The Tonquin Valley

This actually belongs towards the middle of the entire Canadian Hiking segment. Still, while its a mis-chronicled chronicle, it’s at least here.

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A random photo from the Tonquin Valley… we hiked a circuit in this valley which, from the looks of things, is rarely done. And I am here to tell the tale! Don’t do it! Find a better way!

Basically, we hiked a rarely used route which was sodden with mud and boulders, and filled with downed trees. So, if you weren’t slogging your way through mud, you were walking over small boulders with mud soaked boots, which provided a slippery surface, and took much care and concentration. Then, you had to duck and cover to the nth degree to fit your daypack under a downed tree.

It’s not worth it I tell you!

But the ending route is a beautiful walk with stunning vistas, looking at the Tonquin Valley, and Surprise Point. And that is well worth the visit, and even helped to make up for the horribly soggy route through which we trod all morning, on what proved to be the most difficult morning of our trek.

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The thing is, it was a loop. So it made perfect sense to do it. (The fact that it is rarely used is not advertised as far as I know.)

But I had not slept a wink all night due to an air mattress deflation issue. And because Fr. Jimmy had offered me his air mattress, which was full length as opposed to my 3/4 length backpacking version, and I had taken it, I ended up unfairly attributing my uncomfortable lack of sleep to him, while he snored soundly on my delightful 3/4 length, and ultra light, sleeping pad which is more than fine for me! (He also had a full length cadillac-pad with him…)

This is a beautiful, pristine back lake.

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One of the many beautiful views coming out of the dark, humid, and soggy back part of the (rarely used) loop.

The first part, as I mentioned, was below the tree line and was basically nothing but mud and boulders. I was miserable and cursing every moment and every step, and it took forever and a day for me to make my way through the mess.  We met a large group coming from the opposite direction, and they looked about as unenthusiastic as did I. Fr. Jimmy has only ever talked about this part of the hike as a wonderful time.

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But we eventually reached Surprise Point, and then made our way across a large field, ending up on this bridge overlooking the river,  flowing from the lake through Tonquin Valley. The should call it Pleasant Surprise Point, but whoever named it obviously didn’t hike in from the back way.

The morning had gotten off to a lousy start. Sleepless, and freezing on the ice cold dirt which should have been my comfy mattress pad,  Fr. Jimmy stood outside the tent saying something along the lines of “I made breakfast and your oatmeal is on the table freezing right now.”

Now I’m only human, and some things hit me the wrong way, no matter who says them.  So I ended up being pretty miserable to be around for quite a few hours, as we slogged through mud for what seemed forever and a day.  And then crawled under trees which snagged our packs.  And then crossed small boulders with mud soaked boots.  It was such slow going I soon lost any hope of finishing the trail and reaching our campsite any time before darkness set in.  And in the twilight hours before then, as I would trod on in my weakened state of despair, I knew I would only make the perfect bear bait.  I was doomed.

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But Surprise Point was a turning point, in many ways.  We dried our boots out after having lunch on the bridge, and then slogged through this marshy wilderness with mud up to our ankles.

This is not a marsh on the side of the trail; it’s actually the trail and you have to walk right through it as there’s no way around it. That didn’t really help, and only tied in more perfectly with the entire morning. But the going was seeming to be better.

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The trail was a little difficult to follow through the Tonquin Valley campsite, still it’s not brain surgery.

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And within 20 minutes or so of leaving the Valley behind, you’re on the trail out.  Which of course is the trail most sane people also hike in on.  The trail was dry, my spirits high, the going super easy, and the walking …’fast as lightening’, as Sr. Clarita would say.

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Walking the rest of this trail was a piece of cake. Which is a good thing, since there were bout 8 miles left to go. The bridge we rested on is supposed to be visible in all of these pics, as I was quite conscious when I took them, to be able to see it. Still, I can’t see it in these pics for the life of me.

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We made it back to the Astoria Campground in well enough time to watch the sunset with our camp neighbors, who were fixing S’mores for all, and to have lots of chuckles recalling the days highs and lows. And there were a lot of lows to get out of the system! Thing is, the highs totally mitigated the lows.

