Friday, August 24, 2018

Our Guide to Hiking the Canadian Rockies

I've always wanted to come to Canada, live in Canada, do everything Canadian - maybe just because every Canadian I've ever met has been great and I love mountains and despite all my travels I've never been. Andrew had been but a long time ago - when he was 16 he spent a month in Canada. We had a rough plan to drive across the country and focus our time on hiking in the Canadian Rockies. I'd also never back packed with my own tent and bed and kitchen, something I've always been a bit embarrassed about - time to rectify that! 

We turned up with our gear but have learned so much about how to hike Canada in the last 5 weeks I thought I'd try and summarise it rather than describe every hike and amazing view. 
On the Red Chairs on our first hike
Summary of our trip

We arrived in the Canadian Rockies on 15th July, directly from the Calgary Stampede and left finally on 20th August 2018. We did leave the parks to seek a hotel for three nights but otherwise were park bound and tenting. We completed 12 day hikes and 6 back pack trips, walking around 600 km and climbing about 9000m of elevation gain -yes that's higher than mount Everest. We camped every night except 4 nights where we went to a hotel; I have a saying 5 stars or under the stars and 5 stars in Jasper costs over CAD700 a night plus taxes, so this was definitely an 'under the stars' trip.

Wilcox Pass - check out the snow gecko on the Mountain

What's in our pack

We went to the sales before we left the US and bought most of our gear at REI, on special offer. Some extras came from Amazon. The advice we got was mostly great but there are some learnings:

With our packs on the Syline

- Tent - REI Half Dome 2 Plus - $159 - just big enough for us and our backpacks, fairly light (5llb 5oz) but robust enough to handle an extended trip. Has been totally fantastic and never let in a mosquito or drop of rain. We did spend an extra $24 on a footprint - a second ground sheet and always used that.

Wabasso Lake

- Bed - Exped SynMat Duo $269 - this was a splurge but sleep is important and we're used to cuddling up at night so I wasn't about to skimp on that. The exped is one of only a few lightweight duo air mattress - we opted not to go for the hyperlite version so it weighed a little more but should last the distance. It's so comfy and insulted, we use a snoozle bag to inflate it. It has been great, until Andrew jumped on it with his sunglasses in his hand and punctured it in two places - luckily this was our last backpack trip, Andrew managed to repair it but it will never be as pretty.

- Pillows - Sea to Sumit Aeros inflatable pillows $32.19 each and we really don't love these. 

- Sleeping Bags - we went for two down 'Rumpls' -$186.69 each- super small, snuggly and light but with hindsight for the rockies we really should have bought 3 season sleeping bags. They were great for many locations but up high we were cold and most nights wore nearly all our clothes. We still love the Rumpl but it doesn't cut it in Canadian mountains.

- Back Packs - Deuter Aircontact Lite - $149 each. Mine is slightly smaller at 55L and Andrew's was 60L. Our packs were small compared to many but we had more than enough space and never had to hang anything off them. Mine had a flower which I liked and carried everyday. Unbelievably, we only used the additional ducks back (waterproof covers) $29.95 each once!

- Trek Poles - $139 each pair- Carbon Flash. Saved our knees totally, Andrew said he'd give up hiking before he'd use them but is now totally converted. Our knees are both in great shape after this trip. You need poles in the Rockies for crossing snow (how deep is it) and fording rivers.
View on Parker Ridge
- Clothes - we used what we had, although I bought a new pair of leggings, thermal underwear and a puffer vest and Andrew bought a new rain jacket. We added waterproof trousers in Canada but only wore them twice.    Cost approx $700 - mostly his very fancy Arc-Teryx jacket

- Boots - our Aussie hiking shoes were totally worn out and we were so pleased we decided to go back a grab some proper boots - Salomon 4D Quest GTX Boots $230 each. We were both super happy with these boots that were easy to wear in, until one of mine died on the Berg Lake Trial. It meant we had to come off a day early and replace them. REI were great and replaced them without a question but it was either drive to the US or wait 2 weeks for deliver to Canada. They did offer a refund but I couldn't get the exact boots in Jasper or Banff and didn't want to risk blisters so we drove the 9 hours each way to the US for new boots and a night in a hotel - it was a rainy weekend so we didn't mind..... The customs officers at he border thought we were mad!

