Friday, July 27, 2007

Close Encounters - June 3, 2007

This was our second go-round of Ford Knoll in as many weeks. Like our first loop, we ran into no other hikers despite the fact the campground beside the trail was full this particular weekend. It was also a much nicer day for hiking, which meant we wound up taking a different part of the loop, coming out on the south side of the campground and along the river.

Even in just the one week between hikes, the look of the trail changed dramatically as it came out from the snow storm of a few weeks back and finally bloomed into early spring. The soggy damp path from the week before now had so much colour it was hard to believe it hadn't been there before. These orchids were plentiful along the early part of the trail.

The snow had cleared from the majority of the mountains. Even the same views looked like a different hike from the one we'd taken a week ago.

Something I'm terrible for forgetting to do when hiking loops -- TURN AROUND. Often what's behind you is as amazing as what you're walking towards. This range -- covered in snow the first time we hiked this and maybe for some reason not as impressive -- seemed to come out of nowhere during this hike.

As we descended, N and I encountered something I thought would be impossible on a trail so close to such a busy campground... out of nowhere a deer bounded across the trail, no more than 50 ft in front of us. Knowing deer often travel in pairs, we continued along the path cautiously, and sure enough....

Our new friend was clearly very skittish and not used to humans, so after a couple of nice photos thanks to a zoom lens, we continued on our way, and let the deer find its partner.

Not to be outdone, a little further along the trail, this guy appeared, chattering up a storm.

He was certainly a lot less skittish of humans...

Also less skittish -- the mosquitos. They were out in full force for the first time this spring. It would get worse. A lot worse.

We took the longer loop, walking along the river and eventually winding up at Forget-Me-Not pond, close to where we parked. This is the aqua-coloured pond that is clearly visiable from any viewpoint in the area due to the brilliant blue -- and entirely natural -- colour of the pond. It's a perfect place to finish off any hike.

Tuesday, July 24, 2007

Bear safety

I know I'm terribly far behind in posting the latest hikes, but with the news the past couple of days, I thought this was as good of time as any to post some important links on bear safety and awareness.

The bears are out. A young woman was killed in Invermere after a black bear attack and two cyclists in Banff were attacked by a grizzly bear protecting her cubs on the Aylmer Pass trail. They escaped without serious injury and the trail is now closed (possibly for the season).

On a much lesser scale, D and I saw two separate black bears near hiking trails and campgrounds in Waterton Park on Friday. The bears seemed completely unconcerned with the number of humans in the area (and there were a lot).

The Banff National Park website is an excellent resource for local bear info. Start with the Bear Update page for the most recent updates (this page indicates some trails in the area may soon have a groups of 4+ only restriction - this is already in effect in the Moraine Lake area).

Tips for avoiding bears while hiking and for safety during an encounter or attack are located in the Bear Management section of the Banff National Park website.

If you're not sure what bear tracks look like, this graphic from IdahoPTV is a great resource.

Finally, always check for trail advisories and reports before heading out on any hike, walk, ride or overnight trip. For Banff, trail reports are available at Banff trail reports. Other areas near Calgary/Banff (such as Kananaskis, Sibbald, Spray Lakes, Bow Valley, Elbow Valley, Canmore, Sheep Valley and more) are available at Kananaskia Country trail report. Both sites list the bear warnings and trail closures at the top of the page, but the reports themselves are pretty useful to get the conditions of the trails.

Friday, July 6, 2007

Barrier and barriers - June 2, 2007

Kananaskis - Barrier Lake - Trail Particulars: From the TransCanada Highway, take Highway 40. Look for the Barrier Lake Day Use/Boat Launch area.

The last time D and I tried to hike Barrier Lake, we were turned back by the closed gates at the Day Use area. We'd debated hiking in, but hiking along a highway for 1 or 2 km just to hike a 2 km trail wasn't too appealing. Plus it was windy. And we were wussy.

So this seemed like a good chance to make up for that. There were a couple of small hikes in the area I wanted to try, the other being a canyon hike much further down Highway 40.

This was one of the first really nice days of the year -- most of the snow was gone, the sun was shining, but it wasn't yet uncomfortably warm for hiking. The mosquitos were just making their first appearance -- by mid-month it would be heavy-duty bug spray time.

There are a series of roads, parking lots and trails at the Day Use Area. We parked in a small lot, found a trail and followed it until we came to a map. There are plenty of maps posted for guidance. The best bet might be to park at the actual boat launch area, since the trail seems to originate there and you can't beat starting by the water.

The trail starts out in thick grass and forest -- lush, damp and green, but not mossy. The trail was not well worn this time of year -- it may be seldom used as there's also a road and parking area about 1 km from the top of the trail -- but hiking it up is a lot more fun. The most interesting thing about the hike is as you start to ascend the trail, the trail overlooks a beach beside the boat launch. In this area, there's just not a lot of hiking along beaches, so it seemed unique. It also looked relatively empty. I'm sure it's not that way in the middle of July, but I can dream.

The rest of the trail to the second trailhead is unremarkable. Most of the trail travels slightly uphill, and is not especially strenuous. After the initial views of the beach and lake, there isn't much to see. It's not an unpleasant trail (and definitely much better than just driving to a 1 km trailhead), but nothing stands out either. We could tell we were getting close to the "official" trailhead by the picnic tables that started appearing among the trees.

We stepped from the trail to a small parking lot. From here, there is a set of stairs from the top part of the parking lot loop to a well signed trailhead (it's actually pretty tough to miss). At the top of the stairs is another collection of picnic tables. Actually, even though it wasn't a terribly strenuous hike, this isn't a bad place to stop and have a bite -- the scenery is gorgeous.

But better is to come...

