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Letter from Hiking Camp Week 1, August 2003
Dear Garth and Pat,
It was Janet's idea. She proposed it to the rest of us at the first get-together after the hustle of tent pitching, biffy digging and kitchen organizing was more or less complete. The valley was at peace again after the shattering intrusion of the helicopter depositing 19 hikers and a ton of gear beside the lake. Despite the 7000 ft elevation the late afternoon sun was warm, too warm for the mosquitoes to get really serious just yet, though the biffy diggers reported initial skirmishes in the shade of the trees as they struggled to relocate huge rocks from their centuries-old resting places.
Janet proposed that we dedicate the experiences of this camp to the two of you; a kind of spiritual inclusion, acknowledging the tough time you are having right now, and your impending departure from this land where you have experienced so many outdoors adventures and so much happiness together. I was puzzled as to how one went about dedicating experiences. However, where there is a will, as the saying goes, and certainly there is a will amongst all of us here to express the depth of feeling and concern that we have for you in your present circumstances. But how to do this without getting maudlin about it... sympathy always seems so inadequate, and empathy requires more imagination than most of us are capable of, despite the fact that many of those present are on the wrong side of their mid-life crisis and regard each new ache or pain with the keen interest of the owner of a 20 year old car pondering on the significance of the latest noise under the hood. Mind you, considering the vile concoctions that some at this camp were prepared to swallow under the pseudonym of 'herbal tea', and the prepossession of others to forsake their predatory ancestry for beans, lentils and broccoli, this concern for the fragility of the human metabolism is not limited to the older folks.
But I digress. As you know, hiking camps are an assemblage of the peculiar in pursuit of the extraordinary; to be there is an experience, which is what this letter is about. So let's try to give you some flavour of our camp, incorporating the individual 'most memorable experiences' provided to me by those present, though they may not recognize their contributions as explicitly as they might wish - the 'artistic license' I warned them about.
First, the place; someone will likely show you the pictures, but they never quite do it justice do they? You need to feel the warm sun, to feel the fresh breeze and see how it moves the trees and the flowers. You need to hear the stream rippling over the rocks, the up-close chuckling and splashing as it cascades down the hillside, clear and icy cold from the subterranean caverns under the limestone plateau; and the comforting murmur heard from the sleeping bag, blanketing those other mysterious noises of the night. The sounds of the mosquitoes, the calls of birds, the whisper of the wind through the trees, the rumble of distant thunder in the night, the chatter and bursts of laughter from people enjoying each other's company, the drone of aircraft trailing their paths across the sky; rarely is there silence in the mountains. You need to smell the clean, spicy aroma of the sub-alpine forest, the damp undergrowth in the perpetual shade of north-facing cliffs, the silty mud disturbed along the edge of alpine lakes, the smell of fresh coffee in the morning, and the hint of smoke in the air from the fires burning to the west. You need to feel the abrasive roughness of eroded limestone rock, to touch the fossilized images of seabed detritus locked in the sedimentary slate, to feel the icy touch of water so cold it aches like scalding heat. You need to feel the effort of climbing the grassy slope, over the rocks and on up the ridge, the panting breath, the sweat, the aching muscles, and the pounding heart. The view, the scenery, even the attainment of the summit, all would be empty experiences without all the senses being engaged. You know this of course from the wealth of your experience. Interesting, isn't it, that the exceptional outdoor experiences you carry with you through your life are those that are a composite of sensual experiences rather than just the view?
Nevertheless, I am sitting up here on the plateau enjoying the view, overlooking the campsite and beyond to the east over the Albert River to the grey, rocky ridges fringed with dark forest and the spire-like peaks bordering the Royal Group. It is spectacular, typical of the Rockies, rank upon rank of mountains, the detail fading into the hazy outlines of Japanese prints in the distant. I am several hundred feet above the camp, which is located beside a lake on a perched bench just below timberline, a scattering of tents tucked in the welcome shade of trees, the lakeshore silt pocked deeply with the tracks of elk, moose and deer.
