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Sunday, 27 September 2015

Sept 23: Larches

It is the peak of fall colour. Our fall season isn't nearly as spectacular as the show put on by oaks and maples back in Eastern Canada, but we do our part. Our colours are dominated by aspens and poplars down low, and the king of the western colour changers, larches, up high. Add to that willows and various ground cover like avens and we have a 2 week window at this time of year to take every blue sky day we can get, go up high and visit larches.

The best larch hikes I know are not short strolls because larches live high and most trailheads are low. So I annually trek to places like Sparrowhawk Tarns (last year's show was spectacular), Read's Tower, Tryst Lake or others to see the colours. Gillean Daffern's new Volume 5 of the 4th edition of the Kananaskis Trails Guide came out a few months back, and in reading it, she said the best larches in K-Country are in Arethusa Cirque. Makes sense; that's the first cirque south of the Highwood Pass, the highest car-accessible pass in Canada. And Ptarmigan Cirque right at the pass is OK larch viewing.

However, I was stunned by Arethusa. Not 5 minutes after leaving the car, the first larches appear. Not even 1 km from the trailhead, it's a sea of larches, 2 beautiful streams, and spectacular mountain backdrops. You want easy larches? Arethusa wins, hands down.
Gold on blue 
A sea of colour 
The basin 
The larches continue 
Ice in the creek 
The larches just keep on going 
A gold sea
A slow 30 min saunter snapping endless pictures got us to the meadow. We figured out a way to hop the creek; not as easy as we thought (but we found an easy way to do it on the way down). We sat by the creek and had lunch marvelling in the view. After lunch, we continued an easy climb on what Gillean calls the "Larch Trail", one of 3 routes up in the cirque.
Looking up the trail 
Mt. Arethusa 
Karen taking it all in 
A little higher 
Looking back across the valley 
So many larches 
An outlier of Storm Mountain 
Convoluted Storm Mountain
After climbing just 170 m -- a total of only 270 m since leaving the parking lot -- you pop out of the forest to a grassy headwall. Now you get to look down to the vast expanse of colour at your feet.
Across the valley is Highwood Ridge 
A gold sea towards Storm 
Grassy meadows on the way towards Mt. Arethusa 
Larches on Arethusa's flanks 
The basin below 
You can pick out the creeks sparkling in the trees 
High up, the forest thins
Isolated larches in the meadows 
Storm in it's larchy glory 
Looking southwest
Another creek springs up in the basin and runs down a waterfall in the draw in the photo above.
The creek under Mt. Arethusa 
Looking down the creek 
And the larches just keep on glowin' 
Storm Mtn.
We dropped down what's called the North Cirque trail. MUCH steeper than the way up through the Larch Trail and very slippery with the afternoon sun melting the morning frost on the ground.
Across the draw to the forest of the Larch Trail 
Down this way 
A little lower
Once back in the meadow, we explored a bit. We had time; the whole saunter thus far had taken a little more than 2 hrs and had only been a 4 km walk.
What a spectacular meadow
I saw a scree jumble. I saw trimmed grass near it. That meant pikas, and sure enough, we found one, though he didn't want to stick around that much to get his picture taken.
I was even having trouble focusing on him
Despite being 15° and nice in the sun, there was ice in the creek, and it made cool patterns.
Like ice spiderwebs
We saw little in the way of wildlife, but it's there, especially the grizzly bears. We saw a dozen recent bear digs.
On the Larch Forest trail 
In the meadows above the forest 
At the creek at the top of the North Cirque trail
Gillean is right. There's probably no better space for larches that I know of in K-Country, or in Banff, either. A 5 km walk that anyone and their kids can do will let you explore spectacular colours and vistas with little effort. Just make a ton of noise, stick together and carry bear spray.

PS: How to avoid getting wet crossing the creek: When you get to the creek, turn right and follow the trail on the right side of the creek. Near the scree at the far end of the meadow about 150 m on the other side of the meadow, the creek braids and there are several places you can easily step across it.

Saturday, 12 September 2015

Sept 11: Commonwealth Valley, Finally

It was finally a perfect "fall" day to get up into Commonwealth valley to the Birdwood Lakes, where we've been trying to go for a month. Only the "we" that went today was my friend Monty and me. Sadly, Karen twisted her knee working on cameras this week, so is on rest and ice and physio -- and not hiking 19 km.

The trailhead is very near my favourite moose meadow, and there were a phalanx of people out moosewatching, including a guy from Idaho who owns a place in Banff but always comes down here to find moose. There were 3 moose, a girl in a nearby bog...
They actually eat the mud
...and a boy with a huge rack plus his girlfriend way on the far side of the marshes.
Boy laying down in the centre, girlfriend on right
The hike itself starts with a mostly boring 3 km trek down an old logging road. We brought our bikes for this section. The road is easy to bike...
Most of the road looks like this
...but the guidebook instructions say head to a Y intersection then continue biking on the right logging road fork for an additional kilometre or so. Um, no. Biking to the Y is a breeze. Here's the trail after that:
Easy biking...
Not only that, about 200 m from the Y, there are 3 huge downed trees over which you have to lift your bike. No. Just park at the Y and walk.

