Mount Assiniboine Provincial Park in British Columbia is world renowned for its magnificent beauty and many trekking opportunities. It is unspoiled wilderness with trails providing the only land access. Andrew Sunter and his wife Erin just finished a four day hike in the park and were forced to bushwhack their way out after they lost the trail.
Q: Is this a physically difficult hike?
Andrew: I didn’t find it challenging other than the last day when we were bushwhacking. A lot of the trail is downhill and that can be hard on your knees and back. And you’re always looking out for grizzly bears. We saw three bears just on the drive to the trailhead. Overall, it is probably an intermediate trail.
Erin: I was very nervous when we started and I must say that it was the most difficult thing I have ever done physically. It was really tough for me, but I had never done anything like this in my life.
Q: Where did you start and finish?
Andrew: Some people do a round trip and start and end at the Sunshine Village Ski & Snowboard resort about 20 minutes west of the Banff townsite. We did a through trip which meant we used two cars and left one at the end point, which was up a logging road near Radium Hot Springs. There is a bus that takes you up from the Sunshine parking lot to the ski hill. Alternatively, it is a 6 km slog up a gravel road (take the bus).
Another option is to go in by helicopter to Assiniboine Lodge and just do day hikes from there.
Q: What was the first day like?
Andrew: We didn’t get on the trail until about 1 pm because it took us several hours to shuttle our car to the end point. For the first couple of hours we made our way out of the Sunshine ski area and walked along a meadow filled with wildflowers and then up to the first pass. We went by a really nice campground called Howard Douglas, which is actually in Banff National Park, and then uphill to Citadel Pass, which was probably the highest point of the trip. I expected Citadel Pass to be more beautiful but the view when you’re walking towards it is nice because you’re facing Citadel Mountain. The trail on the first day basically straddles Banff National Park in Alberta and Mount Assiniboine Provincial Park in British Columbia, and you pass back and forth between the two parks several times.
From there we made our way down to Porcupine Campground which is about 14 km from Sunshine and stayed there for the night. It was very steep going down to the campsite and for an hour or so you do switchbacks in the forest.
Erin: We were carrying big packs and the hiking poles saved me because you’re going up and down these mountains and the poles help take some of the pressure off your body, they help you keep your balance. They sort of let you be a four-legged animal.
Andrew: We had some terrible weather the first day. There was rain, sleet and snow (even though it was July). It was full-on snowing and then suddenly it stopped. Erin had her mitts and toque on as well as all the clothes she had brought.
We got to Porcupine Campground around 6 pm and set up our tent. It’s a very remote, wilderness campground. There is a bear locker where you store your food and garbage. It rained all night and it was very cold. We filled our water bottles with boiling water and put them in our sleeping bags and that gave us a bit of warmth.
We hardly saw anyone the first day. We came upon a couple of people hiking in the opposite direction and there was a family at the campsite. That was it.
Q: Tell us about the second day.
Andrew: The next day we did about 16 km and it was more uphill than the first day. From the campsite you have to hike back up to the main trail. The rain had finally stopped and we could see what we thought were fresh grizzly bear tracks and bear scat on the trail and we followed that for an hour or so.
Erin: It felt like we were pushing a grizzly up the hill.
Q: What would you do if you ran into a grizzly?
Andrew: We took standard precautions, making lots of noise, singing, clapping our hands and poles, yelling out from time to time. We wanted to make sure every bear knew we were in the area. We had bear spray and some flares that sound like a shot gun if they’re fired (called a bear banger).
One of the first valleys we came upon that day was the Valley of Rocks and there are just tons and tons of lunar-looking rocks. It is very interesting. We saw deer and a strange looking animal that resembled a blond, shaggy dog. Og Lake was the first lake we passed and there is a campsite there. It was located in a beautiful alpine meadow. It started to rain again and we considered stopping for the day but my boots were soaked and we hadn’t gone very far so we continued on to Lake Magog.
The long valley to Lake Magog is stunning and you walk along what seems like golden meadows with mountains all around. It’s an easy hike with lots of marmots chasing one another. The Mount Assiniboine Lodge is under construction and closed until 2012. There are huts where you can stay for $20/person/night and a campground. We decided to stay in a hut, which we shared with others. There is a ranger who collects the fees and there’s a helicopter landing site.
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Lake Magog is untouched. At one end there is this meadow and at the far end are the mountains with Mount Assiniboine being the highest. Mount Assiniboine is called the Matterhorn of the Rockies for it has a shape similar to the one in Switzerland. You couldn’t find a more beautiful setting than this.
