Sunday, 26 September 2010

Missed it by One Day

This hiking season has been pretty miserable, with countless days washed out with rain. Saturday was a beautiful fall exception -- but Karen had to work the morning open house at the station, so by the time she got home, it was 3 PM before we could get out. Being worried about the conditions courtesy of the snow last week, I was able to drive down Hwy 742 a way to check out the snow level, which was at the 2600 m mark on Mt. Sparrowhawk.

The Spray Valley looked in beautiful condition, but alas, I could not linger.

Given the time, about the only thing we could do was walk around the hamlet trails. It was might pretty, and at 22°, nice and warm, though windy as all get out.

We saw no critters but we saw lots of elk, deer and beaver tracks.

The forecast for today started off being just as good for Sunday as Saturday. However, it changed all the way though the day on Saturday, and when we woke this morning, it was overcast and the new forecast was a 30% chance of showers. The radar showed a large patch of rain covering most of the Kananaskis, and sure enough, by 9:30 it was raining. But the forecast, the radar and the satellite image all suggested it would clear this afternoon, and do so starting in the northwest. So we decided to head to Boom Lake on Hwy 93 near the Vermillion Pass.


For starters, the hike is a 5 km walk on a fire road equivalent through a disenchanted forest with no views. It ends at the lake, and there nowhere to go, since the trail just stops. So even if the weather had been good, this is not a hike I would recommend to people.

But the weather wasn't good. We were poured on for over 90 minutes. The trail was a slippery, muddy, puddle-filled mess. And at the lake you couldn't see much.

About the only redeeming quality of this trail is that you cross about 20 little creeklets, each of which is a verdant path of green.

The GemTrek maps I have show this to be the only trail in the valley. Imagine my surprise to find Parks Canada signage saying you can get to Taylor Lake from here. Here's the trail intersection.

Imagine my further surprise at this sign, just 20 m up the Taylor Lake trail:

Yes, the sign says "No well defined trail past this point."

So they say there's a trail, then post a sign saying there isn't?

Saturday, 18 September 2010

To the Exshaw Shales Outcrop

Back in June we tried to get to Jura Creek to see the Exshaw Shales type section outcrop. We were blocked by water in the canyon and a bypass trail we weren't sure was the right one (but today we found out was just fine).

It has been cold recently, and it snowed this week down to the base of the Bow Valley. The forecast for today, in fact, called for cold (5°), overcast and rain mixed with snow. Well, as so often is the case, they were wrong. It was blue sky and sunny this morning, and by the time we woke up (at noon...), then forecast had changed to a high of 9° with the bad weather rolling in tonight. So knowing that the creek level would be low, we decided to try getting up Jura Creek again, and we succeeded without issue.

As I mentioned in June, this hike is like Grotto Canyon, but the canyon is a heck of a lot narrower, and the "trail" consists of rock hopping and some pretty creative climbing moves. Having seen Cirque du Soleil this week, there were times we felt like the tightrope walkers inching up logs over waterfalls.

Some examples: To get up this, you literally climb right to left up the waterfall.

This section is a rock hop in the creek itself.

Here's the tightrope logs.

The fun part about this hike is the geology. If you don't like rocks, this hike ceases to be very interesting after the canyon section is finished.

But if you like rocks, this is one really cool valley. There are bedding plane exposed limestones...

...including some with hydrothermal dolomite intriusions.

And then there are the shales. The Exshaw (of which this is the type section) has several exposures, but the most famous is the "false fault". It looks like a fault but it isn't. It's just a really recessive (easily eroded) formation sitting on competent (not easily eroded) Palliser limestone.

The Exshaw has both brown and black shales. The blacks are very friable and very noticeable at the "fault". You can literally bust the rock up with your fingers into tiny thin shards.

The brown shales are much more competent but still easily broken, as evidenced by the piles of rubble everywhere.

At the false fault, we ran into some very friendly golden mantled ground squirrels, happy to pose for me.

When we started the hike today, there were more than a dozen cars at the parking lot, which I thought surprising. Turns out it was there was a memorial hike for a lady who had passed away. And on the trail we ran into two people I knew. The lady who passed away was in fact a geologist and former professor at U of C who was engaged to a friend of mine from ConocoPhillips, and we ran into him and a former colleague of mine from both ConocoPhillips and BG Canada. Given the forecast for the day, it seems someone wanted Paul to have a good day for the memorial. My thoughts are with him.

