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2017 Lake O’Hara Family Day Weekend

Last year, we managed to get to Lake O’Hara in Yoho National Park for the first time. We had so much fun that we decided to do it again this year.

This year, I built a second pulk sled for Tadhg, and mine is much more refined than my original. Tadhg is not the biggest backpack fan, so now he has the option to ski without wearing one, though he is pulling the sled, unlike on the bike where he has bags on the bike.

[click pictures to enlarge]

The trail in to Lake O’Hara is an 11km gravel road which is groomed and trackset. It climbs steadily for the first 2 and last 3 km, with the middle portion being rolling hills. Other than some waxing issues I was having (Skier Bob was having the same troubles), the trip up went really well. I had decided to avoid the trouble of melting snow for our water by bringing up 20L of water for the weekend. While pulling it in the sled was much easier than carrying it, I would skip the water carrying next time. I might bring a large pot to make snow melting easier, especially at Lake O’Hara with its eating shelters with stoves.

Just past the half way point, we met the aforementioned Skier Bob, and he took our picture and spoke with us for a while about my waxing issue and about our camping adventure. We were lucky enough to have our picture featured in the skier bob story of his ski.

When we reached the campground, we were disappointed to find the toilet was locked. This seemed unusual to us since we had been there before and had used the pit toilets there. There was another outhouse up at the Le Relais shelter (about 5o0m up the trail), but it seemed a long way to go when you need to go.

There are two picnic shelters at the campground, both with wood stoves. The wood stoves are usually very convenient for cooking on, but they work poorly with the door opened, and the shelter we chose had the stove door panel removed, so it was not getting as hot as we wanted for toasting our burritos. We at least got them hot and melted the cheese, even if the outsides weren’t as crisp as ideal.

When we arrived, we had the entire campground to ourselves and we shoveled out the first spot for the tent, followed by laying out Fiona’s and my sleeping bags and pads in a stomped down area in a tree well. (like described here). Fiona is definitely a fan of sleeping outside, and our setup was as outside as you get.

Our morning was the usual routine of backcountry cappuccinos for Tania, fresh-ground Aeropress coffee for me, and breakfast all around. The overnight temperature was around -12ºC, so while my water bag was partially frozen, the milk was only at the slushy stage. Winter camping is generally easier than summer when it comes to keeping foods fresh, though fruits and vegetables are often susceptible to damage from freezing.

We had plans to build a quinzhee, so we did some shoveling to pile up the snow. Well, mostly I did the shoveling. I got a good size pile, and we went for a quick snowshoe up to the lake, the Elizabeth Parker huts, and a bit of the surroundings. The kids were looking forward to getting back to the campsite, so we only wandered for a couple of hours.

On our way back to the campsite, we saw that some people had arrived at the warden’s cabin, so we stopped to ask about getting the toilet unlocked. Edwin, the warden, wasn’t hopeful, but said he would come by later with some keys he had to give it a try. He also provided us with a great lesson on an ingenious braking system for the pulk sled, as well as some good general information. He and his friend seemed very impressed that we had our kids out winter camping.

Edwin did have the correct key and got at least the women’s washroom unlocked, this would be much handier in the morning than the substantial walk. Not that we don’t like walking.

Digging out the quinzhee was going rather well, the interior was starting to get fairly big, until a sudden settling alerted me to the fact that I hadn’t packed down the base enough, especially on one side. Rather than risk an unstable shelter, I abandoned the project – the kids were mostly building their slide anyway.

We were joined on Saturday by a group of men who set themselves up in the other shelter and started drinking. They seemed friendly enough, and we assumed they would be like a similar group the year before, competent and quiet.

As we finished our dinner, a second group arrived, this time two couples. We didn’t see much of them that evening, but they were definitely there to enjoy the backcountry.

After another delicious dinner of what has become a camping staple for us, red lentil sweet potato dal (I have been shredding it with an immersion blender to make the sweet potatoes rehydrate better), I read to the kids for a couple of hours, and then we headed off to bed. I had deployed the tarp to keep the snow off Fiona and I since it was snowing fairly steadily.