The Tonquin Valley is a must see. Still, I’d recommend taking the regular trail in, and not worrying over the loop, especially if it’s been raining.

The Big Finish

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Did I mention that this is a fifteen mile day-hike, starting off with with the sudden and unending 1500 foot, 300 meter, 150 story or so, ascent up to The Notch and ending with a five mile slog down what is politely known as the “Fire Road”? I know that I did, but if you missed that, these pix cover a lot of territory.

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So many scenes are left out. But the thing is, you need to go there and hike the route yourself if you can, to glorify God in the simplicity of walking through His creation.

That route through the valley down there, by the way, is the route the horses take when they bring provision up to The Lodge. It’s overall a 6,000 ft.ascent, with 3,000 of those feet being very sharp and demanding. Evidently they’ve stopped trying to bring tourists up through the trails as few can handle it. (And I’m fine with the hundreds of other fine trails in the area…)

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Ten thirty in the morning, and me looking like a lobster head. My hat was on as soon as we were off the ridge, but the wind was blowing everything away faster than you could recite a Glory Be.

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I’m pretty sure, tho could easily be wrong, that somewhere back there is the Tonquin Valley.

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This site made my morning. My spirit rejoiced and I sang a song of joy to see this long, flat trail and mild ascent. An interesting point, is that The Notch is the highest point of the trip, and here we are about to hike uphill again. I just had to pretend I didn’t notice that, flatlander that I am. If you squint you can see Laura and Chuck ahead of us.

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Walking on scree has its issues. Researching this trail one can’t help but note that it’s used by long distance runners who do long sections in a day. I think what this means is that I need to do more walking on scree to just get the hang of things.

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This was one of my favorite parts of this hike.

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Nothing can describe the strong, brisk wind here. The pic caught my walking sticks in the downswing.

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You can also catch your first glimpse of the trail ahead. But first you go through an area that reminded me of every movie I’ve ever seen about Mars.

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Fr. Jimmy (who took these pics, as my Nikon CoolPix P6000 was revolting against my compatible storage cards…) has a good eye for contrasts.

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The mountains…

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The valleys…

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The city of Jasper!

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The Athabasca River! The Icefield Parkway!

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The scenery!

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The Priests!

I’m fairly certain, tho correct me if I’m wrong, that Athabasca Falls is directly behind me.

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The path ultimately wends down to the Valley…

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… but not before one last intriguing jaunt through the mountaintop.

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Amazingly spry. Notice all the rocks?

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Suddenly it seemed as if we were on the moon. There were no views other than being surrounded by rocks and rock formations.

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But in our amazement we took no photos… we just wandered on eventually to gaze again upon the valley below.

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I know, God bless you. You’re thinking that this post goes on forever and a day.

But so does this hike!

Fr. Jimmy was determined to gather drinking water from this small glacier. We have different views on glacier water, as on most things. Still, we travel well together.

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The trail spirals downward over a mile or more.

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Fr. Jimmy, pretending to be me.

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The glorious valley spreads before you, after forty-five minutes or so of sheer downward hiking in scree. But by this time you’ve adjusted your hiking boots and cinching things and are ready for lunch by one of the pretty lakes that lay ahead.

They only seem far away because they are.

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After we passed this one we stopped for lunch next to the group of German tourists who were ahead of us, then made our way through the very pleasant and entirely lovely valley.

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The Trail at Valley Level. Only ten miles to go from here!

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Another lake.

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A marmot, shortly before being noticed.

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Yet another lake, which brings into mind the whole question of marshland type terrain in the mountains. It does if you’re me at least, being from South Louisiana and owning hundreds of acres of marshland.

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Later in the day, you begin to look over into what’s known as Maligne Valley, which is another wonder entirely.

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And of course you wander, off and on, off of the ridge and into woodlands where you see these type of… dead trees which hold such fascination for some photographers.

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I don’t have the words to describe how beautiful the Skyline Trail is, let alone the part before the Fire Road. This doesn’t begin to do it justice, but it’s all we have.

