Into Wonderland: Kananaskis to Sunshine

Excitement pumped through the blood as we neared the trail again, the heady rush of embarking into a land that you know will blow your mind with the wild wonder of it all making us a bit punch drunk. We said our farewells to Leslie and headed off, beginning the long trek around Upper Kananaskis Lake. It appeared to be a popular loop to go around the lake, many tourists doing the trek around it, and even some runners.

A couple bald eagles made their debut above the lake, the incredible mountains with glaciers embracing their flanks and the classic turquoise lake the perfect background for their huge circling. We left the people behind as we turned off into the Upper Kananaskis River valley. The storm that was predicted for this stretch began practicing, the skies opening up and raining hard, then closing again for a short breather, repeating the process as it rehearsed for its big performances over the next couple of days.

Passing through a dense thicket of brush, a cow moose stomped across the trail, checking us out over her shoulder as we traipsed by, reassuring her that we were simply passing through. The chill in the air kept us in our rain gear for the remainder of the day, as we began climbing higher up the valley. Nearing our camp site for the evening, a black bear crossed paths in front of us, all teddy-bear furriness as he trundled up into the dense trees.

We arrived at Tourbine Campground with a lull in the weather, where we seized the chance to set up camp not in the rain. Fingers cold, we fumbled slightly with the guy lines, but soon the mid was up, sleeping bags laid out as we sought the cook area.

A steel table stood in the middle, but the cold and wet of it was uninviting to sit on, so we contented ourselves with standing around it while preparing dinner, a drizzle beginning to fall around us. Hastily downing a hearty pasta meal, we reveled in the ease of this backcountry site complete with bear lockers. The speed of pack up was so delightful, not requiring the trek around, searching for the perfect bear-hanging tree. Dumping all our smellies in a bear locker, we dove into our sleeping bags.

All throughout the night, it rained hard, and every time I rolled over, I checked to make sure there were no small rivers of water making their way through our sleep spot. The rivers were content to wind their way around the tent, and we woke to spotty rain, and a cold wind. Donning the rain gear (for the first and last time of the day), we followed easy, beautiful trail up to Kananaskis Pass and a beautiful alpine lake. For the first time this trip, no views greeted us from the top, socked in and foggy as it was. The dense clouds blanketed us in a damp, bone-chilling cold that set in gradually.

Cresting the pass, we left Peter Lougheed Provincial Park and entered Height of the Rockies Provincial Park, and as we descended the other side, the quality and amount of use of the trail immediately declined. Faint trail, often simply a remnant of feet passing through the same place on the rocks, cascaded straight down the steep slopes.

The loose, steep, slippery situation was exactly the terrain that caused Dan’s ankle to act up, so we were forced to a slow pace that enable the damp’s creeping fingers to get a good grip on me, and soon I was shaking with cold.

The lower we dropped, the colder I became, as dense brush rose up on either side of the trail, sopping wet, gracing us with the dreaded phenomenon known as the “car wash”. This is where you must push through drenched brush, causing all the collected rain to slosh down over you. No rain gear is impervious to this, as the repeated pressure will eventually push the moisture through the membrane to you. Thighs and arms are exceptionally prone to this, and soon those body parts were very cold. Remnants of our large furry bear friends littered the trail: large piles of veggie filled scat, and footprints the size of plates going every which way caused us to hoot and holler into the surrounding brush.

Eventually we began the long climb up to Palliser Pass, the same wet bushes to the face slowing and cooling us further. Maintaining easy breath, convincing my body it wasn’t as cold as it was, we climbed up, until we crossed into Banff National Park.

We had been doubting the probability of us reaching our campsite – it was 23 miles away, and at 1pm, we had managed all of 7 miles. However, as we crossed into the National Park, the trail improved considerably. We could see where the brush along the trail had been cut back so that we could pass easily, and soon we were swooping down the Spray River valley, passing what seemed like hundreds of alpine toads along the trail – so many of them we had to watch carefully to avoid trampling them or poking one with a pole.

We were on our way to meet Leslie, who was coming in to hike with us for a couple days. As we hurried on into the evening, we finally neared Big Springs camp, and lo and behold, a lone figure stood under a tree as we arrived.

“Friends!” The familiar voice rang down the trail as we approached and soon soggy hugs were being exchanged, and then magically, what seemed like two pizza’s crammed into a tuppoware appeared in front of us, and frozen fingers immediately began to transfer the delicious food to hungry mouths.

Bodies exhausted, we crashed hard that night, even sleeping in a bit in the morning. Dragging ourselves out, we found the day to be cool, but very little rain yet, which raised spirits immensely.

The lack of rain also meant the views were back, and they were coming out in full force as we traversed wild flower carpeted meadows above the large Marvel Lake.

The morning was filled with trekking-pole whirling, whooping to warn bears, and jaws dropping at the fabulous views as we climbed to Wonder Pass.

Just we crested the pass, the weather decided to move back in, and as we began to descend, the temperature plummeted, and soon a mix of rain and hail pummeled us as we traipsed through enchanting larch forests.

This changed to sleet, thunder began booming, and then the snow fell, big fat flakes coming down thick and fast. At the bottom a small group of huts were nestled, with a cook hut between them.

Leslie peered through the window.

