Monday, 23 September 2013

Hiking with Kids in Kananaskis: Chester Lake, the Elephant Rocks & Almost Golden Larches

Last weekend I scrambled Snow Peak, and on the approach up Burstall Pass I noticed that the larches were starting to turn gold. So I figured this weekend the larches should be well on their way to turning the slopes gold directly across Highway 742 at Chester Lake. I also thought the boys would have fun climbing on the aptly name Elephant Rocks a short hike above the lake.

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

The start of the trail
As it turned out, we were a week or so early for the larches. A few were starting to turn gold, but then again too few to mention (apologies to the Chairman of the Board). As a group of three dads and six boys, we weren't too disappointed, though. The Elephant Rocks were definitely the main attraction and they didn't disappoint.

The trail to Chester Lake is straightforward, even with the first couple hundred meters having been washed out by the June 2013 flood. What was previously a nice old road is now a tangle of fallen
You're getting close when you reach the meadows
trees and boulders, although a path through has been cleared and marked with surveying tape. Once past that, you rejoin the old road and follow its gentle incline for a few kilometers until it narrows to a path. From that point, a half hour or so of walking takes you through a few meadows and to the lake. Although there's a well marked trail from the lake's north shore to the Elephant Rocks, we tried a different path and ended up doing a bit of fun bushwhacking.

At the Elephant Rocks, drop your packs and climb! There's something about scrambling up
Warm enough for shorts, but cold enough for a toque...teens...
big grey rocks that brings out the kid in everyone. I couldn't squeeze into some of the caves that are formed under the rocks, but the boys found passages over, around, under and through. We spent an hour there and could have spent more. All three dads agreed a hike up to the rocks on a sunny summer day was in order, bypassing the lake entirely to give all of us kids as much climbing time as possible.

Distance: 10 km return
Time on the trail: 4-6 hours
Elevation gain: About 300 m to the lake, a bit more to the Elephant Rocks
Chester Lake with Mount Chester behind

Driving Directions: Trans-Canada west to Highway 40. Follow the 40 south to Kananaskis Lakes Trail and turn right. In a couple of kilometers, turn right again on the Smith-Dorrien/Spray Trail. In 22 kilometers turn right into the Chester Lake parking area.
Click here to see a map.

A little bushwhacking

Friday, 20 September 2013

September 2013 Update: Kananaskis Flood Damage and Repairs

What used to be McGillivray Creek is now McGillivray Log Jam

The floods of June 2013 in the Canadian Rockies destroyed roads, trails, bridges, buildings, campsites, the golf course and just about anything else made by man in Alberta's Kananaskis Country. At the time, I'd written off Kananaskis for hiking and scrambling for at least the 2013 season, but I've been amazed at how much and how quickly the parks staff, the Friends of Kananaskis and volunteers have been able to repair and reopen.

At the Kananaskis Trails Advisory Group, on which I sit, we learned some details on when some of the remaining infrastructure is scheduled to reopen. It must be stressed that the dates below are only estimates, however. Anything can happen in the mountains! Click here for links to up-to-date road and other status reports for Kananaskis and other parks.

  • Peter Lougheed Provincial Park information center is expected to reopen in early December. It suffered damage to its foundations.
  • Highwood Junction store won't reopen until summer 2014.
  • Main bridge on Highway 66 won't be fixed until summer 2014, but the temporary bridge will stay in place until then.
  • Not all x-country ski trails will reopen this winter. Check trail status before heading out.
  • Forestry Trunk Road south of Highwood Junction should be open to Cataract Creek (but not across the creek to the parking areas) by early December.
  • Highway 40 south of Highwood Meadows to Highwood Junction won't reopen until the middle of summer 2014.
  • Powderface Road won't reopen until the middle of summer 2014.

Monday, 16 September 2013

2013's Top 3 Places to Watch the Larches Turn Gold in the Canadian Rockies

Ah, September in the Canadian Rocky Mountains. When the larches turn golden and the parking at Moraine Lake overflows for kilometers down the road, giving you and your kids the opportunity to get in a good hike before you even reach the trailhead for Larch Valley.

