Saturday, 2 August 2014

Hiking with Kids at Mt. Assiniboine: An amazing backcountry experience for the whole family

On the Nublet, Mt. Assiniboine in the background.
Something amazing happens when you and your kids are dropped off by a helicopter in the backcountry with no TV, no wifi and no way to charge cell phones. The whole family is forced into the moment...adventure unfolds naturally, you have the kind of talks that only happen on the trail, and you truly get to experience and enjoy each other's presence.

That's what happened when Mack, Michael and I stepped into the helicopter at the Mt. Shark helipad and stepped off it at Mt. Assiniboine. After four days with their grandmother in basic old school cabins in Fairmont Hot Springs (where we visited Lussier natural hot springs and went white water rafting on the Kootenay River...even at 80 she's a cool grandmother), I'd booked us for one night camping and one night in one of the Naiset huts at Mt. Assiniboine. I figured if it was raining, two nights stuck in a tent would be miserable for a 9-year-old and a 14-year-old, and the experience would turn them off of the backcountry instead of onto it.

I needn't have worried. We arrived around 12:30 p.m. the first day to sunny skies, and easily made our way on the 2 kilometer trail to the Lake Magog backcountry campsite. There we found a mini-city of backpackers who'd hiked in from Mt. Shark and Sunshine Meadows, some smiling and some the worse for wear. After setting up our tent, we explored a bit, found the outhouses and cooking shelter, and ambled along the shore of Lake Magog back to Mt. Assiniboine Lodge in time for the 4 p.m. tea and cake. Mt. Assiniboine is almost like a backcountry amusement park. Between the posh lodge and its
The first night's campsite.
cabins, the nearby basic Naiset huts, and 30 or so campsites at the Lake Magog campground, there must have been a hundred or so people wandering the trails and meadows in the immediate vicinity of the mountain. For an introduction to the backcountry, this makes it a safe place for novices of all ages. You can rough it as much or as little as you want, and if the kids are resisting the wonder of it all there's the daily bribe of a Coke and cake to focus them on. After finishing off two plates of the fresh baked banana bread and chocolate cake, we returned to our campsite under increasingly cloudy skies.
Breakfast the second day.

We heard the first thunder clap as we started up our Pocket Rocket camp stove, but the rain held off until we were finished the main meal and the last kernels of our Jiffy Pop popcorn were popping. If you want to turn your kids into celebrities at any campsite, Jiffy Pop is the way to go. Despite the rain, Mack and Michael were grinning ear to ear when they realized all eyes were enviously on them and their rarest of delicacies in the backcountry. Forget all the fancy backcountry deserts in the freeze dried food section of MEC or REI. Jiffy Pops are fun to make and even more fun to eat than a foil bag of something grossly mislabeled as "Chocolate
Mousse with Chocolate Crumble Topping."

By eight we'd crawled into our tent with the pitter patter of the rain on the fly. I'd brought a deck of cards, but we didn't need them. The kids loved just sprawling out, telling jokes and relaxing to the pitter patter of the rain on the fly. I loved just enjoying the time alone with them, no electronic distractions and lots of laughing.

The next morning, I crawled out around 7 a.m. to a big blue sky and nothing but birds breaking the silence. While the boys slept in, I fixed coffee on one of the open air cooking pads and enjoyed the
Descending the Nublet
company of a couple retired guys who'd backpacked in with one of their grown daughters. When they'd finished their breakfast, it was a young family with two daughters, 4 and 7, who'd flown in and were going to backpack out the next day. It wasn't until 11 a.m. that we'd finished our breakfast of pancakes and were on the trail for the day's adventure: an easy 500 m scramble up the Nublet, a bump on Nub Ridge on the way to the summit of Nub Peak.

With no schedule other than cake at the lodge at 4 o'clock, we took our time on the 4 km trail, stopping to look at tadpoles in a stream or at the amazing view of lakes below and mountains above. On the last section of actual scrambling just below the top of the Nublet, I marveled at how
surefooted the boys have become on scree, how they naturally test hand holds to make sure the rock is at ease they've become in the mountains, how great it is to be an outdoor family...On top we enjoyed the views for half an hour, Mack spotted a bald eagle (not that common in the Rockies) and I was the happiest dad on earth.

Our hut and its small door.
An hour later we were packed up and making our way to the lodge for a cold Coke and cake. From the lodge we carried our gear the half kilometer to the Naiset huts and started cooking supper in what turned out to be a fully equipped cook hut: running water, propane stoves and lamps, gourmet quality pots and pans...not bad for the backcountry! That left us a few hours to explore before sunset and bed, and there was lots to explore. We got our feet wet hopping across and through the creek that leads down to the lake, got them wetter wading in the lake, and had fun doing nothing but having fun. When we finally went back to the hut, we found our hut mates already in their sleeping bags trying to sleep (sorry!) and more or less quietly climbed into our own bags. Even getting up at 2:30 a.m. to go to the outhouse with Michael was an amazing experience, stepping out of the hut's pitch black to a dark sky filled with millions and billions of stars filling the mountain sky.