“Not too full yet,” she said, “Let’s make a quick cup of tea!” Peeling off all of the wet layers, we were soon inside, steaming profusely as we wrapped cold fingers around steaming mugs of ginger tea. The snow began to come down heavier, clinging to the larch branches as we watched with trepidation. As the feeling came back to fingers and toes, we left to go the rest of the way to our campsite. It was a bit shocking, after traveling through so much unpopulated wilderness, but as we walked towards Mount Assiniboine, we were entering a very popular area – one of those bucket list places. People can even pay to get a helicopter ride in, and stay in fancy little cabins. The snow was picking up, and as we passed the first real viewpoint of Mount Assiniboine, we laughed at the gaping white void where the mountain supposedly was.

However, once again, as we neared our campsite at Lake Magog, the weather gave us a bit of a break.

Dawn, one of Leslie’s friends, was on a trip of her own with another woman, Brenda, and she met us at the entrance to the confusing mess of trails that was the sprawling camp site, and led us back to a secluded area where they had saved us a spot.

She and Brenda regaled us with tales of their trip so far as we set up camp, wonderful, cheerful women opening their arms to us immediately.

“Well, friends,” Leslie announced once our shelters were set up, “we have a decision to make.” She gestured at the clearing skies around us. “We could do tea,” this tea was something of a trail legend, as the Mount Assiniboine Lodge was known to open its doors to the “public”, as us campers were known, for an hour to serve unlimited tea and loaf (which I was told was essentially cake), “or we could climb the Nub.”

Not even an alternate listed for the GDT, the Nub is a very quick little side trip that gives crazy good views over the Assiniboine basin. The clouds were lifting, lifting, drifting around the peak, and it was an easy decision in the end.

The five of us made our way from the campsite back towards the Assiniboine Lodge, where we parted ways, Dawn and Brenda to partake of the tea, and the three of us to climb up the nub.

Indeed, it was a short jaunt, and after just a wee bit of a huff, we popped out above tree line, the incredible basin of Assiniboine expanded out below us.

It was one of those moments, where trail lore is not just truth, but the real thing is greater than you imagined. Also known as the “Matterhorn of the Rockies”, its reputation preceded it – and most appropriately. We stood, watching sun beams dance on the glacier warped around it, the plume from the top indicating the whipping winds up there, and snow cascading from its many layers.

As we descended, a storm ripped back through the valley, bringing more snow, whipping winds, and thunder cracking overhead.

Back down at the camp, we discovered that a truly lovely cook shelter existed, and we settled down amongst the other campers. A young Israeli fresh out of the military sat with us, along with Dawn and Brenda, and the evening passed with folks rushing to find more layers, but unwilling to truly leave the conversation for the warmth of their tents.

Dawn, Leslie, Dan, and I took an evening stroll down to Magog Lake, where we learned about modern pentathlon (Dawn went to the Sydney Olympics – and we were all fascinated to learn more about this little-known sport).

Finally, we all curled up for the night, relatively warm and dry. It was still a restless night, unfortunately. This particular camp site had ready-made boxes they wish you to camp on, filled with these sharp rocks. Of course, with light weight gear, this would be avoided at all costs normally, but as that was what we were supposed to do, we did it. It also meant that Dan’s sleeping mattress received several punctures and he was blowing it up all night.

The cook shelter also proved to be a strong pull that morning, and even though we were all packed up and ready to leave, we lingered at the shelter, chatting with our new friends. Finally, the call of the trail pulled us from the shelter and we set out into the cool, but thankfully precipitation-less day.

It was perfect hiking weather, long-sleeved top and tights just warm enough, but brisk enough to barely break a sweat. We soon came to Og Lake, where we came upon another group.

“Your boots!” Exclaimed a woman as we approached them, pointing at Leslie, and we all stopped, surprised.

“Yes, what about them?” Leslie asked, leaning on her poles.

“Are they yours?” This was such a strange question, we were all laughing at first, but it soon came to light that when we had ducked into the cook hut for tea the day before, Leslie and this woman had inadvertently traded boots. As they switched back mid-trail, we all had a good laugh, and then we were off into the Valley of the Rocks.

This was a wonderful, magical place. It was the oddest, rolling terrain, dotted with gigantic crumbling rocks. The trail weaved through these massive rocks, and the mist drifting amongst the towering cliffs above us added to the expectation of Orcs leaping out at us unexpectedly from behind a boulder.

Whooping and hollering, we ascended Citadel Pass, stopping to look at the diggings of the resident grizzly on our way up, bumped along past Howard Douglas Lake, and then were deposited into Sunshine Meadows.

The clouds finally opened at this point, but even with the rain coming down, the ground squirrels still frolicked through the meadows and even a pair of Mountain Bluebirds graced us with their presence. We joked that wherever Leslie went, all of her friends came out, even the squirrels, no matter the weather. Soon we were in Sunshine ski resort, and descending a long road to where Leslie’s husband Keith was meeting us to take us all back to Banff, where warm showers and clean laundry awaited us, and where we would eat all the things.

Despite the weather, or perhaps because of it, it had proven to be an incredible section. Dan’s ankle seems to be on the mend, and though challenging, the trail continues to be rewarding beyond belief.

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