Saturday, 20 October 2012

Hiking with Kids in Kananaskis: Pocaterra Cirque

Pocaterra Cirque
There we were, Mack, Michael and myself, a stone's throw from five big horn sheep. All I could think was, "Wow, that beats the larches turning gold any day." 

Golden larch needles
Bighorn sheep out people watching
A week earlier I'd hiked Pocaterra Ridge to see the larches turning gold. Starting from the Highwood Pass day use area in Kananaskis (the highest point of the highest regularly maintained highway in Canada), the larches at Pocaterra are arguably better than in the more popular Larch Valley and the crowds are unarguably thinner. Pocaterra Ridge is also a great hike in its own right, which is something I wouldn't say about Larch Valley. Maybe I've passed through it too many times on the way to Sentinel Pass, Temple Mountain and Eiffel Peak, but the interminable, viewless switchbacks up to Larch Valley aren't my idea of fun. On the way to the ridge we passed by Pocaterra Cirque and I thought it'd make the perfect kids hike: larches for the parents and rocks and stuff for the kids to climb on. (Tryst Lake is another kids' hike that has larches, but not as many as Pocaterra Cirque.)

The trail veers off of the interpretive trail shortly after leaving the parking lot. (A couple weeks earlier instead of veering left we'd gone straight on the kid's hike to Ptarmigan Cirque.) After gaining about 60 m, it drops out of the trees into a lush meadow with Grizzly Ridge to the left, views of the Highwood Valley to the right, and golden larches straight ahead. After passing a very small lake, the trail re-enters the trees and gains another hundred meters or so. Three kilometers from the parking lot the trail splits with Pocaterra Ridge to the right and Grizzly Col to the left. We went left for a few minutes, dropped our packs and had lunch.

We explored, climbed on rocks and made another bigfoot video for an hour, then headed back. It was then that we encountered the bighorn sheep. They were about 10 m off the trail, and didn't seem bothered in the least by us. Although the boys had seen bighorn sheep up close through the car window, it was the first time they'd seen them on the trail. It was also the first time I've seen them that close on the trail. I've seen them from a distance--just the week before we'd seen a few from the ridge, grazing a couple hundred meters below us--but I've never walked right past them. It was one of those shared experiences with Mack and Michael that I`ll remember for the rest of my life.

Another reason I'll remember Pocaterra Cirque is for something Mack said. At the bottom of a steep section where the trail was hard packed dirt and offered little traction, he told me: "Dad, I didn't have any trouble coming down that. All this hiking must be working." Forget the bighorn sheep and the larches. That's what hiking with kids is all about.

Distance: About 6 km return
Elevation gain: About 150 meters
Hiking/Exploring Time: 3 to 5 hour
Directions: Head west on the Trans-Canada. Take the turnoff for Kananaskis Country/Highway 40. Drive south for about 67 km to Highwood Pass parking lot. Head down the trail for a minute or two until you come to an unmaintained trail on the left. Take it.

Click here for a driving map.

Pocaterra Ridge in the background

The trail to Pocaterra Cirque below Grizzly Ridge

We keep running into bigfoot...

Friday, 28 September 2012

Hiking with Kids in Kananaskis: Ptarmigan Cirque

Ptarmigan Cirque
Exploring the creek through Ptarmigan Cirque
They were everywhere. Clams in the meadow. Coral in the scree.

How the kids found all the fossils I'm still not sure. On our last kids hike to Ptarmigan Cirque in Kananaskis, one of the kids found a coral fossil in the rubble heap at the end of the meadow, but I had no idea there were so many. And they were everywhere on this hike. Mack found a big rock sunk into the soft moss of the meadow that had perfectly preserved clams. Michael went looking for marmots in the scree on the south side of the meadow, and came back with pockets full of rocks embedded with the outlines of corals. Soon, all the kids were looking for fossils.

Click here for more kids hikes in Banff, Kananaskis, Kootenay and other areas of the Canadian Rockies.

The meadow below Ptarmigan Cirque
Ptarmigan Cirque is my favorite easy kids hike in Kananaskis. It has enough elevation gain to challenge the kids, and rewards them with a broad meadow, a lazy creek to explore, scree to scramble on, and pikas and marmots to chase. There's even a grizzly that frequents the area, but on weekends there are enough people on the trail to reduce the risk of stumbling across it (reduce, not eliminate; I always start my kid's hikes with a brief lesson on what to do if they see a bear). Now, I can add fossils to the list of things I like about it.

This summer I've definitely learned more about the mountains by watching Mack and Michael than they've learned from watching me. As I've mentioned in previous posts, one of the most important lessons has been to tear my eyes away from the big, majestic views in front of me and look--really look--at the ground under my feet. Ever since our fossil hunting expedition on Burns Ridge in the spring, they've been finding clam and coral fossils on almost every hike we've been on. Here I was thinking I'd stumbled on something rare when I noticed the fossils on a scramble up Burns Ridge, and in reality I've been walking over fossils without even seeing them for years.

This year we stopped at the meadow instead of continuing up the valley to the true cirque beyond the rubble heap. The wind was howling over Highwood Pass and it was just too cold to linger very long. (That was early September and it felt like winter was coming to the high country, yet the next week I was sweating in short pants and a t-shirt across the highway on Pocaterra Ridge.) Next year if the weather cooperates we'll make it further, maybe even to Rae Pass just beyond the cirque and around the corner.

