For me, hitting the trails is usually done on my own two feet, or maybe on a pair of skis if we have enough snow. My boyfriend, on the other hand, prefers to explore the trails on his dirt bike, and he invited me along for a weekend of off-roading at the Brule Lake Sand Dunes just out of Hinton, Alberta with some of his friends. I was nervous, but excited to join in for a new adventure.
Now, my ATV driving experience is minimal, having gone with him once before and then a handful of other times throughout my life, but I hoped that if I took it slow I would be just fine. The guys loaded up all of the units on the trailer and we set out on the around 8 hour drive to Hinton. I was lucky to be able to borrow an ATV from one of his family members to use for the weekend.
After a long day of driving, we arrived at the Big Bear Cabin at Entrance Ranch, which is an awesome cabin with a full kitchen, bathroom, and enough room for about 9 people to sleep. We enjoyed a warm fire and then headed off to bed early.
The next morning we made a delicious breakfast and then piled into the trucks to head to our destination. I was still feeling excited, but now even more nervous because we had been warned the night before that the trail in was quite treacherous.
As it turned out, the trail was exactly as they had warned us. We arrived and unloaded, then set off in to the trees to get down to the sand dunes. I found myself going down a steep, narrow hill, with a large rut in the centre where water must have drained at some point. With my lack of experience, and the sketchy terrain, my tire caught the rut and flipped the quad over on to its side. I fell off the other direction, and knew immediately that I was fine, but watched in horror as the machine I was borrowing toppled over.
Fortunately, my boyfriends brother was driving behind me on his quad and he hopped off quickly to make sure I was okay. I was so thankful that he was there, even though my fear was quickly replaced with embarrassment as he had watched the whole thing unfold. Together, we flipped my quad back upright and nothing was damaged. Except for my confidence of course, which was shattered for the rest of the day.
We eventually made it out of the trees and down to the waters edge where I breathed a sigh of relief. The rest of the crew enjoyed the hills and trails and I tried to stay on the flatter sections as much as I could.
There were plenty of other people out enjoying the dunes, from families out for a cruise, to very experienced riders making the steep uphill’s and winding trails look effortless. I was in awe at the control and skill that the riders had.
As the day went on, my confidence built up a little, but I was still nervous at every steep section. It was frustrating, but I just didn’t have enough experience driving an ATV to feel comfortable. I instead chose the flatter paths, and enjoyed the other parts of the sand dunes. It was still a breathtaking place to be with mountains peeking through the cloudy day.
We stopped for breaks along the waters edge both days to have some lunch and warm up by a cozy fire. At the end of the day we found a different path out to the trucks that took a little longer but was much easier to navigate, I was so relieved.
The second day we came back in on a less treacherous path, and with some encouragement from the others, I rode in just fine. One of the people in our group let me drive his side by side for a few hours while he took the quad for a spin. It was like a switch was flipped for me, from feeling nervous and unsure at every hill to suddenly being way more comfortable and enjoying a bit of a challenge. The steering and stability of a side by side, plus the familiar car-like set up were a world of difference.
I was so thankful for that last few hours of driving to end off the weekend on a high note. I may have left feeling a little discouraged otherwise, but now I am looking forward to giving it another try one day.
We stopped to enjoy some views, and eventually made our way back to the trucks, ending off our weekend at the Brule Lake Sand Dunes. I was happy to have a weekend of new experiences with a great group of people.
Even though it can be tough, and sometimes things don’t go as planned, there are so many things in my life that I am thankful that I did despite being scared to do so. Getting out of your comfort zone (safely) is such a great way to build confidence for the future, and also to understand that you are capable of so much more than you even think.
I remember taking a scuba diving course in cold lake with very poor visibility. The instructor told us that it was a great place to learn how to dive, because if you can manage the cold and low visibility, then any other dive trip after will seem like a breeze. His comment has stuck with me for years, and I try to remember it whenever I am frustrated with learning something new. It might be a good idea to learn in less than ideal conditions, or put yourself out of your comfort zone, in order to give yourself a solid foundation of knowledge. Then, you will have those skills at your finger tips in the future whenever you may need them.
What outdoor activity made you nervous the first time you tried it?
As the leaves are beginning to turn, and the mornings are getting darker, I am starting to think about how I can make this winter one to remember, even though it seems likely that we will still be practicing social distancing. Pushing myself to get outside despite the cold makes me appreciate the season a whole lot more, and also catch some of that elusive daylight. This will also be my first cold season with my dog Piper, who I adopted back in April, and I am looking forward to making her first winter as a retired sled dog a great one.
