We stirred at 6 am on the Wednesday morning, scoffed some breakfast, and headed to the north trailhead. It had rained a little in the night, which had thankfully eased off as we packed away our gear, but it returned as we drove towards the parking lot near Maligne Canyon. We had 15 minutes or so to wait for the shuttle, and in that time the rain began falling a little harder, definitely intent on giving us a wet send-off. The bus arrived on time and we loaded our gear, along with another five hikers.
Paying for the shuttle was a masterstroke – the driver had recently hiked the trail himself and was able to give us some helpful info. Not only that, but we saw a grizzly near the side of the road, feeding non-stop on berries. The driver stopped the bus and we had a couple of minutes to watch the bear in action. What a wonderful start to the hike!
Forty minutes after leaving our cars at the north trailhead, we pulled in at the southern end of the trail. We unloaded the bus, made ourselves comfortable before pulling on our rain gear and shouldering our packs. We posed for a cheery group photo next to the trailhead sign. This was it: we were on the Skyline.
We set off into the forest, the trail littered with small, slick muddy puddles. The sounds of splashing boots, swishing rain gear and the pitter-patter of raindrops on the hood of my jacket filled my ears. The weather forecast for tomorrow was sunshine – remember that! But they’d been wrong every day this week, so who knows if that will be true? I didn’t dare hope. I was beginning to have my doubts about this hike, which probably contributed to the sudden lack of enthusiasm and energy I felt. Within a short time of setting off, I found myself way at the back of the group, hardly able (or willing) to put one foot in front of the other. My spirits dipped and despite only being half-an-hour into our three days, I was wondering whether to turn back. I was dismayed. And yet I still noticed the lovely open pine forest, the profusion of fungi – how I wished it were not raining so I could photograph them all! The camera stayed firmly away in its wet bag.
We came to our first landmark, Lorraine Lake – which I jokingly referred to as “The Rain Lake”. I’m not sure anyone else found it funny. And I’m not sure how I managed to make a joke of it given how I was feeling. Soon after, we passed Mona Lake – and, yeah, that’s how I felt. The lakes were a beautiful colour, though, especially in the rain.
More puddles, more mud – hiking poles really are one of the best inventions ever. At the 5-km mark, we came to a junction and a bridge over the gorgeous roaring Evelyn Creek. We paused under a large tree, trying to get out of the rain. Wondering how to perk up my energy levels (we joked some more about my lack of caffeine input that morning), Maria suggested I try one of these little concentrated energy drinks. So I did. Oh. My. Fairy. Godmother. It was without doubt the most disgusting-tasting drink I have ever had, worse than almost every medicine I took as a kid. Maybe that was deliberate, so people don’t drink too much of it. I don’t know. It was vile, utterly vile.
With us all fed and watered to one degree or another, we set off again, crossing Evelyn Creek on a bouncy double-plank bridge. Again I wanted to stop and take pictures, but that wasn’t going to happen. I waited for the energy drink to give me energy… except nothing happened. I was still plodding along at a snail’s pace. If anything, I was beginning to feel worse – I slowed down even more, losing sight of everybody in front of me. My head began to spin – I planted my hiking poles either side of me, lowered my head and closed my eyes. How long was I standing there like that? Probably only seconds but it felt like an age, waiting for the feeling to pass. I stood up, waited for my head to clear and began plodding again. I turned a corner and saw several concerned faces looking at me. I said how I had felt worse after the energy drink, but I was beginning to rally (not really true). I caught up with the rest of the group and we set off again. I will never have another one of those energy drinks as long as I live.
But gradually I began to feel better – still not normal, but better. By now I was about as wet as I was going to get so I suppose I was thinking that things couldn’t get any worse. My pace picked up and I did find myself able to keep up with the others. We were making steady progress, as we now climbed up through the thinning forest. We decided to stop for lunch before we ran out of trees, and we sheltered under the small trees as best we could. I didn’t have much of an appetite, but I did munch my way through a couple of tasteless wraps. I have to say that if I looked half as wet and cold as the people around me then we were a pretty sorry-looking bunch :-) Of course I can smile about it now, but at the time I think everyone was having “Why are we doing this?” thoughts. All too soon it was time to hoist our packs on again and keep moving.
A short time later something odd happened, and it happened quite suddenly. First, I noticed the rain had eased off, and then the clouds were lifting – we had views for the first time today. Across the valley we could see snow-blanketed slopes, the summits still enshrouded in a mass of grey. I began to think we might end up hiking in snow at some point, but for now I could see that our route was well below the snowline. The trees thinned out even more and we found ourselves in mixed meadows, most flowers well past their best but some still bright and cheery. Despite how I felt (and I was feeling much better by now) I was able to look at where we were and think, “Wow, look where I am”. Apart from the rain, it was silent, something I value greatly and for the first time today my mind began to relax.
