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Bad Advice Girl

We were hiking a popular 3-8 day trail. A group of women was hiking approximately the same route and schedule as us. The apparent leader of the group was loud, and did a lot of lecturing. It was impossible not to overhear.  We had questions about her competence, her gear choices seemed impractical, she was using enough Kinesio tape on her skin that she resembled an Orca (this is not a weight comment, she just had more than 50% of her skin covered in black shiny tape), and then there was the advice she loudly offered to her group.

Elk leaving parasites in a creek.

 

My Water Bottle is Mouldy!

One of the women in her group wanted some soap and a cleaning cloth to clean out the smelly, green mould in her water bottle. This seemed like a reasonable and prudent idea to me, but not to Bad Advice Girl. (It also might seem reasonable that this type of pre-inspection/washing of equipment may have been better suited to her home while she was packing rather than while she was on trail.)

Bad Advice Girl emphatically replied: “Once, my fridge broke down and I ate the mouldy food from it, I was fine. The mould from foods and drinks is harmless. Just drink from your bottle!”

Now, I am not an expert on human pathogens, but this advice goes against pretty much all of the things I’ve read regarding food safety.

Water Treatment

Water treatment tablets are intended to kill pathogens in water taken from wild sources like creeks and rivers. Though there are those who will drink from surface water in the mountains (especially if they can see the source glacier), there are mammals that live in those mountains, so there is definitely the possibility of pathogens in the water. Unless Beaver Fever sounds appealing, then treating the water is a good idea.

One of the women was discussing how she was waiting the 15 minutes specified in the tablet instructions. Once again, Bad Advice Girl had a “pro-tip”. “Just take the tablet like a pill!” she advised, “then make sure you drink the full litre of water and the tablet will treat the water in your stomach!”

Once again, I’m pretty certain that if this was the approved method, it would be listed in the instructions. Also, what if I’m not that thirsty? Maybe I should just swallow a bunch of tablets before I go based on how much water I intend to drink, like a vaccine.*

*this is not how vaccines or water treatment tablets work, you would almost certainly die from this.

The Dreaded Backcountry Food Thieves

We only heard the woman from Bad Advice Girl’s group crying from her tent, “You told me that if I put my food in the bear locker, people would steal it!” The voice continued, “Now, a marmot ate through my tent AND my food bag AND all my food is ruined and there is marmot [poop] all over my tent!” “You owe me $200 for a new tent!” she continued, “Now I have to leave and it’s all your fault!”

Bears, mice, voles, squirrels, chipmunks, martens, fishers, weasels, crows, ravens, jays, and many more animals are perfectly willing to take an easy meal when it is offered. The bear lockers are intended to protect food from scavenging by animals (including, but not LIMITED to bears), and food in a tent is pretty similar to a free buffet for opportunistic critters.

Backpackers, on the other hand, nearly always have enough food. They might leave extra food in the bear locker to avoid carrying it out (NOT ADVISED OR CONDONED IN ANY WAY, SHAPE OR FORM – PACK EVERYTHING OUT – LEAVE NO TRACE). They might sneak an extra meal into someone else’s food bag, but I have never heard of any hiker on a major trail stealing food. (protect your beer though!)

This guy will steel your food!

 

The Friends Leave

I saw one of the group members leaving, she was hiking down the trail in tears. Presumably because her hike was cut short by marmots eating her food. I also heard Bad Advice Girl complaining that her friends had left. Her only direct interaction with us (if you know me, you know I’m chatty) was to complain about the “crappy” sights on a very scenic (world famous) trail.

I have deliberately chosen not to mention which trail, or other identifying information, lest Bad Advice Girl finds out we’re talking about HER.

Gratitude

Surprisingly, I feel a great deal of gratitude toward Bad Advice Girl. First, the advice she gave is priceless… comedic material. I was ready to speak up about the potentially catastrophic water treatment tablet consumption, but the group seemed very clear on that one and didn’t follow the Bad Advice Girl’s Bad Advice.