Personally, I'd rather poke my eye with a larch needle than fight the crowds that descend on Larch Valley this time of year. Luckily, there are other great places to see larches turn gold. Some are arguably better for experiencing larches, and all are less crowded. Here are my top 3 larch viewing hikes for families and kids this year.

1. It's all about the larches: Pocaterra Cirque and Ridge in Kananaskis

Although Pocaterra Cirque and Ridge in Kananaskis are gaining in popularity for larch viewing, the trail is nowhere near as crowded as Larch Valley. And because Highway 40 between the winter gates and Highwood Meadows only opened on September 9 after being closed all summer due to flood damage, a lot of people think it's still closed.

The real reason to go to Pocaterra Cirque this fall are the larches, though. In my opinion, they're at least as good as Larch Valley. If your kids are a little older (maybe 12 and up) and your family is fit, you can do the Pocaterra Ridge walk, where
you'll find larches on the north end that are decidedly better than Larch Valley.

Last September when we did Pocaterra Cirque, we even walked past a herd of big horn sheep on the way back to the cars.

For details and my full post about Pocaterra Cirque and how to get there, click here.

2. You want to see golden larches, but the setting is just as important: Tryst Lake

That yellow stuff on the edge of the lake is fallen larch needles.

Note: Since I wrote this post last week, the Tryst Lake area has been closed and reopened due to bear activity. Check it's status in the "Notes" section at the bottom of the Peter Lougheed and Spray Valley Provincial Parks trail report.

A week too late. All the larches have lost their needles.

Tryst Lake isn't known for its larches. It's known for being a beautiful alpine lake in a beautiful alpine setting. Its larches don't rival those of Larch Valley or Pocaterra Cirque, but its lack of people--you may have the trail and lake to yourself--and setting more than make up for any lack of golden needles. As with Pocaterra Cirque, many people think the Smith Dorrien/Spray Trail is still closed due to flood damage, so there may be even fewer people at Tryst Lake, if that's possible. An added bonus is the high likelihood that you'll see one of the area's resident moose at the parking lot or the old road that the trail starts out as.

For details and my full post about Tryst Lake and how to get there, click here.

3. You'd like to see a golden larch, but the rest of the scenery is the main attraction: Burstall Pass

Looking down at Burstall Pass, the unnamed glaciers, alpine meadows, Mt. Sir Douglas...

The landscape of Burstall Pass is amazing, fantastic, sublime. There are also some larch trees mixed in with the other trees.
Nearing the pass. The larches are the lighter green
trees, some starting to turn gold.

So if you're looking for a good September hike and like to see a few larches turning gold, but that's not the first priority, Burstall Pass is a good choice. That's not to say the larches aren't impressive, just not as impressive as Pocaterra Cirque or Tryst Lake. The emphasis of Burstall Pass is definitely on the views of unnamed glaciers, alpine meadows and the surrounding mountains, Snow Peak, Mt. Birdwood, Commonwealth Peak, Mt. Sir Douglas....We hiked up and over the pass on September 14, 2013, on the way to Snow Peak, and the larches were just starting to turn, so the next couple of weekends they should be prime larch viewing time at the pass.

Having said all that, this is a trail for older kids, maybe 10 or 12 and up. If you top short of the top of Burstall Pass, you can see the larches and the rest of the scenery, but it's still around 14 km (roundtrip) and a couple hundred meters of elevation gain.

A lone larch on top of the pass
Starting from the Burstall Pass day use area, follow the trail (it starts as on old logging road before narrowing to a true trail) for about 4 km. At that point you'll come out of the trees and find yourself in an alluvial plain covered with low bushes and braided creeks that you'll have to find your way across. Roughly follow the trail signs, which can be easily seen above the brush thanks to orange reflectors on top. Before re-entering the trees on the other side, make sure you look left to see the Robertson Glacier. Once in the trees, another 3 or so kilometers will take you to the pass. From the parking lot, the top of the pass is an elevation gain of about 450 m.

Distance: About 15 km return
Elevation gain: About 450 meters
Hiking/Exploring Time: 4 to 6 hours
Driving Directions: Trans-Canada west to Highway 40. Follow the 40 south to Kananaskis Lakes Trail and turn right. In a couple of kilometers, turn right again on the Smith-Dorrien/Spray Trail. In 22 kilometers turn left into the Burstall day use area.

