Backpacking

Hiking Up Towards Allstones LakeEnjoying the View of Abraham LakeHaving Supper at Allstones Lake

An eight day backpacking trip concluded our epic August adventure. After learning to do a bit of map and compass work, we set off all together on a sunny hike up to Allstones Lake. Our packs were heavy with food for our 8 day trip. The first part of the hike is well known and the trail well-travelled, so while we could learn how to navigate with map and compass, we didn’t need to. We got to Allstones with time to set up our tarps, filter some water, and make some supper before dark. Our bearhangs (rope systems to hang all our food between trees so bears can’t get at them) took a little longer and we finished them off in the dark with headlamps.

Allstones Lake at Night

Then we all crawled into our sleeping bags under our tarps for what would turn out to be a miserable night. It was clear when we went to sleep, but a storm rolled in overnight and it started raining and blowing really hard. Our tarp was open at both ends and I was sleeping on the outside. My sleeping bag got pretty wet and I got pretty cold. This set the tone for the rest of the trip. The morning dawned, cold, dark, and rainy. We made breakfast, ate, and packed up as quickly as we could.

Cold Wet Morning at Allstones

This was the first day our small group was alone. We were meeting up with everyone else at a pre-determined location on the map. There were no more trails and the trees were thick, making landmarking difficult. To add to this, the clouds were low, and often we couldn’t see any mountains, even when the trees thinned out. The rain was cold and constant, finding a way through all our waterproof layers. We quickly switched from navigating by landmarks to dead reckoning (going a specific compass direction). We tried to gauge our distance by the number of drainages we passed through, but we didn’t know our exact elevation and the number of drainages on the map varied depending on the elevation.

Trying to Navigate

We debated where we were quite a bit, pointing out hills in the distance, and the direction of creeks we crossed. Eventually we got to an open mountainside where we could see more than one landmark at once. We debated, ended up with two possibilities of where we could be, with most of us being pretty sure of one. But on a day when we were all cold, wet, and miserable, with darkness starting to loom, we thought we better be sure. We took out the GPS and confirmed our guess. We were where we thought we were, but we still had a ways to go. We eventually found the right drainage to walk down, followed the swampy, willowy valley, and ended up close to our campsite. We were all soaked, although hiking had kept us warm up to this point.

River Crossing Near Camp

As we got into camp though, the cold started creeping in and we started slowing down. As we tried to set up the tarp with shaking, numb fingers, others in our group searched for less-damp wood with which to start a fire. Nothing was dry. Through chattering teeth, we made sure everyone had their tasks, and we set about doing the chores of the evening. Somehow we managed to get the tarp set up, a fire made, and supper cooked. We changed into drier clothes and tried to warm up.

Trying to Warm Up

By then it was dark, and we needed sleep. We crawled into our sleeping bags and slept extra close that night. Morning came. It was still drizzling, on and off. Most of our gear was wet, but there was nothing to be done about it, so we packed up and headed out. Our route for the day was pretty clear – we would follow a valley through a low pass, and then once the ground leveled out we would head straight north. The day was a little less wet than the day before, our route a little clearer, and our group’s spirits were high. We even saw blue sky for a few minutes before it clouded over again.

Dead Reckoning Through Mossy ForestThe Littlehorn RiverOld Man's Beard

This time we were one of the first groups to camp, and we had a little bit of time to relax in addition to all the evening chores. We got our tarp set up early with drying lines underneath. There was a good gravel bar for a kitchen beside the Bighorn River. The sun came out a bit that evening, and we found out we would have a layover day to dry out our gear. We went to bed happy, if not especially warm.

Cooking Supper

The next day was full of drying gear, learning to identify plants, journaling, and talking with other groups we had barely seen in a few days.

Cooking SupperMorning LightCampfireGroup PortraitTarp ShelterDrying Gear

Then it was time for our small group to head off on our own for a couple days. We picked our route and our campsite for the next night, said goodbye to our home for the last day and a half, and headed out.

Littlehorn and Bighorn Confluence

Despite regular intervals of rain, the fact that there was any sun at all made us pretty happy and the day started out great! We had a long hike ahead of us, but there was a lake at the end of it, and hiking together as a group was a silly and fun affair. At lunch we took off our boots, dried out our feet, and basked in a half hour of sun. It was glorious. After lunch we skipped through meadows, making up songs accompanied by harmonica.

