Technology on the Trail

One of the biggest perks of hiking is disconnecting from the hustle and bustle of everyday life for a few hours, or even a few days. Some people choose to unplug completely, but I like to bring a few things along for fun, and to feel safer while I’m out adventuring. There is no right or wrong list of what you should bring, and it’s perfectly okay if you want to kick back and take in nature for what it is, or if sometimes you just feel like watching an episode of your favourite tv show in your tent.

There are so many gadgets to choose from, such as Satellite messengers, GPS trackers, speakers, watches, even coffee makers. It’s easy to get carried away by the flashy features, but try to think about what will suit you best on the trail. Also, don’t feel pressured to run out and buy hundreds of dollars worth of gear, try an overnight trip or two without anything and make note of what you think you would like to carry with you.

Here is the tech that I brought with me on a week long hiking trip in the Rockies.

iPhone, 6.8 oz

Garmin Inreach Explorer 7.5 oz

Kindle Paperwhite 7.2 oz

PocketJuice Charger 10 oz

Earbuds

(My total tech weight is around 1.9lbs)

IPhone XR

My iPhone XR goes with me everywhere, even if I’m out of service area. While I’m hiking, I use it mainly as a camera. I have found that if I put it on airplane mode, shut it off at night, and only use it for taking photos (avoid to urge to look at them until your trip is over!), I can make my battery last about 7-8 days. I also keep my phone in a warm pocket all day and in my sleeping bag with me at night if it’s supposed to be chilly to preserve the battery.

iPhone photos, quick and lightweight!

Garmin Inreach Explorer+ ($600 CAD)

This is probably one of the most expensive pieces of gear that I own, but as I continue to plan more multi day and overnight trips, I feel like it’s important to have a satellite messaging device. I was lucky to buy my Inreach second hand off of Kijiji and save a couple hundred dollars off of the price tag.

This device has Emergency contact, GPS, tracking, weather, and two way messaging among many other features. It was a huge relief to be able to check in with my loved ones when I arrived at camp every night. These devices work on a subscription basis, and you can choose the plan that best works for you. I decided to subscribe to the ‘Freedom’ plan so I can decide which months I would like to use it. It’s about $22 CAD a month for the basic Safety messaging which allows for unlimited preset messages and ten custom messages per pay period. There are plenty of messaging devices in the market and it’s a great idea to look at a few different models to see which will work best for you.

Checking in with my Inreach while Megan checks in with her Zoleo.

Kindle Paperwhite ($130 CAD)

My kindle was a VERY last minute purchase before heading out on a week long trip and I am so thankful that I ended up buying one. I was lucky to find them on sale and with Amazon’s two day shipping I had it in my hands the day before we left on our adventure. It was wonderful to read and unwind in the tent each evening. A huge perk of the Kindle Paperwhite is that it’s waterproof. I didn’t have a case on mine for the week and it fared just fine, although I’ll likely buy one for it when I get the chance. I also kept it in my sleeping bag with me at night and by the end of the week I had finished a book with 83% battery to spare.

Reading my kindle with dinner.

PocketJuice Charger ($30 CAD)

I was only planning on charging my phone if it needed it (it didn’t), so one portable charger worked well for me. My friend Megan, on the other hand, used her phone for photos, satellite messaging with her Zoleo, and navigation. She brought three portable charger packs. This pack gives me about one and a half full iPhone charges. It’s good to have on hand even if you think your phone battery will last in case you forget it in the cold and the battery is drained.

Surprise snowy morning just above our tent site.

Earbuds/Headphones

This is one of those things that I often throw in my pack and rarely end up using, but they are light enough that I don’t mind carrying them along. I don’t usually like to hike with earbuds in, especially when I am alone and in bear country, but I have used them before if other people in the group are willing to be our ears. I find they’re best for down time such as when we took the West Coast Trail shuttle bus back to Port Renfrew after we finished the trail.

With the exception of the earbuds, I used and enjoyed the other gadgets I brought on the trail with me and will certainly be packing them the next time I’m heading out on a multi day trip.

And if you find your batteries drained, or if you have read every book your Kindle has to offer, it’s always fun to have a deck of cards handy! We enjoyed playing cards in the tent while escaping some of the rainy weather.

A good deck of cards will never lose its battery charge.

Which gadgets and technology do you bring on the trail with you? Is there anything I should try out on my next adventure?

Until then, happy hiking!

5 Ways to Feel Safer in the Backcountry

It is a strange feeling in this day and age to not be connected to world around you. As someone who keeps their phone no farther than an arms length away at all times, it is a huge adjustment to be completely disconnected, but also an incredibly freeing experience. Education is your power when you want to feel and be safe during your outdoor adventures. Here are a few ways to prepare yourself and hike with confidence.

