The Assiniboine Traverse: A Tale of Unrivaled Splendor, Grizzly Bears and Condiment Soup

For Europeans, the Matterhorn defines alpine beauty. At 11,870 feet, Mount Assiniboine, in the Canadian Rockies, is a similar momentous horn, cleaving the sky. The difference is that the Matterhorn is surrounded by tourist accommodations while Assiniboine rises in country that is by-and-large wilderness. Switzerland without the gondolas.

Our intention is simple. We plan to traverse the high country across British Columbia’s Assiniboine Provincial Park from Sunshine Meadows in Banff National Park to Spray Lakes in Kananaskis Country, a journey through the supreme highlands that marks the border of BC and Alberta. We have 12 days. We’re planning on spending a week or so at Lake Magog, right in the middle and exploring the plethora of trails that radiate out from the lake. The traverse itself is only 35 miles but with side trips, we’ll likely triple that distance.

Mt. Assiniboine and Lake Magog
Mt. Assiniboine and Lake Magog

We’ve timed our hike to coincide with the height of autumn color in these northern mountains. The vast larch forests en route – if we’re lucky – will be aglow in golden hues.

The peaks gleam in the ethereal moonlight as we pull into the trailhead parking lot at Spray Lakes – our intended egress point where we’ll leave the car. We’ve scheduled a mountain taxi to pick us up early the next morning to transport us the 50-some odd miles to our ingress point at Sunshine Village. We set Joe’s travel alarm clock for 6 a.m. so we have time to load our packs before the taxi arrives. By now it is well past midnight, and – exhausted from the long drive – we throw a tarp on the ground, roll out our bedrolls and drift off beneath a benevolent moon, filled with anticipation for the adventure ahead.

In the morning the alarm fails to go off and we wake up mere moments before the scheduled arrival of the mountain taxi. Uh-oh. We have fifteen minutes to sort gear and load our packs for our 12-day adventure. We feverishly stuff food and gear into the packs.

The taxi – a decrepit van – arrives before we are done. The first opportunity that I have to lift my hastily-packed backpack is when I load it into the back of the van. I can barely lift it off the ground. It must weigh 80 pounds. Uh-oh.

The Long Haul: Carrying massive packs through the Golden Valley
The Long Haul: Carrying massive packs through the Golden Valley

The driver, a cheerful Québécois named Ives, regales us with tales of Tibet and Beverly Hills on the drive to Sunshine Meadows and we disembark at the upper end of the ski area and struggle into our monstrous packs, barely able to stand. We stagger out across the vast golden meadows and soon leave the throngs of happy-go-lucky day hikers behind for a sweaty climb up to a small pass beside Quartz Hill in the blistering sun. Sunshine Meadows indeed.

We rest at the top, surrounded by smooth, polished peaks, ecstatic to have the packs off for a moment. The perfect symmetrical horn of Mt. Assiniboine rises above all, beckoning us onward. The wind rises as we descend the south side of Quartz Hill to Howard Douglas Lake, our first night’s camp. No sooner do we arrive than a pair of hikers coming out of Assiniboine turn up. There’s been a grizzly attack there, they tell us, and the park managers have closed all the trails to the southeast. Our exit route. Uh-oh.

We climb a nearby ridge to sit, watch the sunset blaze on the distant horn of Assiniboine – a truly awesome sight – and consider our options. If we turn back, we’ll have to walk down 10 miles of road to the town of Banff and then figure out how to get back to the car on the other side of the park. It’s a quandary.

After the sun sinks below the jagged western horizon we descend to camp and cook our dinner beside the lake. The dinner conversation is dominated by grizzly bears. An owl swoops in and perches on a branch above us. A good omen, perhaps? We’d like to think so.

In the morning we decide to spend another day here, exploring the area around Citadel Pass, working our way up through undulating meadowlands and isolated stands of larches – and sure enough, they are at the peak of golden autumn glory. The sky is crowded with rolling clouds, a backdrop from a Cecil B. DeMille film. Despite the Old Testament clouds, there is no rain.

We reach the pass in late morning, just as a break in the clouds offers up a few moments of warm autumn sun. We sprawl, watching the wind dance in the larches, immensely enjoying doing nothing. We discuss the bear situation again and decide to press on rather than turn back, moving our camp as far as we can go before the trail closure. Perhaps we can still make it to Lake Magog, our prime objective in Assiniboine Park. Then we’ll return the way we came and try to figure out transportation back to the car, 50 miles away at Spray Lakes.