Click here to see a driving map.

Larch needles in spring on the Wedge

Thursday, 12 September 2013

Helping Kids Understand the Risks that Outdoor Parents Take is an Ongoing Process

One of the smaller crevasses on Antisana

“Few places in this world are more dangerous than home. Fear not, therefore, to try the mountain passes. They will kill care, save you from deadly apathy, set you free, and call forth every faculty into vigorous, enthusiastic action.” 

― John Muir

“Climb if you will, but remember that courage and strength are nought without prudence, and that a momentary negligence may destroy the happiness of a lifetime. Do nothing in haste; look well to each step; and from the beginning think what may be the end.” 
― Edward Whymper

5707m on the summit of Antisana
The subject of outdoor parents and the risks we take has been coming up in a group of outdoor family bloggers of which I'm a member. I've written before about the risky stuff I do in the mountains and how that relates to being a parent. But as my sons get older and I expose them to more of the outdoor community and culture of which I'm a part, and they build their own bonds to that community, I've been realizing that I have to revisit the subject on a regular basis. 

Also, as I help them process the changes and feelings they're experiencing as a result of their mom and I beginning the divorce process, I'm strongly aware of their need for stability and security in their relationship with their parents. And by asking them how they feel about those changes and letting them know that there are no right or wrong feelings and they don't have to worry about hurting me, I'm finding that in some ways we're developing closer bonds as a family of three than we did as a family of four. It's taking time, but they're starting to open up to me about their feelings in general and I don't even have to prod them. They're even answering questions about school with full sentences instead of single word grunts.

It doesn't get much safer than top roping
Last Saturday night we went to the Best of the Vancouver International Mountain Film Festival. The film I most wanted to see was Shattered by climber Steve House. Besides the amazing cinematography and ice climbing, House reveals a vulnerable side that is rare in the ego-driven world of world-class mountaineering. He shares that his deepest fear is that he isn't worthy of love. That 19 climbers he's shared a rope with have died. That he's increasingly aware that each moment on a mountain could add him to that list. 

That night Mack, my oldest at 13, said it sounded like House didn't like climbing, so why did he keep doing it? That started a fantastic conversation about the difference between irrational fear and recognizing that you're in danger. About what drives people to do risky activities. About why I do risky activities. Then Michael, a wiser 9-year-old than he often gives himself credit for, noted that 19 of House's friends had died climbing. The message was clear: he was concerned that I could die climbing.

This is increasingly one of my concerns as well, especially as I plan another trip to Ecuador to climb 6,268m Chimborazo. The more I push myself to the edge, the farther out I find I have to push myself to get the same clarity of the moment and self realization. Nothing forces me into the present moment--hyper-awareness of all of my senses, each step and plant of my ice axe excruciatingly deliberate--like knowing that the consequences of a mistake would be severe. Last year I found this clarity on Ecuador's 5707m Antisana as I traversed beside a gaping crevasse the width of a house and so deep I couldn't see the bottom. Between my boot and the drop was no more than a couple inches of snow. If I fell, it was unlikely the picket that was sticking half out of the snow beside me would hold or that Estevan would be able to arrest my fall. We'd both disappear into the glacier. In the preceding 24 hours I'd only gotten two hours of sleep, I was exhausted from six hours of slogging up steep snow with some ice thrown in, and I hadn't acclimatized well to the noticeable lack of oxygen at that altitude. Yet I felt a clarity and presence in the moment unlike anything I'd felt before.

But that is not something you can explain to a 9-year-old or even a 13-year-old. It's not something that most of my middle-age hiking friends understand. So I showed the boys photos of the ice climbing I do, and compared it to what House was doing in Shattered. I showed them photos of people climbing Everest and K2, and photos of the stuff I do. I tried to put into perspective the level of climbing that House's 19 dead rope mates did, and the level of climbing and other mountain stuff I do, but without dismissing the risk or misleading the boys into thinking that nothing could happen to me.

Did Mack and Michael get it? I think so, but I'll revisit the subject in a couple weeks to give them time to process it all and come up with new questions. And if I can swing it maybe I'll take them to Colorado in January, do a little skiing in Teluride, and drop in on the Ouray Ice Festival on the day of the Kid's Climbing College so they can give ice climbing a try for themselves.


