Dexter Guys Surprised By September Snowstorm Backpacking in Canada

Speeding down the wrong side of a wet Canadian four-Lane gravel road at 110 kilometers per hour to avoid the wash-board ripples of the right lane, late for the helicopter, were Jon, Nick and I. There is no traffic this cold and gray September morning. The road is wet, but not snow covered like the surrounding trees and peaks. Back in Dexter it is in the 80s.

The others are 30 minutes ahead of us but still late. Navigation tells us the helipad is much further than we thought looking at the map. Nick and Jon act calm, but we’re tense. If our bodies were thermometers, stress would be blowing out the tops of our heads.  I edge the Edge up to 120. If we miss that helicopter …

Skidding into Mt Shark parking, the helicopters are carrying people off and returning like insects in an old sci-fi movie. The other guys aren’t here. What the heck? Then they arrive. Took and wrong turn and had to stop for a moose. Grabbing our 40 lb packs, we hustle to the helipad. The guy in charge is bellowing instructions to a frightened and huddled group of people. We slip in.

“WHEN YOU APPROACH THE HELICOPTER,” he roars above the churning rotors. “KEEP YOUR HEAD DOWN. WALK! DON’T RUN!

Workers are busy loading gear onto a waiting chopper. A gal half my size wrenches my pack off my back with one hand and takes Nick’s with the other carrying both to the helicopter – 80 lbs of gear.

“AND WHATEVER YOU DO,” continues the guy, “DON’T OPEN A WINDOW, FOR ANY REASON!!!” He emphasizes this point by making eye contact with each person. He looks at me with an expression of You look like a fella who wants to open a helicopter window. I shiver.

This is our annual backpacking trip: Steve Stimac, Bill Johnson, Brian Shay, Nick Gronows, Jon Coffer, and I. Past trips have included the Collegiate Peaks in Colorado, Bob Marshall Wilderness in Montana, Wind River in Wyoming, and Isle Royale in Lake Superior. This year we’re flying into the remote and rugged wilderness of Mt. Assiniboine (Ah-sin-ah-boyne) Provincial Park, the heart of the Canadian Rockies.

Choppers come and go carrying group after group away in great snow tornadoes, disappearing into the fog. “I’M SPLITTING YOUR GROUP INTO TWO DIFFERENT FLIGHTS,” the guy shouts at the six of us. “YOU’LL BE JUST LIKE THE ROYAL FAMILY AND NOT ALL DIE IN THE SAME CRASH.” He laughs. We laugh too, but it’s forced.

Nobody gets their head chopped off boarding the Bell-407. Jon asks to sit up front with the pilot, where the floor is clear Plexiglas. Jon is crazy. I worry that the pilot will let him play with the controls at some point. The four blades pick up speed and I suddenly just want to see my grandkids one more time. We lift off with a lurch and the M.A.S.H. theme Suicide is Painless looping in my mind … I love it immediately.

View from the helicopter

The swirling clouds that shroud the imposing snowy peaks pull back their curtain just enough to give us a peek at the misty Canadian Rockies carpeted in fresh and unseasonable snow. It’s a mythical world. I expect dwarves and a hobbit running down the slopes at any minute chased by a dragon. The flight is too short.

Base camp for the week is at the fitting and apocalyptically named Lake Magog in the shadow of the gnarled tooth of Mt. Assiniboine. Having just pitched our tents in the snow, standing huddled, already damp and cold, we wonder what to do now. Winter wasn’t the plan. It should be in the 50’s with sun. Snow flew in Banff when we arrived and the kind locals warned us Assiniboine would be worse. We rushed to purchase gloves, hats, long-johns and hand warmers used to warm everything except hands.

“I’m wearing all the clothes I brought,” Nick says. “I’m still cold.”

Jon’s expression says it best: warm drinks = bliss

“That’s your fault for not having any fat,” Steve says.

“I should have worn my waterproof boots,” I say stomping my damp feet.

Word quickly spreads through camp that the Assiniboine Lodge offers hot tea and cake for backpackers from 4:00-5:00pm each day. So for an hour each afternoon, 6 damp, stinking guys from Dexter hike/run the mile up to the small backcountry lodge and clustered happily around a wooden table with hikers from around the world, remembering what it’s like to be warm.

There’s an instant camaraderie among strangers backpacking. Regardless of our home turf, we’re all in this together. That’s the beauty of backpacking. Complete strangers are immediate friends and conversation in regional accent flows lyrically like a favorite playlist. But it ends too soon. A single tear rolls down each cheek as wet boots carried us back out into Narnia.

What to do is always a challenge in the wild – no cell signal, no electronics, and no refrigerator. Complicating things, we couldn’t do the usual and lie in a sunny meadow, take a brisk swim in the lake, light a fire, or twirl like Julie Andrews among the wildflowers. It was pretty much stand, walk, or lay down in the tent.

“We thought we’d climb The Nub,” Bill said the next morning, meaning him and Brian.

“That sounds great,” Jon said. “Nick and I were thinking of doing that.”

We were stiff and sore. The night was spent in the fetal listening to snow hit the tent. Wearing most of my clothing, I pulled the drawstring on my sleeping bag tight over my head leaving a hole the size of a tennis ball. This I affixed over my mouth like a whale’s blowhole. Hydration took on peculiar strategy as night approached. God help you if you have to answer nature’s call while cryogenically sealed in utero within your mummy bag. Each morning we hit the bowed tent walls knocking off the snow outside and the frozen condensation inside.

