Sun kissed the mountains at trail’s end as I slung my pack to the ground. I had just completed five and a half days solo on the Skyline Trail in Jasper National Park, one of the most beautiful trails in the world and probably my favourite backpacking trip. I had done it 6 or 7 times before, usually taking 3 or 4 days, but this time I decided to revel in the wild flowers and unbelievable vistas, stopping at 5 campgrounds. I smiled in quiet satisfaction, looking forward to brunch in Jasper and an easy 3-hour drive home to Edmonton. How could I know that these would be my last happy moments for many months? In Jasper I learned by phone that my beloved husband had fallen, hit his head and was in critical condition. By the time I reached Edmonton he was dead.
A trip so beautiful should not be remembered for a tragedy; the Skyline must be undertaken one more time. Even though I have done little backpacking in recent years (my joints prefer day hiking out of comfortable mountain lodges), I’m trudging cheerfully along the easy, forested trail from Maligne Lake to Evelyn Creek Campground. As the visual and auditory cacophony of the city slips away I yield to the sights, sounds and odours of the wilderness. My pack carries well and I love the feeling of striding along, breathing deeply, hearing the wind in the trees, inhaling the soft scent of the conifers.
Not many people stay at Evelyn Creek because it is too close to the trailhead and offers no views, but it combines well with a morning drive from Edmonton.
I enjoy a solitary night (if one can be truly alone amidst swarms of Canadian mosquitoes), and get an early start next morning.
From Evelyn Creek the trail switchbacks steadily, reaching a viewpoint toward Maligne Lake not far from Little Shovel Campground, a scant 3 km along. This is a much more scenic place to camp and is fairly crowded with campers eating breakfast, swatting mosquitoes and cursing. I haven’t seen the pests so obnoxious for many years. I pause for a snack, then continue on to Little Shovel Pass.
Just beyond the campground the trees open up; from here until the final descent to Jasper the trail will be at or above the tree line, providing uninterrupted views of mountains, lakes and meadows.
Below the pass hoary marmots dash about, one even following me for a while. The ground is carpeted in ragwort and arnica, with a patch of blue forget-me-nots just before the summit.
I sit down to enjoy lunch, happy for a stiff breeze that banishes the bugs. Below me the great meadow of the Snowbowl stretches for kilometres toward the distant hump of Big Shovel Pass.
I descend steeply to the valley, cross a creek and have only a short distance to Snowbowl Campground. As usual, I’m the first camper to arrive; my practice is to leave early and stop early, both to ease my feet and get first choice of tent sites. This campground has little to recommend it beyond glorious views. The tent sites are spread helter-skelter up and down a slope, in the trees, with confusing trails, no close water source in mid-summer, and a toilet that becomes more difficult to find each year. Still, its location makes it the preferred first night stop of many hikers.
The night sky lights up with sheet lightening for several hours. Morning dawns with a red sun and thick haze, sure sign of a wildfire somewhere. I pack up and leave before most people have started breakfast, knowing that they will probably pass me before I reach Big Shovel Pass. I’m surprised by how dry the meadow is; on my last time through the flowers were so thick they formed a solid carpet. Today the lack of rain has left large patches of turf bare. The trail has been excellent so far, but as it climbs toward the pass it crosses wet ground and splits into multiple braids. It has been like this for years, and I always wonder why Parks doesn’t build a proper trail to protect the vegetation.
Big Shovel Pass marks a sharp change in the landscape – green meadows on one side, barren scree slopes punctuated by isolated clumps of flowers on the other.
The trail descends gently, with a clear view of the Notch and the seemingly vertical climb leading to it. People who camped at Snowbowl last night will continue over the Notch today to Tekarra Campground, all except me. A steep descent just before Curator Lake leads to a small campground by a creek and waterfall.
It’s only 7 km from Snowbowl, but I like to stop here.
It doesn’t take long to set up my tent, and I head to the food area for second lunch, enjoying the solitude before the afternoon crowd arrives from Little Shovel and Maligne Lake. I’m sitting at a table, all my food spread out around me, when a young grizzly bounces up from the creek and noses at something barely 30 metres away. He’s unaware of my presence until he turns his head and freezes. I reach for my bear spray only to realize that I left it by the tent, which is some distance on the other side of the grizzly. I stand up quietly, so that the bear can see what I am; he runs back to the creek and rears up on his hind feet, head moving from side to side as he tries to get my scent. Dilemma: a trail behind me leads toward an outfitters cabin, but if I retreat the bear is going to find my food, become a problem bear and probably end up being shot, all because of my carelessness. Or I can try to get my bear spray and defend both the food and the bear’s future. If this were a front country campground with bears that are habituated to people, I would not have hesitated to retreat. But this animal is wild, he doesn’t know what I am, and he is showing no signs of aggression – just wary curiosity. I move as calmly and confidently as I can toward my tent, retrieve the bear spray and head back to the table. The grizzly is still by the creek. When he sees me returning he turns, slowly ambles up the waterfall and disappears. I sit down at the table and start to shake. Five minutes later another backpacker trots into camp. “You just missed the grizzly!” I proclaim.
Morning leaves no doubt about wildfires as smokes hangs heavy in the air; there will be no view from the skyline today. With 12 km to go and lots of elevation change, I pack up and leave by 0800. The climb back to the main trail is merely a warm-up for the slog to come. The Notch (a narrow, corniced break between peaks) is billed as the highest maintained trail in Jasper National Park, but any sign of maintenance belongs to the distant past.
All is well as you round the milky blue waters of Curator Lake, but then you stumble through boulders, above scree slopes, over rocks, ever steeper until the trail either splits mysteriously or disappears altogether. As I near the top my way is blocked by snow, too steep and hard to climb without crampons and ice axe. I scrabble up loose gravel over ice, feet churning to make the slightest headway, to reach a point where snow meets cliff and allows passage. These are the worst conditions I have ever experienced here.
Slowly putting one foot ahead of the other with no stopping has brought me to the top before anyone else. The view (what there is of it) can wait; I throw down my pack, sit and mutter, “Thank God I will never have to do that again!” Twenty minutes later other hikers start to arrive.
The next few kilometres form the skyline portion of the trail as it follows the ridge. On a clear day one can see Mt Robson, some 70 km distant. Today I can barely make out the tarns not far below, while the dark form of the Watchtower broods in the mist like some witch’s castle.
Alpine poppies and moss campion provide the only colour. The trail is good, however, and mostly level. I pause for lunch before starting the long switchbacks down Amber Mountain.
By the time I reach the valley my feet and knees are trashed, but at my slow pace I’m still two hours from Tekarra Campground, which I find overflowing with tents, as usual. Parks Canada supposedly enforces a quota on the trail, but it never seems to work as it is should. I have to share a tent site and snores with some friends I met at Curator.
The final day begins with a gentle climb through open trees and flowered meadows. It’s only a short hike to the Signal Mountain fire road. There’s a dismal campground at the junction where I had thought of staying, but I decide that my feet can last all the way to the trailhead. Eight kilometres, 800 metres down, in the trees with no views and lots of black bear poop. A dreary end to a beautiful trail, but I am happy with my journey and eager to enjoy a good hotel in Jasper, a hot shower and a prime rib dinner. I know that I will do parts of the Skyline from time to time, but I will probably never traverse the entire route again. Or will I? After all, I’m only 75.