Section F - Day 4: The Mighty Robson Massif
Territories: Tsuu T'ina, Secwépemc, Kelly Lake Metis Settlement Society,
Aseniwuche Winewak (Rocky Mountain) Stoney, Lheidli T'enneh, Dakeł (ᑕᗸᒡ)
The final day of section D brings the last, and scariest, of the big river fords that this section is known for. I’ve been lucky so far, but the Smokey River is a big, fast moving, multi-channelled river choked white with glacial rock dust that makes it impossible to read its depth visually. You just have to wade in and probe well with your pole as you take each step. I’ve heard that the Smokey fluctuates to an extreme degree by time of day as the glacial melt picks up throughout the morning – up to 3 feet! This, coupled with the fact that I still have a couple hours walk between me and the crossing for that meltwater to start picking up had me feeling pretty nervous already when I fell asleep.
I wake in the night to the sound of rain hissing on my shelter walls. Damn it.
I imagine the grey waters overflowing their banks, swollen from rain and glacial melt. I worry about making it all the way to the Smokey only to be turned back. I have enough food that if it is uncrossable I can camp on the banks and wait it out. But that would mean a day less in civilization before Dan, Elaine and I are due to head out for the final section. A day less of crucial preparation, rest, and eating before doing the most difficult section of my life. And I am starving. At this point in the hike, I simply feel hungry all the time. Waiting for a day with only a small ration of food, with civilization just a days walk away – that feels like torture.
When I wake again, it is to the thin sound of my watch alarm in the blue-grey half-light of dawn. I’m up and going at 6:30, hoping to get to the Smokey in time. It’s still drizzling, and the Calumet River valley I’m in is a trough filled with thick wet mist which wraps its cold fingers around my bones.
The trail in the valley (like most of the trail in this section) has disintegrated into the most slick, muddy mess and it’s a struggle just to stay upright and find footing that doesn’t have me sinking up to my calf in thick porridge mud.
One of the fun things about being on a thru-hike with relatively few people on it, is that you get to know your fellow hikers’ footprints and can see who was there before you. I am following Dan and Elaine’s Sportiva footprints and as I’m lurching around like a goon on the thick mud, I take comfort from the pattern of their slipping and sliding footprints.
Eventually the path dips down to the river bed, where I can pick my way along the firm gravel floodplains and the footing is somewhat more stable, though I frequently loose the track in the mist and need to make my way back by gps. The mist remains thick and low, but shifting, and I can make out silhouettes of the landscape: now a mountain, now a ridge or a peak, then all distance is obliterated and the river valley might be a boreal flatland.
It is somewhere in this mercurial mist that I notice a pair of fresh Altra footprints pointing in the other direction and realize Brazil Nut and I have passed each other like ships in the night. She, heading southbound now having (remarkably) made it to Kakwa and on her way back to the US border and me (unremarkably) schlepping through the mud still North. I suppose that means she made it across the river safely, and that means it can’t be that bad!
I arrive at the Smokey River ford a bit after 9:00 and begin scouting for a crossing. It’s on a wide floodplain made up of big round rocks work smooth by the water. The trees on the floodplain are dead and white, giving it an ominous look. When I get close to the water, it’s not as bad as I thought, though I remind myself that I can’t see the bottom, so I will only know how bad it is once I’m in.
There are multiple braids here, so I spend a long time scoping out the crossing of the first braid and eventually plunge in. The cold water crushes the breath from my chest and my feet are numb in seconds. This is the coldest river crossing I’ve ever done. The cold mist envelopes me from above, and the rushing water surges around me from below. Without feeling in my feet and legs I’m afraid I’ll slip, so I narrow all my focus into each step, gripping my vibrating trekking poles, feeling for the riverbed as best as I can.
“Take. Your. Time. Slowly. Slowly” I mutter to myself.
Three braids later and my feet are searing with blinding pain from the cold and my mantra has changed somewhat:
“Fuck. Shit. Fuuuuck. GODDAMN. FUCKING! FUUUCK!”
Just as I haul my gasping swearing body to the far bank, bent double, triumphant, and relieved, motion and sound from behind startle me and I yell out loud. There’s Brainstorm hopping lightly across the final crossing as though he were splashing through a puddle. We greet each other happily, and I try to regain my composure, embarrassed by the clear disparity in our experience of that crossing. He tells me he’s come all the way from the pass that morning, and this is his last day on the trail. He has only one granola bar left and he is trying to get out to the Mount Robson Visitors centre as fast as possible.
And boy this guy is fast. I try to keep up with him. I really try my best. But this guy’s hiking speed is about the same as my running speed. His tiny handmade pack gets smaller and smaller in front of me, until he turns a corner in some willow thickets and I don’t see him again. I return to my regular, slow pace towards the Berg Lake Trail.
This trail is one of the most popular backpacking trails in the Canadian Rockies taking hikers to the base of Mount Robson – the highest point in the range at 3,954 metres. People usually tackle it in two to four days, but I’ll be descending it in one fell swoop today, and then in a few days I will haul 9 days of food back up its vertical Kilometre elevation again.