Sunday, 12 September 2010

South Wind Hoodoos

The last time we tried to make it up here, it poured rain on us. Twice. The forecast today called for a 60% chance of showers. But by 2 PM it still wasn't too threatening, so we opted to bike in and try it again.

We biked the exploration/fire road about 15 min to the junction with the exploration road to the hoodoos. Just across the bridge, we stashed our bikes and started up. And up it is. Nearly 300 m up and stairmaster like for 2 km (about 45 min). Along the way, the views of Wind Ridge get better and better.

The road is deteriorating back to a trail in many places, especially higher up.

We got to the first overlook and found the hoodoos. They're OK but the ones in Canmore and Banff are easier to get to and more impressive.

But our objective was to get the the Obelisk. We grunted up the last section of road, and found two side by side cairns leading to a treacherous path down a 45° slope covered in easily torn moss and friable shales next to a small cliff band that offered occasional handholds.

We got part way down but the footing was so atrocious that we turned back. We considered heading straight down, but that looked even worse.

A weak trail continued up past the end of the road, but it petered out in dense bush after 40 m. So we gave up trying to find the Obelisk (my family motto: "Be chicken and live"), and headed back down the way we came up.

On the way down, we did fight our way through the trees at one point and found this little guy.

I wouldn't be in a rush to do this hike again. The trail is steep (though short), the hoodoos just aren't that interesting, and I wouldn't be in a hurry to tackle the slope down towards what could be the Obelisk again any time soon.

Saturday, 11 September 2010

Whining on a Rain Day

We had great intentions to go hiking today, but it was pouring all morning, so gave up on the idea around noon (note: it cleared up by 3 and the afternoon was quite nice. Go figure). Spending a lazy day on the computer updating my cookbook to the 2nd edition, I ran across the following, which I wrote several years ago. Though I submitted it to one or two publications, it remained languishing on my hard drive without an audience until today. That's the advantage of a blog. I can write whatever the heck I want.

My name is Derek, and I have been sober for 63 days. Not by choice mind you, and to be quite frank, a lack of wine in my life sucks. A medical condition and its treatment has meant that my 24 years of wine cellar building, and my developing expertise in the subtle nuances of perfect martini shaking, are now but a fond memory.

To be honest, I have forgotten what else one drinks with a meal. It has never occurred to me to ask “what fruit juice goes best with prime rib,” but I am forced to now. Wine compliments food in ways I don’t think I ever dreamed was possible. A great New Zealand Sauvignon Blanc, like an Oyster Bay or a Marlborough, is such a natural fit with grilled scallops that I couldn’t even imagine one without the other. Until now. A glass of water – while otherwise an entirely delicious beverage – just doesn’t have the same impact.

There is no shame in cranberry and soda. However, desperate for some alternative to sugar-filled fruit juice, I decided to experiment with de-alcoholized wines. Allegedly made with real wine, with the alcohol “gently removed,” most promise through labeling all the good stuff that wines really have: full body, crisp acidity, firm bouquet, and the like.

My first attempt was the Inglenook St. Regis Cabernet Sauvignon ($8.99 at CoOp), since by preference I mostly drink red wine. As an award-winning home winemaker, I make some pretty fine white wines, but my reds are quite frankly pretty poor. Well, the worst red I have ever made is better than the St. Regis. Its utter lack of body is almost exceeded by its uniformly unpleasant chemically affected flavour. It bears little resemblance to any Cab I have ever consumed. It is full of ingredients that as a winemaker I know are used to try to “fix” problems in wine. It has added glycerin, which is used to improve body (it needed more). It has grape juice added, which is used by home winemakers to increase flavour (it needed more). It has sugar added, which home winemakers use to correct the acid-sugar balance (and I wasn’t sure there was any acid or sugar in this wine before they tried to fix it). In short, my home winemaker’s hat said it was a failed wine, and my palate tells me they failed to fix it.

