Mount Assiniboine Day 1, 15 Sep 2019

Day 1: Mount Shark trailhead to Allenby Junction: 17 km, +250 m, -110 m, 5 h 10 m

  • Banff to Canmore: 25 km (20 m)
  • Breakfast in Canmore
  • Canmore to Mount Shark trailhead: 44 km (1 hr)
  • Mount Shark trailhead to first rest: 8 km (2 hr; +70 m, -90 m)
  • First rest to Bryant Creek Shelter: 5 km (1 hr 20 min; +150 m)
  • Lunch at Bryant Creek Shelter (45 min)
  • Bryant Creek Shelter to Allenby Junction campground: 4 km (1 hr 5 min; -20 m, +30 m)

Getting ready
After a comfortable, if fitful, night we stirred just after 7 am as the sky lightened and the local squirrels awoke, chattering noisily in the trees on either side of our tent. Thankfully the night had been dry and, after savouring our last showers for a week, we packed up the tent and sorted out our backpacks. It doesn’t matter how much preparation we do beforehand, there’s always something else to try and fit into the packs, which invariably involves pulling out a handful of carefully packed items to fit in the extras. In particular, trying to pack a week’s worth of food was testing my pre-caffeinated patience.

After what seemed like an age, we loaded up the car with our gear and set off for Canmore just before 9 am. Out onto Highway 1, we admired the towering mountains either side of the road, clouds drifting across their summits. Cascade Mountain looked especially imposing. Twenty minutes later we pull up in front of the Harvest Cafe in Canmore and stepped inside the cosy space to order breakfast and hot drinks. We were served by a young woman wearing an Iron Maiden T-shirt, which met my approval, and set about devouring our (delicious) breakfast wraps. A noisy group entered as we were finishing up, and that seemed like the perfect cue to move on. We took a quick detour via Tim Hortons to get another hot drink before setting off for the Spray Lakes trailhead.

We followed the road out of Canmore up towards the cross-country ski area, gaining height above the town. The road turned to gravel as it steepened and we found ourselves behind a couple of slow cars. The scene before me was puzzling: a car with Alberta licence plates being driven by a young guy barely able to make it to the speed limit? To make matters worse they seemed oblivious to the fact that we were behind them and gave us no chance to pass safely. We kept our cool and just enjoyed the fact that we were seeing new peaks: Ha Ling towered up us on the left; the route to the East End of Rundle (EEOR) headed up to our right. We passed several trailheads with many cars already parked – clearly a very popular area!

The road passed through a forested area before making a sharp turn across the reservoir drainage channel and crossing to the other side of the valley. And still the car in front dawdled, even as the road widened and the speed limit increased to 80 km/h. Eventually I lost patience and made my move, accelerating to well over 80 to get past (much faster than I’m usually comfortable driving on gravel) and slackening off to a more relaxing speed once we had some distance between our cars. We continued along the widest gravel road we’ve ever driven on and the speed limit felt more or less appropriate, though washboarded gravel at 80 km/h isn’t the most comfortable experience!

We passed more trailheads as we drove alongside the Spray Lake reservoir, slowing down for a moment as we spotted a deer at the roadside. Eventually, and to my relief, we reached the turnoff to Engadine Lodge and the Mount Shark trailhead. As we crossed the creek by the lodge (Smuts Creek), we were stopped in our tracks by the sight of a massive open meadow stretching south, full of autumn colour and crowned by cloud-topped jagged mountain peaks. We couldn’t resist a quick photo-op. A few more kilometres of winding gravel road later, we reached the large open area of the Mount Shark trailhead. It had taken about an hour to drive from Canmore.

At last – under way
Despite our earlier prep work we still took a little while to finalize our packs, arrange the rest of the stuff in the car, and make use of the local facilities. Finally ready, we tied our boots, sent an InReach message, and took a “before” selfie. And so we began to walk. It was 11:55 am, and we had 17 km ahead of us, more than I usually like to hike on the first day of a backpacking trip. But I wasn’t too concerned as we still had about 8 hours of daylight and the trail was easy hiking, so, even allowing for slow progress, I was confident we’d reach our campground before dark.

The forecast was in our favour too: mild with no significant rain, although a light drizzle was falling as we took our first steps. It wasn’t enough to dampen us physically or spiritually. Knowing I would warm up, I packed my fleece and was content to hike in my T-shirt. However, those first steps were painfully slow as our packs felt extremely heavy. We hadn’t done anything longer than an overnighter over the summer and our legs were like lead as we walked under the weight of a week’s worth of supplies. But the trail was wide and flat, which made a welcome change from the steep climbs and clambers of the Coast Mountains and North Cascades.

