Curator Lake, Below the Notch Pass, Jasper National Park

Looking down at Curator Lake on the way to the Notch Pass in Jasper National Park

This is my final blog post on my one-day, 46km hike of the Skyline Trail in Jasper National Park to raise funds for the Canadian Parks and Wilderness Society

It’s 8 am on Canada Day and I’m standing at the trailhead of the 46km Skyline Trail in Jasper National Park. The electric blue waters of Maligne Lake lap a saw-toothed shoreline of 2500 meter peaks behind me. This far north, the sun has already been up for 3 hours and I can smell its heat stewing fragrantly through the stands of larch and pine forest that flank the path ahead. My goal is to reach the other end the Skyline Trail by day’s end, so I should already be nervous about letting so much time slip away from me without even starting the hike.

But I’m strangely calm as I stand here, paper coffee cup in hand, my eyes wandering over the corkboard trailhead sign with its bear safety warnings, maps and trail conditions report. My mind is not on the fact that I’m late, that there’s reported to be far more knee-deep snow on the trail than I’d anticipated, that I’ve never hiked this far in one day before, or that I haven’t hiked at all in two weeks thanks to a sore knee. Instead, one thought keeps rattling around my head as I put the dead coffee cup in the trailside garbage bin, take a final deep breath and start up the path towards my first rest point.

This is just like Toronto.

***

I’m trying to walk the entire Skyline in one day for a number of reasons, the most important of which is to raise money for the Canadian Parks and Wilderness Society. Now there’s probably easier ways to raise money for a good cause. But I work in an office and come from a family where good people seem to be doing charity walks, bike-a-thons, walk-a-thons or potato-sack-race-a-thons every second week or so. I knew that I’d need to stand out from the ranks if I hoped to raise my target amount of money for the cause. So I stole a cute title from an old Johnny Cash song and told my social circle that I’d really suffer for their donation, walking more than a marathon’s distance over mountainous, snowy terrain all in one day. It worked. My friends, family and co-workers rallied to support my agony and raised $2,000. The “I Walk the (Sky)Line” trek was born.

It was grateful for the support and suddenly very motivated to get in shape and earn the pledged money. Being a working Dad, I had to build my work out time into my commute time. So a couple of months before the hike I started walking a variety of 10 – 12km routes to work daily trying to flatten my cello-shaped Bay Street body into more of a flute shape for the big day.

And yes, I wish I could think of a harder core instrument to compare myself to than a flute, but that’s just the way it is. I’m just one bad-ass flute.  

***

It’s sometimes said that the greatest challenge of the marathon is mental – willing, motivating or tricking your body to push past its natural limits.  My mental/motivational strategy is to match where I am on the Skyline with where I’d be in Toronto on my training walks.  I figure that if I can hike 22km in the Big Smoke, I can double that here if I really push myself for one day. I’m just walking to work I tell myself, as I start towards my first marker.

The differences between Toronto and Jasper are so constant and obvious, that my game feels completely ridiculous for the first little while. For one thing, there’s the water. The sound and sight of it is everywhere on the Skyline Trail. The creeks near the trail are adrenalized with Spring runoff. They overpower even their natural restraints, gushing over the path or seeping through it at regular intervals.  Toronto used to be a city of creeks and rivers bubbling through dozens of verdant ravines on their way down to Lake Ontario. But most of these are long buried by the forces of urbanization. I walk over their asphalt graves daily as I pass High Park, and west Dundas Street and the UofT campus, hearing their ghosts through the sewer grates.

In Toronto, I never double-check my pack for gore-tex socks.

I never enjoy the air this much either. Whenever I get to the mountains I usually spend the first 15 minutes taking deep, nostril flaring breaths like someone in a Febreeze commercial. No air freshener could ever capture the mountains on a Spring morning – thawed moss, air freshly scraped off the glaciers, the crisp compendium of minerals, the promise of warmth, the alacrity of a possible thunderstorm. Nature seems to have magically sprung from back to life without any of the usual intermediate stages of death and putrefaction. When I do a training walk on Bloor Street, breathing through the smog, the truck exhaust, the Tuesday garbage collection and the smokers lounging in front of store fronts is a necessary evil. Here it’s a performance enhancing drug.

