Sunday, September 27, 2015 — Assiniboine

What fol­lows here took place dur­ing the sec­ond week of Sep­tem­ber. It was planned a long time ahead. A quar­ter cen­tu­ry of friend­ship between myself and Fil­ip Marek would be cel­e­brat­ed with an adven­ture.

We both love moun­tains. The Cana­di­an Rock­ies has some of the finest, and most of them have not been geld­ed by roads, habi­ta­tions and ski resorts. A lot of them are as wild as they were when their first human explor­ers came upon them pur­su­ing mam­moths down the “ice-free cor­ri­dor” or per­haps fil­tered in from the Pacif­ic coast. But the choice of des­ti­na­tion had to be a com­pro­mise between the cost and time of access and the degree of wilder­ness. I had only one week free, and Fil­ip could spare not much more.

15-09-27 BLOG the peak

I chose Mt. Assini­boine, a hand­some 3,618m peak in the south-cen­tral Rock­ies, in BC but close to the Alber­ta bound­ary. The area around it is well pro­tect­ed. No roads are allowed in the 4,000ha region around it. Access is lim­it­ed to hik­ing in or out on foot, or heli­copter. There are a lim­it­ed num­ber of camp­ing places, and envi­ron­men­tal pro­tec­tion is strict. All sup­plies must be car­ried in, and noth­ing, not even a gum rap­per, should be left behind. This area is in turn sur­round­ed on all sides by larg­er nation­al and provin­cial parks with less strin­gent pro­tec­tion, but still kept wild. The Kanasask­is Range, pro­tect­ing its east­ern flank, puts it into a dif­fer­ent world from the ski resorts and tourist trail of Banff and Jasper. From the Alber­ta side, it’s rather like The Wall in Game of Thrones.

Our plan was to meet at a hos­tel in Cal­gary, then take a bus the next day to Can­more, Alber­ta, a ski and rid­ing resort in the Bow Val­ley. We overnight­ed there, which gave us an evening to explore the town, climb­ing up to some hoodoos that over­looked the town, and amus­ing our­selves look­ing at the absurd abun­dance of wild rab­bits hop­ping around the town. Almost as numer­ous were Ford 550 cab trucks. The local library was equipped with a climb­ing wall — not some­thing you expect in a library in Toron­to. Its exten­sive local his­to­ry col­lec­tion revealed that Can­more was orig­i­nal­ly a coal min­ing town, first set­tled by dour-look­ing immi­grant Finns of such prodi­gious fer­til­i­ty that they would have inspired the envy of the rab­bits. The present pop­u­la­tion is the usu­al mul­ti-racial, mul­ti-lin­gual Cana­di­an mix­ture, with a notice­able pres­ence of local Black­foot, Sarcee, and Cree.

In Can­more, we faced the first strate­gic uncer­tain­ty in our plans. To reach Mt. Assini­boine, we would hike 28km from the trail­head, going over Assini­boine Pass to a small log cab­in near Lake Magog, where we would stay for three nights. This entry hike was sup­posed to take between sev­en and ten hours. Overnight­ing on the trail was not encour­aged, since it’s griz­zly coun­try. So we would have to start rea­son­ably ear­ly. But to get to the trail­head at Mt. Shark, we need­ed to go through the nar­row pass between Mt. Run­dle and Ha Ling Peak, then fol­low a 40km grav­el road. There is no pub­lic trans­porta­tion along this road, so we had no choice but to get up ear­ly and hope that we could hitch-hike to the trail­head and get there with a suf­fi­cient win­dow of day­light. For­tu­nate­ly, we got a ride with­in half an hour, with a charm­ing woman who knew the moun­tains and trails.

15-09-27 BLOG trailhead res

Me at the trail­head near Mt. Shark.