Distance: About 3.6 km return
Elevation gain: 230 meters
Hiking/Exploring Time: 3 to 5 hour
Directions: Head west on the Trans-Canada. Take the turnoff for Kananaskis Country/Highway 40. Drive south for about 67 km to Highwood Pass parking lot. Follow the signs to the Ptarmigan Cirque trail across the highway.

Click here for a driving map. 

Wednesday, 26 September 2012

Hiking with Kids in Kananaskis: Cat Creek

The waterfall at Cat Creek
It's short. It's easy. It's a great hike for younger kids or as an early or late season hike for any kid.

The first time we hiked Cat Creek in Kananaskis, it was a last minute substitution for Ptarmigan Cirque, which was being rained on. I'd quickly scanned the Kananaskis Country website and there it was. Longview to the east was forecast to get rainy periods, so I figured it was worth a try. What we found at the end of the trail was a beautiful waterfall and lots of rocks for the kids to climb on.

Click here for more kids hikes in Banff, Kananaskis, Kootenay and other areas of the Canadian Rockies. 

The trail itself is a neglected interpretive trail that passes by old mining roads and never leaves the trees. Half an hour or so of hiking and a couple ups and downs takes you to a bridge across the creek. A couple minutes later and you're at the waterfall. Beware: kids scrambling up the rocks can send showers of scree down on unsuspecting hikers below.

One of the scrambling options at Cat Creek
As I said, the trail is easy. Much easier than most of the trails I take the boys on. The first time we went, Mack was 10 and not challenged at all. But Michael was five and found the hike to the waterfall challenging enough to engage him but so challenging he was discouraged. Likewise, the scrambling at the waterfall was too easy for Mack, but ideal for Michael. Last year we went back, Michael was seven and you could see that he's no longer satisfied with such easy trails. (Yes! All this hiking is working!) If you have kids under 8 that you're introducing to hiking, Cat Creek is a good choice year-round. Otherwise, save it for early or late in the season when longer and higher trails are covered in snow.

Distance: 4.5 km return
Elevation gain: Negligible
Hiking/Exploring Time: 2 to 4 hours
Directions:  Take Highway 22x west to Highway 22 and turn left. Follow Highway 22 through Turner Valley and Black Diamond and continue on it to Highway 541, just before Longview. Turn right. Follow that road to the junction of Highways 541, 40 and 940. Continue straight (Highway 541 turns into Highway 40) for about 6 km and turn left into the Cat Creek day use area. At the north end of the parking lot you'll find a trail that leads across the highway to the start of the interpretive trail.
Cat Creek waterfall
Click here for a driving map.

Friday, 21 September 2012

Should Parents Take Risks?

At 5,897 m ( 19,347 ft) on Ecuador's Cotopaxi in July 2010.
The other day I read a story in Outside Magazine about the 2012 deaths on Mt. Everest, and it made me think about the time a couple years ago when Mack, then 10, asked, "Dad, are you ever going to climb Mt. Everest?"

It turned out he'd watched a movie about Everest in class. In one scene, they interviewed a Canadian climber who recounted how he crossed paths with one of his teammates on the way down from the summit. It was the last time he ever saw the climber, who disappeared on the descent. Mack connected the dots between my climbing and the fact that people die on Everest, and realized that the same fate could happen to me. My answer was an unequivocal "No. I have no intention of ever, ever climbing Mt. Everest. I want to grow old and watch you and your brother grow up."

I've never considered my activities in the mountains excessively risky, but the fact is that they are risky. Falling rocks. Crevasses. Bad footing. Hypothermia. Avalanches. Bears. As soon as you step out of the car at the trailhead, you expose yourself to many, many ways to die. You've effectively re-entered the food chain. But still...I'm very conservative when it comes to safety on the mountain. I don't do stupid things like try to make the tallest mountain in the world the first mountain I've ever climbed. I may do extreme things, but I don't do them in an extreme way.

Scrambling up Lineham Ridge
Then, this past summer while scrambling up Lineham Ridge in Kananaskis, a friend and I were talking about the highs we get when we reach the peak and look out across the tops of mountains stretching as far as we can see. "My little brother wants to try scrambling, but I won't let him," she said. "It's too dangerous."

This was from someone who rock climbs. You know, pulls herself up overhanging cliffs with nothing but a rope anchored into the rock. One fall on a bad anchor and your day can be horribly, fatally ruined. And she thought what we were doing is more dangerous. There are no ropes to stop your fall, and showers of rock dislodged by climbers above or just by wind and water can ping off your helmet like hail. The risks we were taking were hammered home later when the alternate descent route described in the guide book ended at a band of rocks we couldn't down climb. Another women in the group, probably the strongest scrambler of the seven of us, disappeared for 20 minutes as she explored a slot that looked promising. Between us and her was a small stream that made verbal communication impossible. As we waited, I weighed our options if she didn't reappear. None of them were good. Thankfully, she managed to climb back up, but eventually we were forced to retrace our steep steps up to the high point on the ridge and descend the way we had gone up.