Here are three things I want to give a try this winter!
Skijoring With Piper
For the last two snowy seasons, cross-country skiing has been my favorite way to get outside in the cold. Now that I have Piper, I think that skiing could be the perfect activity for us to do together. As a retired sled dog, she is extremely familiar with wearing a harness and running on trails, so I’m hoping it will be an easy transition for her.
Even in their retirement, sled dogs require plenty of exercise, and Piper still loves to run. I need to purchase a pulling harness, a hip belt, and a tug line to get us started. Piper is not much of a puller (based on my experience with her on a dog sled), but she loves going running so I’m hoping that this can be a great way for us to get some exercise this winter.
(Finally) Learning How to Snowboard
This is something that I have been saying since I was 16, but I really truly do want to figure out how to snowboard without getting scared and stopping, or falling every few minutes. It is so frustrating to try over and over again to feel like I haven’t made a stitch of progress, but I’m also not quite ready to admit defeat.
I may even consider switching to downhill skis instead of a board if I continue to have no luck. I am thankful for my kind and patient boyfriend and friends who continue to convince me to go back and give it another try. And if all else fails there’s always a chalet nearby to sit by a warm fire and enjoy a caesar, right?
Camping is one of my favorite things to do throughout the warmer seasons, and I would love to get out and experience the winter even more. About four years ago I spent an overnight in a Quinzhee with my Recreation and Tourism program and it was such a unique experience.
A Quinzhee is created by building up a large pile of snow, letting it harden up, and then hollowing out the center to create a space to sleep. As soon as we get enough snow on the ground, my sister and I will be out there trying to craft the perfect snow shelter. We will need to trade in our ultra light backpacking gear for some heavier cold weather sleeping bags, but sleeping in a snow shelter can be very warm if it is set up right! There are so many amazing places in Saskatchewan that I want to revisit in the winter, and camping is a great way to do it.
Last January, my friend Megan mentioned that she was planning to thru-hike the Great Divide Trail in the summer of 2020, and was happy to have company for some of the sections. I figured this would be the perfect opportunity to catch up with a friend and challenge myself to a longer trip. She had been hiking the trail with her dog, but due to park restrictions, wouldn’t be able to bring her for Section E , Saskatchewan Crossing to the Town of Jasper, as that is a Woodland Caribou protected area; so I decided to join her. As soon as the campsite reservations opened, we were on the phone quickly booking our campsites. My sister decided to join in on the fun as well, so come August, our trio would set out together. Finally August arrived, and my sister and I set out to Alberta.
Day 1 – Saskatchewan Crossing to Michele Lakes
Our first day of hiking hit me like a brick wall. I began my day eager and excited, and soon found myself struggling to make it up the grueling 1150 metres of elevation gain with my full pack. We took a discouraging wrong turn about halfway into our day and ended up bushwacking back through the forest to correct our mistake. Regardless, we had plenty of laughs as we got hung up on branches and squished through the mossy forest.
After a pause at the Owen Creek Campground to make some dinner and regroup, we were refreshed enough to make it up to Michele Lakes. It was an incredible feeling to finally be above the tree-line, and we stopped to admire a spot where the two different colours of crumbling rock met between the mountains. We also had our first few glimpses of pikas watching us hike past their rocky homes.
Michele Lakes was breathtaking. We set up our tent surrounded by cute little puffs of plants that swayed and danced in the wind, resembling a Dr. Seuss story. Because there were no trees in the area for a bear hang, we set up a rodent hang above some rocks. We heard plenty of small critters moving around the tent through the night.
Day 2 – Michele Lakes to Pinto Lake
The sunshine woke us up, and we packed up our beautiful campsite to set out for another morning of elevation gain. Oatmeal was our breakfast of choice for each day, Chantal had thoughtfully prepared them with different flavours so we wouldn’t get bored. Our rodent hang was nearly infiltrated by critters, made apparent by some scratches on the side of the Megans tortilla bag, but the goods inside seemed to be fine.
The weather was perfect and sunny, and we happily reached the highest point of the GDT at 2580 metres just as another friendly couple who was hiking the trail made it. We snapped some photos of each other and enjoyed the view, we couldn’t celebrate for long though, as the rain clouds were rolling in.
I enjoyed the meadows filled with hearty little flowers, ready to brave whatever weather would be thrown at them, and the little mountain goat prints that trailed through.
