Darren, Steve, and I planned a backpacking trip over May long weekend from Crescent Falls to Wapiabi Gap, with the eventual goal of doing some amateur spelunking. The typical access to the caves is from the opposite direction, nearer to the Blackstone staging area, but since we wanted a couple nights in the backcountry we took the "scenic route." This, however, placed the location of the cave in question since we weren't using the official trailhead. In addition, there were conflicting and suspect coordinates from both a guidebook and the web. More on that to come.
I was to meet Darren and Steve at the Crescent Falls campground Friday night. They had arrived early to beat the weekend party crowd. I was making great time until I hit a massive checkstop on Highway 11 which kept traffic at a standstill for 40 minutes! On a main highway! Oh well, if it saves a life or two, I suppose my inconvenience is worth it. Wildlife was abundant on the road; I saw countless deer, elk, and a group of wild horses. Among them were a couple foals.
After meeting the guys, Steve made some delicious campfire pies and we had a few beers before turning in. The night was uneventful with the exception of one hapless camper who locked himself in the outhouse and proceeded to pass out.
We got an early start and found the trail was boring and mostly treed; our entertainment consisted of spotting a grouse, rabbits, goldeneyes, and songbirds.
We set up a comfortable camp by an unnamed lake at the head of Sunkay meadows (meadows = tangled brush and muskeg). Our only neighbours were the resident muskrat family. Pictured below is Mr. Muskrat staring us down with his beady little eyes.
The next morning we began our dayhike into Wapiabi Gap. The views opened up at the creek crossing. At this point, the recurrence of a previous hip injury made it apparent to Steve that he couldn't undertake any ascents, so he turned back for camp.
The creek cut into the steep bank, forcing Darren and I to undertake an interesting bushwhack for a distance. I take full responsibility for leading him straight up 100 ft and then down 100 ft through the brush. In retrospect, Darren, it probably wasn't necessary.
The trail was so infrequently traveled that it was tough to figure out in places. We had decided that if we hadn't found a trailhead to the cave by a certain point, we wouldn't go any farther. It was becoming clear that the coordinates we had for the caves were incorrect, so we sat at a beaver pond for lunch to contemplate our predicament. These enterprising beavers had hijacked both the stream and the trail for their beaverly purposes, massacring the landscape in the most impressive of ways. They didn't emerge from the lodge to join us, unlike the amicable muskrats back at camp.
On the way back to camp, Darren's keen eye spotted some ribbon on a tree in what looked like a promising direction for a trail. As we started for the trees, I saw a flicker of movement, freezing cartoonishly in mid-stride. I saw a large, chestnut colored body with a slightly lighter snout only twenty paces ahead. "There's a moose," I said quietly to Darren.
"Really?" he replied, as I reached for my camera and leaned to the right to see the animal's head between two tree trunks.
A split second realization hit me as the animal stared back at me. It was the size of a moose, the color of a moose, but it was definitely not a moose. "Nope. It's a bear. We should go," came my quick correction.
We turned on our heels and headed for the main trail. We were both surprised at how close we came to walking headlong into the biggest f'in grizzly I've ever seen. My adrenaline spiked pretty hard, and Darren got a kick out of me as I carried my bear spray out of its holster, looking over my shoulder frequently.
"To be fair," I said later, "it didn't look you right in the eyes." And my limited experience to date has seen 3 peaceful reactions and 1 aggressive reaction in near grizzly encounters. For me, that ratio is not yet good enough.
The return trip was uneventful, but we did see a footprint that vouched for the large size of the bear.
Steve had a big stack of firewood when we returned and we had another enjoyable evening hanging out by the lake. At one point, the wind changed distinctly to the east, followed by rain shortly thereafter. During the night, the pitter-patter of rain softened to the unmistakable sound of snow, and we all wondered what the morning would bring.
It turned out to be 3 inches of snow by 5 am the next morning, and it continued to fall throughout the day. Our hike out was quick (for Steve quite painful) but we all made it out intact.
I had a lot of fun, learned some new things from Steve & Darren, and hope to do another trip soon when we can get out of the valley bottom.
Keywords: Alberta, backpacking, Canada, David Thompson, hiking, mountains, Rockies
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