The Highwood Pass highway closes on December 1 every year for the winter. We decided to squeeze in one last camping trip to our favourite spot, Elbow Lake. This time we brought along Fiona’s schoolmate to share the adventure. We also brought Fiona’s class mascot since it was her turn to have him home for the weekend and write up what they did together.
Tea by the campfire
Girls and stuffies ready for sleep
Cuddling Tadhg while he tries to eat
In late November, the sun sets early and so by the time we drove out and hiked in to the campsite, we were setting up in twilight and cooking in complete darkness.
This being a winter camping trip, we were expecting cold, and we got it. I knew things were pretty chilly when my fingers were sticking to metal as I prepared dinner. Though I didn’t bring a thermometer, from past experience I would say that the temperature after sunset was in the -20ºC range, possibly colder.
Priority for warmth definitely goes to the kid that isn’t mine, so we made sure that both girls were well bundled for daytime and for sleeping. Fiona kept to her policy of sleeping under a tarp and she and her friend were well protected – cocooned in their individual sleeping bags, both of them inside a double bag. The nighttime temperature dropped, definitely into the low -20s. I had placed some water bottles between me and the girls in the hope of keeping them thawed, but they were quite frozen by morning. The girls slept through the night with me waking nervously to check on them from time to time.
Tadhg treats the younger girls well.
When it’s this beautiful, you don’t care about the cold
Taking the girls toboganning
drawing in the snow
“I’m not sure this candy has enough calories.”
We slept in on Saturday morning and didn’t start coffee until after 9. We spent the day on a leisurely hike down the Elbow Valley toward Tombstone campground. The valley is always beautiful, but with a coating of snow and hoar frost on the trees, the beauty was magnified.
We headed back to camp fairly early so we could prep dinner in at least some light. The kids took that as an opportunity to sled on the trail leading into the campground.
Saturday evening discussion revolved around whether it was colder or warmer than the night before, but it mattered little – once you get below -20ºC, you need to pay attention. I heated up the water bottles and wrapped them in clothing to keep them from freezing overnight.
I was thrilled that the girls slept just as well our second night out as our first. After reading to them for half an hour or so, I didn’t hear from them until morning.
I had Tania’s first cappuccino delivered by 8 AM. The happy kids did some more sledding after breakfast while we packed. We hit the trail back to the car by 11.
Jeggy was postholing because he didn’t have snowshoes
The view while I made coffee.
Thought the morning had dawned cold, by the time we reached the parking lot, the temperature had warmed to what felt to us like tropical: we guessed just below freezing, but someone in the parking lot told me -8ºC. Typical for this type of trip that the warmth comes as we leave.
Thanks to Mia and Jim for the loan of their 7-year-old daughter for the weekend, that was a big show of trust, and it made our weekend that much more fun.
Our second day of hiking dawned a little hazy. We assumed it was some sort of weird fog until it occurred to us that it was responsible for the campfire smell that we had noticed during the night.
Even with our view obscured by campfire smoke, the trail was stunning. Since the longer view was hidden, we payed more attention to details that we might otherwise have missed. The area around Mt. Assiniboine has a tremendous variety of ground cover and Fiona delighted in pointing out mushrooms and naming them. I am not a mycologist, so some of these may be repeats, but there was still a huge variety.
Our second day’s hike was much shorter than the first and so even though we dallied in getting started, we arrived at the Og lake campground in reasonable time for dinner. The lake itself was not huge, but was in a gorgeous valley surrounded by mountains. It would have been nice to see them, but we still really enjoyed the surroundings. Most happily for Tadhg it was the day that we ate the supper from his pack, so he would be treated to a lighter load on the third day.
Our third day of hiking was a short 7km to Lake Magog campground. Though we were close to Mount Assiniboine, we could not tell it was there. The smoke was thick enough that visibility was under 200m. We were disappointed, but we tried to make the best of it.
Since we figured the smoke probably wouldn’t last forever, we decided to stay an extra night and spend three nights rather than two at Lake Magog. We figured that this would give us the time to wait for the smoke to clear. Tadhg was dead set against it since it meant that we were redistributing the extra food among all of us instead of using it to curb his insatiable appetite.
