|Packing up the tents at our Palliser River camp - Mount Queen Elizabeth in the background|
The next morning we set off toward the Palliser Pass. The trail wasn’t always well defined, but we would stop once in a while to discuss the possible routes. They all led to the pass, but some were more direct than others. We were still on the B.C. side and the forest was still quite dense. We passed Palliser Lake and it was prettier than I expected – azure blue and surrounded by mixed forest. After Back Lake the trees opened up and we crossed the Continental Divide for the second time in two days and into the southern tip of Banff National Park. We were into open terrain once again. Mounts Queen Elizabeth and Williams bracketed the pass. Belgium Lake lay to our left. Miles and miles of an open, wide valley and its willow lined river lay ahead.
There was a lot of movement in the vegetation along the river and I stopped to observe that most of it was due to the many toads living in this remote valley. I had experienced this before – in the Mist Creek valley and near Burns Creek waterfall. Toads are common inhabitants of the Rocky Mountains.
It was an easy day after that, as we moved gradually down the valley. Several times we had to navigate around places where the meandering river had obliterated the trail. We could see Burstall Pass to the east. I remember sitting just below the pass many years before with my beloved Jack Russell Terrier, Billy and staring out into the Spray Valley. I could see Leman Lake from my lofty perch and Spray Pass behind it. I thought that one day I might cross the Palliser Pass and visit the remote Palliser River valley…
I stopped to look back toward the pass once more and I saluted the Palliser valley. Good bye and good riddance…
Both Don and I had been impressed with the quality of the backcountry campsites in Kananskis Country – they had all been upgraded in the intervening years since I last backpacked. The tent pads were good, there was nearby water, there were food lockups (more convenient than bear poles) and even the outhouses were quite pleasant. You could bring your wife or girlfriend backpacking now and not have to subject her to those nasty old shacks! The food preparation has been moved away from sleeping areas on the advice of bear attack expert, Stephen Herrero no doubt. It is a bit less convenient, but much safer for both bears and people. I believe the communal fires discourage wasted wood and offer an opportunity to meet some of your fellow hikers.
We camped at the Birdwood back country site. The new standards are not being assumed by our National Parks. The bear safety facilities were good, but the rest wasn’t comparable. There were cables to hang your food, which was alright. The rest, I could live with, but camps with no water just seemed ridiculous. The back-country standards of our National Parks have definitely fallen behind both the Alberta and B.C. Provincial Parks.
We were surprised when a young couple arrive at this remote campsite. They joined us at a picnic table as we prepared dinner. John and Laura were Swiss adventurers out hiking the Great Divide Trail. They had started in Waterton and had followed us over the North Kananaskis Pass and up the Palliser. We listened to their itinerary and had to take our hats off to them both. They were probably doubling the amount of kilometers we would do every day over rough terrain. It’s no wonder most of the peaks in the Rockies were initially climbed by Swiss Guides! I was impressed. They had many tales of their adventures around the world. I felt a bit out of place as they swapped stories with Don about traveling to Iceland, Europe and Nepal.
They were gone by the time we got out of our sleeping bags the next morning. We had managed to go a couple of days without precipitation, but now it began to rain as we set out on muddy trails that had been churned up by pack horses heading up and down the valley that morning. Then it began to pour, making the going very difficult. No wonder the trails had been twinned in many places! For hikers, horses can be a double edged sword. They often leave trails that wouldn’t be open at all if not for them (such as the Palliser), but they can churn up what would be good trails and leave them in a complete muddy mess, covered with dung and drawing every fly in the valley. For the most part, I respect the horse guides. This is their domain and most of them are far more knowledgeable about this country than I ever will be. It’s “live and let live”. That didn’t stop me from cursing them under my breath that morning.
We hardly noticed Mounts Warre and Vavasour (named for two British agents who came this way on a mission to the Oregon territories) and the turn-off to historic Whiteman Pass, as we trudged through the mud. Just before Bryant Creek, we ran into a jolly group of fellow hikers who were heading up the Spray River Valley. I noticed that they hardly had any gear. They explained that they had paid for horse guides to deliver their gear and setup a camp near the Palliser Pass. One of them asked me how the trail was. I just smiled and told them that the trail was in wonderful condition. “Enjoy!” I’m not usually so passive-aggressive. They were all in good spirits and several of them laughed at my remarks as they continued past me.
The rain stopped, and the sun came out just as we arrived at the Bryant Creek Bridge. We took the opportunity to eat and dry out some of our gear. Then we continued up a wider, better trail to our next camp at McBride’s near the Bryant Creek warden cabin. We had time to enjoy the wide open meadows and pretty mountain valley around the cabin that evening. I was already excited about the next day and my first-ever visit to iconic Mount Assiniboine.