Though the group of men in the picnic shelter did have a fairly loud and late party, we slept well enough, and soon morning dawned. It had snowed several cm overnight, and the campground looked nice with the fresh covering of powder.

Some of the campground was not so nice. The party group were packing up quickly, no doubt because they were hung over and hopefully embarrassed to have left so many cigarette butts and so much mess in the shelter. Somebody had also peed on the seat of the privy, failing to lift the seat seems to me to be the epitome of laziness, as well as an indication of contempt for your fellow campers.

Breakfast, on the other hand, was a treat. The two other couples in the campground joined us in the shelter, and they were beyond delightful. Not only did they have some more good pulk sled information, but they were clearly people who embraced the joy of winter camping. Though I failed to get any of their names (social graces are not my strong suite), we thoroughly enjoyed meeting them. Their invitation to join them on an Iqaluit (where one of the couples live) adventure was icing on the cake. Their coffee setup was similar to mine, with a portable grinder for the beans while they had a 2-tier stove top espresso machine rather than my Aeropress.

The ski-out featured enough fresh snow that Tadhg and I were sometimes pulling the sleds downhill, since they had enough drag to not slide on their own. The temperatures were warm enough that we struggled with snow buildup on the kick zone of our skis, but some scraping and crayoning of glide wax in the problem areas seemed to help.

Though we might want to skip the party gang next year, we still had a great weekend and enjoyed our visit easily as much as last year.

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Upper Kananaskis Lake Winter

Like all bad ideas, it started innocently enough. “The kids have no school on Friday, let’s go camping.”

The Point campground on Upper Kananaskis Lake is a spot that we have walked past, but not camped in. It is only 4km from the trail head if you go the hard way, and 7km the easy way. When we had been there before, it had been summer, so we were blissfully unaware of what winter conditions might entail.

We thought it might also be a good shakedown for my new pulk sled, before we take it on a longer trip. The new sled is basically the same as the old one, with slightly improved hardware.

We set off in the snow at a balmy -12ºC on Friday to hike to Point campground. We chose the 4km route since it was shorter and there was just the one hill that we could recall. Tania and Fiona got a head start with Tadhg and I hauling the sleds behind. The forecast called for -18ºC at night, so we brought a few extra items of clothing and sleepwear just to be on the safe side.

It was snowing as we set out, as per the forecast. We figured the sleds would work better with a bit of snow, so we weren’t overly concerned. Of course, the hike started with a pull across the gravely surface of the dam, where there was almost no snow at all. Soon though we were into the woods with a wonderful packed trail that climbed gently enough the forest.

[Click on pictures to enlarge]

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The first avalanche path that we came to was pretty icy and slanted, so we unloaded the sleds and ferried the gear across so no gear would get lost if the sleds went downhill. The next avalanche path was much easier to traverse.

Another short section of path led us to the switchback boulder field that led down the hill we had climbed. We had totally forgotten this part of the path, and it was more than a little obscured by snow. This was where we met back up with Tania and Fiona, who had turned around and were heading back to the car since they had been unable to find the remaining path to the campground or the campground itself due to the whiteout conditions.

It turned out that the path they had been following was not the correct one, just the one that many people had trampled. We never did find the correct one, but by heading across the lake for a bit, we came to the campground.

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The Point is a fairly extensive campground with about 30 sites and 2 outhouses, but we were happy with the first two sites in from the lake, which had a pre-shoveled tent pad and a quinzee, respectively. The roof on the quinzee was a little low, but a bit of shoveling got it to the point where I could stretch out enough to sleep and we were soon set for the night. (Fiona and I had the option of sleeping under the tarp as usual, or sleeping in the tent).

Once we had the tent set up, we moved on to our favourite opening night meal, roasted burritos. A few folks have asked, so here is the basic recipe.