Lineham Ridge: It's a looooooong drop down.
Having kids makes you think carefully about the risks you take. A bad day in the mountains won't just affect me, it'll affect them. Is it worth it? I don't have an answer other than I'm still scrambling. But as I plan a high-altitude mountaineering trip to Ecuador in December--a charity climb to raise money for at-risk kids in Ecuador--I'm realizing that I'll have to talk my kids through any worries I'm causing them. I can't promise them that nothing bad will happen, but I can promise that they'll always be in my thoughts and I'll make the right decisions on the mountain to maximize my chances of getting down it in one piece.

Tuesday, 18 September 2012

Take a Kid Mountain Biking Day at Fish Creek Park

After our last, less than successful, attempt at mountain biking at Canyon Creek, I wasn't sure what to do. I knew Mack enjoyed mountain biking and that Michael would too, but I wanted to set Michael up for a guaranteed fun experience. Then I saw the posting for Take A Kid Mountain Biking at Calgary's Fish Creek Park. Hosted by the Calgary Mountain Bike Alliance, a real mountain biker would introduce kids to mountain biking on the trails that criss-cross the park. It sounded perfect.

And it was. A volunteer took us to an easy section of single track where the kids could do practice loops and get experience on a flat trail. Michael took one spill making a sharp turn, but got right back up on his bike and kept pedaling. From there, we played follow the leader through widely spaced trees in a picnic area. We finished on a section of single track with some roots sticking up and...both boys loved it. The trail didn't look like much to me, but as far as the kids were concerned it was an authentic, extreme mountain biking experience. Instead of following the paved pathway to the car, we wound our way back on single track through the trees, over routes and around blind corners.

Mission accomplished. Michael gained valuable confidence, and I now know where to take the boys next time. The network of trails running through Fish Creek is the perfect challenge for kids, and they hold enough adventure to keep the attention of adults. Regardless, mountain biking in Fish Creek with the boys beats mountain biking on more difficult trails without them.

Mountain Biking with Kids in Kananaskis: Canyon Creek

Unhappy Michael. Happy Mack. Indifferent cows.
This year Michael finally "got it". At the age of seven, he learned how to ride his bike. More than that, he loved riding his bike. He also loved his new mountain bike, which had front suspension and looked decided cool.

The ice cave (you can just see it through the clearing in the trees to the left.)
So on the Labor Day weekend we took him on the Legacy Trail from Banff to Canmore. He did great, as did his 12-year-old brother, Mack. On a short gravel section just past the park gates, he declared, "My bike was made for this!" He then decided he wanted to go mountain biking on a real mountain biking trail.

After much research, I settled on the old gravel road at Canyon Creek a 15-minute drive west of Bragg Creek. The road had been closed years before, and was now a favorite of mountain bikers who start on Moose Mountain and end at the parking lot. We would start at the parking lot and ride the six kilometers to the trailhead for the Bragg Creek Ice Cave, a short hike that I figured would make the perfect fun reward (see my post 7 Steps to Making Hiking Fun). Although there were a couple gentle ups and downs, the elevation gain was negligible. It seemed perfect.

Two minutes after we started up the road, Michael stopped and informed us: "I'm tired." This happened again five minutes later. And two minutes after that. And so on, and so on. Not even a small herd of cattle crossing the road at the four kilometer mark made a difference. He was decidedly unhappy. So we turned back. My inclination was to say, "You're not tired. Now don't ruin this for Mack and keep riding." But that would have ruined it for all of us. A bad first experience mountain biking, or at least a worse first experience than he was already having, would have made getting him out again torture.

Luckily, the slight decline of the road made the ride back easier and faster. He forgot that he was tired (I still don't think he was tired at all), and he had a blast. Then, as I promised, I dawned a bigfoot costume and we made a video of bigfoot attacking two kids. (Seriously. Bigfoot Attacks Children. Walking around the woods in a bigfoot costume was FUN.) By the time we got back in the car, Michael was his old happy self and all was good in the world. An ice cream cone in Bragg Creek erased any lingering bad memories.

The lesson to be learned? Even kids can have bad days, and it's no use pushing them to keep going on those days. As a parent, you have to know when to pack it in, and not try to guilt or scold the kid into meeting your preconceptions of what he can and can't do. Kids outings, within reason, should be experience oriented not objective oriented. I learned this to be true with hiking, skiing, snowshoeing and now cycling. The ice cave will still be there next year, and with any luck Michael will be having a better day pedaling to it. If not, we'll turn around and make another bigfoot video.

Sunday, 16 September 2012

Mountain Biking with Kids in Banff: The Banff-to-Canmore Legacy Trail

The start of the Legacy Trail
This year my eight-year-old Michael learned to ride his bike. After much protesting that it was too hard, that he hated it, insert complaint here, he finally figured out--and he loves it. This is something I've been waiting years for: both Mack (12) and Michael being old enough to go biking as a family.

Mack, with Cascade Mountain behind.
So, on the Labor Day weekend, we loaded up the bikes and drove to Canmore. There, we caught a shuttle to Banff, where we were dropped off downtown a block behind main street. A five minute pedal down mostly back streets brought us to the start of the Legacy Trail. I've driven past the paved pathway that runs 24-kilometers from Banff to Canmore countless times. On the way to hikes and scrambles, and then back to Calgary, I've enviously watched other families enjoying summer mornings, afternoons and evenings smiling their way along the side of the highway, safely separated from the screaming traffic beside them. Now, I would finally be cycling it with my family.