- Water - we used the cheapest water filter from Walmart and it was fantastic and super light. $29 for the Sawyer Squeeze Filter. We filtered all water for drinking and cooking with this and only had to flush it a couple of times. We carried aquatabs as a back up but never used them.

- Bear Spray - $27.84. It's been out more than we ever imagined but never used, we go everywhere with it, especially at dinner every night and the loo of course. Today two days after leaving the rockies we were mountain biking in the Okanagen without the spray - oh of course there's another bear!

The Syline from Watchtower Pass
- Cooking - Trangia is a classic which Andrew has always used; we have two in Australia so another one won't hurt even though it did cost a $100 for the ultralight. We use methylated spirits and did nearly have a fire ball when we used Canadian Camp fuel which turned out not to be the same. We switched that out and all was good. We never really needed the kettle and left that behind when back packing. We bought a special bottle for the fuel when backpacking $16.99

- Washing - a lot of wipes but also nearly every backpack trip allowed us to swim or get a wash in the river, even though it was cold. We actually found it easier to keep clean back country than front country as many of the front country campsites don't have showers in the parks. We had a solar shower but really only used that when we had access to hot water as we weren't sitting around very much on this trip! We always used Sea to Summit Wilderness Wash $5.95 - it's super concentrated.
Taking a dip in Scarob Lake complete with glaciers

- First Aid - we took a small bag of goodies from the boat, including a space blanket, pain killers, bandages, dressings and antiseptic cream. We only ever used plasters, allergy tablets and a few paracetamol tablets. 

So I guess we spent nearly $3,000 on gear but it should mostly last along time and many more trips.


It wasn't a highlight but we've both lost a bit of weight so that's a good thing. When hiking we ate simply - granola bar for breakfast, bread and cheddar cheese for lunch and usually a dehydrated meal for dinner. We drank peppermint tea in huge quantities and had chocolate (snicker bars or fruit n nut) or beef jerky as snacks. We tried making meals on the trial like gnocchi and pesto or our own pasta but in the end we gave up and found the package meals were just easier. Backpackers Pantry Pad Thai and Chana Massala were our favs and featured on every back pack trip. We met loads of Canadians who were making their own dehydrated meals and we tried a few that were great - we might look into that for the boat. Although we've heard some horror stories too about liver and seafood stinking out homes.

Wilcox Ridge Banff
The Parks 

We bought our Parks Passes at MEC before we arrived in our first park - CA$67.70 each (or $136.40 for a family) - highly recommended as otherwise there are long queues to purchase this at the entry gates.
Bald Hills - Jasper

We started in Jasper National Park and this was definitely our favourite, but we also hiked in Banff National Park, Glacier National Park, Kootenay National Park, Mount Robson Provincial Park, and Mount Assiniboine Provincial Park. We drove through Yoho National Park but sadly didn't get in a hike there. The parks at this time of the year are seriously busy and every front country campsite than can be reserved is fully booked, the well known trails are also fully booked from January - the park websites are a bit tricky to use on an iPhone, so read on for our tips and how we managed to do what we did. 

We did hear though that 97% of people who visit the parks never leave the road turnouts - so like most things it's not hard to get away from the crowds. Although we never went to Lake Louise sadly - the parking lot is full at 6am and thereafter you spend a who day taking a bus from overflow parking, not our idea of national park adventure so we skipped that.

Berg Lake Trail Bridge

Lovely Alpine meadows around Sunshine Village
The Campsites

We stayed in all sorts of Campsites- some by the highway to complete wilderness camping. Parks Canada charges a reservation fee of CA$11 for each booking - this is non refundable and is charged unless you manage to turn up at a campsite with availability or for back country you book with a parks office for that day or the next day. In high season both are pretty unlikely so the reservation fee is part of life. It's important to know that if you cancel a reservation more than 3 days out you get a refund of the camping fee - also note this for working the system as no-one seems to cancel more than 3 days out!