Erin: I was really happy that we stayed in the hut and I could take my shoes off. My feet were disgusting, totally blistered and in a lot of pain. We used the cooking shelter and it was an opportunity to meet people and talk about our day. We also dried out our stuff.
Q: Day three?
Andrew: The following day we did some local hikes along beautiful alpine lakes and a small mountain overlooking Lake Magog called Nub Peak. We hiked up to the “Niblet” about half way up the mountain. The trail was easy with gorgeous views of the whole area. We got some great camera shots. I continued up alone to the “Nublet” about three quarters of the way up the mountain. It is above the tree line and you can feel a little exposed if you have a problem with heights. Another time I would like to continue to the summit at Nub Peak.
We just enjoyed the atmosphere that day. We walked around the lake at dusk and got incredible photos. It is amazing because this is such a world-class place and you basically have it to yourself.
Q: Day four?
Andrew: A helicopter was going out so we decided to put our packs on it and go light, just carry water and food, our camera, and some survival stuff.
It’s about a 5 km hike to the Wonder Pass viewpoint which was the highlight of the trip for me. There are mountains all around and gorgeous blue-green lakes in the distance. It really is one of the most beautiful places I have ever been to in my life—a must see.
We then hiked down to Marvel Lake and there are two ways to get out from there. The one that most people take – Bryant Creek to the Mount Shark trail head in Kananaskis Country – is supposed to be long and boring. I had heard of an alternate way through Aurora Creek and while it is not maintained it is shorter and much more scenic. So we decided to take it.
Fallen trees were everywhere and we had to climb over them, but that was okay. The area near the Marvel Pass was basically open meadow and we couldn’t find the path so we followed a creek. We got lost but we eventually met a group of hikers who gave us some advice on how to get out. We also had a topographical map and compass, of course. Marvel Pass was beautiful, but we were too busy looking for the trail to really appreciate it.
So we found the trail again and followed it for awhile but then it just disappeared. There are several rivers so it was confusing to know which one to follow (the topographical map shows only one river). We could actually see the road which was about 8 km away. We knew we were standing between two identifiable mountains but we couldn’t find the trail. So we ended up bushwhacking for 8 km which was some of the toughest trekking that I have even done.
We had to slide over waterfalls and use the river as the trail because the bush was so thick that we couldn’t get through it. We just kept going, knowing that the river and the trail and the road would eventually meet. And it took a long time. We had expected to be out by 5 pm and we didn’t make it until 8 pm. We basically did a kilometre an hour in the bush. But we made it out and we were pretty happy about that.
Erin: The last day was purgatory. In fact we renamed the area Purgatory Valley. It was awful, absolutely awful and I had a bit of a meltdown. It was really frustrating. You would suddenly see a trail and walk along it and then it would disappear. I mean, I was going down the side of a mountain on my bum! When I moved a tree branch it would come back and smack me in the face. Today I look like a Dalmatian dog because my legs are so bruised.
But it was kind of fun walking thigh-deep through a river with my boots on and having to cross a waterfall. It was fun and at the same time not so fun. It was actually scary. And I thought, ‘Oh my god, we’re going to be stuck here overnight’.
Andrew: It’s called “type B fun”. It is more pain and suffering and anxiety than fun when you are doing it, but you look back on it as a great experience that you wouldn’t have wanted to miss.
Erin: Near the end we saw a little bridge over the water and a diamond sign on a tree and we started to get all excited for we knew we had finally found the trail. And we were skipping down the road and laughing and high fiving and it felt good because we hadn’t stopped all day. When we reached the car, I kissed it.
Q: How do you feel about the experience now?
Erin: I am so proud of myself for doing what I did. It was so outside my comfort zone and so out of character for me. I am very, very proud.
Andrew: It was a really good trip. The last day was filled with tension and that made it memorable and an adventure. Another time I think it would be fun to helicopter in with a group, rent one of the huts and do day hikes. There are different levels of trails so people could do their own thing during the day. There are also scrambles and rock climbs. You could even go fishing and enjoy rainbow trout for dinner.
Erin: If I did it again I would helicopter in and out (ha ha). Ask me that question next year when I have forgotten how hard it was. Right now, the wounds are fresh.
This interview as been condensed and edited.
Photo credits: Andrew and Erin Sunter
© Riding the buses 2011