Wednesday, August 15, 2007

In the Back Country: the ride to Mystic

Continued from "to Flint's Peak" and "Into the Back Country"

We woke to another beautiful Rocky Mountain morning - to blue skies and the fresh smells of the dewy meadow and the surrounding pines. Back on the trail, a detour and a short walk along a rather exposed path brought us to the exceptional North Cascade Falls - a real gem of a waterfall in a gorgeous little canyon.

Back on the horses, our ride took us past a shuttered Park Warden's cabin - as a supplementary precaution against ursine intrusion, large numbers of nails had been hammered upwards through wooden pallets, and these left in front of all doors and windows. The location was pretty perfect - right beside a river, with a neat-as-a-pin corral alongside (including a chute to allow horses to drink straight from the river). Lucky people.

North Fork Cascade Falls

Fording the Cascade River for the last time, we rode up the crest of a steep and very exposed ridge - an arete, really. The views on this ascent were probably very good - but the author was too busy dizzying himself by looking down the precipitous drops to either side to pay much attention to the wider landscape. Fortunately for the future of this blog, Ajax behaved himself almost perfectly.

The ridge topped out into level ground eventually, and short stroll through trees brought us to the western shore of Rainbow Lake - a classic post-glacial feature, sitting in a high bowl with steep rocky sides, the shale still concealed in places by the last of the winter's snowdrifts. Perhaps a thousand feet above, mountain sheep were silhouetted briefly against the sky. In the lake at our feet, trout surfaced continuously. To add the final touch of wildness and beauty to the scene, an Osprey stooped down from the trees on the north shore, splashed once, then climbed with impressive speed to circle past us, a dripped trout wriggling in his talons.

We rode on; steeply downhill, and onto the broad open spaces of Forty Mile Pass, which sits on the old packer route between Banff and Jasper, and gives exceptional views to north and south. Then, down again, past a circling eagle, and into the forest, and at last into Mystic Camp.

Campfire at Mystic

It was at Mystic that we were introduced by the camp packer to the mysteries of the great Austrialian art of whip-cracking. This is done with a fantastically supple fifteen foot leather whip, which tapes slowly to a very light and narrow tip. The easiest way to get the crack out is to start by laying the whip straight ahead; then, a surprisingly slow and gentle pull on the handle lifts the leather up and back past the whipper's ear - after which the handle is brought smartly forward, accelerating the tip of the tip to Mach 2! This doesn't produce the crack - but the loop that has just been induced in the main body does, shooting down the thinning leather, concentrating the energy into an ever-lighter cross section, and finally breaking the sound-barrier. Done right, this sounds just like a rifle - and, when you think about it, the sound is generated in a very similar way. Done wrong, I found the thong very likely to wind up around my neck, on the back of my legs, or really anywhere I did not mean it to be. The evening ended around the campfire, with our guide and packer trading trail stories.

Friday, August 10, 2007

In the Back Country: on to Flint's Peak

Continued from "Into the Back Country"

On our second day, C rode out on a fresh mount, the very handsome Ricky - her previous mount, Gent, was being given an easy day, on account of having been bitten by Ajax while in the corral. Ricky was very lazy, always falling behind - until motivated with a freshly-cut switch, after which he became a reformed character.

We rode first along a winding trail through dark forest, tall pines close on every side. Once, we passed a ruined log cabin, built by trappers sometime around the start of the twentieth century. The walls still stood, but the massive trunks of falling trees had toppled inwards from all sides to crash through the roof; an imaginative observer might think the forest had sacrificed a few of its giants to drive the intruders out.

Dark forest became scrubby bog, followed by meadow; we sat a while beside an old elk trap, used to thin (by relocation) the local population. Later, we stopped for lunch in a forest whose floor was carpeted with the thickest and softest mosses became the mattresses for our siesta; we dozed beside an abandoned wolf den, under the solemn gaze of a young and fearless owl.

Fording the Cascade River

The afternoon ride was a little more challenging; we rode a very narrow trail across a steep slope, listening to loose stones rattle off into the forest below. I felt Ajax stumble once or twice, but my Appaloosa didn't fail me. Later, he took me safely through the cold, cold Cascade River a time or two (stirrup-deep, sometimes), and finally, very cautiously, down the break-neck steepness of the trail into our camp below Flint's Peak.

Camped below Flint's Peak

In camp, I took to the river to wash away the heat and grime of the trail; my chosen bathtub was a hollow in mid-river in the lee of an obstruction that broke the current. I reached it by edging out along some fallen trees, a very rough and slippery bridge, trying not to think about how it would feel to be swept downstream after a good raking from the sharp stumps of broken branches. It was the coldest (and easily the quickest) bath of my life - but what a location.

Thursday, August 02, 2007


I knew I was close - lots of fresh scat on the ground, seed-stippled, each heap with its own orbiting cloud of flies, the stink competing for my attention with the pervading reek of rotten fish. Turning a corner, I sent a cloud of scavenging ravens flapping into the sky; the eagles remained, unmoving but watchful of my passing. There were pug-marks in the mud, broad game-trails in the grass. Perhaps the bear was gone - or perhaps he was behind me. After three hours of stalking, that nasty eyes-on-the-back-of-my-neck feeling was stronger that ever, and my hand hovered above the holster on my hip.

I decided on one final pass through the thicket before giving up - having already seen the runs and the fish scraps, I knew that he must spend a lot of time there. Leaving open ground was a risky tactical move, though. In the thicket, I could pass right by whole squadrons of bears without ever realizing - and a pounce could bring me down before I could even draw, let alone aim.

Then, something clicked in my awareness, and 15 yards ahead, the dark shape framed by the bushes snapped into focus. Glossy black fur framed intelligent eyes that looked directly at me. For an instant, the bear and I stared at each other. His head was disconcertingly big and high. Being face to face with a large carnivore of uncertain intention concentrates the mind perfectly. The yard, the stink, even the surrounding thicket, all vanished, leaving nothing but overwhelming awareness of bear.

Before I could raise either camera or my Capsaicin-based spray, he turned- and, immediately, vanished in the thicket. I would hate to inadvertently trap a nervous bear in a confined space; I circled the thicket once, very, very warily. Then I gave up. I have no video; but I have found my bear.