Hike: Elk Lake Walk-In/Wilderness Campground

Guys, put this on the record: Dana and I went backpacking and we didn’t get rained on. It was a first!  And it was glorious!

I’m back with another backpacking trip recap – the only thing Dana and I were missing was my sister, Haley.  She brings the best backpacking treats!  Oh, and Penny, our loyal Mexican cocker spaniel, but I’m not so sure I want to tent with her.  🙂

We just got back from a two night stay at the Lower Elk Lake hike-in campground.

We headed out to Kananaskis at our usual pace, leaving the house at a healthy 9:30 AM. It was forecasted to be a super hot day, so I was a bit nervous about how I would handle the heat (I’m quite fair-skinned – you could say I glow in the dark).  We pulled into the trail head parking lot around 11:00 and got started pretty quick.

The first couple of kilometers are along a forestry/access road, but don’t let that discourage you. We were treated to beautiful big blue skies, the occasional lovely breeze, and glorious wildflowers along the way.  Although there are hundreds of wildfires burning in British Columbia right now, it wasn’t too smoky or hazy for us as we hiked out towards the BC/Alberta border.  Just after you cross the border, there are two trails that take you down to the Lower Elk Lake campground: one takes you by the Alpine Club of Canada cabin but this route adds a kilometer.  As we took that trail last year, we decided to turn right at the Y and take the slightly shorter trail for a total hike in distance of 11 kilometers.

Although the sun was hot and we worked up a sweat, I wore a hat and drank lots of nuun-infused water (electrolytes!) and didn’t get heat stroke. So that was a win!

We were setting up camp by 2 PM which is pretty crazy. We love Elk Lake because it’s such an accessible hike for all levels, yet incredibly beautiful.  Most of the other campers at the site were from BC (Fernie!), and there was only one other AB couple.

Dana and I had a pretty lazy afternoon, him reading in his hammock and me reading in the bug-free zone of the tent. We even got hot enough to head down to the glacially cold Lower Elk Lake, and go for a bit of a dip.  Brrrr!  Felt pretty awesome after getting so sweaty hiking in though.  

Since there are no campfires allowed right due to the fire ban and we were tired from the heat and the hike, we had a pretty quiet night and headed to bed around 9:30.

A bit of marital humour for you all. Dana has always dreamt of sleeping with the tent fly off, feeling the cool evening breeze and seeing the stars.  Since I sleep so poorly when we backpack, I would much prefer to have the fly on so I can feel cozy and protected.  As a compromise the first night, Dana got to keep his side of the tent’s flap open so he could feel the air.  Joke’s on him!  We both nearly froze that first night as the cool mountain air blew through the tent all night.  Lesson learned:  Kaitlyn is always right.  😉

We were treated to another beautiful day on Saturday, although it started off a little overcast and grey, perhaps from the wildfire smoke. It wasn’t cold though!  A very warm breeze was blowing and we were warm enough when we started our hike to the Petain Creek waterfall.  

We headed off on our hike around 9:30 and enjoyed the warm weather, arriving at the waterfalls in time to eat our lunch.  Our next stop?  Hiking from the waterfalls up to the Petain Basin.

We weren’t super prepared/knowledgeable about the Petain Basin hike, and the trail definitely seemed less utilized (although it is marked). It’s a “stair climber” for sure!  500 m elevation gain over 2 kilometers!  Up, up, up we hiked – it was so steep in places I couldn’t believe it.  I didn’t mind the parts through the forest, but eventually up near the top there is a lot of scree.

I really, really dislike scree (small loose rocks that slide like marbles when you step) and scrambling. There was some internal self-talk for a large chunk of the scree.  I was doing okay for a bit.  I felt if I could scramble up to the top, once we got to the Petain Basin I’d be fine.  Of course, mentally I was also freaking out about how I would crawl down the way we’d came when we were heading back.  Although I had my poles with me, for large parts I was bear-crawling/rock climbing up.  My feet started to slide a bunch and I couldn’t get a solid hand-hold on anything it seems.

Of course I burst into tears in a sheer moment of terror where I was certain I would slide down the mountain to my inevitable demise. As I clung to a single stable rock, curled in the fetal position, hyperventilating/sobbing,  Dana calmly reasoned with me (while standing upright like a normal human being) and then when I finally stopped crying, helped me maneuver over to what seemed like the only large flat safe rock on the entire mountain.


