For her first-ever big backpacking adventure, Tori Baird hits the trail with her husband (and dog) across the spectacular wilds of Jasper National Park.
Story by Tori Baird | Photos by Tori Baird and Jim Baird
The water is frigid, stinging the skin on my legs as I step carefully in the waist-deep glacier-fed river. But I can’t let it distract me because if I lose my footing, I’ll be swept downriver by the steady current and forced to drop my pack, full of our essential gear, in a last ditch effort for survival.
A quick glance to my left confirms I’m getting closer to my destination, where my husband Jim waits anxiously.
“It gets deep there!” He yells, as I continue sidestepping my way across the rocky riverbed.
He had completed the crossing first to make sure it was safe, as he has much more experience (and longer legs) than I do. He told me to face upriver and use my walking poles for additional support and to take my time, regardless of water temperature. I make it across, just barely keeping the bottom of my pack dry, and look back to see our dog Buck still on the opposite shore looking reluctantly back at us.
It’s day six of our eight-day backpacking trip through the Rocky Mountains in Alberta, Canada, and this was our third, and hopefully last, river crossing of the day.
We had already covered a distance of four kilometres that morning and it would be at least another 16 before we could make camp for the night. The route would take us through Jasper National Park starting from the Celestine Lake Trailhead, along the North Boundary Trail and up through Willmore Wilderness, ending in the small hamlet of Grande Cache, covering a total distance of 160 kilometres.
This was our first-ever backpacking trip and we had planned an ambitious route, to say the least. Our crew consisted of Jim, myself and our husky/malamute Buck who, naturally, tags along on all of our adventures. We typically travel through the backcountry via canoe back home in Ontario and we are not known for packing light, so this was going to be a new type of challenge for us.
But being the gluttons for punishment that we are we were up for it, and we both agreed it was worth it just to experience the true rugged wilderness that is the Rocky Mountains, beyond the roads and the people.
I wasn’t much of an outdoorsy kid growing up. I mean, I thought I was outdoorsy because I enjoyed going for bike rides and playing soccer, but we didn’t do much camping. I remember going on one trip to Algonquin Park with my mom and sister when I was nine years old, but that’s about it. I always envied the kids who got to spend their summers up at their cottage or at summer camp, or those who went for an annual week-long camping trip with their families. I guess I liked the idea of being outdoorsy, but I never really had the means or the know-how.
It wasn’t until I met my husband Jim in my early twenties that things really changed for me. He was very much an outdoorsman. He made my bike rides through the city park look like, well, a ride in the park. He had grown up going to his water-access cottage in the bush, and over the years had completed multiple wilderness whitewater canoe trips in very remote locations throughout Canada.
When he eventually asked me if I was willing to go on a canoe trip with him, the risk-taker inside me said yes. We started off slow, but it wasn’t long before we were paddling intense whitewater rivers during spring runoff in northern Ontario. I was hooked. My love for the outdoors grew quickly, and forcefully. ”
We had already hiked six kilometres by the time we made it to the Celestine Lake trailhead, but we still maintained our positive and hopeful attitudes. After all, we hadn’t yet lost feeling in our shoulders and we were still blister free.
We didn’t realize the access road, a glorified horse-packing trail, had a schedule for in-and-out traffic, and when we found out we were going in the wrong direction we let our shuttle driver turn back, leaving us to start our hike right there on the road. By the end of the day we were giddy with exhaustion, our legs were stiff, our backs were aching, our hips were bruised, and our toes were numb.
We were so broken that at one point we couldn’t help but laugh hysterically at our situation. What had we gotten ourselves into?
The morning of day two we were surprised by how good we felt—we weren’t too sore, and putting our packs on wasn’t as challenging as it had felt the evening before. Maybe the anticipation of seeing Snake Indian Falls, one of the main reasons we chose this route, was enough motivation to get us moving.
Snake Indian Falls is an incredibly powerful and astonishing waterfall that thunders over a cliff along the Snake Indian River. It is one of the most photogenic waterfalls in the Canadian Rockies, and one of the most difficult to get to. Sitting at about 26 kilometres in from the trailhead means it requires at least one overnight if you’re hiking or doing an ambitious all-day bike ride.