You can feel alienated in a city of millions, but you can’t feel alone. Besides the odd bootprint on the trail, I certainly feel like the only human on the Skyline today. And as always, I’m intensely aware that I am not necessarily at the top of the food chain around here. Of course, I tell myself the usual things about bears – they’re far more threatened by us than we are by them. I also remember that one of the great CPAWS initiatives I’m hoping to support with this hike is the establishment of the Y2Y (Yellowstone to Yukon) Rocky mountain corridor to provide safe habitat and migratory routes for creatures like bears. And of course, sighting a bear, particularly a grizzly bear, in the mountains is a sign that you are truly in a wild area, a place worth protecting. Still, I’ve run into bears on hiking trails before and I am well aware how empty all these sentiments are when you actually see one appraising you, trying to decide whether you should be fled from, ignored or taste tested. So I take the standard precaution of talking loudly and singing to myself as I hike.

In Toronto, you’ll rarely find me loudly stating at regular intervals, that I’m both bony and high in trans-fats.

***

Near the 10 km mark I come to the ridge of Little Shovel Pass, the first of three passes I’ll crest today. On my training walks, I’d have reached my office by now, my pace slowed to a crawl as I shuffle between the Bay Street skyscrapers with the rest of the commuters. It’s the part of the training walk when I’m most surrounded by people, buildings, noise, confusion.

On the pass, there’s only the sound of the wind whipping past me as it scuttles back towards Maligne Lake. Two low mountains on either side of the pass are the only thing obstructing my view of the sky. A couple of marmots wrestle beside their den with the energy of animals that have just woke up from a 6 month nap. There’s nobody else here. Obviously, most people are listening to the wardens this weekend and giving the trail another couple of weeks to melt. Besides some scattered patches of snow, there’s nothing on the ground but bare grey and brown rock. In the valley ahead – more snow, more rock, a few patches of grey vegetation just coming out of winter hibernation.  Looking back the way I came, towards the Lake, the green trees and the blue mountains around Maligne Lake, I feel like I’m on the moon looking down at Earth.

The shallow valley that lies between Little Shovel and the next pass, Big Shovel, is called the Snowbowl. In high Summer, it’s a pleasant basket of alpine flowers, striped with creeks and streams running down from the surrounding amphitheatre of peaks. Today, it’s a patchwork of snow and muck in various degrees of thaw. The visible plant life huddles moodily, buds tightly closed like a teenager clamping the covers over his head on a Monday morning. It’s not a cheerful scene, but then again, I am also literally losing my sunshine – the sky has become overcast, and suddenly everything is shades of matte grey. On my Toronto walk, I’d be on my return leg home now, trudging westwards on Dundas street past Chinatown’s maelstrom of blaring loudspeakers, strange spices, stranger fruits, and goods of questionable use and safety. Further along in Little Portugal I could snack on a marshmallow-soft Kaiser bun at my favourite bakery or grab a roasted chicken to bring back for dinner.

I don’t linger in the Snowbowl. Once I’m on the other side of it, I’ll truly be at the point of no return (or at least, long, inconvenient, repetitive return) so I’m anxious to get going before my resolve wavers. I reach into my pack for a granola bar (I’ve brought enough of them to start a thriving hippie colony), take a deep drink from my water bottle, perform a few cursory stretches, and keep moving.

***

The path over the pass called the “Notch” is the sixth highest length of maintained trail in the Canadian Rockies. It often sports a small overhanging cornice of snow along its top that hikers must march around to reach the top. The last time I was on the summit it was early September and my brother and I scooped handfuls of powder from it for a snowball fight. It’s the halfway point of the hike and I have hopes of reaching it by lunch time, based on my training walks back home.

The snow and the mud of the Snowbowl have slowed me down and its 1:30 before I crest the ridge of Big Shovel pass and get my first view of the Notch in the distance. It’s a bleak picture. The whole valley between me and the pass looks snow-covered. More worryingly, I can see the trail disappearing underneath a cornice which stretches all the way across and over the Notch like an ugly overbite. Clouds the colour of old dishwater hang just above the summit.  The whole thing looks like its waiting for hikers with a big, nasty grin.

I repeat my mantra. But it is now competing with another recirculating thought. You’re screwed.

***

Luke and Dick are from Indiana. Luke and Dick are a son and father, hiking in Jasper for the first time. Luke and Dick seem like nice people to me. Of course, sitting here at the bottom of the trail leading up to the Notch, it wouldn’t bother me if Luke and Dick were chainsaw wielding cannibals. They’re the first people I’ve met on the trail today and they’ve got information on how to get around the cornice.