[No joke, as I write this post on Monday, my forearms hurt from the death grip I had on that rock.]

Anyways, although we had made it quite far up the slope, I was shaking so badly that I didn’t think I could carry on any further. It killed Dana I’m certain, but after he went a little ways ahead to see how far was left (too far for me), we decided it was best to turn back and head for the campground.  Dana talked me down the scree slope and helped me with my footing, and then I was fine and nearly laughing about the whole thing by the time we got to the forest again and the sun came out from behind the grey sky.

We were both happy to be heading back to camp as the elevation gain and kilometers were catching up with us, and we were pretty tired and hot. Around kilometer 15 we ran into an Elkford local who regaled us with hiking adventures of years past, and eventually we got back to the campground for another glacially cold swim and some cool beer (Dana) and delicous salt & vinegar chips we packed in.  We hiked about 21 kms on Saturday.

Dinner was Backpacker’s Pantry Pad Thai (6/5 stars – seriously) and some wine. Another night we were in bed by 9:30!

Sunday we were up around 7:30 again and packed up camp pretty smoothly. I brought my AeroPress coffee maker this weekend and it was amazing to have a great cup of coffee in the wilderness.  We headed out around 9:30 and were back in Calgary by 2:00.  Other than Dana nearly losing a knee cap on a hidden broken tree branch, the return trip was beautiful but uneventful.

I can’t say enough good things about Lower Elk Lake – so convenient for us Calgary folk and such a pretty spot too!

After a nearly 45 km weekend, suffice it to say I’m definitely taking a rest day off from crossfit today and instead doing some restorative yoga after work.  Hope you are enjoying July so far!

West Coast Trail 2016: Day 6

July 5, 2016

Campers ⇒ Gordon River (13 km)

Since I’d gotten basically no sleep with my blossuming cold, I was raring to go by 5:30 AM when Dana woke up.  To my delight (*sarcasm), it was raining.  But c’est la West Coast Trail.  A small river was flowing under a tent but luckily we didn’t get wet in the night!

We sleepily and quickly made our daily oatmeal and my horrid instant coffee, then packed up camp with a little less care than usual (AKA the tent was pretty wet still!  But we were going home!).

The girls, Regan and Jess, got moving faster than all of us due to their protein bar/no cooking lifestyle.  Then Katie and Jon headed out.  Finally, close to 7 AM, Dana and I were all loaded up and ready to go.

Although there is a cable car at Campers, since the water was low we decided to just hop across on the rocks.  Dana got a little wet but amazingly I stayed pretty dry!

The ladders immediately got our heart rates up (of course), and pretty soon we had peeled off our rain coats despite the drizzle.  My cold was in full force and I was huffing and puffing (and honking my nose) the entire day.

The pressure was on that day because we had (according to the book) 7.5 to 8.5 hours of hiking ahead of us to get from Campers to the Gordon River ferry, and the last ferry of the day was at 3:30.  Knowing that 5 of the 13 kilometers ahead of us could take one hour per kilometer, we had to keep our pace pretty brisk.

To hikers from home (Calgary), I realize 13 kilometers in 7.5-8.5 hours sounds insanely slow, but the West Coast Trail is a different beast.  Plus we were at the “hard” end, which has more elevation gains, slippery rocks, slippery roots, slippery felled tree bridges – essentially adding up to a very slow deliberate pace if you want to finish the trail with no broken bones.

Oh, and slippery boardwalk too.

After a few kilometers just us two, we heard some whooping ahead of us on the trail which turned out to be Katie and Jon at every kilometer marker.  They were good pacers for us, and the four of us hustled along pretty swiftly.

We don’t have too many pictures of this day’s hiking, as we were too preoccupied with racing to the ferry.

Of course, all things come in threes, and I hadn’t had my third accident-prone thing happen yet.  This end of the trail has quite a few log bridges to cross, and when I say log bridge, I mean a fallen tree that is now to be used as a footbridge.  Some are hatched with an axe for traction, but most are slippery from the constant dampness.  Some are a few feet off the ground, but some are up higher above obstacles like fallen logs or perhaps a creek.

I was at the tail end of the pack as with my short legs, I’m the slowest.  I was certainly worried about falling off one of the log bridges, but couldn’t be too cautious as we were trying to be speedy that day.  Of course, I proceeded to slip and fall off one of the log bridges.  Luckily, it was only a couple feet off the ground and there was nothing major to poke my eye out.  Dana heard me yelp and turned around just to witness the fall in action.  With adrenaline rushing through my body, I did a push up with 35 pounds on my back and was on my feet by the time he got back to me.  I shook it off, and we carried on.

