Day 5: Skyline Part I

“If you want to go fast, go alone. If you want to go far, go together.” – African proverb

 

(Before anything else, I suppose, I should mention that I’m writing about this particular day much after the fact, but that it’s whole course is so ingrained in my mind, that I feel as if this is a pretty accurate account of the day from my perspective)

Hoo boy, where do I start with this one? For myself and the rest of us, this day has surely given, inspired and evoked many things – from it, came countless stories that we all went home with, pictures and memories that will last a lifetime, a rare sunburn for me, and mirages that still haunt me to this day (not actually, hallucinating about Pat on the trails isn’t the worst thing that could happen haha).

But in all seriousness, this day was our marathon day. A day designed to give us more perspective and even a semblance of what it must have been like for Terry Fox to cover such great distances on a daily basis. Many things can and will be said about this hike but I’ll begin with a chronological recounting of what it was like from my point of view. I’ll also break it down by stages, because we did, after all, hike 48km (50 for those who took that shortcut from hell).

 

The Beginning – Daybreak

 

Despite knowing the marathon day was fast approaching, I stayed up late the night prior, tending to the many blisters I had already developed and charging my devices oh so efficiently in the Marmot Meadows’ washroom facility. Feeling bad about being up so late and possibly having to wake up Hamza upon entry into my tent, I rushed my taping job and meal prep and excitedly went to sleep, dreaming of the next day’s sandwiches that would sustain me on the trail.

I probably only got about 5 hours of sleep that night as we were to wake up bright and early to begin our hike at 6am. The early morning blahs were uneventful, but what I do remember vividly that morning was the chill. Wanting to escape the cold air, we all hurried into our vehicles and made the long and scenic drive to Maligne Lake and the Skyline Trailhead. My memory of the initial stages of that ride are hazy, but where my memory really kicks in is where we reached the winding road around Medicine Lake. This was a place that I had been to prior, during my first trip to the Rockies, as I hiked deep into the backcountry with my friend Steph, ultimately camping at the beautiful Jacques Lake.

En route to Jacques Lake – First time ever camping. Jasper National Park. PC: Steph Kennedy

 

Knowing that we were approaching a place that was familiar and special to me, I woke from my dazed state and began to survey the environment. The hillsides were scorched and littered with the charred remains of burnt trees, while on the opposite lakeshore, an endless sea of pines blanketed the slopes before surrendering to the high alpine tree line. It was an eerie yet beautiful sight, especially during the morning’s blue hour.

 

Burnt hillsides on the way to Medicine Lake, 2016. PC: Steph Kennedy

 

Upon rounding a corner, I distinctly recognized the trailhead for Jacques Lake and lit up, evoking nostalgia and fond memories of our 22km hike, feeling in that moment that I’d be back there someday. On we went, as the light of day began to grow stronger and stronger. Beyond Medicine Lake, a few of us, myself included, spotted the cutest little bear cub, scouring the woods adjacent to the road. While definitely a cool sight, it made me grateful to be in a safe and moving vehicle, as the mother bear was surely nearby.

After another few rounds of drifting in and out of the daze, we had finally arrived at the sublime Maligne Lake, not to paddle to Spirit Island, unfortunately, but to tackle something even greater.

It should be noted that our original intention for the day was to hike to a certain point, at around 21km and from there to turn around and head back to the trailhead. The idea of hiking the whole trail in its entirety had been mentioned but hadn’t yet been deemed a certainty. Figuring we’d stick with the former plan, I unwisely decided to take pictures of the trail’s map of the sections we’d be covering and nothing else. While portions of the rest of the map were within the frame of these pictures, the detail was so bad that no useful navigation could be had from their reference. This would later come back to haunt us.

