At the top of the world after climbing the Notch (Photo: Annemarie Dooling)
Forty-four kilometers of subalpine and alpine landscape surrounded by the Queen Elizabeth mountain range and dotted with packs of curious ground squirrels, lazy marmots, and hungry bears: This is Jasper National Park’s Skyline Trail. I chose this hike, with its 500-plus meter, quick elevation climbs and erratic weather conditions, as the setting of my very first overnight camping trip.
Jasper is a paradise for backcountry fans. The far-reaching park spans about 660 miles of trail for use by hikers, runners, horseback riders, and bicyclists. One of the most popular walks within the boundaries of the park, the Skyline Trail, starts off scenic and unassuming (with a gentle, sloping climb through fragrant pine tree patches) from sparkling Maligne Lake, home of a popular tea service in the 1920s. It follows through several campgrounds and landscapes, each so different, you’ll swear you’ve entered a new park. Is this Yosemite? The Catskills? Red Rock Canyon? The most popular route is a full three days, with stops at the Snowbowl and Tekarra campgrounds, venturing over Little Shovel Pass, with its lush grasses and pops of colorful little wildflowers, and Big Shovel Pass — yep, similar, but bigger. It continues over the Notch, a popular spot for photographs, due in part to access to cellphone reception, with a final hike down a secluded fire road until you see the familiar face of Roche Bonhomme, or “Old Man Mountain.”
The top of the Notch, a 190-meter elevation gain in under 2 km, complete with hail storm (Photo: Annemarie Dooling)
About 60-100 hikers attempt this path each day during high season, by estimates of campground reservations, though that doesn’t take into account those for whom the terrain is too troublesome or the weather too volatile and who take an early exit after Curator Lake or the Watchtower mountain. This is the full plan I also experienced, which was prepared for me by my guide Sarah Peterson of Canadian Skyline Adventures. But, I’m getting ahead of myself.
It’s true that this was my first time really camping, or on a hike longer than six hours for that matter, and because of that, many friends doubted my ability to enjoy such a difficult course. I did make some mistakes along the way; I still have the faint feeling of phantom backpack looming over my shoulders, and there were a couple of hours that were almost unbearable. But on day three, I emerged from the trail elated to see the world and armed with better knowledge for other first-timers who want to jump in at the deep end like I did.
Gorgeous Little Shovel Pass, home to some very friendly marmots (Photo: Annemarie Dooling)
Shopping and packing were my first hurdles. A simple trip to Dick’s Sporting Goods revealed aisles of gadgets and nonsense that you’ll never need, like a rainbow of glow sticks, a powder that turns your campfire pastel shades, a full-body mosquito net, and a Platypus water pack for constant hydration. In reality, a trip like this requires necessities such as sunscreen, toilet paper, two 1-liter water bottles, a good quality rain jacket or poncho, base layer clothes for chilly nights, a headlamp, and a knitted cap or two. You’ll also need a good backpack to fit it all — I’m 5’3” and mine was a size small with 60-gallon capacity. In Jasper, I acquired bear spray from Peterson, my guide. She recommended hiking boots for this trek, particularly for a first-timer, but I’m comfortable in trail running shoes and made the decision to swap those out. It worked out well, save for the last, very rocky bit of trail, where I rolled my ankle and had a few uncomfortable miles left.
The comfortable plateau of Big Shovel Pass on day two of the hike (Photo: Annemarie Dooling)
One aspect I wasn’t ready for was the mental challenge. As my group moved closer and closer to the Notch, an infamously difficult patch that elevates to the highest point on the trail at 2,500 meters, the path came into the distance, winding precariously around the steep edge of a mountain, and my inner scaredy-cat did flips in my stomach. The height and depth of the climb was disorienting, and I had doubts before even taking the first step up the hill.
Dicey weather conditions stepped in and sealed our fate: We had to do the hour-and-a-half scramble because we’d never make either of the exit campgrounds before the oncoming storm met up with us.
We took a snack break at Mona Lake at the beginning of the trail. (Photo: Annemarie Dooling)
We ascended the Notch, pulling ourselves up steep inclines and over suspended rock quarries until we finally met a thin path over the top ledge, where my courage nearly gave way to my lifelong fear of heights. My body was in pain from the harrowing route, but my mind took more of a beating from dealing with my acrophobia, face-to-face, for 90 minutes straight. And then we ventured back down to camp.
But, camp is not salvation; it’s tedious work. Reaching the site of our home for the night felt like spotting an oasis in the desert, until I realized that arriving at camp can be more work than the hike itself and may be uncomfortable for someone who hasn’t spent much quality time outdoors. Arrival at your campground (which at Jasper, must be booked in advance at the rate of $10 per person, per night) means finding a spot to set up, pitching your tent, unpacking your bags, and setting up your equipment for dinner preparation. Post-dinner isn’t the time to pull up your covers and kiss your tent-mate goodnight, either. It means searching through the woods for a designated bathroom area (or improvising), packing up food and any pungent items to keep grizzlies away from camp (This includes lotions, soaps, toothpaste, and other hygiene items, too.), walking to your nearest water source and then filtering the water for cleaning and drinking, and finally, swaddling yourself in pajamas, sweaters, mittens, thick wool socks and zipping up your sleeping bag for a cold night on the hard floor … which can be surprisingly rewarding when you are greeted by a full dark sky of uninhibited twinkling stars. Jasper is a dark sky reserve, and the brightness coming from above was almost frightening for a city dweller who lives under constant light pollution.
Descending to the Tekarra campsite, a favorite of grizzlies (Photo: Katie Hammel)
Please do expect — and respect — the unexpected on your trip. Even the best laid plans are subject to weather, animals, and other forces of nature that we can’t possibly predict. My group was able to finish the entire course, but had that dark cloud settled over the Notch just an hour sooner, we might have been ascending the Watchtower or camping at Curator Lake instead. Our weather forecast predicted a 60% chance of rain for two of our three full days outdoors, but we lucked out with a little hail and a few snowflakes for our August weekend. A family member did the exact same trail a handful of years ago during another August weekend and had to contend with a couple inches of snow on the ridge. Injuries and abilities play into route changes, too. As an experienced guide, Peterson gave us the mental nudge we needed to finish that second day, but had we been a little less comfortable, a little less able to secure our breath or hold our packs, or had I rolled my ankle 24 hours earlier, we might not have taken the same path.
Before even setting out on our first mile, we were armed with bear spray and the knowledge of how to use it. From then on, everywhere we went — alone or together, bathroom, campground, water trip — the spray came also. Jasper is one of the largest preserves of grizzly bears, and though they don’t always intend to scuffle with humans, you can certainly run into one on the trail. We did run into evidence of bears several times but didn’t come into contact with any, though one of our camps has been known to attract them. We also came across hawks in play in the sky, were charged by a very thirsty marmot in a rush to a stream, and had an encounter with a mother caribou and her young during our exit from the park. This is their territory, and respect can be the difference between experiencing an animal encounter and succumbing to one.
Day three on our long walk back to civilization (Photo: Katie Hammel)
By far, though, the most unexpected aspect of the entire trip was that I completed it. That with only basic knowledge, I went out into nature for three days, ate over a flame, protected my food from bears, and climbed up the side of mountains was a shock. I had no idea that my body, most comfortable in its natural habitat of Panera Bread and duvet-covered mattresses, was capable of stripping down to basics and not only surviving, but also enjoying my time out there. It’s a sense of accomplishment I’ve experienced through little else and a prime example of what happens when you let go and enjoy life outside of your comfort zone.
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