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.
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