We’re not in a huge hurry to leave Grand Prairie in the morning. We eat a slow breakfast, then start the long drive back to Monkman Provincial Park. We reach the trailhead at lunchtime, but the mouse we picked up in Kakwa is still in the car. Shake’nBake takes all of our gear out of the back, and finds him hiding in the spare tyre well. He fails at catching the little guy, despite chasing him around with a screwdriver and ziplock bag. Instead, we put any leftover food in mouse-proof containers, and park directly in the hot sun, hopeful that will encourage him to relocate. We only manage 14km before the sun sinks towards the horizon and we find a campsite for the night.
It’s a quick 12km to Monkman lake in the morning, but thunderstorms will stop us from pushing on to the high alpine traverse beyond. It’s a nice change of pace to not rush, knowing the afternoon clouds will limit our miles. We have coffee with a family at our campsite and pet their cute dog. After, it’s easy miles that we’ve already done twice to get to the lake. We bump into a group of three young guys a kilometer from the lake- they’re leaving after a weekend of camping. We reach the camp spot at the lake and find their fire still smoking. It’s Canada’s worst ever fire season, and BC has been under a total fire ban for weeks. I walk the six feet between the lake and the firepit ten times, scooping my cup in the water and pouring it over the coals, while Shake’nBake grumbles about idiots. Fire extinguished, we spend the afternoon doing crosswords and watching the clouds grow. They don’t break until we go to bed, and hail pelts our tent, turning the ground white outside. It’s a nice climb on a surprisingly good trail in the morning. The trail vanishes once we reach the alpine, although there’s a series of cairns to mark the way, until they too peter out. We walk along an alpine bench across a valley from the massive icefield that marks where the Rocky Mountains and continental divide part ways. From here, the divide swoops west across the Rocky Mountain Trench, before rising again in BC’s coastal mountains. The Rockies continue north, though less spectacular than before.
We climb over a pass by an unnamed glacier. The trail is long gone, and we pick our way carefully over rocky shelves, avoiding the ice. We drop down as storms run over distant mountains. Shake’nBake is bewitched by Ice Mountain: a fantastic glacier capped behemoth with snow streaked sides. We drop down and down, through trees and meadows, until we find a somewhat flat spot of ground in a clearing. I’m tired after just twenty kilometers: more tired than I’ve been after thirty five mile days. The constant rough ground and route finding is exhausting: you can’t just switch off and follow smooth trail. Shake’nBake handles the major route finding expertly, but there’s often micro navigation that leaves us confused. Should we follow this rock ledge or that one? Will this clearing take us around a stand of trees, or dead end in thick willow? A difference of just a few feet can greatly impact our speed, and we haven’t yet mastered the art of finding the quickest travel. It leaves me more exhausted than far higher mileage trails, in a way I hadn’t expected.
We start the morning off with an awful sidehill bushwhack. The route traverses the side of a mountain, which would be quick and easy walking on a trail, but without one our ankles are constantly at painful angles, and our feet slip out on vegetation. Our speed is embarrassingly slow, especially after the relatively easy miles of yesterday. There’s no water anywhere: we haven’t seen a single stream since the glacial meltwater we crossed the day before. This side of the pass is completely dry. Finally, around lunch time, only 5km from where we camped, we find a shallow pond not much bigger than the footprint of our tent. Shake’nBake fills a water bottle before he notices the dead rat sinking into the sediment at the bottom. We don’t have much choice, so we fill our bottles, before I find a long stick to fish out the unfortunate rodent. Sediment swirls along the bottom, making me glad I waited to remove him. We’ll have to use this water source again on the way out, so hopefully all the rat germs will have settled by then.
We climb up and leave treeline again, and the going gets a little easier. This is the way of it on this hike: even the steepest alpine sections are much quicker and easier than anything below treeline. We crest the shoulder of an unnamed peak, and the valley unfurls below us. We can trace our route for the next few days: a bushwhack through six kilometers of trees to the trio of limestone lakes beyond. Over them rises sharply angled Weaver peak, with an icefield hidden in its summit ridge, and waterfalls that cascade over sharp cliffs before dispersing in the wind. On a trail, it would only be a few hours of easy hiking to get to the base of Weaver. It will take us over 24 hours of hard work.
It’s a long bushwhack down towards the lake. We connect fins of limestone rock, cracked and broken by years of water erosion until they look like a fractured sidewalk. We leave the fins near the base of the climb, and instead bushwhack through blueberry bushes mixed with rhododendron. We burst from the trees by the third lake’s outflow: a muddy puddle drained by a sinkhole. A caribou watches us warily, and we’re silent for once, halting our bear noises to try and avoid disturbing him. He turns and dashes into the trees on the other side of the clearing when I accidentally step on a stick. We eat dinner by the river draining the third lake. Shake’nBake is melancholy: something I’ve known for a while is starting to set in for him. We’re not going to connect our footsteps this year. This route is hard: we made as many concessions and backup plans as possible to deal with what we knew was going to be a challenge, but it’s still kicking our butts. We’ve only managed 12 kilometers today, far lower than the daily mileage we’d planned, but we can’t move any quicker, and we’re too exhausted to hike later. Shake’nBake is saddened, but I find it hard to be too upset when everything is this stunning. We set up camp on the lake, and it’s one of the most beautiful spots I’ve ever spent the night. We haven’t seen a person in 48 hours, or any sign of other humans at all in over 24 hours- not even a cairn. It’s rough not to achieve our goals, but this landscape is unlike anything else I’ve ever hiked through.
