Just Do It! The Rockwall In The Canadian Rockies (Part 1 of 2)

Worrying is like a rocking chair, it gives you something to do, but it doesn't get you anywhere. ~ Unknown

Photo credit: flickr

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Watch your step! This backpacking trip on The Rockwall has yet to begin and right beside my haphazardly setup tent, just off the Floe Lake trailhead parking lot in British Columbia’s Kootenay National Park, lies bear scat.

Did ‘Ya Say Bears In The Canadian Rockies?

A nervous glance around, a quizzical glance at it and the analysis begins.

How old is it? Is it of a black bear or of a grizzly bear?

Know your bears warns Kathryn of the Yoho National Park Office as she hands over our permits for this much-touted backpacking trip. The head officer staring directly into my eyes, not my husbands, extols We love our bears! The fact that she repeats this sentiment, as what seems like a mantra, three times in the course of ten minutes, is not helping the nagging feeling that something more may be in store as we step into this years little backpacking adventure.

Bears, bears, bears. This one-syllable word echoes in every direction: from the local evening news warning of the increased bear encounters this year, from the driver who drops us off at the start of our point-to-point hike, from the employees of both the Kootenay and Yoho National Parks who help plan our path for the next six days.

Written on the Parks Board Wilderness Permits are handwritten instructions on how to avoid encounters with these wild things.

Written on my husband’s face is an expression of concern and he mouths the words Okay, what will you do if a black bear comes towards you? What will you do if a grizzly bear comes towards you?

Written in the shadows of my eyes is an increasing sense of fear and I begin to find myself working hard to flip the switch on each and every wary bear thought that dares to enter. Just do it!

Out of Sight, Out of Mind

A quick high five, a Are We Going To Have Fun cry and we head off. Heavy packs on our backs, foot in front of foot, we find this strenuous-rated trail begs to challenge our strength, our stamina and my out of sight, out of mind motto.

Bear bells jingle their tune and make a melodic accompaniment to the intense visual flavours our senses devour as we make our
way along this 54.3 km (33.7 mile) section of Canada’s Great Continental Divide trail.

Aside from all the sensual splendour we find ourselves immersed in, this physical challenge squeezes out a realization.
This route is about the same distance as Vancouver’s much-touted Knee Knacker trail running race I found myself in just over a month ago. The race that became my test to live or die.

While the Rockwall has a slightly greater challenge in elevation gain, the incredible colors and vistas this trail unveils, makes this an intensly amazing, gratifying trail running experience!

My mind’s maze wanders and decides to park a little note:
Explore! Has anyone ever done this whole trek in
one day as a trail run?

The Challenge

This post is one of a two-part series on the Rockwall in the Canadian Rockies. Ensure you don’t miss the surprises that lie in the next post — subscribe to this blog and receive the second part by email.

Part One: The Statistics

Length: 54.3 kilometres (33.7 miles)
Elevation: 2887 metres (9,471.8 feet)
Difficulty: strenuous
Estimated Backpacking Time: typically 3-5 days
Estimated Running Time: 8.5-11-plus hours

Part One: The Itinerary

Floe Lake Trail to Floe Lake Campground (elevation gain: 697 m or 2 287 feet) (distance: 10.7 km or 6.6 miles)

Floe Lake Campground to Tumbling Creek Campground (through Numa Pass and Tumbling Pass) (elevation gain: 1100 m or 3609 feet) (distance: 14.3 km or 8.88 miles)

Tumbling Creek Campground to Helmet Falls Campground (through Rockwall Pass) (elevation gain: 350 m or 1 148 feet) (distance: 11.6 km or 7.21 miles)

Helmet Falls Campground to McArthur Creek Campground (through Goodsir Pass) (elevation gain 480 m + 260m for the summit east of Goodsir Pass) (distance: 15km + 2.7km for the summit east of Goodsir Pass or 11 miles)

Floe Lake parking lot lies 11 hours northeast of Vancouver, British Columbia or 2 hours and 45 minutes west of Calgary, by car.

What They Say

Ask and you shall receive! The answer to my question has anyone ever done this whole trek in one day as a trail run? appears when least expected. While waiting for our car pickup at the end of our point-to-point trip, a woman appears.

My eyes brighten in amazement as this woman reveals she ran this Rockwall and its three passes in the previous week, in 8.5 hours!

Online evidence confirms similar experiences with the added exclamation: The Rockwall may be the best long-distance mountain run anywhere.

Other praises:

To call the scenery spectacular is an understatement – sheer granite peaks rise like cathedral spires to meet stark blue skies, making this section of the Canadian Rockies one of the most scenic in the world.

One of the world’s great treks, The Rockwall.

Tweeting this blog post around, another running experience presents itself to me: Phil Villeneuve’s very recent Rockwall trail running experience captured on YouTube — with the elusive wolverine!

The Experience (Part 1 of 2)

Helen Keller’s Life is either a daring adventure or nothing strikes a chord.

Day One Destination: Floe Lake Campground

I sit and have one last sip of coffee, contemplating all the bear stories that have been sent my way, one last time.

Today’s trip: 10.7 km to Floe Lake campground through an area scarred from a 2003 fire. Planning this trip from home, I cringed at the thought of having to spend the first day tramping through a charred forest.

The surprise is on me! All the trees are dead but the undergrowth has regenerated. There are no burnt odor smells. In fact, there is vibrant, sweet-smelling, pink fireweed punctuating the amazing, lush, green carpet!

Side note: native peoples of the North liked the sugary pith of fireweed obtained by splitting a young stalk and scooping it out.
Beekeepers also plant fireweed close to apiaries because the honey produced is of superior taste. French-Canadian voyageurs called it l’herbe fret and cooked it as greens. In Russia , fireweed leaves are brewed for kapporie or kapor tea.

