As part of a father / daughter backpacking trip over the last weekend of summer 2014, I decided it was time to take Kaycie on a real back country adventure instead of front country 'easy' stuff. She was game for something a bit more rustic after our bivy on White Buddha back in May. I had my eye on a trip that Rick Collier did as his first overnight solo in 1985. I was fairly confident that nobody had replicated Rick's trip in the 29 years since he did it and I was intrigued to bivy in a remote area of Banff National Park that I'd never been in before.
The trip included backpacking down the Spray River Valley from the Shark / Watridge Lake trail head in Kananaskis Country, to the Palliser Warden Cabin before bushwhacking and bivying at an unnamed tarn between mounts Vavasour and Warre (Warre Pond). Of course the point of the backpacking and bivying was to ascend the mountains around the small lake and possibly tack on Mount Leval as well. Rick sold the trip as easy / moderate scrambling and light bushwhacking to Warre Pond. I think he slightly oversold some of the ease, perhaps he wrote the trip report many years after doing it! :)
We parked at the Mount Shark / Watridge Lake trail head on Friday morning under grayer-than-expected skies. The weather forecast was calling for a mix of sun and cloud, but we'd already driven through rain showers and it wasn't looking very good to the west where we were going to be hiking...
The first 6km of hiking on a hard-pan road past Watridge Lake and over the bridge spanning the Spray River are never very enjoyable. I've done this section of trail a number of times both on foot and by skis and every time I do it I swear I won't do it again - yet here I was doing it AGAIN! ;) It was much more enjoyable with good conversation and the day was cool and cloudy with the occasional rain shower just to keep us soaking wet. Although bikes would make this first 6km go by much quicker, with large back packs and rolling terrain it wouldn't have worked well for us. Speaking of 'rolling terrain', one of the reasons I don't like the road / trail to the Spray River is the elevation loss from the parking lot. We descended over 200m on this first section and knew we'd be sweating (and swearing...) on the way back out!
[Pano from nearby the Engadine Lodge on our way to the Mount Shark trailhead. ++]
[The road is kind of boring, but we had good conversation and fall colors to entertain us.]
[View from the bridge across the Spray River, our trail goes up the right hand side.]
Just after the bridge there was a sign pointing the way to Palliser Pass - 20km down the Spray River Valley. We wouldn't be traveling quite that far, but we turned off the wide trail that continued to Bryant Creek / Assiniboine and started down the much less traveled path beside the Spray River going south. I don't normally enjoy hiking through valley bottoms and through dark forests, but Kaycie loves it and I have to admit she may be slowly changing my mind. The peacefulness and stillness of the forest is enchanting. The wild and rugged terrain surrounding the Spray River Valley surprised me. I don't know why, but it was much more scenic and enjoyable than I was expecting. For some reason I was extremely nervous about bears on this trip - maybe it was Rick's comments that got me on edge as he was also paranoid on his excursion in this area. Normally I don't even carry bear spray but I think because of a recent mauling death in Kananaskis and because I was with my daughter, I was much more paranoid than usual. I knew this valley contained a very healthy bear population and sure enough, about 2km after starting the valley trail we started following fresh grizzly tracks - no more than a few hours old! And this wasn't a small bear either. These were some of the largest bear tracks I've ever seen along with the largest piles of bear scat I've stepped around in 15 years of hiking. There was also clear evidence of huge Moose in the area, and I'm pretty sure we saw wolf tracks in the wet mud. I started yelling every 15 seconds and kept that up until finally the large bruin turned off to White Man Pass and we continued to the Birdwood campground.
Considering how little information you can find on this trail (including on the Banff trail report), I was pleasantly surprised when we came on two newly installed bridges over the river and a new trail cut into the forest to get around some 2013 flood damage. I'm pretty sure these repairs were very new as there was no trail or even tracks worn into the newly cut forested sections and the bridges smelled of freshly sawn wood.