 

What the map should have looked like

 

To Evelyn Creek Campground (5km Mark) 

 

Standing in a huddle at the trailhead, we went over the day’s plans while we froze in the then unfamiliar chill of an August morning in the mountains. The cans of bear spray were dispersed amongst the group as best as possible and we all largely stuck together during this first portion, which was reassuring. So off we went, into the woods and the dark path that lay before us. I was in the far back, as always, with Hamza, Jess, Rachel Li, Alex, Laurel, Anastasia and Logan. This initial section was relatively flat and actually took us past two larger bodies of water: Lorraine and Mona Lakes.

Mona Lake. PC: Patrick Scanlan

 

With it still being quite early in the morning, and being in the dark and cool shade of the deep woods, the sun hadn’t yet hit us, meaning that I still felt half asleep. In this daze like state, I kept things simple, keeping one foot in front of the other in conjunction with my poles, while remaining relatively quiet as all I wanted was a nap. As the first couple of kilometres went by and we picked up a bit of elevation, the sun finally hit us as we rounded a hill and all of a sudden everything came alive. My eyes no longer felt heavy, I began to warm up and sweat and accordingly shed some layers.

 

Several hundred metres later we arrived at Evelyn Creek, nearing the first of many campgrounds. The scenes here were beautiful. The sun was quickly rising over the distant eastern ridges, illuminating the once shadowy peaks, while closer to us, the creek peacefully flowed as wildflowers were in bloom around us.

 

6:30 am on the Skyline Trail

 

Early morning light – MC and Elizabeth. PC: Logan Carr

At this point, I had to stop for a washroom break, readjust my pack and stow away my extra layers. The rest of the group carried forward, but fortunately Hamza stayed around and kept me company for which I was glad. Had I been solo on this next section, I definitely would have gotten in my own head and begun to fixate on potential bear encounters without spray. But there we both were, crushing switchback after switchback, with the encouraging sounds of music blaring from his phone’s speaker. That was the first time I ever heard that song Thunder, by Imagine Dragons, a band I can’t honestly say I’m a big fan of, but a song that will always remind me of that particular section of trail on those sunlit switchbacks.

 

Wanting to catch up with the rest of the group and the comfort of their presence and bear spray, we began to pick up our pace until we eventually arrived at the friendly confines of the Evelyn Creek Campground. Once there, we met up with a father and his sons that happened to be camping there. Incredibly kind people, they gave us a few provisions (most notably a roll of toilet paper) and we stopped and chatted with them for a while. The so-called outhouse, if you could even call it that, was essentially a hole in the ground covered by a rim, but was a preferable option to having to go well of trail with a shovel.

 

Above Treeline to the Snowbowl Campground (12km Mark)

 

With some food (good ol’ Kashi bars) and water in our stomachs, we carried onwards, steadily ascending, with our goal of cracking tree line and hiking Skyline’s renowned subalpine trails. From here onwards, our group comprised myself, Hamza, Logan and MC, a pretty solid group to say the least. As we kept hiking, the trees noticeably began to get smaller as the views opened up all around us. We passed a couple of thru hikers, with pounds of gear stowed on their backs. It seemed as if many of the hikers we came across were actually not from Canada, but primarily from European countries which was pretty cool. How lucky are we have to such stellar trails right at home?!

 

Beyond the switchbacks. PC: Logan Carr

 

 

We left the switchbacks behind us and steadily climbed in good spirits, as the sun rose ever higher and the air grew warmer. Upon rounding a corner, Skyline’s meandering trails continued far into the distance as we entered an ethereal seeming sub-alpine meadow. Much of Skyline’s length can be described in a similar manner. The most tranquil little streams you’d ever seen sprung life into these small valleys, as the bees (the most I’d seen in while) darted to and from the plethora of wildflowers springing from the ground. It was nature as it should be. The only semblance of human impact was the very trail we were standing on. If it weren’t for that, these scenes would surely resemble something from ages ago before we made our indelible mark on nature.