We wake to clouds racing fast across the sky. Our good weather has broken, though the rain holds off for now. We make fantastic time around the third lake, skirting the water on gravel banks. The second lake is a little harder: it’s surrounded by thick willows and rhododendrons. We find it easier to walk directly in the lake, on the soft gravel bed that’s only ankle deep. The first lake is harder still: too deep to walk in the entire way, and the bank is a steep sidehill. There’s a bit of a game trail, though very overgrown. We’ve just started to follow it, alternating between that and the lake, which reaches my thighs at some points, when it starts to rain, hard. The temperature plummets, and our frequent trips into the icy water don’t help. Soon I’m shivering, and losing function in my hands. The bank is too steep to stop and set up the tent, and our progress is glacially slow now that the brush is wet and slippery. Finally we find a flat spot just big enough for the tent as the rain lessens. We change into dry clothes and get into our sleeping bags to warm up, even as the weather improves, with sunbeams flitting through the last of the rain showers.
After a few hours of sleeping bags and hot soup, I’m warm enough to keep going. We climb up over the last few hundred feet of the lake, to a pretty pass directly below Weaver and Limestone peaks, both of which have their heads in the low clouds. We start down from the pass. It’s easy at first: gorgeous alpine meadows where now absent bears have dug up ground squirrel tunnels in search of a meal. One digging is so deep it resembles a shallow grave. Shake’nBake frets about bears, while I watch the still dark sky overhead (always my biggest fear). Our easy alpine descends into willows taller than me. We follow a stream, which at least provides something like a path, though my soaked feet are blocks of ice. As we get closer to the base of Weaver, rock slides alternate with the bushes. These aren’t much easier to traverse: some of the boulders are the size of fridges, but they are slightly faster than the willows. We try to favour the rocks, staying a little higher, but we’re still only inching along. We shwack until we find a passable campsite, although it’s incredibly exposed, high on the side of Weaver, and in the only gap between willows for miles. We eat dinner, and seconds before we’re finished, it starts to pour. We set up the tent in a flurry, though the rain soaks us and the wind flaps the fly until I’m worried we won’t get it up. An hour after we’re in bed, the rain stops again.
The route is worse in the morning, though the weather is better. We alternate between even thicker willows and boulders that move underfoot until we’re frustrated and grumpy. We do 0.75km in two hours, and Shake’nBake despairs. “Are we even having fun?” he asks me. “Maybe we should turn around here. We’re not going to make it to the Narroway anyway.” “Let’s stop and make a coffee,” I say. During the time it takes to make and drink a coffee, Shake’nBake has cheered up a little. We still have two days before we have to turn around, and I’m not quite ready to be done yet. We pack up and keep going, and I almost immediately regret my decision to talk him out of quitting. The willows get thicker and thicker, until we’re pushing through brush taller than even Shake’nBake. We reach the Framstead river at dinnertime. We’ve done a whole 7km today: a new low, though we’re more exhausted than ever. We stop just before the riverbanks (the willows are too thick to stop on the river, and even getting water is a challenge). Across the river, the vegetation is even thicker, an impenetrable wall. We’ve looked at the maps. We both know there’s another 20 km of this kind of terrain: we don’t have a chance of getting back to treeline for days. But more importantly, this kind of bushwhacking just isn’t fun. So, we decide to turn around. We eat our dinner and then begin to retrace our steps. Uphill is a little quicker, and we soon make it out of the Framstead valley. We camp on a marshy bench just a few kilometers away from our campsite the night before.
It’s slow going in the morning. Just because we’ve already covered this ground doesn’t mean the route finding is any easier. We follow a beautiful clear animal trail through rhododendron thickets, but it cliffs out over a thirty foot drop. Defeated, we spend an hour backtracking and then bushwhacking through thick willow instead. We make slow time through the brush, but it gradually improves as we climb up the valley. Weaver and Limestone peaks stand tall above us, radiant in the sunshine. We camp on the pass looking back towards Weaver’s waterfalls and Limestone Lakes below.
Shake’nBake wakes up to pee just before midnight and shakes me awake. The northern lights are out! They flicker overhead: pale ghosts washed out by the full moon rising behind the mountains. We roll over and stick our heads out of the tent to watch them until they disappear completely in the bright moonlight. Water is weird in the morning- the waterfalls that tumbled down Limestone peak last night have turned off. The limestone rock makes water do strange things around here: huge rivers vanish underground and pop out again hundreds of meters later, and lakes drain into nothing. We retrace our path along the first lake, which is much more pleasant in warm sunshine. We take a long break at the middle lake and it’s warm enough to even bathe a little. Then, we retrace our steps around the third lake and through the forest. We camp on the ridge that overlooks our route from the day, a majestic view in the fading light.
Our fantastic weather continues. We climb up and over the glacier pass in sunshine, retracing our steps from over a week ago. The route gets easier with every step we take: on both ends of this route, the going is substantially easier. We camp by Hugh Lake, just a few kilometers shy of Monkman Lake.
It’s nice again in the morning, although clouds build throughout the day. We make short work of the long descent to Monkman lake, which we reach by lunchtime. We spend the afternoon walking the many side trails to a series of waterfalls that are the ultimate destination for most of Monkman Provincial Park’s visitors. Thunder rolls far away, but the rain stays in the distance. We camp at Cascades, a pretty but well used site just in front of a waterfall. We’ve just set up the tent when four women and five dogs hike in to spend the night. They are the first people we’ve seen in over eight days. It’s rainy in the morning, but we’re not too worried about the weather. It’s an easy 22km to the car, so it barely even matters if we get a little wet. The rain stops as we leave camp, and we’re lucky enough that it holds off until we reach our now mouse-free car.