Natasha Steinmann: Walk a Day in WRFI Boots

6:25am           LOD (Leader of the Day) Faren groggily hears her small watch alarm go off. Time to get up! Her faithful tentmate Mike ensures she dutifully gets out of the tent to fill the two silver pots with water for breakfast. She starts up two MSR WhisperLite stoves, and puts the water on.

7:00am           With the water almost at a boil, LOD Faren comes by each tent: “Wake up, wake up! Water’s hot!”  I groggily begin to stir. Wriggling out of my warm sleeping bag, I dress quickly – lest my body warmth desert me. I hobble down the well-worn path to the :kitchen,” which, here in Waterton Lakes National Park is actually a designated area complete with picnic table, benches, and a “sump hole” to sump dish water in. What luxury! We sit around in a circle, mixing breakfast concoctions of oatmeal, nuts, dried fruit, flax seeds, coconut, chia seeds, and honey, and make either hot tea, cocoa, or coffee to kick-start out foggy day.

7:38am           With most of breakfast finished we filter back to our tents. Hike time is 9am so we’ve got to get crackin’ on packin’. By now, day 32 of our 62 day adventure, we’ve gotten pretty speedy. But its only day 2 of our Waterton – Castle Crown backpack, food is substantial, and tents are wet and hard to pack due to the rain last night.

9:01am           Surprisingly, we’re actually on the trail at exactly 9:00. We, the WRFI 2012 Summer Edition crew like to be on time…but it doesn’t always happen. We hike from Goat Lake in Waterton Lakes National Park in Alberta straight up to the top of Avion Ridge. It was a tough climb – steep in places, overcast most of the way, and hot & muggy. But the WRFI crew doesn’t give up. While Davis, Jesse, and Brian dash up the trail, Miki and I prefer a slow and steady pace, often bringing up the rear. Taking frequent breaks has its advantages – maximum soakage of the glorious view behind us – lush blue-green valley with steep piercing walls . Through coniferous forest, higher to a wet montane slope covered in cow parsnip (Heracleum loonatum, a member of the hemlock family) taller than I am, and up to the rocky red slopes of the mountain goat.

10:56am        The Top! How rewarding. In front of us lies a picture perfect mountain scene, with deep lush valleys, stunning peaks, and shadows bringing it all to life. Behind us lies the valley we camped in only hours before. But these WRFI boots have carried us far above that little Goat Lake with its echoing walls, mountain goat sightings, and astounding bird calls.

11:21am        After a snack at the top, come perfect pictures, and a ladybug surprise, we send eager, speedy Davis to scout the next route. Up equals a dead end, so we wind around to the right passing layers and layers of very colorful sedimentary rock. I found a piece with a wavy pattern that tells me it was once at the bottom of a body of water. I wish I could have taken it with me, but WRFI-ites know better than that. We learned at the outset about 7 precious principles to live by in the backcountry. Now that we’ve been at this for awhile, Leave No Trace (LNT) ethics seem obvious. Number 4 is “Leave What You Find.” I can’t possibly take this beautiful specimen knowing that then it will no longer be enjoyed by someone else, nor be able to serve its purpose in the greater environment. So I let it lie.

As we round the peak on our left, a deep and narrow valley opens to our right. At the very bottom is a tiny, murky green pond, the remnant of snowmelt, erosion, and undoubtedly some algae mixed in. Most spectacular is the ridge that rises sharply from this valley on the other side. It forms deep vertical gulleys, making a rivulet pattern across the landscape – each detail decorated with either the red rock or the green of hardy alpine flora sticking out a harsh life.

11:58am        We round the ridge, stop for another quick snack and head down the other side into the airy light green space of the larch forest. We stop for lunch amongst the larch and are visited by none other than a herd of bighorn sheep! They seemed to be a group of young rams, and they were rather curious as to who we were and what we were doing there. LNT principle #6: Respect wildlife. So we make sure to stay quiet and give them the space and respect they deserve.

2:06pm          We continue our hike down deeper and deeper into the Bow Crow Provincial Forest (we left the Waterton boundary at the top of Avion Ridge when we descended into the larch). Black twinberry (Lonicera involuratal), Black elderberry (Sambucus racemosa), Thimbleberry ( Rubus parviflorous), green alder (Alnus viriolis) and False-Azalea (false huckleberry, Menziesa ferroginea) abound. We walk along a steep road that we decided must have been for logging. Who else would attempt to travel straight up a mountain?

5:00pm          We arrive at what appears to be a campsite possibility. Packs off, time to scout. We have to bushwhack to find tent spots, but there are a few beyond the willows and alder along the road. The surface, we decide, is not ideal though. We would leave quite the impact with 4 tents. No good. Principle #2, Travel & Camp on Durable Surfaces, makes this location questionable. Furthermore, we need to find a good tree for a bear hang. This is part of principle #1, Plan Ahead and Prepare. We know from a few recent failures, that planning ahead and finding a good bear hang before we set up camp helps ensure we keep both ourselves and the wildlife around us safe by protecting our food well.

By now it is starting to rain. With no successful bear hang quests, and a questionable tent surface, we collectively decide to move on – despite the fact that it is now raining , and is getting late.

5:37pm          A clearing! Perfect spot for tents. And Jesse + Shawn found a great bear hang tree. Miki and I are on dinner duty and everyone’s hungry, so the pressure is on. Tonight is mac-n-cheese! Yum yum. Despite the fact that this place has been used before (there are even old cans tossed in the bushes that we’ll grab and pack out), we want to minimize campfire impacts (that’s principle #5) so we bust out the MSR Whisperlites, as per usual.

8:30pm          With tents set up (far from the trail to give other visitors space should any come along – principle #7), bellies full of pasta, cheese, veggies, and sriracha, we have a toothbrushing party and head to the woods with our bags of food. Setting up the bear hang each night is one of my favorite activities – is always an adventure. Tonight is no exception. The best choice was a “leaner,” a partially fallen tree caught by its surrounding fellows. The catch? It’s leaning over a stream. So tonight, four of us wade into the chilly  water in our Chacos to help hoist the heavy bundle into the air while the others pull on the rope. A few cracking branches later our bear hang is successfully ten feet off the ground and four feet from the trunk. Even better, this time a grizz would have to go swimming to reach our stash.

9:15pm          Now, as the light begins to fade, survival mode switches to academic. Today was a long hike, so we didn’t have class as we often do, and yet readings about conservation in the Castle-Crown (also known as the Crown of the Continent) await. One last LNT principle to leave you with, before I head off to read, and it is one of the most crucial: #3 Always Dispose of Waste Properly (Pack it in, pack it out!).

Signing off, from a Crazy Creek chair by the stream, reading in the fading summer light.  –Natasha

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