  1. First Aid Training

Give yourself the tools to problem solve efficiently and confidently. It’s a wonderful idea to have First Aid Training in every day life, and incredible to have in the outdoors. Standard First Aid is great, and you can even expand your knowledge with Wilderness First Aid as there could be hazards in the outdoors that you may not see in day to day life.

It’s also a good idea to familiarize yourself with your first aid kid. I carried a first aid kit for years without ever opening it, and if I was ever faced with an emergency situation, I likely wouldn’t have known what was in it. Practice splinting and bandaging so you can help yourself and others in case of an accident. You’ll feel more confident and better equipped to adventure out of cell service range.

A mock first aid scenario in Wilderness First Aid

2. Build a Solid Trip Plan

I have mentioned before that the West Coast Trail felt like a breeze because I had researched it down to the kilometre so we would have no trouble with navigation or tide tables. I have also been on the flip side and found myself taking many wrong turns or not knowing what to expect due to lack of research. There is information available everywhere now, especially on Apps such as AllTrails, to learn exactly what you need to know about your adventure. If you know what you’re in for, you’ll know how to pack and be mentally prepared for your journey. It’s also important to create a trip plan and share it with someone who will know when to expect your return.

Write or type out your plan and send it to someone who will look out for your arrival and ensure that you have made it back safely. Let them know where you will be going, how long you expect to be there, and what to do if they do not hear back from you by the chosen time.

West Coast Trail information board

3. Research the Area and Local Wildlife

A question that I see often on hiking groups is concern about wildlife encounters. Whether it’s bears in the forest or rattlesnakes in the desert, there is always the potential for running into wildlife. Instead of hoping an encounter doesn’t happen, prepare yourself for what to do if one does. Research different species you’ll find in the area, what their behavior is, and what to do if you happen across them on the trail. Carry bear spray, wear closed toed shoes and long pants, or whatever else is recommended in the area and you might feel a little better about the rustling in the bushes.

It’s also a great idea to read up on current trail conditions and reviews from other hikers. You’ll often find out little bits of information that make your hike safer and more enjoyable, such as which direction to travel first, what to avoid, and which beautiful spots you must see. It’s good to know beforehand if the trail is under a lot of snow, if a bridge has been washed out, or if there has been a lot of wildlife active in the area.

A mama bear and her three cubs

4. Know Your Gear

You know what is ridiculous? The fact that I have had a compass in my pack since 2017 with not a clue how to use it. Fortunately I have been able to work on my skills, but it makes me wonder what else I throw in my bag because a hiking book told me to, and not because I actually know how to use it. In Search and Rescue training, the instructors are constantly reminding us to try out our gear before we find ourselves in the middle of nowhere with it with no idea how to properly set it up or make the most out of it.

Confidence in your gear and your pack means that you know which tools you have at your disposal in case of emergency. Try setting up your tent in your backyard for a night, cook dinner on your camp stove, or do some compass and navigation work in local parks. Make note of which gear you use often and what my sit in your pack untouched so you know what you want keep and what can be left behind.

5. Invest in a Satellite Messenger

I have hiked through areas of no cell service plenty of times without much worry. It can be either scary or nice to be fully cut off from contact from the outside world. That being said, if something was to go wrong, it’s comforting to know that you can still contact emergency services or loved ones if you needed to. I recently purchased a Garmin InReach and have just started bringing it on adventures with me. While the price may seem a bit steep, it could be an invaluable tool in an emergency, and may be a good idea if it is within your budget.

There are many different devices to choose from, from simpler emergency beacons all of the way to two way messengers with GPS and tracking capabilities. Research which device would be best for you, for me I wanted to two way messaging option to be able to send my family ‘I’m okay’ messages. I was also able to find a device second hand but in great condition on a buy and sell website and save myself a few hundred dollars.

My Garmin Inreach Explorer

More Quick Tips to Adventure Safely

  • Clap, shout, or sing as you make your way along the trail so that you don’t surprise wildlife
  • Ensure that you are drinking enough water and stopping for breaks. (Powdered Gatorade or electrolyte tablets are a great addition)
  • A Search and Rescue trainer of mine always says ‘two is one, and one is none’ in terms of gear. Think to yourself about what you would do if you were suddenly without a core piece of your gear and consider carrying a backup.
  • Brainstorm what multiple purposes a single item may have. For example, the mirror on your compass could also be used as a signalling device,or maybe even a fire starter.
  • Adapt your First Aid Kit to your adventure style, if you are often travelling in a group you may consider adding enough to care for multiple people or different medical conditions.