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Ultimately, you end up, after a valley and a few (long) mild up and downs, at what’s known as the Fire Road. By this time I had considered the hike to be over, and most people do. But the thing is, you still have to walk five miles down the Fire Road.

The flowers and scenes are unforgettable in my mind. They’re just not present in the end of this photo series.

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The Fire Road is an old trail which used to be used as an access route by rangers on the way to a fire lookout. Way back when. These days it’s a trail, overgrown in the end of summer, with zero views other than immediate forest, and which more or less takes you downhill at a grade which would not encumber a ranger’s vehicle. It’s overgrown and pretty boring, and filled with berry bushes, and is five miles long. Although we walked it seemingly quickly, for close to two and a half hours, it seems in retrospect a blink of an eye.

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We drove immediately to the Jasper Pub, and met fellow hikers for a beer. Just don’t have your meal there.

Just sayin…

Evening came, then the night. And everyone slept soundly after the long day’s trek into light.

Skyline III – To the Notch

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After leaving the fantastic breakfast at the Lodge, we left for the days walk, which promised to be an all day affair. But first you’ll recall that one has to walk about 1500 feet uphill first thing. I’d liken this to being on a stairmaster for about an hour and a half. But thankfully the scenery is a so much better than being on a stairmaster.

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It’s a fairly quick rise out of the valley.

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Although every now and again it does seem the one will never stop rising!

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At last upon the ridgeline again, the trail can be seen easily summiting that next pass, which is known as the Notch.

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This easy summit is actually a fairly long walk uphill again. It never ceased to be fascinating.

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You very…

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…slowly…

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…pass…

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…the alpine lake…

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…and suddenly you’re much farther above it than you ever imagined you would be.

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And the trail is much steeper than you had ever imagined it might be. We were catching up a bit with Chuck and Laura at this point; I was actually the last one to leave camp (though the first to finish! But Im getting ahead of myself.) This section is very steep, with kind of jinky footing at times.

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It would be easy to fall off of the trail anywhere along here; it’s slippery, rocky, shifty…steep.

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Still, it’s not rocket science. An the view of the valley is amazing.

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Life is good up here. The wind had picked up and it was pretty chilly, which was so nice, especially remembering that back home it was probably 96 degrees in the shade with 85% humidity.

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Far away, in a different valley, you can see the Icefield Parkway.

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Splendid views…

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Life at the Notch. A great place to stop for a snack and catch up with your trail mates you haven’t seen since breakfast.

The Skyline Trail – Part 1

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The Skyline Trail (via Wikipedia, via Trailpeaks, in Men’s Journal, and of course via the Official Site,) is one of the most exhilarating walks I’ve ever taken. It’s definitely the longest, in terms of 2 day treks.

For whatever reason, my little Nikon Coolpix was not having any more of this wild photo spree I was on, and inconveniently stopped storing photos in my camera card. And, in the short time frame I had to deal with the situation, I just ended up ceding all photo ops to Fr. Jimmy, who usually does a very good job with photos. So… these are all his doing! My only contribution is to over-process them with editing software, as per usual.

But here we are, at the beginning! Isn’t it grand and glorious? It’s going to be a long, long walk before we see a sign resembling this again, and by the time we get there, I will want to kiss it.

And yes, the sad truth is, that I do go out looking like this in public. Every now and then my hiking chic comes together with haphazard savvy, sadly, this trip is not one of those times.

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All of Jasper National Park is a mycologist’s dream, and this trail is not one to let you down in the fungi department. Aren’t these attractive?

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Fr. Jimmy (who took all of these photos…) has a thing for driftwood. The difference between us is, that I will post these either on Facebook or here on my website, and he will make beautiful prints to hang on his Rectory wall. I’m just starting to delve into prints… one only has so much time in the day.

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Not that there’s any driftwood on the Skyline Trail way up at the ridge line, of course! But there are lots of dead trees which provide the same sort of, strangely attractive, dried wood shapes. I actually don’t find anything strangely attractive about this formation, but it does have an unusual beauty.

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Before you know it, you’ve climbed out of the woods and up onto the ridge, where you’ll be walking for another 20 miles or so. And those 20 miles are, indeed, splendid. (Which is of course a very good thing, as that is a very long way to be walking.)

