Prior to this adventure, my previous backcountry camping experiences was a grand total of two times and neither were more than 5 km from a parking lot. Needless to say when offered the chance to really experience this kind of adventure I jumped at the chance. I had accumulated plenty of camping gear (mostly for comfort car camping to be honest) over the years so combined with a few upgrades I figured I'd be fine. However, I had never hiked for any distance carrying it all on my back!
Nearly two months prior to this trip my friend, Oliver, connected with me through Facebook asking if I had any interest in such adventures - and with no hesitate I said I'm in (I'd figure out the rest later). So with his awesome wife, Tania, over a dinner of burgers and fries at a local favorite, Burger 320, we discussed the plans to hike Ball Pass from Kootenay National Park in to Banff National Park in mid-August. All was set and we'd be in touch closer to the dates! Then this summer's wildfires started and continued to grow throughout the summer resulting in losing the Ball Pass trail and a new plan had to be hatched less than a week to trailhead time. Luckily there were still a few great options to be had and we were able to nab a sweet spot near Marvel Lake.
The night before departing, I had all my gear laid out thinking - this is going to be heavy. I also had no idea how long we were hiking or what the elevation gain/loss was going so I settled into the mindset of ignorance is bliss and we would get there eventually one step at a time.
Arriving at the Mount Shark parking lot at around mid-morning and it was time to gear up. While there though I ran into my yoga teacher instructor, Kim, who was out with a group for a day hike. Amazing! While chatting with Kim is when both Tania and I found out from Oliver that the day's hike to camp would be nearly 14km and only 80 metre elevation gain. Awesome and totally doable!
We headed out on the trail and the pace was comfortable and the views were great along the way. For lunch, there was a nice riverside beach halfway to camp. In the view to the west is the aptly named Cone Mountain.
Arriving at the camping loop we checked out the available spots (all but 1 out of 10 were empty!) and picked #7 as it was right beside the water source stream that flowed by the area. After setting up camp and storing our food at the bag hang area we went for a walk to check out Marvel Lake!
Back at camp it was time for dinner - bring on the ramen for me and Oliver and Tania rocked some amazing gnocchi and rehydrated pasta sauce!
The first night at camp was topped off with a game of cards, lots of laughs and stretching when it wasn't your turn to shuffle. Despite my exhaustion I didn't sleep so well which wasn't optimal but at least I wouldn't be carrying a heavy pack the next morning! Due to not sleeping well I ended up waking up early so I took this time to practice some Qigong and yoga by the river next to camp and read a bit. Great way to start the day that would be much longer than any of us expected!
Once everyone was up, breakfast was eaten and the day's plans were hatched. We'd hike the Wonder Pass to the Assiniboine Park border and have a look. Since the park had been closed due to fire we wouldn't be able to enter but it could be worth the view. So back to Marvel Lake we went and connected to the pass trail. Along the way we tried some amazing trailside berries: raspberries, strawberries, black currants (aka "compromise berries" according to Tania unless larger and in the sun as we found out!), blueberries, black huckleberries and grouseberries (the last three were in huge supply at the higher elevation switchback portion of the trail too!)
When we reached the park border we looked in to the area and it was all blue skies! Tania jumped the line thinking she'd be a law-breaker but just a few minutes later, while we were starting to have a little lunch, a pair of people came over the ridge! Kind of shocked we started chatting with the two and found out the park had opened, we could go to the Assiniboine Lodge to buy a few beers and see the majestic Mount Assiniboine in its glory! I didn't know that this park was a UNESCO World Heritage Site either!
After our quick lunch of Clif bars and granola we got back on the trail in to Assiniboine. The trail was very well kept, there was a surprise waterfall, and we descended in to a larch forest with some very large old growth too!
The trail continued to impress as we came to a number of small bridges over a stream that meandered into the valley. Then we came upon the Naiset Huts! These adorable log cabins are 0.5 km from the Assiniboine Lodge and are basic shelters with a separate hut to cook and store your food. We all agreed that another trip would need to be planned for a winter snowshoe adventure - and has now already been booked for February!!
We arrive at the Assiniboine Lodge and am in complete awe of the mountain, the lodge and the group of guests all enjoying afternoon on the deck. I think I have found a beautiful heaven. A quick procurement of some cold beers from lodge (non-guests can buy tea/coffee, wine or beer but no food items) and we found a great bench with a view that deserved a cheers!
One of the guests joins us and is a teacher from Crowsnest Pass. I mention I know a family from there, the Shentons, and she taught their youngest son Alex! Another small world connection!! She shares with us that her family has been trekking in to the lodge for the past few years and this year she hiked herself and her kids solo while from the same trailhead we started from (27.5 km!) while her husband helicoptered in the following day due to a scheduling conflict. Needless to say she and her kids received plenty of praise from us as that would be quite the challenge!!
As we were chatting with our new friend the lodge staff started to prepare dinner - tenderloins on the BBQ! They smelled way too good and we still had a lengthy trek to get back to camp so we got on the trail leading to the Assiniboine Pass to complete a full loop for the day - a nearly 24 km loop as it turned out!
Returning back to camp took longer than expected with lots of chatting about how good our ramen dinners were going to be and sporadic hollering to scare away hungry bears/moose/any other bigger than us animals. Reaching camp at dusk, we all devoured our dinners, did a hasty clean-up (I may have had ramen remnants in my morning coffee water...), and headed to bed.
The night was much chillier than the first night. I was toasty warm in my sleeping bag but my nose was cold and kept me from sleeping soundly. Despite various sleeping bag hood cinching and sleeping positions I couldn't find the best way to just relax and sleep well. Guess I'll just have to keep trying on future adventures!
Our final day started a bit earlier than our second with camp pack-up and breakfast with some new campers to the loop who were from Washington D.C. on a week long backcountry adventure! Very cool.
We started back to the trailhead and since it was slight decline for most of it our pace was relatively quicker than on the way in. Stopped at the same lunch stop for some snacks and wine - as we didn't end up having any with our dinners (clearly will need to fix this "problem" on the next trip) - and got back to the car-park just as it was beginning to rain. Epic timing!!
The last part of the adventure required a stop in to Canmore to cap off the weekend with some burgers! We checked out a place none of us had been to before, Hogshead, and they had mimosas on special... so burgers and mimosa for three is was!!
Well now I can't wait to get off grid and in to the backcountry again. This was an awesome experience and am looking forward to many more in the seasons to come!