Is my list missing anything? What makes you feel safer in the back country?

Safe & happy exploring!

Jewell Pass via Prairie View Loop – Kananaskis, AB

With restrictions beginning to lift and new safety procedures being set in place, my cousin Anya and I decided to head to Banff for the weekend to get a few nights of camping and a few quick hikes in. We were careful to follow all of the safety protocols, and wore masks whenever necessary as well as packed most of our food to eat at our camp site instead of in restaurants all weekend.

Unfortunately I was sporting a few nasty blisters from a earlier trip and mentioned to Anya that I would be taking it easy hiking-wise. We decided on a trail in the Kananaskis area and set out in the morning. ‘Taking it easy’ turned in to a 22km adventure, which was a lot of fun but maybe not the best foot care I have ever practiced.

Barrier Lake, Kananaskis AB

We decided to hike Jewell Pass via the Prairie View Trail. This is a moderate 16km trail that turned out to be much longer than expected when we were turned away from the parking lot. The Barrier Lake parking lot fills up quickly, and we were waved on by the parking attendant immediately, so we decided to park a few kilometres up the road and hike to the trail head along the lake side. We found our way back to the parking lot rather easily, and counted nearly ten empty parking spots on our way (sigh!). We were glad to be there and get started though. The lake is lovely for day use, and has picnic tables and washrooms. You begin on a gravel road crossing the Barrier Lake Dam and travel up a small hill to a bench, then continue following until you see a posted trail sign at an intersection.

Heading up the Prairie View loop section

I packed my day pack with plenty of water and snacks, a light jacket because the clouds were looking a little grey and the wind was beginning to pick up, and most importantly my trekking poles. I found poles to be most helpful on the second half of the trail when we were heading down over loose rocks and uneven terrain. I also brought my regular day pack essentials such as my first aid kit and bear spray.

The first lookout point

As suggested on AllTrails, we decided to travel counter clockwise, which turned out to be the best route. The first half of the trail is a steady incline with switchbacks, but it’s also very wide and well maintained. We stopped for a few short breaks, but found it quite easy to make our way up to the lookout point. The first half of the hike was busy, but we only ran in to a few other hikers and mountain bikers for the Jewell pass section. The entire trail is well marked with plenty of signs posted along the way to help navigate the many trails that overlap.

Piper the mountain dog

The second half was a lot quieter and a little more technical, but still well maintained. We crossed a few beautiful little bridges and enjoyed walking through the trees. There was some evidence of bear activity as the berries are in season now, but we kept talking as we hiked and didn’t run in to any furry friends.

Bridges on the Jewell Pass portion
Jewell Pass section

Eventually the trail meets back up with the ‘Stony Trail’ portion that seems to also be used for horseback riding. My puddle loving dog pranced through all of the water on this trail and spent the rest of the weekend smelling like a barn (sorry we had to share a tent Anya 🙂 ). The last bit is out of the trees so be aware that you’ll be in the sun for a while if it’s a warm day.

The race back to the car with sore feet

We made it back to the car with a few more kms than expected, but happy as can be. I would absolutely recommend this hike to a beginner who is looking to try longer trails, and also suggest that hikers try to get to the parking lot earlier in the morning before it fills up.

Happy exploring!

Nut Point Trail, Lac La Ronge Provincial Park

The Nut Point Trail is a beautiful 30km out and back trail located in Lac La Ronge Provincial Park in Saskatchewan. It can be hiked in a day, but I recommend doing an overnight trip to give yourself time to enjoy the beautiful camp spot at the end of the peninsula. You do not need to book a backcountry camping site, but you do need a provincial park pass to get in.

Piper and butterflies

The area is well marked and it is easy to find the trailhead, you will hike just over 15kms in to the camp spot, although I have heard that people occasionally choose to camp at the portage at the 7.5km mark. My friend Lindsay, the two dogs, and I packed up and set out on a hot +25 degree celsius day.

I packed my bag the night before with my usual gear for an overnight hike. The camping area at the end does not have a cache or canisters to keep food away from wildlife so be sure to pack some rope to hang up your food. After speaking to a local I packed a swimsuit because he said that the camping area was also a perfect swimming spot. I’m also glad I brought bug spray, although they weren’t too bad so long as we kept moving. Most importantly, I brought my camp shoes so that my feet got a rest and my soggy hiking boots had some time to dry out.

