Rockies and lakes (2019, Mount Sarrail, Alberta)
A campsite in a forest. Lakes. Mountains. Hiking boots. A fire pit. A close friend. The ingredients aren’t complicated. This is all you need to reset, to reconnect, to feel alive, to feel insignificant, and to remember what’s important.
Our campsite in Kananaskis was empty. The site warden told us we were the only people in for the next few days, which was fine by us. A secluded pitch that allowed us to set up our tent and a separate cooking area, covered by a tarpaulin. As a Calgary local and seasoned camper, my pal Dave had all the kit you could possibly need as well as a large truck to transport it all. There was even a bear on the prowl. This was camping Canadian style.
The added touch was the lack of phone signal, which meant three days uninterrupted by the infinite distractions of modern technology. Save for taking pictures, there was no need for us to use our phones and no filter between us and connecting with the abundance of nature in the Rockies.
Keen to explore, we took a hike around the nearby Upper Lake, following a lumpy trail around the edge which offered uninterrupted views of the surrounding peaks on the easterly edge of the Rockies. The scenes felt as if they should be printed on jigsaws, sheer and soaring mountains sliding straight into a mirror-topped lake. Small rocky outcrops in towards the edges of the lake led to easy chat about which island we’d prefer to colonise, where we’d add landing jetties and so on.
The trail was border by thick forest, carpeted with lichen, moss and ferns. The trees were dense enough in some sections to restrict views to a few feet. Halfway around the lake, Dave stopped suddenly as he spotted something to our right and slowly pointed up. A large bird landed high on a tree just ahead of us. A golden eagle. We stood silently in awe as the majestic bird surveyed his territory, including us and then took off, the vast wingspan creating a loud beating sound.
Further round the lake, rocky beaches led to the lake's edge, dotted with the charred husks of dead trees, presumably from a wildfire. There was no uniformity in the stones. Quartz sat alongside rough, volcanic looking rock, large angled boulders, flat pieces of granite and smooth boulders and pebbles. We amused ourselves with some pebble skimming across the lake, completely alone save for a duck honking across the water.
Back at camp, Dave cooked up a Tuscan bean stew with roast beets and fresh bread. It was a meal that could grace any dinner table but had added piquancy in the setting, cooked next to an open fire in an empty forest.
The next day, we retraced our steps heading for the Mount Sarrail trailhead further around the lake. We set a brisk pace, soon delayering in the cool but mild temperatures. We continued past the beaches and bleached trees, around the southern edge of the Upper Lake and back into dense forest. Occasionally we’d spot something amongst the trees, local grouse, wood mice and other rodents scurrying across the undergrowth.
The trailhead turned inward, away from the lake and immediately steep. The path wound in switchbacks through the trees and we encountered a few fellow hikers along the way. Brushing my hand against fallen logs and rocks, the feeling of immersion was a release and led to wandering musings on the longevity of these natural, living things that would outlast us all by some distance.
The view of the Upper Lake vanished pretty quickly, leaving us following the winding path upwards surrounded by a riot of earthen shades: dark moss, yellow-green feathers, glossy chlorophyll-rich leaves, grey and brown weathered tree-trunks. The canopy filtered all of the light, except for an occasional ray of sunlight illuminating ethereal clouds of moisture drifting between the trees.
As we reached the upper parts of the trail, the path became boggy, sucking at our boots and splattering mud across our legs. Narrow logged sections seemed more than staying in the mud so we largely avoided them and kept to the slushy path.
After five kilometres, the trees thinned and we suddenly found ourselves on a plateau. As we moved out of the tree cover, there were glimpses of a vast mountain wall and in the foreground, gleaming emerald water. We cleared the trees and my jaw dropped. We were looking at Rawson Lake, formed millennia ago from a melting glacier, the water pristine and still, reflecting the surrounding mountains. The glacial retreat had left an imposing horseshoe formation of mountains around the far end of the lake, a mixture of scree, steel grey rock and peaks capped in snow and cloud.
It was absurd - as if an Alberta tourist board postcard had been dropped in front of my face. The outdoors at scale and beauty like this triggers involuntary reactions that run deep - a feeling of insignificance, timescales and forces beyond comprehension, the impermanence of life. If this seems grandiose, it might well be but the experience of being confronted by natural history so vividly is hard to put into any other words. We stood on rocks at the edge of the lakeshore silently taking it all in for a few minutes.