The sec­ond uncer­tain­ty was our phys­i­cal con­di­tion. Both of us had leg injuries. I had an as-yet unhealed stress frac­ture in my left leg, that was still occa­sion­al­ly painful, and Fil­ip has some kind of ongo­ing plan­tar prob­lem. Fil­ip is a big, mus­cu­lar guy, much more ath­let­ic than I am. I’m a pudgy lit­tle guy, nobody’s visu­al image of an out­doors­man. Though I have a long his­to­ry of out­door activ­i­ties, in recent years I’ve been pret­ty urban. My last hike on this scale — a long uphill grind in the moun­tains of Tran­syl­va­nia in 2007 — left me par­a­lyzed with exhaus­tion, unable to walk the last klik to my goal. A short hike up Mont du Lac des Cygnes in Que­bec, last spring, was easy enough, but didn’t indi­cate any great degree of spry­ness. Frankly, I had no idea if I would be able to do this. It’s cus­tom­ary for peo­ple to heli­copter in to the moun­tain, then hike out over the pass, mak­ing most of the trip down­hill. I had pur­pose­ly arranged things in reverse, so that the test of our met­tle would be at the start. The 28km hike would be uphill most of the way, start­ing with a 65m descent to the Upper Spray Riv­er, then a 650m rise to Assini­boine Pass.

Anoth­er uncer­tain­ty was the weath­er, always a gam­ble in the Rock­ies. We hiked under a grey, over­cast sky. We were both resigned to the pos­si­bil­i­ty that rain­storms or even snow­fall might sig­nif­i­cant­ly reduce both vis­i­bil­i­ty and com­fort. In fact, the woman who gave us the ride had informed us that Lake Magog’s alpine val­ley was snow­bound that morn­ing, but was expect­ed to melt off by the time we got there. While there was a gen­er­al pre­dic­tion of clear­ing weath­er in the next few days, moun­tains tend to chop up such pre­dic­tions into micro-weath­er, with large vari­a­tions between dif­fer­ent enclaves.

Filip behind me (as usual) near the start of Assiniboine Pass - snow starting to appear on the trail.

Fil­ip behind me (as usu­al) near the start of Assini­boine Pass — snow start­ing to appear on the trail.

As it turned out, the cool, grey weath­er was a bless­ing. The upward trek was not near­ly as dif­fi­cult as I had feared, and we made rapid progress with­out work­ing up a sweat. After only a few hours, we came upon a bull-moose. This was some­what unusu­al, as moose are noc­tur­nal. I have had a lot expe­ri­ence with this charm­ing­ly stu­pid ani­mal. This one was a young male, with a rack of antlers raw red from either fight­ing or scratch­ing. I wasn’t sure if it was rut­ting sea­son here, but I knew it was so back in Ontario. Moose can be dan­ger­ous, if you get too close to them, espe­cial­ly rut­ting males, and we had turned a cor­ner that brought us quite close to him. But he looked at us with bored dis­dain and walked away. This was to be our only encounter with a large ani­mal. We had pur­chased a can of bear spray in Cal­gary, since it is more or less required, because there are numer­ous griz­zlies in the area. How­ev­er, griz­zly-human encoun­ters are rare. Usu­al­ly, they hear the noise of humans from far off, or smell them in the air and avoid them. We met two par­ties of peo­ple mak­ing the more pop­u­lar down­ward trip. At approx­i­mate­ly the half-way point, the val­ley we fol­lowed climbed out of the for­est and opened up into alpine mead­ow, hemmed in by spec­tac­u­lar cliffs. Only the last por­tion, where the trail had become mud­dy and nar­row, and the climb over Assini­boine pass, rather steep, bro­ken up, and still snowy, was any sort of chal­lenge.

We made it to the cab­in in good time. The snow had most­ly melt­ed, but Mt. Assini­boine was still invis­i­ble, hid­den behind a mist of clouds. We were tired, but not exhaust­ed. There was already a fire in the stove, and we met our cab­in mates. We could not have been luck­i­er. They were a charm­ing fam­i­ly of Métis back­ground: a hus­band and wife, a teenage daugh­ter by an ear­li­er mar­riage, and a dig­ni­fied elder­ly aunt. The hus­band had once been a ranger at Assini­boine, and knew the place by heart. Two sons were with them, but were tent­ing in the bush, rather than stay­ing in the cab­in. They all had the qui­et, soft-spo­ken calm and con­fi­dence that would make them an ide­al­ized sam­ple of exem­p­lo famil­ia canaden­sis. I had expect­ed to share the cab­in with the inevitable Aus­tralians on walk­a­bout, or some noisy macho types. This fam­i­ly was a bless­ing to us, mak­ing the whole expe­ri­ence sig­nif­i­cant­ly bet­ter than expect­ed.