My gear for the night

The trail is rated as difficult and I found it to be challenging terrain, it was good to have my trekking poles when manoeuvring over the rocks and roots. We passed lots of muddy areas that the dogs adored but left each of us with soggy boots. There are also plenty of open spots where the heat can get to you so make sure you have plenty of water and sunscreen. There is spotty cell service along the trail, and we noticed plenty of boats driving past the peninsula which made us feel more comfortable as we were the only tent set up that night.

June enjoying every mud puddle

After a very long 7.5kms in the sun, we made it to the portage at the halfway point. There are a few picnic tables and spot off to the left where a group of teenagers was jumping off the rocks into the lake. The dogs got a good opportunity to cool off and we had a moment to drink some water and eat a quick snack. I have read in other posts that people sometimes opt to camp here, but we didn’t see much room for a tent set up.

The half way point

The difference in terrain along the trail is breathtaking. We hiked over rock, through water, over roots and moss. We admired the blueberry plants along the trail, which was another reminder to be bear aware, but didn’t end up seeing much more than the odd squirrel. We saw quite a few hiking back from camping, and they said that there were about 5 tents set up there the night before, but we were the only ones heading out that day.

On the trail, hoping to find some squirrels

My absolute favourite spot on the trail is around the 11km mark. A small trail veers off to the perfect spot to dip your feet in the water and sit on a shelf of rock. I was excited to stop here both days.

Around km 11, the perfect spot for a break

At last, we arrived! We were thrilled to finally make it to the end of the peninsula. There is one camp fire spot that seems more permanent and plenty of smaller fire rings set up around from past campers. The local I talked to was right, the swimming area was perfect! We started the trail later in the day, but next time I would probably start first thing in the morning so we would have more day light to enjoy the beautiful spot.

Lindsay enjoying the water

We set up camp and settled in to eat some dinner. The dogs quickly ate the kibble that I had packed for them and then conned me out of part of my sandwich with their puppy dog eyes. How could I resist? I packed a pre-made s’more that may be my new favourite hiking treat in lieu of my usual chocolate bar.

Piper enjoying the campsite
Camp treats

We were exhausted from the long day of hiking, and ended up in bed pretty early. But I was told later that the northern lights were incredible, so they may be worth staying up for next time I find myself on this trail.

Lindsay setting up camp

I probably should have warned Lindsay that the two person tent we were sharing would also have two soggy dogs in it. She might not have had the best sleep, but hopefully she forgives us. In addition to the cramped tent, it was quite warm and windy through the night and we found ourselves up early and ready to head home. The trek back to the car was much nicer in the cool morning air, although the bugs did come out a bit more.

2 people and 2 dogs in a 2 person tent

Finally we arrived at the parking lot. I was exhausted, with sore feet, and a long 5 hour drive ahead, but so glad that we had tackled the trail. I am so thankful to have an adventure friend like Lindsay who is always in to try something new. We stopped for a well earned Slurpee and made our way back home.

Happy fam

Happy hiking!

Summer Walks at Cranberry Flats Conservation Area

Cranberry Flats Conservation Area is a short 10 minute drive outside of the city of Saskatoon that is family friendly, dog friendly (on-leash), and has an accessible lookout point with a boardwalk. While it is lovely in the winter for snowshoeing and walking, it is worth revisiting in warmer months to appreciate the large diversity of plant life.

The dogs at Cranberry Flats

I packed up my usual adventure sidekicks and we set off to explore. Although the area can get busy, there are plenty of smaller trails that branch off and I didn’t find myself crossing paths with many other people. I was in awe at the variety of wildflowers I came across, but couldn’t stop for long as the dogs pressed forward in hopes of coming up on one of the squirrels that chattered around us.

Along with the explosion of flowers, we were surrounded by berries of all colours. The Saskatoons have begun to ripen on the bushes, and the Juniper berries were so plentiful that they weighed down the little green shrubs.

Although there were a few grey clouds in the sky, it was a hot day, so we made our way down to the river for the dogs to have a swim and a drink. I watched some new little froglets hop back into the safety of the water as we cooled off and continued on our way.

June going for a swim

We continued along the river side for a while and then happened to pop up right below the boardwalk and lookout point where a man was playing the guitar with the company of two curious ground squirrels. After a lovely chat, we headed back to the vehicle for a drink of water and some air conditioning.

Wild Bergamot

My favourite part about Cranberry Flats Conservation Area is that you can make it your own adventure. You can spend 30 minutes to several hours exploring, no matter the season, and it is always breathtaking.

Happy exploring!

A Day in the Life of a Dog Sled Tour Guide

What goes in to being a musher? Getting paid to pet dogs all day? Here is a snap shot of an average day of a dog sled guide, working one of my favourite jobs but also by far the most difficult!