We'd decided to do the trail one-way in case the round-trip cycle was too much. And we cycled Banff-to-Canmore because, although there are a couple short uphill sections, for the most part you're gliding slightly downhill with the wind to your back.

The section between Banff and the park gates, where the trail officially ends, was fun but uneventful. We made a few stops to have a drink of water and enjoy the view, and one for Michael to rescue a caterpillar that was inching its way across the pavement. At the park gates, we road a short gravel section of trail to the first overpass, and Micheal announced: "My mountain bike was made for this." He wanted to go "real" mountain biking on a real trail.

After crossing the overpass, it took us about 10 minutes on paved roads that run parallel to the Trans-Canada to reach the next overpass that would take us back across the highway and into Canmore. Another 10 minutes--and another caterpillar rescue--and we were back at the car. Five minutes after that, we were ordering ice cream cones from the side of a converted school bus. It was the perfect way to spend a sunny long weekend afternoon in the mountains with the boys--the cycling, not the ice cream, that is.

Wednesday, 22 August 2012

Family camp at the Royal Tyrrell Museum

It's been a hot summer in Calgary and the Canadian Rockies, which means there wasn't much time to blog and a whole lot of time to go outside and have an adventure.

Back in the last week of July/first week of August, I took Michael and Mack on our annual Adventure Vacation. Past adventures have included heli-hiking out of Cline River, the Columbia Icefields, whitewater rafting on the Kicking Horse, and soaking in the natural hot springs at Lussier River. This year we camped at Redstreak in Kootenay National Park (more on this in a future blog), went white water rafting on Toby Creek (they said it was better than the upper portion of the Kicking Horse) and visited Boo the grizzly at Kicking Horse Resort.

The boys loved camping and rafting, but the highlight was the finish: Badlands Family Science Camp at the Royal Tyrrell Museum in Drumheller. I'm not the most social person, and the thought of sharing a teepee with another family and spending time with other parents didn't thrill me. However, as soon as I mentioned it the kids were hooked. So we went, and we all had a blast.
A twenty minute walk from the museum, the camp is set in a bowl formed by hoodoos and consists of teepees, a fire pit and outhouses. Each day we would walk to the museum, where we had a classroom to leave our stuff, and set off on new adventures--both mental and physical. Sifting through matrix (i.e. dirt) collected by real paleontologists. Making plaster casts of fossils. Touring the fossil preparation room and the collections library, where shelf after shelf held new and wondrous finds. We touched real dinosaur bones (not the plaster casts they put on display), fitted the kids with casts of mosasaur skulls, and even saw a skull from a new species of ceratopsian that hadn't even been named yet. In the field, a 15-minute hike brought us to an eroding hillside where the three of us spent an hour uncovering a hadrosaur vertebrae, teeth, assorted fragments of bone and some skin that a garter snake shed.

All of this was fun and educational. Yet the kids seemed to most enjoy their free time back at camp, climbing the hoodoos, getting dirty and just being kids. It was my favorite part of the camp, too. Some of the kids, who were much smarter than I was at 5, 8 and 11 (and probably smarter than I am now), thrived in the class and soaked up each new fact like sponges, but Mack and Michael soaked up the opportunity to have unstructured, unfettered adventures in the badlands. They found fossilized wood and dinosaur bones, tested the pointiness of cacti, and imagined a world where kids and dinos roamed the earth together. For me, it was an opportunity to relive the freedom of camping at Dinosaur Provincial Park when I was a kid. At the age of 6, I would spend hours roaming the badlands, climbing the hoodoos and descending into gulleys where I found fossilized teeth and new found independence.

I spent some time climbing around with Michael and Mack, but for the most part I sat back in camp and watched from afar. I also watched some of the other parents hovering over their kids. Don't do that, you might get a scrape. Don't go there, you don't know what's over that berm. Don't leave my sight. While they were proud--and rightly so--of how much their kids knew in the classroom, they squandered the opportunity to let their kids apply that knowledge in the real world. And to acquire new, tactile, hands-on knowledge. The type you can only learn by scraping your knees, exploring what's over the next hill and being free from the worrying eyes of parents.

My fondest memory won't be of fossils or hoodoos, though. It will be of 7-year-old Michael and 12-year-old Mack staying up until midnight, the last kids to go to bed by a couple of hours, looking in awe at a sky with more stars than they'd ever seen along with their first shooting star. It was the type of moment that every kid should be able to share with their parents, and every parent should be able to share with their kids.

Interested in other family camps? Read this post:
Jean-Michel Cousteau Family Camp on California's Catalina Island: Reality is the Best Theme Park

Thursday, 26 July 2012

Kids hiking gear: Do they really need it?

Mack in Gore-tex and hiking boots.
Yesterday I snuck out for an early lunch to look at daypacks at MEC (I have a 28L, a 50L and an 80L, but I could use a 40L. Sometimes the 28L is too small, the 50L is too big and something in between would be just right...but that's another blog post). While I was looking quite nerdy bouncing around with a Spirit 40 loaded with some weight to see how it fit--how does it feel if I jiggle like this? How about if I lunge?--I ran into two women from work. The daughter of one needed kids hiking gear for summer camp, but the mom didn't know anything about packs, sleeping bags and all the rest of the stuff on the equipment list. The other woman, who hikes with her kids, came along to help her out.

