In the Footsteps of Sergeant Kowalski (Laughing Bears Creek)

Trip Dates: Thursday, Sept 7 2023 to Sunday, Sept 10 2023 
Total Elevation Gain (m): 5050
Total Trip Time (days): 3.5
Total Trip Distance (km): 90
Peaks Ascended: Abstruse, Antevs, Profound, Osgood
Quick ‘n Dirty Rating: Class 2/3- you fall, you break something or worse.  
Difficulty Notes: One of Banff National Park’s most remote valleys and series of peaks. This is a fairly serious off-the-grid trek and you should come prepared for swift creek crossings, fickle weather, trackless Rockies landscapes and very loose and unstable slopes.
Technical Rating: TL2, OT4, SC5, SC6, SC7; RE5
GPS Track: Download
MapGoogle Maps

Almost exactly 23 years to the day, Sara Mclean and I put foot-to-pedal from the Siffleur Falls staging area following long faded tracks of two of the Alberta Rockies most intrepid and prolific modern day explorers – Rick Collier and Sergeant Kowalski. Most folks reading this blog will recognize Rick’s name, especially if you’ve read any of my trip reports from the last few years. I seem to be chasing many of the remote and difficult-to-access landscapes that he spent so much time exploring in the 90’s and early 2000’s. You may not be quite as familiar with Sergeant Kowalski’s existance. Despite traveling with him many times over the years, Rick only mentions him in one of his public trip reports. For you to properly understand Kowalski you must read Rick’s report in its entirety on bivouac but here are some gems to get you started.

I (thought I) might have to plan this outing as a solo venture. But at the last moment my old buddy from the Canadian military, Sergeant Kowalski, called me up and said he’d like to go. Now, this friend of mine is a bit peculiar – he’s fit and tough, but he doesn’t eat much, and speaks even less.

Although I was certain the next morning that it had been a small rodent who had chewed the straps on my poles and at one point had leapt upon my tent, Kowalski insisted that it was he, his manly fortitude having given way to a paroxysm of hunger, who was guilty of the gnawing (if not the leaping).

Kowalski was prowling around down below at the base of the summit block, looking for Marxists from Mozambique.

Eventually, however, I arrived on the false summit, where, sitting in the warm sunshine, was Kowalski, smoking a cigarette, his pocket flame-thrower cradled in his lap – he opined that he had just flushed out several foxholes of impudent Australian commies, and, his job being completed for the nonce, he was going to stay put and enjoy the view.

As you can deduce from the few quotes above, Sergeant Kowalski was a decorated member of the Canadian Armed Forces and very adept at his job – whatever the heck that job was. In my humble opinion the Laughing Bears Creek epic by Rick on bivouac is worth a membership on its own merit – nevermind the many other written gems there. And no, I don’t get any kickbacks from advertising it, I genuinely find the small price worth the great reads. I know the “Internet is free” but hosting sites costs money and you get what you pay for, which incidentally is why I’m not charging you to read this drivel. Consider yourself warned!

An overview map of our Laughing Bears Creek tour with many of the surrounding rivers and creeks labeled as best as I could. Note the two wildfires I’ve also marked. The one from 1974 is a bit of a guess based on several different sources. The one from 2018 is the Porcupine Creek wildfire. Both of these fires have significantly impacted the Siffleur River Trail and access to the valleys contained therein.

For many years myself and many other bivouac readers have read and re-read Rick Collier’s Laughing Bears Creek story. It contains just enough adventure, humor and intrigue to keep us coming back. There’s hints of giant unnamed peaks, wild landscapes and challenging conditions. There’s talk of other discoveries too.

I suspect I have found what must be the fabled Putnam Tower at the far edge of the meadow in which we were camped – a huge 16′ cairn, carefully and aesthetically constructed with wind holes and stability supports: it was certainly built to last a long time and had in fact already proved itself since it had been nearly thirty years since the Putnam party had tromped about in this area. Kowalski thought it looked like a good place to mount a machine gun.

This isn’t just a regular ol’ peakbagging adventure. It’s just plain adventure. For many years me and a few other folks have dreamt about following Rick and Kowalski’s fading footsteps up Smirking Ursines Creek but this was not a trip to take lightly and as far as I’m aware, nobody has done it until now.