Every morning I would scramble and gather all of my gear and quickly eat before heading out the door. The funny thing about seeing dog food all day when you’re hungry is that it starts to look kind of… appetizing? I found myself buying chocolate cereal that looked suspiciously familiar to the kibble I was scooping out for the dogs. Every day I brought a 48 litre pack of gear and a smaller 20 litre pack to work with me, the smaller bag to sit on the sled with me with extra mitts/gear for guests, and then a larger bag for extra layers of clothing and another pair of boots. We would all arrive at the dog kennel and throw our bags in a pile on the deck to start the morning chores.

While it’s easy to see the fun part of the tours, a lot of work goes in behind the scenes to keep the dogs happy and the tours running smoothly. The first tasks of the day are regular chores before we load up the dogs and drive to the dog sledding trail. Morning chores included feeding, poop cleanup, giving medications to dogs who needed them, loading hot water canisters and other supplies into the trailers, and getting the trucks running and warmed up. Winter in the mountains also means that morning chores were done in the dark, so a good head lamp was a must! Each of the 150+ dogs received a portion of food specific to their dietary needs, and we followed a written food board to make sure this was correct. As guides, we were expected to learn each and every dogs name and which house they lived in (their names were not written on their houses or collars).

Indy and the food board

My favourite chore in the morning was preparing the feed. My least favourite was loading the trailers, because I wasn’t tall enough to lift the hot water canisters into the trailer and often spilled them all over myself in the process. It is rather uncomfortable to start a 12 hour day outside in the winter soaking wet. After those tasks were done, we were all given a list of what the teams would look like for the day. Then we would run to collect the dogs and put them in the appropriate boxes in the trailers so they could be unloaded according to team. This was a workout, because we would be running with two dogs at a time and lifting them into boxes. I often struggled to get the bigger dogs in the boxes up over my head, and was thankful when they would cooperate by putting their front paws up on the trailer. After everyone was packed up, we grabbed our radios and set off.

The driving time was our ‘quiet’ time for the day, as the trails we ran our teams on were about 30 minutes from the kennel. As soon as the trucks pulled up to site, we were on the ground running to get everything ready. A drop line was set up between posts to clip the dogs in to get their harnesses put on before the team was hooked up to their sled. Then we would take the sleds down from the trailers, set up the lines and sled bags, then get the dogs hooked up, and drive them to the starting chutes to park until guests arrived. We typically would bring 120 dogs up to site with us every day. Any pups that weren’t heading out on the first tour would then be taken out to pee and given some warm soup while they waited for their turn. In addition to the set teams, we would bring up spare dogs to put in place of older dogs half way through the day or if any dogs were too tired or feeling unwell.

As the guests arrived and the tours set off, some guides would stay back to prepare a campfire for the cold returning guests, look after the dogs staying at the trailers, and prepare any dogs who would be running the next tour. Another two guides would set off on a snowmobile behind the running tour to clean up dog poop along the trail. Guests were often surprised to hear that clean up is done after every single run, but it was important to keep things as pristine as possible.

It is truly a magical feeling to be driving a dog sled across a frozen lake, and I tried to pause often to appreciate exactly where I was in that moment. What a privilege to live and work in the mountains, and be a part of a an experience of a lifetime for so many people.

As a guide I was responsible for three sleds, mine in the lead, and two guest driven sleds behind me. I had to ensure that the guests were driving safely and confidently, and that the dogs were doing well. If one sled was moving slower than the others, I could stop and rearrange my teams to even out the speeds. Sled dogs have best friends who they prefer to run with, and dogs that they do not get along with. It’s important to learn their personalities and understand those relationships to keep your sled moving and your pups happy. Happy dogs also need encouragement, so we asked guests to try and remember the names of the dogs on their teams and cheer them on.

Between tours, the dogs get a well deserved rest and a warm soup filled with tasty treats. This was also when it was important to check in on all of the dogs on your teams and give them some love. On very cold days, shorter haired dogs would get jackets, and those with sensitive feet would have booties put on right before the tour went out. Any other down time was spent snuggling, petting, and brushing the dogs.

At the end of the day, after four tours, we would drive all of the teams back in to the chutes to park and take the dogs off of the lines. They would be attached directly to the drop line again where we could remove their harnesses and give them a final bowl of soup before returning for dinner at the kennel. We would them take apart the sleds and wrap up the lines, then begin loading the dogs back into the truck after their stomachs had some time to settle after eating. We became so familiar with the dogs that we could have one guide wait at the trailer and one at the drop line, and then release dogs to run to them and be lifted into the boxes. There were also dogs who thought it was a fun game to run circles around us instead of going to the trailer, so we had to choose wisely.

