Sunday, June 19, 2011

First Adventure of the Season - Fryatt Valley, Jasper National Park

It's been a weird spring in Banff.

With the snow lingering in the high country and lots of cool and rainy days, it's been a late start to our trail running season.   I've been listless.  I've been waiting.  Heck, I've even been resurrected my mountain bike all in the name of variety.  Don't get me wrong, there's always lots to do and see in my backyard - but mostly I've been contained to running at the valley level and dreaming of summer adventure runs.

And dreaming I have.  My lists are long and large of places, trails and mountains I want to see in my summer play time in the mountains.  And finally, the season is here!  It crept up on me between rain storms and snow storms and visitors and work.  And with the help of a sun that stays up late into a cool, moist June evening - the summer running season has begun.


I wasn't the only one feeling listless, my running buddies have been feeling that same tug to get out there.  So, this past weekend we decided to say "Fuck You!" to the weather and go have ourselves an adventure despite a weather forecast of rainy and cold all across Alberta.  We hopped in the mini-van and headed out of town for a long drive on the Icefields Parkway to unofficially kick-start our season.

Kick Ass Run #1 - Fryatt Valley, Jasper National Park - 47km

This run has been on my list for a long time, but the approach to this gorgeous hanging valley is long, forested and notorious for bears.  It's 17km in the woods before you finally bust out of the forest and you can see your destination - the Fryatt Valley, sitting high and far above a massive headwall.  I had heard that the Fryatt Valley was a jewel that rewards all of your efforts.

Fortunately, the forest wasn't near the drudgery that we expected and delivered a few surprises.  First, the forest trail was soft and plush and with signs of spring abounding, it was rather pretty.  Second, instead of seeing signs and souvenirs of bears along our trail, we found a trail that was being well traveled by wolves.  I've never seen so much wolf scat in my life, and this scat was full of the largest bone shards I've ever seen. 

When we finally emerged from the forest, the trail was a rocky beautiful gradually uphill romp across streams and avalanche chutes.  The clouds parted and gave us glimpses of grandeur.  The scenery got us fired up when we got our first glimpse of the valley which looked to be a long, long ways away.  Had I been looking at my map, I would have know there was a lake - but the glacier fed Fryatt Lake was another nice surprise.



We were pretty excited to see some rare Harlequin Ducks on the lake, bobbing and weaving and on a feeding frenzy.  These birds are a special creature, quite animated, lively and so pretty.

The Headwall was more of a fortress guarding the valley - a steep 200metre elevation push finally took us up and in to the valley.  It was a snowbound, incredible place where spring is still fighting to come out.

 Steve makes his own path

We scrambled and post-holed our way further into the valley and made our way to an un-named lake to enjoy some lunch, some laughs and the crazy beautiful scenery.


Mike and I

The Fryatt Valley definitely delivered the high alpine goodies, it's a wild and beautiful place and had it all to ourselves.  The Alpine Club of Canada has a hut up there - the Sydney Vallance Hut, which is popular with summer visitors.  We saw only 2 backpackers on the trail all day, which gave this adventure a more "adventurous" feel to the day.  But now, I'm going to have to go back to visit this valley in all of it's summer glory.  It's an incredible place.

Naturally, the descent out was quick - and I felt strong and was having fun.  We hooted and hollered and danced our way across roots and rocks, making enough noise to scare all of the bears away. 

The sun came out for the last 11km and we flew back to the car.  We got the best surprise of all when we caught a glimpse of a lone wolf - probably the same guy who had left all of the souvenirs on the trail.  That was exciting, as none of us have ever seen a wolf on the trail before.  It sure was a nice way to wind up our first big adventure run of the season.  Also nice, was a shower and meal in Jasper to wind up a great day of play in the mountains.

Let the season begin!

Wednesday, June 8, 2011

More on the Maah-Daah-Hey Trail

Our second day on the trail started cloudy and cold.  The joy of being able to bring along all of our car camping gear, coolers and Coleman stove was that we got to eat like pre-pubescent teenage boys.  But healthier.  The gourmet Sundried tomato, Spinach, Feta and Bacon breakfast burrito hit the spot.  The coffee topped it off.  And we were off.....

Ryan, getting his thermostat started

It didn't take long for the cyclists to get a generous lead on us across the prairie flats.  The moment we hit the first technical descent and the first section of Badlands - a mini-canyon - we caught a fleeting glimpse of our friends on the rim of the canyon.  Surprisingly, we weren't that far behind.  The chase was on.