Well, not information really. More like an encouraging bit of news. “We met a park ranger yesterday who had just come over it,” Dick says, munching on a snack. “She said it’s doable.”

Luke and Dick don’t have much more intel than this. Luke and Dick don’t have much experience with scrambling across snow-covered scree slopes. But they’re going for the top of the Notch anyway, fully loaded with big packs and overnight camping gear. So, if they’re willing to take a stab at hauling themselves over the Notch, I reason that I should be willing to do the same. I take it as a sign from the hiking gods that I met them right when my spirit was at its lowest and Toronto seemed furthest away. 

I look up at the trail. It doesn’t seem so bad. If we by-pass the cornice by hiking around it via a steep scree slope to its right, we can scramble over the mountain that makes up one side of the pass and then back down to the trail on the other side of the Notch. Luke and Dick and I agree that’s probably what the ranger did.

We tackle the pass together. But in my far-lighter, daypacking state, I soon find myself way out ahead of my Indiana friends. I climb steadily towards the cornice, head down, planting one foot slowly ahead of the other in the stoney dirt, thinking in ten foot stages, daydreaming about how loudly I’ll sing Bon Jovi’s “Living on a Prayer” when I get to the top.

I am, of course, making a stupid, stupid mistake. Thinking in ten foot stages is fine when you’re on a set trail, safe, and are simply trying to motivate yourself. But when you’re picking a new route through unfamiliar terrain on the side of a mountain, you need to plan out your entire approach to the summit.

Otherwise you will very likely find yourself, as I suddenly have, perched on a precarious outcrop of undercut rock, small boulders tumbling away beneath you, with no discernable way forward for a land-based animal and the way back seeming only marginally less dangerous.

I trained for the Notch by climbing the 47 flights of stairs in my office tower. They are wonderful, stable stairs. They have handrails. They did not prepare me for this moment, where my happily muttered “Ohhhhh we’re halfway thaaar! Whoa ho! Living on a…” dies on suddenly parched lips and a sense of deep fear clamps over me like a vise. I realize that, in taking the series of easy lines that seemed to go directly towards the summit, I’ve overshot the lengthier, but only moderately difficult route to the top of the mountain, putting myself out on a minute ledge, high above the saddle of the Notch, but with no safe way down or over to it.

Suddenly, every forbidding line from every wilderness disaster story I’d ever read, jumped into my head. These lines generally all end with the phrase “It was a fatal error”.

“He set out at night, determined to find a way out of the disorienting wilderness and save his family. It was a fatal error.”

“The men calculated that if they halved their food and made a forced march to the coast, they might meet up with a passing supply ship that serviced this area of the arctic. It was a fatal error.”

“Captain Tyne decided to sail for the notorious Flemish Cap in a make-or-break effort to salvage the sword-fishing season. It was a fatal error.”

I’m going to fall and die here, probably painfully and slowly, unless the big unstable rock I’m currently perched on follows me to the bottom for a mercifully quick crushing. I’m going to die because I was proud and stupid and hadn’t listened to my instincts that the trail just wasn’t safe this early in the season. I’m going to die because of Luke and Dick and the hiking gods, those bastards. The money I was raising for CPAWS will probably have to be put towards a memorial bench in Jasper. The Globe and Mail will write a brief piece misspelling my name and wondering how I died on a trail hiked safely by hundreds of people every year.   Torontonians will write snide letters to the editor about how stupid I was. Albertans will write that morons from Toronto shouldn’t be allowed to hike in their woods. Even the friggin’ marmots will snicker. I am about to become a gooey joke.

I’ve read enough books on mountaineering to know that panic does no good and probably a whole lot of harm in these situations. So, fighting every instinct in my body, I actually do the right thing. I cautiously sit down and unwrap another granola bar, fighting the nausea that comes with each bite. As I munch, I look upwards and pick out a route that, with some slight backtracking and mild coronary discomfort, may offer the best footholds to the top of the mountain. I put the granola wrapper in my pocket, shorten the length of my trekking poles and begin to climb, still humming “Livin’ on a Prayer,” but now in a very different tone.

I get to the top of the Notch at 3:30.

In Toronto, I never regret not bringing a spare pair of underwear on a hike.