It was with my first revolting bottle of the St. Regis that I learned that de-alcoholized wine needs refrigeration, since alcohol is a natural preservative. Well, there’s nothing quite as appealing as an icy cold Cabernet Sauvignon, is there? I found, however, that the flavour of this artificially simulated, wine-like food product was actually improved by chilling. But not much.

My second attempt was the Australian Loxton Cabernet Sauvignon ($7.49 at CoOp, but frequently on sale for $5.99). I was attracted by it’s lack of ingredients: just dealcoholized wine and some sulphur dioxide and ascorbic acid as preservatives/oxygen scavengers. Since I add these latter two to my own wine, it looked promising. And relative to the Inglenook, it was a better wine. Not good, mind you, but better. The chemical overtones remained, but the nose at least implied a Cab. Still very short on body and lacking in acid, it was approaching wine-like in style.

On weekends, my life frequently revolves around champagne (okay, Henkel Trocken in tiny bottles) and orange juice with breakfast. So I tried the Carl Jung De-alcoholized Sparkling Wine ($8.50 at Sobey’s), which they would call “champagne” if the French would let them. Now we were getting somewhere. Aside from moderately less acidity, which gave it somewhat less crispness in the mouth, this was unleaded Henkel Trocken. Mixed with OJ, it was just fine. Stand alone, it was quite reasonable. Not my vintage Vieuve Cliquot, but not bad.

Sadly, while some people perceive champagne goes with every meal, it just doesn’t do it for me paired with a great tomato sauce. I pressed on. Realizing “cold was good” to kill the problematic flavours I had been experiencing, I tried the Loxton Semillon-Chardonnay ($7.49 at CoOp, but frequently on sale for $5.99). The nose was definitely Semillon, and there was clearly some evidence of Chardonnay character. Sort of. Unfortunately, that unique “chemical” flavour was still there, more noticeable as the wine warmed up in the glass. Call this one “palatable when icy cold.”

Still passionate about red wines and having little to lose, I tried the Carl Jung De-alcoholized Merlot ($8.50 at Sobey’s). Turns out I had more to lose than I thought. This is the best of a sorry lot of reds, with a somewhat Merlot nose, and at least a palatable flavour, though not really Merlot like. It’s best served at very cold cellar temperature, and as a result, not for me.

Generally more impressed with the Carl Jung offerings, I tried the Carl Jung Riesling ($8.50 at Sobey’s). With a very pretty Riesling “wet slate” nose, I had high hopes that were nearly met for the wine itself. Many Riesling flavours were there, but like most of these wines, the acid-sugar balance was a bit out of whack, with the wine just lacking the necessary crispness. The similarly priced Carl Jung White Wine lacked a specific varietal character in the nose but was nonetheless quite a pleasant beverage, very reminiscent of the multitude of generic German Tafelweins on the market. Both wines are the stars of a poor slate of players.

I am not done. There are other products from other suppliers, and I will labour on in my quest for palatability. But I wonder what other foodies who are non-drinkers drink with their meals. What fruit juice does compliment prime rib or scallops? I have been told of the wonders of “elderflower water,” though it sounds more like something one would put in perfume than in a glass, and so far I have not been able to find it. Despite their 1.6 B$ advertising budget, sorry, Coke’s not for me. However, I’m so new at this game that I must be missing something. Having braved the first 63 days of my new-found sobriety alone in my non-drinkedness, I’m pleading for help for the next 3,650. Please post a comment with some suggestions. There are only so many sugary fruit juices one can drink, and being lactose intolerant, milk is not an option.


Post script: I came off the meds (they didn't work) after about six months. Six long and painful months. I never did find a substitute beverage.

Sunday, 5 September 2010

Sparrowhawk Tarns -- The Basin of Wow

Headed up into the Sparrowhawk Tarns basin on Saturday. This is a wild place, where you get to follow your nose and explore a wide open meadow above treeline, where the crossing of every rock step brings a greater wow factor. That, and you get yelled at by marmots & pikas pretty much all day.

The trail starts at Spray Lake, and initially follows the same route as the Read's Tower trail. So you climb up about 200 m to the lip of a hanging valley next to Sparrowhawk Creek with the occasional view back to the lakes.