3 cups dry pinto beans, 1 large onion, 2tbsp miso paste, 3tbsp chilli powder, 1/4 cup of butter. soak the beans overnight, rinse them, add ~4cups water and the other ingredients, cook in a slow cooker about 8 hours, blend with an immersion blender until they are not-quite smooth. Then dehydrate them in a dehydrator. I usually fry some onions and red peppers and dehydrate those at the same time. At the campground, I rehydrate the beans and peppers, wrap it in a wheat tortilla with some shredded cheddar and then I roast them on the grill that comes with most fire pits, or on a flat rock if I have to.

Running out the clock when camping in winter is sometimes tricky, but this time around, we managed to keep everyone up and active until 9pm, and so we headed to bed.  We woke up to a few inches of fresh snow in the morning and I started in on making Tania’s coffee. Fiona started converting the path to the bear-proof lockers into a bobsled track, which was good, since it kept her warm in the -19ºC temperature.

Our Saturday was spent on the usual Saturday chores, building a quinzee, making a bobsled track, going for a hike across the lake so we would have a better trail for the morning (foreshadowing) and of course a great deal of eating. It continued to snow for the day and the temperature stayed pretty steady, so we had an easier time staying dry.

When I looked out the quinzee door on Sunday morning, there was only an inch or so gap between the snow and the top of the door. After burrowing out through it, I found myself in fresh snow up to the tops of my thighs, nearly 3 feet of snow. My hands were dragging in the snow if I didn’t lift them.

Before making coffee, I excavated the lower 4 feet of our 6 foot tall tent from the snow so Tania and Tadhg could get out without an avalanche.

The temperature felt balmy, I was shocked when the thermometer read below -20ºC.

Once coffee was done with, we had a quick candy and granola bar breakfast and quickly packed up our stuff for the slog out.

And what a slog it was. I was towing over 100 pounds on the sled, and the snow was deep enough that the sled was just plowing it rather than gliding on top. The snow varied between waist and upper thigh deep and even though it was fluffy, it was still an all-out effort to pull the sled through it. I tried to keep my forward progress to a minimum of 20 steps between breaks, but sometimes I didn’t even make that many. It was also quite windy, so I no longer thought it was warm. This went on for 3.75 hours to make the 3.5km back to the car.

At one point Tania asked me if I felt like I was Max pulling the Grinch’s oversize sled. I responded that I’d sure like my heart to grow three sizes that day…

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Now, a lot of people have asked me this week if I felt like activating the SOS feature on my InReach device. and the answer is, “not even close.” Now, this was a very difficult trek for all of us, but that’s not something that requires a rescue. If any one of us was in danger of so much as losing a toe, I wouldn’t hesitate, but we were not at that stage. At all stages of our weekend (including the hike out in the full out blizzard), we consistently asked the kids how they were doing – how were their feet/hands/face, etc.   We were all very uncomfortable on the hike out (and there were a few tears from the kids), but that doesn’t need a rescue, discomfort is not the same as an emergency. When we arrived home, we still had clothes we hadn’t worn. And, not a trace, or even threat, of frost-bite.

Personally, if you asked me to go out and do it again next weekend, I would. Fiona still reports liking winter camping better than summer camping.

When we got back to the car (the lone car in the parking lot), not only was it covered in piles of snow, but the snowplow had been by. The kind driver had plowed to the side we were parked on, leaving a very tall snowbank/windrow to get through before getting underway. Thanks. While I loaded the car, Tania and the kids shoveled out a space in the wall of snow so we could get underway. Luckily, the snow hadn’t melted and frozen again and, therefore, was relatively easy to remove.  This time we weren’t too concerned about the sweat the shoveling could generate since we’d be driving back to Calgary in a warm car (you want to avoid sweating whilst winter camping).

Every outdoor trip/adventure has its “learning moments” and this one was no different.  When you’re dealing with the outdoor elements, you need to be prepared for all types of weather, which we were.  Even with our uncomfortable moments, it was still a successful adventure with a lot of fun moments, but definitely a little more “adventure” than some of our trips.