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.

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