Front Country (drive in) - These range in price from about CA$15.70 a night for the First Come First Serve sites which have a drop toilet and maybe a water tap, to around CA$21 a night for reservable sites without a shower to around $40 or more a night for full service sites; although we never made it to one of those, as they were all fully booked. All the sites we stayed at include a picnic bench and a fire pit.
FCFS site at Protection Mountain

Most campgrounds, when there's no fire ban, will let you have a camp fire and provide logs for payment of an additional $8.80 a night. 

Back Country - These sites charge per person CA$9.80 and include the back country permit, in additional you pay a reservation fee mentioned above. There is usually a non-potable water source near-by, some sort of back-country toilet (eek), and a bear proof storage spot (either poles to hang a bag, or bear lockers) for food, toiletries and cooking equipment. There's usually a few benches in a communal cooking area - this is super social and where we have met some fantastic people and learned about great hikes and tips. Some places provide a place to dispose of 'grey water' but others rely on you to packet any waste in your washing up and carefully pour water only away from camp and water sources. Canadian's are super careful with grey water waste and will pull up anyone not complying with the rules - washing up in rivers and toothpaste is definitely no go in Canada.

Campers Cooking at Porcupine - on the way to Mount Assiniboine

We stayed two nights in the Canadian Rockies at a commercial camp grounds - one near Mount Robson National Park was great, right on the river with nice facilities and reasonable fees. The other was a KOA site in Revelstoke and they are now totally blacklisted!

Working the System

We cannot quite believe that we have managed to do the hikes we have. The key is to be obsessive about checking availability online at National Parks & BC Parks, be flexible and be prepared to pay lots of reservation fees. If you see a camp site on any trail you want to do - book it and try and work it out later. 

Scarob Lake

You must always use the 'full website' for Back Country reservations, as it just doesn't work on the mobile site. If you have a computer the map view is great but we nearly always were on the Iphone so Calendar view is the only thing that works. Each National Park is slightly different in the way back country campsites are arranged - Jasper is easy, pick the trail, then use the calendar to see the sites. Banff just has a huge list so unless you know all the names of the camping areas it's really confusing.

Andrew studied our paper topo maps and route planned for us, only using the paper maps did we find we could do the hikes we wanted without having pre-booked. He found different routes in, campsites in adjoining parks and sometimes we just had to do longer or shorter hiking days than we would have planned. Then on a couple of occasion we just got lucky - like when a lovely Parks Officer was chatting with us, spotted a cancellation and just grabbed it for us without us asking. That was how we ended up at Egypt Lake.... The parks staff we met were excellent helpful and sometimes out in the field bent the rules a bit to help us out.
Egypt Lake - only thanks to the Parks Officer for grabbing this for us

The Weather

Looking back we honestly cannot believe how great it's been. My take on it is that as a lot of weather systems are born in the Rocky Mountains they leave pretty quickly so any bad weather only lasts a day or two, cools things down and then it's just back to sunshine and mostly clear skies. We definitely had more rain in the first couple of weeks than more recently, however smoke has been the issue for the last couple of weeks, sadly and that can cool things down as well as ruin the view. The end of July was about as perfect as it could be. 
Maligne Lake - how perfect

We have had frost in the mountains overnight but mostly temperatures of mid 20s during the day and 5/6 degrees c overnight. Down in the townships it's much warmer and temperatures of around 11 degrees c overnight - much nicer for camping.

On top of the notch on our second Skyline
The Hiking 

Here's the list we did:

Wilcox Ridge - Day hike 12km - quickly into the Alpine for amazing views, snow and options to extend to a peak summit

Bald Hills - Day hike 17 km - stunning views of Maligne Lake and options for ridge walking beyond the standard trial which we of course did

Geraldine Lakes - Day hike 13km - oh my gosh sooo steep but no-one there and stunning views. Can overnight at the second lake too, although we didn't.
Geraldine Lakes - Second Lake
Sulpher Skyline - Day hike 10km - easy, popular hike with great views north of Jasper and option to hop in the Miette hot springs after which was pretty nice.