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Usually when I take pictures while traveling with Fr. Jimmy, I end up with a lot of extraneous photos of him. So it was interesting to note that he ended up with a lot of extraneous photos of me. Here, he had asked to take a shot, and while I was still getting my usual death-grip-for-photos on my walking sticks, he snapped away. Alas. That will teach me to rely on walking sticks for everything.

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The majority of the trail is a wonderland of alpine flora and fauna. I felt that I rushed through the first day, in a quest for mileage. Yet on the second day I decided to relax and take my own pace, and just take it all in. It’s mostly easy walking, so that’s the better bet for the entire route, in retrospect.

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Every moment, in every direction… splendid views of wondrous things.

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And speaking of splendid views… a self-timed shot. Interesting that Fr. Jimmy looks taller than me. But thankfully I’ve had time to get the death grip on my walking sticks again, in my dowdy hiking ensemble.

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More stunning scenery…

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And more….

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Yea more…. there was a group of German tourists who were ahead of us on the trail; tall and sturdy, I felt right at home amongst them. While they started ahead of us, we eventually passed them up, and were both somewhat thankful for that, as some of the people in the group were in their 70’s, and it would have been a real ego deflator to have not had a better pace than them. This resulted in me just wanting to set a good pace the first day, and then not caring the second day when I decided just to do my own thing. (I ended up finishing first by the way… it always pays to trust your heart, and to pace yourself propery.)

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More scenery… more miles… I had come into this with the understanding we were walking about 24 miles in two days. At some point on the way up to the ridge, one of our newfound compadres gave me the impression that the entire hike was about 12 miles, and that we were walking about 6 miles today. I had an unexpected surge forward at that news, until I realized a few hours later that we were indeed doing about 12 miles a day. As endless as it seemed, it was fun.

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Action shot!

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Eventually, towards the end of a beautiful day of walking, you reach Big Shovel Pass. This is after 11 miles or so, and you can make out the thin line of the trail to the left of the sign, in the distance, snaking it’s way up over the next very high ridge. We were staying in a place called “The Lodge”, but had no clue where it was. I was convinced we had to walk downhill, but Fr. Jimmy and a couple from California we had made friends with were convinced it was uphill.

So… we trod endlessly uphill. Up, and up, more and more. Until we eventually realized that the Lodge was nowhere in sight, and, it was actually downhill. And not only was it downhill, but it was way down, off the ridge line entirely.

So downhill it was.

Steep curve followed steep curve. Lower and lower and lower we went until, at last, we reached the Lodge. With the prospect of climbing uphill about 1500 feet first thing the next morning, on very tired feet, I was quite dismayed at this point. And I was hardly alone, as many grumbles quietly ensued from the entire cast of characters assembled in this strangely beautiful location.

But not everything was going downhill. For the Lodge provided an abundant meal of beef filet and vegetables; and afterwards, the bedding was comfortable.


To be continued…

Berg Lake – The Rest of the Story

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Not that it’s much of a story… But this is the hut and dishwashing area up at the Berg Lake campground.  It’s actually the back of the hut, and I was usually hesitant to walk in through this door due to the rain and mud, but it turned out to be no big deal.  The inside of the shelter stays pretty dry because everyone is taking care not to get it all wet and muddy. That and you walk in right by the wood burning stove, which dries things out pretty fast.

And it is THE place to hang all of your wet clothes to dry out.  The assorted batch in this view is from the previous night.  At this point many hikers were still heading back in the rain, cold and mist.  And soon this area was completely filled with drying clothes as a warm fire was built in the wood burning stove (which is just outside of the range of this picture!)

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And here’s Fr. Jimmy holding up tonight’s dinner!  It was a freeze dried extravaganza, and every meal was delicious.  While that’s partly due to the fact that almost any meal tastes good on the trail (with some notable exceptions….), it also has to do with the fact that freeze dried meals have come a long way in the last decade.  A lot of them just taste fantastic. And this coconut Cuban rice thing hit the spot after the freezing cold rain fest over at the glacier earlier in the day.