I’m also grateful for the lesson. Though I don’t make up ridiculous claims, I like the sound of my own voice, and every time I have a tip, I try to keep it in context so that it does not stray into the realm of bad advice.

Thank you, Bad Advice Girl, we’ll never forget you.

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Rockwall Featherweight Division Follow-up Video

During our third hike of the Rockwall as a family the week before, Fiona decided that she and I should hike the Rockwall twice as quickly with as little stuff as we could. I couldn’t bring a real camera, so here is a POV camera movie of that trip.

Yes, we hiked the Rockwall twice in the span of 13 days. Either of us would do it again.

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Rockwall: The Third Time

Some hikes are worth it. Some are worth doing again.

The Rockwall is a world-famous hike in the Canadian Rockies, and for good reasons. The first time, we were amazed by the scenery. The second, we were still enthralled. A third trip seemed in order.

We had planned to bring an extra teenager, but with some miscommunication between his parents and ourselves, we ended up as just our family. Our experience has generally been that bringing more teens makes all of us happier.

The Important Part

Fiona swam in Floe Lake before any of the adults from the Edmonton group. That’s a life lesson, whenever you think you’re all that, an eleven-year-old girl is going to put you in your place with her badassery.

The Quick Summary

Longer wilderness trails tend to bring out the best in people, or maybe just bring out the best kind of people. We met a group from Edmonton who, though they were 14 people who knew each other, were welcoming, and supportive of others on the trail. They were lots of fun to be around. We met several groups from the US who were super positive and clearly enjoyed being outside.

We continued this trip with our efforts to eat home-made backpacking foods, and we were quite successful. Our least successful meal was channa masala, which, while delicious, did not rehydrate very well, leaving the chick peas rather crunchy. We ended up simmering it for half an hour, which was fine when our fuel supply was plentiful like on this trip, but which would normally be out of the question. Next time, I am trying soaking it cold for a couple of hours and then reheating it to see if that works.

The hiking had not changed, but there were more wildflowers in bloom in August than the beginning of July.

It threatened to rain every day, but only ever enough to get us into our raincoats. It rained most or all of the nights, which is much better than while hiking, setting up, or taking down camp.

Even Tadhg had fun, though bringing a friend would likely have improved his experience.

Pictures, Pictures, Pictures.

Tania took almost all of these pictures, and I feel like she captured the experience very well indeed. Click the photos to make them big.

 

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Rockwall: the Featherweight Division

I got some groceries, some peanut butter
To last a couple of days
But I ain’t got no speakers, ain’t got no headphones
Ain’t got no records to play

Talking Heads

We Love the Rockwall Trail

On our recent third hike of the Rockwall Trail in Kootenay National Park, Fiona and I were discussing trail runners and ultralight backpackers. The Rockwall is everything we love in a mountain trail, with beauty everywhere around you. It also has a few mountain passes to climb.

We were due for an adventure together, and though we are both hooked on bikerafting trips, we also like hiking and we decided that the long weekend was a good time to test our limits in terms of minimizing what we take with us on a hike. We’ve done the trail as a 6 day trip, and with the skimpy packs, we’ve booked campsites to do it in 3 days, 2 nights. Availability on the long weekend was sparse, so our Friday and Sunday are both over 20km while the middle Saturday is a mere 8km.

How Low Can We Go?

Each year, my pack gets lighter. I try to take less stuff every trip, but I still carry a massive pack by ultralight standards. One of the goals of this hike is to cut back to an absolute minimum when it comes to weight. The idea is that even with longer distances, the hike will be more enjoyable when our packs are barely noticeable.

The goal is 5 pounds for Fiona’s pack, and 15 pounds for mine.

What do we Really Need?

I don’t mess with safety. If I need it to be safe, or to keep Fiona safe, I’m bringing it. That means my InReach Mini gets a free 100g ride, along with 350g of bear spray. The first aid kit is getting stripped down to a backcountry minimum, mostly gauze and duct tape which should cover bleeding emergencies, with ingenuity left over for splints.