Hiking Through Meadows

However, the meadows turned into swamp. The songs turned to blues. The skipping turned to slogging. The rest of the day was pushing through mossy swamps up to our knees, briefly climbing steep hills only to find we had to go back down into the swamp. We were soooo happy to finally see the lake.

Chad Admiring the Lake

We had a relaxing evening at the lake and slept in the next morning. We woke up to sun for the first time (actually the only time) that trip and water quietly lapping at the shore. We had a leisurely breakfast, packed up, and headed out, changing our route slightly to not lose as much elevation. Crossing the valley above the lake was less swampy than we were worried about. We headed up a south-facing slope of thin pines to gain the ridge and head to our next camp to see everyone again. The hiking was quick and fun, but fallen trees soon slowed us down. It took us longer than expected to get to the next camp, with a steep, mossy decent on the north side of the ridge. After a steeper-than-hoped-for slide down to the river, we crossed and found camp.

Crossing the River

It was really good to see the group again. There were hugs, high fives, and stories all around. For the rest of the trip, we would all hike together. We had a good supper with burnt pudding for desert, which kind of tasted horrible but because it was chocolate and we were camping, it was good.

Pudding Desert!

The next morning we all packed up as a large group and started climbing.

Packing Up

We quickly gained the ridge and had great views. We even got a spot of sun during lunch. But lunch got cut short as clouds started rolling in.

View from the RidgeFog in the Valley

We hiked to another small peak in the rain and fog, and then sat down for an appropriately cold reflection on our trip.

Hiking Through the Fog

After climbing down in a cold, cutting rain, we found another soggy campsite and had a great evening with the group. We had a potluck and skits or songs from each group, and then climbed under our tarps for the last time. The next morning we packed up and bushwhacked out the last few kilometers to the road where a few people hitchhiked back to get a vehicle.

Annoying WillowsCrossing Again

And that’s how it ended, as all trips do, with a “Oh, I guess it’s done. What now?”

Adventures on the Brazeau

The Brazeau River

The middle part of August was spent on the Brazeau River. The trip started with a drive to the put-in and a portage to get the boats and gear down to the river. It was supposed to be a roughly 2km portage, but it turned out the river had moved and there was no good place to put in where we had planned. This required a short planning session, a bit of exploration, and eventually a longer portage.

Portage to the Brazeau River

To get the boats down the steep bank to our new campsite and put-in, we built a pulley system to lower the canoes with gear in them. The portage and lowering took until after 9pm, at which point we were all hungry and tired.

Lowering Canoes Down a Steep Bank

But we were finally at the river. We had canoes and gear and could start our trip. Despite being tired, I couldn’t resist staying up a little later to see the stars come out, watch the moon rise, and listen to the river rushing by. Tomorrow we would be canoeing this beauty, and that was exciting!

Brazeau Put In at Night

The next day dawned clear and bright. After a breakfast of toast and beans warmed over a fire, we packed up our tents and sleeping bags, loaded the canoes, and started paddling.

Starting Off Down the Brazeau River

At almost every corner there were significant rapids and we would stop to scout them. Often they were not a big deal, but every once in a while there would be some high-consequence rocks to avoid.

Scouting RapidsHigh Consequence RocksHuge Pillow in Front of a Rock

Sometimes they were just fun!

Fun Rapids on the Brazeau

We were canoeing into two groups. I was near the back of the second group. Then there was a fairly long section of big waves followed by a tricky corner with no place to stop and scout from. A lot of the canoes had been taking on a bit of water in the long section of whitewater. I didn’t see what happened to the first group at the corner, but I saw the leader in my group flip over. The next canoe got pushed into a rock and dumped. Then the canoe right in front of me dumped. At that point I knew there was a good chance of me and Bjarke going over, so we just focused on picking a good line, not pushing through the big waves (to get less water in the boat) but having enough power to get through the current to the other side before getting pushed into the rock, and just getting through so we could help people out on the other side. We made it, but had quite a bit of water in our canoe. We eddied out on the other side of the turn, but it wasn’t much of an eddy and was trying to push us further downstream. We saw a beach on the other side and ferried across in our now-tippy canoe to assess the situation. There was one other canoe and five other people there. Across the river we could see one canoe and four people.

