click-baity, too “top 30” this and “big deals on” that, every keyword carefully inserted where Google will find them. The ratio of useful content to search-engine-optimization is way off.

But she’s got a book out, Backpacking in Southwestern British Columbia, which targets an underserved niche. There are between five and seven million books on hiking in the Lower Mainland, each describing a hundred and some-odd hikes that you absolutely have to do if you’re a walk-to-the-top-of-the-mountain-at-a-35-degree-angle type. There are books aimed at tourists and well-meaning grandmothers, researched mostly from Wikipedia, saying that when in Vancouver you should really try that Grouse Grind thing. There were, however, no good informed summaries on backpacking in the area and, since researching such backpacks means a quagmire of provincial park websites, forest recreation sites, and old Facebook posts, an expert guide would be invaluable.

Eyton is an expert, she’s done ’em all. But a guidebook and a 24-best-Black-Friday-deals blog are two very different things. I bought the book without high hopes: could she really take that expertise and translate it to a more concise, lower-frills context, and make it a success?

Imagine my surprise and delight when the answer was yes.

The Mountain Legacy Project, CC BY-NC-ND 2.0

North Boundary, Bridges, Bad Decisions

Jasper National Park’s North Boundary Trail is a dream hike. From Celestine Lake to the Berg Lake trailhead in Mount Robson Provincial Park, it is much-discussed but not often-hiked. This year Thompson Valley Charters started a bus between Kamloops and Edmonton stopping at Mount Robson. I would have made it if not for Heat Dome, whose melt flooded these trails. BC Parks closed the Berg Lake Trail beyond kilometre 7 in August.

Also closed was a bridge over Twintree Creek, one of the few remaining on the North Boundary. Stuart Howe’s 2019 video shows horrible rushing blue-white water and Parks Canada has officially closed that bridge on pain of a $25,000 fine.

Berg Lake is closed for 2022 while under repair, but the North Boundary is long-neglected. Reservations are refused until September because Blue Creek bridge washed out in 2014 and they want hikers to wait until water levels go down. By all accounts Twintree Creek is tougher; it’s probably safest to consider the trail closed.

Would Jasper National Park lose a marquee trail for want of a bridge? Well, it keeps happening. The Fortress Lake trail into Hamber Provincial Park has been cut off since 2014 because of a washed-out bridge over the Athabasca River. The Athabasca Pass trail, leading to a National Historic Site of Canada, has been nigh-unreachable since the winter of 2016 due to a lost bridge at Simon Creek.

This is normally when an author bemoans Parks Canada’s budget and suggests the reader somehow vote our way out of it. Yes, Parks Canada should have the money far more than other things all politicians treat as higher priorities, but they ain’t quite broke. Earlier this year they built a 113-metre suspension bridge above Logan Creek on the West Coast Trail. A safe existing route has received a spectacular upgrade that will save hikers from what was once a morass of ladders and a shorter, still-memorable suspension bridge. The contract was valued at $840,122.

Bridges can be built, when they’re a priority.