Stoves are great, and anyone who knows me knows my love for coffee, but a stove, fuel, and pot, not to mention the coffee grinder and Aeropress. Food is going to be stove-free. Water filters are great, but if we want to count grams, even the lightest is going to weigh us down. Mountain stream water in BC is generally drinkable right from the stream, with the exception of Giardia, and a couple of grams of tablets will deal with more water than we can possibly drink in a week.

Nobody wants to sleep in the rain, so shelter matters. We have a selection of shelters, but our usual is my home made tarp which comes in under 450g with pegs. I’ll use my hiking poles this trip so I don’t have to use sticks or find trees to hold the tarp up. Our quilts are good down to about -10ºC, and we shouldn’t see colder than that. We discussed bringing closed-cell foam mats, but our Therm-a-Rest Neoair X-Therm mats are only a little heavier and a lot more compact.

My spare clothing is a wool puffy jacket, a Buff, wool longjohns, and a pair of wool socks. Fiona’s is similar. A mylar space blanket poncho and a cinch-sack rain skirt pass as rainwear. I plan on rocking a Buff as an all-purpose hat.

Toothbrushes, toothpaste, a couple of sports-drink bottles for water, and toilet paper pretty much round up the rest.

My pack, and all the contents. red bag is food, blue is clothing.

 

That’s a Wrap!

The food plan is to bring leftover thin-crust pizza, bean and cheese burritos, and peanut butter and honey wraps as our main food, with some Cliff Smoothie bars as snacks. Without my beloved coffee in the morning, I’m bringing some chocolate-covered coffee beans for breakfast.

Pack it in!

I have been using a 1982 Lowe Alpine pack. It is massive, and carries lots of stuff for the family, but it weighs 6 pounds empty. Instead for this trip I will be using my HMG pack which is just over 2 pounds. Fiona is getting in on the pack lightening with a summit pack that has less support and less weight than her usual one.

By the Book

We would normally bring a book to read in the evenings, when we aren’t ready to sleep but do feel like a rest, but books are heavy. As a compromise, we will bring an encyclopedia containing all scientifically proven astrology – total weight 0 grams.

Are You Ready to Rock?

With the packs full, and a bottle of water, Fiona will be carrying 7 pounds, or 3.2kg. My Pack without food but with a full water bottle is 14 pounds (6.3kg) after I add food for 3 days that goes up to 10.3kg, or 22.8 pounds. We’ll let you know how it goes.

 

 

 

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Fish Lakes Adventure – F****ing Porcupines, Kickboxing with Grouse, Hail, Snow, Mosquitoes, and More.

The difference between an adventure and an ordeal is attitude.

Bob Bitchin

Fish Lakes and Pipestone Pass are two of the most beautiful places in the Canadian Rockies. We’ve been before, and we’ll be back, but this time we brought our friends to show them one of our favourite hikes.

The Hike

The hike is gorgeous, especially from km 8-16 to Fish Lakes, and our day hike 18km through Pipestone Pass and back. There are not enough good things to say about the mountains, the flowers, the rocks, and more. This is not a hike that one regrets doing.

But That’s Not What This Story is About…

What a Sap!

The trip up the pass featured our first interesting event. Fiona’s braces had a bracket break in an unfortunate granola bar incident. She didn’t have any wax with her to keep the braces from irritating her mouth. A trail query failed to produce a hiking orthodontist, but it did spark a discussion about wax-like substances, and coupled with a book I had recently read about birch bark canoes, using sap from trees seemed like a viable option. Level 1 complete.

The Perils of Camping by a Boggy Lake

Upper Fish Lake is Stunning. Mountain lakes are generally an attractive lot, but this one goes to 11.

But, it’s surrounded by marsh.

At first glance, apocalyptic mosquitoes might seem tragic, but aside from photobombing the rainbow pictures, and falling into our dinner by the dozen, and of course sucking our blood, the mosquitoes motivated us to hike up the Pipestone River to Pipestone Pass and beyond. No one complained about the distance of our day hike when the destination was windy enough to be mosquito-free. And mind-blowingly beautiful.