The fol­low­ing day was still over­cast, and Mt. Assini­boine still remained hid­den. The Lakes around the moun­tain are charm­ing­ly named: Gog, Magog, Og, Sun­burst, Cerulean, Mar­vel, Glo­ria and Ter­rapin. Each is strik­ing­ly dif­fer­ent in appear­ance. Giv­en the weath­er, we decid­ed to spend the next day walk­ing the most­ly lev­el and unde­mand­ing trail to Og Lake, which turned out to be slight­ly creepy-look­ing and des­o­late, sur­round­ed by bare rock and a wide beach of peb­bles. By the time we returned to the cab­in, my leg was act­ing up. I passed on a sec­ond hike, and spent time relax­ing around the camp, while Fil­ip head­ed up to Won­der Pass. He returned just as it was get­ting dark. He had actu­al­ly crossed the pass and was able to look down at Mar­vel, Glo­ria and Ter­rapin lakes, but Mt. Assini­boine remained shroud­ed in cloud. We bunked down for the evening. I had wor­ried that my chron­ic snor­ing would be a social prob­lem, but it turned out that every­body snored. In the mid­dle of the night, I woke and went out to pee. The sky had cleared and stars come out. The North­ern Lights were shin­ing. Not a spec­tac­u­lar dis­play, with mul­ti-coloured cur­tains, but at least a vivid glow and flick­er. I told Fil­ip about it, and he went out for a look, then the young girl came out as well.

The next day was clear and sun­ny. Mt. Assini­boine emerged ful­ly and grand­ly. With it’s Mat­ter­hon-like shape, it dom­i­nates every­thing. The ice-bound pyra­mi­dal peak, even in a clear sky, leaves a smoke-like white plume of ice par­ti­cles as the wind swirls past it. That’s why it’s named Assini­boine. The Assini­boine are a plains tribe who nev­er lived any­where near it. But George Daw­son, Canada’s emi­nent 19th cen­tu­ry geol­o­gist and explor­er (author of Geol­o­gy and Resources of the Region in the Vicin­i­ty of the 49th par­al­lel from the Lake of the Woods to the Rocky Moun­tains, with Lists of Plants and Ani­mals Col­lect­ed, and Notes on the Fos­sils from the Kil­ladeer Bad­lands) thought it resem­bled an Assini­boine teepee with smoke emerg­ing from it’s top.

On the edge of the boulder fields.

On the edge of the boul­der fields.