All went well until the boot section. The one mom simply didn't have enough money to buy the "hiking shoes or boots" that were on the required gear list for a three-day backpacking trip that was part of the two-week camp. Her daughter would have to make do with running shoes. The other woman was aghast. Footwear with the word "hiking" in the name was absolutely required. She would bring a pair of kids hiking boots that her daughter had outgrown and "should" fit the camp which I quietly disagreed. Runners that fit would be much better than hiking boots or shoes that don't. After all, the list said "hiking shoes" would be acceptable, and most hiking shoes are just gussied up running shoes. Ill-fitting hiking boots lead to ill-feeling, blistered feet. In the end, the mom was confused, didn't know what to do, and took the cheaper route. Running shoes it was.

Michael: cotton & runners. Mack: cotton & boots. Both: survived the ordeal.
I bring this up because parents often ask me about kids hiking gear: what do they need. Already tapped out by school fees, sports fees, camp fees, you-name-it fees, the thought of shelling out for kid-sized Goretex, hiking boots, packs, dry fit shirts, hiking shorts, fleece and on and on actually prevents some from taking their kids hiking. It's not necessarily that they've bought into the hype, but they walk into MEC and, if they're aren't hikers themselves, they're overwhelmed. They don't know what all the stuff is or whether their kid needs it, but one look at the price tag says they can't afford it.

My response: get all that stuff if you can afford it, but don't worry if you can't. It can be helpful, but most of it isn't essential. Lo these many years ago when I was a kid in Scouts, we regularly went hiking, backpacking and scrambling in running shoes, jeans and cotton t-shirts and hoodies (kangaroo jackets back in the day). I don't recall anyone dying of hypothermia because their cotton clothes weren't wicking moisture away, or breaking ankles because their delinquent parents were too cheap to shell out for the heavy, blister-inducing all-leather boots of the day. When I take my kids out, sometimes they wear runners and sometimes they wear their hiking boots. It's up to them. I'll pack their rain coats (my 12-year-old does have a Goretex jacket; again, that's another post, but having the same gear as their parents can help kids develop a passion for the outdoors), but if they bring a cotton hoodie instead of their fleece I don't freak out.

The point I'm trying to make is that, like many simple things in life, we've made hiking more about the cost of the gear than the value of the experience, especially when it comes to kids. Aside from gas money to reach the trail, hiking is essentially free. Whether your kids have Northface hiking pants or blue jeans from Walmart, the important thing is to get them out.

Sunday, 15 July 2012

Hiking with Kids near Canmore: Stoneworks Canyon (Extreme is a matter of perspective)

Stoneworks Canyon
I stumbled across Stoneworks Canyon while researching a scramble up Squaw's Tit (seriously, that's what it's called, probably due to the nipple on top), the high point on a ridge that leads to Mount Charles Stewart. Although the route to Squaw's Tit doesn't pass through Stoneworks Canyon, the route to the summit of Mount Charles Stewart does. One website led to another, and I found myself looking at photos of a canyon that narrows to a few meters across, lots of rocks to climb on and short approach up a dry creek bed.

Click here for more kids hikes in Banff, Kananaskis, Kootenay and other areas of the Canadian Rockies.

Stoneworks Canyon, or the Stone Works as rock and sport climbers call it, looked like the perfect place for a kids hike. It didn't disappoint. On the north side of the Trans-Canada and across from Canmore, it was less than an hour's drive from Calgary. Although "Jimmy's Trail" leads to Stoneworks, our group, a dozen or so parents and kids, hiked up the rocky creek bed, which is dry except during the spring run off. Within an hour we were at the entrance to the canyon.

After dropping our packs and eating a bite, we spent an hour exploring the canyon beyond. A narrow opening led directly to an even narrower twisty slot carved by thousands of years of water cutting through the limestone. Above, the rock seemed to close over us like a convoluted roof. In the imaginations of the kids we were on another planet. Although still on earth, we were indeed a world away from the iPods and cell phones back in the cars.

One mom, who'd joined our group while on vacation from Illinois, asked if I'd been to Stoneworks Canyon before. When I told her it was my first time, she seemed amazed. How did I know about it? The answer is easy: I always keep an eye out for places that I think would look fun and "extreme" to my seven-year-old and 12-year-old boys. Sometimes I come across those places while hiking or scrambling (that's how I found the boulder field on Little Lougheed and the fossils on Burns Ridge), and sometimes I find them while researching other hikes and scrambles.

While not every parent can do this, if only because they don't go on as many hikes as I do or they don't know what websites have trip reports of likely trails, often it comes down to remembering to stop, clear your mind and look at your surroundings from the perspective of your kids. This true whether you're at the off-leash park with your dog, walking through a park or driving along the river on the way to work. Even just looking at the ground under your feet or the rocks in your backyard with the eyes of a child can reveal a hidden natural playground.