Things May Not Have Been Perfect

There were creeks and marshes to cross.

A Prickly Situation.

Our last night out, we awoke near midnight to some very peculiar sounds. Sounding somewhat like a small whining dog, somewhat like a cat wanting to be fed, and a lot like an out of tune violin, the sound had me up almost right away. I didn’t want to wake anyone else up, so I kept my light off until our friend asked if I knew what the mysterious sounds were.

Porcupines Sure are Cute for Animals that Keep me Awake!

By then, I had seen that they were porcupines, fighting, mating, fighting over mating, whatever they were doing was not conducive to our sleep. It ended up that all of us were awake.  Porcupines are indeed cute, and I got a couple of mediocre pictures before going back to bed. Pretty soon, the porcupines were back at it, at one point one was chewing my pack (right beside Fiona) while another was harassing it (“hey prickly girl, can I buy you a drink?”)

Conveniently, it started raining around 2:30 AM, and apparently porcupines don’t date in the rain.

Rain, Snow, Hail in the Pass

North Molar Pass is not particularly difficult to cross, especially considering how spectacular the views are from the top.

This time round, nature was throwing us a challenge. On the climb to the pass summit, the wind had picked up, and clouds were moving in. As we reached the windiest part, the hail began. The wind-driven hail was not comfortable, but with little choice, we continued. A little past the summit, the hail turned to snow. To the untried, snow doesn’t sound that great, but it is much more comfortable than hail. Slush accumulated on our rain gear.

After the hail and snow, we were well prepared for the rain pouring from the sky and running in creeks down the indented trail. The slippery mud was treacherous, but we continued on.

Chicken Fight!

We were hiking down the trail, at the tail end of the storm when Fiona spotted a “chicken”. Male spruce grouse are attractive birds, with bright red plumage on their brow. We were impressed with the fearlessness of the bird until it attacked our 8-year-old friend’s legs.

The chicken held on while the youngster kicked and ran. Eventually, I kicked it away. The bird tumbled a couple of metres, and I got between it and the rest of our crew. The bird came at me again and again, with me trying my hardest to keep it back without seriously wounding it. After a few dozen metres of kickboxing with the bird on the slippery clay of the trail, I reached the limit of its territory and it stood glaring at me to be sure I wasn’t returning.

We’ll be Back!

In spite of all this, this is still one of our favourite places and this was one of our favourite trips. Having an adventurous weekend is not the kind of thing that turns us off a trail. This mere four-day-trip brought memories and experiences to us that may have challenged us at the time, but at the same time have enriched our lives.

Epilogue

Back when I had the punctured bear spray can empty in my face, my friend Vik suggested that he would not take pictures of my crying on the side of the trail. I told him that no, he should take pictures, because one day it would be funny. I retold that story to the kid who was ravaged by the bird, and in fact, it is a funny story. The kid was able to see the humour in his bird attack as well. None of the other kids in grade 4 are going to have bird attacks on their “How I Spent my Summer” essay.

Note: many of these photos (the good ones) are from Tania, be sure to follow @taniachimo on Instagram.

 

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Lost Horse Creek Winter Overnight

Fiona and I had enjoyed the previous weekend’s trip to Shadow Lake, that Tania suggested we do a quick overnight to the campground at km 7.2, Lost Horse Creek.

Tadhg and I decided to bike, both of us generally prefer biking when it’s one of the options. Tania left herself the option to ski or walk, and Fiona  was planning to either ski or ski with her other pair of skis. At the trail head, Tania opted to take advantage of the packed trail surface and walk.

With the weather above freezing, the way in had us down to our t-shirts in short order. Tadhg did leave his hat on.

Fiona and I decided to sleep under the stars to save time putting up our tarp and in hopes of seeing some Northern Lights (though chances were slim, the northern sky had mountains obstructing the view). We dug out a nice spot in the snow to put the tent up for Tania and Tadhg.