Hike 3.6 miles from Lake Magog with an elevation gain of 2,789 feet and you’re on top of The Nub for a spectacular view of Mt Assiniboine and the surrounding area. On a clear day anyway. Today is more snow and low clouds. Above tree line the wind whips us like we owed it money. Damp clothing instantly becomes frigid. But we joke about the cold, the rough night, the shock of conditions. Jon entertains us by throwing snowballs. Being in it together takes the sting out and somehow makes it OK.

Jon and Nick climbed The Nub later in the week and snapped this pic. Mt Assiniboine is the big peak in the background.

Back in camp after a failed summit attempt of The Nub, dissention is brewing. Four of us want to hike out early. Jon and Nick choose to stay. Tough guys. We enjoy afternoon tea at the lodge and then eat supper out of a bag back at camp. Into the tent for another cold, snowy night.

Bill and Brian hike out before dawn via scenic Wonder Pass. Steve and I hit the trail a couple hours later via the easier, but less scenic, Assiniboine Pass. The four of us will meet at Bryant Creek Cabin nine miles away for the night.

Here’s a backcountry truth: Plans never go as planned. The best laid plans of mice and backpackers always go awry. There are always jokers in the deck. Today’s joker came in the form of a grizzly that stopped Brian and Bill on the trail long enough for Steve and I to reach the cabin first. The agreement was that if we didn’t find Bill and Brian there, then they elected to hike out to the trailhead another 9 miles away. Thinking they had moved on, Steve and I keep going.

Lake Magog with Mt Assiniboine in the background

The sky is blue today, the temperature mild, and there is no snow down in Bryant Creek Valley as we make our escape. The sheer beauty of the surrounding snow-capped mountains distracts us from the chore at hand. Overwhelmed by the raw and rugged artistry of the Canadian Rockies towering over us, Steve comments reverently, “This doesn’t suck.” I couldn’t agree more.

Do this: Sling a 40 lb bag of softener salt over your back and walk from Dexter to Chelsea Retirement Home. Turn around and come back. Because you’re in the mountains where the air is thin, stuff a stock in your mouth. This was our hike out of Mt Assiniboine back to Mt Shark, but with a couple of terrible surprises.

Now imagine with aching shoulders, wobbly legs, and sock in your mouth, you reach the point on your return trip to where the railroad tracks cross Dexter-Chelsea Rd by the grain mill – about 13 miles into your walk. Here, you find you have to go up a flight of stairs 2,400-feet high. That’s 240 trips up from the basement with a bag of salt. It’s leg day from hell at the gym. Surprise!

Steve and I have a great time just talking about life along the way and find out we’re a lot alike, which makes the hike go faster. We think we’re close to the end and relaxing when we’re surprised by this 2,400-foot climb. There is no choice but to keep going. We cross the river and put one sore foot in front of the other. Leg day is quickly turning into a death march. We’re quiet, sullen, and the trail just never stops going up.

Cold night at Lake Magog, Mt Assiniboine off to the right

Forever passes and the trail finally levels out into a maddening maze of cross-country ski trails that extend for a lifetime of disappointment and cursing, or about 3 miles to be exact. We thought we’d be finished by now. How big is the top of Mount Shark anyway? At last we’re at the trailhead parking lot and ready to collapse.

Bill isn’t here. Brian isn’t here. Neither are our cars. In fact, this isn’t even parking lot where we parked to catch the helicopter. What the heck!? We see our mistake. This is trailhead parking. We want helipad parking. The trail continues on out the other side of the parking lot and we are immediately faced with another climb, another 1,000-foot staircase. Steve and I are now The Walking Dead shambling along on fencepost legs with bloodshot eyes and gapping jaws. Up we go. It’s amazing what you can achieve when you have no other choice.

A couple hours later we’re in separate rooms at the Canmore Inn & Suites eating separate pizzas. We’ve become good friends, but we need space. No offense. None taken. The fellowship of the trail is priceless, but friendship isn’t. For us, the cost of friendship is $119 Canadian, per night.

Together again in Canmore exaggerating our stories. L to R: Steve Stimac, Brian Shay, Jon Coffer, Nick Gronows, myself, Bill Johnson

Bill and Brian show up the next day, Jon and Nick a couple days later, and the band is back together – happy, inflating our stories, laughing, planning the next adventure. This trip, like all the others, was never about the landscape or the weather. The place and conditions are just the setting for the human chemistry to take place. These are the best of times.

Consciousness, morality, and creativity, these are the traits that make us uniquely human. We have a deep and profound yearning for compatible company of our kind. We humans are hard-wired in such a way that when we connect, it’s wonderful. When we don’t, when we disconnect, it’s terribly confusing and we fill that void with other things.  Here’s a truth: Every void will be filled. But a void accepts no substitutes. Give it the wrong stuff, and it remains empty, still yearning.

There is purity in backpacking that comes from its stripped down nature. Whatever you face, you face together. Selfish ideology gladly steps aside for the collective good. Everybody is quick to chat or help out in any way they can if need be. I’ve never met a stranger in the backcountry.

You can do Mt Assiniboine Provincial Park yourself. You don’t need a backpack. Fly in with the helicopter and fly out a few days later. Stay in the lodge or a hut, or camp. Spend a day in Banff. Visit Lake Louise and hike up to the Tea House. Make sure you visit Moraine Lake as well. Drive the Icefields Parkway and stop at any of the many trailheads along the way for a quick day hike. Walk out on a glacier or out onto the skywalk. Avoid July and August or you will spend your quality time in crowd control.

Maybe I’ll see you there. I’m going back.

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