Monday, August 29, 2016

High Rockies Trail

Trip Date: August 2016

On a fantastic Saturday in August I finally got to experience the hype that is the High Rockies Trail in the Spray Valley area of Kananaskis. The trail is being advertised as a world-class destination trail through the heart of K-Country and after my first experience it's certainly living up to that lofty praise. As it stands right now only the first half of the 80km trail is open to users. Originating at the Goat Creek Trailhead and currently ending at Buller Pass Trailhead, the completed trail will eventually terminate at Elk Pass on the Alberta/B.C. border along the Continental Divide. When it's complete it'll be the longest continuous trail anywhere in Kananaskis and will be open hikers, mountain bikers, snowshoers, and cross-country skiers among other recreationalists. The multi-million dollar trail is being built by the Alberta TrailNet Society and is part of the Trans Canada Trail network.

A map of the northern section of the High Rockies Trail
The trail offers some great views of the Spray Lakes and surrounding peaks 
The trail is really well built even through these rocky avalanche chutes
We opted to ride a 10km section (20km roundtrip) from Driftwood Day Use Area to the Spray Lakes Day Use Area. The trail is superbly built and it's obvious the builders are avid mountain bikers because it flows gloriously through the forest above the Smith Dorrien/Spray Valley Trail (Highway 742). Despite its length numerous trail spurs allow users to attempt smaller, manageable sections instead of tackling the entire distance in one go. Don't let the name or the distance deter you from riding it. Despite it's name only a portion of the trail (thus far) is located in the alpine while the rest snakes its way through the forest and over flowing creeks. The trail has also been designed to accommodate riders of all ability levels as there are very few technical sections involved.

Jeff N. descending a section of the trail
A short climb on well-packed dirt
Spray Lakes down below
The High Rockies Trail is part of the Trans Canada Trail network
The small section we rode was not lacking scenery!
There are numerous bridges crossing the many creeks
After riding 10km it was really tough to turn around and head back. All three of us wanted to keep going and see what the rest of the trail had to offer, but we didn't have a shuttle vehicle at the other end, so we needed to make the tough call. At the end of the day it just left us wanting more and a reason to head back out to the Spray Valley to see what we missed!

On our way back to the car
We definitely didn't want to call it quits!
As I'm sure you can tell I was really impressed with my first experience on the High Rockies Trail and will definitely be riding it again, which is hopefully in the not too distant future. I really want to see the alpine section, which I'm told is closer to Mount Buller. From what I've seen online I'm sure it'll deserve its own blog post, so stay tuned!

Wednesday, August 24, 2016

Jasper National Park

Trip Date: August 2016

For our fifth wedding anniversary Christine and I headed north to Jasper National Park. We reserved a campsite in Whistlers Campground and planned on doing some hiking, stand-up paddleboarding, and relaxing. The last time I was in Jasper was for a friend's bachelor party (read my previous post titled Ben's Stag in Jasper for a recap), but Christine hadn't been to the park outside of snowboarding season (which you can read about on this post titled Marmot Basin), so it was a great opportunity for both of us to see something new.

A male Rocky Mountain Sheep along the Icefields Parkway
We hit the road after work on Friday and headed for the spectacular Icefields Parkway. From Calgary, the drive to Jasper is approximately 415km and takes anywhere between 4.5 and 5 hours, depending on traffic. After a major delay due to a tragic accident we rolled into the campground after the sun had set and had to setup camp by the light of our headlamps. Sleep came quickly for both of us. We slept in the next morning and after breakfast we loaded the paddleboards and headed for Maligne Lake.

Our campsite in Whistlers Campground
Upon our arrival one of the first things the Parks Canada staff asked was if we'd ever camped in bear country before. After I replied that we had she then informed us that they've had bears in the campground on an almost daily basis this summer, largely due to the rich berry crop that arrived earlier than usual. This bear trap was the first thing we saw after leaving the check-in booth!
Maligne Lake is the largest natural lake in the Canadian Rockies and is surrounded by snow-capped mountains. The lake is 22km long and is home to one of the most photographed sites in the mountain parks; Spirit Island. The lake was originally known as "Chaba Imne" or Beaver Lake by local First Nation groups in the Jasper area, but was changed to Maligne by Mary Schaeffer. She was credited as the first European to "discover" the lake after she arrived on the shoreline in 1907 after following a map given to her by Samson Beaver, a Stoney tribesman.

