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.

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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, butt 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.

One Night in Sooke Mountain Provincial Park

It would have saddened a handful of Vancouver Island backpackers when Sooke Mountain Provincial Park outlawed camping. Located about an hour from downtown Victoria, Sooke Mountain has been logged, surveyed, alternately protected and exploited, driven over, ridden on, and hiked for more than a century, and the park is part of a more nearly-wild area than you might expect given its location and history.

People are all around. Sooke Mountain borders the popular Sea to Sea Regional Park, maintained to a very high standard by the [British Columbia] Capital Regional District and criss-crossed with trails. It is linked to the Sooke Potholes, a very popular destination, and a walk between the two can easily involve a side-trip to Empress Mountain, the tallest peak in the Victoria area. The terrain is often strenuous but, on the established routes, only occasionally severe. To the north there’s logging, which puts a limit on the real wildland, and the Greater Victoria watershed, but this leaves a great deal to explore on foot by unofficial and haphazard trails. Geographically it has every advantage. But this gem goes unpolished, to the pleasure of Sooke Hills wanderers who escape the capital for a taste of wilderness.

Land ownership is complicated, with the Capital Regional District, the province, and the YMCA all holding big stakes. The provincial park itself is relatively small, compared to the bevy of public and private landowners around it, and lacks direct vehicle access, so BC Parks has taken a very stand-offish approach. Victoria’s planned for at least ten years to open the area up to recreation, but the region has swallowed up more backcountry parkland than it can digest: Sooke Mountain is just one more page of bullet points. Because of this, trails and facilities are user-maintained at best while official maps are non-existent and unofficial ones obscure. Since a wildland so close to an urban area is tempting to the inexperienced, and nobody’s apparently taking responsibility for the area, it’s probably best not to encourage too much casual activity. People are already rescued after going in flagrantly unprepared for the backcountry; nobody needs more of that.

But until 2019, you could camp there, and in 2017 I did, braving bad maps, blowdown, and poop buckets, crossing old moss-covered pipes across gaping chasms, getting lost in the woods, and emerging dazed, tired, and alive, having seen hardly a soul in 24 hours between two popular destinations.

Backpacking Gear Potpourri

I want to write more, I really do, but it’s hard. I just don’t hike that much, and when I do it’s often not worth writing about even to me.

In this situation, what do other hiking blogs do? That’s a bad question because all hiking blogs, and vlogs, and Instagrams are terrible attention-seeking nightmare factories that seem to dream of being sponsored by a company selling bandanas or something just so they can experience the sheer joy of selling out. I like adorable half-polished diaries of hikes, and I like Andrew Skurka’s site, but I’m posting all the half-polished diaries I can and Skurka’s site is good because he’s an expert full-time hiker and guide, which I most definitely ain’t. Damn.

But people write about gear. A lot. By gear, a hiker does not mean the kit he uses to inject heroin into the diminishing veins between his toes, although he’d save money if he did. He means the specialized, lightweight equipment that he weighs on his kitchen scale so he can tell everyone he’s some awesome minimalist who wastes not an ounce. I am not an awesome minimalist. I bring a chair hiking.

I also carry opinions, and they don’t weigh anything. Some of them might almost be interesting to others, and some will be good for me to write down so I don’t go “oh right my satellite messenger failed last time I tried this” sometime in 2022. Hey, perhaps a gear post now and then is a decent waste of electrons!

Fire and Rain at Kootenay’s Rockwall

Parks Canada’s new reservations system is fun. Used to be you’d log in 7 AM on opening day, the database server would crash, and you’d refresh, and the database server would crash, and you’d have a couple browsers open to get one as far as the cart, and the database server would crash, but you’d check out, and then the payment server would crash, and you’d repeat this ten times until your credit card had been overcharged a few hundred bucks and, because you were high-agency, you’d get your campsites. I wrote about it! It worked for me, which is not the same as saying that it worked.

Now you log in opening day and are randomly assigned a place in line. The website hardly crashes at all but, no matter how on-the-ball you are, you cannot advance more quickly than the luck of the draw. When I visited on Banff, Kootenay, and Yoho backcountry day there were 14,715 people ahead of me taking the good campsites. 14,715. I wrote it down.

I had planned two hard and fast weeks through three parks, from Field, British Columbia to Canmore, Alberta, a hike to be proud of, one you have to train for. But 14,715 people made that impossible. So I had to gear down and hike Kootenay National Park‘s Rockwall, one of the crown jewels of the Canadian Rockies, the one they put on the cover of the Canadian Rockies Trail Guide for seven out of ten editions, a beautiful and popular destination I was truly lucky to get into. I even found myself obliged to stop at every campground along the way, a relaxed itinerary that would allow me to spend the summer sitting and getting tubby rather than grinding the Grind.

Oh darn.

It was amazing: five of the best nights of my life. You should go.

Solar Power Soliloquoy

Solar power, as anyone who has tried it knows, does not work.

Perhaps there are niche cases, like desktop calculators or orbital satellites, where solar cells pay off their expense and bulk, but when it comes to backpacking the science is settled. Look at gear surveys on long-distance trails, at the items hikers love, hate, keep, throw away. If a hiker brings solar panels onto the Pacific Crest or the Appalachian, they are soon discarded. If he does not bring them, at no point is he tempted to buy a set. Not even their biggest fan pretends a solar panel relieves you from long hours sitting next to a power outlet recharging your battery pack. Garmin, acknowledged masters of the great-hardware-shitty-software industry, advertise their solar-powered Fēnix 6 smartwatch as having extended range, rather than being able to live off the sun. Reviews of backpacking-oriented panels try as diplomatically as possible to suggest that if you keep the best you can buy soaked in sunlight in Colorado in the summer, you might just possibly get something useful out of them.

