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An 'exploratory traverse' in the backcountry

A few hundred feet into the hike and the unmistakable signs that we're in bear country appear.

B.C. BACKCOUNTRY – One of Canada's great pastimes is traversing the iconic Rocky Mountains terrain and with social distancing being the main theme of 2020, escaping large crowds in the city on popular hiking trails is becoming a hotter commodity.

That's why hiking in the unspoiled backcountry might be the solace one seeks to break free this summer and enjoy the Rockies.

Travelling by foot to Purcell Mountain Lodge, opposed to being flown in over mountains by helicopter from Golden, B.C., gives the budget backpacker the option to cut costs, avoid crowded trails and check-in to one of western Canada’s premier backcountry stays.

This summer, Purcell Mountain Lodge is offering $200 nightly rates per person at its chalet (with a minimum of four guests for a three night stay), including catered meals, for self-guided tours hiking into the lodge. Self-catered tours are $100 per night. Guided-in hiking tours start at $300 per day.

Over four days, adventurous hikers can set foot on quiet trails and easily put in 50-kilometres of sightseeing and geographical tests.

The adventure begins south of Golden, where drivers must take a bumpy forest service road to the trailhead. For self-guided tours, a four-by-four vehicle or something equipped to handle a rough ride on gravel road is required.

Day One: trailhead to lodge (13 km)

A few hundred feet into the hike and the unmistakable signs that we're in bear country appear. Clumps of bear scat – and hairy wolf scat – are plopped over the trail to the mountainside lodge. A few days prior, ACMG guide Ken MacDiarmid, who works at the lodge, encountered a few black bears while scouting the trail. MacDiarmid is my guide and trail finder for our trek in and out of Purcell Mountain Lodge.

We fail to spot any large critters, but it's a good reminder to carry bear spray, talk loudly and hike in groups in the wild backcountry.

The chilly Braid Brook River is the first significant marker on the 13-km trek, which runs beside a lonely hunting cabin. To continue on to the lodge, hikers will have to get wet.

In early July, the river's crossing point is about a foot and a half at its deepest and cold enough to numb flesh in short time. The opposite side of the stony shore is about 30 cold feet away, where bloodthirsty mosquitoes wait in patience. Hikers will have to be fast to avoid the buzzing diners.

Water shoes and a trekking pole ease crossing the river when stepping on the slippery rocks and with the rush of glacier-fed water biting against skin. The next river crossing is at the Spillimacheen bridge about 10-km away.

The hiking terrain to Purcell Mountain Lodge is mostly flat and the enclosed forest greenery opens up into a wide alpine meadow. In some areas, the aftermath of crushing avalanches have left trees splintered and earth pushed up high.

While walking in the meadow, Copperstain Mountain becomes visible, which is a chief summit in the area.

Upon arriving at the base of the hill where hikers can cross the Spillimacheen bridge and ascend to the lodge, there's something's missing. The small wooden bridge that was once overtop the fast-flowing river was knocked out of place and washed down about 40 metres. The bridge was built here for the river's deeper point and the structure's absence creates a problem ... for a minute.

Armed with specially-ordered Japanese steel, MacDiarmid pulls out his razor-sharp hand saw and searches for fallen trees sturdy enough to hold our weight. Four tree logs are sliced apart and carried back to the river where its crafed into a makeshift bridge. It's a bit shaky, it isn't pretty, and it could probably benefit from one or two more logs, but the little bridge gets the job done.

Nearing the lodge, snow patches start blanketing more-and-more earth as we reach higher elevation. It's summer in Canada, but winter's cold fingers haven't let go in some small parts. The final portion of the hike is its most physically demanding as its the only significant incline.

It's rewarding to finally have the first view of the lodge (2,200 metres).

Day Two: Up Copperstain and down its ridge (15 km, elevation gain 600m)

Joining a larger hiking group and guides staying at Purcell Mountain Lodge, the objective is to summit Copperstain (2,598 metres), which after the treeline is rich with bronzed shale rocks.