Warming Up Around a FireFerrying Across to Rescue People

There were 21 in our group. Eventually, we heard that the leader of the first group had been able to keep 5 canoes from getting too far downstream and people were scattered along both shores, separated by water and cliffs. Eventually we accounted for everyone and all the canoes. Amazingly, the only damage was one broken yoke and a lot of cold, wet people. Duct tape “fixed” the first problem and lots of fires, shared warm clothes from accessible canoes, and movement fixed the second one. After a few hours (including a thunderstorm that stalled our efforts for a bit) we managed to collect everybody and everything in one spot and set off to find a place we could stop and camp. The corner is now affectionately named “Carnage Corner” by our group.

Mostly Collected DownstreamEmptying a Loaded Canoe

Collecting People

Exhausted and hungry, we pulled into our new campsite on a sandy island. Unloading, setting up camp, changeing out of wet clothes, and making supper took a long time, but we all had lots of stories to tell and listen to and the time flew by.

Second Camp on the BrazeauCooking Supper

We had a good few days on the island, learning all kinds of plant identification, wilderness skills, and enjoying being completely immersed in nature.

Starting a Fire with Flint

We had time to reflect on the different roles in emergency response, what our response was and what we wished it had been. It was decided that we would end the canoe trip early as there was a section further down the river where the consequences for a similar debacle would be much more severe. There was a canyon where, if someone dumped, they would be swimming for kilometers instead of meters. With water that cold, hypothermia would not only be possible but likely in such a situation. So we had time for chatting, campfires, and some much needed rest.

Campfire on the Brazeau

After a few days I was happy to get back on the water. As we went downstream there were still rapids but they seemed to get less constant and more easily avoidable. The cliffs on each side lowered a bit. Maybe it was just that I was well rested, but the canoeing seemed a lot easier and maybe a little less exciting.

Scouting Rapids on the BrazeauLining Canoes Past Rapids on the BrazeauTaking a Break

We got to our new take-out spot early in the afternoon and started the process of unloading canoes and loading up trailers. And we started thinking about the next section of our trip – backpacking.

Whitewater Instruction

Canoe Course on the Kananaskis River

During the first bit of August I was learning to be a better canoeist, canoe instructor, and whitewater rescuer. These were full, intense days mostly on the Kananaskis River. I’ve taken a Paddle Canada Moving Water course before, but it was a long time ago and even then my skills needed a lot of work. The skill development involved much ferrying (getting across the river without being pushed downstream) and many eddy turns and s-turns. Paddle Canada has changed some of their teaching methods recently so we learned the older PATS (Power, Angle, Tilt, Stroke) and got a taste of the newer MITH (Momentum, Initiate, Tilt, Hold) methods for eddy turns. I actually enjoyed seeing the difference between the two. I learned more by trying both than if I had just learned one. I’m sad they’re losing the angle of the canoe in the transition to MITH because I found that a very important factor to consider depending on the speed and angle of the current and where I wanted to end up. But the end result in either case is that you have to feel the canoe and water working together smoothly to get where you want to go. We worked on our form come rain or shine, on warm days and cold days.

Crossbow Draw Eddy Turn in the Rain

We also did a quick trip down the river from Canoe Meadows to Seebe to work on our river reading skills and have a bit of fun. There was one hole where a few people dumped, but it was an easy self rescue as the river was pretty calm for a while downstream.

Uncle Randy Pointing Out HazardsMorten and Randy Taking on Some WaterDump and Self Rescue

In the evenings we dried all the wet gear we could, made supper, washed dishes, filtered water, sometimes fixed and modified canoes, and then went to sleep in our tents in Canoe Meadows.

Having Fun Fixing CanoesWashing Dishes in the EveningTents in Canoe Meadows

Some days we switched it up and did some whitewater rescue work. This involved a lot of throw bag practice, rope system figuring, and learning to swim in rapids. One evening, to practice our z-drags, we set up a 9-1 rope system to pull a Suburban across the field. This was good practice for our test of pulling a kayak loaded with rocks up a 30 foot cliff the next day. This was to simulate the amount of force needed to pull a canoe off a rock. Once in my life I’ve had the misfortune of being in a group where a canoe got wrapped. I didn’t know about z-drags then and I didn’t have the equipment with me anyway. After trying to move the canoe for half an hour, we ended up getting a tree to use as a lever and with three of us pulling on the tree we eventually pried it off the rock. Water flowing at a good speed is not something to be taken lightly.

Throw Bag Practice and Partner Rescue

Swimming was the most fun though (at least for the people whose drysuits were not leaking). The combination of defensive swimming, aggressive swimming, and rolling across eddy lines was a lot of work, a lot of fun, and really effective education. It did involve a fair number of bruised knees, ripped nails, and jammed fingers, but we all survived and had a blast.