Marilyn lounging after tours

Once we returned back to the kennel in the evening, the work was still not over. The first thing we would do is change out our wet socks/boots and uniform to dry kennel clothes. Then our first priority was getting the dogs out of the trailers and back to their homes where their food and fresh water was waiting. We always took two dogs at a time, and tried to choose two that live in a similar area in the kennel. A piece of gear that we all used was a climbing quick draw that we attached to our belt loops. This made it easier for us to clip one dog to us while we used both hands to lift the next dog down. After that we completed nightly clean ups, meds, and then some dogs would get jackets or blanket put in their houses if they needed them. Finally after everyone was fed and cozy in their dog houses, our day was over.

Ducati snuggled up with her blanket

One night a week I would sleep at the kennel, as each staff member took turns spending the night in to make sure everything was okay with the dogs and the yard. Kennel nights had their perks, you could bring dogs in with you for sleepovers (I would often have 3-4 pups sleeping beside me), but it also meant that I would wake up whenever the kennel started barking or howling, or when the logs in the wood stove had burned down. It was a great feeling to snuggle up beside a fire with a cabin full of happy dogs.

Dragon enjoying the fire

The next morning I would be up early filling thermoses with hot water and ready to start the process all over again. I was often so exhausted from my week of work that I didn’t even think about doing anything on my weekends, it was a full time commitment for a season and I would even dream about dogs all night, but I loved my experience working as a sled dog tour guide and every challenge I faced along the way.

I am now lucky to have a little piece of the kennel close to my heart since adopting my retired sled dog Piper from the company.

Happy working!

A Quick Stop to Smell the Flowers at Pike Lake Provincial Park

Pike Lake Provincial Park is located a short 30 kilometres outside of the city of Saskatoon. It is one of the smallest provincial parks in Saskatchewan, but it is still the perfect getaway if you want to take a break from the city for a few hours. You’ll find a lovely little beach, an outdoor swimming pool, a mini golf course, plenty of day-use picnic tables, and a small nature trail.

Piper and I went for a quick swim in the lake and then decided to see what we could find on the nature trail. It is well maintained and family friendly, you’ll see diverse plant life from cattails to cacti along the way.

I joke that Piper is like Ferdinand the bull from the popular children’s book because she loves to stop and sniff flowers. Here are a few pictures of some of our favourite finds on the trail.

While it isn’t always possible to pack up and leave every weekend to adventure, it is always fun to explore closer to home and discover the beautiful things that our own back yard has to offer in Saskatoon.

Happy exploring!

Driving an Ice Explorer on a Glacier

One of my proudest moments was the day I got my class 2 drivers license, it was also one of the most nerve wracking days of my life. I had been hired by a tour company in Jasper to be a driver/guide for their excursions on the Athabasca Glacier, so failing was not an option.

Earlier in the day, four other newly hired staff members and I stood in our hotel room in Edmonton, taking turns walking around an odd stack of furniture, pretending to do our bus pre-trips. We had already written our air brake exams, and now was time for the driving test. Although we would be driving coach busses and Ice Explorers at work, our road tests were done in school busses.

We went for our tests one at a time, and I anxiously waited for each person to walk back with a smile on their face to announce that they had passed. I was up last, and to be honest I couldn’t even tell you how it went because I was so nervous that I hardly remember. All I know is that I passed, and we drove back out to the mountains that night, proud as punch and ready to learn how to drive the big busses.

A perfect day at work with the Athabasca Glacier in the background

Before you are allowed to drive an Ice Explorer, you have to be extremely comfortable with the coach busses.We went through a fair bit of training on just driving, and then added a talking tour on top of it after to entertain guests as we shuttled them from attraction to attraction.

The tour part was my favourite, and I loved spitting out facts about the wildlife and the landscape to anyone who would listen. And the coach busses were quite fun to drive, especially when guests were shocked that their bus driver was a short blonde woman in her early twenties. But I was ready to move on to the Ice Explorers. I spent a week training one on one with a few of the managers, and had to do one final tour while driving and talking before I could start taking groups out.

Ice Explorer on the Athabasca Glacier , I was the last tour driver on the glacier that day and my guests had the ice to themselves.

Driving an Ice Explorer is quite different from driving a coach bus. There are only 24 of them in existence, each weighing in at about 55,000lbs, and able to carry 56 passengers. They are HUGE, and it was a climb to get into the driver seat. Although they are built specifically for travel on ice, we had to be confident and cautious drivers, while giving a full tour and telling jokes at the same time.

