The Skyline: Day 3, 7 Sep 2012

Finally, Friday!
Alas all good things must come to an end, but we had the prospect of a hot shower and elk steak ahead of us, so it wasn’t all bad :-) Somehow I was colder on this night than on the previous one. It wasn’t frosty, at least not by the tents – only some ground frost around the picnic tables – but it had been clear all night. We peered out of the tent and could see the sunlight on the high ramparts of Mount Tekarra, the last quarter moon hanging in the blue sky above. Gradually, more sunny rocks appeared, but the campground remained in shadow. We pulled ourselves out of our sleeping bags into the chilly morning air and set about making breakfast.

With breakfast done, we packed away our gear and shouldered our packs for the journey back to the cars. We crossed the many flat-topped rocks in the shallow outlet creek for Tekarra Lake as it emerged into bright warm sunshine. Across the creek, we picked up the trail and began an easy climb through sun-warmed subalpine forest. This was the easiest hiking we’d done yet, and my pack – and my step – felt noticeably lighter. I was a little sad that we were already on the last day, but I was determined to savour it for all I was worth.

Autumn had truly arrived here in the mountains: most of the flowers had gone to seed (save for one lone dryas flower I spotted yesterday afternoon), and the willow and willowherb were more fluff than leaf. Gabriela swung her hiking pole through a patch of willow seeds and started a shower of tiny white bits of fluff. Looking up at the azure sky it could have been snowing.

We ambled on, gradually regaining some elevation and emerging from the trees into open heather meadows. To our right we could see the sharp grey ridge of the Colin Range – ahead of us was the Athabasca River valley on its way east out of the park. Pyramid Mountain peeked over the horizon. Out of nowhere a voice suddenly called out behind us and a trail runner appeared and was gone. We couldn’t help but wonder: where did they start from, and when to be here at 10:30 am? Curious.

Time passed slowly as we walked, the trail following the broad contour of the northern end of the slopes of Tekarra and Signal Mountain. We even passed some patches of flowers in full bloom, on north-facing aspects where the snow had only recently melted. Bright red paintbrush, some lupines, arnica and daisies greeted us – a cheery reminder of summer. The trail dipped up and down a couple of times, and I could trace our progress on the topo map. And then, suddenly, we were at the fire road, less than two easy hours after setting off from the campground.

A sign caught our eye – it was meant to indicate no cycling on the Skyline Trail, but the illustration of the bicycle was not particularly accurate and it looked more like it was saying that riding your bike backwards was forbidden… After a brief comfort stop in the trees we turned left and followed the road up to the location of the old fire tower at the northern end of Signal Mountain. Twenty minutes later we were perched on a nice ridge of rock with a fantastic view of Jasper and its surroundings. Mount Edith Cavell marked the extent of our view to the south and west, and only the end of the Colin Range limited our view to the east where the Athabasca River headed for the prairies. Pyramid Mountain dominated the view to the north.

It was time for lunch, but not before we were joined by an inquisitive marmot. I think that was as close as we’ve ever got to one of those fat lazy so-and-sos! Fortunately it wasn’t interested in what we were eating so we were able to enjoy the remnants of our food supply in peace. It was warm and sunny and made a fine basking spot. But we had to move on eventually, and for the last time we hoisted our packs, cinched our waist belts and set off again.

I looked around as much as I could to soak in our subalpine views before we re-entered the trees. Now all we had left was a 9-km trudge downhill on a viewless road. None of us was looking forward to this part, but as the Copelands say: “you have to pay if you want to play”. And we had certainly enjoyed the play. Now it was time to pay. We had done the trail from south to north to minimize our elevation gain, but I have to wonder if the next time I do this hike, I start at the north end and get this section of road out of the way. Admittedly it would be tough with a pack at its heaviest, but then it would be beautiful, easy trails for the rest of the journey. I have since read of others who have started in the north precisely for this reason.

Distractions along the road were few and far between, and we kept up a chatter as best we could. A pair of grouse startled us for a moment, a group of mushrooms caught our eye at the edge of the trail. I kept my eyes and ears open for any wildlife but saw none. We did see animal pathways leading off the road, and encountered one very oddly-coloured pile of bear scat. Our only encounters were with another pair of trail runners, one of whom took to whooping every few tens of metres as a warning to bears.

Down and down we went, occasionally looking up to see fragments of mountain ahead of us. None of us dared look at a watch to check progress, until we’d been going for over two hours. I looked at the map, and the road and figured out where we were and if I was right, there would be a bend to the left coming up soon. Sure enough, there it was, and I knew we were getting close. We could hear the sound of vehicles on a tarmac road. The slope levelled off, the forest changed around us and within ten minutes we had reached the parking lot. We were done.

Now I felt glad to be done. We dropped our packs, unlocked the cars and changed out of our boots and put on a clean T-shirt. Then it was time for one last triumphant group photo at the trailhead sign, before we got into the cars and headed for a picnic area by the Maligne River to cool off our feet and enjoy some watermelon that we’d kept in the car. Delicious! Feeling refreshed it was time to head to the Wapiti campground and check in. The sun was still shining through the trees as we pitched our tents, and we were able to even dry out a few things while we wandered back and forth getting showers.

As the sun began to dip behind the flank of Whistlers Mountain, our thoughts turned to food: real food! It was time for some elk steak and a well-earned beer to celebrate a fabulous three day hike, and the rest of the week in the mountains.

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