Maligne Lake
My GoPro paddlecam was back in action on this trip!
Christine spotted this Mule Deer grazing on the shoreline. A pair of hikers with dogs scared her onto the beach where she caught the attention of Rome. I thought for sure we'd be going for a swim, but somehow managed to stay dry despite Rome's best efforts!
Rome still fully focused on the deer!
Neither of us had been to the lake before so we were looking forward to seeing how it compared with other mountain lakes we'd previously paddled (see Lake Louise, Moraine Lake, and Emerald Lake as examples). I was happy to report that the water was warmer than those previous three, but the lake was also much larger. Spirit Island is roughly 14km from the launch point making it beyond our reach for the day. Despite its size and a slight headwind to start we still enjoyed a leisurely paddle along the eastern shoreline before making our way back via the opposite side.

It's not hard to see why the lake is so popular!
Christine and Rome
We stopped for a break and a snack on this rocky beach. That's Mount Charlton (left) and Mount Unwin (right) in the background. Both are part of the Queen Elizabeth Range.
Crossing the lake
These are called the Frog Rocks, but I'm not really sure why
Paddling with the sun on our backs!
Not wanting to go back to the campsite just yet we decided to launch our boards on Pyramid Lake, a kidney-shaped lake that lays at the foot of Pyramid Mountain. Although I would never describe the water as warm, it was certainly warmer than Maligne Lake and I even went for a brief swim to cool off. We paddled around Pyramid Island, a beautiful destination for sightseers, and even explored some of the opposite shoreline. Pyramid Lake is a very popular place and has numerous access points along the shoreline to launch your watercraft.

Medicine Lake is a picturesque spot along the Maligne Lake Road
Pyramid Mountain standing tall above Pyramid Lake as we paddle around Pyramid Island!
I found this action figure on the bottom of the lake and Rome didn't really like it for some reason!
Paddling on the lake with Pyramid Island in the background (right)
This guy made the trek across the lake with us!
Pyramid Lake
Heading back to the truck
That evening we saw two bears from the safety of our truck, bringing the total on our trip thus far to four. We saw a Black Bear along the Icefields Parkway and another along the Pyramid Lake Road, but weren't able to get photographs of either bear. The two we saw in the evening were both near the campground, but luckily not directly in it. I find it really exciting to see bears in the wild as long as you remember to always keep a safe distance and never put yourself, or the bear, in harm's way.

This Grizzly Bear was gorging himself on berries
He knew we were watching, but didn't seem to mind our presence
The final bear of the evening was this cinnamon-coloured Black Bear. He was moving pretty fast and we were losing daylight quickly, so the photo is a little blurry.
The next morning we woke to find a herd of Elk camped near our tent. There was one large bull Elk, probably the biggest Elk I've ever seen in person, and a number of females, calves, and young males. Rutting season was starting soon so this was likely his harem and he would attempt to mate with all of the breeding females. It was obvious this herd was used to humans because they were all completely at ease with our presence.

A herd was enjoying a leisurely morning nap when we spotted them
The big male
A young female
A young male that might challenge the old guy one day!
A calf of the year 
He's likely the biggest Elk I've seen in person!
This Raven was squawking nearby!
After breakfast we traded our paddles for hiking boots and set-off for the trailhead. Eventually we decided on the Mina Lake/Riley Lake Loop; a 9km roundtrip trail that gained roughly 175m in elevation. The trail is easily accessible from town and offers great views of the Jasper town site, as well as the aforementioned lakes. Despite its proximity to Jasper the trail felt like a ghost town. We only saw a handful of other hikers, which was a bit unnerving with all of the recent bear activity in the area. I'm happy to report we didn't run into any bears on this hike, but speaking with a local in town afterwards we were informed that it's quite rare to complete that loop without seeing any wildlife whatsoever!

Lower Mina Lake
Upper Mina Lake
We watched this Loon dive for snacks as we ate our lunch
Riley Lake with Pyramid Mountain in the background
Above the town of Jasper
After dinner and some delicious ice cream from town we took another drive up to Maligne lake to see it at sunset. The temperature had dropped a little and it had started to rain, but the lake did not disappoint once again. We were also treated to a few more wildlife sightings, bringing our bear total to six!

Maligne Lake at sunset 
The Black Bear cub popped out of the bushes along the Maligne Lake road before disappearing just as fast. Momma bear must have been close by!
These Elk were frolicking in Patricia Lake as we continued our scenic drive
The final bear on our trip was this healthy Black Bear inhaling berries like they were going out of style!
It rained overnight and the entire way back to Calgary, but that was fine as we had a fantastic weekend getaway. Banff is our go to national park simply because of its proximity to Calgary and we seem to explore Yoho quite often, but there's just something about Jasper that I can't get enough of. Christine and I both agreed that we need to try and get up to Jasper on a more regular basis. The park really is a hiker's playground and a paddler's paradise and I haven't even mentioned the mountain biking yet! Just sitting here thinking about all the possibilities has me excited for next summer already!