Thursday, September 15, 2011

Seven Nights in Big Sky Country

Preamble: At the far eastern extent of the Cascade Mountains lies an area of interconnected grassy ridge-lines where a big blue sky arches overhead, the wind rustles through the grasslands and a hiker can wander at will.

Big Sky Country

Ewart Creek trailhead to Juniper Creek: We started our journey through Big Sky Country at the Ewart Creek trailhead about 16 km up the Ashnola FSR. Leaving at the stately hour of 3.00 pm we hiked up the dusty trail for about 4 km to where a sturdy bridge spans Ewart Creek and a big flat campsite sits among boulders on the west side of Ewart Creek. Not knowing when we might next encounter water, we set up camp and passed a pleasant evening. After dinner, I scouted further up the trail as far as the junction with the Joe Lake/South Slopes trail, following the dusty trailbed up, but coming back down along game trails on a little spur ridge between Juniper and Ewart Creeks. 

 Bridge over Juniper Creek

Juniper Creek to Observation Ridge: About 250 metres beyond the bridge over Ewart Creek, we took the left fork at a junction (signed "Joe Lake/South slopes trail") and quickly crossed another bridge over Juniper Creek, and, just as quickly, left the forest and entered grasslands on the south slopes of Flatiron Mountain. The trail climbs up, switchbacking through grasslands, past tiny dry but bright red and pink flowers under sporadic spreading pines until it reaches the west ridge of Flatiron Mountain near 5,000 feet. A couple of cabins (Fish and Wildlife) overlook the Ewart Creek valley and give views to Cathedral Provincial Park to the southwest with Haystack Mountain clearly in view.

We rested here and refilled water bottles in the creek behind the cabin, all of us agreeing that the site would make a delightful camp location with the big sky overhead and the views stretching away to the south.

But, it was still early for us, so we continued along the trail, passing through a drift fence, and a second smaller (Flatiron) A frame cabin and soon crossing a grassy hillside north of Flatiron Mountain. Continuing for another 0.5 km, we found big pines for shade and enjoyed lunch overlooking Ewart Creek and the mountains of Cathedral Provincial Park. After lunch, we followed the trail up through burnt timber regrowing with many small pines, until we were near the top of Observation Ridge. The trail contours around Observation Ridge between 2200 and 2300 metres now through green meadow filled with colourful wildflowers.

About a kilometre from Joe Lake, we found a small stream and decided to make camp in the lush meadow rather than going on to Joe Lake. This was a warm sunny campsite with superlative views until the sun suddenly dipped below Observation Ridge and the temperature dropped.

Flower gardens by the trail

Observation Ridge to Snowy Mountain: Sun came early to our camp and, in the warm morning air, we walked 20 minutes along the trail to Joe Lake, where the big sky was reflected in the calm morning waters. From Joe Lake, a trail takes a lower path south below the ridge to nearby Harry Lake. We left the trail and hiked up meadow to a small peak (peak 2291 metres) where we stopped and studied our maps, finally making sense of the interconnected ridgelines and identifying Snowy Mountain, about 6 km to the south.

Hiking south to Snowy Mountain was a delight. We followed the height of land down to a pass at the head of the north fork of Juniper Creek, passed a small tarn where we filled our water bottles about a kilometre south of the pass, and found a good trail that led us up the long north ridge of Snowy Mountain to a broad high plateau at 2,500 metres where we had a scenic lunch.

Continuing south, we left our packs on the SW ridge of Snowy Mountain and ambled the final 80 metres to the summit with cameras and maps. South of Snowy, more long connected ridges continued above treeline south to the US border. A small tarn, about 3 km to the south, was glinting in the sun on a ridgeline running due east and promised a scenic campsite.

Bits of bootbeaten path were present on the ridge leading south from Snowy Mountain and a good horse trail crosses a pass between Juniper and Snehumpton Creeks, and also climbs up to the east running ridgeline with the small tarn. As expected, this tarn made a delightful campsite with views north to Snowy and south to Armstrong. A half a kilometre south near 2200 metres, Taku Lake nestles in a cirque and there are trails into the cirque from both north and south and a small cabin tucked into the trees by the lake shore.