Past here, the trail for the next 5 km is obvious but narrow, narrow, narrow as you squeeze through trees so tight your daypack barely fits. First stop is the waterfall on Commonwealth Creek.
The main falls  
Rapids above the falls 
Three baby falls
The trail is tight against the canyon walls here, muddy, slippery and in spots, boggy.
Trail glued on the hillside on right
The trail gets worse and worse underfoot until suddenly you pop out into the valley meadows.
Mt. Birdwood
The trail stays in the forest right at the meadow edge, and stays incredibly narrow. The meadow and its placid stream goes on and on.
The target for the day is the gap in the middle 
The stream. It had moose prints in it.
It's a pleasant hour through this forest/meadow edge, however... this valley is grizzly country. Always. And last year, there was at least one bluff charge incident. So we were quite vigilant and found this very fresh scat that someone had stepped in today.
A big pile with a footprint in it 
A wet pile. They don't stay wet long
This has been a tough year for berries and bear food in general. The poop told me this one was eating cow parsnip, and while we found a fair amount of it, 90% of what we found was already dead. This poop was in a rare patch of still green stuff. 

We crossed under the avalanche slopes of The Fist...
The Fist on the right. You can scramble it from the col in the centre
...but mostly continued to plod through endless meadows shouting "Yo, bear!" at the top of our lungs about every minute.
More meadows
If you blow up the photo above, you can see the upper section of the trail cutting diagonally across the scree under the right hand slope of Birdwood. That's where we were heading, and it's almost 400 vertical m above where we are.

The meadows end for a bit at a big scree slope that is undoubtedly flood damage.
A waterfall on the right, scree on the left 
Looking back
From here, the trail squeezes through the forest AGAIN for a kilometre  arriving at the final basin under Mt. Birdwood, looking up at it's nascent glacier.
The glacier under the sun
To this point, we had climbed all of 170 m in 7 km. In the next 1.5 km, we would climb almost 400 m -- an average 25% grade. Whomever built this trail doesn't like switchbacks. The first section is the worst, as it grinds straight up a moist greasy slope. After once very brief, flat-ish respite -- an OK lunch spot, it turns out, with this view... 
Mt. Smuts
...you just keep climbing up, traversing the scree...
For the record, rocks tumbled off the cliff behind us
Looking back at the traverse from the top
...until you get to the headwall.
Looking back at Rummel Pass
Turn around, and you see... nothing. It's a dry basin that might actually have water in it at spring melt. Climb another steep face, up another 40 m, and finally you see the first of the Birdwood Lakes.
Out of view lower right... 8 hikers picnicking. Mt. Smutwood behind
The "normal" route here is to drop the 20 m down to the lake, then skirt it on the left side to a trail in the grass, climbing up next to the waterfall on the left to the upper lake. Bah. On the left side of the slopes are two traverses that take you above the lakes.
Traverses visible on the left
Take the high one at first. The low one peters out and you just have to climb up to the upper one in a shale-filled gully. From there, again two traverses take off, a high and a low. Now take the low one. Both lead to what is affectionately called "Smutwood Pass", on the border of Banff Park.
The upper lake comes into view from the traverse
The upper lake under "Mt. Smutwood" 
Looking back at the lower lake
The views from Smutwood Pass are pretty nice.
Mt. Sir Douglas & it's glaciers, Mt. Snow  
Looking down towards White Man's Pass in Banff 
Mt. Smuts & the lower lake
Climbing "Mt. Smutwood" (an unofficial name for the unnamed peak) is popular and apparently not that hard. A party of 8 started heading up op it just as we started down. I wonder when they finished.

We headed down via the upper lake, and continued down beside the waterfall to the lower lake.
The upper lake's outflow 
Mt. Smuts towers 
The lake drains towards the waterfall 
Mt. Smutwood over the exit stream 
Mt. Smuts and the lower lake from the top of the waterfall 
The waterfall 
The waterfall creek flows into the lower lake
Alas, it was time to retrace our steps back down the incredibly steep slopes to the meadows, but not without a last look back at the lower lake and Mt. Smutwood.
Now it's green
The view across the valley to Rummel Pass, 9.5 km away
As we descended, I couldn't help but note that cow parsnip wasn't the only thing that my friends the grizzlies were eating.
Digging for ground squirrels
A fall "delicacy" is the golden mantled ground squirrel. Their dens are simple, never more than 1 m long or 0.5 m deep, usually only have 1 entrance, and have 1-3 squirrels in it. The dig above is about 1.5 m wide & 0.5 m deep. Probably took the bear about 5 min to dig. And the hillside was covered in old digs.

Aside from moose, the only other animal we saw to today was a chipmunk.
Good tasting grass
As we descended, we couldn't help but notice that there was more water in every waterfall and creek on the way down.
The falls on the backside of Piggy Plus
Commonwealth Falls again, in the afternoon sun
This hike was a lot of fun, but as my friend Monty said, "not for amateurs". Scrabbling around the waterfalls and through the bogs was "interesting", the hill climb to the lakes was a serious grunt, and this is bear country. It also took way longer than I thought; a 10:30 AM start (on bikes) resulted in a 5:30 PM finish to cover 19.5 km and climb 560 m. Considering that 6 km of the 19.5 were done on bikes at 20 km/hr, the time suggests that they add convenience, not speed.

It's also interesting that the lakes themselves have no outflow. You can see all the water going it, but it doesn't come out anywhere. Anyone want to bet this is the source of Karst Spring?

BTW, you may have noticed there were larches. Yep. But no, this isn't a great larch hike, since you have to go too far to see too few. The larches were just starting to turn, as you can tell in the photos, and while the willows and bushes in the meadows were in nice colours, the larches won't be "in" for another 5-7 days.