Day 7: Marvel Lake campground to Mount Shark trailhead: 13 km, +190 m, -230 m, 3 h 18 m
- Marvel Lake campground to Warden Cabin: 6.4 km (1 hr 30 min; +45 m, -110 m)
- Warden Cabin to Mount Shark trailhead: 6.6 km (1 hr 48 min; +145 m, -120 m)
Well that was a cooler night than expected! We stirred around 7 am and as I braved the chill of the new day, I wondered how cold and frosty it must have been back up at Magog Lake. We packed up as much of our gear as possible inside the tent before crawling out and dismantling it. The poles were freezing and fly was icy cold with frost so our fingers were numb by the time we finished packing away. Brr! We hauled our loaded backpacks back to the eating area, noting the beautiful morning light through the trees where the uppermost sections of Wonder Peak were glowing a warm orange.
In the light of the day, the walk back to the food cache was much less intimidating and felt considerably shorter. We joined a handful of other hikers at the picnic table where we chatted over oatmeal, tea, and coffee. As they left to return to their tents, we finished up and made room for our now-almost empty food bags. A chipmunk joined us, scouting out the table for leftovers. By just after 9:30 am, we were ready to leave and shouldered our packs to begin the journey back to the car.
It was a beautiful morning: the sky was mostly blue with patches of wispy cloud softening the light. Within a few minutes of walking we reached the junction with the main trail where we stopped to admire the landscape again, looking behind us to see Mount Gloria, and up at the slopes of the mountain ridge before us that had been shrouded in cloud on our inbound journey. After a moment soaking in the views we struck out on the trail, settling into an easy, steady pace and enjoying the silence of the forest.
We felt so relaxed, the weight of that anticipation of the trip now lifted and our minds freed by the vastness of the land around us. Even now in the confines of the forest we savoured these moments, checking out the fungi and lichen, and enjoying the rich colours of the autumnal leaves. With the sense of accomplishment from this trip we, too, felt that we could allow ourselves to admit that summer was definitely over and that winter would soon be upon us.
My eyes scanned every patch of mud we walked past or through, looking for signs of wildlife. A short distance down the trail we spotted some fresh bear tracks that prompted us into making some noise. At first we thought they were from a grizzly but as we looked at the photos again after the fact, we think they’re actually from a black bear, the claw-marks in the mud being too close to the toes to be a grizzly. We followed these tracks for a few hundred metres before they disappeared, and although we weren’t too worried, we did both relax a little now they the bear was off the trail.
Within an hour of leaving the campground, we reached the Big Springs campground (Br 9) where we snapped a few photos and continued hiking. We had settled into an easy rhythm and were keeping a good pace so we felt no need to stop. Our week of hiking must’ve done us some good as our legs felt strong. For the next half hour we hiked back through the mossy forest that we’d enjoyed on our way in, relishing the sunshine through the trees and taking note of the flowers still hanging on, not yet ready to give up on summer. A few inclines kept us from getting too complacent and as Maria said, there’s always more uphill! It’s a bit like the old cycling saying that it’s uphill and into the wind both ways…
Just before 11 am we reached the turnoff to the warden cabin by Bryant Creek, and this time we decided to go and investigate. A couple of hundred metres off the main trail lay a grassy meadow by the creek, the cabin perched right in the middle with an exceptional view of the surrounding mountains. Outside, a table and bench provided the perfect backcountry breakfast spot, and we sat awhile to top up our energy levels with a Clif bar and some trail mix. Moving on, we returned to the trail, passing the large horse corral.
We crossed Bryant Creek, re-entered the forest for a short time before reaching the next creek. We stopped on this bridge again to admire Cone Mountain rising sharply to a point high above the valley floor, its summit free of cloud and bathed in soft sunlight. Now for the hard part: we weren’t looking forward to the next ten minutes as we climbed up steeply away from the creek, winding upwards into the forest. What was I saying about the uphill? Yeah…. But eventually the gradient eased off and, as we passed the trail to Watridge Lake (which we still didn’t feel like visiting), the trail finally began to descend.
Up to now we’d met no one else on the trail – it was like we had the whole place to ourselves. Getting closer to the trailhead meant that we started to meet day hikers (and only day hikers, for some reason), all of whom looked so clean and full of energy. We, on the other hand, were feeling distinctly grubby and starting to tire after our morning’s hiking. We left the mature forest behind and emerged into the open terrain of the cross-country ski area. And – wow! – what a surprise we had, as we could now see the impressive peaks surrounding us, one of which had to be Mount Shark though we were not able to identify which one it was.
At the back of my mind, I was thinking that we were really close to the car once we hit the cross-country ski trails. The hard trail was beginning to tell on our feet and we both soon reached a point where we wanted the hiking to be over. Somehow it felt harder on our feet than on the way in – I’m not sure why, but maybe the damp conditions helped soften the ground underfoot a little, whereas now the trail was dry and stony. But we hiked on.