Passing by Joe Lake in the morning

South to the US border and Corral Lake: On our fourth day out, we kept walking south along ridge-lines. A tiny birds nest with five broken shells lay in an open meadow a couple of kilometres south of our campsite, and a small stream provided water near 2200 metres. Approaching the US border, the terrain is completely open and a big broad ridge leads south, past an unlikely spring popping out of the meadow at 2300 metres, to the border line. Cairns and posts mark the international boundary and seem somehow insignificant under the big open sky.

We followed a prominent north ridge down into the valley passing below Newby Lake, and, finally, near Corral Lake, met up with the horse trail that runs back down to the Ewart Creek valley. We made camp by Newby Creek where it rushes downhill to meet the reed-lined shore of Corral Lake and lay comfortably in the sun after bathing in the cold waters of Newby Creek.

Doug looking down on Newby Lake
Corral Lake to Camp Narnia: In its upper reaches, the Newby Lake trail is hard to follow, disappearing frequently into birch swamp, but, as we descended to Ewart Creek the trail improved and became easy to follow and well defined. We had a welcome rest where the Newby Lake trail joins Ewart Creek (Centennial Trail) and crosses Ewart Creek on a log bridge. Robin and Betsy bathed in pools in the creek, but I was feeling unwell and simply collapsed for 45 minutes.

After a rest, we crossed Ewart Creek and followed the trail as it switchbacks up a dry sandy slope on the north side of Mountain Goat Creek. Following Mountain Goat Creek west, the trail is high above the creek (no easily available water) and in the full glare of the sun. After about 2 or 2.5 hours of marching, we passed a cairn on the downhill (south) side of the trail, but no trail was actually visible. Shortly after, Robin checked the GPS and we realized we had missed that leads up to Haystack Lakes. We dropped our packs and spread out scouting further along the trail, and off towards the river. I walked back to the cairn, but again, could see no sign of a trail. However, a large and unusual bird, was fluttering around the branches of some windfallen trees in the direction of the river, and, thinking of the bird, Mr Timmins, and the C. S. Lewis novel, The Lion, The Witch and The Wardrobe, I followed the bird downhill toward the creek. Beyond the deadfall, a faint trail bed appeared and further exploration revealed a nice campsite in a patch of trees 10 metres from the creek. Walking back, I gathered up the others and we happily made camp in the woods at what became, to us, Camp Narnia.

Corral Lake
Camp Narnia to Haystack-Boxcar pass: I woke early the next morning, and explored around our campsite, soon finding a ford of Mountain Goat Creek and flagging on the far bank indicating the trail. After breakfast, long legged Robin and Doug, hopped across Mountain Goat Creek with their boots on, while Betsy and I waded at the ford. Initially, the trail was small and hard to follow, then it became a wide 8 foot swath through timber, before reverting to the type of trail we were becoming increasingly used to - intermittent and hard to follow. Again, patches of birch swamp frequently led to us losing the trail.

Near a small tarn at 6,800 feet, we lost the trail altogether, but after consulting maps, compasses and Robin's GPS, we followed a SW course through very open light timber and soon meadow to the broad and gentle north ridge of Haystack Mountain. While we were having lunch on the ridge, a big whirlwind touched down to the north of us with a huge roar and shook the surrounding larch trees. Hiking south towards the summit of Haystack Mountain, a big thunderhead began to coalesce over the peak.

We left our packs 20 metres below the summit of Haystack Mountain and followed a little trail in the volcanic rubble to the small summit pimple. Thunder soon chased us off and we returned to our packs and continued south, skirting gendarmes on the south ridge of Haystack on a good goat trail on the sandy west side. The sun became clouded, thunder rumbled, and every time I turned around the thunderhead on Haystack and spread further west. We were chased all the way along a delightful ridge of sand mixed with granite boulders as we rounded the headwaters of Mountain Goat Creek towards The Boxcar.

