Guest Blogger: Kelly Watt is a writer, traveller, and walker. She is the author of “Camino Meditations and walked the Camino de Santiago in 2008.
If you’re hankering after that great Canadian wilderness experience, but don’t like going solo, you have to try hiking with Skyline Hikers in the Rockies. It’s like summer camp for adults.
As members of the Bruce Trail Iroquoia Club, my husband Allan and I are often on the lookout for fresh ambulatory adventures. This past July, Allan talked me into walking 17 kilometres into Bryant Creek in Banff National Park, to camp for a week in a tent. I confess I’m a reluctant camper at the best of times—I’ll take hotels over outhouses any day—so I wasn’t sure why I let him talk me into it, but once there, I loved it.
Skyline Hikers offers what they call “backpacking without the backpack.” A non-profit adventure hiking outfit in the Canadian Rockies, Skyline was originally started by CP Railways, in the 1930s, and has managed to maintain some of its old timey charm. Hikers walk into base camp, but once there stay for a week in white canvas prospectors’ tents—yes the real deal—complete with cots and wood stoves for chilly nights; and all meals, day hikes, and evening entertainment are provided.
To prepare we were told to pack our gear in duffel bags, no more than 42 lbs., with such Cadillac camping incidentals as: flashlight, mug, fold-up chair, (no metal), biodegradable soap, quick drying towel, comfy shoes, and hiking clothes for cold weather and warm. But, get this, besides a day pack, we didn’t have to carry most of it, because all our gear was packed in on horseback. Monday morning, we took a bus to the trail head and walked in, unencumbered. Once we arrived at camp, we were greeted by volunteers who cheered and carried our bags to our tents.
Skyline’s base camp turned out to be a rugged paradise. Picture this: a mythic valley ringed by mountains and evergreens, cerulean sky above, and clouds that would make Joni Mitchell proud. The stillness was transformative.
Don’t get me wrong, we were still roughing it. We slept in sleeping bags, on cots, four to a tent, and there were biffies (outdoor latrines) but all our meals were made for us, including a packed lunch, and the daily hikes were organized and came with a leader and sweep. It was like glamping for the hardy and intrepid.
My husband and I spent our days hiking the surrounding trails, each taking the hike that best suited our energy or abilities, making new friends by day and then reconvening at base later in the afternoon. The hikes ranged from easy to difficult, 5 kilometres to 25 kilometres, depending. I went on the easy jaunts—a fossil hike, an 11-kms. wander to Marvel Lake, saving my ambition for the slog up to Assiniboine Lodge one day, where the organizers had kindly arranged afternoon tea. It was a challenging climb, with lots of elevation, but the trip was worth it. Mount Assiniboine is a place of surreal beauty. The rustic wooden lodge overlooks a turquoise glacial lake, surrounded by wildflower meadows and larch trees, shadowed by silent snow-capped peaks.
While I stuck to the easy low-elevation hikes during the week, my husband, (a.k.a., the Billy Goat), tried the expert trails, scrambling up to Allenby and Wonder Pass for some otherworldly views of glaciers and fossil beds, wary marmots and curious long-horned sheep.
At the end of every day, we would clean up with a quick sponge bath gratis a bowl of hot water in the washing tents, (a humbling but bonding group endeavour.) Or by taking a frosty dip in the glacial creek. After dinner, people congregated around the campfire to sing in the main “donut” tent—every camp comes with a musician and ours was the fun-loving and talented Teresa—and as hokey as it may sound, there is nothing like sitting around a fire, belting out Leonard Cohen’s “Hallelujah”, with a glorious full moon shining down on you from above.
The meals were also scrumptious and satisfying: Scrambled eggs and fresh farm bacon for breakfast, BBQ pork chops and mashed potatoes at night, hot apple crisp for dessert.
Despite the remote location, I always felt safe. The campsite was surrounded with an electric fence to keep out curious bears and cougars, (not to mention wayward tourists!) There was even a medic, the affable Craig, who administered to my sorry feet, on more than one occasion, when he wasn’t taping up his own.
For those eager to go, there are five camps each summer starting from mid-July to mid-August. And each “camp” goes from Monday to Friday, with hikers walking back out on Saturdays. Every year the location changes, (2019 will be in Sunset Pass, and the walk in is only 7 kilometres) to prevent irreversible environmental damage. I was impressed with Skyline’s commitment to the environment. Their volunteers go back to the camp site for three years afterwards to make sure the land returns to its former state.
To date, Skyline is the only organized overnight adventure hiking camp in the Rockies, the only outfit where you can rough it, while someone else takes care of the meals, transportation and accommodation. Although a certain level of fitness and hiking experience is suggested, our group consisted of teenagers and seniors. And Skyline’s volunteers were the best, fit and fun, and generous to a fault. If you like Banff and hiking, and want a once-in-a-lifetime experience, put this baby on your bucket list. Contact: www.skylinehikers.ca.