 

The next several kilometres felt like pure bliss. Do you ever have those moments where you’re immersed in such a beautiful setting and/or experience that you don’t want to leave? I’m sure we’ve all had them before. Personally, I’ve had way too many to count, but it’s truly a wonderful feeling, albeit bittersweet. This section of Skyline felt very much like that. It was strange. In order to achieve our goal, we obviously had to keep moving but the funny thing was, I felt ecstatic right where I was. I could’ve laid down on that grass with some food and water just staring up at the peaks around me for hours. Or at the very least, just sat for a bit to really take it all in. It’s also moments like these that serve as great reminders to put the camera down and to see the world around me truly through me eyes and not just through my camera’s viewfinder. Instagram and the social media world could wait.

 

Skyline and Jasper’s distant peaks. PC: Logan Carr

 

The trail continued, as did we, traversing through the gently rolling hills which were gladly welcomed following the series of switchbacks that got us up there in the first place. Reaching the end of this straightaway section, we descended into a little water shed area, which required a few easy river crossings and some needed shade from the sun. While we were mostly above tree line, the meadows around us still had a variety of fauna, with the trees no taller than a few metres.

 

The little creek adjacent to the trail. PC: Logan Carr

 

Within the next hundred metres we’d come across the Snowbowl Campground, entailing a nice little break of food, water and shade. At this point our party consisted of myself, Hamza, Logan, MC, Celeste and Elizabeth.

 

Taking a breather. PC: Logan Carr

 

En route to the Snowbowl Campground. Celeste, Elizabeth and myself. PC: Logan Carr

To the Big Shovel Pass (20km Mark)

 

Following our break, as a group we continued at a strong pace, eventually catching up to the main pack. Whenever describing this trail to anyone, I liken this particular section to the Sound of Music, and those scenes in the Austrian Alps. It seriously looked like that. Tall mountain peaks crowned the horizon all around, while lush meadows exploded in a plume of colours, as we hiked on the gently rolling hillsides of Jasper’s sublime sub alpine.

 

Jasper’s wildflowers. PC: Logan Carr

 

Physically, I can’t speak for others but I was feeling great. I was full of life, much more awake at this point (late morning) than I was hours before and I was not feeling the effects of the countless blisters on my feet at all. I was as happy as could be.

 

All smiles. PC: Logan Carr

 

Realizing I was feeling good and strong, I wanted to quicken my pace, so when we caught up to the main group and they stopped for a break, I opted to continue on, gaining several precious minutes of time alone to take it all in and reflect. The once Sound of Music-esque landscape began to change quite dramatically, as the brilliant hues of green and yellow dissolved, paving way to the reds and oranges of the dirt and shaley rock all around. Interesting to note was that it didn’t seem like a slow transition. It was almost as if you topped a hill, rounded a corner and boom, the landscape as far as the eye could see comprised this new, desolate looking terrain.

 

The vast landscape of the Skyline Trail. PC: Logan Carr

 

I heard my name called. Lost in my thoughts and all that I was pondering, it took a second call for me to realize that I wasn’t just hearing things and that it was coming from the distance, on a notch above me. Kenny and a small crew had gone ahead and wandered up a side trail that lead to the Watchtower, a short but gruelling slog up the most shaley scree I’ve ever walked on. A semblance of a trail was visible from below, as the switchbacks zig-zagged back and forth. It was an odd little trail though, as the angle was very steep and the footing quite precarious. If you fell it would hardly be fatal, but it wouldn’t be fun either.

 

Coming out of my daze, I excitedly began to run up to their lookout and underestimated its difficulty, eventually slowing down to a walk so as to keep my footing. But once up there I knew it was worth it, despite the future trepidation and frustration expressed by others as they soon joined us.

 

From this vantage point, to say that the views were stunning would be an understatement. To our east lay a vast expanse of land, consisting of little alpine lakes, countless swaths of evergreens and massive peaks on the horizon. It looked like an area that was largely untouched and yet to be explored – a window into the past of what Earth must’ve looked like when it was truly wild. I hung out up here with Kenny, Eric, Luc, Pat and Rachel Weagle, prior to being joined by the rest of the party and took some time to eat, drink and refuel.

