Backcountry Tragedy

On the night of September 29, Doug Inglis, Jenny Gusse, and their seven-year-old dog were killed in their tent by a grizzly bear on Banff’s remote Red Deer River.

There is no sign that the victims made any mistake. They were highly experienced in the outdoors. In that region of Banff National Park there are no bear hangs or lockers but bearproof food containers are mandatory and the park says they hung their food properly: if the park could tell that, it implies the bear didn’t get it. They carried bear spray, and emptied a can of it. They had a satellite messenger and the presence of mind to send an SOS, but the weather made it impossible for rescue by helicopter and even if it hadn’t, it would have taken a miracle to save them. While responding Parks Canada killed an older, underweight, aggressive female grizzly, and while the area of the attack is still closed to travel in case she wasn’t the bear responsible, the profile fits: it was late in the season, a cold spring has made for a bad berry crop, and bears jumping a camp is virtually always a predatory attack from an animal who is desperate for food before winter.

Small comfort, probably, to their families. It was the worst of all possible luck. Twitter comments were happy to write fan fiction about how it was probably their fault in some unspecified way but it wasn’t. It had probably been a couple days since the hikers had seen another human. Their ebooks were out. They were in their tent reading, waiting out crummy weather before bed. Any backpacker can see the scene in his head without having met either victim or knowing a thing about them besides where they were and what they loved to do.

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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.

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.

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.

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!

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?

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.

photo by Andrew Bowden via Flickr, CC BY-SA 2.0

Park Reservations Unfixably Suck

This August I’m off hiking in Jasper and Banff National Parks. Take the train in to Jasper, camp for a night in the frontcountry, hike a trail, take the bus to Banff, another frontcountry night, more hiking, camp at Lake Louise, then head home. Since I am the sort of person who enjoys planning trips almost as much as going on them, I had this planned out, with routes researched, campgrounds picked, and schedules ready, before Christmas.

Good thing. I needed a night in a frontcountry campsite in Jasper; reservations opened up January 7. The largest campground in the park is under renovation for all of 2020 so I played it safe, got up early to snag my spot. This was smart. Parks Canada’s database server failed under the strain of us early-risers; as errors and “processing…” queues kept me waiting I could watch the sites I wanted turn from green to red. Luck was on my side: I got in. But that was merely the first battle in a long war, a campaign of all against all between thousands of fellow-travelers from Canada and around the world, for the right to go camping.

The worst part is, there isn’t a better way.