We spent our days enjoying the mountains, dayhiking (though the views were somewhat obscured), swimming in the lakes (well, Fiona anyway), and enjoying what we could see. We hiked the Nub a few times if it looked like the smoke was thinning in hopes of getting a good view. Though we never got the spectacular views we hoped for, we did get the fun of the hikes and the kids got lots of time to play.
The evening of our second day at Magog was at least moderately clear. Tania had the very good sense to hurry us through supper and down to the lake shore to take advantage of the break in the smoke. It was a good thing since this was the clearest view we would get of the majestic Mt. Assiniboine.
We had originally planned to do a bike trip – this is a bikepacking blog after all. Since the bike trail was on fire at the time, we decided to choose an alternate trip. It ended up being a hike for a variety of forest fire reasons, and since mount Assiniboine did not have reservation system it was one of the few things that we wanted to do that wasn’t booked. The way that we wanted to do the trail was starting from sunshine Meadows. The best way to start the hike was to take the shuttle bus up from the Sunshine parking lot and begin hiking at the ski resort.
So that we could take an early shuttle and begin hiking early, we decided to spend the night at one of the car camping campgrounds around Banff. The only one that had space when we were reserving at the last minute was Tunnel mountain. The on-line reservation system was very clear that there were no parties allowed after 11, not even campfires and conversations. We took this as a good sign since we intended to sleep during those hours.
We should have been concerned when we got to the campground and of the 6 vacant campsites around us, 5 had smouldering fires left by previous occupants. We became more concerned when we saw that the occupants of the adjacent site were rowdy hipsters.
We went to bed at around 9:30 so that we could get up early in the morning to drive to Sunshine in time to catch our 10AM shuttle. When Tania and I got up to go to the washroom at 11PM, the hipsters had just returned from town. They were loud and drunk, but we assumed they were going to bed. There was no such luck. The party lasted until well after 3:30, with loud shouting, arguing and laughing without concern for the other campground denizens. Not that it mattered since in the years since we spent time in car campgrounds it has become acceptable to have a car that honks the horn when you lock and unlock it and to lock and unlock it many times per night. I am sure that no more than 30 seconds went by all night without a car honking and no more than 5 minutes went by without a car alarm going off. The trains going by were tranquil by comparison. Fiona got a few hours of sleep, Tania and I got a few minutes between us and Tadhg may have been awake the entire night.
The following morning our usual jitters about starting a long hike were calmed by the knowledge that it couldn’t possibly be worse than Tunnel Mountain campground. We had been through hell and there was nowhere worse to go.
We were early enough that our preparation for the bus ride was casual and calm. We all had our packs sorted and ready to go since we didn’t unpack them at all the night before. I laid out the car camping tents and bags in the back of the car so they would dry and double checked everything in my pack.
The bus ride itself was a little dull, as bus rides tend to be, I was glad to be riding rather than hiking the relentless uphill grade to the ski village.
It doesn’t take long from the ski village to go from beautiful to stunning. The ski lift infrastructure may not be a wilderness experience, but the surrounding mountains are still beautiful, ranging from lush to stark.
Our weather was close to ideal, cool enough for hiking, warm enough to not have to bundle up. We hiked along the trail past gorgeous mountains, over passes and through valleys. The hike to Assiniboine is well recognized as one of the most scenic in the world and it lives up to the hype.
The kids made us stop a few times for snacks and so they could sketch mountains and write in their books. In spite of our fatigue, we were happy and filled with wonder at the scene surrounding us.
Our final descent of the day was a tough one. The slope was the steepest we would see, and our packs were loaded with all the food for the entire week. Fiona had saved her trail conniption until the last 500m to the campground at porcupine creek, but even that couldn’t dampen our spirits in such a wonderful spot.
Sleep came easily to us after our long day of hiking and we slumbered peacefully in the mountain air with the faint scent of campfire smoke.
We had been on the Berg Lake trail in Mount Robson BC Provincial Park before in 2013 and remembered it as a series of beautiful places, any one of which could be a great trail on its own. When Tania suggested back in January that we make reservations to go back, I was eager.
The kids now consistently carry all their personal clothes and gear on all our hiking trips, and each year they get stronger and more able to hike long distances. Our longest day with packs on was to be 12km on our second day which seemed difficult but achievable .