I realized that there was something to look at other than my feet, or the puddle a couple of feet in front of them. A few flowers, moptops and the ever-thinning trees. I even felt moved to get the camera out to take a photo or two. We crossed a small ravine and the trail led us around to the north. Walking along, I found myself searching for flowers in bloom and then something small and deep blue caught my eye. Looking more closely I realized it was the tiny indigo flower of glaucous gentian. Maria turned and looked and saw several more – a handful of flowers in this one place. We saw no more for the rest of the trip, so I was delighted to have seen these. My only post-hike annoyance is that I didn’t take the time to point the camera in their direction. They’re such lovely little flowers, and so uncommon.
We gained a little more height to crest Little Shovel Pass and, once more, the scale of the Rockies scenery was revealed to us. Before us lay an enormous meadowy bowl – the Snowbowl – to which our path led us steeply down. I could have stayed at the pass and admired this view all day. A couple of fresh-looking grizzly diggings caught my eye in the meadows, a few metres off the trail. I looked around but saw no sign of a bear. Time to catch up with the others though.
The trail steepened as it descended into a small, narrow gorge with a lovely little creek running through it. It was barely 30 metres wide at its widest point. We followed the creek for a hundred metres or so, crossed to the opposite bank and emerged into the faded meadows. I can only imagine what the flower display must have been like a month earlier. Off the trail was nothing but flowers with the very occasional tiny tree or patch of willow.
Ten minutes later we reached the campground, and the rain had finally stopped. For good? Hmm. Well that was a little too optimistic. We each found a suitable muddy patch to pitch our tents while the rain held off, though it returned as we decided to make a cup of tea. The picnic tables were out in the open, with numerous small trees cleared away to prevent surprise bear encounters. The problem was that there was nowhere to string up a tarpaulin and finding a sheltered spot to put on the kettle was difficult. Maria and I found a few large trees with enough cover to sit and enjoy a hot drink to take away the shivers.
Exploring the campground further we noticed the tent pitches were scattered about, almost at random, and the outhouse was on the far side away from the eating area, at the end of a narrow muddy and very slippery trail. And oh yeah, the outhouse… Well, there was no house. Steps led up to a platform with a seat over a large bucket. Empty buckets stood either side, and a laminated notice told us all about how the outhouses operated, through the erudite words of “Mr Lumpy”. I am not joking. I wish I had taken a picture of the notice, but you don’t really make a habit of bringing your camera with you when you need to go… So here’s how it works. Over the course of a few weeks/months, the buckets fill with, err, waste. Once the level gets to within a few inches of the top of the barrel, you – dear hiker – are politely requested to move said barrel off to the side and replace it with an empty one. Excuse my language but not on your fucking life. Once off the trail, you ring Parks Canada and they call in a helicopter to lift it all out. So there you have it – your backcountry fees are paying for helicopter time to fly out barrels of poop. To add insult the injury, the recent rains had left the open-air facilities in need of a good hose down. I understand that the popularity of these trails means that there are only so many pit toilets that can be dug, but I’m not at all convinced that any hiker is going to manhandle a bucket full of other people’s poo.
Gradually the rain showers became less frequent and less rainy, and patches of blue began to fill the sky. Unfortunately it was too late in the day to warm us and the sun was shining behind the mountain above us to the west. We chatted with our fellow campers and found out that a couple who were intending to return to the south trailhead had been stopped in their tracks by a grizzly at none other than the narrow gorge we hiked through barely an hour or two earlier! So those diggings that I saw really were fresh…. And if that didn’t make us uneasy enough, the other hikers there had been turned back from the Notch by snow and whiteout conditions. Just what had we let ourselves in for? The forecast for tomorrow and beyond was still good, but the forecast had also been wrong every day of our trip so far. Did we dare believe it?
Bears and weather kept us talking for a while. The clearing skies overhead had us optimistic about the weather, but I think we were all a little spooked by the presence of a grizzly a mere 10 minutes’ walk away. We ate dinner, drank one final hot drink and hung our food before crawling into our respective sanctuaries under now crystal-clear skies. It felt so good to get warm again at last, albeit damp and warm as I tucked my wet gloves under my not-yet-dry T-shirt.
Maria and I chatted in the tent for a while before settling down to sleep for a few hours. I dreamt of bears, of course… A little after midnight we both stirred and our hot drinks were making their presence felt. We agreed to get up together and so we pulled on a couple of layers, put our feet into cold hiking boots and dragged ourselves out into the silent night. But what a night – the last-quarter moon had just risen, a bright half-pie in a black sky dotted with stars. Beautiful! By the light of our headlamps we did what we had to do, admiring the sky as we went (so to speak). We shone our lights down onto the mud looking for non-boot prints but saw nothing. Looking around (always a little unnerving at night) we saw no eyes, no shapes and crawled back into our tent, to settle down for a surprisingly comfortable night.
On to day two…