Distance: 5 or 6 km round trip
Elevation gain: A couple hundred meters
Hiking/Exploring Time: 3 to 5 hours
Directions: Take the Trans-Canada west to Canmore. Take the second exit. Rather than staying on Benchlands Trail, turn left onto Palliser Trail. Approximately 2km from the Trans-Canada turn-off, on the right, there is a gated entrance to Stoneworks Canyon (Johnny's Trail). Go through the gate and either proceed straight ahead to the creek bed or watch for the trail entrance on the left at the end of the gravel pit.

Click here for a driving map

Heading back to the car on the dry creek bed.

Thursday, 28 June 2012

Even the Internet Can Get a Little Rusty

A couple years ago I put a few big sandstone rocks in my flower bed to fill holes that my dog dug up, and inadvertently created a nature play area.

Last week my seven-year-old announced he was going mining in the backyard. A couple minutes later I heard what sounded like a hammer on rock. Sure enough, he'd discovered that sandstone breaks really, really easily. My first thought was, "Those sandstone rocks were hard to find..." Then he held up a piece that had been stained red and asked, "What's this dark spot?"

That triggered a discussion of how the sandstone had iron in it and the red was rust (I held it next to the rusting grill on my fire pit so he could see they were the same color), why you can't see the iron, how they get little bits of iron out of rocks, how they get the rocks, what the hole looks like after they've gotten all the rocks they want and so on.

When we were done, he looked me straight in the eye and said, "You knew there was iron in your rocks all this time and you didn't tell me? Don't you know I mine for iron in Minecraft!?"

Minecraft is an online game he and his brother play where you build your own sort of world out of stuff that you find, mine or otherwise accumulate. I learned two things from this:

  1. 1. A few rocks in a garden can be a natural play area. (He also discovered that there are bugs under the rocks, so the ones he didn't break into smaller rocks were turned over onto the flowers beside them to see what was there.)
  2. 2. Computer games, in moderation and of the non-Grand Theft Auto variety, maybe aren't entirely evil. If I take a more active interest in them than just censoring and banning the inappropriate ones, maybe I can use them to engage my boys in the real world.
On the flip side, I (or more likely the rocks) infused Michael's virtual world with the real world. The fact that iron occurs in real rocks that he can touch and break into smaller rocks--in his own backyard--has led to an interest in where man-made things come from. It's also led to a new found joy in hitting hard things with a hammer to see what's inside them, but that's another blog post...or counseling session...

Wednesday, 20 June 2012

Hiking with Kids in Kananaskis: Burns Ridge

Over the last couple of years leading kids hikes, two of the things I learned are:
  1. I don’t give kids enough credit. They can handle a lot more than I think can, whether that’s in terms of kilometers, meters of elevation gain or the steepness of a trail. Kids hikes don't have to be easy hikes.
  2. Picking a trail that ends somewhere fun like climbable boulders makes the entire experience more fun for kids and helps motivate them.
I put both of these learnings into practice on Father’s Day this year. The previous Sunday I’d scrambled 700 m to the high point of Burns Ridge in Kananaskis. A little over halfway up, I looked down to find a couple of big rocks with fossilized clams in them. I checked the altimeter on my watch: we’d ascended 400 meters from the trailhead. After snapping some photos I continued up the ridge.

Click here for more kids hikes in Banff, Kananaskis, Kootenay and other areas of the Canadian Rockies.

Back home, I told my seven-year-old and 12-year-old sons about my find. They thought it was cool, wondered how clams got up on a mountain (answer: what’s now a mountain used to the seabed), then kept on playing. I knew they would have a blast searching among the rocks for fossils, but I wasn’t sure if bushwhacking and scree slogging 400 m up a steep and trail-less mountainside beneath the "ridge" part of Burn's Ridge would make for a good kids hike.

I decided to risk it. After all, if the hike/bordering-on-scramble was too much, we could turn around and find somewhere else to play. With the exception of one boy and his dad who turned around because they were freaked out by the thought of going off trail (dad had phoned 20 minutes before the hike to see if he could join, and he clearly hadn’t read the hike description beyond the title: “Kids Hike—Fossil Hunting Expedition on Burns Ridge"), all the kids seemed to enjoy the route finding and what was for them an extreme experience. Michael, my seven-year-old, looked proud of himself as he firmly planted my ice axe in the scree above him and pulled himself up for most of the way. 

After a couple hours and maybe 250 meters of elevation gain, we popped out of the trees to find a scree slope that was literally littered with fossilized clams. While the other adults ate lunch, myself and all five kids scattered across the scree, yelling when we found a particularly fine specimen. Although the boys gave me a two-way radio set that I’d been looking at for a while, their real Father’s Day gift was persevering up the side of a mountain so I could share my experience of the week before with them. The wrapping paper on the gift was watching the amazed looks on their faces as they slid down the scree on their bums, as if they were tobogganing on rocks without a toboggan. Which, of course, they were.

Distance: 7 or 8 km round trip
Elevation gain: Up to 400 m
Hiking/Exploring Time: 4 to 6 hours
Directions: Take the 22x to Highway 22 and head south. When you get to Turner Valley, turn right at the four-way stop and you're on Highway 546. Drive west all the way to the end, where you should find the Junction Creek day use area. Hike up the old logging road for 45 minutes to an hour, watching for a scree slope on the right that descends close to the road. Here, leave the road and bushwhack up and slightly to the left to follow the ridge up. You'll cross game trails that traverse across the slope but don't lead up. When you reach the treeline, start looking for fossils.

