It is June 1996 and three young fellas have just written their final high school diploma exam. While most teenagers were about to plop on a couch for the next few days and hang out with friends at the mall before summer jobs were starting, these three were about to embark on an adventure of sorts. I was one of these three, likely the one pushing the need for us to try this, but my friends Kevin and Dan were both “all in” to explore the backcountry of the Canadian Rockies. This all started when I was about 16 and I purchased a book entitled Classic Hikes in the Canadian Rockies by Graeme Pole. A book of this sort could do nothing less than expand a teenagers curiosity of what was actually out there, beyond the family campgrounds and short hikes from the highway. This book is what I term a “bathroom book” meaning that it is a book that gets flipped through, usually starting at a different page, every time a washroom break is needed. I apologize in advance to friends of mine that I have lent this book to without the proper disclaimer of where it has been. Over two years of looking at the many glorious trails, I had settled on the Brazeau Loop, an 80km backcountry loop in southern Jasper National Park. It would take five days to complete and would be a great start to what I hoped would be many many trips to do similar trails. We packed into Kevin’s Dad’s car (which barely fit two people, let alone three and hiking equipment) and headed west…
Upon arrival at the Columbia Icefield Centre, we strode confidently up to the Parks Canada desk and essentially said to the much older staff member behind the desk “three backcountry passes for four nights for Brazeau Loop my good man. And make it quick, we have bears to wrestle and caribou to run beside.” We may not have actually said that, but we were likely quite overconfident in our abilities. The staff member looked at me and said “do you have an ice axe?” Not knowing exactly why I would need one and definitely not having one, I told him that “I did not but would be fine without it this time” as though I had used one before and was much more worldly and experienced than my eighteen years. “Well, there is still too much snow and ice heading up Jonas Pass and over Jonas Cutoff. Without an ice axe your chance of making it are bleak. However, if you could complete the loop, you would be the first ones this year to make it through.” In my head I was thinking if others had tried and not come back or perhaps they were still waiting, sitting watching the snow and ice melt until it was clear sailing on the trail? “Most backcountry trails are still snowbound because we’ve had a long winter and late spring. I would recommend you head up to the Berg Lake Trail at Mt. Robson Provincial Park, just west of Jasper townsite.” Dashing dreams of being the first to circumnavigate the Brazeau Loop in 1996 and whatever fanfare would come with it (likely none at all as the age of social media was far away still), we begrudgingly got into Kevin’s tiny car and headed up two and a half hours to Mt. Robson. Now in those days you didn’t need a reservation to get on the trail. Despite the fact that it was already the most travelled trail in the Canadian Rockies, you could still hop on the trail on any given day. So being that we had already driven five hours to the Columbia Icefields Centre, plus two and a half hours back north to Mt. Robson, we got a late start on the trail, but fortunately for us it was a fairly flat 6.5kms to Kinney Lake where the first campground was located.
For those not familiar with the Berg Lake Trail, it is a 22km one way hiking route from Highway 16 (about an hour west of Jasper townsite) to the base of Mt. Robson, the highest mountain in the Canadian Rockies. Not the largest in Canada, that belongs to Mt. Logan in the Yukon, but as the largest in the Canadian Rockies, it stands tall against many other legendary peaks. The trail is a great trail for beginners as there are campgrounds spaced about every five kilometres. Lots of places to stop to rest your pack and short distance days if that is what you need. The trail itself is well maintained and in excellent condition. There is a long climb after Whitehorn Campground that starts with a large sign indicating that there is no access to water for the next four kilometres. Something that every first time backpacker wants to see before frantically filling up every bottle, cup, bowl and pocket that they can with water from the creek. There are many beautiful waterfalls along the trail, including the Valley of a Thousand Falls which makes your neck sore as you crane it to look up in every direction possible. The end goal for most is the Berg Lake Shelter, which is in the shadow of Mt. Robson, next to Berg Lake and Berg Glacier. A little bit further along the trail, you can see the Park Ranger’s house (which looks nothing like a normal ranger cabin), the landing pad for helicopters and the BC/Alberta border, which if you continue on will take you onto the North Boundary Trail in Jasper National Park. There are many highlights along this great route. 22kms to get there and 22kms to get back, not counting the many sidetrips you can take along the way. It is a great way to start backpacking and was the first overnight trip that I attempted. It was the first overnight trip that I took my wife Melany on. It was the first overnight trip that I took my oldest son Eric on when he was ten years old. And I would like it to be the first overnight trip my youngest son Elliott goes on. Now back to my first trip to Berg Lake…
