Prologue: Recently, when we published our post “3 Types of Fun” we asked our readers to shoot us a message if they had any Type 3 fun stories they wanted to share. We heard from a few people, most who’d already posted their stories online, but we heard from one who had yet to tell the story of her adventure gone awry to the world. We enjoyed her story so much that we offered to post it as our first guest post on our blog.
The words that follow are by Kelly Fowler:
Jill, Marwa and I hiked five hours only to find ourselves huddled under one sleeping bag, three in a row, in the dark, in the drizzle. I didn’t know exactly where we were. I did know we weren’t at Fairy Meadow – no fire burning in the hearth, no chilled Chardonnay, no pasta.
Beneath the towering pine, the granite boulder, the Glad garbage bag and my purple MEC sleeping bag, the whistling of a lone wind travelling up and through Marwa’s nostrils echoed in my left ear. My right ear, however, contended with the conflicting hammer of my desperately beating heart and the solid methodical gait of a massive beast approaching from behind.
Jill was practically wedged beneath the boulder, Marwa in the middle, and me on the outside, flanked only by our packs. Hiking pole tightly gripped in my right hand. Oh yes. We got lost. And now we were about to be eaten by some ravenous beast of the Selkirks whose presence had been made quite clear to Jill and me as we had hiked into the backcountry earlier that day.
After many stories and beer to match, our planned 0600 hrs start morphed quickly into a groggy shuffle towards the car by 1100 hrs. Armed with pasta and bottles of red wine, our weekend getaway was nothing short of a chick flick. While Jill and I had both hiked extensively throughout Banff National Park, Marwa was still a virgin to the backcountry. My beautiful Egyptian friend prefers city lights and international men to eating berries in the wilderness, but she has a stubborn streak and a defiant stare that challenges anyone to tell her she can’t do something. This would be her debut with Mother Nature close at hand, experiencing true camaraderie, peeing in the woods.
Wanting more than a little hike up to the tea houses around Lake Louise, which were far too touristy for our liking, I proposed that we venture out from our favourite trails into uncharted territory. Destination? The Alpine hut at Fairy Meadow in British Columbia’s Adamant Range. Better known for its pristine backcountry skiing in the winter season, the area is often overlooked by the average hiker throughout the warmer months. The road into Fairy Meadow’s trailhead can be arduous due to wet weather in the summer and fall, and the outdoor activities surrounding the hut are specifically geared towards climbers – which we were not.
Seventy kilometres down a rutted logging road in my rented Crown Victoria, we passed by glassy sapphire lakes and crimson bushes until the brush closed in and pinged against the car doors as we navigated our way to the final stop for motorized vehicles. Jill found chicken wire in the trampled down parking area and wound it around the car to prevent porcupines from gnawing the brake lines and tires. We double-checked our supplies, shouldered our packs and set out. The day was bright, but hazy.
We set our sights on the destination, rather than the journey, as a myriad of pretty ridges and summits surrounded this magical epicentre at the end of the trail: Friendship Col and Gothics Glacier, Thor Pass, and the Toadstool and Unicorn peaks. Throw in two more peaks named after Damon and Pythias and we could not help but want to visit this enchanting spot. We were the only hikers to book the picturesque hut run by the Alpine Club of Canada, complete with a 10-person wood-fired backcountry sauna for the last weekend in September. We paid our hut fees and read the trail descriptions. It promised to be an experience to remember.
“Will there be bears?” Marwa asked.
Perched on stools in the Chateau Lake Louise staff bar we shared a round of Kokanee while discussing our plans. I exchanged a glance with Jill. “Of course,” I replied, confidently. “But the snow will fly in a month or so, and they’re busy stuffing themselves in preparation for hibernation. Not to mention, they’re backcountry bears, they won’t want anything to do with humans – not like those bears that always get caught around garbage bins in town.”
“Great!” said Marwa. My explanation seemed to do the trick.
I had met my two travelling companions during our various tenures at the historic railway hotel, the Chateau Lake Louise. A rite of passage in anyone’s coming of age in their 20s, working at a resort property in the heart of the Canadian Rockies creates nothing short of a family – albeit incestuous – atmosphere for all who live, work and play in the mountains. Living in each other’s back pockets 24 hours a day, seven days a week, our bonds as women run deep. As outdoorswomen…we’re still working on it.
Venturing into new mountain territory can be both thrilling and disconcerting at the same time. Gone were the comforts of Lake Louise with the familiar trails, the echo of the alpenhorn, the hot tea served at 5,000 feet beside a rock-bound lake. The trees, the shrubs, the trails all take on a new slant. It’s a sometimes ominous reminder that you can never own the mountains, no matter how akin you feel on any given day. Perhaps that was my problem. I felt too much at home in the mountains. The edgy feeling created by dramatic summits and sheer granite rock faces was tempered by the lure of the picturesque mini-chalet, wood-burning stove and well-equipped kitchen, all with fabulous view of the Selkirks’ Adamant range. To push ahead to the prize and disregard the present.
