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 that I’d hate to ford. Parks Canada, who seldom reports on this trail, has officially closed that bridge on pain of a $25,000 fine.

BC Parks is fixing Berg Lake right now, but the North Boundary has long been neglected by Parks Canada. Reservations are already refused until September because Blue Creek bridge washed out in 2014 and, with no replacement in sight, Parks Canada wants 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.

As public expenditures go, a new Logan Creek bridge is a good one. It’s obligatory to complain that the West Coast Trail only gets easier every year but let’s face it: that thing is very popular. Trails with a lot of traffic put a lot of pressure on the environment, and infrastructure that can support ten people a day might crumble under the weight of one hundred. Parks Canada says that the ladders and the former bridge at Logan Creek, though intact, were easier to replace than constantly repair. Maybe so! No matter how many complain about the trail softening up, it’s hard to imagine anyone deliberately scrambling into and out of the Logan Creek valley just for the authenticity.

With its crushing fees1, surpassing anything else in Canada’s national parks, the West Coast Trail is also unusually capable of recovering its costs. Apart from the official entrances it’s hard to just get on the West Coast Trail and start hiking without a permit unless you are possessed of special local knowledge and plenty of patience. The mountain parks, where every long-distance trail has three or four official entrances and six that aren’t maintained but work anyway, are very different. There’s a clear cash incentive to Parks Canada for hikers to do the West Coast Trail rather than tramp about the Rocky Mountain backcountry.

But there is a point of diminishing returns, a point at which you should maybe start investing in other trails. The North Boundary could easily be very popular: it’s in the heart of Canada’s Rocky Mountain parks. If someone with a 4×4 ran a shuttle up the Celestine Lake road both trailheads would be easy to reach. It’s long, and scenic, and apart from the challenges caused by lack of maintenance, supposedly not too difficult. With apologies to those who adore the North Boundary for being so quiet, that’s a trail that could use a little popularity, if it took the pressure off of others.

Parks Canada seems not to think that way. Strategic vision for the backcountry, the sort of thinking that says “this trail at Pacific Rim National Park is overcrowded so we should try to draw visitors to this other trail in Jasper National Park,” is hard to come by. Parks are largely left to manage their own backcountry areas according to their will and their resources, and different parks have different priorities.

On the one hand, it’s hard for me to imagine a better-maintained backcountry trail than the Rockwall at Kootenay National Park. On the other, while Jasper pours money into the Whistlers frontcountry campground and trails around town, not only are most backcountry trails undermaintained but volunteer labour on the remaining trails is officially discouraged. This is quite an old story. And while they may not have time to maintain distant trails, they certainly have time to harrass YouTubers about camping in the wrong parts of them2.

As anyone who’s hiked Skyline will tell you, Jasper National Park is physically capable of keeping a backcountry trail in decent shape; they just choose not to prioritize it, and they are very far from the only park that thinks this way. However, the popularity of backcountry hiking, even before COVID-19, has exploded in Canada. Canadians want to get away from their cities and spend a few nights, not even in a groomed and curated campsite with RVs and snack shops, but truly under the stars. It’s become so obvious that even BC Parks has been thrown a few crumbs.

Vain though it sometimes feels, there is a least a thin, wavering, dotted line between Canadians pointing out these problems with park policy, and the park policies being made less bad. It can be done, it has been done. Look at Logan Creek. Call attention to these flaws, shine light into darkness, and sometimes—just often enough for it to be worth doing—things improve.

  1. As of 2022, hiking the West Coast Trail will cost an average of CDN$248.00 per hiker just in government fees: $69.19 for a Parks Canada Discovery Pass, $130.31 for the West Coast Trail fee, $24.50 to make the reservation, and $24.00 in mandatory ferry fees. Families, fast hikers, immigrants, and Parks Canada frequent fliers will have economies on the Discovery Pass, but the big money is non-negotiable. By comparison, a typical Rocky Mountain backcountry rate is the $69.19 Discovery Pass plus ten bucks a night for your camping.
  2. Incidentally, a few weeks ago I shot an e-mail to the park asking, for the sake of my vacation planning, if Jasper planned to fix the Twintree bridge in the next year. They did not have the time to reply, so maybe I’ll do a post about how great it is camping at warden cabins to get their attention.

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2 replies on "North Boundary, Bridges, Bad Decisions"

  1. Brian Patton says:

    Hi Ben,

    Our publisher sent this blog post to me. What can I say? It is impossible to embarrass Parks Canada into action. A few years back Bart was in Ottawa talking with Catharine McKenna’s Chief of Staff about backcountry maintenance. His reply: “Don’t expect Parks Canada to spend one dollar on the backcountry.” Certainly emphasizes the point you make in this article.

    I’m working on the 10th edition of the Canadian Rockies Trail Guide at the moment. I found your “Fire and Rain at Kootenay’s Rockwall” a useful tool in this process. (Far be it from me to actually go out to re-hike that trail for revision purposes.) But I find the current crop of masocistic backpackers a welcome source of information (I call them my “virtual friends”). It doesn’t sound like you’ve discovered my blog, but I thought you’d enjoy the following link, which features a simpler time on Kootenay Park’s Rockwall:
    https://canadianrockiestrailguide.com/hiking-kootenay-park-50-years-ago/

    Looking forward to your trail reports. Cheers, Brian Patton

  2. Ben Massey says:

    I’m working on the 10th edition of the Canadian Rockies Trail Guide at the moment. I found your “Fire and Rain at Kootenay’s Rockwall” a useful tool in this process.

    I’m not even going to try to be cool. This makes my day.

    Coincidentally, my girlfriend sent me to your blog last night, since I was telling her my new 2022 plan is to do the South Boundary Trail and your posts seem fairly essential. Thanks for sharing the Rockwall retrospective, too; that’s one trail that seems to be getting its pennies. The rest, I guess we have to hike before they’re gone.

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