I see a porcupine mama and baby ambling along the trail towards me. They are completely unfazed by my presence (I guess porcupines really don’t need to be too afraid). I quickly step off the trail, giving them a wide berth as they slowly roll along, stopping to nibble some leaves.
My first sign that I’m entering a popular hiking area is a bright red kayak being launched into a big alpine lake. I cannot imagine how someone got it up here. Helicopter I guess? Later I reach a sign warning hikers of the area from whence I just came.
“This route is challenging and intended for very experienced hikers. The route is overgrown and it is hard to navigate. There are multiple river crossings.”
I allow myself to feel just a little bit smug.
Down the Berg Lake Trail I go, pack light on my back, astonished and grateful for the wide, easy, manicured and MUD FREE trail. The low-lying mist starts to lift and shift. It’s like the mountains are putting on a show for me. Teasing me with a glacier here, a view down the valley there, a peek at a peak now and again as it slowly removes layer after layer of cloud to reveal this “Valley of a Thousand Falls.” I’m eager to see Mount Robson itself, but for now it is only an imposing silhouette moving in and out of vision. I’m not even sure if it’s Mount Robson itself I’m seeing.
I pass an icefall visible in the gaps between mountains, big blue shards of glacier that seem soft and inviting. It is so close at hand and I long desperately to make a detour to it. But I long much more desperately for a burger, so I skip along making good time and waving cheerily at the families of backpackers, who wave back at me, puzzled.
As I descend the clouds continue their swirling dance, and the crowds increase. People are laying their gear out to dry from last nights rain, sipping tea, packing their things and hiking on. I eventually make it down to Berg Lake, and here I really understand why this trail is so popular.
It is the largest alpine lake I’ll see on this trip, and the water is the most beautiful turquoise. Two people are stand up paddleboarding on it and for the first time, I wish I was a paddleboarder too. Two glaciers tumble from the flanks of Mount Robson to the shores of the lake, and I can see where chunks had calved into the lake in the spring. I am so hungry that looking at the blueish green tinted glacier ice with its soft rounded corners at the crevasses and breaking points I think immediately of mint marshmallows. I imagine myself walking up to the glacier, pressing my face into this sweet soft pillowy marshmallow river and taking bite after bite. I stay in this fantasy for far too long before shaking myself out of it and gnawing on some stale tortilla and sweaty cheese.
The mountain has finally shook off its veil of cloud, and I can’t help but be Very impressed. It is truly massive and imposing with great big faces showing millennia of stratified sediment in great bands across it. I try to trace with my eyes the route to the top, but chicken out a third of the way up. It’s steep. I'd rather not climb that.
The Mount Robson massif is so large, in fact, that there is a unique (for the area) ecosystem in its rainshadow. When wet air hits the massif from the southeast, it dumps prodigious amounts of rain in the shadow, a perfect ecosystem for temperate rainforest species more associated with the West Coast.
A few hours and many impressive gushing waterfalls later I’ve dropped down from the familiar Engleman Spruce-Subalpine Fir forest to find myself down in that ecosystem and I am stopped in my tracks by the sight of thriving, healthy Western Red Cedar. I walk from tree to tree, caressing branches like an old friend. I feel simultaneously homesick and comforted. I feel a pang once more for the fate of cedar and turn around and around in circles, taking in the vibrant green, the reddish bark and the forest floor, and the birdlike swoop of the low branches - trying to mark it indelibly in my mind. Later in the final walk out I am in a great towering cedar and Doug fir forest with the understory thick with Devils Club taller than me.
Devils Club (latin name Oplopanax Horridus – literally Horrid Heavily-Armed Cure-All), is a West Coast rainforest plant all my herbalist friends treat with a certain amount of reverence and caution. It is a ginseng relative with a wild spirit, and nasty spines which inject an irritant into the skin if brushed. Used for everything from arthritis to pain relief to supporting endurance activities, it is a plant to be respected and I have never seen this formidable friend in such plenitude and stature before. This is truly a very special place.
Finally, I tumble out into a full parking lot just as the rain starts, and trudge wetly along the paved road to the Mount Robson visitors centre where there is a cafeteria and I commence my ritual of binge eating while people watching and feeling alienated as I reintegrate into civilization.
I camp that night at one of the frontcountry camp sites by the side of the highway, as a west-coast style downpour pounds upon cedars and devils club and thimbleberry and the walls of my little shelter. In all this rainiest-of-summers in a century, this night is the wettest of them all. But I feel more held, familiar, at home and safe than I have yet. I think about the sound of rain on the roof from my bedroom as a child, puddles, black mud, moss. I think about all my years as a farmer, hunched over a row of salad greens in rubber rainpants harvesting with cold hands in November. I think about home and how I am ready.
I just have one final section that I feel called to do first. The most remote, and most unlike home. What the GDT association calls “the heart of the GDT” and what everyone knows is the most difficult and dangerous, longest, most rewarding, and wildest section yet.
**Hi everyone! As some of you know, I started grad school and also got a puppy very soon after coming back from the GDT, so I haven’t had much time to finish this blog. Don’t worry, I will slowly and surely be catching up on the final section. Stay tuned, SECTION G WAS A WILD RIDE***