Tuesday, 16 April 2013

Hiking with Kids in Banff: C-Level Cirque's old mine building is a good bet for an early season kids hike in Banff

Due to its relatively low altitude, the lower section of the trail to C-Level Cirque is often free of snow before most other trails in Banff. While most kids will be able to make the hike all the way to C-Level Cirque when the entire trail is clear, the abandoned mine building at the midway mark makes a good early season kids hike.

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

Inside the building
Starting at the Upper Bankhead picnic area, we headed directly up the well maintained trail, visions of Scooby-Doo and Shaggy exploring an abandoned mine dancing through the kids heads. Three-quarters of an hour later we were there. Normally this would only take half an hour or so, but the trail has some steep sections so we took plenty of short breaks. Another factor is that the trail to the old mine building can be a little tedious for kids. Because it never leaves the trees, it lacks the adventure of rockier, more open trails that naturally engage kids.

But once we reached the old building, the kids were more than engaged. There's nothing like an old abandoned building to grab a kid's imagination. While the adults settled in for lunch or enjoyed the view from a break in the trees where the mine had dumped slag, the kids ran in and around the remains of the building, created their own games and got themselves covered in coal dust. The building is left over from the Bankhead mine that supplied the CPR and town with coal from 1903 to 1923, and bits of coal can still be found strewn throughout the
area. There are also open mine shafts nearby that are fenced off, but warrant a word of warning to kids to stay clear.

After giving the kids an hour to play, we were lured further up the trail by the sound of spring avalanches booming down Cascade Mountain. Unfortunately, as the trail gained elevation we encountered enough snow to make it impassible for little legs. No matter. The old building had been the high point for the kids, and they were ready to head down. I'd hoped to stop at Lower
The view of Lake Minnewanka
Bankhead to check out the somewhat better maintained ghost town where the miners had lived, but it was not to be. Just as we adults had been lured further by the sound of avalanches, the kids were being pulled by the far stronger force of the post-hike ice cream bribe I'd promised them.

Distance: About 4 km return
Roundtrip Time: 2 to 4 hours
Elevation gain: About 125 m

Driving Directions: From Calgary, drive west on Highway 1 and take the exit for the townsite/Lake Minnewanka. Turn right
Heading back to the cars
towards Lake Minnewanka and drive for 3.5 km to the Upper Bankhead picnic area on the left. The trail starts at the far end of the parking lot near the picnic tables and garbage bins. The road to Upper Bankhead is closed from November 15 to April 15 to give wildlife a breather.

Click here to see a driving map.

Wednesday, 10 April 2013

Kids Outdoor Skills: It's Time to Start Thinking About Bear Safety for Kids

You know spring has sprung in the Canadian Rocky Mountains when the first bear is spotted. Last week No. 122, a 320 kg male grizzly, was spotted in Banff. That means it's time to start each of my kids hikes with a talk on bear safety.

A black bear beside the road to Burns Ridge
This isn't as straightforward as it might seem, though. I've seen grown adults almost come to fisticuffs over what to do if they see a bear. I only recently started carrying bear spray (I got tired of the strange looks people gave me when I told them I didn't carry it), while one guy I hike with carries bear spray, an obnoxious air horn, and bear bangers. If we experienced hikers can't agree on bear safety, what are we supposed to tell kids? And how do we tell them without scaring the bejeezus out of them? I know adults who are irrationally scared of bears to the point that they spend the entire time on the trail at DEFCON 2. A paralyzing fear of bears is the opposite of what I want the kids to go home with.