The first night at Kinney Lake was lovely. The sun was shining, it was warm for late June and we had brought a frisbee that we were throwing around in the lake. Since we had started so late in the day we were the only ones at the campground (others I’m sure were much further along the trail) and we had a chance to spread ourselves out and enjoy the moment. We were sure that the remainder of the trip would be just like this – warm, dry, and having the place to ourselves. Well, on day two things changed quickly. It started raining… and it didn’t stop for three days. I don’t just mean rain, it started pouring as though we had just started the “wet season” in Canada, if there was such a thing. We trudged the remaining 16kms to Berg Lake campground through so much mud. I had mud in spots I didn’t think I could have mud! But I won’t get into that in this blog post, or any others for that matter. The great thing at Berg Lake is that there is a shelter, the Hargreaves Shelter, that has a wood stove, tables and bins to store your food. Well, even though it is raining, we would have this shelter to spread ourselves out in, dry our clothes and cook dinner. A rookie mistake when backpacking is assuming that everything will go according to plan. Somehow we had set our tent up away from all the others so we had no idea of the number of people at this campground and in the shelter. The place was packed when we entered. On top of the many people seeking shelter and warmth in there, every hook, nail, beam, table, and bench had wet clothes hung on them. The place had a defined stink to it that I can only liken to a warm hockey dressing room with the ripest of equipment in it. There was barely a place to sit down, let along hang your dry clothes. And so began our three days of unsuccessfully drying out, only to put semi-wet clothes back on and get soaked all over again. We ventured up to a cave which was probably the highlight of this area. Getting to explore that for a couple of hours was a pretty cool experience, except for when Dan nearly got stuck between a couple of larger rocks! Overall, we made the best of it but the rain definitely got the best of us. On the fourth day with soaked sleeping bags, damp clothes and water seeping into most corners of our packs, we trekked the full 22km out to the parking lot. Along the way we somehow got onto the horse trail instead of the hiking trail and when needing to cross some standing water, Dan stepped onto a log that he thought would help him hop over the water. Of course, the moment that he stepped onto the log it was evident that it was just floating there because it shifted to his right and all of him, pack included, went to the left and straight down into the clear blue beneath him. Now even more soaked than previously, Dan got upright, did not respond to any of our questions checking to see if he was okay, and promptly stormed off. We next saw him at the parking lot, nearly eight kilometres later. And so that was the first trip to Berg Lake… what a beauty right? Why would I want to come back here after such a crappy few days overall? Well, let’s be honest, every trail is worth giving a second shot to right?
It is June 2, 2005 and thanks to an early spring, some trails, including Berg Lake, are snow free already. After nearly ten years of frontcountry camping and day hiking, I have convinced my wife to hop on a backcountry trail with me. This is something she is terrified to do, or at least has been, and on this trip hides it well. It is not the trail or the conditions that concern her, it is the potential for running into a bear on the trail, or on her way to the outhouse in the middle of the night. Having been on this trail before and not having seen any wildlife, I try to assure her that we will be fine and that bears are just as scared of us. One whiff of me after three days on the trail and they will be turning around and hightailing it out of there! Our trip is only for three days and consists of setting up camp at Emperor Falls campground for two nights. This will allow us to hike in about 16kms the first day, then travel without the weight of our packs the second day to Berg Lake, before strapping on the packs again for the trip out on day three. We got pretty fortunate on this trip as we had good weather and because it was so early in June, there weren’t many people at all on the trail. We had Emperor Falls campground to ourselves both nights, with a lovely tent site right next to the creek. Three days on the trail with nice weather, some great photos and time to ourselves. As we got back to the vehicle on the third day my wife explained that she had a great time and would love to do something like this again. That feeling last all of a few minutes when we drove out of the parking area, down the service road and turned onto the highway. At this point we saw a large grizzly bear crossing the highway in front of us, which prompted my wife’s tone to change to “we are never coming back to this trail again!” Sigh… so close eh? I’m sure the third time will be the charm for the Berg Lake trail…
Trip three was in August of 2012 and was an adventure in itself as it consisted of two adults and two ten year olds. Yup, ten year olds. Why I felt this was a good age to try them out at this I still don’t know. I met Geoff and Noah back in the spring of 2007 when I coached Noah in indoor soccer. We became good friends and began frontcountry camping together a couple years later in Jasper. Geoff and I had talked many times about our past hiking adventures when we were younger; his outnumbering mine by a great deal. It seemed that he had been on every trail imaginable and we got talking about taking Eric and Noah with us on an easier overnight adventure. So we planned, found available nights to book campsites in late August and drove west for nearly five hours. As we prepared in the trailhead parking lot, both boys were very confident and eager to get started. Eric and Noah wore smaller packs, responsible for carrying their own sleeping bag and clothes, and Geoff and I overloaded our packs with everything else required for this trip. The first two kilometres of the trip were the most painful I have ever experienced. The crying, the tears, the scraped knees, dirt in eyes, dry throats and of course sore backs and shoulders. Apparently our very excited ten year olds went from excited to exhausted in the span of about half an hour.