As we made our way down the rain finally started to fall. Just as we began a steep descent down a mountain side an outfitter came up behind us with his three horses. He kindly offered to carry down any garbage, which was greatly appreciated, but we didn’t have much because it was only our second day. The horses made their way around the more gradual grade as we went straight to the steep stuff because the rain was beginning to come down. You could feel the water beginning to make the mountainside muddy and slippery, and we were thankful to make it down just as the rain started to fall harder.
The best treat we could have asked for was a wolverine rushing out of the trees, pushed out of hiding by the man and three horses on the other side. It ran across the rocks as Megan and I both looked at each other, wide eyes, to confirm what we were seeing. At this point the rain was falling down hard, and we were all soaked. We continued on for a few more kilometres and decided to hunker down and wait for it to stop.
It just so happened that we waited out the weather right beside the outfitters camp, and listened to the soft jingle of the free range horses with bells around their necks as they grazed along. The rain cleared after an hour or two, and we packed up to make our final hike to the Pinto Lake campground. As we walked in to camp there was a woman who was seconds away from putting out her campfire when she asked us if we wanted it. Chilled from the rainy day, it was gladly accepted.
Day 3 – Pinto Lake to Random Camp Site
The warm sun finally made an appearance in the morning! We excitedly hung all of our wet gear in the trees and even jumped in the cold lake for a quick splash. This camp had about 4 other tents in it, so it was also a great morning to chat with other hikers. The hiking day ahead was lovely because there was not a lot of elevation gain, but that also meant that we would be crossing plenty of little rivers and streams. No escape from the wet boots and socks. My feet are blister prone, and they were beginning to get sore because the protective tape I put on each morning wouldn’t last much longer than the first creek crossing.
A beautiful feature of this stretch of the trail is a pictograph found behind a large boulder that overlooks a rocky Cline River bed. The age and cultural affiliation of the pictograph is undetermined as far as I am aware. This was a perfect spot to stop, for lunch, and enjoy the work.
We continued on the area that we planned on camping for the evening, a little spot with a fire ring from past campers along the river, but as soon as we sat down we found ourselves in a cloud of mosquitoes. After a quick and delicious supper, we continued on to find higher elevations and hopefully fewer bugs. Our first task was to cross the water again, and we were met by steep rocks with only inches of stepping room on the other side. It must have been a sight to see, three ladies in Crocs, grasping on to handfuls of vegetation and hoping that the loose rocks we were balancing on didn’t give way and send us back into the icy water. Luckily, we made it just fine, and the river bed leveled out enough for us to appreciate how beautiful it was.
Megan was determined to find a beautiful campsite, and she certainly outdid herself. We hiked up to the edge of the treeline and found the perfect spot overlooking a small glacier fed lake and with the perfect view of the mountains around us.
Day 4 – Random Camp to Four Point Campground
Snow dusted some of the mountains around us in the morning, and we sipped our coffees in the sun. We watched another GDT hiker pass and go up on to the rocky moraine beside our campsite, and decided to keep our elevation gain and do the same thing. It always looks easier before you’re doing it, and we soon found ourselves on a daunting boulder field.
This was actually one of my favourite sections though, I enjoyed hopping from rock to rock much more than sloshing through creeks. It can be a little nerve wracking moving across such unsteady terrain, and any wrong step could have easily been a sprained ankle, but we managed well.
We kept a close watch on the few grey clouds above us and continued on through the rock. Eventually, with some careful stepping, we were at the top of the next pass. There was a place to sign-in and take a quick look through the hiker log book, and it’s a great feeling to see the people who hiked the same trails days, months, and even years ago. We found a signature from an Olympian, a man who had hiked all of the way from Mexico, and the kind couple from the days earlier who were hiking the GDT as a 25th anniversary celebration. How incredible to see people from all walks of life, with different goals, walking the same trail.
This pass was also the border of the White Goat Wilderness area and Jasper National Park. It was an enjoyable stroll down the pass, a lazy marmot came out of hiding to watch us as we walked from harsh rocky terrain in to what looked like a tropical paradise.
The diversity of terrain that we hiked in this day was incredible. We scrambled over rocks, trudged through snow, strolled past glacier blue water, and then made our way through the trees and brush in a river valley. We passed a few day hikers and trail runners along the way, a clear sign that we were finally in a National Park.
This was also the first day we crossed a bridge. Three cheers for dry boots and maintained trails!
The pain of four days with a heavy back and wet boots was really setting in. My shoulder gave me a lot of grief for the last 5 kilometres of trail, which I have never experienced carrying a heavy pack before. I carefully peeled off my wet socks and put Polysporin and loose bandages on the raw spots between my toes, but at that point there was damage done and not much to do to save it. Thank goodness for Advil.