My experience with my backpacking solar panels has been thoroughly bad, dragging them like boat anchors around British Columbia’s Lower Mainland and Southern Gulf Islands without the least satisfaction. But surely the apex of futility was when I used them sailing from Bellingham, Washington to Skagway, Alaska on the Alaska Marine Highway. Sleeping out on deck for four days in the Alaskan summer we had decent weather, eighteen hours of sun a day, and a shortage of power outlets. I tried my solar panels to bridge the gap, and by journey’s end was just this side of pitching them into the Lynn Canal.

There’s no sugarcoating it: solar panels are heavy (my set weighs almost two and a half pounds), expensive, and ineffectual. The backpacking solar panel is completely useless.

Or is it?

The Skyline Trail Death March

After two years of frustrated would-be backpacks in the Rocky Mountains1 2020 would be a winner. A half-dozen early mornings, scoring opening-day reservations for some of Canada’s most-coveted campsites. Jasper frontcountry, Banff frontcountry, Jasper backcountry, Banff backcountry, provincial parks: processing and stress, HTTP 503s and duplicate credit card charges: all worth it to see great trails in peak season.

Take the train to Jasper, one night in the frontcountry, then two on the famous Skyline Trail. Bus to Banff, and three more nights up the Sunshine Village gondola, through the Assiniboine Pass, and down to the southeastern corner of Banff National Park via legendary Lake Magog. A trip worth the wait.

Then the virus came. VIA Rail, Canada’s passenger rail provider, suspended transcontinental service for the year. So I had to fly into Edmonton, with associated problems moving fuel and bear spray, and bus to Jasper on Sundog. This meant a needless night at Wapiti, watching elk and ordering pizza.

On the Banff side Sunshine Village announced they, including the gondola leading to Assiniboine Pass, would not open for the summer of 2020. So an already-long day would be lengthened by a sketchy cab ride and a boring uphill walk. Then, in July, the bombshell: a nice lady from Brewster called and said that due to “extreme low demand” their Jasper–Banff bus would not run until September at the earliest2.

It was disappointing but one cannot be angry at small businesses trying to survive in a time of panic. Every thwarted booking, every reservation canceled, was refunded promptly and without hassle. Everybody was very polite, and the reputation of the Rocky Mountains’ little transport companies and outfitters has only improved. But now I could either go to Banff and do Assiniboine Pass, or go to Jasper and do Skyline, but, with no connection between them, not both.

I chose Skyline. A mistake was made.

A Peak at the Stawamus Chief

Hiking-wise it has been a rough summer. Some of this has been viral, of course; even when parks have opened it’s felt antisocial to bus willy-nilly to small towns1, smiling and breathing on things. But quite a bit has been my own fault. For example, I canceled a planned overnight on Pender Island after hiking 98% of the way to Beaumont campground only to find I’d forgotten my cooking pot. I canceled a trip to Manning Park because there was lightning in the forecast and I’m a wimp. Another trip to Gulf Islands National Park was all booked-up when the ‘rona struck and when reservations re-opened I couldn’t get a replacement. One way or another I’ve canceled more camping reservations that I’ve used this year.

On one trip I combined “covid panic” and “Ben you fucking moron,” nicely spraining my ankle on the Norvan Falls trail of all the ridiculous places, a simple enough hike I know as well as kiss-my-hand, when just after the final bridge before the falls I stepped of to responsibly social-distance from a nice old lady passing the other way and landed wrong2. I hiked out, denying myself even a free helicopter ride, but it rather laid me up, as did my aggravating it on a run without a brace because have we established I’m an idiot?

It’s unfortunate to sound so bitter, because on balance my 2020 has been way better than the median. But from a backcountry perspective it’s been rather a bust.

So with a week of fun and rain in Jasper coming up, when confronted with a fine summer weekend I resolved to do something (anything) that let me sleep with a tent over my face, if only to enliven my legs and remind myself what shape trees are. Stawamus Chief Provincial Park, within walking distance of Squamish, opened up BC Day long weekend, and I leapt. So-to-speak. (People do leap off the Chief, but not even I am dumb enough for BASE jumping.)

Social Distancing to Death

Pandemics are boring. My home office in Vancouver, British Columbia looks out on a beautiful sunny day I am powerless to enjoy. Snowfields stare at me from the North Shore mountains while my snowshoes gather dust. Running around my neighbourhood only does so much; I miss nature. I miss the fresh air. I miss content for my hiking blog. I miss trees. I miss campsites and dehydrated food and reading a book on a lightweight chair and worrying about the rain and putting on three layers of jacket as I finish up the last camp chores while a gentle white light swings placidly within my tent. I miss being sweaty and stinky for days on end and not caring. I miss it all.

On the list of problems in the world today this is, to be sure, not number one. We’re all in the same boat and I think we all understand why we’re doing it. At risk of sounding controversial, if we all died of coronavirus that would be sad. Probably all of us who can are social distancing in ways which would normally seem ludicrously anti-social and feeling pretty good about ourselves.

And while we all want to get outside, outside can be crowded. Smart people are avoiding busy beaches and crowded trails. The District of North Vancouver has closed down the ultra-popular Quarry Rock and Lynn Valley Suspension Bridge trails. The big Vancouver-area resorts, Cypress Mountain, Grouse Mountain and Mount Seymour, are shut down, along with every zoo, water park, or other outdoor playplace.