I was proud of getting up at 7:15 to make coffee (a pride that lasted until I found out it was time change weekend in the car home) Winter has the great advantage of being able to bring real milk for Tania’s cappuccinos, and I always feel better about serving real milk than even the whole milk powder that works reasonably well.

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We gave Fiona and Tania a substantial head start while we packed up, but even with that, the bikes speed advantage over Tania’s walking, and the downhill trail meant that we passed them on our way down. It was a fun finish to a very relaxing weekend.

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Another Family Day Weekend

We have been going to Lake O’Hara for a couple of years on family day weekend, but this year we decided to switch thing up for a variety of reasons.

We considered skiing in to Mt Assiniboine again, but the forecast did not look promising in terms of seeing the mountain after what for us is a 2.5 day ski in.

Spray River from Banff to Goat Creek has been consistently good for us in that we’ve never seen people there that didn’t come with us, it is easy to bail from, it is pretty, and it super easy to ski or bike to.

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We decided on 2 nights at the campground with a day trip up Goat Creek. Tania chose skiing over biking, the kids followed her lead, and since I didn’t really want to bike alone, I skied as well.

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Tadhg and I towed sleds, he likes to avoid backpacks at all costs, I just had too much stuff to fit in my backpack.

It was not warm, but with our routine of using a fire to roast our burritos, then going for a walk before bed rather than sitting around a fire getting sweaty and telling our bodies to shed heat, we were quite fine as we went to bed near 10 pm.

Fiona and I were under the tarp as usual, and since the forecast called for cold, we had our -10ºC sleeping bags with our quilts over them and were toasty warm. When I looked at the thermometer at 8 in the morning, I was a little surprised to see it reading -23ºC (-10F).  Fiona and I eventually got out of bed and made the trek down to the eating area to make coffee.

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In what would turn out to be a potentially serious event, when I screwed my stove together, I failed to notice some ice that prevented the canister from sealing correctly to the valve. As the stove sat there burning poorly, I went to get some more snow to melt. As I was returning with the snow, I got to see the fuel that had leaked out catch flame. While unspectacular, I was concerned that if I just left the flames burning, it would heat the canister enough to become a big problem. I cleverly figured what the problem was as I was walking toward the stove, and quickly reached in and tightened the canister to the valve. Once the leaky canister was dealt with, the remaining fire quickly dissipated.

Now this would not have been very serious at all if not for the quantity of fuel that leaked out. In the absence of a scale to measure how much fuel was left in the canister, I have to rely on “the force” to estimate remaining fuel. The remaining fuel did not give me a comfortable feeling. I was certain that I would have enough for dinner, but not positive that Monday morning coffee was going to happen.

I advised Tania when I handed her her first cappuccino that we might have a fuel shortage. Neither of us was keen on facing a morning without coffee. While there is a fire pit at the Spray 6 campsite, making a cooking fire at those temperatures seemed a little onerous to set ourselves up for. We decided to do our day trip and then head home afterward.  The choice was hardest on Fiona who would have liked to stay another night. We did get in a wonderful ski on a beautiful clear day.

Though cut a bit short, we still had a great weekend in the woods. When measured in fun, this was a great success. It also shows the importance of being willing to change plans in the event of unusual circumstances. We weren’t really in danger, but we also weren’t necessarily in line for the level of comfort that we wanted.

I like to think that I learn lessons when things don’t go exactly according to plan.

We did of course have the option of me skiing back to town to buy a spare fuel canister, but this was a family trip, and the trade of me missing the day’s skiing with them for a trip to town sounded like poor value. In hindsight, this was the correct decision.

In the future, I can consider several options. The best option is to be more careful with fuel, to avoid leaks. I should also have been making more of an effort to get to the river to fetch water rather than melting snow. Also, on a trip like this, would it really kill me to bring an extra 200g of fuel? I only had about 75g of spare fuel and I estimate that I lost about 100g.