At the head of Mountain Goat Creek, between The Boxcar and Haystack Mountain, a dry creekbed passed by some wonderful campsites, but, in search of water, we descended perhaps 50 metres to a spot where the creek was running again and made camp. Thunder continued and, eventually, a heavy but brief rainstorm before the energy finally dispersed.

Camp with Haystack Mountain behind

Haystack-Boxcar Pass to Twin Buttes: Walking back up from camp towards The Boxcar, we quickly found good water perhaps 10 or 20 metres up from the col where the creek again pops out of the meadow. Apparently, the stream is only underground for about 20 metres right near the pass. The Boxcar is an easy walk up, we first went to the east summit, we spent a long time enjoying the view of Cathedral Peak in the US, the Grimface Massif, and the gentle ridgelines running north from Grimface with tiny lakes tucked into each valley.

Walking between the lower west and slightly higher east peaks, we encountered a herd of 8 or 9 California Big Horn Sheep who have undoubtedly learnt to take shelter in the core of Cathedral Park where no hunting is allowed. We were happy to see them and gave them a wide berth so as not to disturb their midday siesta.

After tagging the east peak of The Boxcar, we hiked down the north ridge of The Boxcar on a good sandy trail and followed another good trail up meadow and flat granite blocks to the top of Lakeview Mountain. From Lakeview Mountain, we wandered over more meadow for another 3 or 4 kilometres until we encountered cairns leading down towards a grassy meadow amidst larch trees on the south side of Twin Buttes. We made our last camp in this meadow surrounded by tiny flowerbeds of multi-coloured flowers and soft green leafed larch trees.

Looking south from The Boxcar
Twin Buttes to Ewart Creek trailhead: The Centennial trail leads down from Twin Buttes to Ewart Creek, but, again, is difficult to follow in its upper reaches. We managed to follow it through one birch swamp, but lost it in a second larger one, and wandered for at least a kilometre all spread out trying to find it again. Eventually, we had to pull out all our instruments again and take another bearing and head SW where we finally intersected the trail right by a Centennial Trail marker sign. Ironically, where ever the trail was easy to follow there would be good cairns, tree markers or flagging, but, where the trail seemingly vanished so did all signs that might mark its passage.

Once we regained the trail, hiking out was easy, if dusty. We rested at all our major junctions - at the cairn marking Camp Narnia, where the trail crosses Ewart Creek, and finally, at our very first campsite eight days previously. Eventually, we reached the bridge over Ewart Creek, 90+ kilometres, 8 days, and countless hours of big sky walking later.

Looking south to the US Border

If You Go:

Our loop is only one possible variation of many in this area. The trip could be shortened or extended. If you don't mind committing a US felony, you could cross the border south of Snowy and continue your hike in the Pasayten Wilderness, or, extend your hike in Canada by visiting more of the core area of Cathedral Provincial Park.

Joe Lake area is popular with hunters (although we saw no game whatsoever in that area), but, the hunters do not seem to stray far from Joe Lake so encounters with volatile and armed individuals are rare. In the past, hunters used to access Joe Lake via the Susap Creek FSR (also known as Three Lakes Road), but First Nations have gated this access and almost everyone now accesses Joe Lake from Ewart Creek. Fitness levels, at least among the hunters, have not increased proportionally to the distance they must now travel to Joe Lake and most looked completely spent by the time they arrived, and consequently, never seemed to venture more than a kilometre or so from the cabins at Joe Lake.

There are a number of cabins along the route, some, like the South Face cabins are Fish and Wildlife and are locked, but the others appear to be first come first served. In hunting season, be prepared to fight an armed conflict to gain control of a cabin, or, much more sensible, take a tent. There is a small A frame at about GR184443 soon after you cross the drift fence behind the Fish and Wildlife South Face cabin and water is available at the nearby stream (to the south). There are two cabins at Joe Lake, in hunting season, these will be occupied by persons carrying weapons of destruction. There is a small cabin (we saw it only from above) at Taku Lake, which is the unnamed lake at GR883337 and a good trail leads to it from both the north and south ridgelines.

