After invoking the spirit of Tenzig Norgay during an uphill climb through a snowstorm, and finally reaching the Watchtower campsite in Jasper National Park, El and I ate dinner with Jenny, a fellow camper whom we had run into several times on the trail. While we feasted on freeze dried pasta, we learned that she was a German-born wilderness survival expert who works at Willmore Wilderness Park for Parks Alberta. Jenny offered some of her chocolate and what she called a German version of a hot toddy. Despite the warm food and great conversation, we were all freezing and retired to our tents to warm up in our -18 degree sleeping bags.
Even though it was only 7:30, El and I were so exhausted that we fell asleep almost immediately. I slept on and off and was startled awake when I heard what I thought was an animal scuttling around our tent. It sounded like it was launching a sneak attack b/c I would hear sudden movement and then a period of silence before movement again. I finally heard something right next to our tent and shot straight up, waking up Elliot and almost collapsing the whole tent in the process. I sharply whispered, "I think there's something outside!" to which he tiredly informed me that it was just snow falling off of our tent. The relief I felt at not having my face eaten by a marmot was quickly replaced by an exhausted incredulousness: "Mother f**king MORE snow?!?!"
And snow it did. When we fully woke up at 6:30, the world around us had turned white. Although everything looked quiet and majestic, the trail we had taken into the campsite was now completely covered. We heard Jenny stir in her tent, and we all game planned what we were going to do. We decided that our best bet was following the other couple at the campsite's lead and hike out the other end of Watchtower Trail. We would miss the timed shuttle they had planned on taking and accepted the fact we'd have to hitchhike back to our cars at Maligne Lake. More on that later. We soon set off, with Jenny leading the pack, on the 10km journey back to civilization.
Because of the snow, the trail in wasn't the only one that was covered, and we had to follow the other couple's footprints to make our way to the trail out's entrance. Thank God Jenny was with us because it would have taken me and El forever to find it by ourselves. Once on the trail, there were white ribbons tied to trees that made it easier to navigate. That's not to say that the trail out was easy. Far from it. There was a steady snowfall the entire hike, and the existing snow had already turned the trail to straight mud and marsh. Navigating the puddles and mud holes took a serious finesse that even Russian ballerinas lack. So you can imagine how gracefully I went through them. It also didn't help that the entire six mile hike was downhill with a 985m (3,231 feet) elevation loss. Knowing thyself, and not wanting to risk getting injured in the middle of nowhere, I took everything very gingerly and slowly. Despite that, my body was still like, "Uh I don't think so, Brouse. I'm exhausted from yesterday" and mutinied on me more than once. As we were literally jumping from downed tree limb to tree limb to avoid a particularly big mud puddle, I slipped and my boot got sucked into the mud like Princess Buttercup in the Fire Swamp's lightning sand.
Because my other leg was bent under me, I couldn't get up and wiggled on the ground a few seconds until Elliot hoisted me out from under my armpits and fished out my boot for me. To get to solid ground, I had no choice but to wade through freezing cold mud in my socked foot. I almost fell over again, but it's like my body realized that El would be like "Seriously?!?!" and righted itself. Once on the ground, I dumped the mud out of my boot, wiped it off on the dead grass around me, and changed out of my wet socks (even the foot that stayed in the boot was soaked) into a dry pair El had and wrapped my feet in Ziploc bags that Jenny had handy.
We definitely slowed down Jenny, but she graciously waited for us and kept saying that it was no problem at all. Boy, were we happy to have her with us. Not only was she able to easily follow the muddy trail, she made the experience all the more educational when she pointed out things like elk and bear droppings and moose tracks (literally moose tracks, not the delicious ice cream) and told us about the lightning strike that caused the 2016 Medicine Lake forest fire when we walked through the (still) burnt out and stark area.
Jenny guided us across boulders slick with moss and the many many creeks we encountered. The bigger ones had plank bridges covered in snow and were slick, making every crossing super treacherous. When we were close to the trail exit, and walking on solid ground, we came to a wide rushing creek that we needed to cross. The only way to do so was to walk across slippery rocks then climb UP on even more slippery rocks before jumping to the other side. I took one look at it...looked at Elliot...looked at my feet...and sighed, "I'm f***ed". I knew there was no way I was making it across the creek without falling in, but I also knew there was no other way to get the hell back to civilization if I didn't cross. Jenny and Elliot went first, with Jenny making it across in no time. El went a few steps ahead of me so as to be ready to fish me out of the water when I inevitably fell in. I made it across the first few rocks with no problem, and El hopped up the first big rock and held his hand out to me. I swung one foot up onto the rock, but when I tried to do the same with my right foot, it slipped and I went shin deep into the creek. I later had a gnarly bruise on my knee, but miraculously the water didn't penetrate the Ziploc bag on my foot, and my sock stayed dry. By the grace of God and Elliot, I made it across without accidentally pulling both of us into the water.