The trail heads basically along the flat through a forest full of trees flagged, felled or burned for pine beetle control. Along the way, the trail skirts a rock pile below the cliffs of Read's Ridge, home to the first of many pikas we saw. The forest thins and the trail rises onto a rocky moraine-like thing. Then the trail pops out of what's left of the forest at a huge rockslide (home to more pikas) and then just stops. It's basically up to your nose what to do next, because even sitting here after getting up to the tarns, neither one of the two trail descriptions I have makes any sense whatsoever. It's like the moment you hit the rockfall you're on your own.

To get up, we turned left at the rockfall, followed a few cairns and a really weak trail until they petered out, then just clambered up the talus on dryas as much as we could, all the while being yelled at by pikas.

At one point we went right past a pika midden.

It was not hard to clamber up the talus and dryass, and it was quite enjoyable. Well, most of it was enjoyable. It was right around here that we had our first of 3 rainstorms of the day. In fact this one was a thunderstorm, and we got pelted with tiny hail, so hid in the trees for a bit till it blew by. Here's a shot of the rain itself. You can see the sun in the background.

A huge rock with a cleft in it offered protection from wind and rain and a really nice lunch stop with this view:

In fact, one of the best parts about hiking are the kick butt picnic spots we always have.

At this point, the hard part is over, having climbed about 550 m of the 760 m for the day. The basin in front is huge and rolling, and is a real treat to wander around.

There's a pretty little lake to the left.

But the "destination" here lies at the far end of the meadow up over a series of rock steps, only one of which requires any real work. It has a waterfall running down it, and so even that's a lot of fun, as you climb it right next to the creek. Once at the top, you get to see the 3 tarns. One is almost dry at this time of year, but the other two are very pretty.

Looking back from the top of the waterfall, it's possible to make out the weakest of trails running on the left side of the creek.

We couldn't find this "trail" on the way up, so decided to take it on the way down. It stays on the west side of the basin the whole way, heading to the small notch on the left at the base of a talus slope. The trail isn't really obvious in a few places, and the biggest problem is finding the breaks in the rock bands to get down them.

Eventually this "trail" arrives at a lot of rock.

There were a smattering of pathetic cairns (2 small stacked stones? Give me a break) that generally kept us on track, though we lost the trail once or twice. And it ended up much farther west than our route up, so far so that it almost skirted the rockfall on west side. It had its own exit trail down at the forest that starts about 30 m west of the main trail, and this exit trail is good — until it hits the creek and stops. Fortunately, creek hopping at that point is easy, and the main trail is only about 40 m straight ahead.

I mentioned the pikas and marmots. We probably saw 10-20 marmots, 15-20 pikas, and were yelled at by at least that many more that we did not see. While I took a lot of pika pictures, only one was good.

The marmots up there are friendly. We stood within 5' of at least 4 while they ate. A few squealed at us so loud we thought they were standing next to us, but were in fact over 100' away.

Also cool up here are the fossils, especially the corals.

So this is an extraordinary place, where every turn is just another wow moment. If we had to do it all over again, here's my version of the trail instructions once you pop out of the forest at the rockfall:

Blocking the way is a massive rockfall. Turn right and walk about 30 m looking for a cairn marking a trail back into the forest. Look left. A weak trail marked by small cairns heads straight up the slope towards some larches. Head up, and generally stay to the right near scree slopes coming off Red Ridge. The trail comes and goes, cairns appear and disappear, but so long as you generally stay close to the base of Red Ridge, you're on track. Work your way up over a lip into the basin and all becomes much simpler. Far to the right and out of site is a sink lake; climbing up to any high point will bring it into view. Otherwise, stay on the grass on the right east side of the basin under Red Ridge. The weak trail will get better and worse in places, but just head for the base of the waterfall at the end of the basin. A fair trail climbs halfway up the waterfall, then crosses it and angles up to the left. About 100 m past the waterfall, look for an obvious break in the rock step on your right. Cross this, remembering where it is as it is essential to make it through here on the way down. Pass the first tarn on the right, stay right to make another rock step to see the next lake, also passed on the right. Make for a high ridge on the right to see the final tarn.

And do give it a go on a nice day. As I mentioned, it rained on us at least 3 times. We had conditions including short sleeves and shorts where we were hot and sweaty, times when we were wet and cold, and times when we were both since it was sunny AND raining.