***

Honestly, I think I’d hike the Skyline again just for the water. I drank like an old sailor throughout the day. I know drinking too much water on a marathon-length walk is not recommended and maybe my mouth was a little dry from the adrenaline rush of the Notch, but mainly, I just like the taste so much that I decide to treat myself. Burbling springs, green pools of glacial melt, streams running off and under 6 foot high banks of standing snow – I dip my nalgene in all of them, sucking down liquid until my face knots with the freezee headache. If my bottle is still full when I reach the next water feature, I dump it out and refill just for the pleasure of it.

The 10 km after the Notch feels easy, fueled by the adrenaline rush of a near disaster, the scenery and the knowledge that it’s pretty much all level or downhill from here. The trail contours a steep ridge that on one side offers a panoram of the entire Athabasca River Valley – the Jasper townsite, Mount Edith Cavell, the famous wall of mountains known as the Ramparts and half a dozen other famous peaks. On the other side of the ridge, an imposing orange and black mountain known as the Watchtower dominates the view back towards Maligne Lake. Ahead, the trail cuts towards the backside of Mount Tekarra. It’s a rounded, uninspiring peak when viewed from town.  But from this angle, it drops a sheer and spectacular 500 meters down to a picturesque blue and green river valley.  Looking at it, you immediately understand why every second store in Jasper is named after Tekarra.

Even with the threatening clouds and a wind that wants to tear every hair off my head, it’s a glorious stroll. I’m soon at Tekarra campground, 14 km from the end of the trail with any thoughts of Toronto far from my mind. I stop only to needlessly refill my water bottle in Tekarra Creek before taking on the final leg.

I’ve been looking forward to this section of the hike least of all.  For one thing, I’m now well beyond any distance I’ve previously hiked and I’m worried that I might hit the infamous “wall” that I’ve heard so much about. For another, the last 10km of the trail is on a visually-uninspiring fire road. The steep decline of it is enough to make my knees ache in advance and the knowledge that I won’t have any alpine scenery to distract myself with doesn’t help the situation.

Luckily, I’ve saved my best Toronto images for just this point in the walk. As I begin to limp down the fire road, I let my mind wander to my favourite training route – walking home along Lake Ontario. Instead of worrying about the fresh black bear scat and the encroaching darkness (which, incidentally, makes it very hard to avoid stepping in fresh black bear scat), I imagine I’m on the busy waterfront trail with the rollerbladers and cyclists, watching the sailboats and the dragon boat paddlers and the beach volleyball players as a hazy sunset sears the water a pewtery pink. As my knees start to scream on the downhill switchbacks, I think about my homestretch walk through High Park, up Colbourne Lodge Road past the deep Carolingian woods and the delicate cherry trees, past the kid-filled softball diamonds and swimming pools, past the tennis courts full of flailing arms and sweaty after-work faces. And then, as the sound of the cars on Maligne Lake Road becomes louder and louder, I picture myself back on Bloor West, passing the bakeries and fruitshops and the bookstores of my little neighborhood.

And I smile in this beautiful mountain paradise as I think of my home in big, bad Toronto.

***

Thanks to all those who made the first “I Walk the (Sky)Line” a success. From my donators to those who followed my blog, to those who took the time to encourage me. A special thanks to my wonderful family, especially my wife Janine and baby Kathleen (Honestly: how could I plummet to a gooey death with such a cute kid to come home to? Someone’s got to teach her how not to scramble up mountains).

There’s no reason why the first “I Walk the (Sky)Line” fundraiser should be the last. And there’s no reason why I should be the only one having all the fun. I encourage everyone who loves our country’s wild places to organize their own walks next July 1.

What better way to celebrate Canada Day than to spend it enjoying our parks and wild areas while helping out those who seek to protect them for future generations?

See you out there!

JM

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This is my continuing blog about preparing to do a one-day, 45 km hike of the Skyline Trail in Jasper National Park to raise funds for the Canadian Parks and Wilderness Society

And I walked, and walked and walked until I couldn’t walk anymore.

14 hours and 46 km after leaving Maligne Lake, I reached the opposite trail head of the Skyline near the Jasper Park Lodge. A thick remnant snowpack on the trail kept my time pretty slow but the hike was still fun, challenging and, despite the aching knees, beautiful. Best of all, thanks to my wonderful co-workers, friends and family, $2000 was raised for the Canadian Parks and Wilderness Society.

I’ll write a full report and get some video and pics up once I return to Toronto. But for now, I’ll simply sign off with sincere thanks to all who donated to the cause, encouraged me or followed the blog during this little adventure. 

Now, if you’ll excuse me, I have an ice pack to prepare.