Day 5 – Four Point to Jonas Cutoff
A huge part of hiking is mind over matter. If you can’t get out of a negative head space, it will haunt you every step you take. I struggled on the morning of the fifth day. We started out with a delicious breakfast and high spirits. Soon, I became frustrated when my boots started to feel like tiny swimming pools. It had rained overnight and every branch that we brushed by sent a stream of water down on to us. I knew that every sloshing footstep I took was doing more damage to my torn up feet.
We eventually made our way out of the dense brush and I had time to sit and wring out my socks. My head was still stuck in a grouchy cloud, but the mood could always be lightened by Chantal and Megans jokes. I decided to tie my wet socks to the back of my pack and hope that the sun and air would dry them as I hiked. Dry feet were a huge mood booster, and we continued on on a much happier note.
We stopped for a lunch break in a sunny meadow and spread out all of our wet gear in hopes of drying it out. The trail was gorgeous, with little to no elevation gain it was a lovely break from our rocky days earlier.
The next section of trail was up over Jonas Shoulder. Chantal was certain that a shoulder massage should be included with a hike up Jonas Shoulder, and I must say I agree. We stopped for some mountain view snacks before the last few kilometre push to camp.
The weather was so lovely when we arrived at the Jonas Cutoff campsite that we all quickly did some laundry and hung it to dry. I washed my hair, which felt amazing even though the water was freezing cold, and sat out in the sun to tend to my sore feet. After I was done cleaning and wrapping my toes, I looked up to Megan and Chantal giggling as they returned from the bathroom. Outdoor toilets and bear lockers are a huge perk of backcountry camping in a park.
At Pinto Lake we had the luxury of a ‘green throne’ open air toilet. and the other sites had no facilities along the way, so I was excited to see what was they were so giggly about. I made my way up the little trail away from camp and snorted when I saw the them. They were set up with three toilets in a row. A single open air toilet may be enough for a hiker to feel a little uncomfortable with the idea of using the facilities outside, but the thought of doing your business in the morning with a stranger sitting beside you was hilarious.
Day 6 – Jonas Cutoff to Avalanche
It was hard not to laugh in the morning as we woke up to frost covering our tent, and then quickly realized that the laundry that we carefully washed the night before was frozen in place on the line. We really couldn’t catch a break with drying out our gear. The day was lovely though and we hung as much as we could off of our packs to dry.
Our day was mostly covered by trees, and over plenty of bridges. While it was too bad to have the mountains views around us hidden, it was a relief to take another break from high elevation gain. We passed a warden’s cabin, and a few other campsites along the way. It felt different to see so many signs of human life as our first few days felt so remote.
The mud was a great way for us to see what was on the trail without actually seeing it. We passed over plenty of deer tracks, some huge moose tracks, and even some cougar tracks. After a trip of not seeing much for larger wildlife, it was exciting and a little nerve wracking to be reminded of the animals who were sharing their homes with us for a week. We were the only ones at the Avalanche campsite that night, and took all precautions to be bear safe.
We had dinner and chatted about the next few days. We were concerned about fording the Maligne River, especially because the forecast expected plenty of rain in the next few days. My feet were also in even worse shape, and I was nervous about how they would be for 60 more kilometres. Regardless, we enjoyed the evening and read our books beside a small fire to keep the mosquitoes at bay.
Day 7 – Avalanche to the Poboktan Trail Head
In the morning, I woke up around 5 am to the sound of rain. This continued on until around 10 am, with sleet being rained down on us at times. Everything was soaked, and we nervously talked about the state of the river we were due to cross. We poked our head out of the tents to the snow covered mountains around us and decided to make a call that none of us really wanted, but I think we needed.
I sent a message from my Garmin Inreach to one of my friends in Jasper and he kindly agreed to come pick us up at the Poboktan Trail Head. The satellite signal was delayed and I didn’t receive a reply from him until 45 minutes after. We had already begun hiking our route as planned, but quickly turned around when we knew that someone was able to pick us up! We ended up hiking about 14 kilometres out, through plenty more mud, to be greeted by my amazing friend who had even brought us each a beer and poutine.
That evening in Jasper, we were determined to get back out on the trail again the next day. We ate as much pizza as we could, and I patched up my feet to the best of my ability. That night, even though I was snuggled up in a comfortable bed, I woke up around 2 am to my feet aching. I made the tough call in the morning to not continue on the trail with Chantal and Megan, and instead dropped them off at the trail head for three days on the Jasper Skyline.