But, like the good Dad’s that we were, we told them to suck it up and carry on. Kidding of course. That may have been what I was thinking though, although I will never tell my secrets! Through very patient interactions with the boys we moved on slowly finally finding our stride about five kilometres into the trail. We hiked 11kms to Whitehorn Campground that day and thoroughly enjoyed the chance to set up camp and just hang out by the Robson River. The boys took it all in and at this point were happy because the hard work of the day was done. The next day we left our tents at Whitehorn and day hiked to the Hargreaves Shelter at Berg Lake and back. The boys only had to carry water bottles and Geoff and I wore daypacks. There was next to no complaining that day and it was great knowing that at the end of the day there was no tent to set up. An early night led to an early morning the next day for the hike out. We all had different experiences that trip. Geoff and I were ready to do it again the next summer, but the boys weren’t quite at that point. We have continued frontcountry camping with the boys over the years and had many a day hike but haven’t yet got back into the backcountry with them. I know that the time will come now that they are seventeen and eighteen. They may decide to go into the backcountry without us now for all we know. Maybe that is what they have been holding out for… a chance to explore on their own time and terms. I feel we have instilled some useful outdoors skills and habits for the boys and as long as they continue trailing, I know that we as parents will be thrilled.
As you can see, the Berg Lake trail is great for beginners, but can still come with its share of challenges. Some will make first time trailers want to return, while others will not. They may not see it as a great experience in the moment, but upon reflection most see it as a stepping off point to greater adventures in the future. Sometimes it just takes a little time to get there. I have been fortunate enough to get out on this trail four times. The three overnight trips mentioned, plus a fourth was completed a year prior to taking the boys out. In June 2011 as part of our preparation for soloing the Sinister 7 race in July, my buddy Carl and I ran the trail out and back in about six hours. It was a day that started by running into some hikers telling us they witnessed a bear and wolverine fighting up near Hargreaves Shelter. Although we were quite sure they were pulling our legs, it was in our minds all day that we may see an epic battle at our turnaround spot for the day! Where would we stand to watch this, should we bring weapons of our own to fight them off and how fast can we run away were all questions that crossed our minds. Note to all and safety disclaimer in all seriousness, don’t ever try to outrun a bear. But I’m sure you can outrun a wolverine.
Running this trail was amazing and honestly most of it is runable. With the exception of the long uphill between Whitehorn and Emperor Falls Campgrounds, the whole trail was doable. It was a great day out and on the way back through Whitehorn Campground there was a naked woman bathing in the river. Seeing this as we were crossing a suspension bridge almost put both of us in the water as one of us tripped on the steps up the bridge upon first noticing, then told the other who also tripped up the stairs while looking over the side. Ah the things you see, yet never expect to see on the trails. This day out on the trail prepared us well for Sinister 7 and both of us were fortunate enough to finish that 148km race.
While all of these stories had great moments and tough moments, it is important to remember these times and the joy that they brought and will bring again. I personally am struggling right now knowing that National and Provincial Parks are currently closed to the public and likely will be through the spring and summer. Much like my children have always gauged their days by how much time they get to play, I tend to gauge my seasons by how often I get to the mountains and onto the trails. Currently I am stuck. It is a long winter that doesn’t seem to want to end in Alberta and due to the current health pandemic there are restrictions in place to stop the spread. And I get it. I agree with what is being done, and I want to get out of this situation healthy. I hope that I am able, in the not so distant future, to once again experience Berg Lake and similar trails that have brought so many good memories over the years. Even the struggles on the trails become memorable because they become good stories and things to laugh at as time goes on. Right now I am just looking for another story on a trail like this… and maybe when I get back onto that trail I will finally see a bear take on a wolverine in a primal battle to the end. I’m going with the wolverine, who’ve you got?