But for us, it meant we had it all to ourselves. An outcropping of rocks directly next to the falls made for the perfect view of the deep canyon that the water spills into, and an ideal spot to enjoy a lunch of blueberries and oatmeal, one of the only times we’d eat a proper lunch other than scarfing down some energy bars.
As the day wore on, and we continued climbing in elevation, we started really second guessing whether or not we had bitten off more than we could chew. Jim’s heals were already horribly blistered, and both of my Achilles tendons hurt to the touch.
As we walked past the Rock Lake trail marker we both genuinely considered bailing on the trip, as that was our last possible exit out of the park to a road before we entered the deep wilderness passes of Jaspers’ unmaintained reaches and over a height of land into Willmore Wilderness — our route to our planned end point of Grande Cache. There’d be no turning back, and no other way to reach safety for another 120 kilometres.
But we both knew if we gave up we’d be disappointed in ourselves, and we didn’t fly all the way out here just to quit, so we trudged on.
That night we camped at Willow Creek, a beautiful horse-packer’s campsite complete with a picnic table built out of milled logs and with elk and moose antlers laying scattered around. Jim tended to his worsening blisters while I boiled water over the fire for a much-deserved dinner of macaroni and cheese.
It was hard to leave our campsite the next morning, but knowing we were headed towards a site called “Little Heaven” gave us hope. Strapping my boots on retriggered the pain in my Achilles, so I ended up tying them really loosely, which seemed to help. As we trekked I made sure to tread carefully so I would be less prone to rolling an ankle.
We climbed higher and higher into the mountains and every now and then would emerge from the trees and get a view of just how high we had climbed. The weather was beautiful, the bugs were almost non-existent, and the views were spectacular.
The next day would be our longest, travelling over the height of land and into Willmore Wilderness, the park that neighbours the north boundary of Jasper National Park. The trail was called Desolation Pass, which gave us a feeling of intrigue and concern. Luckily, our bodies had acclimatized by then and we were no longer feeling the intense muscular aches we’d felt in the beginning.
Now it was just the bruises and tender areas from where our packs hung heavily. Our goal was to make it to Summit Cabin, a historic cabin open for public use at the concourse of Desolation Pass and Mountain Trail, a distance of 25 kilometres. From Little Heaven we followed a creek higher and higher, crossing over the narrow stream multiple times until the trees finally opened up and we were on a plateau.
The low-lying willow made for exceptional views of the pass, and the mountain peaks were so close it felt like we could reach out and touch them. As we made our way across the height of land, we agreed that the trail was aptly named. It felt so wild and rugged and remote, like we were the only people on Earth.
We took a short break at the park boundary sign to indulge in the feeling of accomplishment; we were halfway there. As we made our way down into Willmore, we were feeling good — confident we would be able to finish the trip on time. And then we lost the trail.
Up until this point the trail had been easy to follow, with well-worn footpaths and flagging tape. But just as our map had indicated, there was a section of unmarked trail and we must have veered off track while we were navigating our way through a large patch of alder bushes.
When we pulled out the GPS, we realized we’d been travelling in the wrong direction for quite some time. Based on our map, the trail crossed over a river that ran perpendicular to where we were walking so we knew if we followed that, we would eventually reconnect with it. But, with the bends in the river, it would mean adding significant distance to our day.
Our other option was to cross the river and bushwhack the way the crow flies toward the cabin, which was marked on our GPS. With the sun getting lower in the sky, we decided to go with the latter.
After Jim accidentally sprayed all three of us with bear spray, and we screamed at each other a few times and angrily stomped through swamps and almost gave up and camped in the bushes, we found a campsite just as the sun dropped beneath the horizon. It wasn’t a cabin but it was good enough, and it meant we had found the trail.
The next morning, we gave ourselves an early start in case we had any unforeseen complications like we’d had the evening before. The campsite we planned to make it to was only 15 kilometres away, but we couldn’t fall behind schedule because we only had so much food and had a flight to catch.
