Thinking about this adventure from the middle of June, it’s hard to decide whether it was an awesome day in spite of the rain, or because of it. I do like walking in the rain, but it does sometimes lead to a change in plans, and sometimes that turns out to be a wonderful thing.
My good friend Will had a great plan: take a boat to the far eastern end of Lake Minnewanka and scramble one of the mountains—I think we settled on Saddle Peak in the end. However, with thunderstorms in the forecast, we started to rethink that the night before and almost ended up not going. We didn’t settle on hiking to Bourgeau Lake until after I’d driven to Banff and locked my keys in my car.
It poured while we waited an hour for the locksmith. It was not the kind of day for a scramble on anything too steep or rocky.
A wide, clear trail meanders from the small parking lot up the side of Mount Bourgeau above the Wolverine River for about 7 kilometres—maybe more once the switchbacks are all taken into account. The lake is at the back of an elongated cirque, and from there, it’s possible to carry on to the top of Harvey Pass or to scramble Mount Bourgeau itself.
For the most part, we only had glimpses of the mountains through the heavy clouds and fog.
In general, just enough would be visible that I would think I had a good idea of how high the walls around the valley were. Then the fog would lift to reveal that beyond the grey stone we could see, there was much more—above the cliffs, still-snowy slopes rose until they blended with the clouds, giving the impression that even they were just a small part of what was there.
Wolverine Creek drains from the lake and is also fed by runoff from the surrounding mountains. Its lower reaches are fairly substantial, but there’s a bridge to cross it. There are a couple of much smaller streams to ford farther on, one of which was running under snow this early in the year.
This is a great place to hike on a rainy, foggy day, not only because of the safe terrain (I was going to say easy, but there’s an elevation gain of over 700 metres/2300 feet), but because it’s very atmospheric. Apart from one wide swath that was cleared by an avalanche years, maybe decades, ago, most of the trail winds through old, almost eerily quiet forest. Almost every available surface is covered with moss and lichens. One fallen tree’s roots form a ledge that a fellowship of hobbits could easily shelter under.
The lake itself is a round blue gem, nestled at the bottom of scree and talus slopes that swoop smoothly down into the water. Trailpeak users have posted some beautiful pictures of how it looks in better weather…but we didn’t get that far.
At this point, there was still plenty of snow on the higher sections of trail and the flat, open meadows in front of the lake. The cirque was almost at a level with the low clouds, and shreds of mist drifted dramatically along a high rock wall to the southeast.
But all that faded into the background when we saw what lay at our feet.
Grizzly tracks. This was the second time I’d seen them, leading out of obscurity where a bear must have come out of hibernation within the last day or two. What was remarkable about these tracks was that there were three sets, two of them quite small. By which I mean, not much bigger than the paws of a large dog.
I wanted to turn back immediately. Will did not. So, cans of bear spray in hand, we carried on for about another hundred metres, before he spotted three dark dots on the talus and broke out the binoculars.
Almost a kilometre away, a mother grizzly and two cubs were intently digging and flipping rocks in search of plants and insects. Despite the limitations of my little point-and-shoot camera, that was plenty close.
We watched them digging for a long time. Although the hillside looked barren from that distance, they must have been finding enough to hold their attention; they stayed in one small area the entire time and never looked up. Eventually more fog rolled in and obscured our view, and it was time to leave, and quickly, before they could come down from the hillside and surprise us.
Starting the way it did with the locksmith, I think this was the most expensive hike I’ve ever been on. However, I can’t help but think the experience was worth it.
Have you ever made a very rewarding last-minute change of plans? Share your story in the Comments below!