Click here for a driving map. 

Friday, 15 June 2012

Hiking with Kids: 7 Steps To Make Hiking Fun for Kids

This is boring. How much farther? Can we go back to the car?

When I first tried to introduce my two boys, then 5 and 10, to hiking, I heard those statements a lot. And let's be honest: walking through the trees, usually uphill, can be boring. I seldom hike on trails that don't get above the treeline, and the sooner those trails get into the alpine the better. When picking mountains or ridges to ascend, I look for ones that don't have long approaches through the trees. I'll drive for 1.75 hours to the Highwood Pass, home of Canada's highest highway, or 2.5 hours to the Icefields Parkway, both of which typically have shorter approach trails, to save a half hour or more of trudging through the trees.

Click here for kids hikes in Banff, Kananaskis, Kootenay and other areas of the Canadian Rockies. 

Climbing a big grey rock half up the trail to Sparrowhawk Tarns
So what can you do to make hiking fun for kids? Here are some suggestions:
On a big grey rock overlooking the Spray Lakes
  1. Make hiking fun by making hiking fun--Pick a destination with something fun to do, like climbing on boulders or throwing rocks in a lake. This weekend I'm leading a kids hike halfway up Burns Ridge in Kananaskis. Last weekend, while scrambling the ridge with adults I found fossilized clams in a bunch of boulders. With the kids, we'll hike to just above the treeline, drop our packs, and start fossil hunting.
  2. Don't call it hiking--Once you've picked your destination, say a boulder field they can play around on, tell them you're going to play around on some big rocks. Or that it's a fossil hunting expedition, not a hike halfway up a ridge.
  3. Go at the kids' pace--Let them mosey, dawdle and do what kids do. If they stop to look at a rotting log, let them. Nothing will turn them against hiking like continually pushing them to go faster or stop taking so many stops.
  4. Take an interest in the things they take an interest in--Say the words "Wow," "Cool" and "Neat" a lot when they point stuff out. You want them to engage in your love of the great outdoors, the least you can do is engage in their curiosity and encourage their sense of wonder.
  5. Take other kids with you--This is probably the most important piece of advice I can give you. It was a hard learned lesson, no matter how simple or how obvious it now seems. I've seen kids go from "I'm tired. I can't go any further" a mere five minutes from the parking lot, to running down the trail with a new-found friend within 10 seconds of meeting each other. I lead kid's hikes for the Calgary Outdoor Recreation Association, so I have a constant supply of hiking buddies for my kids. If you aren't up to leading group hikes, join a group that has kid's hikes or bring one or two of your kids' friends.
  6. Go for ice cream--I call it the post-hike bribe, and in the beginning it was one of the main attractions for my kids. They knew that if they humored me and made it to wherever I said we were going, we'd stop for an ice cream cone on the way home. Now that they have the mountain bug, they still want the ice cream but it's not the end of the world if we don't have time.
  7. Stay off their backs--Kids get cuts and scrapes and bruises. It's in their job description. At least it used to be. These days, us parents seem to spend more time worrying about keeping our kids safe than in teaching them how to be safe. Part of learning how not to get cuts and scrapes and bruises is getting them. So let them. Try not to tell them how to do everything, or to be careful of this or to watch our for that. Unless what they're doing could end in tragedy, let them do their thing and be kids. Nothing is more fun than that feeling of being free to have fun. If your kids come away from the mountains having felt that, I guarantee they'll want to keep going back.

Wednesday, 13 June 2012

Mountain lions and ticks and bears! Oh my!

"Security is mostly superstition. It does not exist in nature, nor do the children of men as a whole experience it. Avoiding danger is no safer in the long run than outright exposure. Life is either a daring adventure, or nothing."

Helen Keller

The deaths on Everest this year, and the predictable responses from armchair critics calling the climbers foolish and demanding that the mountain have ticket takers to regulate the number of climbers, got me thinking about why I take risks in the mountains, and how much risk I’m willing to take. What I wasn’t expecting were the people who asked me about exposing my children to risks by taking them hiking where all manner of bad things can happen to them.

A black bear by the side of the road near Junction Creek in Kananaskis.
Am I exposing my kids to risks? Absolutely. When we reach the trailhead and step out of the car we’ve re-entered the food chain.

When I head out in the Canadian Rockies—with or without my boys—I’m always mindful of the bears, cougars, and grumpy bull moose that we could run into. And ticks that hitch a ride and may (or may not) bring disease carrying bacteria with them. In the winter, there are hypothermia, frostbite and avalanches. In all seasons, there are cliffs to fall off, rivers to drown in, and falling rocks to dodge. There are many ways to get injured, maimed, crippled and killed in the mountains. But is it safer to not expose your children to these and other risks, or to teach them how to identify the risks and manage them?

As a kid I survived in the mountains when there were more grizzlies and no one had bear spray. I learned to identify avalanche terrain, assess conditions and make good choices. I drank out of alpine streams without a filter and without getting beaver fever. Now, my kids are also learning and doing these things. When we’re in bear country, I take the proper precautions and I teach the boys when and how to take them, as well as why. In the winter, I teach them how to dress for the cold and, for now at least, avoid avalanche terrain (although I’ve introduced avalanche safety by making a game of finding an avi transceiver buried in the snow).