Sunday, 8 September 2013

The Importance of Introducing My Kids to the Outdoor Community--My Community

A thumbs up from Mack on an olde tyme bigge wheele bicycle at the Tour of Alberta Festival.
Part of raising outdoor kids is exposing them (a.k.a. making them do stuff) not just to the outdoors, but to outdoor culture and the outdoor community. I have to admit that I haven't done a very good job of this, but over the past year I've been making this a priority.

Why? I'm part of the outdoor community and I want to share that community with my sons. I'd like them to decide to become part of it with me, although I accept that we each have to follow our own path. It's a pretty fun community to be part of, though, and I'm pretty sure Mack and Michael have realized that. I've met some pretty amazing people through my outdoor adventures (some less than amazing people too, but what are you going to do?), and those adventures have taken me from the West Coast Trail on Vancouver Island at the age of 12 to a 5,900 m peak in Ecuador at the age of 44. The outdoors and the outdoor community have helped me deal with hard times and provided more good times than I can even remember.

This weekend I hadn't planned anything of the outdoor community kind, but two opportunities presented themselves and I eagerly grabbed hold. The first was an invite from a fellow outdoor parent to join her, her son and some friends at the Best of the Vancouver International Mountain Film Festival at a neat little hamlet by the name of Bragg Creek on Saturday night. Mack, Michael and I duked it out in good fun with our inviters over a paint ball package in the silent auction (ultimately, we both lost the bidding, which was probably for the best). And at the last minute we lost the bidding for a sweet package of cycling clothes made by a local company called Brainface. Yes, the boys and I like a good silent auction. Mack and Michael also saw me drooling over bespoke skis made by another local company, Snoday, and began drooling themselves. There's nothing like drooling over outdoor gear for good old fashioned male bonding.

I also ran into an old friend, Paul, who I hadn't seen in a while, and reintroduced the boys to him. And the boys were totally into the films, including Mountains in Motion, an awesome short film written by fellow outdoor family blogger Meghan Ward. I also finally got to see Shattered, a short film by climber Steve House, and walked away from the festival comforted that even world-class high-altitude mountaineers deal with the same doubts and fears as I do. That my boys, only 9 and 13, then wanted to talk about the film, House's fears and why he climbed made the shared experience an incredibly rich one. It spurred a talk about the risks I take in the mountains that I need to have with them on a regular basis, but don't initiate often enough.

Sunday, I saw on Facebook that a friend, Cynthia, was working the Ft. Calgary booth at the Tour of Alberta Festival. I take the boys trail biking a few times a year, but I'm not really a "cyclist" and I'm definitely not a road biker or into Tour de France stuff. But there were world class bike racers in this, the inaugural Tour of Alberta, the boys love the food trucks that are always at these things, and it's all part of the outdoor community.

What a fantastic afternoon we had! We ran into Paul again, visited Cynthia's booth and got pictures of the boys in North West Mounted Police uniforms, ran into my hiking friend Maija who was volunteering at the TELUS Spark booth (we gotta get out hiking together soon!), bumped into Bob (I've known him since grade 5 and he's now married to Cynthia), got interviewed by Val who's a Calgary Herald columnist and a friend and one of my former editors at Avenue Magazine (I was a journalist in a past life) who I haven't seen for years, talked with a colleague who'd crashed in the GranFondo Banff a couple weeks earlier and was now sporting a wrist cast and a concussion...

Then there were all the other things. A balance course that Mack aced and Michael persevered on until he made it. Olde tyme bigge wheele bicycles that Mack again mastered quickly but were too big for Michael (although he did get an invaluable lesson in how to get a pretty girl to put her arms around him; see photo below...that's my boy!). Give aways like water bottles, cycling socks and Jelly Belly's. The energy that surrounds the finish line of world-class athletic events. All three of us soaked it in. We weren't just part of the outdoor community, we felt like we were part of it and part of something much bigger than ourselves.

Much like we feel when we're in the mountains--part of something much bigger than ourselves.

A lesson in how to get a pretty to girl to put her arms around you. That's my boy!

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