This was our big day. The weath­er was per­fect. Sun­ny, but nev­er too hot. The air was as clear as crys­tal. All around were spec­tac­u­lar moun­tains, cliffs, gorges, forests, glac­i­ers, lakes, rocky wastes, moun­tain mead­ows, bogs, rivers, and giant boul­ders that might have been tossed by the gods play­ing mar­bles. But Assini­boine loomed over them all, like a moth­er sur­round­ed by her chil­dren. First, we walked around lake Magog to the foot of the great boul­der field that descends from the glac­i­ers. Fil­ip took a dip in the frigid lake, while I more ratio­nal­ly soaked up the sun in the moun­tain mead­ows, men­tal­ly play­ing Mahler’s fifth sym­pho­ny in my head. I test­ed out the boul­der field, but deter­mined that it was far too unsta­ble and crevace-filled to safe­ly spend much time on. One boul­der was about the size of a small house and looked like it had been lobbed to its place by a giant cat­a­pult. Every few min­utes you could hear some­thing falling off the moun­tain, the noise echo­ing on the sur­face of the lake. The area was so beau­ti­ful, it was dif­fi­cult to force our­selves to move on, but we found and fol­lowed the trail that would take us around the north­ern flank of the moun­tain and past Sun­burst Peak to a chain of three lakes, Sun­burst, Cerulean and Eliz­a­beth. Each of these lakes has a dif­fer­ent char­ac­ter. Cerulean nes­tles against the gigan­tic, jagged wall of Sun­burst Peak. This wall looks like a huge moun­tain, loom­ing over the lake splen­did­ly, but it is actu­al­ly noth­ing more than an out­ly­ing arm of Assini­boine, dwarfed by the lat­er. Eliz­a­beth Lake is named after Eliz­a­beth von Rum­mel, a Bavar­i­an aris­to­crat whose fam­i­ly was dis­pos­sessed and impov­er­ished by the out­break of World War I, and fled to Cana­da to work as ranch hands. Eliz­a­beth grew up to be the “Baroness of the Rock­ies”, an expert moun­taineer and nat­u­ral­ist, utter­ly devot­ed to Assini­boine. We found her cab­in, hard­ly any big­ger than the one we were sleep­ing in, where she lived until her death in 1980.

Some steep climbing.

Some steep climb­ing.

Filip still behind, but getting higher.

Fil­ip still behind, but get­ting high­er.

Again, my leg start­ed act­ing up, and I rest­ed while Fil­ip climbed a ridge that gave a view of Nestor Peak and some more val­leys to the north and west. Fil­ip point­ed out that my ten­den­cy to take a faster pace prob­a­bly brought on the pain. Usu­al­ly, I pulled ahead of him on the trail while he kept to a slow­er pace, but in the end, he was often able to climb where I couldn’t. But forc­ing myself to slow down was dif­fi­cult. After see­ing the three lakes, we start­ed up the switch­back trail that led to high ridges called the Niblet, the Nublet, and the Nub. By this time, our beau­ty-expe­ri­enc­ing cir­cuits were over­loaded, but every time we climbed high­er and the for­est momen­tary opened up for a view, there was anoth­er jolt of it. Final­ly, we came to this:

15-09-27 BLOG epiphany resThis is what we had been seek­ing, and we had found it. A place that would express, not only our friend­ship, but the best things with­in us. When you are at such a place, you real­ize the insipid­ness of most human pre­ten­sions to wis­dom. The silli­ness of orga­nized reli­gion and ide­olo­gies, and the pathet­ic, child­ish squab­bles and squalid obses­sions that we find our­selves enslaved to, all become noth­ing in the cold, pure air around these hun­dred thou­sand cathe­drals of nature. When some fatu­ous ass claims to be able to know all about God’s com­mand­ments, or the infal­li­ble Mar­ket, or the pre­des­ti­na­tion of the Dialec­tic, or what­ev­er else the march­ing morons are ped­dling this week or next, I will always have this scene in my head to keep me sane and unswin­dled.

Tired, but hap­py, we made our way down to the cab­in. After anoth­er night’s rest, we climbed up again to the Nublet. Fil­ip made a try at the high­er van­tage of the Nub, but gave up. We came back in time to pack up and ready for the heli­copter. The pilot took us up, but took a less direct path in order to search for a hik­er report­ed injured some­where. Some­times we seemed to be mak­ing close approach­es to peaks and ridges. From above we could see range after range of moun­tains, into the infi­nite dis­tance, for this was a great ocean of moun­tains, into which you could throw a dozen Switzer­lands and lose them. We had seen but a tiny, insignif­i­cant cor­ner of it. And that was too big for us to grasp, too beau­ti­ful to find words for.

I am pro­found­ly grate­ful that I was born, grew up, and live in this coun­try, which has giv­en me a wealth of beau­ty and a feel­ing of free­dom that not even ver­min like Prime Min­is­ter Harp­er can take away from me.

Filip’s Face­book page has bet­ter pho­tographs. He has a bet­ter cam­era and is a bet­ter pho­tog­ra­ph­er.

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