Waiting for the helicopter the next morning, I couldn't help but think about what an amazing time we'd had. As exciting as flying in a helicopter is for a kid, for Mack and Michael it paled in comparison to things like playing in the lake as the sun set, reaching the top of the Nublet and, for Mack, being the first to spot the bald eagle. Originally, I'd been a little disappointed when I saw how many people would be sharing our backcountry experience, but that had given way to another welcome lesson in letting go of expectations and accepting what the mountains give you. The boys had been exposed to new aspects of mountain culture--sharing a cooking pad and a hut, cook shelter etiquette, meeting fellow campers--and they'd thrived in it. And that's what the
mountains are all about regardless of how old you are: taking what they give you and thriving in it all.

Sunset at Mt. Assiniboine.
Morning visitor at our hut.

A happy dad on the flight out.

Friday, 25 July 2014

Hiking with Kids in Kananaskis: The Vaults of Mt. McGillivray

A giant vault blasted into the side of a mountain, then abandoned and almost forgotten. What's not to get excited about if you're a kid (big or small)?

The Trans Canada Trail
Back in the 50s or 60s, somebody blasted a tunnel and side vaults into the side of Mt. McGillivray in Kananaskis (you can read one theory of who and why here). When I was a kid in the late 70s, getting to them was something of an ordeal. You had to bushwhack to them from the Trans-Canada highway, and if you didn't know where they were you could spend the entire day searching for the narrow entrance and never find it. But if you did know, the short hike through the brush to treeline brought you a place custom designed to trigger a kid's imagination.
One of the washouts

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

Today, you park at the Heart Creek day use area, head west and the Trans Canada Trail takes you most of the way there. Luckily, the floods of June 2013 washed out a couple big chunks of the trail, reintroducing a bit of adventure and effort to reach the vaults. After negotiating your way across the washouts, it's almost impossible to miss the well-beaten path that now leads up to the vaults in a couple gentle switchbacks.

Although the vaults now lack the
Wolf track on the trail
exclusivity of being able to say you went somewhere that 99.9% of even the most experienced hikers have never heard of, they haven't lost any of their ability to spark the imagination.  And, as the wolf tracks we followed down the path, well beaten mountain paths are still wild. Try this hike from spring through to fall when you're looking for a fun, easy way to spend a couple hours in the mountains.

Distance: 3 or 4 km return
Time on the trail: 1-2 hours
Elevation gain: About 100 m

Driving Directions: Trans-Canada west from Calgary to the Heart Creek day use area across from Lac des Arc. Look for the Trans-Canada Trail sign on the west side of the parking lot across from the outhouses.
Click here for a driving map.

The entrance

The "foyer"

Wednesday, 22 January 2014

Raising Outdoor Kids: 3 ways you know it's working

1. Being an outdoor teenager provides social status. My oldest son is in the 8th grade, and one of his friends is selling home made survival bracelets to help pay for his older brother's Scout trip to Japan. "You could tell who the hikers were," he said. "We could see all kinds of ways you could use it. Zane asked how it protects you." You're correct if you guessed that Zane doesn't hike.

2. They announce they're moving to the mountains. "When I move out, I'm moving to Banff," my 9-year-old son announced one day. "It's right in the mountains, and there are lots of trails everywhere." Later that day he also announced that when he was in high school he was going to live with me, sleep on the couch all day, and I'd have to feed him. Both of his announcements sound good to me!

3. The presents they give you are really for them...and they're for camping. That's what happened a couple birthdays ago when they gave me backpacking pots, plates, bowls and mugs. "We can take them when we go camping," one said. "Look how the mugs and stuff all fit together. It's pretty cool." Yes it is, but not as cool as the fact that he said that. And much cooler than the Skylanders his friend George gave his father.

Tuesday, 14 January 2014

Raising Outdoor Kids: Scrapes, scratches, bruises and non-fatal cuts build character

I came across an article today titled Barrier to Active Play: Safety Concerns. The thesis of the article is that one of the biggest barriers to kids playing outside is their parents' fears of kids hurting themselves, being abducted by strangers, or struck by lightening a split second before a meteor falls on them.
If you're a parent, this is nothing new. Let your kids play unattended in your front yard and you run the risk of Social Services taking them away to live in the custody of the state where they'll be safe. Or worse, the neighbors will look at you with their eyes askance. Yet we all know that sheltering our kids from irrational dangers that we know exist only in our heads isn't healthy for them. It robs them of the experiences they need to learn how to identify risks, develop their sense of independence, gain the resilience to keep playing when they scrape a knee, get some exercise...In other words, it robs them of the experiences they need to become the independent, well-adjusted individuals we want them to become.

