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Hiking the Athabasca

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Hiking the Athabasca

from the Hawk's Nest

There was only a couple miles left but a third of that was across the fast flowing, glacial river Chaba. Once on the other side was a slight rise over the Continental Divide and down to Fortress Lake—our destination. 

Terry started in. Quickly the swift, glacial till-filled waters surged over his knees. He stopped, trekking poles in place. He could not see his feet or the river bottom through the milky gray glacial melt. The sand under his feet was washing out, making stability impossible; slowly and carefully he turned back.

Further upstream I was able to walk a bar into the middle of the icy stream but the rest was flowing even faster, and deeper, than Terry’s attempt.

Andrew and Jim tried holding arms and going in. With each one using a trekking pole they had six plants in the sandy bottom. With the current lifting up onto their thighs and trying to carry them downstream due to poor footing, they moved back onto the shallow bar.  We all retreated to a higher island in the middle of the riverbed to get our numb feet out of the water and assess the possibilities. 

The river is only about 10 miles long; its source is the Chaba Glacier. We were at the mid point of its length before it flows into the Athabasca. 

After nearly two days of mosquito bogs, scary log bridges, and a long, swinging suspension bridge, our destination was in sight just an icy, fast-flowing glacial river away. We had made it  to the last channel of the braided river

I had first discovered this route over the Canadian Rockies while reading books on David Thompson, who used it in January of 1811. It is a low, gentle pass with Fortress Lake to the west, flowing into the Columbia by way of the Wood River. The Chaba flows past on the east into the Artic Ocean via the Athabasca and Mackenzie rivers.

I felt drawn to this immediately and mysteriously and had talked to several friends I thought would enjoy the trek. After planning for several months five other adventuring souls agreed to join me. All but one of us is over sixty and excited about the quest. 

We hit the trail at Sunwapta Falls, about forty minutes south of Jasper, Alberta. The falls at Sunwapta are also glacier fed and fall about sixty feet through a slot in the rock only thirty feet wide. I have heard two meanings for the name. One is Stony Indian for turbulent water; the other is whirlpool water. Both fit. 

We crossed the bridge over the upper falls and once we cleared the safety fencing we were on our way deep into Jasper National Park and its wilderness. 

Our first day proved to be a little ambitious but we did the nine miles, arriving tired yet still very much up to the task on which we had embarked.

I doubt if the trail we followed was the same Thompson used. Our trail was mostly in the forest with filtered views of the Athabasca River and the craggy peeks towering over it. Thompson traveled in mid winter so I assume he followed the riverbeds more closely since they would be either frozen or, being glacier fed, nearly dry.

The first test of the second day was a long swinging footbridge across the Athabasca. After setting up camp the night before, we walked the couple hundred yards to the bridge to check it out. We all crossed over and back and felt confident that, with packs, we would do just fine. 

Once across we headed over a low ridge to the Chaba. There were some plank bridges to cross, some rather slippery, but we moved on gaining confidence. About an  hour before we reached the Chaba I rounded a bend to see a stream twelve to fourteen feet wide, too deep to see bottom and flowing fast. Over it was a log—wet, slippery and partially rotted. Andrew headed over first, sidestepping as he went; I was surprised the log didn’t seem to sag under his weight at all. I knew there were some who would be apprehensive so I followed Andrew. I didn’t want them to stand there and get even more nervous. I reminded each to focus on the log, not the water. Each moved slowly, using trekking poles with every step. Narrow, slick, high passageways requiring excellent balance was a dragon in some of our minds. Everyone took a deep breath and moved across. An hour latter we were in the Chaba Valley as a reward. I understand Chaba is native for Beaver, but we didn’t see any sign. 

Standing in the middle of the stream Jim, Andrew, Terry and I decided to wait and see if the river was any lower the next morning. Glacial streams tend to flow lighter early in the day before the ice starts melting. We started across the braids, each one between ankle and knee deep separating us from the shore. 

Walking back to Linda and Michelle I wondered aloud, but not loud enough for them to hear, if they would have a hot meal waiting us.  Terry asked what culture I thought I was living in. We laughed and I made them promise not to repeat what I said. Their promise was a lie. 

So it was early afternoon of our second day when we made camp and relaxed. Linda and I wandered around the valley a bit—wow! We were in an alpine meadow surrounded by serene, glacial-clad peaks. It was easily a destination on its own, even if we did not do the crossing. The bottom is a level floodplain with only short brush and grass. There were few trees so we could see without obstruction the glacier laden mountains around us.  

We were just below 4,400 feet, directly across from Fortress Mountain. It is nearly shear from the bottom of the valley floor to its twin crags at nearly ten thousand feet. Behind us was Quincy Peak, ten thousand feet with glaciers of blue ice framing a hanging valley carved in the stone face. There was Sadler, just under ten, Chisel, over ten, Black Friar, over ten, Confederation, nearly eleven. We could not find names for three mountains within our view, each with its own rugged, glacial-scared beauty.  

Up the river was Chaba Mountain with its ice cap, part of the Columbia ice fields and the source of the river. Down river to the north is Dragon Peak; we would camp across from it on our last night. Dragon Creek flows from snows and glaciers on this peak into the Athabasca. It travels as many feet vertically as it does horizontally.   

We looked over the river to the pass that had been our goal for the hike. Sitting between Fortress and Sadler, which are only a couple miles apart peak to peak, the pass drops to less than half their height, creating an ice-rimmed basin dropping off to the west. It is the start of a tributary ending in the Pacific Ocean near Astoria, Oregon. 

Back in camp with the others Jim walked with a sly smile, sat down with a couple water bottles and said, “I have margaritas.” 

We built a fire and enjoyed our views and time together. Terry and Michelle are getting married in a few weeks, and we decided the wedding veil needed to be mosquito netting. Terry said when asked if he will take her as his wife he will answer “In DEET I do.” 

That night it rained all night and into the morning. Rain on a glacier is not conducive to lowering river flows. 

Our time was short and we had to make a choice. We could be where we were, or try to get a glimpse of Fortress Lake. We chose to just be. Once again, I’m reminded it is the journey not the destination, that is the goal. Is that the mystery I needed to solve? 

We didn’t want to rush out of the Chaba Valley so hung out until mid afternoon before we packed up and prepared for the walk out. We kept looking back and across rivers to the crags and peaks that had invited us and served as our magnificent, mountainous hosts. Six friends, each one with their own motivations for this quest, choosing to challenge ourselves in country that was as beautiful as it was intimidating. An individual and shared adventure, much as each mountain and valley are separate yet part of the whole. We learned about dependence and independence and how we need both.

Back at the trailhead early on the fifth day, we had some blisters, some sore muscles and more then a few mosquito bites. We had fulfilled dreams, slayed dragons, and acquired many memories, all the while deepening friendships. 

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Author info

Ernie Hawks Ernie Hawks is a former theater director who has branched into the creative fields of writing and photography. He lives in a cabin in Athol with his lovely wife Linda, and feeds the birds in his spare time.

Tagged as:

hiking, wilderness, David Thompson, Athabaska, Continental Divide, Fortress Lake, Chaba River, Chaba Glacier, Sunwapta Falls, Jasper Alberta Canada, Jasper National Park, The Hawk's Nest

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