Wildlife is part of the camp experience. Nick and Bobbie, first time KMC campers, parked themselves way down the lake; brave souls undeterred by the prospect of grizzlies following the well-trampled game trail along the lakeshore past their tent. The more experienced KMCers camped safely across the lake had their flash cameras set up in the event of screams in the night, but that didn't happen. Mary was camped next door, but she sleeps so soundly (judging by her response to breakfast duty) that she wouldn't have heard anything anyway.
Returning to their tent, Bobbie found one of her boots, stored under the fly, had been chewed. Not surprising, you say, but what was surprising was that one of Nick's boots had disappeared entirely. A full scale search eventually unearthed the boot, undamaged and wedged in a rock pile at least 50 yards from his tent, a heck of a haul for whatever creature lives in that rock pile. No more boots left outside; but, not to be outdone, next day the persistent creature chewed his (her?) way into the tent, ate a great hole in Nick's shirt, and dragged one of his camp shoes off into the bush. Welcome to the KMC! At least they weren't eaten by grizzly bears.
Another first timer, Gary, made the mistake of following partner Cheryl into the forest at the far end of the lake. Somehow gravity confused them and they were some considerable distance down into the Vietnam jungle (Gary's descriptive) before Cheryl could be convinced that 'up' was above their current location, not further down. They say that adversity strengthens relationships. It was Cheryl's first experience as cook; rumour has it she almost resigned on the first day - thank God for the Swiss army and the invention of their knives, though what else does one do in the Swiss army?
When asked later whether he had enjoyed his first (now there is a presumption) KMC camp, Gary observed that having scrambled up a steep cliff from the lake while being eaten alive by mosquitoes, side-hilled across a loose scree slope far too high to be comfortable, tramped across a steep snow field (snow on July 31st!), sweated up a rocky ridge in the hot sun, then dashed back down in time to pack buckets of water and help partner Cheryl get supper ready for 19 hungry hikers, this was an experience he would surely recommend to his golfing buddies. Welcome to the KMC!
Back on the plateau, to the immediate south of the camp rises a rocky, scree ridge capped by three crumbling peaks. A few remnant snow patches on the north side of this ridge feed a small turquoise lake that overflows in an open stream, which quickly disappears into underground chasms beneath the plateau. Rocks tossed into one of the openings rattle down for seven or eight seconds, the sound faintly dissipating in the cold, dark depths below. Farther along the base of the ridge, the plateau dips down over grassy benches to other turquoise lakes trapped behind old moraines. Here at a spectacular site, dominated by a peak reminiscent of the Matterhorn, a recreational lodge is under construction, the ambitious project of entrepreneurs from Canmore and Invermere.
The western boundary of the plateau is skirted by a series of steps of craggy, broken limestone terminating abruptly in a headwall plunging precipitously towards the Cross River valley where our vehicles are parked. Farther up this valley is the jumping off point for the Skyline Hikers camp, another intensive recreation site, albeit a temporary one, presently accommodating 50 hikers. We bumped into several parties of these folks during our expeditions to the north of our camp, beyond the long, rocky ridge of Whiteman Mountain to the delightful, flower-strewn meadows on the way to 'Azul Lake'.
What a wonderful walk that was, identified by several as their 'outstanding experience' of the camp. Climb up through the forest from the far end of the lake, following the game trails out on to the open meadows, then enjoy the sheer pleasure of wandering across the grassy slopes with the magnificent panorama of peaks, the Albert River and the distant Leman Lake off to the east. What an incredible display of alpine flowers strewn amongst the wiry grasses, punctuated by stately, lime green Lyall's larches. Birds fluttered here and there, challenging each other from the low shrubs and rocks with a repetitive che-choo, che-choo whistle, identified by our resident expert as the grey-crowned rosy finch - of course. Warm sunshine, a cooling breeze, the nodding purple, yellow, white, red and blue of myriad flowers, blue sky and cotton wool clouds, the muted cascade of a distant river; indeed a place, and an experience, to remember.