A closer look at our adventures in upper Laughing Bears Creek. In order to figure out the messy track on Mount Osgood you’ll have to read that account on its own.

As the summer of 2023 drew slowly closer to its inevitable conclusion I noticed a nice spot of good weather opening up to coincide perfectly with a planned Thu-Sun break from the daily grind. September weather is a finicky thing and this stretch of stability could not be wasted or ignored. I texted Sara Mclean about finally getting into Laughing Bears Creek and she was available and eager to join despite spending many nights in a tent already this summer thanks to her guiding gig. I saved Rick’s report on my phone after reading it one more time and planning routes based on his descriptions. I wasn’t sure I was going to get all the peaks we had planned but was content with finding Putnam’s Tower and ascending the highest – Abstruse Peak.

There are two obvious accesses into Laughing Creek and both involve the Siffleur River trail. The longest approach has a ton of superfluous height gains via the Dolomite Pass and trail to Isabella Lake and up a remote valley across the Siffleur River as for Recondite Peak. Instead of going up the end of the valley between Recondite and Augusta, this route would go up the valley between Osgood and Recondite. From the valley there is a high col between Osgood and Profound Peak that dives steeply into the upper Laughing Bears Creek valley. But there’s a much shorter and simpler way to go. I’ve been up the Siffleur River Trail once already in 2023. Wietse and I were following Rick’s footsteps on yet another objective, being the first to sign the Siffleur Mountain summit register in 30 years. Despite finding the trail to be heavily damaged by wildfires, bogs and a complete lack of maintenance over the past few decades, we managed to hike 20 kilometers in just over 5 hours. In my mind, 5 or 6 hours of bushwhacking on old trails with at least 50% of it not impassible wasn’t that bad and Sara agreed. We just had to be mentally prepared for some suck. As usual.

Day 1 – Approach via Siffleur River & the Hunt for Kowalski’s Machine Gun Mount

After meeting in Canmore, Sara drove to the trailhead and by 09:30 we were biking towards the long, narrow bridge over the always impressive North Saskatchewan River. (Incidentally I’ve been reading Arthur P Coleman’s The Canadian Rockies – New and Old Trails and it’s amazing how many times he crossed this body of water with nothing but a half sunken makeshift log raft.) It was great to be biking this time. I remembered being pretty grumpy about walking the first 8km with Wietse when it became obvious that the trail to the Siffleur Wilderness boundary was extremely bikable. After an hour of easy biking with a dozen log pull-overs we arrived at the brand new Siffleur Wilderness Boundary sign and registry. Reading the logbook was kind of funny. There were two entries besides Wietse’s and mine, one was an antigovernment rant and the other was a grateful muse.

We locked the bikes to the boundary post and continued ahead on foot. Sara had last been up here in 2022 on her solo venture up the Escarpment River and I last been here a month previous. Both of us were expecting the worst but somehow  the worse never showed itself today. I’m not sure what was going on, but the trail never seemed quite as bad as we were expecting. Sure! There was still swamp, thick bushwhacking, sharp branches and pretty much unnavigable sections of “trail” but there were also long stretches of straightforward hiking, pleasant walking and easy navigation. The swampy bits were half as swampy as the last time I was there and the bushy bits were half as wet as when Wietse and I bashed our way through. I think our attitude helped the most – both of us just slowed down and slid our way through the difficulties without trying to fight them. I’ve called this being “one with the bush” and it makes a huge difference. I have used it on manky canoe trip portages dozens of times in the past.

After hiking along the road heading SW between Heinrich and Siffleur Mountain we passed the point where Wietse and I had gone and continued our way along the road to the Porcupine Creek crossing through the remnants of a large 2018 wildfire. Like all wild creeks, Porcupine Creek wrecked the trail but we found our way easily across and continued on for a few hundred meters. As the wide valley marking the Laughing Bears Creek valley came into view we finally cut off the main trail and started the real adventure – no more trails for the next few days! Descending to the Siffleur River was easy and quick, crossing it was slightly harder. The water was cold and fast and came almost crotch deep on me – even deeper on Sara. To be fair we didn’t scout for a better crossing for very long – I’m sure there were shallower points somewhere along this section.