Parker Ridge - Day hike 10km - easy, popular hike with a few options to extend, great views of the Columbia Icefield. We ended up having lunch on our own as a storm came through to the north and scared everyone off - yay!

Parker Ridge

Sunwapter Falls - Day hike 3 km - stroll to the lower falls - very pretty.

Whirlpool Valley - Day hike 8 km - rainy day walk by the river, left early when it started to hail and we saw a big bear.

Wabasso Lake - Day hike 9 km - another rainy day with bears and bugs - leads to the Skyline

The Skyline - Back Pack 55km - 4 days to the Notch and back via Evelyn Creek, Watchtower and Little Shovel. The reason we came to do this trail Andrew did when he was 16 - just awesome.

Whistling and Healy Pass Trial - Back Pack 60km - 4 days out of sunshine village gondola in a loop 
Egypt Lake, Shadow Lake and back to Egypt. Swimming in Scarab lake was a highlight of our trip.

Taking the Gondola to Sunshine saved us 535m of ascent and was fun too
Heading to Egypt Lake from Sunshine Ski Village 
Nipika Resort Canyons - Day Hike 12km - when Kootenay NP was closed for fires we found this gem of a hike, privately managed but open to the public.
Nipika Canyons

Askulen Valley - Day Hike 14 km in the rain

Maligne Pass - Back Pack 50kms - 3 days including the pass which was hard but amazing, we stayed at Waterfalls and Poboktan campsites and day hiked up the valleys.

Berg Lake Trial - Back Pack 42 kms - 3 days on this epic trial and including a day hike to toe of the Robson glacier and aldophus lake.

Kinney Lake - Berg Lake Trail, slightly smokey reflection

Mount Assiniboine - Back pack 73 kms plus 10 km day hike to Nub Peak - 3 incredible and tough days. Afternoon tea at the lodge was a treat and the view spectucular - we'd love to come back when it's less smokey
Mount Assiniboine - the view from the lodge

The Skyline again - Back pack 44 kms end to end - 3 days back on our favourite trial in the traditional route to end our Canadian Rockies adventure. The day we hiked Curator to Signal it was the clearest it's been in days, it felt like a gift!

Tekarra Mountain - the Skyline

Where now just about to head to Vancouver for a few days before flying to Australia for a month, then we'll be heading back to Askari. In the meantime we are getting great weekly updates from Oxford Boatyard who are looking after her nicely.

Sunday, July 8, 2018

Whiteshell, Winnipeg, Bears and Backpacking

We crossed the border into Manitoba and spotted a visitors centre on the highway. What a great decision to stop here, as we met Daryl who was totally passionate about Whiteshell Provincial Park and told us all the best things to see and do in Manitoba. We could have spent a month with all his ideas, as our conversation developed we learned he was from Zimbabwe and had lived in Perth, in fact his daughters just flew back the day before so he was super excited to meet us. On his recommendation we drove directly to one of Manitoba’s most famous hikes – the Hunt Lake Trial. This trial looked pretty straightforward around a lake that was created by a meteor, however it was really pretty challenging with significant undulations and rock scrambles but all the way we caught glimpses of the beautiful lake. It was a really rewarding hike that did challenge our knees a bit, even with our new poles on their first run out.
Hunt Lake

We came off the trial at about 6pm and were pretty exhausted, however the drive through the park to the camping area Daryl recommended on the river was enough to revive our spirits. We passed by lake after lake, with stunning marshlands and wide rivers until we reached the spot at Nutimik Lake. We quickly pitched the tent and went for a stroll to find the river. The sunset over the river from the bridge was a real highlight as the light was just amazing.
Whiteshell marshland

The next morning, we went off to explore. First stop was an incredible Petroform site just a few kms away – this is an aboriginal spiritual site where rocks are placed on flat surfaces. It’s hard for experts to date as the rocks have been moved and no relics have been found in the vicinity, but the first nation people still conduct ceremonies there and leave offerings. It really reminded us of rock etching sites in NSW and was pretty eerie.

The park is called Whiteshell after small white cowrie shells found in the park. They are not natural to the area but are sacred to the Obijway people, who may have brought them from the East Coast. The shells were once used as currency.