This isn't something that outdoor parents leave behind in the city when we take our outdoor kids into the wilds and reintroduce them to the food chain. I've seen parents, who themselves take risks with severe consequences in the mountains, berate their child for stepping in a creek or happily hopping across boulders...Be careful! Watch your step! You're going to fall and scrape your knee! See, you fell. I told you to watch your step. Why were you watching me?

Don't get me wrong, I'm not perfect when it comes to letting my boys do something I know has a greater than 50/50 chance of spilling blood. But I've learned the hard way in soooooo many areas of life that we all have to learn our own lessons. And one of the reasons I take my sons to the mountains is so they can learn their own lessons. Unless I think a bone is going to be broken or worse, I usually let things unfold as they were meant to. Just as I learned from every scraped knee, scratched shin, bruised buttock and cut finger from the Rocky Mountains to the West Coast Trail (seriously, I was 12 when I hiked that thing...what were my parents thinking?), my sons are learning how to identify risks and decide to either take them or avoid them.

Sometimes taking the risk works out, and sometimes they leave a little bit of themselves on the trail. Either way, they keep going. They don't let a little pain or a little scratch stop them. And at the end of every hike I can see the independence and confidence they've gained, and how they bring that back to their day-to-day lives in the relative safety of the city.

Saturday, 11 January 2014

Raising Outdoor Kids: Go on a techno-fast and let boredom works its wonders

"Go on a techno-fast. Research shows that multitasking can divide attention and hurt one’s ability to learn and create. Children and parents need a break, and nature is the best place to take it. Set aside times in the day and every week — or a whole week or more — to leave the electronics behind. Exit the virtual and enter the real. Spend a little time in the Cascades, your yard or even the English countryside. Your kids may complain at first, but they’ll come back from the break feeling better. They’ll notice it. So will you."

This was tucked away at the end of an article titled "Forward to Nature: Why a Walk in the Woods Could Calm ADHD, Make Your Family Happier and Deliver Your Kid to Harvard" by Richard Louv. In a nutshell, the article articulates the health and other benefits of getting children into nature: lower rates of depression and negative stress, reduced symptoms of ADHD, improved academic performance, the list goes on. If you're reading this, you're probably already aware of all this. (Us outdoor parents tend to spend a lot of time preaching to the choir about this stuff.) What really caught my attention was the section at the end of the article that listed easy ways to "Reclaim Nature." Go on a techno-fast was one of them.

As it happens, my teen-aged son is on day 6 of a school project in which he had to give up electronics for a week. After an initial increase the frequency and duration of fights with his little brother, he settled into a pattern of sustained boredom interspersed with shorter periods of fighting with his brother. So last night I handed him my old copy of Into Thin Air, and he actually read it. Reading on its own isn't new for him. He's always enjoyed books like Diary of Wimpy Kid or The Hunger Games. Age appropriate stuff. This was the first adult book I'd suggested he read. It was also the first non-fiction book, aside from kid classics like The Scoop on Poop (there are two; I recommend the newer one).

Then this morning he recommended that we go cardboard tobogganing again. This was new. Seldom does he suggest going out to do that kind of stuff any more. So we took the cardboard toboggans out and had a blast, even though the snow was wet and slow. And when the cardboard was too wet and bent to slide at all, we used them as forts and had a snowball fight. It was all fun, spontaneous and driven by the boys, not me.

And then, after we'd come in, dried off and warmed up, he went out and threw snowballs for the dog in the backyard for an hour. I don't know what suddenly got into him, but I know what didn't: two-dimensional digital stimulation. Or maybe I do know what got into him: boredom. Good clean old-fashioned boredom, and it was the best thing that's happened to all of us in a while.

Friday, 3 January 2014

Avalanche Awareness Days are Here! Check Out an Event at a Canadian Rockies Location Near You

It's winter and once again the Canadian Rockies are having a bad avalanche season that the Canadian Avalanche Centre thinks may get worse. As I write, the avalanche forecast for Kananaskis tomorrow is high above treeline, considerable at treeline and moderate below. I was going to lead a snowshoeing trip up Black Prince Outlier in Kananaskis, but decided to move the trip to the safer and relatively flatter Chester Lake.

You can never learn enough about avalanche safety, and it's never too earlier to teach your kids. Fortunately, Avalanche Awareness Days are coming to a number of Canadian Rockies locations. Each event has different activities, ranging from shovelling races and avalanche terrain talks to demonstrations of dog rescue teams doing their things.

For more information, go to the events section of the Canadian Avalanche Centre website.

Avalanche Awareness Days Dates

Banff--January 18-19, 2014
Kananaskis/Burstall Pass--January 19, 2014
Nakiska Ski Resort--January 18, 2014
Lake Louise Visitor Centre--January 16, 2014
Lake Louise Ski Resort--January 18-19, 2014

For more avalanche education information, read these posts:

Kids Outdoor Skills: Age-Appropriate Avalanche Safety Education
Kids Outdoor Skills: Avalanche Safety Video for Teens
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