The trek begins by crossing the stunning, milky-blue Vermillion River and working your way along a gentle grade for about 4km.

The snaking river is striking against its grey shale banks and the burned forest surrounding it.

As the trail begins to traverse the slopes of Numa mountain, you begin to rise above the valley floor. You can’t help but be engulfed by the white and black vertical sticks both above and below. My camera sets out on a mission to capture this astonishing beautiful landscape.

The best is saved for last. At 8km you begin your strenuous 2km (1.2 miles) climb up grueling, what seems like never-ending, switchbacks.

Opportunity is missed by most people because it is dressed in overalls and looks like work. ~Thomas A. Edison

What lies ahead is awe-inspiring. The Rockwall sits at the edge of Floe Lake and looms over like a protective parent.

We setup home-base at the far end of camp, right beside the Warden’s cabin. It is perfect! There is no one there and we are offered the luxury of the cabin’s porch to sit in comfort overlooking the incredible view over dinner.

Day Two Destination: Tumbling Creek Campground

Another climb ensues, almost immediately upon leaving Floe Lake Campground. Each step forward offers an increasingly amazing view of what you leave behind.

A debate ensues: stop and breathe in this vista or continue on? We stop alongside many others. One side affords the view of Floe Lake, the other side offers a view of the Wenkchemna Peaks that surround Moraine Lake.

A lady is quick to point out, Tumbling Creek Campground lies at the foot of the next valley over — way over there! That is what we are headed for and from this vantage point I wonder what time this evening’s dinner will be had.

We make our way down Numa Pass, then up to Tumbling Pass, then finally, down again to our day’s destination. Covering all this territory in one day is a bit of a challenge. You gain and lose about 2700 feet and for the most part, the trail is forested.

The last leg up to Tumbling pass carries you through, what was described to us as a jungle. Overgrown bushes, that require snaking your way through.

The top of Tumbling pass is a narrow cleft. All that work to get here, and you have only but a few moments to take it all in. The meadows are scattered with larches and leave your mind imagining the increasing beauty that fall would bring.

At the bottom of Tumbling Pass lies Tumbling Creek Campground. The 14.3 km (8.8 miles) and 1000 meters (3600+ feet) of elevation gain leaves us breathless and barely aching for dinner.

In what seems like a blink of an eye, we are ready to crawl gratefully into our tent and am amazed how echoes of thundering glaciers can pique our exhausted slumber.

Morning refreshes us with renewed energy and more.

Day Three Destination: Helmet Creek Campground

Another climb quickly ensues, this time leaving Tumbling Creek Campground. It’s not long before you find yourself atop Rockwall Pass. Some of the finest flower meadows in the parks are found in Rockwall Pass and Goodsir Pass, usually during the first three weeks of August.

A short, 100 meter, 5-10 minute jaunt off the Helmet Creek Campground trail leads you to Wolverine Pass and the Kootenay Park boundary. From this small window through the Rockwall, you are offered views of the Bugaboo Massif way off in the distance, and you are offered glimpses into the origins of the ancient rock you stand on.

This pass will have you craning your neck in every direction. Wildflower meadows lead up to grassy, scree slopes and if you are lucky — a mountain goat or two craning their neck down at you!

Yikes! After this trip, was advised how it’s best to stay away from animals like this with the death of an Olympic Peninsula man in Washington state earlier this month! Here’s more Hiker told park of aggressive goat before his death.

Peaks in every direction, we aim towards Limestone Summit, then just as quickly aim past it.

A long, gradual descent will take us past Helmet Falls, one of the highest waterfalls in the Rockies. At 1200 feet, this breath-taking falls appears as two streams merging into one, sinking into the cracks of limestone bedrock below.

Day three leaves us laughing with other hikers from around the world at Helmet Creek Campground. Comparing notes on the days that have passed and offering suggestions to the days ahead. We fall asleep with a sense of sadness that we are one day away from the end of this classic Rockwall hike. A sense of fear begins to loom for the next leg of this journey, which begins the day after tomorrow, in territory which attracts grizzlies and is closed off to the public for most of the year.

Day Four Destination: McArthur Creek Campground

We awake and aim for the Goodsirs and the suggested offshoot — a little knoll off the east side of the main trail at the top of Goodsir Pass.

The directions: follow a dry creek bed to the very top and you will be rewarded with stunning views from every direction.

We drop our packs and pack our bear horns and bear spray and water. But beware! Grizzly bear diggings EVERYWHERE! Bear scat long since passé, these first sightings of bear diggings sends me moving forward rattling!

We scoot back down and resume. This pass is a long, open saddle and soon enough you are impressed with the towering twin peaks of Mount Goodsir at 11,700 feet (3,510m) the highest in Yoho National Park. It is tempting to wave goodbye at the view behind you: the last stretches of the Rockwall with that distinct pyramid known as Foster Peak.

The descent from Goodsir Pass to the Ottertail River is long (2,400 feet/720m) and waterless. Surrounded by thick forest you finally make your way to the lush, moss carpet of the valley bottom.

Remember to smile when you reach the camera — big brother is watching. The question becomes for bears or relentlessly tired bear prey?

We are afforded some luxury once again. Dinner by the warden’s cabin with the stunning last peek of the Goodsirs.

A private bath complete with a blazing goodnight.

Tomorrow leaves me thinking. Thinking all through the night for what is to come.

This post is one of a two-part series on the Rockwall in the Canadian Rockies. Ensure you don’t miss the surprises that lie in the next post — subscribe to this blog and receive the second part by email.

Additional information can be found at:
Kootenay National Park
Yoho National Park

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