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Our introduction to Canada had not been a going well. After arriving in Canada, we headed for Banff and looked for backcountry permits. Unknowingly, we had picked the Canadian equivalent of 4th of July weekend -- Heritage Day. The only open spot was in the Burstall Pass area, the trailhead to which was actually outside Banff NP. We weren't ecstatic with the forced camping arrangements, either. Our route would take us from 1900m, up to Burstall Pass (2450m), then over the pass and into the Palliser River Valley, where we were forced to camp in an organized campground, at 1850m, in what I knew was going to be a mosquito-infested bog. To top it all off, we had to pay a surprisingly large amount of money for the privilege of being forced to use the campground. But the arrangement is similar to that in many of the northern US states.
Of course, it started raining hard that night on our tent in Banff, and it kept up all morning. By the time we reached the trailhead at noon, the rain was increasing. I don't know how I managed it, but my pack was absurdedly heavy. Probably 70 pounds, or maybe more. Our crossing of Burstall Creek was fairly difficult, but we managed without wading and without getting wet. I was really groaning under the weight of the pack. Antoine moved much more quickly, while James hung back with me. After a long hump out of the Burstall Creek Valley, the trail comes to an open meadow in a hanging valley, at the head of which is Burstall Pass. At this point, the weather cleared. It didn't clear slowly; it was like a portal to the heavens opened. One minute I was breathless and getting soaked; the next I was standing dumbstruck as I beheld the most impressive mountains I'd ever seen.
James and I moved steadily up the valley. Birds chirped, flowers smelled. Antoine called out from high on the pass. I answered him like a Swiss yodler, my echoes reverberating in the valley for five seconds or more. The hills were alive with the sound of music! Upon reaching Burstall Pass, we took a lunch consisting of salami, cheese, and tomato sandwiches. I opened my bear canister and pulled out three of the ten (yes, ten) oranges that it contained. Miniature squirrels acted really cute as they scampered around on the rocks. In short, the trip was beginning to redeem itself for all the logistical headaches it had caused.
All good things must end. Within an hour, we had given up all our hard-earned elevation. Now it was hot and muggy, and the mosquitoes were voracious. Ah, we must be approaching our government-dictated campsite! Sure enough, the camp was merely 100 yards from the Palliser River. At least we picked the best of five campsites. Upon seeing the cooking area, which is detached from the campsites, I noticed that the 3 pounds of bulk called a bear canister was a waste -- bear cables were set up for food hanging.
I'll only say this once -- the mosquitoes were bad. Not the most aggressive I've seen, and not the biggest I've seen, but they more than made up in numbers for what they lacked in brawn. I wore the same long pants and long polypropolene shirt for three days, and by the time we were out, I probably had 50 bites through my clothes.
The next morning we set off for Palliser Pass, at the head of the Palliser River. This is also the boundary between Alberta and British Columbia. The hike to the pass took quite a while, but the scenery was grand. From the pass we ascended up a ridge to escape the mosquitoes while we lunched. Views from there were spectacular. I'll spare the reader from cheesy metaphor and just say that: the mountains were high and rugged, the grass was green, and the sky was very blue. Antoine was staunchly against doing any further scrambling, which surprised me, because he's in fabulous shape (He beat me to the top of Mt. Tallac by 10-15 minutes). I didn't understand until I saw the bleeding, half-dollar-sized blister on his heel the next day.
After our long dayhike we tromped over to Leman Lake, a beautiful Alpine gem which sits in the shadow of Mt. Leman, which may be the most interesting mountain I've ever seen. Mt. Leman rises like a monolith -- probably 3-4000 feet above the valley floor; totally unconnected from the surrounding ranges. The exposed rock strata make a perfect anticline -- impressive, since the north face is almost totally shear. And finally, on the top of the flat peak is an incredibly white perpetual snowfield. I washed my sweaty body in the lake and reveled in the wind that kept the mosquitoes off me for once, while James did some flyfishing.
Just to hammer home the fact that the backcountry camping system sucks, we returned to the "cooking area" to find 10-15 people there. Any solitude would not be found within shouting distance of this campground! Since there are five campsites, there are five bear cables. By the time we were ready to hang our food, all five were occupied. Hmmm... I guess that this was due to the squatters who camped on the fringe of the campground, and who obviously didn't pay a red cent to camp there.
The hike out was predictable. My pack still weighed a ton
(probably 60 pounds), and the climb back up to Burstall Pass was
brutal, gaining 600 meters in a mere 2 km. Switchbacks are not in
the Canadian trailmaker's arsenal. When I'm dayhiking, I like
this kind of trail, but not that day! By the time I made the pass, I
was dragging well behind Antoine and James, and I felt beaten
to a pulp. The hike down was fantastic, as it was last time.
We saw two grizzlies in the narrow hanging valley, in spite of the
many dayhikers who traveled along the trail. We were back in
the car none too soon, and soon in Calgary for the SEG
Department of Geophysics