Before we left home, I weighed the packs and the 3 that weren’t mine weighed around 25% of their owners’ body weights. My pack was 40% of my weight and then I added 2 litres of water, 1.5 litres of fuel and a 6 pack of beer. my best guess is that I was carrying 88 pounds when we left the parking lot.
Our first day hiking was the easier of the hike in days. A hike through rain forest brought us to Kinney Lake. We only stopped once, just after the 2km mark for me to run back to the car and get my camera. Kinney Lake is absolutely beautiful with its green colour and backdrop of mountains. We had considered leaving a food drop there for the trip out, but the single bear locker did not leave enough room for our extra food and all of the overnight campers in this busy campground.
We continued our journey toward Whitehorn, our destination for the first night. Though I was struggling with the oppressive weight on my back, the valley leading up to Whitehorn campground is a stunning sight and helped take my mind off the pressure on my back.
As is her habit, Fiona made friends with everyone on the trail. People often call her a “good little hiker”, but really she is a good hiker by any standards. She had her usual trail conniption, but she was just as perky at the end of the day as at the beginning. As soon as we got to Whitehorn campground, she changed into her swim suit and went to play in the glacial river.
The weather was a little cool at only around 15ºC and it had rained in several previous days, so I was not completely surprised that someone had lit an emergency fire in the stove at the Whitehorn picnic shelter. I didn’t see anyone obviously hypothermic, but there were a few pieces of gear drying on lines near the stove. Now, before going on the Berg Lake trail, folks are asked to watch a video showing the trail rules. These rules are generally obvious, such as no stereos, share the shelters and store food in the bear lockers, as well there are some other rules like no fires except in emergencies. As I was cooking dinner, there was less and less gear hanging to dry by the stove, and it became clear that the family that were stocking the fire were the ones occupying 2 tables in the busy shelter, listening to their stereo (and sometimes singing) and not drying any gear (their gear was easy to spot, all 7 of them wore various camouflage patterns from shoes to hats). In to morning, they were chopping wood at 5AM and had the stove stoked up by the time I got there to make coffee at 5:30. They were complaining about the rodents that had eaten all the food in their daughters’ packs (shouldn’t that have been in a bear locker?). By the time we left the campground at 10AM, they had their gear spread on all 4 of the tables while people were cooking on the ground outside. Fortunately they were on their way out since nothing spoils a trip like having to camp with assholes.
Our second day included the 4km long 600m climb that constitutes the hard part of the trail. While stunningly beautiful, the beauty is somewhat diminished when carrying 80 pounds on your back. Just putting my pack on enraged the raw sores I had developed the day before, but I staggered up the hill, pausing frequently to rest my legs.
When we reached Emperor Falls campground, I needed a rest. We still had 7km to hike but hardly any more elevation gain. With a short rest break at the Marmot campground, I plodded the rest of the way to our campsite at Rearguard. Rearguard is the smallest of the Berg Lake trail campsites with only 5 tent pads, but it has a great view of Rearguard mountain, as well as some view of Berg Lake and of the Robson Glacier. It was to be our home for 3 nights.
One of the best parts of the Berg Lake trail is that there are many day hikes from the Berg Lake campgrounds that offer even more to see in addition to the waterfalls, Berg Lake and the majestic Mount Robson. We headed out on our third day to hike Toboggan Falls. We had been up these previously, but the trail is rewarding and the falls are unique in their unusual erosion patterns. It was raining intermittently, but never too much, and we seemed to never need our raincoats for more than 5 minutes or so at a time.
By the time we got to the cave at the top, it was clear that we wanted to do more, so we decided to add on the Mumm Basin trail to make it a loop. We were very glad about it when for the first half km of the trail Fiona was completely enchanted by the shale slope landscape. She skipped from rock to rock saying, “Look at this! Look at this!” We couldn’t help but to enjoy the hike. As we rounded the Mumm basin and began to descend, we spotted a marker off the trail that turned out to be a Alberta / BC border marker. The kids were both excited to play the hopping across the provincial border game.
The following day we planned to take on snowbird pass – the most strenuous of the day hikes from Berg Lake. It was definitely a highlight of the trip, though Tania did not like the steepness of the trail as it wound up the glacier debris. The view of the Robson glacier was phenomenal.