We passed a few hikers and some returning backpackers. I couldn’t help but notice how tired the backpackers looked which was a little disconcerting. We exchanged greetings but they were clearly in no mood to stop and chat, which actually suited us as we were yet to find our rhythm, and we were happy to continue on. The low clouds hid most of the surrounding mountains, which was just as well as we didn’t need the distraction of any views to slow us down. We gradually settled into a rhythm and set a steady pace, watching the forest go by, initially second growth (it’s a cross-country ski area in winter) and then unlogged Rocky Mountain spruce and pine forest. The sides of the trail were lined by late season flowers, and we were surprised at the variety: strawberry, purple asters, pearly everlasting, yarrow, even some paintbrush here and there!

We passed the turnoff to Watridge Lake, a downhill detour we didn’t feel up to making, and then caught glimpses of the lake itself through the trees, coloured various shades of green as the water went from shallow to deep. The trail began to climb, which was a rude awakening even though it was gentle, and we had to dig deep to pull ourselves up the slope. The forest was filled with autumn colour, the many shades of yellow in contrast to the intense red of fireweed. We spotted a few harebells and even some actual strawberries! And many, many fungi, including lots of little puff-balls that looked for all the world like elk poop.

The ground soon levelled off and it wasn’t long before we began to descend steeply to the crossing over the clear Spray River about an hour and twenty minutes after leaving the car. We stopped on the bridge for our first photo-ops of the day: the narrow gorge upstream and the glimpse of Cone Mountain in the opposite direction. A short distance later along a muddier trail, we crossed Bryant Creek on another bridge and entered Banff National Park, which required a short but gruelling climb to meet the trail. A couple of hundred metres further lay another intersection, with a side trail leading off to one of the park warden cabins. As we had just rediscovered our rhythm (that seems to be the word for the day) we were reluctant to break it by exploring so we left it for our return trip.

The trail was still broad, easy for us to walk side-by-side, and the surface now a little softer than the sole-destroying (pun intended) hard ground near the trailhead. I didn’t want to jinx our hike, but we seemed to be making remarkably good time. We encountered more and more exiting backpackers, none of whom seemed moved to say more than ‘Hello’. I actually took that as a good sign: if there’s something to be concerned about, hikers are quick to tell each other about it.

A moment’s rest, and seeking a lunch spot
At some point we realized that we’d been hiking for two hours without a break, and found a suitable place to stop and drop our packs. The forest was silent as the trail had moved away from the creek. On our left was a mossy embankment that provided some cover to attend nature’s call, which might well have been the softest ground I’ve ever walked on. It was so lush and soft, I was almost afraid to step on it as I didn’t want to leave footprints. We munched a snack and hauled on our packs once more. The hiking was blissfully easy, despite the weight on our backs and we continued to make good progress. I’d go so far as to say we were enjoying ourselves.

Gentians! I stopped in my tracks to crouch down to snap a couple of phone photos of the tiny lilac flowers, immediately regretting my decision as I stood up again, my legs complaining bitterly at the effort. But how could I resist? It was so wonderful to see flowers still hanging on in mid-September, and it had been many years since we’d seen this particular blooms, probably our last visit to the Rockies in 2012. The trail was still lined with fading purple asters and daisies, with a few yellow arnica for good measure. We pushed on, the trail winding a little among the trees and then beginning to climb gradually.

A short time later we came to an unexpected campground next to a delightfully mossy creek. Unexpected because I hadn’t noticed this campground on the map of campgrounds in the area, and it actually seemed really nice set among open forest. But to me it felt like it was too close to the trailhead to be a viable option, except maybe on the way out from Mount Assiniboine as a way to make the final day so much easier. Anyway, I digress. It seemed like a good spot to send another InReach message. A large group of hikers was slumped against anything they could sit on, looking as weary as I’ve ever seen hikers. They were keen to know how far it was to the trailhead (I guess they were hiking all the way out in one day) and were not especially delighted by with our answer.