Across the lake, to the right of the horseshoe lay the trail up Mount Sarrail, a vertiginous looking climb that disappeared behind another slope jutting out into the water. We made our way around the lake, at first more muddy trail and then a scramble across rocks and boulders, and a small stream formed from various mini waterfalls cascading from the giant walls ahead of us.
As we swang to the right, the path passed through tightly packed bushes and shrubs. We stopped to take in our surroundings and spotted a small group making their way up the path, high up the slope. They seemed to be making slow progress and struggling through a narrow section that disappeared between a stack of boulders. We were soon to find out why.
The path kicked up immediately. I wasn’t sure if it was the increased altitude, the gradient or both but I felt that familiar surge of breathing and heart rate. At first, the path was a mixture of mud and gravel, running alongside a rocky riverbed to our left. The recent rain and intermittent drizzle had created more boggy conditions but now mixed with scree and shale. My soft approach shoes didn’t seem a particularly wise choice.
As we climbed higher, the slope became sufficiently steep that pushing upwards meant that the natural swing of our hands almost touched the ground in front. We used everything we could to leverage ourselves upwards, grabbing branches, roots, thick vegetation and searching out patches of ground that looked flatter or more solid. Our feet were caked in mud and slipping but were just able to find purchase on the ground.
We paused and turned around every now and again to admire the spectacular view of the lake, a mixture of blues and greens that look artificial. From here, we could see the towering horseshoe formation was actually just the baby peaks of monstrous mountains behind that were shrouded in cloud and streaked with snow. The striation of the rock was stunning, the streaked lines running long and punctuated by a few natural caves. We were looking at the Rockies proper - terrain that was severe, beastly, dangerous but also alluring, mystical, enthralling.
A pair of guys coming downwards with poles (another oversight) stopped to chat briefly. We noticed they were sharing a pair of crampons which seemed a brilliant idea. They assured us we’d soon be through the worst of it and they were right. About another hundred metres or so up the hill, we reached the boulder section we’d seen from further down. It was easy to see why the group we’d been earlier had paused and made slow progress. There were no natural foot or handholds, just a combination of slippery rock, roots and sludge.
We made slightly wobbly lunges upwards through it, partly aided by a section of thin climbing rope that had been tied between two shrubs. From here, the gradient began to shallow out and we were relieved to be through the toughest section although dreading the steep descent through ground that gave way so easily. The last section of meadow-like terrain, complete with alien-looking vegetation that resembled purple cabbages, was gentle in comparison as we headed over a ridge to our right….
…. to be struck by a view of paradise. A small muddy plateau was sandwiched between giant rocky peaks to either side. And straight ahead was a panoramic view of azure lakes, tiny beaches and vivid jade forest surrounded by towering silvery-grey peaks. The colours seemed absurdly bright, the whole scene like a series of tropical lagoons dropped onto the edges of the Rockies.
After a few minutes of gobsmacked staring, Dave explained to me that we were looking back at our route around the Upper Lake. It seemed like miles away, which made sense given that it was. After a short while, we headed up the right-hand rocky peak for a higher view, through a short path in between boulders. Here it really opened up, as we straddled a ridgeline that led on from the horseshoe, the top of Mount Sarrail. Ahead to our left was an even more dramatic vista of the lakes and forests, and behind us were the deep Rockies poking through clouds and fading into the distance.
Snow on the ground gave me a sense of the temperature shift between the cool but bearable autumn temperatures by the lake and the brisk summit. We zipped up our layers as we sat down to enjoy our lunch, at which point Dave produced a pair of ice-cold cans of Canadian lager, the perfect addition.
Later, we’d feel the fatigue on the long descent, dip our feet in the icy lake, and then feed on more bean stew and beets cooked over the campfire, well earned after 21km of hiking. But sat there at that moment, surveying the sublime sprawl of peaks and clouds, blues and greens, chomping on sandwiches and sipping a chilled beer - I literally could not think of anywhere else I’d rather be.
Go find your pocket: Stay at a range of campsites in Peter Lougheed Park in Kananaskis county: https://albertaparks.ca/parks/kananaskis/peter-lougheed-pp/