In a fortunate twist of booking, we ended up making our way out with a night at Emperor Falls and two nights at Kinney Lake. The full day of recovery at Kinney Lake was non-stop fun for the kids and left me well rested for the 7 hour drive home.
It isn’t every day that you line up three consecutive days for bikepacking with your son, so when it happens – you take it, even if the weather calls for a very wet and cold start to the trip.
We have done the Elbow loop as a day trip, hiking trip and bikepacking trip a number of times now. It was time to move on to something a little more challenging. I cobbled together a potential route that had a large number of alternates in case of troubles. I thought it was going to be a stretch, but might be possible.
Thursday evening we set out from the parking lot in moderate rain. Tadhg wasn’t feeling his best and felt sluggish on the climbs, but was happy enough. The rain wasn’t excessive, but there was a consistent drizzle. We had planned to make Tombstone pass by sundown but ended up only halfway, near where the Romulus campground used to be before the ’13 floods.
As we set up the tent, the rain got serious. Then it got worse.
By morning, the rain had tapered down to a steady shower. Neither of us were in a big hurry to get out into it, so we stretched breakfast and coffee till nearly 11 and hit the trail around 11:30. The plan was to get 45km further down a couple of trails before settling down for the night.
I often say that single digit temperatures and rain are much colder than temperatures below freezing and this was no exception. We struggled with rain-softened trail and low energy. Tadhg wasn’t hungry, which is usually a sure sign of trouble.
By 5pm, we had made it less than 20km and had crossed only the smallest passes – hardly worthy of their name. We came to a river crossing and decided to look for a place to camp – conveniently, there was an old horse camp exactly where we were.
The rain let up as we were setting up camp and things started to look up. I revised our route plan to remove the second half so as to avoid getting too far away from the car to be able to get back on Sunday. We left the camp better than when we started by burning the garbage that had been left in the fire pit and surrounding area.
Saturday morning started sunny and warm with about half a dozen river or creek crossings and then a major washout. I scouted the trail and there was a clear way through, it was just going to take time. If we had been able to estimate how much time, we would have continued. I just didn’t think it was prudent to move away from the car down an unknown trail to possibly put us out of reach of our sunday evening deadline. We thought about it for a while and even though we were both in a better mood and Tadhg had energy, we decided to turn back the way we had come and ride out the remainder of the Elbow loop as a very easy 2 days.
Though we were taking it easy, it was early when we got back to Tombstone campground. We filtered water and ate a bunch of candy. Then we met up with a couple of fatbikers out on a day trip. We set out down the Big Elbow side of the trail knowing that the washouts would slow us down by quite a bit, and thinking we would ride for a couple of hours and then camp for the night. The washouts weren’t as bad as we expected, and Tadhg was riding really well – easily clearing the many rock gardens and rough trail patches. We took lots of breaks and stopped frequently to chat with the fatbikers, but we were running out of trail.
As we started to set up camp, Tadhg pointed out the futility of camping less than an hour from our car and so we re-packed and hit the trail. We rode full out on the last section, passing some unladen bikers on full suspension rigs (much to their dismay). We were home shortly.
Overall it was a very successful bikepack even though we got less than a third of the planned route completed. This was the first time I had my Krampus with the suspension fork out for bikepacking and it was close to ideal. The miserable weather at the beginning let me us have a taste for hardship, and was a great gear test. By not forcing Tadhg to continue we managed to keep the ride fun and improve the chances of his coming back for another attempt.
“More food please.” We had been in the car for an hour and a half. He had eaten 2 pears, 2 oranges, an apple, a sandwich and a granola bar. We were popping in to get our camp permit anyway so I picked up a pair of masala dosas to go and we headed out of the Banff townsite with Tadhg stuffing his face.
After packing the bikes, we were on the trail by 3:30, our plan was to bike 11km along the Lake Minnewanka trail to the very originally named LM11 back country campsite (actually, it has a name, it is numbered to avoid confusion). The trail starts out with a bit of climbing, but most of it is rideable by Tadhg since he has been riding to school this year and is super fit.
The trail is not so snow covered that we need the fatbikes we are riding, but they aren’t totally overkill either. Tadhg has grown over the last couple of years so he now carries his own clothes and sleeping pad, as well as the 3 liters of gatorade that he loves so much.