While I was disappointed to have to end my trip early, I know that my feet needed it. I enjoyed a few nights in a cozy hotel room and some time to drink delicious coffees in Jasper. I am thankful to have enjoyed 120 kms with my sister and friend, and so glad that Megan let us join in for some of her Great Divide Trail thru hike!
Here’s hoping you have a warm sleeping bag and even warmer hot chocolate!
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).
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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”.
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.
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).
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.
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).
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.
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
Making mistakes is all a part of the adventure. It’s how we learn, improve, and end up with funny stories to tell our friends. While trial and error is a big part of adventuring, maybe this list can save your feet a few blisters.
1. Improper Foot Care
After my first overnight hike I swore that I was going to burn my boots if I ever made it back to the parked vehicle. I tried to save some money and bought an inexpensive pair online, but I ended up shelling out three times as much for a good solid pair of boots that I love.
Foot care is one of the most important things to get the hang of if you want to truly enjoy your adventures. It is not worth it to ‘tough it out’ with uncomfortable shoes and blisters. Here are some ways to keep your feet feeling great.
Try on many different styles and brands of hiking footwear before you decide on a pair, make sure that you don’t feel discomfort or pressure that could cause blisters
Stop as soon as you feel rubbing or discomfort and put second skin or tape over the area
For multi-day trips, make sure you have a few pairs of socks and let them dry out completely between wears
Take your boots off when you stop for longer breaks
Tape your feet beforehand if you know you have blister prone spots
Everyone wants to be prepared for anything in the outdoors. When packing I always find myself throwing in plenty of last minute additions, and while some of them may be useful, they are also adding weight. Thru-hikers often do ‘shakedowns’ along their journey to cut out unnecessary weight, and while you may not feel like ditching your deodorant just yet, there may be other things that you can leave at home.
If you are going on an overnight trip, you maybe don’t need as many ‘just in case’ items. If you check the weather beforehand, you my be able to leave some layers behind (and use that saved space for candy bars). I have noticed that I tend to over pack first aid supplies. The problem with these giants kits of bandages and supplies is that I don’t know how to use most of it, which isn’t helpful on the trail. I saved myself a fair bit of weight by making a custom first aid kit filled with stuff that I know.
It is good to be prepared, but think critically about what you really need, you may save your back some stress. Try making notes of which items you used often and which were left untouched after each trip.
3. Not Doing Enough Research
I once led myself and two friends the wrong way up a mountain because it seemed like the right way to me. I could have saved myself a few hours of time, and some less than enthused friends if I had simply looked up the hike online beforehand and read that the best way to access the peak was on the other side. Fortunately, most websites or apps (like AllTrails) will tell you the best route to take, and you can usually even download the trail maps to use out of cell service range.
Comparing this experience to my week on the West Coast Trail, which I had meticulously planned down to the kilometer, I know for sure that good research can make your trip. With a full trail plan, I was way more confident with decision making and time management. I could tell my hiking partners what to expect down to each kilometre.
Save yourself the stress and look at reviews or guides online from past hikers, there is often important information like washed out bridges and trail closures.
4. Forgetting That You’re Supposed to Have Fun
Your feet are sore, pack weighing down on your shoulders, trekking through wind and rain, you hope that your stove will light and the water you filtered from the lake is safe. You stop and wonder why you even put yourself in to this situation to begin with.
A negative mind set is one of the first obstacles you may have to overcome, and also one of the hardest. It isn’t easy to go from a warm, comfortable home to a small tent and rehydrated meals, or even to leave the safety of your couch to trek up a mountainside in a day. It is, however, important to try your very best to stay in a positive headspace. Here are a few ways I keep positive…
Remember that you are doing this for fun, it is okay to turn around, to take a break, or do whatever you need to make it a positive experience.
Mentally prepare yourself for the worst (i.e. what if it rains the whole time?), if the worst happens then you’ll be ready, if not, yay!
Stop and enjoy. Take lots of pictures, stop and write in a journal, sit and listen to music, this time is for you.
Bring good company, positivity is contagious.
Celebrate your accomplishments. Pack a beer for the summit, bring delicious snacks, go out for a nice dinner. Congratulations, you’ve earned it!
When we are doing something difficult or new, my friend Lindsay always reminds us, “Your body is made to do hard things.” You may be tired and sore, but wow will you ever be happy when you climb that mountain. Thanks hiking buddy, I love that.