Some unoriginal jerk took the kilometer 69 marker which made the challenging kilometers seem fruitless.  We hadn’t seen Thrasher yet, so we were all starting to panic a bit as we knew Thrasher was 5 km from Gordon River, and it was already 11 AM.

And then there Thrasher was.  And the unofficial campsites just minutes from the top of Thrasher that Monique had advised we stay at.

Even though we were both exhausted from the quick pace of the morning’s 8 kilometers, Dana and I dug deep inside and found a bit of extra crazy fuel to drive us forward.

I’ve never hiked that hard or fast on difficult terrain like that in all my life.

But adrenaline makes us do crazy things.  Dana and I flew up the harsh elevation, dodged roots, and were practically running for 2+ kilometers.  We both had sweat dripping down our faces when we stumbled upon the rusted out donkey engine.  Shortly after that, we caught up with Regan and Jess.

Catching up with them reassured us that our pace was okay, and that we would catch the 3:30 ferry.  Unfortunately, as Dana and I took a Nuun/snack break, I asked him what the time was.  12:00.  All the adrenaline suddenly stopped pulsing through my body.  I was acutely aware of how exhausted I was: my feet throbbed so much I could barely stand on them, my pack felt heavy again, and my poor nose was so congested.

With 3+ hours now to catch the ferry, all urgency left my pace and poor Dana had to coax me onwards.  I basically wanted to lay down and die on the Trail around kilometer 73.  To make matters worse, I don’t think there were markers for kilometers 74 or 75.  Again, the Trail seemed endless.

Fresh, clean, new hikers – just off the ferry – passed us in groups.  A big cheerful commercial group beat us to a ladder, and we had to wait for them to all climb down.  Everyone was saying things like “congrats” and “you’re one hour from the dock”, but I’m sure I looked haggard. 

The new hikers were dodging puddles, trying to keep clean.  Dana and I strode right through the mud and puddles, as we couldn’t possibly get dirtier or wetter.  One clean hiker looked at Dana with apparent horror (possibly due to his scent or the amount of mud on his clothing).  Dana told me to remind him to never hike the West Coast Trail again.

Probably around kilometer 74, I leaned against a log on the side of the trail and started weeping.  I was so tired.  I couldn’t possibly go on.  Even worse, we could see the water through the trees, and even heard the ferry.  I knew we were close, but I was so done with the West Coast Trail.

Dana found some more sugar candy in his pack, and basically force fed me.  With a tiny bit of wind in my sails, I limped forward and then, suddenly, we were at the top of a very steep, long ladder.  There was an orange buoy laying in the grass next to it.

I somehow got down the ladder with my trembling legs, and then Dana followed suit.  We were finally at the Gordon River dock!  We had made it!

As we had just missed the 1:30 ferry by 15 minutes, I raised the orange buoy and we took a few pictures.  The next ferry wasn’t until 2:30 so just as I was sitting down to wait, we were both surprised to see the ferry come into view.  The operator had seen my blue pack cover weaving through the trees, and he came back for us early.  I could have kissed him.

The picture of us below is full of many emotions:

  • So proud of both of us for finishing that crazy hike.  Dana’s GPS watch clocked the West Coast Trail at 115 km… which is vastly more than the quoted 75 km.
  • Pure exhaustion.
  • Desire to never hike the West Coast Trail again.
  • Pure amazement that insane people (like us) do that trail for fun.

The ferry dropped us off, and we headed to the trailhead building to sign out.  We were happy to see Garbage Bag Greg, Regan, and Jess all hanging out there.  Dana called the Express bus to see if we could come home a day early (and we could – yay!).  The warden arranged for a $5 shuttle into town, and soon the pick-up truck was there to drive us in.

The driver dropped us off at the Port Renfrew Pub, and it was like a high school reunion in there with all the hikers who had just finished.  We were surprised to have caught up with Nate, Sara, and Heather who all finished the Trail just minutes before us!

I had saved a pair of leggings to change into (thank you Kaitlyn of the past!) and was so, so happy to take off my wet, muddy boots.  My feet were incredibly damp and swollen.  I took a picture (because of course everyone wants to see what my feet looked like).