Our first day had provided us with glimpses of only a few Prairie Wild Flowers.  Mostly, there were a few Prairie Crocuses and Moss Phlox.  The flowers, like us, were solar-powered.  By the end of Day 2, different colors were starting to appear on the desolate landscape.


I looked at the common Buffalo Bean which a whole new set of eyes.  After seeing the herd of Buffalo the day before, I was envisioning a historic prairie landscape covered in giant herds of Buffalo, grazing on this omni-present Prairie wild flower.

But, the highlight of my day came towards the end of the day when I came across a snow patch close enough to the trail.  After only 2 days, I was filthy - and now I was filthy and salty.  Angela averted her gaze when I jumped into the snow bank and started joyously scrubbing myself in unmentionable places.  Oh, for small pleasures!

And then the landscape changed, yet again - and the prairie sky revealed itself in amazing and wondrous ways.

To top it all off, our campsite was cozy and sheltered, the surrounding scenery was beautiful and the temperatures were warm enough to enjoy a great night in camp.  We cooked, we ate and we laughed - and then we enjoyed yet another Prairie sunset.

Normally, there's a river manageable river crossing on the Maah-Daah-Hey trail, but the unusual weather had the river flowing and flooding in spots all over North Dakota.  So, on Day 3 the good folks at Medora Cyclery shuttled us around the Little Missouri.  The shuttle turned out to be a 96-mile van ride all the way back into Medora, across the Interstate bridge and back to other side of the river a mere 10 trail miles from where we took out.  It took us hours.  Essentially, it left us with a very short day on the trail so Jill, Michelle, Ryan and Keith decided to take a break from the bike and run the trail instead.

 Me, Keith, Jill, Michelle and Angela

Mostly, I ended up walking most of the way with Keith.  It was nice to take a day "off".  It was a gorgeous day, but I had some sharp, angry pain somewhere in my calf muscle where my Soleus muscle meets the Achilles tendon in my calf.  Ouch.  Time to rest up. Note to self:  maybe 46km only 5 days earlier before a big multi-day running trip is a little silly.  D-oh. 

Winter White, meets Prairie Sun

By the end of Day 3, the wind was howling across the prairies - and we took shelter in the most well treed corner of the campground.  We built our own little oasis in the trees and fired up the biggest bonfire you've ever seen.  It's the best part of camping, yes?  For our last evening, we amalgamated all of our junk-food and binged until we passed out in a sugar-induced coma.  Ugh.  It felt like a hangover the next morning.  I love food.  Good and bad.

Day 4 was a long and lovely 26 miles.  Because everyone was anticipating a long day on the trail, the group was packed up, fed and up and at it pretty darn quick.  By Day 4 of camping, we also had it dialed as far as the daily cooking, packing and organizing of gear.

We started our day with a muddy creek crossing and as soon as we climbed out of the first coulee, we got hit by the prairie wind.  Wind was the theme of the day and we got battered by the relentless crosswind and headwind.  The cyclists even got blown over a few times.  Angela, who spent most of her day quietly cursing - was on fire and for most of the day I followed her backside as she sped along.  The trail was very runnable and ridable - and I was thinking we were going to be a long way behind the cyclists.

I was having a great day - after 3 days of running on tired legs, I was finally feeling good!  The prairie landscape was continuing to come to life every day.  Every day, I would discover a different wild flower popping out of the desolate landscape and the earth was becoming greener underneath our feet.  Clusters of pink Three-Flowered Avens started to appear, Yellow Long Fruited Prairie Parsley, Prairie Buttercup, Purple Vetch, Chickweed and Pink and White Wind Flowers all magically appeared.  On the first day, I had identified only 2 flowers in bloom.  By the end of our short trip, the prairies were coming to life.  As well as the flowers, we had seen the buffalo roam and the deer and the antelope play...

Did I mention the Ticks, the Rattlesnake and the Cactus?  All of the flowers and Mega-Fauna aside, there were some nasty little beasties and sharp things out there.  My legs got shredded by the sagebrush and the ticks were particularly numerable.  We all shared the mutual paranoia of the prehistoric blood sucking critters.  Ticks are just creepy.

The incessant wind continued to howl all day, an invisible stress pounding in my ears. Despite the wind, I was loving this day, this place, this adventure. 