For a definitive resource on bear safety, I look to Parks Canada. Based on the bear safety section of its website, heres what I tell kids:

1. We probably won't see a bear today, but it's important we know what to do if we do see one.
2. Don't run ahead of the group. If there's a bear ahead you don't want to surprise him.
3. Make lots of noise so, in the unlikely event that there is a bear nearby, he'll know we're coming and get out of our way. Bears want to run into people even less than we want to run into them.
4. If you see fresh poop on the trail, stop and wait for the adults.
5. If you see a dead animal, don't go near it. Tell an adult what you saw.
6. If you see a bear and it doesn't see you, slowly back away until you reach an adult.
7. If you see a bear and it sees you:
  • Stay calm. If you freak out, so will the bear.
  • Don't yell. Yelling is aggressive, and aggression can trigger an attack.
  • Don't run. Although the bear doesn't want to eat you, running triggers its chase response.
  • Make yourself look big. This is directed at the parents of small kids. Picking them up will make both of you look bigger and it will calm the kid down and prevent him or her from running.
  • Look at the ground, not at the bear.
  • Talk to the bear in a firm, low voice. Tell him you're his friend and don't want to bug him. This will tell the bear that you're human and not an animal.
  • Back away slowly to an adult. Don't turn around. That could trigger the bear's chase response.
One thing I don't tell them is what to do if a bear attacks. Play dead if it's a grizzly, fight back if it's a black bear? I'm not sure I'd be able to tell the difference once my heart started pounding and it was all I could do to fight back the adrenaline-fueled urge to run.

Full Disclosure: I've spent a lot of time in the mountains, but I'm not an expert on bear safety. Use this blog as a starting point only. Take a bear safety course, read a bear safety book, and learn as much as you can about bears.

Monday, 8 April 2013

Hiking with Kids in Kananaskis: Corri-Robb Trail (and Lessons Learned)

Ahead of me the "trail" down was getting steeper and the snow deeper. Behind me I could hear four-year-olds wailing in the trees. With me were a bunch of eight- to 12-year-olds who were having a blast.

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

It's only now, almost a year later, that I can write about my kids hike on the Corri-Robb Trail. It was the first weekend of May, when Kananaskis' Elbow Valley is usually a safe bet for snow-free trails. I'd found Corri-Robb trail on www.kananaskisblog.com, and it sounded like the perfect trip for kids. Not too long, not too much elevation gain.

Walking past White Buddha
The gate on Highway 66 was still closed at Elbow Falls, so we parked on the highway and walked the final few hundred meters to the Powderface parking lot. As predicted, the area was snow-free as far as we could see. Following the directions on the blog, we hiked the Powderface trail to the first creek crossing, which was almost dry, and continued 350 meters to where the old pack trail headed right up the hill between Powderface Creek and Prairie Creek. From there, a half hour of pleasant switchbacks led to the rocky outcrops known to rock climbers as White Buddha and unofficially called Vents Ridge by hikers. On the top, we had lunch, played around for half an hour and enjoyed the views of the Elbow Valley to the south. No problems. The four-year-olds were beaming with pride at having climbed what to them was a mountain and the older kids, from seven to 12, were challenged enough by the trail to have been engaged all the way up. Even a two-year-old had made it, although he required some carrying.

When it was time to head down, we ventured west on the ridge from the open rocky high point into trees. Within minutes, we lost the trail in a light covering of snow a couple inches deep on the north-facing (and less sunny) side of the hill. Even without a trail to follow, the route was straightforward. As long as headed west and down, we'd meet up with Prairie Creek. The snow was gradually getting deeper the farther down we went, but it didn't seem like anything to worry about. It wasn't until we were about halfway down that I realized it was up to my ankles. That's when I noticed the howls and wails behind me.

Things got steeper and deeper
I had a decision to make. Turn around and backtrack to our ascent route, or keep going. I could see Prairie Creek a hundred meters at most below us, maybe a half-hour away. Above us, the four-year-olds and some of the parents were sliding on the wet snow-covered slope, pushing the kids well beyond their comfort zones. Going up would be a slippery, grueling slog that could take a couple of hours and truly throw the four-year-olds into near panic.