Not long after we crossed the creek, we made it out of the trail and into the Watchtower parking lot where two young guys were eating lunch out of the back of their van. We gave them a weak wave and made our way to the main road to try to hitchhike. Our cars were at Maligne Lake, a good 16 km away, and there weren't exactly Ubers or buses readily available. And so it happened that despite the dozens of true crime books/shows/podcasts I've devoured, the fact that I was so pooped a squirrel could have knocked me over and I would've laid there, and my mom's voice in my head yelling, "Are you insane?!?", I joined Jenny and Elliot in sticking our thumbs out to hitch a ride. There weren't too many cars on the road, and the ones that were shrugged a "Sorry!" as they passed, so we didn't have much luck after fifteen minutes of hitchhiking. Although it eased my (and I'm sure Jenny's) mind that El was with us, drivers probably weren't too keen on inviting a burly guy with a Rambo knife strapped to his backpack into their car.
After what seemed like the hundredth car drove past us without stopping, we thought, "Wait, maybe those two guys in the parking lot can give us a lift." Jenny went down to talk to them and soon excitedly came back saying they were going to give her a ride to her car, and she would then come back for us. They were a little hesitant at first, but changed their mind after they realized Jenny was German like them. The two guys drove up, and since they didn't have enough room for Jenny and the both of them, Jenny explained that one was going to wait with us. Wrapped in only a hoodie and a small blanket, and clutching a thermos of hot tea, this really really ridiculously good-looking young German guy hopped out of the car and introduced himself as Ruben.
Jenny and his buddy took off for Maligne Lake, and we waited about forty-five minutes on the side of the road with one of our three German guardian angels. We chatted to pass the time, and it turns out that Ruben and his buddy bought a cheap van and were traveling across western Canada, working on farms to pay their way and sleeping in their van to save money. We were impressed by their travels but even more touched by the fact that he was willing to stand outside in the cold to help us out. I was so cold at this point (it was still snowing and the temp was in the 20s) that I couldn't stop shivering. I kept thinking about a line from the Band of Brothers' Bastogne episode: "I'm shaking so goddamn much, I feel like I'm dancin!"
While we waited for Jenny, two cars actually stopped for us. The second was a woman who actually had passed us earlier but turned around to help us. She got out of the car and said, "When I passed you, I knew EXACTLY what happened: You were up on Skyline, and then the weather changed and you had to bail and hike through THAT!" as she pointed to the mountain. Even though we were so grateful the two cars stopped, we had to decline the immediate gratification of a warm car in order to wait for Jenny. She soon blessedly pulled up, and we said 'danke' to our German friends (Jenny also gave them $20 for gas) and climbed into her pickup truck. When we finally got back to the Maligne Lake parking lot, we thanked Jenny at least a hundred times, gave her a big hug, and cranked our car's heat for the ride back to Jasper. Because we had planned to camp that night, the first half a dozen hotels I called were sold out. We fortunately got a cheap room at the Park Inn Lodge right downtown. The room was surprisingly comfortable, but its hot shower was the only thing we cared about. It felt so good to wash my hair despite it being a pain in the ass to clean up the leaves that had fallen out of it.
After feeling came back to our limbs, we washed our clothes at the town's coin laundry and walked around town. You'd think we'd had enough of being in the snow, but we wanted to make the most of our time in Jasper. The town has that "old frontier" feel to it, but that's not to say people are having gun duels in the streets or spitting tobacco into a spittoon. There are still nice restaurants and cool bars like the Jasper Brewing Company, where we had a "Hey, we didn't get eaten by a grizzly!" celebratory beer. When we were there, we actually saw the other couple from Watchtower (still don't know their names), and they were SO happy to see us. No joke, the husband said, "Okay pump the brakes" to his overly excited wife. They were like "We were wondering about you guys and hoped you weren't dead!" So it was probably less excitement to see us and more relief that we were alive.
After our beer, we split a pound of wings and a thick crust pizza at Jasper Pizza Place. Although under normal circumstances the food would probably be classified as "good", to us it was the ambrosia of the gods. We felt we had earned some beers and went to the next door De'd Dog Bar and plopped down at the bar and ended up talking to a quirky old guy named Willie the entire time we were there. This guy looked like a Willie, and when he told us he was the local harmonica player I couldn't help but think "of course you are". Even though we weren't looking to make besties, we decided to pay it forward and listened to him talk about his life and musical influences. We eventually said goodbye to Willie, and after one final beer at a local place called the Whistle Stop, called it a night in our blessedly warm and dry hotel room.
My first backcountry camping trip was certainly an eventful one, with an early September snowstorm, a near-miss grizzly encounter, and 52.3km (32.5mi) hiked with an elevation gain and loss of 2,074m (8.771 feet). It may have been exhausting, and I may have slipped in more mud than a greased pig, but the day after we got home I was already researching camping in the Yukon and Northwest Territories. Our road trip in the Canadian Rockies was one of the best, and most beautiful, trips we've ever taken. It was also one of the most smartly planned. After all that hard hiking, we ended our trip in the only place that made sense: BC's wine region of Kelowna.
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