We pushed onwards, still enjoying the trail and revelling in being able to simply put one foot in front of the other. A summer of struggling on tough trails had pushed us to seek the easier hiking of the Rockies. Plus we could still walk alongside one another, making conversation so much easier. A short while later, the trail began to climb more noticeably. About half-an-hour after leaving the campground, we crossed another creek and then passed a junction where the trail to Owl Lake joined from our left. Another ten minutes and we finally had our first view out of the forest, looking over open rocky terrain, dotted with spruce trees, below the steep slopes of the ridge which terminates at Cone Mountain. It reminded us of the Valley of the Rocks, near Og Lake on the Sunshine Meadows approach to Mount Assiniboine and felt like familiar ground.

Our next junction was with the trail to Marvel Lake – our exit route from the park in a week’s time – after which the trail climbed a sharp little incline before levelling off once more. Now among more open landscape we could feel the rain was more persistent than earlier, and we continued on, passing a huge mossy boulder, before reaching the turnoff to an unseen Bryant Creek Shelter. We took the narrow trail across open grass and willow meadows, giving a couple of loud Hellos to warn anything of our presence. The shelter was a squat, unimpressive looking building, but we were glad to be there and have the opportunity to get out of the drizzle.

There was no one at the shelter, and we stepped inside out of the gloom into even deeper gloom. We looked around: there was space for at least 12 people to sleep, as well as a wood stove and a dining table with benches. We took off our packs and set them on a couple of bunks, pulling out our lunch and braving the breeze by the open door of the shelter. We felt the need to keep the door open just to feel like there was some light; it was so dingy inside, plus it gave us something to look at. Despite the coolness, we enjoyed our lunch, trying out cheese and dried apple on Triscuits for the first time. We both agreed that it worked well: the salt and crunch of the crackers proving to be most welcome in the backcountry.

Beyond lunch: the final stretch
I sent another InReach message and had a quick scout around the shelter to find the water source and outhouse, just to get a feel for how accessible the facilities were. We packed away our lunch and got ready to leave just as a group of four backpackers we’d passed earlier arrived. This was to be their home for the night, and as far as we were concerned, they were welcome to it! We chatted for a few minutes, where I was a bit relieved to find out that despite their jean-clad appearance, they knew the area quite well and ventured here regularly. I was still concerned about their clothing, especially given the likelihood of precipitation at this time of year, but made peace with it, deciding that they were a group of four and that they’d probably be okay whatever the weather.

We had cooled off over lunch, but I knew I would overheat if I wore a jacket while hiking, so I pulled on my new sleeves – yes, just a pair of sleeves. (I got the idea from cyclists and runners.) I have to say they were amazing, especially in the steady drizzle in which we found ourselves hiking, and kept me warm enough without overheating: no need to change my top or pull on a jacket. Following a different path away from the shelter, we soon rejoined the trail and continued on our way. We had already covered 13 of our 17 km, and it was still only a bit after 4 pm. A few hundred metres later we passed the next campground, Camp McBride, and a couple of minutes later emerged from the forest at the edge of an enormous burnished meadow.

The view was immense: before us lay a huge open meadow with the eastern slopes of Wonder Peak swooping down from the clouds to merge seamlessly with the flat floodplain. We stopped in our tracks, awestruck, despite the drizzle. The scale of the Rockies never ceases to leave me speechless, and it it was a welcome sight along our view-starved journey. For the first time today I really felt like I was in the landscape, and it was so uplifting and invigorating. We looked at each other and gave out a little “wow!”. We were so taken with the view that we barely noticed a warden cabin (number 25) off to our right, complete with elk antlers, a First Nations chief carving, and a horse corral.

Alas the expansive view was short-lived as the trail ducked back into the trees, albeit at the edge of the meadow, offering occasional windows across the willow plain to the slopes beyond. Partly forested, partly swept clear by avalanches, and partly sheer cliffs, it was a stunning accompaniment and it (almost) allowed us to forget our growing fatigue. The trail narrowed to single file and we let a few hollered Hellos to warn any wildlife of our presence. Thankfully we only spotted bootprints in the mud.

A decaying pile of animal poop caught my eye thanks to the forest of mushrooms growing out of it, and I stooped down to snap a quick photo. As a result I missed Maria spotting a snowshoe hare right next to the trail. I fumbled for the camera but the rustling of the shower-cap rain-cover was enough to startle it off into the undergrowth, where it stopped, still only a few metres away. We paused to apologize for scaring it and continued on.