It was almost certainly an illusion but I swear I saw the naked torso of Kowalski melting into the burned forest ahead of us as we started up the wide valley holding a cheerful Laughing Bears Creek. Who knows where the Sergeant went after his best friend passed away in his beloved Rockies – much too soon on August 15 2012?

There was no more wet underbrush to deal with on a perfect late summer day as we slowly and deliberately worked our way up a narrowing and steepening valley climber’s left of the creek. The sun was out, the air was fresh and cool and we remarked how easy it was to travel through the burn. With every forest fire there is a sweet spot for traveling through it afterwards. Too soon after and you’re covered in ash and soot – not pleasant at all. Too long after and you’re simply not getting through the mess of fallen trees. As they say, timing is everything and we got lucky with our timing on this adventure.

As my new 40 liter Hyperlite hiking pack turned from brilliant white to dull white (courtesy the blackened forest) we gained height and were forced near the creek by a narrowing valley. We tried hiking in the creek just for fun and while scenic, it was too slow and we went back to navigating the burn. It was surprising how high the fire had gone – burning the forest almost to treeline before finally fizzing out. As usual we did end up right in the creek eventually as infernal willows made travel alongside it less pleasant. The creek was small but offered decent hiking and scenery and despite freaking cold feet (I’m sure Kowalski was barefoot here) we were enchanted by the wild landscape slowly opening up around us. Looking up the access to Mount Fuhrer I was glad I didn’t have to do that endless rubble slope, although there was a perfect campsite at the bottom of it near the creek.

As we progressed up-valley our target peaks slowly grew larger and larger and along with it my excitement to finally be so near them. I’ve seen Abstruse Peak (Mount Perren) many times over the years – usually from a great distance. I’ve always been a little confused by the exact locations of Antevs and Profound Peak (Simpson) but a trip up Cheshire Peak in 2022 cleared things up a little and now here I was right underneath them. It’s strange to dream about something for many years and then slowly close in on it through a series of ever increasingly remote and challenging trips.

Augusta (R), Recondite, Simpson (Profound) and Mount Perren (Abstruse) (L) from the summit of Clearwater Mountain in 2019.

The days are much shorter in September than earlier in the summer and as we slowly approached the end of treeline we hoped we’d continue to spot excellent campsites. Laughing Bears Creek is unique in this regard – we passed at least 3 or 4 prime spots on ascent, not always the case with remote backcountry valleys. Sure enough! After passing a large and strangely uniform half-circle of mushrooms (likely planted and actively consumed by Kowalski) we came to a large flat alpine meadow perfectly situated for all our scrambling objectives. As we looked around for tent sites we wondered aloud where the infamous Putnam Tower was and then Sara exclaimed – “right over there”!

I had two major objectives with the Laughing Bears trip. One was to ascend the highest peak in the area – Abstruse Peak. The other was to find and photograph Sergeant Kowalski’s machine gun mount, more commonly known as Putnam’s Tower. Rick claimed the tower was 16 feet high and was built by William L Putnam on one of his trips into the area but very little else was known of this huge rock cairn erected in the upper stretches of one of the most remote valleys in the Alberta Rockies. In all my sources I could not find which trip Putnam actually built the cairn but he made first recorded ascents in the area in 1968 and his 1972 trip his group “restored it” – so I’m guessing it was the 1968 group that originally constructed this impressive stone monument. 

After setting up camp Sara and I finally decided to approach and explore the curiosity – just visible across the alpine flats we were set up on. The rocks blended into the scenery and I can see why Rick didn’t spot it when he first arrived, only seeing it the day after when he marched right past it. More like 12 feet high, the rock cairn is very impressive and strangely odd, standing cold, still and silent in this wild place. How many marmots and grizzlies have wandered past it, perhaps wondering at its strangeness over the last 55 years? I guarantee you many more than Homo Sapiens have. It’s an impressive build with tiny rocks still faithfully holding huge ones in place. It’s hollow and filled with stones and includes a wind gap half way up.