The weather was cold, definitely the coldest of the trip, so we made sure to keep moving, especially once the rain started. The trail became more prominent the further we trekked, and in the muddier areas (and there were a lot of muddier areas) it was so packed down by horses that it became a trench we had to step carefully around or risk losing a boot.
At one point the rain became so heavy that we had to hide under the sweeping branches of a spruce tree in an attempt to stay somewhat dry. But we were too cold to stay still for long, so we slogged on, breaking only to grab CLIF bars from our packs.
We pushed on as far as we could, but once the rain turned to ice and we were shivering, our malamute included, we decided to stop early to make a fire and get warm. We also didn’t want to push on to the next campsite because it would require a pretty significant river crossing, and we knew it wouldn’t be a wise decision given the temperature and increased water levels brought on by the consistent rain.
I sawed up some wood and Jim rigged up the tarp, while a cow moose watched us from a distance. We tried to dry off our soaking wet clothes by the fire without success, until we finally called it quits and crawled into our tent. It poured rain well into the night, and we slept with a shivering dog wedged in between us, while I dreamt that the raging river we were camped next to rose so high that it washed us away.
We woke up to snow-covered mountain peaks and forced ourselves out of our warm sleeping bags. It was a beautiful but chilly morning, and with a couple of river crossings ahead of us, we knew it was only going to get colder. We warmed up quickly once we started walking, but the well-worn horse-packing trails had turned to thick, deep mud from all the rain, which made travel more difficult. We were making good time when we saw what looked like campfire smoke in the distance. I found myself hoping it was people with warm food and hot coffee.
As we continued along the muddy, horse-packed pathway we started noticing fresh cuts in the bush, as if someone had recently been by to maintain the trail.
“This looks like it was built yesterday,” I said, as we crossed a log timber bridge over a steep creek-bed embankment. My curiosity had piqued.
The first river crossing came sooner than I would have liked, the silty water of the Sulphur River moving past us at a swift pace. I knew the current was going to feel much stronger than it looked, so I switched into my water shoes, zipped off the bottom half of my pant legs and watched as Jim took the first steps into the water.
“It’s cold!” he yelled, as if we were expecting anything different.
Once he was about halfway across and I felt assured it wasn’t too deep, I went for it. The biting cold gave me the motivation I needed to move quickly through the water, reaching the opposite shore at the same time as Jim, who was moving slow and steady. Buck was still on the other side searching desperately for an easier way across, but with a little coaxing and a shake of his treat bag he swam over willingly.
We were just now nearing the campsite we had originally planned to camp at the night before and confirmed that the smoke we’d seen earlier was indeed coming from the same site. As we got closer, we could see horses grazing between the bushes and knew for sure we would be bumping into some horse packers.
The trail took us right through their campsite, and when we arrived, they seemed as surprised to see us as we were happy to see them. After introductions we learned they were from the Rocky Mountain Wilderness Society, were there to maintain the trails, and had in fact, just built the bridge we’d just crossed yesterday. A non-profit organization, the group’s main goal is to act as an advocate for the Willmore Wilderness region and the surrounding crown land.
A major project they had been working on was clearing and upgrading the trail from Grande Cache to Rock Lake. Every few years they set up camp for two weeks to maintain a different section of the trail on horseback. This year they just so happened to be maintaining the section that Jim, Buck and I were travelling, and were happy to see us putting it to use.
They gave us a tour of their camp, which included multiple sleeping shelters, a portable shower, and a traditional canvas tent they use as a kitchen. They graciously fed us warm soup and hot coffee—just as I had hoped—while they told us about the history of the area.
They told us that their families have travelled these trails for nine generations by foot and horseback. Ken Groat, the president of the Society, explained that he’s a member of the fifth generation of a long line of Mountain people who have travelled, hunted and trapped through the Athabasca Valley and the east slopes of the Rocky Mountains.