Beyond the meadows, the climb to a col between two barren, rounded peaks, to a place that eons ago was at the bottom of a sea, as evidenced by the imprints of ancient fossils in the shards of slatey shale littering the ground. Over the pass is another panorama of peaks, including the unmistakeable outline of Mt. Assiniboine in the far distance. At one time a glacier was lodged here on the north side of Whiteman Mountain. Nothing remains now but the piles of rocky moraine, apparently barren until one sees a few pioneer plants that have found sufficient organic matter lodged here and there, beginning the process of centuries that will ultimately create more grassy, flower-strewn meadows. Who will walk those meadows then? What an interesting challenge to the imagination, and for speculation and introspection on 'the meaning of life'.
'Azul Lake' lies below the moraine - not an official name, but exotic enough to appropriately describe this jewel of a lake. Azul is Spanish for blue, and this lake is blue, but what an incredibly intense blue! It almost glows with an intensity that increases as one approaches closer. A breeze shimmers across its surface and splashes it with sparkling diamonds; then calm again, and the blue gleams up through the translucent depths. A lake made for solitude and contemplation, yet now visited regularly by the Skyline group, and, yes, by us too. Wilderness is shrinking.
Solitude and contemplation; notwithstanding the admonitions about hiking alone, this must be one of the most frequently broken 'rules' of KMC camps. Almost everyone will take some time during the week to be alone, to enjoy the solitude of the mountains. It doesn't necessarily involve great risk, though risk is a fact of life anywhere and in my view those engaged in travelling alone tend to be more cautious anyway. Even staying in camp when everyone else has left is an experience in solitude, though it requires Zen-like concentration to contemplate when one is the sole target of all the bugs in the valley. Hence the attraction of even a short walk to higher ground, and of course one thing leads to another...
Tarns and lakes
Beckon to you
Ridges and summits
Surround the camp,
Meadows and flowers
Wherever you tramp
Wishing the best
Wherever you are,
From all of us
Near and Far
The plateau is a great place for solitude, a great place to just wander about, or to sit and be still in mind and body, absorbing the experience of being here, now, detached from the concerns of present life in an environment of constancy that will still be here, very much like this, in a hundred years and a thousand years. Constant while changing: summer, winter, sunshine and storms, the constant change that creates the unchanging in the time perspective of the mountains.
Time to go, reluctantly, from this place. Already the others will be drifting in from their hikes with tales of their experiences, tales of peaks climbed, of crumbling ridges, of lakes, of meadows, of wild creatures, of new flowers discovered, of the tracks of a grizzly bear. Later on this last night, around the 'camp fire' of unlit logs (really!), there will be more tales of other camps, of other people, of other experiences, the pleasures of past experiences relived in the telling, the recollection of old friends from years gone by.
Garth, Pat, you are amongst those 'old friends' who will share those campfires in years to come. There is talk of returning to some of the earlier sites, to Hume Creek, and to others of fond memories that you will recall. Perhaps this reflects a desire to recapture experiences of another time, to look backwards over the wealth of past experiences rather than the uncertainty of the future, though considering the adventuresome spirit of the 'elder generation' of the KMC that is hardly likely. The uncertainties of the future serve as more of a challenge than an impediment to these folks! The tilting balance of the years is more a reason to seize opportunities for new experiences than to rest on the laurels of the past.
However, no matter where the KMC chooses to adventure with their future camps, you will be there in spirit and in the conversations around the fire, just as you were this time. Not forever of course, nothing is forever. What possible relevance shall we have to whomever passes this way in the centuries to come? It is sufficient that we were privileged to be here, to enjoy our experiences in the mountains, and to share these good times with good friends.
We wish you well; we wish you courage and perseverance, patience and forbearance as you journey on. Think of us; think of the experiences you have enjoyed in the mountains, a place that can be wild and desolate, arduous and downright scary at times, and also peaceful and serene and beautiful.
Graham Kenyon, for and on behalf of all Camp 1 participants.
Bob McQueen (Leader)
Cheryl Demeiros (Cook)
Ed & Dawn Beynon
Roy & Gloria Hopland
Nick & Bobbie Maras
Ron & Janet Cameron
David & Joan Cunningham