We looked for a register of some kind but if it’s there, it’s hidden pretty good. Considering how well it’s been standing there for half a century I think it’ll still be there in another 55 years, perhaps with an oddly mannered army Sergeant with a smoldering cigarette in one hand and and an old AK-47 in the other to keep it company and protect the locals – whether they want it or not.

Our lovely campsite in upper Laughing Bears Creek under the giant SW rubble slopes of Abstruse Peak.

As light continued to fade over the valley we wandered back to our tents, finishing up the day by reading books on our phones in calm silence with only a bubbling creek to break it. I got the chills and retired to my tent by 20:30, taking a long time to warm up. 

Day 2 – Abstruse Peak & Mount Antevs

After a 10-hour night in the sleeping bag I was more than ready to get out by 06:30. There was no point in getting out too much earlier than that considering sunrise was after 07:00 and we didn’t have an especially huge day ahead. There was ice on the inside of my tent and putting on wet shoes really sucked in the cold morning air. I was a lot cooler than expected overnight, despite having a -2 sleeping bag and wearing almost all my warm clothes. I guess fall is coming.

Incredible views along the east faces of Recondite (R), Augusta, Willingdon, Crown, Tower from the SW ascent ridge of Mount Antevs.

We left camp by 07:30 and made our ascent of the primary objective without incident, returning to camp by noon and enjoying a nice lunch break in warm sunshine. The afternoon was spent wandering to the far upper SE reaches of the Laughing Bears valley and ascending the surprisingly large Mount Antevs to some of the best views of the trip. We ended the 2nd day the same way we ended the first – eating supper and reading books in the shadow of the huge NW cliffs of Mount Osgood before getting chilled and retiring early to our tents for another chilly night under the stars.

Day 3 – Profound Peak & Mount Osgood – Egress to Siffleur River

After another long night in the tent and even more ice on the walls, we woke 30 minutes earlier than the day before, at 06:00. We had more unknowns on our chosen peaks for this day than we had the previous one and were hoping to start our exit at the end of it, if possible. Despite sleeping pretty good, it was darn cold at this elevation and we were thinking it might be nice to set up camp a bit lower for our 3rd and final night out.

After successfully ascending both Profound and Osgood, we returned back to camp and slowly packed up before wandering out of the upper Laughing Bears valley as the shadows grew longer. I took one long look back at the rock tower and swear that I glimpsed a camouflaged army sergeant ducking behind it just as I made the turn. It continued to be a gorgeous day as we walked out of the valley, roughly following our route from a few days before, all the way back down to the Siffleur River.

The long hike back down Laughing Bears Creek. The route to Mount Fuhrer rising into the sun at right – the peak out of sight here.

Instead of crossing the river and getting wet just before setting up for the night, we settled on a perfectly situated sand and gravel bar at the meeting place of the Laughing Bears Creek and Siffleur River. You guessed it – by 20:30 I was in the tent, hoping for a warmer night.

Day 4 – Egress from Siffleur River to Siffleur Falls Staging Area

I did not get my wish for a warmer night – if anything I had even more ice on the tent along the Siffleur River. Of course, being camped so near a set of large water sources didn’t help with the ice. Even more stimulating than waking to an ice shower off the tent walls, was crossing a deep and bitterly cold Siffleur River first thing in the morning. That certainly didn’t help us warm up! After the river crossing the rest of the morning was spent hiking in perfect late summer weather, following the now familiar Siffleur River trail across the boundary to the Kootenay Plains Ecological Reserve and our waiting bikes.

The bike ride was very pleasant and much quicker than the 8km hike that ended my last trip here. I was thankful the entire ride out that we’d planned and brought the 2-wheel steeds. We arrived at a busy parking lot by noon feeling very good about ourselves and the amazing trip we’d just completed.

Laughing Bears Creek will always stand out in my mind as a quintessential Rockies backcountry adventure. I’ve been planning and dreaming of it for so many years, it had the potential to disappoint but instead it exceeded even my best ideas of what it might be. It will stand out as one of my favorite trips of all time and certainly a highlight of 2023.


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