Assiniboine (1979)

In the summer of ’79, I had just graduated from college and ready to start a career, I hoped, leading workshops in creative music-making. I found a dancer to collaborate with, who lived in Vancouver. This was fun for a couple of weekends. Our tour ended in Calgary, with no way to follow up on the career-building idea.

Above: In Calgary, I play my kit of pots and bottles to accompany dance improv

So I guess it’s time for a wilderness adventure, instead.

I have never hiked the Canadian Rockies before, but somehow I find a good trail map and figure out a route that would cross from Alberta to BC in about 4 days. But it would be more fun with a companion. I call a lady I had been dating occasionally in San Francisco, Nan. Would you like to come hike with me? To my surprise, she says yes, and flies to Calgary. From there it’s an easy hitch-hike to Banff, a fancy tourist town at the foot of Mt. Assiniboine.

According to my scheme, we can cross a bridge a few miles past the town to get on an easy trail into the wilderness. We pick up a ride that takes us… not quite to that bridge, but about a mile short. The road runs along the creek, with our trail on the other side.

We could walk the last mile to the bridge, and walk back, and be on our way… or we can skip the bridge, and just wade across the creek here. It doesn’t look that tough, and it saves a lot of boring walk.

Boots off and lashed to the top of the pack. Two steps into the creek, and I realize that we’ve taken on more than I’d expected. It’s the height of the snowmelt, and this innocent-looking creek is thigh-deep and very fast. (Take a break now and watch Into the Wild to see how Alex glibly wades across a little stream at the beginning of his wilderness adventure, and later cannot return because the snowmelt has swollen it to a raging torrent).
But we make it across, wetter than we expected but undamaged. We celebrate our feeling of exhilaration on the other side with unscheduled open-air passion. Then we start the actual hike.

One day in. Wild scenery, pristine forests, great air, no people. We camp in a meadow, looking at stars. No bear encounters.

The second day is more uphill. We are headed for a high pass that will take us over the Great Divide, to the BC side of the mountains. Trees disappear. The air gets cold and foggy. The fog thickens; we are actually hiking through clouds. The trail is no long a clear line of dirt cutting through woods or meadows, but a track across a landscape of bare rock, marked by little stone cairns. In the mist, these are increasingly difficult to see. Are we still on the trail at all?

The fog turns into a cold drizzle. We are going to need shelter for the night. It’s the first of July, and I was thinking of weather as if it were California, where you can count on there being no rain this time of year. So, of course we didn’t pack any heavy-weather gear—not even a tent, just a simple tarp for a lean-to. But this is not California, I suddenly realize.

The trail reappears, thankfully. But we have a long way to go to the official campground at Og Lake*. There’s nothing remotely like shelter in this high Rocky country. Slog on through the rain… and then it starts turning to snow. In July! We finally reach the campground, and find… nothing. Same treeless landscape. No trace of any shelter. The only structure is a telephone-booth-sized sheet-metal cabinet, presumably housing the pit toilet. We approach it, but hear thumping inside. Somehow a porcupine has gotten itself trapped in there. Cold, wet, and anxious for our own survival, we pass on the opportunity to free it (and possible add injuries to our woes in the process). Where can we go for shelter? The trail sign points to Mt. Assiniboine Lodge. It’s only a couple of miles, but that’s a lot of work with a backpack…in the snow…and now it’s beginning to get dark.

  • The area has three lakes, named Og, Gog, and Magog. We saw signs for all three, and I don’t remember which was which. I tried to reconstruct our route by looking at present-day maps, but could not.

Also: it’s uphill. At the end of an exhausting day, cold and wet. It’s full dark when at last we see the welcome lights of the lodge.

(Top: current stock photo of Assiniboine Lodge)

All this time, we’ve seen absolutely no one on the trails. But the lodge is packed with hikers seeking emergency shelter. Now we learn that July 1 is a holiday in Canada, so lots of people have come for the long weekend. No idea how they got here, though. Nor do I ask.

For sleeping, there’s one room with about 5 bunk beds. Of course all the beds are full, and another dozen people are camped out on the floor, elbow to elbow. They scrunch together to make room for us, the late arrivals. No one complains. Everyone is grateful to be here. We have shelter in the storm.

The next morning, the weather is bright and clear. What a delight to be in a warm, friendly lodge on a beautiful summer day, with four inches of snow on the ground outside.

Any conversations with the other refugees have disappeared in this remembrance, but we are the only ones packing up and hitting the trail this morning.

With snow on the trail, one wants good waterproof boots. All I had was cheap, army-surplus jungle boots, designed to be porous and breathable. Cold feet could be a problem after awhile. But the trail down the canyon toward the Kootenay watershed is easy to follow.

Late in the afternoon, passing through thick forests of spruce and pine, our route takes us up a little side gully to a saddle to cross over to the next watershed. We are following some deer tracks, the only sign that anyone else has been this way today. And obviously, the deer has followed the trail, which is approaching the saddle. Suddenly, the tracks veer away, avoiding the saddle and going up a steep embankment to bypass it. Odd… we take a few more steps, and discover why: in the saddle, the snow has piled up about 2-3 feet deep. Maybe more, but we don’t test it to find out; we follow the deer tracks over the shoulder of the pass and down the other side, where there’s a flat open space—I would say “meadow,” but snow-covered, it doesn’t evoke that word. Dusk is arriving; the trail will continue deep into the snow-laden forest.

I have never camped in snow before, but there’s no choice. So we’ll camp here. But how? Somewhere in the recesses of my mind there’s a memory; maybe something I read in my childhood? A ”bough bed.” I suddenly know what to do.

I approach the trees at the edge of the meadow. I speak to one respectfully, ask it for permission to take a branch. Feeling accepted, I break off a 4-5 foot long piece of the supple wood, bearing its soft young needles. I repeat this ritual a dozen or so times and carry the pile of branches to the spot Nan has chosen. Laid atop the snow, this quickly becomes a soft, aromatic mattress. With the tarp on top, we have a cushy, well-insulated bed. We sleep comfortably under the stars.

The next day’s hike is long, but, easy, all gently downhill through forest lands. The only challenge is an encounter with a porcupine on the trail. He wants to get away from us but can’t decide how: instead of just going into the woods, he starts to climb the nearest tree, right next to the trail, with his spiny back still threatening our safe passage. So I learned that porcupines climb trees—but very slowly! Eventually, the way is clear, we continue the trek, and duly arrive at Kootenay River and the highway back to Vancouver.

2 thoughts on “Assiniboine (1979)

  1. Appreciate your hiking experience report, but am now firmly convinced I am not a hiker, nor am I that much of an adventurer. But I loved reading about it!! Thank you.


  2. Wow…. What an adventure! You were quite an explorer, Alan, and admirably survival-smart…. also lucky! It’s great that you can remember and recount stories from so long ago in such a vibrant and engaging way. Keep them coming!!

    Liked by 1 person

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