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Fr. Jimmy is convinced he is an introvert.  I’m not quite convinced of that, as he is so out going and popular on the trail. But he does read a lot, and needs his alone time.

The woman in the background is measuring water for dinner.  In this Shangri-La of a campsite, you can literally just walk to the edge of the lawn and dip your container into the clear, briskly flowing stream for water.  It was beautiful. Many campers especially the Canadians, do that alone.  But we southerners, jaded by the muddy Mississippi and the Gulf Oil Spill no doubt, used Steripens if we weren’t cooking with it.

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The glacier makes huge groaning noises throughout the day and night, which are often mistaken for thunder.  While we were looking at it the evening prior to this, a chunk fell off into the lake while we oohed and aah’d in complete wonder.  It looked like a puff of snow falling gently into the lake.

A few seconds later there was a huge boom, which was the delayed sound reaching us … truly amazing!

But later that night, as the soft rain fell, the glacier groaned for what seemed several minutes, with a terrific rumbling sound as well.  Some campers saw large chunks of ice fall into the water, and the ranger who passed by the next morning called it a “significant event”.

That led me to use the term “significant event” throughout the day, to anyone and everyone who commented upon the amount of ice in the lake.

It was a significant event.

A significant event I tell you.  The Ranger said so.

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And the lake was filled with a significant amount of ice.  But these small ice bergs are what give the lake it’s name, after all.

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Which for whatever reason led me to try artistic shots with my little Nikon Coolpix. And at the base of the mountain and the glacier, you can make out a significant line of ice.

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Despite the ongoing rain and mist and fog and the damp and the cold, (I kept trying to explain to the Canadians that  this was like winter in New Orleans…) the shelter remained a haven of warmth and dryness.  The wood burning stove inside was kept well tended, and people were hanging clothes out to dry until there was barely any room left, and one had to search high and low for an extra inch of hang space.

And speaking of dry, the Marmot Limelight 3p tent kept us high, dry and warm throughout this wet and rainy first week of backpacking and hiking.  I was initially concerned about it’s weight, but between two relatively large men, (one of which there is nothing relative in the least about largeness… I am just a big guy,) the weight was entirely manageable, and the tent roomy enough so that you almost don’t even remember there’s another person in the tent at times.

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The Steripen Ultra, in action.

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Low lying clouds scudding by in the evening light.

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A Canadian Stand Around.  Bob and his family were celebrating some major birthdays by taking some trail time together then hitting Jasper over the weekend. The amount of families on the trail was both amazing and inspiring.

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Cloudy Mist, with a glint of twilight, begging to be photographed.

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We fixed breakfast inside the shelter the next morning as we prepared to leave.  Despite the heights of complexity and deliciousness that freeze dried meals have obtained,  we stuck to a fairly penitential breakfast regimen of gruel … granola with hot water added, and coffee.

And actually we  just brought all of our gear up to the shelter to pack it up since we were leaving fairly early and it was starting to rain. Again.

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But then the sun came out and everyone shouted Hallelujah!  Bradley showed up and fetched some water during this brief appearance of the sun.  And from the looks of this picture, my little Nikon didn’t know how to respond to the sudden appearance of sunlight. Especially with random raindrops falling…

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The walk out was as beautiful as the walk in… shrouded in glory.

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Between the last picture and this one, a huge rain squall erupted, with cold winds blowing at what must have been at least Tropical Storm force.  We had to lean into the wind, and the rain hit us in the face, feeling like sleet or, at times, hail.  I felt like I was in a National Geographic special.   Fr. Jimmy noted, over the wind, that this was the back country at it’s roughest.

At the height of this storm, a man and woman walked around a bend with packs on, holding an umbrella impossibly against the wind and the rain.  It was absurd and yet somehow delightful.  It reminded me what I had come to love about the Berg Lake Trail in these few short days… that everything and everyone on it was so unique and so strange and so beautiful.

After a few moments, we descended off of the plain and began the intense 4K descent back to Whitehorn and the rest of the trail out.   The weather cleared, and we stopped and prayed morning prayer, giving thanks for such a beautiful and wonderful stay at Berg Lake.