As the end of the summer of 2020 approached, my dream of a Rocky Mountain road trip seemed to be fading. The deadline to present my thesis proposal was nearing, making it difficult to fit any kind of trip into my schedule. While the pandemic had entered a summer lull, the risk was still there along with the all the anxiety surrounding it. Campsites in both the front and backcountry were fully booked up. Even living out of the back of my truck #vanlife style now seemed to be frowned upon by the weary residents of Canmore. By driving my US-plated truck I also ran a slight risk of receiving an unfriendly reception by the locals; even though both I and the truck hadn’t left Canada since February, how could anyone else know that? I wanted to bring my kayak, but that was cumbersome and difficult to secure on a long trip. Things were touch and go, and I didn’t fully commit to leaving until less than a week before, when my friend and fellow VOCer Noah confirmed that he had a campsite and was down to attempt some peak scrambles over the weekend.
With that falling into place, I figured I could mitigate some of the other issues. So I left Vancouver early one the afternoon with my laptop (to in theory do some work at camp), a note in my back window indicating my student status, and a sea kayak strapped tightly to the roof. It proved to be enough for a few days. After a long, exhausting drive I pulled into the campsite after midnight Alberta time and immediately went to bed in the back of the truck to get a few hours of sleep before our alpine start the next day.
Normally, early start times aren’t a huge deal for simple scrambles, but our first objective, Mount Temple, had some logistical issues. In particular, the trailhead for this one starts at the world-famous Moraine Lake. Which sounds nice because the scenery is stunning, but the area is notorious for overcrowding, leaving hikers unable to find parking. So we hit the road early, and drove right on into a mess – the instagram/tourist crowd was already circling the lot, hoping to catch the sunrise. Luckily, Noah eventually found a spot and we were on our way.
We quickly made our way up the switchbacks, through Larch Valley to Sentinel Pass.
From Sentinel Pass, the route zig-zags up and around cliff bands to approach the over 11,000 foot summit. We forgot the guidebook in the car, but that ended up being unimportant as the approach trail and route is pretty obvious, especially with the traffic that this peak is starting to get. I didn’t get any good pics of the route, but it’s not very difficult, with a class 3/4 chimney crux. Soon we arrived at the summit of my first Canadian 11,000er. The views up there were pretty good.
The descent was uneventful, though we found the number of people on the mountain somewhat concerning with all the loose rock.
We then went back to Banff, where we did a bit of gear shopping, before returning to camp.
The weather for the next day was really iffy, so we decided to make it a rest day. This included a short hike and pack raft at Hidden Lake and kayaking on Kananaskis Lake.
Then it was back to Canmore for a bit more shopping, plus a beer at a local brewery.
The next day would be our last day of scrambling. Noah went to go pick up a friend, Abigail, so we decided to meet up at the trailhead for Helen Lake and Cirque Peak.
We made our way up the trail to the alpine, and soon got good views of our destination.
Though it’s in some of the scrambling guides, Cirque Peak barely qualifies with a very short class 3 section. One thing the guides did get right is that the views get better each step of the way.
Soon it was time to part ways. Noah and Abigail returned to Calgary and I drove north to Jasper for one last objective. First, though, I stopped for a bit of sightseeing.
Back when I was a kid I had a poster of a small island in an incredible alpine lake hanging up in my room. I remember figuring out where it was and investigating it on Google Earth, planning out how to get there someday. The lake, however, was a thousand miles away in Canada, which for a kid who had never left the southwestern US may as well have been on the moon. So I buried it in the back of my mind with the rest of my long-shot travel destinations. Now, with this trip, I was very close to finally getting there.
Spirit Island sits just off the shores of the extraordinary Maligne Lake in Jasper National Park. To get there I would have to undertake a 28 km round trip kayak from the dock. I had tried to get permits to camp there overnight, but predictably everything sold out immediately. The only option left (besides paying for the water taxi – never!) was to do it all in one long day. This would be the longest distance I had ever kayaked in a day and it would be my first solo kayaking journey. So I asked Noah to be my emergency contact via my inReach and headed up the road from Jasper.
The weather was not ideal. Instead of the sunny day I had hoped for, I got some light rain showers on the lake turning into snow at the higher elevations. But the forecast said things would improve as the day went on so I decided to go for it.
For almost all of the journey I seemingly had the lake to myself, except for a few kayakers headed the other way. The only other traffic of note was the water taxis, whose regular trips were the only thing to mark the time in this empty space. With each overtaking they slowed significantly to reduce their wake, a kindness which I definitely appreciated. Otherwise there’s not much to say about the kayaking as it was mostly just a slog to the island. At least the weather did improve over time!
I arrived at the same time as a boatload of tourists, which made for a chaotic first impression of Spirit Island. Had it really been worth it to kayak all the way out there and then have to constantly share the place with them as boat after boat arrived? I generally prefer silence at places like these so that I can really focus on nature; this was not ideal. As I was considering setting out again, one of the boat operators offered an awesome bit of information: they would be going on lunch break, meaning this would be the last boat for over an hour. So, I waited for them to take off and soon it was just me and one couple on a canoe who had arrived shortly after me. Finally, there was time to take it all in. And time to watch as the clouds slowly moved on, sometimes allowing for small amounts of sunlight to reach the lake and highlight its blue-green waters.
Finally, I had made it to Spirit Island. I spent the next hour or more there - much longer than I had planned. Eventually, I did sadly have to start the long paddle back. I set off just as the first boat of the afternoon showed up. The return largely uneventful, except for a few strong wind gusts that made things less pleasant. The view on the way back is not all that great compared to the way in, so I kept myself entertained with some new music on my phone (the new album from The Killers in particular quickly became the soundtrack to this trip!). By the time I arrived back at the dock my arms were done. Turns out 28 km is a long way to kayak in one day. But I had made it safely, and Spirit Island ended up being the perfect final act of an already amazing trip.
In the end, there’s no place like the Rocky Mountains, and I’m grateful for the chance to scramble and kayak my way through them in spite of all the obstacles of planning a trip in 2020…