Here we go people! Weather’s good so it’s Skyline or bust! Hopefully not bust. If you haven’t donated to my I Walk the Skyline fundraiser hike yet, there’s still time! Just visit here. To all those who’ve read the blog and donated over the past few weeks, thanks! I’ll give you an update at the end of the day. Happy birthday Canada!

This is my continuing blog about preparing for a one-day, 45 km hike of Jasper National Park’s Skyline Trail to raise funds for the Canadian Parks and Wilderness Society.

Driving into Jasper last night, I scanned the brown and grey mountain tops even more carefully than usual. It’s early season here and I’ll be spending two thirds of this hike above tree-line. The most famous peak in the area, Mt. Edith Cavell, looked its standard early season forbidding self, fogged with cloud, dusted in a thick layer of white. But many of the other peaks looked mostly clear. It was a good sign, and my hopes raised even further when I saw the forecast for today on the hotel whiteboard.

Sunny and high of 21. Perfect conditions for walking.

The only downer was the forecast for the next day, June 30, Hike Day. Thunderstorms. The only weather in which you really don’t want to be stuck on an exposed trail like Skyline. When you’re on a barren mountain ridge, you do not want to be dodging lighting bolts. Frickazied hiker anyone?

The weather for July 1 is perfect. Sunny, sunny, sunny and a high of 18.

So, I Walk the (Sky)Line is officially being backed up by one day, to July 1.

Maybe it’s meant to be. Can you think of a better day to raise funds for CPAWS than Canada Day?

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Janine, Machusky and Jason at the Skyline Trailhead back in the old days…

We’ve left Toronto and have started the vacation that will eventually land us in Jasper and at the trailhead of the Skyline.  Vancouver today for a visit with Kathleen’s great grandmother, then off to Edmonton to see Janine’s family and finally Jasper for a week of relaxation and hiking.

Fundraising for the I Walk the Skyline hike is going very well, thanks especially to my ever-generous, constantly-forbearing colleagues at the office. Once I add on the contributions of my ever-generous, constantly put upon family and friends, I’m hopeful I’ll hit my goal.

I thought today I’d tell you about my last hike on the Skyline. Like I said in my first post, it was done back in 2007 with my wife and younger brother, the scene-stealing Matt, or as he’s known to us, his adopted family, Machusky Ballsnokov. Read on here

Hey, I’m no super hero (although my 4 month old daughter thinks I’m pretty cool when I snap and whistle at the same time). Still, I would be pretty pleased with myself if I finished a walk of the Skyline trail in one day with my body still 40% functional.

At least I would have been pleased until I saw this video of Lisa Porter and her friends running the whole trail.

Running. Is that even allowed?

I won’t even bring up the nice gentleman who wrote me earlier today to advise he hiked the whole thing a few years back, when he was a “spry young man of 55”. 

At this rate, I fully expect to come across footage of someone doing the trail blindfolded on a unicycle.

Well, on the bright side, this is pretty inspiring stuff. Their impressive accomplishments make mine seem very doable.  Way to go Lisa and Old Man and Unicyclist Guy (who is very likely out there)!

This is my continuing blog about preparing for a one-day, 45km walk of Jasper National Park’s Skyline Trail on June 30 to raise money for the Canadian Parks and Wilderness Society

What’s your idea of nature? Kayaking along an isolated west coast shoreline? Hiking a remote mountain pass? Maybe you’re not in your picture of nature at all and for you it means a solitary grizzly roaming a high alpine meadow, an unfathomably-large caribou herd trotting across the endless tundra of the far north, or, to quote Gordon Lightfoot “the green dark forest… too silent to be real.” Maybe for you, nature is your cabin on the perfect lake or teaching your little girl how to fly fish.

Whatever your idea of nature is, there’s a pretty good chance that CPAWS is out there involved in the fight to protect it. Just take a cursory look at 5 or 6 of the more recent matters in their news file:

–  securing Parliamentary approval for establishing Gwaii Haanas National Marine Conservation Area Reserve and Haida Heritage Site in British Columbia;

– lobbying for protection of Alberta’s threatened grizzly bear population;

– working across Canada to protect our Boreal forests’ lands, waters and wildlife;

– lobbying for effective policies to combat climate change;

Logging in Algonquin, endangered B.C. badgers, parks in Labrador – these guys are everywhere!

Worth a little walk in the woods, no?

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Trailside Flowers near the Snowbowl Pass on the Skyline Trail (photo by Janine Murphy)