We were only seven miles from the finish when we came to a trail junction, the Maah Daah Hey Trail or the newer Cottonwood Trail.  Dakota Cyclery had recommended the Cottonwood as the "better route" with the recent bad weather turning the Maah-Daah-Hey into a giant clay mess.  So, off we went.

As our trail plunged down into Cottonwood Canyon, we had fun slipping and sliding our way down the singletrack.  When we hit canyon bottom, the recent rains had erased the trail in a quagmire of landslides and clay.  It was there that we caught sight of the cyclists, pushing, pulling and struggling with their bikes trying to cross the creek.  Before we knew it, we were on them - and passed them traveling at a much quicker pace. It was awesome to see them and it certainly lit a fire under our butts.  All of a sudden we were moving, fast and smooth and putting in distance between us and the cyclists.

Slogfest:  Michelle pushes her bike in the mud

While it certainly wasn't easy traveling, it was easier than pushing a bike through the mud.  The Cottonwood trail was a mess:  huge sections had been washed away and tumbled off the hillsides. Entire sections of trail had been swallowed by the earth.  On other sections, we were bogged down in shoe-sucking mud.

It took us almost 2 hours to travel the last 7 miles.  The adventure continued as we descended the last kilometer - a beautiful trail descending downwards through more badlands.  As we crashed off the trail to avoid another section of washed out trail, Angela scared a rattlesnake lying in the grass.  It added a little jolt of adrenalin to our descent, as we cruised to the bottom.  One more muddy creek crossing greeted us and we joked that "It ain't over 'til it's over!"

The friends rolled in soon after, exhausted, tired but elated.  It took them almost 3 hours of hard work to push their bikes through the Cottonwood Trail.  Our last day had been a battle with mother nature with the wind and the mud.  It was a fitting end to a great week - and what felt like a great adventure in a new and amazing place.  North Dakota, who knew?

Saturday, June 4, 2011

I Love You Berg Lake

Ever heard of Mount Robson?  Most good Canadians have.  Especially those people who are lovers of mountains and wild places.  It's the highest peak in the Canadian Rockies, located about an hour outside of the town of Jasper, in British Columbia.  It's everything you think of when you think of the Canadian Rockies: a giant grey behemoth of rock, heavily glaciated, with a stunning turquoise lake at it's base.  It has a couple of  glaciers that run right down it's face and drop huge chunks of ice into the lake below, Berg Lake.  It's other worldly and it's incredible.

Here's what the Mount Robson Provincial Park website says about the area:

Mount Robson Provincial Park, the second oldest park in British Columbia's park system, is truly one of the world's crown jewels. The mountain for which the park is named guards the park's western entrance.

I Love You Berg Lake

The monarch of the Canadian Rockies, Mount Robson, at 3,954 metres above sea level, is one of the spectacular scenic attractions preserved in this beautiful park.  Picturesque waterfalls, massive blue glaciers, pristine lakes and lush valleys endow this special place.  Berg Lake Trail is a world-renowned hiking and backcountry experience.  Berg Lake Trail takes hikers to some of the best scenery in the province. This incredible trail climbs to the shoreline of Berg Lake, located at the base of Mount Robson.  Beyond Kinney Lake, the trail enters the Valley of a Thousand Falls. Fed by the massive Mist, Berg and Robson glaciers, visitors often see huge sections of ice break off or “calve” into the blue/green, silt-laden waters of Berg Lake.

As far as beautiful mountain places I've been, Berg Lake has a special place in my heart.  Once you've seen it, it implants itself in your mind forever and ever.  This trail run has become a tradition of sorts for me, I've run it once a summer for the past 2 years and both times it left me reeling in awe at the beauty of this natural world of ours.  The first year, I did it as a memorable solo run and the second year, I wanted to share this place with friends.  On an interesting note, it's also almost an exact marathon distance of 42km as an out and back to visit Berg Lake.

Year 1 Blog Post here.

Year 2 Blog Post here.

So, you can imagine my surprise and excitement when I found out yesterday, that there is going to be a race on this special trail, to this extra special place.  The Mount Robson Marathon will be a one-time only event held in conjunction with the 100th Anniversary of BC Parks.  Only 100 participants allowed for the event, with bragging rights and naturally, a permanent course record for all of eternity.  A series of frenzied e-mails to trail running friends ensued and about 7 of us signed up immediately.  Unbelievable!  There's going to be a race.  To Berg Lake and back.  And it's going to be Amazing.