I’m assuming the food at the Pub was delicious because everyone licked their plates clean, but I couldn’t taste anything with my cold.  Freshly showered Katie and Jon joined us for some drinks too, and it was nice to see all our buddies together!  I’m sure we all smelled wonderful at this point, but my cold was a blessing as I couldn’t smell anything.

The Express ride back to Victoria was hilarious.  It was very noisy for 20 minutes as everyone rehashed their epic stories and exchanged tales, and then it got very quiet as the entire bus fell asleep.  I find napping adults so, so funny.  (Of course, I was also one of those napping adults.)

These are some of the great people we met on the Trail!

With that, my long-winded retelling of our trip comes to an end.

The West Coast Trail tested my limits in ways I couldn’t even fathom before.  I like to think I’m pretty strong, but the muddy trail, weather, and weight of your pack (and getting bear sprayed) add elements of endurance that most people can’t imagine.  I can’t believe I finished it! 

Although I swore left and right I’d never hike it again, I have this odd feeling 2016 won’t be my last time on the Trail.  As every day passes since we finished, I feel more and more nostalgic for the quiet serenity of the rainforest and the sounds of the waves crashing on the shore.  Part of me even misses the mud.

Thanks for reading!

chow meme west coast trail

West Coast Trail 2016: Day 5

July 4, 2016

Walbran ⇒ Campers (9 km) – Dana’s birthday!

Lucky Dana got to celebrate his birthday on the trail.  He was shaking the sand out of his pack first thing in the morning and the birthday beer he had tucked in the side fell out and sprung a leak on the rocks, which meant of course that he had to shotgun the beer at 7 AM:


Perhaps because I had the first good sleep of the trip the night before, this day of hiking was my favorite.  Which is kind of nuts because it’s also one of the hardest days!

As others had warned us that this day’s hike would be time-consuming and difficult, we got up around 6:30 and were on the road by 8:30.  It was a bit colder day with light mist at times, and minimal sunshine.  We were inland all day which was strange after the big beach day the day prior.

The theme of the Walbran to Campers Creek stretch is MUD, ROOTS, and LADDERS.  Thank goodness my throat was almost all healed up because I needed all the lungs I could get!  This is the infamous WCT day: mud, mud, mud, and 30+ ladders (as one “cheerful” south⇒north hiker told us).  

I thought this slug was a magnificent specimen:

There were definitely a ton of ladders and our quads/calves/glutes got a good workout.  We were both sweating a ton.  It’s incredibly mental too as if you want to keep a bit dry, you need to calculate your next steps carefully and constantly.  I got super muddy despite my best attempts, although at this point my boots had been wet for days.

The last few KMs before camp seemed lengthy, and the Campers sign was a welcome relief (although it’s still quite a climb down to camp from there).

We were very happy to see Katie and Jon from Day 3 camped out there.  Shortly after, Regan and Jess showed up too.

After I got the sleeping bags and air mattresses set up in the tent, I was feeling exhausted from the day and laid down for a 30 min. nap.  It was awesome.  Unfortunately I was still in my sweaty clothes so woke up pretty chilled.

Since it was a bit cooler day, no one took a bath in the creek although we all needed one after the sweaty day.  The three of us couples tried our best to stay warm by sitting around the fire and drinking tea (and eating copious amounts of chocolate since I’d over-packed).  

As we all ate dinner together, I joked about wanting to just hike all the way out the next day, instead of Camper to Thrasher, then Thrasher to Gordon River.  Our hiking book suggested Camper to Gordon River (13 km) in one day.

Turns out, this was a very popular idea and pretty soon everyone around the fire was brainstorming logistics.  Next thing you know we’re giving away surplus food to the solo Swedish hiker we met that night.

We’d heard that Owen Point was risky and difficult, plus hard to time with the tides the next day (it involved a 3 AM wake-up…).  Plus the hour each way for the Thrasher Cove ladders.  Plus the unofficial campsite near Thrasher was apparently full of mosquitos.

We were all feeling a bit of pressure from the book’s recommendation of 7.5 to 8.5 hours for the Campers to Gordon River stretch, as the last ferry of the day was at 3:30.  But we all agreed a hot shower and a real bed would be a wonderful reward, so with that in mind, we headed to bed.

I crawled in to bed with a runny nose around 9 PM.  It was a horrible night of broken sleep waking up frequently to blow my nose and toss and turn.  I was so happy to only have one more day of hiking ahead of me!