Looking up at my explorer during my morning pre-trip inspection

Drivers are equipped with radios, and constantly communication among each other and with dispatch to make sure things are running smoothly. All of the staff lives together at the Icefield, so your coworkers are also your roommates, and everyone looks out for each other.

Ice Explorer driver controls

My Ice Explorer slipped on the ice road one day as I was bringing a full bus back to the transfer bays. My driving style can certainly be described as ‘slow and steady’, but even if you are going slow, you can still slip up on the ice road after it has been warming up in the sun all day. There are always oncoming Ice Explorers sharing the same road, and especially as the summer warms up and the ice road thaws out, you wouldn’t want to get hung up in one of the deep ditches or piles of ice.

I started to feel the back end of my bus sway out and I immediately shifted into neutral as I continued to slide. Our driver trainers were great at explaining to us what to do in these situations, but it is always nerve wracking when it’s actually happening to you. I was still mid tour, explaining what makes glacial ice look so blue when I saw my coworker approaching up the hill in another Ice Explorer. I knew at that point that I was still not stopping and she was moving quickly up the roads towards me. Fortunately she looked up and saw me sliding, then stopped her bus even before I could ask her to slow down over the radio. Another coworker, who was behind me, saw what was going on and called over the radio with some words of encouragement, which helped to ease my nerves a little as my machine continued to slowly slide down the road. I took a deep breath and controlled the slide until I felt the tires finally gaining a little traction.

With a sigh of relief, we were fine. I quickly resumed my tour and make it back safe and sound with my guests. Good training and guidance meant I was prepared for the situation, but as a driver your passenger safety is a top priority and there is nothing quite as nerve wracking. I radioed my manager and and the road was graded so that no one else would slip in the same spot.

View from the front seat of an Ice Explorer looking down the lateral moraine

One of the things about living and working in the mountains is that you never know what weather you will be driving in. It could snow any month of the year, even through the summer, and especially as we neared the fall we had plenty of snow days. And although the fleets of busses and Ice Explorers look the same, they all have their different quirks. I still smile when I think about unlocking my bus for the day one morning and reading the comments from the previous days driver, “wasp nest somewhere in bus, live wasps may blow out when you turn the air on”.

A glacier rainbow with an Ice Explorer at the end

Working as a professional driver and tour guide has helped me build on so many personal skills. My driving improved of course by trading in a little car for a big bus for a few months, and I developed my public speaking and presentation skills by building and presenting my own tours to guests. I appreciated that the company gave us talking points we were expected to touch on, but we were free to build our own tour in whatever order and with whichever stories we preferred.

I also took great delight in working a job that is stereotypically male-dominated. Nearly every day I would get comments like, ‘are you sure you even know how to drive this bus?’, or ‘wait, YOU are driving?’. On the flip side, I also received overwhelming support from plenty of guests who were happy to see so many young female bus drivers.

I am so grateful for my experience working as a driver/guide and being able to live in such an amazing part of the world.

Until next time, happy exploring!

My Top 3 Full Day Hikes in Alberta

There is no better feeling than standing at the top of a mountain, cracking a summit beer, and looking down at the landscape around you.

The thing about hiking is that once you catch that first amazing view that makes you fall in love, you can’t stop. The search is always on for the next adventure, the coolest trail, and the hiker’s high after a long day of trekking.

Alberta is home to many breathtaking hikes and adventures, here are my favorites.

Tent Ridge Horseshoe (Hard,10 km)

I set out with a group of friends one morning and made the 40 or so minute drive up the Spray Lakes road from Canmore to find Tent Ridge. The first section of the hike is in the forest, so be sure to make some noise and carry bear spray. Once we hiked in closer to the ridge, we began scrambling up the left side and moved clockwise (as suggested by AllTrails, this was the best route).

Tent Ridge

We then followed the ridge around, amazed by the incredible views as we stood above the clouds. We stopped for two breaks as it was pretty exhausting moving along, but became less tiring for the second half as the ridge flattens out.

Tent Ridge

This hike is absolutely worth the drive out of Canmore. Be aware and check the trail conditions before you go, because there is often quite a bit of snow in spring and early summer, so you can pack accordingly.

Wilcox Pass (Moderate, 9.3 km)

Wilcox Pass is a all about the views without the strenuous trek up a mountain. It is located on the Icefield Parkway very close to the Athabasca Glacier and the Icefield Discovery Centre. You’ll find the most difficult parts of this trail are at the beginning and end as you gain and lose most of your elevation, but it flattens out nicely in between.