We entered a large, willow-filled meadow with more great views, this time including the peaks of Mount Mercer up to our right, with others topped by clouds ahead of us. The trail crossed a creek on a low boardwalk bridge and ducked back into more willow thickets dotted by small firs. Our progress against the line of peaks to our left was measurable by the fact we were now below our second cloud-enshrouded summit, and an inviting slope with a ribbon cascade of water along its south edge led up into a large amphitheatre between the neighbouring peaks of Mount Cautley and Gibraltar Rock. There was no way we would be able to explore it, of course, but my imagination began to wonder about what it would take to get up there, how to cross the meadow and creeks, and to find a way through the dense, close-packed forest.

The balance of meadow and forest was definitely tipping more towards the former as we moved up the valley. We checked the map to estimate our position based on nearby peaks and passes and knew we weren’t far off our destination. Only a few minutes later we could see a sign by the next group of trees, which turned out to be a sign for a horse camp. Onwards we walked, the clouds darkening overhead though rain thankfully held off. We came to a bridge over a dry creek, which I thought was amusing enough to photograph, and barely five minutes later we came to the next sign. This time it was our campground at Allenby Junction (Br 17).

A place to call home for the night
Our first reaction was relief at having made it. The time was about 5:15 pm: 17 km in just over 5 hours. Pretty good for our first day with 7 days’ worth of food on our backs! We turned into the campground and our relief soon turned to apprehension. The map had indicated that there were only five sites, and we were disappointed to find that those sites were lumpy patches of ground cleared out of the meadow. Two had some tree cover, but none of the sites were what I would describe as good. One site looked barely big enough to put up a one-person tent. Clearly this campground saw very little use (we were the only people here), and that use was likely limited to single-night stays travelling to or from the Mount Assiniboine core area; there would be no reason to spend more than one night here. It was evident that this campground was very far down the list of Parks Canada’s backcountry priorities.

We soon decided on the site farthest from the trail, located on bare earth at the edge of mature forest, albeit with a couple of alarmingly large fallen trees. To its credit, at least the site had a clear view back down the valley. We laid out the tent on the flattest area of ground and set it up, unpacking our sleeping gear and putting it inside. I sent another InReach message to let family & friends know that we’d made it to our campground. The next task was to find the cooking area and outhouse, which turned out to be about 150 metres away down a narrow path. A low, square slatted table with a couple of wooden log stools greeted us, a bit further beyond were the metal food lockers and the wire mesh-encased outhouse.

Top priority was a hot drink and food. Despite the heavy clouds, the weather remained dry and we were able to eat comfortably. If it had rained, there was no shelter, save a few trees, which conjured up memories of eating in the pouring rain at Og Lake on the first night of our 2009 visit to Mount Assiniboine, an experience we were in no hurry to relive. Suitably fed and warmed up we went in search of water.

The campground was so quiet; we couldn’t hear any running water which puzzled me as I knew we were next to Bryant Creek. It didn’t take us long to find the dry creek-bed, a wash of rocks deposited by melt- or floodwater. A short distance further upstream we encountered a still pool dammed by the rocks and gravel which the shallow creek trickled into. We sought out the section with the highest flow and filtered a few litres of water for another hot drink and the next day. We filled our thermos with heated water and returned to the tent, tightening up all the straps and guy lines in the strengthening breeze.

It was now 7:30 pm and getting darker. The wind grew stronger and the trees around our tent creaked ominously. The tiniest patches of blue sky appeared to the south, teasing us with slimmest possibility of a sunset. We lay in the tent, chatting about the day and plans for tomorrow, savouring the hot water to keep us warm. The night wasn’t especially cold, so we were quite cosy.

Naturally after drinking some more liquid we had one last outhouse visit to attend to, and by now it was properly dark, leaving us faced with the prospect of finding our way over by headlamp. I tried really hard not to let my imagination run away with me, but sometimes it’s too easy to start thinking about what might be out there as we walked that narrow path through the trees, just two people with a campground to themselves, in a vast valley far from the next nearest person. We stuck close together, bear spray in hand, and followed the headlamp beam back to the outhouse so we could make ourselves comfortable for the night. All set, we stowed the hand sanitizer in the food locker and traced our way back to the tent. It’s amazing how far 150 metres feels at night!

The wind blew hard for the next couple of hours, as hard as I’ve ever heard it in the mountains. Thankfully the trees held up, and although they creaked, they never cracked. We settled down to our first night’s sleep in the backcountry, earplugs in to avoid us listening for every sound. During the night the wind died down and the clouds parted for a while, bright moonlight illuminating the tent, one of my favourite sights in the backcountry. I stirred, admired it for a few moments and settled down again, soon drifting off to sleep.

It felt good to be there.

Day 2…

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