Swimming in WhitewaterSwimming in Whitewater

Although it was rare, we occasionally got a chance to chill. These times were filled with music, walks along the river, and campfires.

Playing Guitar in Canoe MeadowsKananaskis River at NightCampfire in Canoe Meadows

It was hard for me to fit photography into this intense schedule. It was great practice for me to take pictures of people in action without being too distracted from the learning I had to do along with everyone else. But my normal practice of meditative photography was pretty much impossible. Since August I’ve had the opportunity to lead a canoe trip and do a bit of teaching. Although there was still a lot to do and a lot of interaction, I found a lot more time for photography while leading. Hopefully I’ll eventually get to that story here too.

Wildlife Photography Classes

Wild Turkeys in California

I’m excited to be teaching two new “Wildlife Photography” classes, and one more “Mastering Your SLR”. Hope some of you can make it out!

The Wildlife Photography classes are at the Edmonton Valley Zoo and are on January 7th and April 1st. You can register for them by going to the City of Edmonton’s site at ereg.edmonton.ca (course codes 571161 and 588946) or by calling 311 in Edmonton.

Mastering Your SLR is in St. Albert on January 8th. You can register at stalbertphotoclasses.com/wp/mastering-your-slr/.

Happy Thanksgiving! I thought I’d celebrate with some live wild turkeys. The photo is taken in Edgewood County Park and Natural Preserve near Palo Alto, California.
150mm, f4, 1/640 of a second

Classes

Alpine Lakes in the Cline Pass

The October 16th Mastering Your SLR class is filling up fast, but there are still a few spots left!

For those of you wondering what I’ve been up to: the last couple of months I’ve been honing my leadership, teaching, and outdoor skills. It’s been a challenging and interesting journey that’s taken me down a few rivers, up into the mountains, and even inside a classroom. It has filled up most of my days, and I’ve missed time for focusing on my photography and posting updates here. I hope I get a chance to write down some of the stories and share some of the photos here soon.

Photo taken in the White Goat Wilderness Area
12mm, f10, 1/400 of a second

Solo Backpacking

Cataract Creek Camp

Before I jump off into my next adventure, I wanted to share at least one glimpse of my last one. I went through three mountain passes in two national parks, camping in a wilderness area in between. It was absolutely beautiful and very quiet besides the soft clucking of a white tailed ptarmigan near my campsite.

For anyone trying to reach me in the next month, I will be out of cell range for the entire month so my next chance to get back to you will be in September.

Taken in the White Goat Wilderness Area.
24mm, f11, 5 seconds

Absence of a Crowd

Tropical Beach at Night

It’s strange to me how much the presence or absence of people changes my experience of a place. In the daytime this beach is bustling with activity, which many people seem to enjoy so much. For me, it’s too much going on. I feel like I have to keep track of it all and I can’t, and that gets stressful. With a dedicated effort of willpower I can start to ignore everything that’s going on. But walking out here at night it is entirely deserted. Then the quiet lapping of the water on the sand and the twinkle of the stars are able to fill the void left by all the people.

Taken in Cuba
24mm, f1.4, 15 seconds

A Land Filled with Meaning

Bright Colors in the Belly Buttes

Being in the Belly Buttes was an interesting experience. They are on land owned by the Blood Tribe in southern Alberta, and I had to get special permission to hike here. On the one hand I felt at home – it felt open and free and the chance of running into random people was small. The only trails were deer and cow trails. On the other hand, I definitely felt I was travelling on someone else’s land, through someone else’s past, which holds a significance that I can only begin to understand. I wonder if this isn’t a feeling that should be more familiar to me – the sense of past and future people living with and on the land, the sense of the land meaning more than just a place to hike.

Evening Hikes

California Evening near Grey Whale Cove

I tend to go for a lot of evening hikes, walks, and runs. They require a different sort of planning than mid-day outings. They require an being aware of the terrain you’ve traveled over and knowing the directions to get back to your starting point in the dark. They require a headlamp and extra batteries in your pack. But if you’re prepared, an evening walk is a stress-free adventure. Often, right before sunset and at sunset is when animals are most active – having a final evening snack and finding a place to settle down for the night. Watching the sun set and the stars finally getting their chance to shine, watching the world slowly slip in darkness and stillness – it’s a peaceful, beautiful and exciting time.

Taken near Grey Whale Cove State Beach, California
12mm, f9, 1/125 of a second