 

Lunch with a view

 

Eric looking out towards the Watchtower

 

Once altogether, questions had been asked about whether this was our halfway point and if not, why we even bothered coming up here in the first place. Regardless of the discussions, I think we all knew that the little slog up that small scree hill was well worth the effort. It was also right around this point when we started having discussions on whether to turn around or complete the entirety of the trail. Much to the joy of everyone, it was decided that we would hike Skyline’s entire length in a day. A feat that would later garner funny looks from the many thru-hikers we would soon pass.

 

Descending the scree, on our way towards Curator Lake

Big Shovel Pass to the Notch (22km Mark)

 

Feeling good about the news and the food and water I had just had, we descended the pass and carried on towards Curator Lake and the crux of the trail, the Notch. At this point, I found myself accompanied by Chander and Pat, discussing anything and everything but especially glacial erosion, as we questioned how our surroundings came to be. Passing a couple of cairns, we descended the trail until we reached Curator Lake and the many large boulders that comprised its shores.

 

Cairn on the way to Curator Lake. PC: Logan Carr

 

Boulders on the shore of Curator Lake

 

Curator Lake

 

The lake’s waters were a cool and clear blue, which looked too beautiful to be real, as do many of the lakes in the Canadian Rockies. At this point, we could all see the challenge in front of us. Skyline’s Notch is considered the crux of the trail, as it’s a steep and challenging climb that takes you to the trail’s highest point at 2511 m (8238 feet). Some of the hikers in our group had already began to ascend, while others took a break by the boulders to refuel and regroup.

 

Curator Lake and its hues. PC: Logan Carr

 

I opted to keep going, feeling really good and strong about my pace. The way up to the notch certainly took longer than I initially thought it would. The trail meandered upwards, taking you past precarious sections that would surely be fatal should you fall. At a certain point it became a bit of a mental battle. Part of me wanted to stop, to take a break, get some rest and keep going, but the other part of me, that ultimately won, wanted to press on and just get it over with. I recalled my experiences on Mount Rundle and Algonquin Peak among other notable hikes I’ve done. During times like these I like to remind myself of difficult feats I’ve accomplished, which reaffirms my ability to conquer the task at hand.

 

The way up to the Notch. PC: Logan Carr

On certain sections I had to be even more weary as I began to pass wobbly looking thru-hikers with massive loads on their backs. I just put my head down and kept trekking, taking care to lift my feet and keep it simple, paying no mind to the drop offs on my left, just steps away. So with sweat in my eyes and all over me, and with sore feet and heaving breaths, I had finally made it to the top, knowing that I had passed Skyline’s sketchiest section. I was greeted with high fives and cheers from my friends who had already made the climb.

This particular instance also turned into one of my favourite stories from the trek, that would later be recounted to me by Rachel W. and Eric. During the latter part of  the hike they ended up hiking with Jacques (I believe that was  his name) and they got to talking about the Notch. In Rachel’s impersonation of a French accent she told me how Jacques had approved of how supposedly strong I had looked while hiking up the Notch. At the same time he had remarked how certain members of our team looked less than impressive, which was not cool. Anyway, it’s the sort of story you’d have to hear in person. Also, I should mention that I was hardly the first one up there from our team. Rachel and Eric had arrived well before me and yet Jacques had made those comments haha.

We had all made it. We were on top of the Notch and the feeling was indescribable. The views were surreal and it was almost difficult to believe that we were actually there. Several hugs and high fives were had, not to mention the copious ear to ear smiles. We spent a good amount of time up there, taking in our provisions and getting some much needed rest. We did, after all, still have 26km to go until we were done. Several of us took photos together before we took one of my favourite pictures ever, courtesy of my good friend Chander.

 

The BJ 150 Group minus a few. Credit to Chander Kaushal for this one!

Simply put, we felt on top of the world. It’s a moment I’ll truly never forget.

 

Jess & I on the Notch

 

The boys. PC: Logan Carr

Thank you for reading! Part 2 will be up shortly!

 

Steven

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