This part of the trail is obviously more popular and more seriously maintained. Even so, we did not see a single other person on the trail this entire hour-long hike. At the beach, yes. Driving to the second trailhead then turning around, yes. But no actual hikers. It struck me as odd, because it's a short hike to a magnificent view, clearly marked and not at all intimidating.

The last km of the hike -- the official part -- is definitely more strenuous than the first part, but for only 1 km it's easily manageable. By the time you're starting to get out of breath, you're there.

The above shot is looking south from the end of the trail. The below photo is a similar view, zoomed in a little more. Notice how little water is in the lake.

This shot below is looking north. Barrier Lake Dam is at the far end of the lake.

That was Barrier Lake Trail. We made it in about 40 minutes and were back down at our car in just over an hour.

On the way back down, we spotted this flower. We've seen plenty of these close to the ground (and I'm sure I've taken enough photos to bore people to tears), but this particular one was growing as a vine between the trees. It was actually taller than me. I'm rotten with all flowers, but from what I've been able to look up, this is normal. It looks pretty cool to see a flower in amongst the trees. If you're not paying attenting it looks like the trees are sprouting flowers!

We returned to the car far too quickly. We had another hike planned -- much closer to the Kananaskis Lakes. Highway 40 is such a beautiful drive and there are so many things to see. There are plenty of little (and big!) hikes along Highway 40 if you know where to look.

It being June, it never even occured to me parts of the highway would still be closed, but as we approached the turn off for the Kananaskis Lakes, that's exactly what we saw -- the same type of gates that drove me crazy by Elbow Falls throughout April and May, complete with all the cars parked along the highway. The news was good though: the gates would be opened before the next weekend, and the turnoff to the Kananaskis Lakes was not affected by this closure.

The access to the trailhead, however, was within a campground that was closed. Funny, the week we finally get to do a hike we'd been unable to complete, we wind up with another hike we cannot complete.

Monday, July 2, 2007

Redefining "Moderate"

Elbow Valley - Ford Knoll: Trail Particulars - Take Highway 66 to the Little Elbow Recreation Area/Campground. Turn left at the first sign indicating trail head parking. There is no official trailhead marker, but the path leads from the parking lot back to the dirt road and crosses into a field. There are maps along the path there.

I have a great little book for walks in the Western Alberta region. It's mostly little interpretive walks and casuals strolls, but it's very handy for the days I want something a little different. Instead of hiking, maybe a cool tucked away historical site. Maybe something for a rainier day. Maybe something short and pretty for the days after the more strenuous hikes. Since the book features "walks", there have been times where my meaning of strenuous and their meaning of strenuous have differed -- usually what they call strenuous, I call barely breaking a sweat.

I'll have to rethink that theory. Ford Knoll was a good little walk with a "moderate" incline, which in my sad little mind I thought might be enough to get the heart pumping. Not an hour of straight uphill. Ok, it wasn't that bad, but it was no walk in the park.

From the trail head, this is probably the only trail that doesn't go towards Forget Me Not pond and the river. Instead, this one crosses over the dirt road and into a field that is littered in giant cow paddies. It's astounding really. Once you carefully pick your way to the path that runs along the field by the forest, the path leads to a junction. The main path goes directly into the forest, and that uphill you see? Yeah, get used to it... it really doesn't ease up for about 50 minutes.

It was only the day after my grand trek up Nihahi Ridge, and Ford Knoll is in the same area, but almost all of the snow was gone from the trail. It was that nice out in one day.

Most of the first hour of the trail is similiar to this photo. It's a walk through the forest, steadily uphill and other than a few glances in the first 15 minutes, not a lot of views. This is ok though, because there's actually a lot to look at in the forest -- signs of animals, plenty of interesting flowers, and the steepness of the next hill ahead. It's also an incredibly quiet hike -- I don't think N and I have ever run into another person on the actual Ford Knoll loop. Considering it is right next to a popular campground it's surprising we haven't seen *someone*. Ford Knoll gets lost in the shuffle with so many other excellent hikes in the immediate area. Ford Knoll is also set aside from most of the other trails and due to the lack of signage at the trail head, most people probably don't even know it's there.

Most of the early part of the hike is also shaded, which is a nice thing to have in the summer. Sure, it may be a lot of unremarkable terrain, but a quiet hike that keeps you out of the sun in the middle of summer and gives you a bit of a workout is a good secret to have.

Most of the uphill part of the hike leads west, with a slight northwest pull. When you come to a junction, take the left turn, and know you are only a few minutes from reaching the top of the knoll. After one last incline, we stepped into this part of the path we called the "Hallway", where the tress close in on the path and it almost feels like they shut you in the forest. It's a very cool part of the trail, where you can catch your breath and enjoy the change in surroundings. We could see some of the mountains at the opening at the end of the path and had a good idea what we were walking into. There is also the occassional opening along the path that provides a viewpoint directly west.

At the end of the hallway, the trail opens into a plateau, with plenty of excellent viewpoints.

Looking east, with Forget-Me-Not pond in the foreground. That brilliant blue colour is natural.

Looking south, with more evidence of the recent snowfall in the mountains.

From here the trail leads steadily downhill towards the campground. There are many ways to complete the loop and there are helpful maps at every junction to keep you on the loop you want to take. You can choose to loop directly back to the cow-patty meadow, through the campground, or around the campground via the Little Elbow Trail (the same trail used to gain access to the Nihahi Ridge trail). This day, we chose the shortest loop, back to the cow-patty field.

On our way back, we noticed we were being watched by some of the locals. It's a testament to how quiet the trail actually is that we were able to see wildlife this close, and that this group of deer actually outnumbered the people on the trail by 2 to 1! The trail curves around beside this meadow -- by the time we'd gotten there, our friends were long gone.