So I made a judgement call. We'd keep going down. Given the circumstances and the outcome, I believe it was the right call. Another ten minutes took us to slightly gentler slopes and the snow began to thin. A final snow-free but steep opening in the trees brought us to the dry flats on the north side of Prairie Creek. The problem was finding a place to cross it. Although only a couple meters wide, it was too deep for the kids to wade across. Luckily, we soon found a few rocks sticking up through the water. Standing up to my knees in frigid spring run-off, I alternately held kids hands as they hopped across the rocks and piggy-backed others across. The only real problem was Laya, my dog. We'd only had her for two months and this was her first hike that required crossing a creek. As it turned out, she was terrified of water (still is). There was no way she was willing going to walk across the rocks or jump in and swim. So I did the only thing I could. I picked her up and carried her squirming 50 pounds across. All was going well when she squirmed just as I stepped on a slippery boulder under the water, and into the creek we both went.

That's when I noticed the laughing. As I stood up, thoroughly soaked, I could hear the kids...having fun. The valley was dry, they'd had an adventure crossing the creek, and they'd shaken off the unpleasant experience of the descent. Notwithstanding the glares of a couple parents, the half-hour it took us to reach the car was as fun a kids hike as I've ever been on.

The drive home gave me time to debrief myself on what had happened and what I could have done differently. Here's what I came up with: It was time to stop trying to please everyone in my hiking group and stop letting kids of all ages come on my kids hikes. Providing an opportunity for kids of all ages to experience the mountains was resulting in less that ideal experiences for everyone. Taking my 12-year-old on trails that were suitable for four-year-olds was boring him, and trails that engaged him were too much for the four-year-olds. I also had to do more due diligence when selecting a trail that I hadn't been on. Over the course of that year I came up with my 3 D's of picking a kid-friendly trail.

Will I do Corri-Robb trail with kids again? Absolutely. In many ways it's a perfect kids hike. But I'll do it with older kids. And later in the summer when the snow on north-facing slopes has had a chance to melt.

Distance: About 5.5 km round trip
Elevation gain: About 200 m
Hiking Time: About 4 hours.
Dogs: Dogs are welcome on this trip as long as they are on a leash.
Directions: Driving west on Highway 22X, turn left at the four-way stopp at Bragg Creek. In a few minutes you'll come to a T-intersection. Turn right onto Highway 66. Follow this about 19 km to the Powderface day use area. If the winter gate is still closed, park on the side of the highway as close to the winter gate as possible. If the winter gate is open, continue for a few hundred meters and park at the Powderface day use area.

Wednesday, 3 April 2013

Hiking with Kids in Kananaskis: The Canyon of Jura Creek

There's something about tight canyons with tall, curvy sides that captures the imaginations of kids. Sure enough, within minutes of entering the canyon section of Jura Creek in Kananaskis, there were yells of "This is awesome!"

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

The dry creek bed before the canyon
I'd been saving Jura Creek for a late summer kids hike, but on the advice of fellow blogger Tanya Koob I decided to do it while there was still ice on the canyon floor and before the spring runoff made it impassible. I was glad I did, and so were the four kids and two dogs who went with me.

From the parking spot on the side of Highway 1A, across from the Graymont plant sign, we headed up the ditch and bushwhacked a bit to the dry, boulder-strewn bed of Jura Creek. If there's no snow, you can follow a well-worn path to the creek bed. Otherwise just stay
The canyon entrance
slightly left and you can't miss it.

We reached the canyon entrance within a couple minutes of hitting the creek bed, and that's when the real fun began. Much of the canyon floor is covered in ice, which can make just walking an adventure. Where the walls turned into smooth curved ramps, the kids took turns seeing how far up they could get before they lost their grip and slid down. Where the creek had frozen into ice slides, they slid down on their butts. And when one heard gurgling throw a hole in the ice beneath them, they all stopped to examine the trickle of water beneath the ice they were standing on.

Not long after we entered the canyon, I found large paw prints frozen into the ice. At least a couple days old, a cougar had walked the length of the canyon in the afternoon when the days warmth had softened the ice. As soon as the canyon opened into a broader valley, the tracks turned abruptly and headed up into the trees.