His grandmother, Clarisse Moberly, was one of the many Mountain Métis who were evicted from their homes when Jasper was established as a park in 1907. There were seven family homesteads in the region, descendants of fur traders who travelled west with the North West Company and Hudson’s Bay Company during the early 18th century, Ken told us. The fathers were guides for the early explorers, and spoke multiple languages, including Cree, English, French and Latin. And the mothers hunted, trapped, fished and made clothing for their families.
The Mountain Métis inhabited the land for more than 200 hundred years, until they were forced to leave by an Order of the Privy Council. Some of the families ended up relocating to Grande Cache, where their ancestors still currently reside. There’s a fuller story on this in the Gateway Gazette titled “1910: Evicting the Metis from Jasper,” which includes very moving photos of some of the families.
We found it incredibly moving to learn we had travelled almost the exact route they would have travelled during their Jasper exodus. We could have stayed all day to learn more about their fascinating history, but unfortunately had some distance to make up for, while they had work to do. But they wouldn’t let us leave without weighing each of our packs and were impressed by the weight we were carrying: mine at 55 lbs., and Jim’s at 65. So, they gifted us a small bottle of gin to enjoy on our last few nights on the trail.
The trail brought us past a squat, rectangular log structure covered by a peaked roof. We learned this was called a Spirit House, and is the ancestral grave of the Mountain Métis. We were told that the remains of Jacques Thappe lay there, who died in an avalanche in 1886 while hunting in what is now called Deadman’s Creek. We paid our respects and placed a wildflower in front of it, before moving on.
That evening we made it to Sulphur Cabin, which is situated along the Sulphur River, has an incredible view of the valley and is flanked on either side by towering peaks. The sun setting in the distance provided the perfect evening glow to wrap up what turned out to be an incredible day.
We dried out our clothes next to the woodstove and went over the day’s events as we waited for our dinner to rehydrate. Jim and I were still so intrigued by the people we had met that day, and looked forward to learning more about the historical significance of the route we were travelling.
The next day we found ourselves travelling alongside the Sulphur River for a majority of the way, so we took the opportunity to cast a line—a rainbow trout would be a delicious treat for our last dinner in the park. Jim hooked into a couple of bull trout but quickly released them as they’re a protected species, and then managed to land a few small and beautifully patterned Athabasca rainbow trout in the neighbouring creek.
From there, only one small summit separated us from our final campsite of the trip. We reached Grande Cache late in the afternoon the next day, after completing what turned out to be the most forgiving day of the entire trip. And even though our backs were sore and our feet aching, we couldn’t help but feel sad that it was over. Though we wouldn’t miss the spine-compressing weight of our packs, we’d sure miss the overwhelming beauty and feeling of freedom that the mountain wilderness provides.
Back in town, our shuttle driver, the owner of the rafting company who had dropped us off at the beginning of our trip, joined us for a drink.
“You know what you just did, right?” she asked, clearly impressed with our adventure.
To hear that from a local who knows the area well was a nice validation—because not only could we feel it in every muscle in our body, we could feel it in our souls. We had become addicted to the feeling of accomplishment at the end of each arduous day; to look back and see how far we had come was an incredible sense of achievement.
The last three kilometres of every day were always the toughest. They were plagued with doubting thoughts—we have so much further to go!, we’re not going to make it!, we’re going to run out of food!—but they would melt away almost instantly upon arrival at our campsite, knowing we’d yet again achieved our daily goal. Even as our bodies ached in ways we had never experienced before we knew we were only getting stronger every day. And sitting by the fire every night was as relaxing as the days were challenging.
Overall, it was the most rewarding trip I’ve completed to date, and the experience will remain in my heart forever.
If you had told me ten years ago that I would be completing a 160-kilometre self-guided hike through the Canadian Rockies, pushing my body to its absolute physical limit day after day, witnessing incredible mountain vistas and wildlife while experiencing the emotion that comes with achieving a goal that in the beginning felt nearly impossible, I would have said you were crazy.
But we weren’t done yet. From here we would drive up through northern Alberta and into spectacular Northwest Territories, where we hoped to see waterfalls and wood bison.
