Marvel and Wonder – a tale of Assiniboine

Plodding up through the Albertan woods, the 28km trail to Assiniboine started rather mundanely.  We’d started late from the parking lot at Mt Shark, which was to fortuitously result in a soaking and a flying tent near dark, but where hopeful that we could make it to the campground before dark.  Even at a decent pace it would be 6-8hrs on the go, with a reasonable 460m elevation gain.  A late start was around noon… but we set off cheery and with warnings of bears along the way, there was definitely some loud chatter between us as we marched on.

The view was breathtaking the moment we broke through the trees near the warden’s cabin at Bryant Creek.  Wonder Peak, Mt Cautley, and Mt Mercer sat before us in their colossal, eternal, grey formation, rising from the green river valley and berry fields.  In that moment the wilderness takes you to another world.  The greatness of the beauty distracts you from any sense of meaninglessness.  The vastness hides you away from daily worries or stresses.

We choose to do a loop for our tour.  Up via Assiniboine Pass, returning via Wonder Pass (and Marvel Lake).  So on we went, becoming acutely aware that the berry bushes were prime territory for bears.  Without warning we managed to loose the trail.  What was once a reasonably well marked horse trail became a riverbed.  Searching for signs of previous travellers we finally stumbled on the trail, that happened to be on our right and again, seemingly obvious as a well worn path.  Confused, but grateful, we marched on having taken only a short break for water and snacks.  Onwards and upwards.  Most of the elevation gain was to be in the next couple of kilometres.  It was slow going, and with my knee starting to give in, and the packs weighing heavier on our backs, it was starting to feel like quite the mission.

Cresting the watershed, the views were again, spectacular.  The mountains stretched forever, reinforcing the vastness felt in the river valley.  A little further we would cross the Alberta / British Colombia border, marked by a signpost and some information on the Assiniboine park.  With a relatively easy and short walk we finally got to choose a tent pitch.  The decision to take only one small two person tent was probably a good one for less than obvious reasons.  Unfortunately the tent pads, so common in Canada, were boxed in course gravel in small squares.  Unfortunate when using a tent that isn’t freestanding, or too long to be able to pitch the small pegs into something solid (so course was the gravel).  The clouds that had started to ominously roll in just prior to our arrival started to rumble.  Rain came just as the tent was being pitched, and it poured.  Trying to get rocks big enough to anchor the guy ropes was no easy task with the strong wind pulling the tent off the pad.  I thought I’d managed to get it pitched, but as I sat soaking wet in the covered cooking area I had a sinking thought that I should go check on the tent.  Sure enough the tent was gone, the wind that was whipping around the mountain had shot the tent off the pad and in the moment of panic I thought we’d be sleeping on the floor of the cook area that night.  With a heavy sigh of relief I found the tent caught up in the bushes not too far from away.  Gathering larger rocks, and getting wetter still, I finally managed to secure the tent just as the storm subsided.  I guess the decision was try to get the tent pitched in the daylight (but in the storm) or risk putting it up in the storm in the darkness.  Hindsight was being an asshole, as the wind and rain subsided with enough daylight to have made that exercise a lot easier…

Dinner was a crowded affair.  There were a large number of loud, drunk, and generally obnoxious twenty somethings who’d helicoptered in copious amounts of booze the day before and had apparently upset many the previous night with their escapades.  Including leaving food within easy access of bears who’d happily obliged and wondered into camp for a snack.  An event that recurred that evening much to wild screams of the group that could be heard from afar.  Not that we rushed to help.  Other than this rowdy bunch there were some super interesting people.  A British spy, and a cool woman that was planning to walk 100’s of km up into the Arctic Circle, solo!  A trip that would require a lot of planning and food caches sent ahead on an unmarked route, often devoid of landmarks.  Amazing.

The night was cold.  My down bag was rated to 3 degrees but it was cold. The decision to share one light (950grams) tent, became a blessing as we both huddled together for warmth.  The next day the dew on the tent highlighted once more that camping pads and the style of tent I have are not compatible, with the sides having sagged and water dripping in.

Not being early starters we crawled through the morning before heading off to explore little peaks and lakes around, finishing the day with afternoon tea and cakes at the heli-lodge.  Two bites in to the pound cake a big crunch in my mouth created some alarm.  As it turned out it was a crown I’d had put on in Egypt after a root-canal a few months prior.  Not ideal.  The second night was quieter, with our noisy neighbours having left, but left us space to get to know some of the others better.  I was rather charmed by solo hiker, and admired her courage (or perhaps insanity).

The sunrise was stunning… and with a slow start we set off, past the foot of Mt Assiniboine, it’s footlocker lake, the lodge (of almost swallowed crown), and up to the watershed at The Towers.  The view into the next valley and down to Marvel Lake was as described, marvellous!  The lake was blue green, the mountains pale grey, and the trees deep green.  A waterfall decorated the mountain in the background, tumbling from a glacier.  We took many moments along the way to repeat the thoughts of objective beauty.  A steeply descending path took us back to Bryant’s Creek.  Lunch was a welcome stop on a little “beach” where we soaked tired feet, and briefly chatted to fellow travellers.  The final slog was met with short conversations with locals to the area, and locals to me (fat bike bike-packers from Belfast).  The guy from Canmore was a funny one and had just encountered a grizzly bear while coming back from a little fishing trip.  He was riding a classic mountain bike, an old Specialized Stumpjumper.  He was impressed I knew it, and we chatted for a while as he rode alongside us.

Back at the car, after what seemed an endless last section, we both happily sunk back into the seats, daydreaming of soaking in the hot-springs at Radium, having managed around 75km in 3days it was a well earned stop.

(Notes: For a technical profile of the routes used you can find them here… 🙂 )

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