The Birdwood back country campground was eerily quiet as we hiked past. We saw very little evidence of humans anywhere along the Spray River Valley. Fresh horse tracks indicated riders within the last week (this is an approved Banff horse trail) but other than that we felt very alone in the gray mists and cool breeze. Kaycie was loving it and I was trying to hide my nervousness regarding more bear sign - we came across at least 3 distinct bear tracks / sign on the trail up to the Palliser Warden Cabin. Surprisingly for a horse trail, the track wasn't completely destroyed, but was very enjoyable and easy to follow. At one point the trail split - make sure you follow the hiking signs or you'll be wading through creeks instead of crossing (new) bridges over them!
[Into the wild...]
[There were enough of these open areas to keep things interesting - we weren't stuck in trees for 15km with no views.]
[The trail was obvious, but certainly not a highway!]
[Gorgeous scenery with a gloomy over tone? ;)]
[We've now branched off the shared trail and have followed a sign indicating the hiking trail goes up the river, while the horse trail crosses it just behind us.]
[The very freshly cut hiking trail that takes a high line along the creek, presumably to get around 2013 flooding damage. There isn't even a track worn in the forest yet.]
[Bridges have recently been installed on the new bypass.]
[Clear, refreshing waters of the Spray River. I can't help but wonder what the Spray Valley would look like without the Spray Lakes Reservoir? Would it have been wild and untamed just like the southern stretches?]
[Another new bridge is located shortly after the first one.]
[That's a mighty big bruin and we've been following it for long time already. Mighty fresh too...]
[Back in the embrace of the forest]
[Finally our mountains start showing up. Warre is in the center. Shortly ahead of us here, before the end of the meadow, is the signed turnoff for White Man Pass which goes off to our right. The large grizzly took this path. We did not. ;)]
[Fall scenery with Currie on the right and an unnamed bump on the left. Whiteman Pass is somewhere in the distant center.]
[Mount Leman is obvious with it's small remnant pocket glacier in the far distance.]
[A very quiet Birdwood back country campground.]
Shortly after passing the Birdwood campground we arrived at a bridge over a dry streambed. A lonely Canadian Flag flapped in the breeze far off to our left, standing guard in front of a small warden cabin. What a grand place to have a cabin! Once again I found myself envious of the lucky few who get paid to travel and stay in these locations.
Looking the other way, to our right, we could see Mounts Vavasour and Warre with our approach gully leading up between them. We decided to head towards the gully, hoping to follow an obvious rocky streambed up to our bivy on Warre Pond. We didn't notice it right away, but there was also a very dark band of rain clouds rapidly approach from the south...
Sure enough, as we crossed the cold, shallow waters of the Spray River a steady rain began to fall. Knowing that we had to bushwhack up over 1000 feet in a soaking rain almost made me turn around and go back to the Birdwood camp ground instead of continuing to our bivy. On hindsight that may have been the smart thing to do, but Rick had promised me "light bushwhacking" so I wasn't too concerned at this point yet.
[Mount Birdwood on the far left, Snow Peak above Kaycie. Soon we'll turn right - the Palliser warden cabin is just ahead.]
[From L to R, Mount Leman, Leval, Vavasour and Warre. ++]
[The meadows where we left the Spray River Valley trail. The Palliser warden cabin and Smuts Pass is on the left. ++]
[Ready to cross a low Spray River, threatening skies approach from the south.]
[Kaycie finishes the cold crossing. Smuts and Birdwood in the background rising up behind the warden cabin.]
In fairness to Rick, I should have done more research before this trip. I assumed that the easiest route up to the bivy would be either directly up the drainage or on either side of it. Now that I have the benefit of hindsight, I should have viewed the Google Earth image of the area before making this assumption. I would have seen an obvious avalanche gully which likely would have resulted in much less bushwhacking than we encountered. As it was, we endured a few hours of pretty intense character-building bushwhacking. At more than one point I asked Kaycie if she was done, but she insisted she was fine and we should keep going so we did! I even started to wonder if we'd be stuck on steep slopes with an emergency bivy at one point - the shrubs were dense, trees were down everywhere and everything was soaking wet. We were absolutely drenched from head to toe, even with rain gear which only helps so much when you're wading over and through dense underbrush. Seeing fresh bear tracks along the stream didn't calm me down any either... There was only one place that bear could be going! There were short stretches where we could hike in the streambed, but more often than not we had to scramble up steep banks and bushwhack along it's edge.