Several snack stops down the trail, we come to the LM8 campsite. Though it is now twilight, we decide to press on, but not for long, as dark comes early this time of year. By LM9, it is full dark and we decide to camp. Unfortunately, we have neglected to bring a book, since dinner and food hanging is done by 6. After a bit of walking around, we decide to turn in around 7.
With the temperature forecast to only go as low as -9°C, I have no concern about the cold. I didn’t even bother to zip my sleeping bag, since using it spread like a quilt lets me move much more freely. Several times during the night I am awakened by the pitter patter of unwelcome little rodent feet as mice or voles seem pretty convinced that they will find food in our tent. Where are the owls and martens that we love so much?
Even our properly hung food bag does not escape attention as one of our granola bars is 90% eaten and another few have been opened and sampled by some sort of critter capable of robbing food from a bag suspended by a metal cable.
Since we now have the whole day to ride, we decide to head further away from the car. After 5 km and several snacks, we turn back. Tadhg’s riding continues to impress me, there are some rock gardens and technical sections that he would have been walking just this summer, but they are trivial to him now.
As we got to the LM8 campground, we realized that one od Tadhg’s mittens was missing from his bike. Though we rode back to look for it, we did not find it, but we did get some more riding done on this wonderful trail. We also ate more snacks.
This last picture is a movie, not just a boring picture:
Even with the one mitten lost, we did have a great overnight ride and both Tadhg and I called the trip a success.
The final stats ended up: day 1 – 9.5 km, day 2 – 27 km. The only climbing that seemed significant was the 100m gain at the car end of the trail.
Fiona is 6, she is a proven outdoors-capable girl. I have been promising to take her camping for several months, and this weekend we got the chance to go.
We decided Banff national park needed some visiting and so with some advice from my friend Scott, who used to live in Banff, we set off to camp at the far end of the Spray Loop starting near the Banff Springs Hotel. On the way up, I asked Fiona if we should snowshoe, hike or ski the loop and she insisted skiing was our mode of transport for this trip.
The temperature was a balmy -15C when we started and warmed up into the -10 range as we skied, and it made for a great afternoon. Fiona kept talking about how nice the trail was.
We set up camp and ate our dinner before it got completely dark, and we had time to read several chapters from the book I am reading to her before 7. It was cold enough to make holding a book and turning pages difficult, so we turned in relatively early.
I woke up several times during the night and checked on the happily snoring Fiona to make sure she was not suffering. Each time, I checked the thermometer on my pack and it got as cold as -30C – a potentially catastrophic temperature if we hadn’t been prepared. We did not need to resort to any of our emergency clothing or run off to start a fire (the fire pit is about 200m from the campsite).
The real test of our mettle was Fiona’s 7:30 call of, “I need to pee.” It was -30C and still pretty dark, but if you need to pee…
If you haven’t ever had to get out of a warm sleeping bag at -30C to help a little girl pee, I cannot say I recommend it. It did get my butt out of bed, and once I was up, it wasn’t that much of a stretch to get making breakfast.
After a tasty breakfast and taking down of the tent, we had our next serious challenge in which we donned our very seriously cold ski boots and had to ski as fast as we could for the first few minutes so as to not inflict frostbite on ourselves.
The day warmed as we skied the second half of the loop, and we had another great day of skiing and drinking of gatorade slush as we made our way back to the car.
Back in the days before before fatbikes were common, there was a bike/run/ski race on the Iditarod trail called the Iditasport. In 2002, it was replaced by the Iditarod Trail Invitational. In 2001, the final year of Iditasport, RJ Sauer made a documentary called “A Thin White Line.” The film is now on Vimeo and if you haven’t, you should watch it. I am not in it since I did the race in 2002, but it is very accurate in its portrayal of the trail and racers. When I talk about “type 2 fun” and “I’m not giving up just because it’s hard” it is in direct reference to this film.
You know your family is hardcore when the slow biker recognizes the coldbike family on the trail in BC when he is from Newfoundland and you are from Calgary. I somehow failed to snap a photo of Malcolm, but he is my favourite kind of people. http://theslowbiker.wordpress.com/