There are any number of gorgeous campsites along the route but where you actually camp will be constrained by the availability of water. Apart from the obvious water sources (Joe, Harry and Taku Lakes and the major streams - Ewart, Mountain Goat, Juniper), the stream by the South Fork cabin runs from about 5,500 feet down. The next water source is a small spring at about 2300 metres, about half an hour before Joe Lake near GR862428. A small tarn south of peak 2291 at GR886397 provides water but should be treated. There is no further water (if you stay high) until a small tarn, not shown on the map, at GR885342. About a kilometre south, water can also be got from a small (treat) spring near GR875335. While the creek marked on the map east of Newby Lake is dry in the headwaters. The next water is a surprising spring that pops out of the meadow at around 2400 metres near GR852312.

A good stream (Newby Creek) runs into Corral Lake and provides a good water source. The trail down to Newby Creek to Ewart Creek however, has essentially no water as the trail is far from the creek until the bridge (marked on the map) across Ewart Creek.

Particularly on the east side of Ewart Creek, there is a fair bit of horse and even cattle traffic around some water sources, so we took a water filter and used it whenever we were unsure of the water. Plan on boiling some water sources otherwise.

The trail up Mountain Goat Creek is also essentially waterless as the trail is a long way from Mountain Goat Creek, although it does approach the creek just before the trail to Haystack Lakes. The trail up the east fork of Mountain Goat Creek is again essentially waterless as the trail is far from the stream. Unless you detour to Haystack Lakes, the next water source will be at the head of Mountain Goat Creek near the pass between Haystack and The Boxcar. A trail leads into this pass and a short (10 to 20 metre) walk uphill will reward you with a good spring, or, alternatively, the same distance downhill. The next water is where the trail drops down to the south of Twin Buttes where a series of springs appear as you descend. Hiking out, remember that the trail is a long way from Mountain Goat Creek so water is not easily available until the bridge over Ewart Creek. Finally, good water will be easy to get from Juniper Creek or Ewart Creek about 4 or 5 km from the trailhead.

Campsites above treeline are plentiful. Below treeline, there are a number of clean horse camps (no dung, no litter, no garbage). The first is at the first bridge over Ewart Creek about 4 kilometres from the trailhead. There is another good, but smaller campsite on the north side of Juniper Creek just after you cross the log bridge over Juniper Creek on the Joe Lake/South Face trail. The next crossing of Ewart Creek, some 8 kilometres from the trailhead also has a good clean horse camp. Camp Narnia is found just downhill of the cairn marking the trail to Haystack Lakes and again is clean and pleasant.

Trails vary between easy to follow and intermittent and easy to lose. There is much birch wood swamp in the lower valleys which seems to swallow up all signs of the trail. Inexplicably, there are also countless other places where the trail simply disappears. The main trail up Ewart Creek is wide, well maintained and easy to follow, as is the trail to Joe Lake. Beyond Joe Lake, the horse traffic stays below the ridgelines and I have no direct knowledge of the trails going to Harry and Newby Lakes, although the hunters said they were good. On the high route, we intermittently crosses stretches of good trail. The trail from Newby Lake down to Ewart Creek is intermittent near Newby Lake and improves as you descend. The worst trail to try to locate is the Haystack Lake trail which is marked only by a lone cairn (downhill/south side of the trail) and no trace of a trail can be seen until you began bushwacking towards Mountain Goat Creek. Haystack Lakes trail is intermittent throughout, expect to lose it often and entirely in its upper reaches.

There is a good boot beaten trail that runs on the west side of the south ridge of Haystack Mountain to the pass between The Boxcar and Haystack Mountain. You'll pick this trail up again as it descends the north ridge of The Boxcar and climbs to the top of Lakeview Mountain. Beyond Lakeview Mountain there are sporadic (unnecessary) cairns until you reach big cairns marking the Centennial Trail. But, these cairns soon become less and less frequent and the trail is again hard to follow through birch swamp in the upper reaches of Mountain Goat Creek.

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