Dates of Trip:
I applied for the Sean A. Collier Adventure Grant this spring knowing that I wanted to adventure in a place I’d never been and challenge myself in a way I’d never experienced. Last year, I thru-hiked the Appalachian trail with a friend, spending 5 months in the tree-covered hills of the east coast. But I had never ventured into the backcountry anywhere else, had never ascended the high mountains of the western ranges. So I planned my first solo backpacking trip in Montana’s Glacier National Park, a wonderland filled with crystal glacier lakes, rocky summits and alpine meadows. The plan was to get a backcountry camping permit on my first day and spend five days backpacking in the mountains.
Four days before my planned departure, following a week of temperatures above 100, a lightning storm caused 3 wildfires to pop up, shutting down most of the park. Though I hoped the firefighting efforts would contain the fires, they only grew. Thanks to the generosity and flexibility of the Sean A. Collier Grant Committee, with one day to go I changed my flights to Calgary, Canada, and reserved a new set of backcountry campsites in Banff National Park. There were wildfires in Canada too, next door to Banff in the Kootenay National Park, but Banff was not on fire.
I arrived in Calgary, found my shuttle stop, and rode west into the town of Banff. The closer we got, the higher the peaks around us rose, and the smokier the air became. The winds were blowing smoke from the Kootenay wildfires east into the park and the surrounding areas. After stocking up on bear spray and fuel in town, the first night I camped at a frontcountry campsite nearby.
The next day, I only had 4 miles to hike into the backcountry to my reserved campsite for that night, so in the morning I took the public bus to Sulphur Mountain. The trail wound its way up the mountain and I found myself at the top by 11:30. I was met by a crowd of tourists who had ridden the gondola to the top to admire the views and visit the summit gift shop. It was definitely a strange experience, made stranger by the view from the top. The park had installed a sign with a labelled picture of all the peaks one could see from Sulphur Mountain’s summit, which was contrasted against the wall of white smoke that was the actual view that day.
After descending and taking a bus and a taxi, I ended up at my trailhead and started hiking. I was nervous about hiking alone and knew that I needed to make noise as I hiked, to alert grizzly bears of my presence to prevent possibly dangerous encounters, so I sang. I sang a lot of songs this trip, because most of the time I was walking, I was also singing. I camped that night by a stream, and in the morning ate breakfast with two Great Divide thru-hikers; the couple was hiking the 750-mile long trail that followed the continental divide in Canada. They told me that they had come the way I was going and that the smoke was problematic in that area for both visibility and breathing.
I decided to keep going anyway, and stopped by my first glacial lake that day: Shadow Lake. The smoke was definitely restricting visibility, but I could still see the mountains right next to me. I had planned low mileage days for my time in the backcountry because of the campsites that were available each night, but it was good because it meant I had time to relax, read, and enjoy nature as I went. I had finished Call of the Wild on my nook the night before, so I started Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein by the lake. That day I only had around 10 miles to hike, so I finished up my last few miles in mid-afternoon. The last mile or so along the creek in this wide open corridor between the coniferous forests with yellow marshy field in the middle, all leading towards a towering and majestic peak hidden behind a smoky veil, was absolutely spectacular. It looked just like what I pictured when I imagined the scenes Jack London described of the summertime Yukon.
I camped that night with a group of French Canadians, enjoying my ramen and tuna (for dinner) and instant oatmeal (for breakfast) in the communal cooking area far from camp, which is to prevent bears searching around our tents for food. In the morning, I woke up to wet ground and rain droplets on my tent: it had rained overnight, which meant most of the smoke had dissipated! That day I hiked past another glacial lake and over Whistling Pass, which was my first time above treeline that trip, giving me amazing smokeless views of the valleys on either side. I didn’t see any other people that morning after leaving camp, so I was able to enjoy the beauty and quiet of the wilderness truly alone, and also be more scared of bears than usual.
I descended towards Scarab and Egypt Lakes, taking detours to visit (and take pictures of) both, and climbed up and over Healy Pass. During this time, I decided that the Grateful Dead song “Friend of the Devil” didn’t have enough verses for me to sing, and made up 6 more verses about my trip through Banff. On the way down, I found a spectacular view over the alpine meadows to the south of Healy Pass. I camped that night by a stream, again with the group of French Canadians.
In the morning, I woke early and climbed on towards the top of a ridge. At the top, I found spectacular views in both directions, and had to sit down to soak it all in, deciding it was the most beautiful place I had ever seen. I started to descend, following the ski trails of Sunshine Village ski resort. At the bottom of the bowl, which met the top of the ski gondola, there was a restaurant where I could order lunch- my first “town food” in a few days. I bought myself a pulled pork sandwich with fries and happily devoured it.
After lunch, I hiked up to the top of the second ski lift, took a detour to the little “rocky isle lake,” and passed several hours enjoying the spot. Hundreds of tourists were taking the gondola and ski lifts up and hiking down to the lake, so I found myself surrounded by more people than I had seen the whole trip so far. At one point, I asked three tourists if they could take a picture of me next to the lake. When they realized I was a girl backpacking alone, they excitedly asked to get a picture with me, telling me I was their hero. Of course, I asked for a picture with them too.
I continued on my way, backtracking to the main trail and hiking through the meadows. The meadows were backdropped by tall peaks with lower slopes dotted with islands of trees, as the sun shone down from a blue sky and the wind made the grasses and trees sway slowly. I rethought my earlier statement, and decided that now this was the most beautiful place I had ever seen. The trail dipped down and back up, and I reached the top of the final ridge of the day, overlooking the small Howard Douglas Lake nestled between the hills. I took a picture (which of course does not fully capture the beauty of the place), updating my previous “most beautiful place I had ever seen” and then descended to the lake to set up camp for my last night in the backcountry.
Nobody else showed up to the campground that night, so I had the lakeshore to myself. I played music, waded into the water, and read. That was my first night ever camping in the wilderness fully alone, and though there was a moment of panic when I thought I heard the rustling of a bear outside my tent, it was gone by the time I stepped outside and was able to sleep through the night.
The next morning, I hiked out to the top of the gondola at Sunshine Village, talked to the shuttle driver who kindly offered to give me a ride down the access road to the bottom, and then hopped two buses into the town of Banff and then to my last campsite, by the shore of Two-Jack Lake.
That last afternoon in Canada, I swam in the lake, read and journaled on the beach, and saw an elk feeding in the tall grasses. After showering the next morning I caught the bus to my airport shuttle and returned to Calgary. On my plane from Calgary to Denver, I finished “The Picture of Dorian Gray,” started and finished “A Midsummer Night’s Dream,” and filled in the very last page of the journal I had been writing in from the beginning of my trip.
I reflected on what I had learned from being alone out there for the first time. Even though I had been scared of being solo in the backcountry, especially surrounded by grizzly bears, I realized that it didn’t have to limit what I could do, and still I was able to find joy in the wild.