Our road trip would continue up to Yellowknife — a 15-hour drive — where we would catch a plane to the small community of Norman Wells. From there we would hop on a floatplane, canoes in tow, to be deposited in the middle of the Mackenzie Mountains, where we would begin the second part of our big adventure. But that’s for another story. ♦
How I Did My Jasper Trek | Everything You Need to Know
By Tori Baird | Paddle Like a Girl (paddling/wilderness workshops for women)
Planning a backpacking trip takes a lot of prep and organization. Here are a few things to take into consideration for an expedition like we did in Jasper:
WILL IT BE A LOOP, OR THRU HIKE?
If thru-hiking, you’ll need a shuttle to get you back to your vehicle.
If no one in the area offers a shuttle, reach out to local businesses. We asked a rafting outfitter, and they were happy to help for a small fee.
How many hours do you want to be on the trail for?
Average travel distance can be from 5 to 16 kilometres (3 to 10 miles) per day, depending on your fitness and experience.
WHAT TIME OF YEAR IS IT?
How many hours of sunlight you’ll have will dictate how far you can travel each day.
ALTITUDE AND WEATHER
If you’re going to be at higher altitudes, be prepared for cooler weather, especially at night. The temperature dropped significantly during our height-of-land crossing.
Most parks require you to purchase a permit to enter and/or to camp overnight.
Find out what animals are in the area, and what’s the appropriate behaviour to take during an encounter—for example, bull moose can be more dangerous than bears during their mating season.
Learn to identify signs of animal activity such as scat, tracks and sounds.
Backpack: Look for something that offers solid waterproofing capabilities.
Tent: Go ultralight
Mess Kit: Think versatility—for example, a titanium spork and a BotPot can act as both water bottle and pot. And skip the frying pan and bring tin foil in case you add fish to the menu.
Cooking Stove: Isobutane or naphtha gas—if bringing a naphtha gas stove, rule of thumb is 2 ounces per person per day unless you’re also planning to use a fire for cooking and/or boiling.
Ground Pad: A Therm-A-Rest foam doesn’t pop and can double as a seat around the fire.
Sleeping Bag: If you’re at high elevation or in the Canadian Rockies, bring one that’s a minimum -18 degrees Celsius and that’s synthetic.
Compression Sacks: To minimize space taken up by your sleeping bag and clothes (and tent!).
Trekking Poles: Use telescopic—you don’t need super expensive ones but look for clasp locks instead of twist locks.
Ultralight Tarp: Bring extra guy-lines such as a parachute cord.
Topographic Maps: Check to see if there are specialized maps for the area you’ll be in, with specifics on trails and other key information.
Also: Lightweight folding saw, headlamp, extra batteries
FOOD AND WATER
Choose high-calorie energy bars, dehydrated meals and trail mix.
Lunch should always be a no-cook affair.
If you’re buying store-bought dehydrated meals, empty them out of package and vacuum seal them to save packing space.
Katadyn filter bottles, gravity filter or water pump for clean, safe water.
Aqua tabs are great as a backup; look for ones that don’t take long to treat the water (30 mins max).
TruFlare bear bangers and pen launcher
50-feet-long, 550-test paracord to hang food at night (has many other uses around camp!)
Communication: InReach satellite texting device, with local maps uploaded into it.
Survival Kit: Lighters, waterproof matches, signal mirror, TruFlare whistling flares that attach to pen launcher, compass, emergency space blanket, fishing line and hooks, trapping wire (many different uses).
First-Aid Kit: Go heavy on blister prevention and treatment; bring mole skins, mole foam padding, duct tape, crazy glue, Ibuprofen, disinfectant, surgeons’ tape, adhesive bandages (like Band-Aids), non-adherent pads, butterfly sutures.
Choose outdoor-smart material: poly-based (like polypropylene) or merino wool clothing works to wick away sweat, but still insulate when wet.
Socks are key: always wear two pairs on the trail, with a thin inner and thicker outer sock to prevent blisters.
Gators are great for muddy areas and thick brush.
Forgo day-hikers and bring heavy-duty backpacking boots for multiday treks; make sure they’re broken in before heading out! ♦