I recommend going as a group with two vehicles if possible. Leave a vehicle at Tangle Falls and drive over to the Wilcox Campground to begin, or you could try to hitchhike your way to the campground (not uncommon practice on the Icefield Parkway but certainly not the safest).

Wilcox Pass and Bighorn Sheep

This is a great trail to bring your dog along with you, but make sure you keep them on leash as you are likely to see bighorn sheep and maybe even some mountain goats.

Wilcox Pass, a quick cool down nearing Tangle Falls

I enjoyed admiring the glaciers, and trying to identify all of the different types of fungi we passed along the way. Pack a delicious lunch and enjoy the day!

Cirque Peak via. Helen Lake Trail (Hard, 16.1 km)

Cirque Peak is an out and back trail that also begins on the Icefield Parkway, however it is closer to Lake Louise and begins on the Helen Lake Trail. The hard work pays off as the views at the top are among the best I’ve ever seen.

You will likely see plenty of marmots. Much to my delight, they ‘yelled’ at us most of the way. The adventure is moderately difficult until you reach Helen Lake and begin to move up past the tree line. As you move up the mountain, take plenty of breaks and continue on, the summit is worth it.

Expect to do a little scree skiing on the way down and be sure you have a windbreaker, and of course a beer for the summit, if you plan on hanging out up there for a while.

Every bit of that trail amazed me. It was such an incredible experience and I am eager to get back out there and hike again as soon as we are able to travel.

Some Quick Day Hiking Tips

** It’s a good idea to check AllTrails or other hiking apps for trail conditions. Especially in the Rockies, you could be hiking through snow even in the middle of summer. It’s also important to make sure there aren’t any trail closures or restrictions due to maintenance or wildlife.

**Pack layers, you may be warm when you start but things will cool off fast when you stop for a break half way up a mountain

**Always tell someone where you are going and when you expect to be back

Happy hiking!

Tick Talk with Tia

As we are a few weeks strong into tick season, and I have a newly adopted dog that has been bringing plenty of them into my house, I figured it would be a good idea to do some research and learn a little more about how to avoid and remove these nasty little creatures.

I often see people sharing ‘life hacks’ on Facebook about how to quickly get rid of a tick with vaseline or a lighter, and I know that this method could potentially do more harm than good, so I believe it is important to share a little about what they actually are and how to remove them.

Healthlink BC has an excellent step by step process on how to properly remove a tick and some removal methods to avoid. https://www.healthlinkbc.ca/health-topics/tp23585spec

It is also a great idea to research the types of ticks that are found in your area and which tick borne illnesses you may need to be aware of. In Saskatchewan, I have only found Wood Ticks (or American Dog Ticks), but I know that the Lyme disease carrying Deer Tick is here as well.

The thing is that I want to be educated and cautious, because they can potentially be quite harmful, but I also do not want to let them stop me from going outside or keeping me stuck to the sidewalk. There are a few steps I take to kick the ticks…

For myself, it’s important to wear bug spray with DEET if I know i’ll be going off of a path. If I think that the area may be especially tick-y, I’ll tuck my pant legs into my socks (what a nerd) so that they can’t crawl up into my pant legs. It’s also nice to ask your hiking/walking buddies to quickly scan each other during and after your hike. When I get home, I will remove all of my clothing and throw it into the dryer for 10-20 minutes (your washing machine will not kill them, but the dryer will). Then I’ll check places that a tick would like to bite like behind my ears, armpits, etc. to make sure I don’t have any unwelcome hitchhikers.

For Piper, I also want to be careful because dogs can also be susceptible to tick borne illnesses. I give her a tick treatment once per month which will kill ticks about 12-24 hrs after she is bitten (talk to your vet about the best tick treatment option for your pet as there are plenty!). I also try to avoid walking her through very grassy areas, although being a dog she is drawn to them. After our walks I will quickly check her over for anything I can immediately see, but it is difficult to spot ticks on her as she is dark coloured so I often don’t find them until they’re crawling across my couch a few hours later.

My family and I save every tick we find in a glass jar. Firstly, its a good idea to keep the ticks in case you are bitten and do begin to feel ill, then they can be tested for tick borne illnesses. And secondly, they are so damn hard to kill that I never feel quite confident that I have squished them (and remember that water doesn’t seem the phase them so flushing is probably not a good idea either).

Here are a few resources to help learn how to identify ticks and ways to avoid them.

Tick Identification: https://tickencounter.org/tick_identification/tick_species

Preventing tick bites: https://www.cdc.gov/ticks/avoid/on_people.html

Tick bites and what to do if you are bitten: https://www.healthline.com/health/tick-bites#symptoms

Keep safe and continue to enjoy the outdoors!