I normally bring 2 fuel canisters with me on winter trips, in this case, I had used up the mostly empty canister on the first night. I had felt that since I had plenty of fuel, there was no need to be thrifty and I could just use up the canister. Next time, there will be no frivolous (fuelish?) wasting of even the dregs of the canister.

I had also expected to be using fresh milk for cappuccinos, which saves fuel. I had not insulated the milk jug though (I usually do), so it froze solid on the first night. I will continue to hang my food bag at night, not just for bears, but for rodents, who will spoil a food bag very effectively overnight.

It’s worth thinking about bringing my white gas stove as well. While it is a bit more complicated to use, it is much easier to tell exactly how much fuel is left in it. Had we been going to Mt Assiniboine, I would have been carrying both stoves (or possibly an alcohol beer-can stove), I like to have a backup because of the greater isolation of the trail. I would bring only a small fuel canister for the butane stove and consider it emergency backup. The white gas stove (I have an MSR Whisperlite) is also way more functional below -30ºC (I also have an arctic pump for mine) where the canister stove works, but is very slow.

 

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Back to the Rockwall 2017: Revenge of the Porcupine

Last year’s hike to the Rockwall was spectacular, but trail conditions were a little questionable, and the weather ranged well into the adverse zone with snow, sleet, hail, wind, and rain. We thought we would have another go at it this year to see if we could top our previous experience.

There were many emails warning of bridges out and deadfall and avalanche debris on the trail. We weren’t overly concerned, since last year featured whole days of mostly climbing over deadfall, routefinding over large expanses of snow, avalanche debris, and the very same bridges missing.

We were very concerned about the possibility of smoke obscuring the views, but we saw pictures and heard reports that it was clear, so we went ahead with our trip in spite of some trepidation. It is way less fun to do a world-famous hike when you can’t see the world-famous mountains – we experienced that at Mt. Assiniboine and had no desire for a repeat.

We ended up having the luckiest hike in history. We lucked out on weather, though if we need to complain, a couple of days were too hot and sunny. We were also fortunate that the smoke was elsewhere, and the views were spectacular. The trail crew had been hard at work to clean the trail debris, the missing bridge was a trivial wade across the river, the sun had melted most of the snow, and there was less deadfall for the whole hike than we experienced some days of last year.

[click pictures to enlarge]

One of our ideas for going in later July was that the wildflowers would be in bloom, and we certainly were treated to some impressive displays.

 

On our third morning we were were alerted to the presence of a bear by some other campers. The bear had come between the two eating areas of the campground after circling the one where we weren’t. We made some substantial noise and the bear left. Our last 5 minutes of hiking were also enlivened with a bear sighting, this time an adult bear about 50m to the side of the trail. We again made some noise, this time with the safety latch of the bearspray off, and we made it to the car with the bear having been last seen heading slowly away from us.

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The bear, as seen from our breakfast table

There was the porcupine attack…

I awoke at 1:45 AM to a gnawing sound. I looked out the mosquito net to vaguely discern a shape that was possibly gnawing on Fiona’s flip flop. I bravely attempted to retrieve or bat the flipflop away from the (blurry) large-cat-sized rodent, possibly a large marmot? Fortune smiled upon me once again. The rodent was not a skunk. I am 100% certain of my mammal identification because my swipe at the sandal was interrupted by the pain of a couple of porcupine quills stabbing into the backs of my fingers.

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Once I had painfully removed the quills from my flesh, (the backs of fingers fortunately don’t have too deep of flesh before the quills hit bone) mopped up the blood, and calmed down a little, I wanted to go hunt down the porcupine to take a picture of it.  I am pretty certain that it was very cute, even though it did a number on the handle of Tania’s hiking pole handle (its actual chewing victim, not the flipflop). Fiona would have no part in the chase, “Dad, it isn’t cute, it’s a porcupine!” For his part, Tadhg was concerned about possible venom in the spines and asked “What if it comes back to eat us?”

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The porcupine wounds cleared up, and I hope I have learned an important lesson about finding the flashlight before lashing out at vague shapes in the night.

 

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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.