Assinibine: A 'wilder' Matterhorn
Assinibine: A ‘wilder’ Matterhorn

We climb up the boulder-strewn slope of aptly-named Fatigue Mountain for a look around. Splendor in all directions. We descend through the sweet-smelling meadows, dazed by the beauty of the country. I round a corner on the trail and suddenly there is a grizzly bear dead ahead. It’s about 100 meters away and by the time I see him, he’s already looking directly at me, alerted by the jingle of my Tibetan Bear Bells.

I back up slowly, un-holstering my pepper spray and Joe, behind me, does the same. The bear, unimpressed and seemingly uninterested, resumes browsing in the berry bushes, completely nonchalant. We jingle our bells and with a calm over-the-shoulder glance, the bear ambles up and over the ridge out of sight. We wait a while before continuing on, speaking excitedly in low tones about the exhilarating encounter (speaking excitedly in low tones is not as easy as you’d think). How exciting, and humbling, to find oneself occupying a position that is not at the top of the food chain. Somehow the face-to-face with griz has strengthened our resolve to continue into Assiniboine tomorrow.

In the morning we break camp and cache some food for our return trip, hanging it from the camp’s bear pole. We shoulder our packs for the hike across Citadel Pass. A noticeable lightening of the load. Halleluiah!

Og Lake
Og Lake

Once across Citadel, we descend through dense forest into the Golden Valley (so named, one presumes, for the luminous larches) and then on into the Valley of Rocks. For the next three miles we wind around  and clamber over rocks, tossed everywhere like dice the size of Winnebagos. By the time Og Lake comes into view at the ten-mile mark, we are bone-tired. We pitch the tent beside the lake in its austere setting of smooth, polished stone.

A clear, ecstatic morning: A plume of cloud hangs like a flag from the summit of Assiniboine and the surface of the lake sparkles like diamonds when the morning breeze tousles its surface. We spend the day exploring the rocky slopes above the lake, whiling away the afternoon in a reverie of mountains, larches and dancing clouds. Back at camp we eat dinner in a dream-like twilight as the evening gathers itself over Og Lake. Shooting stars enliven the cold heavens.

We crawl out of the tent as sunrise torches the great peaks. Assiniboine is radiant, its soaring summit pyramid a deep magenta above wisps of pink and purple clouds. We load our packs and head down the trail across broad, cold tundra meadows towards Lake Magog. A chill wind rattles the dwarf vegetation. Autumn, it seems, has arrived.

Lake Magog shimmers in the sun
Lake Magog shimmers in the sun

We arrive at tiny Assiniboine Lodge in mid-morning, where we learn that the trails over the southern passes have been re-opened. Good news indeed – although, we now have two new problems. Since we have cached several days worth of food back at Howard Douglas Lake we now have insufficient rations to complete the traverse unless we shorten our trip; an unappealing option.  Additionally, we can’t just abandon our food cache – a serious breach of wilderness etiquette.

For now, we make our way to Lake Magog and pitch the tent in the deserted hiker camp beside its shores. Because of the trail closures, it would seem that we have the park to ourselves. A thundering icefall rumbles down from a glacier on Assiniboine, now close at hand. Coyotes serenade us as evening washes the mountains in blue shadow.

In the morning, everything is covered in crunchy frost. As the sun rises, we shoulder our day packs and head up the trail, passing Sunburst and then Cerulean Lakes, both gleaming in the early light. Above the lakes, we climb Nub Ridge through gnarled subalpine forest, eventually bursting out of the trees. All around us, towering peaks fill the sky. Far below, the surfaces of the lakes glitter like jewels. Assiniboine rises above it all.

The view from 'The Nublet'
The view from ‘The Nublet’

We climb higher, up The Nublet (what a name!), scrambling up boulders and scree to even more expansive views, eventually surrounding us in a 360-degree panorama of serrated ridges, their summits a chiaroscuro of shifting cloud shadows. The wind howls. Ecstasy!

We descend beneath a blood-red sky into dark forest, bells jangling, bears on our minds. We haven’t seen another soul all day.

The next day is consumed by a sojourn to the ice-encrusted headwall of Assiniboine herself, a day spent wandering among glacial debris and across moraines of umber and grey. At sunset, we position ourselves in a meadow near camp, quietly watching the play of light on the elegant geology.

There is movement in the bushes behind us.

But it is not a bear that emerges from the brush. It is a wild-eyed, bushy-bearded man, wearing ragged clothing and carrying a beaten-up rucksack. He seems as surprised to see us as we are to see him. He introduces himself in halting English as Wolfram, from Salzburg, Austria. Until recently, he tells us, he was an economist, working for the European Union, but has undergone a radical career change to wild-ass vagabond. He has been on the trails of the Canadian Rockies for months, travelling alone on a spiritual quest that seems strange even to him.

