Monday, January 15, 2018

Smoke and Snow: Heart Canyon

Our 2017 trip to the Canadian Rockies landed in September. Joan and I were up at 3:30am on the 6th for a 7:10 flight. At the airport Joan was picked yet again by TSA for special treatment, a shoe swabbing followed by a hand inspection of her carry-on day pack. This startled our traveling pigs for this journey, PigO and Mr. Frumble, who had fallen asleep in the pack.

We had a long layover at the Minneapolis airport and took advantage of this for a sit-down hot breakfast at the French Meadow. Afterwards we took turns walking through the airport; MPLS is laid out in such a way that a long loop, not just an out-and-back, is possible. Joan stopped in one art shop and chatted with the fellow there. He had a deep backstory; born Jewish in Istanbul, he left Turkey when it started becoming less secular. His wife was working next door to one of the Twin Towers on 9/11, and after that, they moved to Minneapolis.

This year we couldn't see the mountains on the horizon as we landed in Calgary. Alberta and British Columbia were having a bad wildfire season, and the air was hazy even out in the plains.

This was our first time entering Canada through Calgary's brand-new international terminal, and after having read mixed reviews, we were apprehensive. It was a long walk from gate 94 to passport control but not as bad as we'd feared. Kiosks were available to US and Canadian citizens, so all we needed to do was scan our passports and customs form, quick and easy.

After picking up our luggage it was time for the longest walk of the day, to the rental cars. We asked an older red coat (airport volunteer) how to get there, and discovered that he was a fan of "The Big Bang Theory." Reaching the rental cars required marching the length of the international plus the domestic terminal.

We stopped at the Kananaskis Information Centre, a short side trip on the way to Canmore, to buy some bear spray. You can't take it on airplanes! In Canmore we checked in at Canadian Artisans Bed and Breakfast, which boasts a great location and wonderful hosts, Val and Bob. Our pigs had a chance to meet the other residents.
Rocky Mountain Flatbread was within walking distance, as is most of the town center, and after dinner there we returned to reorganize our luggage from airplane into hiking mode. TSA had inspected both bags this time; they must have been really bored. Then early to bed.

After an apr├Ęs-breakfast chat with Val, Bob, and a Dutch couple also staying at Canadian Artisans, Joan and I walked over to the Thursday Farmer's Market. We were first-timers at the market because we'd never managed to be in Canmore on Thursday before. The edibles spanned the entire spectrum from meat to baked goods to veggies and fruit. We ogled fresh, astonishingly good berries from British Columbia and bought some, along with lunch fixings.

Joan and I then drove to Heart Creek, a short, popular hike just outside Canmore that we had been postponing for a long time. Today was the day for several reasons:

  • Taking a canyon walk instead of a climb to a high view was the better choice given the smoke.
  • In years past we had been able to do substantial training before heading north, but this year there were only 16 days between our return from Greenland and leaving for Canada, so we needed a few days of ramping up.
  • I didn't want to aggravate an intermittent atrial flutter that had been diagnosed back in May.

We arrived around noon. Heart Creek had been irrevocably altered by the flood of 2013 (click on the image to enlarge).
One measure of the ferocity of that event is that the footbridge at the far end of the trail wound up only a few hundred feet from the Trans-Canada highway. The rest were smashed.

September is binge-feeding time for the black and grizzly bears in the Rockies, in preparation for hibernation. Make enough noise that you don't surprise them and carry bear spray.
This is a typical view of the lower range of the creek. There is debris, wood and stone, all the way up.
A more detailed sign about the flood.
In this picture the extent of scouring from water and tumbling rocks and boulders is evident. Also, note how trees further away begin to disappear in smoky haze.
This canyon is also frequented by rock climbers.
Crossing one of the replacement bridges.
Tons of undermining at this bend.
As the canyon rose the smoke became thicker.
Another stream crossing.
A very simple bridge.
The end of the easy trail, although it's possible to climb a much steeper route either to the left or right of the photo.
The sun, aiming down the canyon, bathed a bench in a haze-tinted light.
Joan and I found a spot out of the glare, on the edge of the water, and ate our lunch. This upper part of the gorge was comfortable, even though the day's official high temperature was 30°C/86°F.

On our way back down we studied a nest, high up the canyon wall, that Joan had spotted on our way up. Through binoculars we could see that it was large, secure in an alcove, and composed of large sticks. Vegetation was clinging to the rock face below it, fertilized by the dribbles and drainage from the nest. Our consensus was that it was likely a golden eagle nest, vacant this late in the year.

Near the bottom of the trail, where the flood debris had fanned out for dozens of yards, we met two or three rock climbers unsure of the way. After pointing them in the right direction we listened to them deciding whether to wait for the rest of their group. The other car had been seen, but maybe it had parked in another area. This bunch had agreed last night to wait for the other bunch, but then someone pointed out that they had been drinking, perhaps excessively, and therefore the agreement wasn't valid. Fortunately the other group showed up before the pact was broken.

Joan and I walked a short way east on the Trans Canada trail, and then back to Heart Creek parking and our car. The walk's climbs had been gentle, with occasional bumps, but it also gave us practice on rocky and rooty trails.