Kaycie was a trooper - I felt terrible for dragging her into such a tangled mess! I wasn't too happy about it but eventually we were 'only' 300 meters from the lake and turning back was pointless. The only obstacle left was a steep headwall with a waterfall plunging down it. We struggled up beside it on climber's right, slipping on the steep, muddy / grassy slope. Kaycie was looking pretty tired as we finally crested the waterfall and stumbled on a goat trail leading to the lake. The last struggle involved getting through some avy debris before we finally glimpsed paradise! I will say this - working for it makes the reward that much sweeter.
[The area around our bivy. The red line is our approach down the Spray River Valley. The sharp turn is where we left the trail and bushwhacked up near the stream. We should have followed the blue line. The blue circle is the Palliser Warden cabin, the red circle is our bivy location. ++]
[Still smiling, but SOAKED! I didn't take many pictures on the bushwhack since my camera was tucked into my rain coat. This is one of the rare short stretches where we hiked in the streambed.]
[The final headwall just under the lake. A series of low cliff bands must be avoided on climber's right.]
[Avoiding the cliff bands / waterfall on climber's right. We're almost at the end of our rope here!]
[Above the headwall getting through some avalanche debris.]
I think Kaycie was ready to kill me when I called back to her that we were going to hike around the lake to its far side to look for a nice bivy spot. I didn't like the idea of camping right by the headwall, especially with fresh bear tracks near it and wanted to be more in the open. The far side of the lake looked more open and Rick had stayed there too. We followed a distinct goat track around the lake before finding the one flat, soft spot that my tiny tent would fit on. Put it this way - there's not many options for a good bivy near Warre Pond, but the one that is there is absolutely perfect! We were backed onto the lake with waves lapping the shore so close to the tent it sounded like we were going to get wet! The views out the entrance were pretty good too, and we were on a soft bed of moss. Like I said, perfect.
Thankfully the rain slowed down long enough for us to set up camp and make supper. As evening settled in, we relaxed with our e-readers and hot chocolate while admiring the wilderness in our little corner of paradise outside the tent. Ducks made calls over the small lake and a magnificant white mountain goat grazed peacefully upslope from us. Oh - and did I mention that our little meadow was torn up by fairly recent grizzly diggings? Yeah. ;)
The wind picked up as the rain died off and I made sure the tent was tied to large piles of rock before turning in for the night. Throughout the night wind gusts tried to blow us into the lake, but thankfully they were unsuccessful.
[Hiking around the lake, trying to find a good bivy spot. There was only one spot that really worked well!]
[A pano of our little corner of paradise! Vavasour rises over our tent. We accessed the lake through the narrow gap at the far end. ++]
[Snug in the tent with a good book. What else do you need?!]
[He's hard to see, but there's a mountain goat grazing behind our tent.]
[Telephoto of the narrow gap we accessed the lake through.]
[The 'front porch' view isn't too shabby...]
[Grizzlies like this little gem of wilderness too. Hopefully we don't have to share it - 'cause there's not much room here!]
[Our camp and the lake after the second day - much calmer and clearer! ++]
[Still time to read a book after bagging Warre and Vavasour!]
[Sunset pano of Warre Pond. ++]
[Mount Warre with the Milky Way]
[A much clearer day on the hike out!]
[I love fall...]
[The new trail section around the 2013 flood damage is so new there's no trail worn into the forest yet!]
[There's enough open meadows to provide views - not just stuck in forest the whole time.]
[We saw at least a dozen of these partridges - they startled us almost every time because they don't move until you literally step on them!!]