Regardless of where kids live, there is more risk associated with today’s “safe”, sedentary, electronic-focused, urban lifestyle than there is with getting out in nature—a park, a path by the river, the mountains, wherever. Kids can’t learn to identify and mitigate risks in the real world by playing Wii or Minecraft, or by playing organized soccer on a well-marked field that the coach has cleared of any hazards. They can’t gain the self confidence that comes from assessing risk and deciding whether it’s too great or manageable. This is a confidence and ability to deal with risk that transfers to all aspects of their life. The opposite of this self-confidence is irrational fear. Without the knowledge that they can spot and manage risks in some aspects of their life, they can become fearful of the plethora of risks real and imagined they hear and read about, that may or may not be out there, but don’t know how to identify or deal with.

Monday, 11 June 2012

A bear, a caterpillar and a fossilized clam walk into a bar...

Fossilized clam shells at 2085 meters. A caterpillar crawling across the snow well above treeline. A bear print filling with rain water on a trail.

Fossilized clam shells on the way up Burns Ridge.
I could go on. I've been noticing a lot of the smaller things on hikes. Getting up on top of a mountain or ridge, taking in mountains stretching around me in all directions, and feeling the expanse of the world still drive me to push one foot in front of the other for hours on end, but more and more I'm able to focus on the little things in the mountains that in the past I didn't even notice. And with that micro-focus I find my sense of wonder in the alpine world expanding. It's almost like I'm a little kid again, discovering the mountains for the first time.

Not surprisingly, it's my kids that I have to thank for this. Before I began leading kids hikes in the last couple of years, I'd largely forgotten about the wonders under my feet. On the way up a mountain or down a trail, I would be focused on my footing to make sure it was secure, but I wasn't very concerned with the details of what I was stepping on, over and around. It had all become just scree, talus, boulders, roots, branches, fallen trees, puddles, streams, dirt and mud to be negotiated.

A bear track on the approach trail to Burns Ridge.
My kids gave me the opportunity to rediscover this world underfoot. Seeing them find the one piece of scree with a fossil among the millions of limestone shards on a slope, and the excitement of the find in their eyes, rekindled that excitement in me. Examining a fairy shrimp in a jar that they'd dipped into an alpine lake and pulled out with life I had no idea existed reconnected me with the life that teemed around me. Answering questions about who had laid five or six blades of grass on a rock to dry (the elusive pika, that's who) reminded me to ask myself questions big and small.

I'm no longer concerned only about the big animals, like bears, that I don't want to encounter. I'm interested in the little things that can do me no harm but can teach me so much.

(Click here for more photos of the Burns Ridge scramble.)

Monday, 4 June 2012

Hiking with Kids in Kananaskis: Little Lougheed (The Tale of No Trail)

Bushwhacking is one of those things you either hate or tolerate, but I've only met a few people who truly enjoy it. My 7-year-old son seems to be one of them.

On a recent kids hike we bushwhacked to the boulder field mid-way up way up Little Lougheed in Kananaskis. The week before, I'd literally stumbled across the boulder field while descending Little Lougheed with a bunch of grownups. On that trip, everyone was okay with bushwhacking, but I've seen some people go stark raving mad at the thought of stepping off trail. In their minds, no trail = lost. Once, we had to bushwhack up and around a small waterfall on the way from Sherbrooke Lake to Niles Meadow in Yoho. That short bushwhack put a couple people on edge. Having to cross the stream--repeatedly--without a bridge (rock hopping and log walking were the only ways across) pushed them waaaaaaay beyond their comfort zone. We were forced to turn around far, far short of our objective. Enough said.

Click here for more kids hikes in Banff, Kananaskis, Kootenay and other areas of the Canadian Rockies.

But kids seem to love bushwhacking. They love the freedom of not having to do as they're told, even by a path. Instead of hiking in single file, they can explore, check out brooks bubbling straight from the moss, step wherever they want. I knew Michael, Mack and the other kids on the hike were having fun, but I didn't realize that the bushwhacking was the high-point of the trip until we got home, when Michael told his mom, "There was no trail, and we were, like, is this the way? Is that the way? Are we lost?"

The smile on his face made it clear he hadn't been afraid he was lost, or if he thought he was lost fear wasn't the emotion it had elicited. So what happens between the ages of 7 and 27 that transforms bushwhacking from a grand adventure to something to be tolerated at best, an experience in shear, abject fear at worst? I guess it has something to do with whether you think walking on an invisible path that you must choose is liberating or life threatening.

Distance: About 4 km round trip
Elevation gain: About 200 m
Hiking/Exploring Time: 3 to 5 hours
Directions: Take the Smith Dorrien/Spray Lakes Trail (Highway 742) south from Canmore. At the start of that highway, set your odometer to 0. In about 22.2 kilometers you'll come to a small creek that passes under the highway in a culvert. Stop by the side of the road, and hike towards the mountain (stay on the north side of the creek). A minute or two after you enter the trees, leave the trail and bushwhack slightly to the left. Eventually you'll come to the boulder field.

Click here for a driving map.
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