By Clark Fair
A long the eastern shore of the Spray Lakes Reservoir, our taxi shuttle came upon a sight common to most Alaskans: a cow moose browsing on fresh willow leaves. The taxi slowed, and my fellow passengers became animated. Cameras appeared and windows opened.
The three Oregonians gesticulated and chattered, as I smiled. As much as I enjoyed watching moose, I couldn’t raise my level of enthusiasm to match theirs. I hadn’t traveled all the way to the Canadian Rockies just to see what I could view easily at home on the Kenai Peninsula.
On the other hand, I was amused by our driver: Our French-Canadian cabbie, who had lived for 20 years in Canmore, just southeast of Banff in Alberta, had just finished telling us that, although he knew moose lived in this area, he had never seen one.
And, after thus losing his moose-viewing virginity, he seemed doubly surprised when, five minutes later, we spotted another one.
I smiled again, knowing even as I did so, that I myself had been equally delighted by the sight of western Canada’s familiar white-tailed deer the day before, on our drive north from Portland.
Moreover, I knew this: It is easy for any of us to take for granted what we see every day — sometimes even what we see only on occasion — and to fail to look deeper. On this trip, I intended to do better.
Like many young Alaskans nowadays, I had (back in the late 1970s and early ’80s) driven back and forth through western Canada, traveling between my peninsula home and college out in the States. And, I suspect, like many young Alaskans making such a drive, I had mostly hurried to get from Point A to Point B, giving barely a nod of acknowledgement to the countryside through which I passed.
On this trip, at this place, I was going to take a closer look.
With my friends — Monte and Bryan Edwards and Jim Bell, all from Gresham, Ore. — I had come to hike through a stretch of the Rockies that begin at the Mount Shark trailhead (elevation 5,807 feet) and travel generally northwest over several high mountain passes for approximately 60 miles to our truck parked at the Vista Lake trailhead (elevation 5,643 feet).
We began in Spray Valley Provincial Park, crossed through the southern end of Banff National Park, hiked inside the northeastern edge of Mount Assiniboine Provincial Park, climbed back into Banff, and finished just outside the northeastern tip of Kootenay National Park.
Among the many passes we would ascend were four of at least 7,500 feet, including the highest, Wonder Pass, at 7,857 feet.
According to everything we had read, we expected spectacular mountain peaks, the possibility of encounters with big game, weather ranging from pouring rain to hot sun, mosquitoes along the many lakes and creeks, and a tiring yet exhilarating trek.
Once we shrugged into our 50-pound packs, the first surprise was the frequent pulse of helicopters on the first two days. Near the Mount Shark trailhead lay a helipad, and throughout each day dozens of visitors were transported over alpine passes to view the area glaciers before finally settling down on the helipad at the Mount Assiniboine Lodge, two days and some 20 trail miles from our starting point.
The lodge (built in 1928 by the Canadian Pacific Railway) and its surrounding guest cabins are a popular destination for those unable to make the long trek from Mount Shark, or for those desiring to use the lodge as a starting point for a series of day hikes into the surrounding countryside.
As convenient as that $160 chopper ride might have been, however, I wouldn’t have wished to miss the trail we took. After a stretch along Watridge and Bryant creeks, mostly through thick stands of spruce, fir, pine and hemlock, we camped along a middle section of Bryant Creek and in the evening watched Columbia ground squirrels pop in and out of myriad holes scattered across a marshy alpine lea.
When lightning began piercing the skies and thunder rumbled up and down the valleys, we were already ensconced in our sleeping bags, waiting for sleep to claim us.
Our plan for day two included veering southwest along deeply turquoise Marvel Lake before turning northwest again and grunting up and over Wonder Pass. From the pass, we would hike past the lodge and lakes Gog, Magog and Og, named for archetypal enemies of God found in the Book of Revelations, before making camp for the night.
As we approached the pass, we met a group of six hikers going in the opposite direction. They warned us of a sow grizzly with three cubs up in the pass, then assured us that the bear appeared more interested in foraging than in humans.
Just before we continued on up the trail, one of the women in the group smiled and said, “By the way, there are six switchbacks going up into the pass, just in case you get frustrated and wonder when it’s going to end.”
I admit to counting the switchbacks. When I got halfway along the fifth one, I looked at the mass of mountain above me and wondered briefly whether she’d been telling the truth. She had.
The only disappointment, after all that work, was failing to see the grizzlies.
We moved through the pass and down the other side, arriving at the Assiniboine Lodge just as lightning began to crack and thunder began to boom. We settled in under the gable above the front porch, ordered $7 beers, and relaxed with a milling population of friendly Canadians and a single German man on holiday.
Directly out from the front door of the lodge lay Lake Magog and, on its opposite end, magnificent Mount Assiniboine, a spire of layered stone often referred to as the Matterhorn of the Canadian Rockies. Clouds played around the nearly 12,000-foot summit as the storm provided us with a natural theater.
Arriving in the mist at the Og Lake campground some hours later, we barely erected our tents before a drenching rain began to fall.
Day three featured a 10-mile hike, about six miles of which was waterless, through the rugged Valley of the Rocks and then over high Citadel Pass. Once again, after pitching our tents near Howard Douglas Lake and enjoying a freeze-dried repast in the sunshine, the skies darkened, the thunder and lightning returned, and the rain fell.
It wasn’t until day four that we spotted our first (and, unfortunately, only) big game on the hike: a single white-tailed deer. Later that day, we were twice warned about grizzlies ahead, once ascending Healy Pass through the largest mountain wildflower meadow I have ever seen, and once going down the other side toward Egypt Lake. Neither bear made itself visible to us.
Our camp at Egypt Lake was our first (and again, only) camp sans precipitation. We had a beautiful, cold night beneath the stars, followed by a warm, sunny day in which we followed Pharaoh’s Creek down to its confluence with Redearth Creek, then climbed to our final camp near Shadow Lake Lodge, where we sat in the sun, swatted aggressive horseflies and drank $6 beers.
That night, once more, the thunder and lightning returned. The following morning, we once again packed up wet gear.
On the hike up Gibbon Pass, our adrenaline kicked in when we recognized fresh cougar tracks in the mud. Alert for the remainder of the climb, we could not spot the elusive cat, and at the top we had to accept that, despite the incredible landscape surrounding us from the beginning, we were not going to see the critters we’d hoped for by leaving the road system.
Descending through a sprawling copse of larch, we left Gibbon behind and marched over rolling ridge lines of conifers toward Monte’s distant truck. That night, we toasted our success as we feasted in The Bison restaurant in Banff. I ate until my stomach was swollen and then smiled as I limped back to our motel.
The next day, on the drive south, I was reminded why so many people are satisfied with staying in their vehicles and just passing through: Shortly after we turned out of Banff National Park and into Kootenay, we spotted our first grizzly.
The chocolate-colored bear stood on its hind legs at the edge of the opposite lane of traffic, before dropping to all fours and ambling slowly into the woods.
A few miles later, we spotted three timber wolves trotting through the grass just off the blacktop. Shortly after that, a coyote padded past. Then we started seeing more white-tailed deer, and a rabbit, and — just before we exited the park — a herd of seven bighorn sheep, including a pair of small rams.
Although I still believe that looking deeper is beneficial, the animals seemed to be telling us that, sometimes, no matter where you are, you just have to keep your eyes open.