On the way, telltale signs that grizzlies have terrorized the ground squirrels in the area become frequent. Around the lodge, a resident grizzly mother and her cubs have been grazing the flowery alpine meadows of the area for many years and their handy work is apparent. At the ground squirrel holes, mounds of dirt have been dug up by the hungry bears in search of a meaty snack. Hikers will stumble upon these ambitious dig sites as grizzlies prey upon the mini-miners before going into hibernation.

The peckish grizzlies become an afterthought as we reach Copperstain's summit. Eyes are quickly drawn towards Mount Sir Donald, the colossal spike that dominates the southern snow-clad mountain range.

On the opposite side of Copperstain, the hike descends along the ridge to Grizzly Col. Trekking across the jagged mountain spine and down into the valley is an entertaining way to spend the day outdoors.

On route, hikers will come across glacier lillies, a small yellow flower that's an edible treat. In summer, the budding mountain flowers in the area include paintbrush, mountain arnica, moss campion and subalpine daisy, among others.

To end the day's trek, hikers have to conjure up enough strength for a mighty jump over Krumholtz Creek. To keep the final few steps more interesting, the group must then cross the shaky, day-old bridge at the Spillimacheen river as the final test for the day.

Day Three: Walking the boundaries of Glacier National Park to Bella Vista (10 km, elevation gain 300m)

Snow, sleds, and snowshoe hares.

Weather is unpredictable in the mountains, even in summer, and the white stuff makes its presence felt in a big way during the hike to Bella Vista. It's a bit wet, but the hike to smaller summit of Bella Vista burns fewer calories than the day before, but gives another perspective on the land, which shows it scars from wildfires on the southern side.

En route, a young snowshoe hare is discovered blending in under a burnt tree. Along with grizzly and black bears, the hare adds to the area's wildlife collection which also includes wolves, mountain lions, mountain goats, and spruce grouse.

At Bella Vista's summit, a six-foot stone cairn stands guard for all to see. Although the snow is melting, there's still enough lying around to open up the opportunity for some sledding - even without a traditional sled.

On the descent, the soft powder makes for an entertaining way to zip down on stomach, back or butt before hiking back to a warm, waiting lodge.

Day Four: An exploratory traverse from lodge to trailhead (13 km)

The journey back to civilization is what MacDiarmid refers to as an “exploratory traverse”. For the keen adventurer wanting to blaze a new path in untouched backcountry in perhaps a primitive way, this is the hike to do.

We follow the boundaries of Glacier National Park from a day earlier, walking beside charred trees and stumps before cutting down steep slopes and going deep into thick vegetation. We're bushwhacking it in the middle of nowhere.

At some points, holding on dearly to strong-rooted shrubs and little trees was the only thing between us and an unfortunate tumble. Even in flatter areas, slipping on your butt a few times seems unavoidable. The trekking pole I used for balance became collateral damage in one incident and snapped it in two pieces as I tried to break a fall.

However, falling on my ass aside, the palatial views in this part of Canada are unmatched with lively waterfalls gently spraying mist over exposed skin, dark green firs, spruce and pines standing as tall as the eye can see, and grand Rocky Mountains hugging the bottom of the sky.

There's one final river crossing before we reach the trailhead and end the Purcell Mountain Lodge hike. At its opening, the flow is a bit higher on the river, about two and a half feet, and just as cold and numbing as ever. On the opposite shore, the thirsty mosquitoes are waiting again, in greater numbers. Of course.

Our exploratory traverse flew by quicker than expected, however, for backpackers looking to give their soul a smile, it's hard to think of a better way to spend a few days away from it all.

Jordan Small

About the Author: Jordan Small

Jordan Small joined the Outlook in 2014 and covers the vast world of sports in the Bow Valley. A Barrie, Ont. native, he also wrote for RMO's Mountain Guide section and the MD of Bighorn beat.
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