We then headed up to Pinawa and checked out the small town before going for a nice walk around the Pinawa Dam – now disused but was one of the first hydroelectric power stations operating from 1906 to 1951. It has recently been restored to show how it would have worked with great interpretive signs and was just fascinating and very beautiful. It was built by a commercial operator despite huge technical risks and with no end market in mind- pretty brave decision but it drove significant growth in Winnipeg, as electricity became part of normal life. Not far from the Dam was a fantastic suspension bridge that forms for of the trans Canada trial as it crosses the Whiteshell River

Pinawa Dam

After lunch we headed to the Forest Pines Trial for a lovely walk along the river passed a fantastic set of rapids and two waterfalls, I even took a dip on the way back – what more do you want? Oh, it didn’t stop there, as we came back to the camp ground we thought we’d check out the river for a sundowner. We found a perfect sandy beach. So we ended up making dinner out there and enjoying the view and a couple of beers. What a fantastic day in this beautiful park that we so nearly drove by based on some of the reviews and blogs we had read.

Winnipeg was on our hit list for the next day, we booked into the historic Fort Garry Hotel on a great Friday night rate. We were so impressed as we checked in, it really was beautiful and when we reached our room to find a huge squidgy king size bed it’s a wonder we left the room at all. We had some admin to do and then headed out and found Union Station – a beautiful building without any trains – not for at least 16 hours! We spent the afternoon at the Canadian Museum of Human Rights and then took a wander through down town Winnipeg which has so much in common with Perth – on a hot afternoon we felt pretty at home. However, strolling over the bridge to a lovely French Café for a wonderful dinner reminded us just where we were in fantastic Canada. Back at the hotel a great band played in the lobby bar until late – more treats and a few drinks for us.

Canadian Centre for Human Rights - Winnipeg

Creme Brûlée - yuuuum!

It was another England World Cup Football match the next morning – so getting to watch that from bed with full commentary was such a treat for Andrew. The hotel brought coffee and biscuits to the room and we were so relaxed we so nearly stayed an extra night.
Great bar at Fort Garry Hotel
Leaving Winnipeg mid morning we had a pretty dull drive through to Mount Riding National Park – our first National Park and Manitoba’s oldest. The park was packed out in the main areas being one of the hottest weekends in the year. We however had different plans than most - my first backpacking hike to a backcountry camping area (all other long distance hikes I’ve done have had the gear transported – Andrew on the other hand has always hiked long distance with his own gear).

By the time we cleared into the park it was getting towards mid afternoon. On the drive through the park we came across a mumma black bear with three cubs, just a short distance from the road wow! Our drive through to the central trail took us through the bison enclosure where we saw bison grazing – what a shame that there used to be millions of bison in this area that is now virtually reduced to this small display heard.

We set up our packs and got underway – just over 10km to our camp for the night. 2 kms in and we spot a dark shape on the trail, we edge closer and yes it’s a bear. Wowzer who’d have thought it! Andrew grabbed the bear spray and we reviewed our earlier discussion about bears. As it happened, we came a little closer, maybe 30 or 40 metres and then Andrew shouted out for the bear to go away – it turned looked at us and then ran off – phew! Then we had to decide if we were happy to go on, we both felt it was okay as the bear was scared of us, however we made so much noise the rest of the way we saw no other wildlife. We also made such a great speed to the camp, even with our heavy packs; probably the adrenaline. Somebody was attacked in Whiteshell park whilst we were there so it was in our mind.

At the camp we found a perfect clearing complete with a wood pile, pic-nic tables, a drop toilet and a bore pump for water. What luxury. We were not expecting anything like this. I don’t think either of us slept much that night and we were awoken by something in the camp ground that sounded like an electrical clicking noise – we convinced ourselves it was a tag on a grazing animal but the bear spray was kept very close nonetheless. The next morning we hiked off to another camp ground on the Minnedosa River where we had lunch and decided we would continue on our journey rather than spend the night; after all we had tested the gear and ourselves and were keen to make it to make it to Saskatchewan to visit some very special friends.