Nordic Touring, 16-17 March 2019

Author: Lee A Green MD MPH

The morning of Saturday, 16 March, dawned clear and bright on the ACC-Edmonton Nordic day-trippers who were finishing breakfast, packing lunches, and assembling gear at the Maligne Canyon hostel. It was -10 but the forecast was for much warmer temperatures during the day, and Avalanche Canada was projecting “moderate” at all elevations. The participants not staying at the hostel rendezvoused with us in the parking lot, and all six of us headed up the road to the Maligne Lake trailhead.

It was already up to -7 and climbing rapidly when we arrived at 8:40. The sun lit up the mountains and the snow, promising a wonderful day for ski touring. The promise was kept, and then some! Our objective for this day trip was the Bald Hills lookout. There were very few cars in the parking lot, but we expected many more to arrive on such a nice day. (They did.)

We set off up the trail, and immediately began dropping layers as we got aerobic and the day warmed steadily. A flock of mountain chickadees provided a perfect sound track for us as we climbed.

We had pretty much the full range of Nordic touring gear, from long & skinny (59mm) to short & fat, with the trip leaders (Michele and me) in the middle on 83mm widths. Three of us were skiing on fishscales, and the other three on wax. The weekend would show that all those approaches worked just fine.

At the split, about 3 km or so in, we went left to take the steep route up to the lookout. That makes it more interesting, and also makes it a loop rather than an out-and-back. Skins went on and tips pointed skyward. A few spots were steep enough that Michele and I, using only kicker skins, had to sidestep or herringbone a short ways, but nothing long or onerous. We more-or-less followed existing tracks, which led us into the meadow about 400 m south of the knoll on which the lookout sits. It was just a brief traverse over, and fun as we cruised through some nice powder. It also showed that even the narrower skis were up to the task, though they might not want to break trail for long distances.

We sat down for lunch at the lookout, and the usual incredible view was enjoyed. Reflecting on it as I write this, I’m struck by how fortunate we are to be able to go play in a place where such magnificence is “the usual.” Really, it was astonishing that we had such riches to ourselves.

Well, almost to ourselves. The resident pair of Canada jays (the grey jay has been officially and appropriately renamed!) showed up promptly. They watched quietly and patiently – but very attentively – for any dropped crumbs.

Then it was time to peel off skins and set off down the fire road, the usual route people take up to the lookout. The trail was pretty well packed by snowshoers, so it was fast, but quite narrow as well. A hoot for those on shorter skis, but the narrowness made it more of a challenge for the long-and-skinny group. Nonetheless, with a few short but judicious IAEFs*, a swift and safe descent brought us back to the parking area smiling.

Three of us then went down to the north end of the Skyline trail, to see what the fire road was like. The short answer: easy skiing, but in the +6 temps at that time, it was skiing on mashed potatoes. 45 minutes in, we threw in the towel and skied back down. The highlight was following a set of wolf tracks for about 20 minutes. We were confident they were wolf, as they were large and fresh, and there were no human tracks (boot, ski, or snowshoe) that weren’t snowed in already.

Sunday morning we set out in similar fashion, for a short ski. We planned to get home at a reasonable hour, plus Parks Canada was closing the road at 3pm for avalanche control. Our mission for the day, therefore, was a mellow trip up to Summit Lakes, on the Jacques Lake trail starting from the SE corner of Medicine Lake.

Guidebooks unenthusiastically describe the Summit Lakes trail as “in the trees,” but views of the surrounding mountains are continuous.The scenery did not disappoint. The snow was a bit glazed from the previous day’s warm temperatures, but not bad, and we never needed skins. We cruised along enjoying the forest and the mountain views, in the swiftly warming day. Again, layers started coming off quickly. There is only one avalanche risk area on the trail, and inspection revealed it not to be loaded. Reassuring, as the forecast was up to “considerable.”

We paused at the south end of First Summit Lake, then crossed the lake to the low saddle to Second Summit Lake. That turned into quite a bushwhack, though we were following a several-days-old track someone had obviously succeeded with. Half of us had enough of skiing over downed logs and started back; the other half went on to the north end of Second Summit then reversed course. We all regrouped at the south end of First Summit for a sunny and warm lunch break. A most pleasant spot for a sit.

Things got a bit entertaining at that point. Six young men, endowed with significantly more enthusiasm than experience or good sense, came hiking up the trail (one shirtless - it really was getting warm). They were planning to camp at Jacques Lake, 8 km further on. However, only four had snowshoes, which were attached to their packs rather than their feet. We mentioned they might have some challenge past where we were sitting, as the trail was not packed. On they went following our ski tracks... for about 20 meters. They then discovered that 1) skis stay on top of the snow much better than boots do, and 2) the snow was about mid-thigh-deep. We watched with amusement for a while as they gradually figured out that the people with snowshoes should put them on, and the people without should follow the somewhat packed path behind them. They also figured out that getting off the lake with its wind blown drifts and up into the trees on the summer trail was a better idea. (We’d mentioned that.) Ah, the exuberance of youth! We hope they will have fun, or at least good tales to tell, of their overnight.

Our ski out was pretty quick, and the warming temperatures had softened the snow making it an easy ski. All too soon, back at the trailhead, packed up, and on the road (well ahead of the artillery). A weekend well spent!

*IAEF is Nordic skiing terminology for the “if all else fails” method, aka bootpacking.