When the canyon opened into a broader valley, we kept hiking for another hour, stopping occasionally so the kids could scramble up the rocks on either side. Our lunch spot was on what would be an island of trees when the creek was in full flow in a couple months. I'd hoped to get another kilometer or so up the creek, but after eating on of the kids noted that it was the perfect place to play camouflage, and my plans were set aside. After camouflage came hide and seek tag. Then regular tag. Then the five minute warning that it was time to leave, which of course
stretched to 10 or 15.

On the return trip, the ice had soften noticeably. What had been slippery on the way in was mushy on the way out. Try as they might, the kids couldn't seem to slide down the ice ramp, which was quickly becoming the consistency of a Slurpee. That's when Michael asked a question I've pondered for years: "How come the hike back always seems faster than the hike in?"

Good question. Maybe we'll find the answer on the next hike.
Investigating a hole in the ice
Distance: About 7 km return
Time on the trail: 4 hours or so
Height gain: About 200 meters

Driving Directions: Head west on the Trans-Canada. Take exit 114 (the one after the Kananaskis Exit). Follow that to Highway 1A and turn left (west). In about 5.5 km you'll come to a sign at the entrance of the Graymont plant. The sign says "Graymont". Park on the side of the road across from the sign.

Click here for a map and driving directions.

Monday, 1 April 2013

Hiking with Kids in Banff: Climb Tunnel Mountain and Still Have Time to Go for Ice Cream

It doesn't matter how old you are, there's nothing like the view from the top of a mountain that you reached by putting one foot in front of the other.

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

The start of the trail
This year I'm going to introduce my 8- and 13-year-old boys to scrambling, but in the past I've avoided trails with the potential for rockfall. A 5-, 6- or even 7-year-old will be doing good if he realizes he sent a rock rolling down at the hikers below him, never mind remembering to yell "Rock!" to warn them. And at that age, they'll be knocking down a lot of rocks.

So between rockfall hazards and the significant elevation gain required to summit most mountains, the number of peaks accessible to my kids has been limited. One that was perfect for my then 6-year-old youngest son was Banff's Tunnel Mountain. Located directly behind the Town of Banff, its 2.5 km trail switchbacks and winds 250 m up to the summit. Actually, it's more of a flat top than a summit, but then Tunnel Mountain isn't officially a "mountain". Don't tell your kids, and they'll never know. They'll think they climbed an actual mountain. Take them for ice cream after, and they'll be asking to climb it again.

The trail switchbacks and winds up the mountain
From the parking lot on St. Julien Road, our crew of everything from a 4-year-old to a 12-year-old and their parents headed up the short steep section of trail that
leads up to...Tunnel Mountain Drive. After crossing the road the climb really began, as did the moans of "I'm too tired" and "Can we go back to the car?" This is where two of the benefits of leading kids' hikes for my outdoor club came in handy. First, I was leading the hike so we couldn't go back. Second, within minutes Michael went from bored to running up the mountain with another kid. When they weren't racing each other to see who could get to the top first, they were scrambling up slabs on the side of the trail.

Then, suddenly, we were at the top, looking out over the town and the Bow Valley beyond. When I congratulated Mack and Michael on climbing their first mountain, all I got was "Really?" As the realization of what I said sank in, the smiles on their faces grew. They were on the top of something called Tunnel Mountain. They'd climbed a mountain.

The hike up took just over an hour. The hike down took half that. As we neared the parking lot, we noticed small clearings with some of Banff's resident elk grazing in them. I'd say that was the perfect way to end such a great hike, but my kids would probably disagree. In case I'd forgotten, they reminded me that they only climbed the mountain because I'd promised them ice cream after.

Distance: About 5 km return
Elevation gain: About 250 meters
Hiking/Exploring Time: 1.5 to 4 hours
Driving Directions: Drive west on Highway 1 and take one of the turn-offs for the Town of Banff. Find your way to Banff Avenue. Turn east onto Wolf Street. When you reach the T-intersection, turn right onto St. Julien Road, bear left and continue for 0.4 km to the trailhead parking area on the left.

Click here for a driving map

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