And on. The route was definitely beginning to drag and mentally I was pretty much done with hiking. The problem was the lack of landmarks – it all looked the same in every direction, the distance mountains and ski trails heading off in different directions, threading between bright green second growth dotted with occasional cottonwoods that stood out with their bright yellow autumnal leaves. We splashed through a few-inch-deep creek, stopping momentarily to cool off our tired feet. We reached a bend with a fine view and paused a moment to savour the warm sunshine. If it was this warm in September, we imagined it must be baking in the summer.
We turned a corner and I fully expected to see the trailhead but alas no – just more trees. Signs had been placed at fairly regular intervals pointing in the various directions but for some reason none of them had any distances listed! Some desperate soul had scratched the words, ‘How far?’ into one of the signs and we felt their anguish. Looking back I realize that the very first sign we came to did indeed have the distance (5.4 km) to the trailhead but somehow we’d forgotten that. If we’d remembered, it would have been a little easier to pace ourselves and not feel quite so hopeless at the never-ending trail!
But eventually it did end. We dropped down into a shallow dip before – of course – one final climb towards the parking lot. At least this stretch of the trail had some grass we could walk on to spare our feet a little. Sunlight glinted off the cars in the distance and within a few long minutes we entered the vast gravel lot, walking the last 50 metres to reach the car. We cheered and were only too keen to drop our backpacks. We’d made it! I sent one last InReach message and we could now celebrate being back at the car. Sure, our feet and legs were letting us know what they’d just done but there was no taking away from the fact that it had been an incredible trip, and just what we needed to wind up the hiking season.
And so we were done. We loaded up the car and pulled on a fresh t-shirt before beginning the drive back to Canmore. We stopped briefly at Engadine Lodge to admire the view again, and then again at Buller Pond for lunch. The signboard promised a view of Mount Assiniboine from here. Naturally, all we could see were clouds and we contented ourselves with reflection views of the nearby mountains instead. We stopped a few times for photo ops as we drove back along Spray Lake, a spectacular deep aqua colour against the blue sky, though the wind had us running back to the car in short order.
The dusty washboarded road was tiring on our ears now more used to the quiet of the backcountry. But the views were stunning. The mountains formed sharp, grey ridge-lines that sliced the view between the green forest and blue sky. We drove past more busy trailheads, cars lining the road, before passing the turquoise lakes below Ha Ling Peak and descending into Canmore.
Oh what a shock to the senses that was! A sunny autumn afternoon in Canmore was definitely not the best time to visit after the peace and quiet of a week in the backcountry! People and cars milled about everywhere and it took quite a bit of self-control not to give up and run straight for Banff. But we persisted, found a parking spot and walked into a cool and quiet Good Earth coffee shop where we sat for a few minutes to come round again.
Feeling refreshed, we rejoined Highway 1 back to Banff, Cascade Mountain looking utterly imposing as we turned off into the town. We joined the queue to check in to the campground, but at least we managed to get “advance” processing as we had a reservation. A ranger checked us in, gave us our pass, and we could pull out around the rest of the vehicles waiting to get a spot and make our way to our campsite. We pulled in to J56 and set up the tent to dry off in the afternoon sunshine. Then it was time to freshen up with a blissful shower and pull on some clean clothes. You have no idea how good that felt!
And now there was only one thing on our mind. Well, two really: food and beer. On our drive in to town we passed a trio of deer hanging out in the front yard of a house. You know, just standing around, not looking bothered by us at all. We found a convenient parking spot and went to the Elk and Oarsman where we got a decent elk burger, although we were only able to wash it down with mediocre beer. Not that it really mattered. We were comfy and basking in the glow of eating real food. We watched the evening light on Mount Rundle as we finished up before walking out to get some chocolate and hot drinks for dessert, which we savoured while sitting in the car at the campground, giving our bodies some time to digest the calories we’d just consumed.
Then it was time to crawl into the tent for the last time. I don’t know if our time in the backcountry had sensitized our heading but we could easily hear the distant sound of traffic on the highway, the occasional “barppp” as a vehicle drove over the cattle grid, and the rumbling trains. So many trains! So many whistle blasts all through the night… But we didn’t care. The night was cool and starry, and we were comfy and cosy in our sleeping bags. It was the perfect end to a superb week in the Banff and Mount Assiniboine backcountry.
We couldn’t believe that we’d pulled it off, this hastily-arranged last-minute trip. The weather had been in our favour, and we had seen so many spectacular sights, not least of which were all the golden larches. It was definitely a trip to savour, and now that we’ve hiked in from either direction, I think we can truly say that we’ve earned the helicopter ride next time! And there will be a next time.