While winter adventurers to Fairy Meadow travel only via helicopter, the summer trail is visible and marked with flagging tape or cairns for hikers. The Alpine Club of Canada’s guidebook walked us through the journey: through the brush, up into the forest, dropping down towards Swan Creek, and once more gaining elevation. The trail then enters and weaves through a boulder field, taking the traveller up a ridge into the meadows beyond. And there would be the Fairy Meadow hut in all her glory. Our own personal backcountry retreat and spa.
Jill and I saw the six-foot brush surrounding the trailhead and the same brainwave struck our minds simultaneously. “What a gorgeous day for a hike!” said Jill, loudly, as she eyeballed me. I nodded and adopted an equally voracious conversational tone in return. When casual chatter dropped off, we began a brisk rendition of every 1939 classic we could think of. “Lions and tigers and bears, oh my!” Startling a bear along such an enclosed path could cause a rather unsavoury ending for us, as grizzlies have been known to charge if taken by surprise. And tell me, would we really want to meet an 800 lb beast who sported the clever Latin name Ursus Arctos Horribilis – emphasis on the Horribilis? Marwa was thankfully oblivious to our singing and simply enjoyed this apparent tradition of hiking.
We emerged from the brush and clambered up a short slope into the protection of the trees. Jill and Marwa took turns leading our trio while I brought up the rear as the “sweep” to keep an eye on anything approaching from behind. The forest canopy soared above us as the path wound gently through the ancient cedar and hemlock. About half an hour later, smack in the middle of the trail we crossed a mini haystack of bear scat, oozing with berries. And then another, not 20 minutes later. The remnants of a very juicy day’s work in a nearby berry patch caused a quick trailside conference between Jill and me while Marwa sat on a fallen log, nibbling a granola bar. Do we turn back? Do we tell Marwa? We gambled. We continued.
We emerged from the trees to skirt the banks of the mucky Swan Creek where the sticky mud waited eagerly to consume hiking boots and poles. The channel and banks allowed a small feeling of openness after the crush of the forest. The tumbling water blocked out the suspicious sounds of breaking branches and lone bird calls. Our spirits lifted.
Still, the day wasn’t one of those idyllic Swiss hiking postcards of sun and yodelling. The haze had never quite lifted from the morning and as we slowly trekked upwards from the creek the low clouds clung thickly in the surrounding cedar. I was annoyed by a lack of visual reference, as I preferred to be able to look up and beyond to gain bearings, to judge distance. Not this time. Should’ve brought a detailed topographic map. Maybe even a compass. I’d been to numerous Alpine huts in the past using only the Alpine Club’s trail book as a guide, and had no problems at all. But this time we were quickly becoming the hikers you learned about in Parks Canada orientation sessions for new staff in the Rockies. Done enough to become a wee bit too cocky.
Gaining altitude, we left the noisy rush of river behind and returned to a scrubby forest punctuated with exposed granite here and there. After hiking close to five hours, we should be approaching our beloved hut within an hour or so; great anticipation of a roaring fire and soaking toes and frivolous talk. We began to weave through boulders. Forest, check. Creek, check. Boulder field, check.
The September darkness was creeping in by 1900 hrs. Shadows skipped and jumped, we caught movement out of the corners of our eyes. The trail was easily lost in amongst the boulders and we dutifully followed the flagging tape, expecting at any moment to break free of the boulder field and be able to see the ridge we’d follow up to the meadows above and beyond. No such luck.
At least all indications of bear activity had diminished. Perhaps, the scat evidence had actually been a good luck sign as bears are important and respected in First Nations culture. Lord of the animals, ancestor of the humans…sounds protective. But who was I kidding? I didn’t want to meet some enormous grandfather bear in the middle of nowhere.
The flagging tape was getting trickier to follow. Night fell, as did the rain. Jill relinquished the lead as we stopped to don raingear and head lamps. Worst of all, she deferred to me. “Why don’t you take the front for a while?” Jill adjusted her pack carefully, as I shivered slightly in the damp air. What – because Fairy Meadow was my idea? Because I was the oldest? Because I looked vaguely responsible? I didn’t want to be the leader.
“Sure!” I agreed with false enthusiasm, cursing the fact that they waited until it was dark, cold and wretched to ask me to step up. I regretted not offering to lead earlier in the day when we walked on well-trodden trails through the forest and beside the creek. I made it a game. “Tape!” I’d shout, when spotting the next ribbon. “Tape!” they’d echo cheerfully. Damn them, I thought.
The ribbons were never quite where I thought they’d be. Sometimes at eye level, hanging from a tree. Sometimes at waist level on a boulder or bush. Sometimes camouflaged at foot level on some stupid rock. Faded blue, pink and orange. And then they stopped all together. A couple of times we made executive decisions together to follow what appeared to be paths through the boulders, despite no apparent tape. That’s when we started seeing the same tape, or same rocks or same tree formations again. And again.
We were lost. It was dark. What are you supposed to do when you’re lost? Stay in one place. At least until daylight.
Kelly Fowler is an adventurer, writer and photographer who currently lives in Edmonton, AB, and runs away to the mountains at every opportunity. You can follow her other writings on her own blog: butterscotchpalace.com