We watch the sunset together and he tells us that he is headed towards Sunshine Meadows, but is short of food. We tell him that he can have the food cache that we left hanging from the bear pole at Howard Douglas Lake. One of our problems is solved. He is so grateful that he pulls out a tiny flask of schnapps that he’s been nursing for a week and passes it around in celebration.

We spend the following days in delirious exploration on the many trails that radiate from Lake Magog; Og Pass, Windy Ridge, Gog Lake, Wonder Pass – scenes of wonderment everywhere. The season is clearly turning – the paths through the larch forest are now carpets of glistening needles. When the wind blows, it’s like golden snow.

Glacial outwash patterns
Glacial outwash patterns

In the evenings, Wolfram joins us at our camp and we tell traveler’s tales beneath a billion stars. Every morning he wakes us at dawn: “Friends, it is first light on Assiniboine.” The clouds pass overhead, the larches shimmer and we wander through the landscape like dreaming men. The wind sings winter songs and each night is colder than the previous one; water bottles icing up.

One day, Wolfram tells us is it is time for him to go. He bids us ‘Namaste’ and heads north up the trail to retrieve our food cache (Months later, I’d get a postcard from Austria, complimenting us on our American freeze-dried food).

Our last problem soon makes itself felt. Our food supplies are almost spent. We cut back to half-rations, splitting an energy bar for lunch and sharing a single pouch of Top Ramon for dinner. We’re talking more about food than bears these days.

Our last night at Lake Magog is a melancholy one. It’s that familiar mixture of gratitude and longing that asserts itself after a length of time in the wilderness, an eagerness for home and a sadness to leave these lonely mountains. Tomorrow we’ll climb over Wonder Pass to Marvel Lake. The names say it all. Late in the night, a huge avalanche thunders from Assiniboine’s headwall, shaking the ground, interrupting our dreams.

In the morning, we load our packs – mercifully light now – and say our goodbyes to Magog. It is still early when we reach Wonder Pass and we rest here for a few minutes, above stupendous glaciers, turquoise lakes and ribbon-like waterfalls threading down from the ramparts. The peaks are lined up like medieval chorus girls: Gloria, Eon, Aye, Lunette, Assiniboine, Terrapin and the Towers. Ooh la la.

Radiant light
Radiant light

Food supplies are lean: we eat the last of the turkey jerky and dried fruit and move on. As we descend towards Marvel Lake a steady rain begins to fall. I had reconciled myself to being hungry. Now I am hungry and wet.

We make camp in the woods and the rain comes down in buckets. We make “condiment soup” from some onion flakes and our last fast-food packets of ketchup dissolved in boiling water. Yum.

But beneath our tarp we are warm and dry. Musical entertainment is provided by Marvel Creek, animated by the rain, doing the sub-alpine two-step, punctuated by the drip-drip of water drops falling from tree branches to the moss below.

The last morning of our traverse dawns with a grey, watery light: rain, rain, rain. Getting out of the bag is not easy. Breakfast is grotesque: a last spoonful of unadorned instant potatoes. Somehow it’s worse than the condiment soup. And we wish there was more.

We stuff our wet gear into our packs for the final march and resolutely hit the trail towards my distant car – full of delicious food, beer (could it still be cold?) and dry clothes. The rain stops after a few miles and by the time we reach the parking lot at Spray Lakes in late afternoon, the sun is shining. And yes, the beer is cold.

The Guidebook, Re-Engineered

9781927462027 (2)Kathy and Craig Copeland know the hiking trails of the Canadian Rockies as well as anyone. Their first  guidebook for these splendid mountains, Don’t Waste Your time in the Canadian Rockies was published back in 1992. The Copelands rate each hike according to their well-considered standards for scenic beauty, solitude, wildlife, effort required, etc. The “Don’t Waste Your Time” concept is all about helping hikers find those trails that really peg the meter.

And the Copelands are eloquent writers. Their trail descriptions are inspiring and lyrical, expressing a joy that is contagious.

Their new (seventh!) edition of Don’t Waste Your Time in the Canadian Rockies offers a breakthrough in the hiking book format: The Copelands have packaged their exhaustively-complete 677-page  (560 color photos!) opus in a collection of lightweight booklets, all contained inside a zip-open hard-shell case. So when you head out into the hills, you carry only the relevant booklet (average trail weight: 2.4 ounces).

For more info: hikingcamping.com.

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