Discovering Luxury in the Backcountry
Mention an overnight stay in the BC Backcountry in January and many think of hardened mountaineers huddled inside a small lightweight tent in sleeping bags designed for Antarctic expeditions. This kind of scene from a North Face Steep Series advert leaves many a mere mortal weekend skier heading for the après bar comes dusk rather than a chilly night under canvas surrounded by a howling icy wind.
However, this does not have to be the case. There is another option for the aspirational overnight backcountry adventurer that involves a log burning fire, a 3 course dinner, a pool table and a warm cozy queen bed all served up at 4500 feet surrounded by a cauldron of mountain peaks. The solution for those that fear frost bite or being uncomfortable close to their friends is a night at the Journeymen Lodge in the Callaghan Valley.
The wooden Journeyman Lodge is situated in the Solitude Valley where the tree line meets the alpine all set against the backdrop of the impressive Solitude Glacier. The lodge boosts 8 bedrooms, a well maintained living room (including pool table), kitchen and dinning room. Despite the location, the lodge has all the amenities expected in a city hotel including hot showers, heating, electricity (hours are limited) and a constant supply of freshy made cookies!
The development of the lodge is a fascinating story of human vision, strength and perseverance. With no road access, local craftsman (living in tents) built the lodge using materials delivered by helicopter or snowcat between 1996 and 1998.
Entry to the lodge is through the Callaghan Valley, which is located about an hour’s drive from North Vancouver on Highway 99. The lodge base facilities can be found in the Ski Callaghan car park (turn left at the junction with Whistler Olympic Park).
Check in is between 9am and 11.30am at the Ski Callaghan base where a luggage transfer is provided. The ski into the lodge is between 12.5 to 13.7km km depending on your desired route– a blue run or a black run (Wild Spirit). The later is shorter but involves the steepest pitch for a Nordic run in North America (average 11%). Just remember though it is all downhill on the way back as you claw back your 580m elevation gain!!
Once you are up in elevation, there are some gentle green cross country routes that take you around Conflict Lake. The highlights are some up front and personal views of Solitude Glacier. You can also take out the complimentary snowshoes and break your own trail!
For those that like to earn their turns (ski touring), the surrounding powdery alpine offers some fantastic skiing opportunities without the crowds found at the local ski resorts. The lodge contains a guide on suggested lines to ride.
With tired legs, the lodge boast a rustic wood fired sauna a short 5 minute walk from the front porch. The warm ambiance is complimented by the traditional glacial creek drip and /or snow bank body roll with refreshes both body and mind instantly!!
Dining & Entertainment
While weary backcountry campers are tucking into a can of half heated beans, the guests of Journeyman Lodge are served up a delicious tray of appetizers by the wood burning fire at 5.30 in the lounge. This is followed up by a 3 course dinner served in the candle light dining room!
Post dinner entertainment is by way of good conversation with other guests, a pool table, cards or numerous board games. The lights go out at 10pm literally as the generator goes off to be replaced by lanterns!
- If you plan to visit on a winter weekend, book well ahead at the lodge is a popular destination. There is currently much more availability midweek.
- If you are just heading up for 1 night, it’s worth getting a sled transfer in so you can enjoy the pristine alpine cross country skiing and touring.
- Bring swimwear for the sauna, torches for lights out and your own tipple (no liquor is sold on site).
What makes this lodge unique beyond the luxuries not usually found in the backcountry, is the friendliness of the staff. From Brad the owner, to Darcy who manages the base operations, everyone takes the time to make you feel welcome and answer any questions you have to make your trip as memorable as possible. A truly unique backcountry experience which we intend to make an annual trip!
THE STINKY GAMES – WINTER v MERINO
Canada is cold, eh?
To survive a winter in the True North you need a decent base layer. This winter season I decided to conduct a very scientific experiment and put the much-heralded merino wool base layer to the type of cutting edge test that Einstein would be proud of – how long can you wear it until you become a social embarrassment, who can own a table in a packed après bar at fifty paces?
My first task was to find a willing subject who I could closely observe. Fortunately, I remembered I have a husband who likes to cut corners when it comes to washing his winter gear!
I decided to test the Men’s Icebreaker bodyfit 260 merino layer with a series of strenuous winter activities to examine the famed wool’s odour resistant claims. I mean, have you ever smelt a wet sheep?
To find out how the winter test went, click here.
Top 5 Beginner Snowshoe Trails in the Canadian Rockies
Snowshoeing is often referred to as the fastest growing winter sport in North America, for lots of good reasons. It’s an inexpensive low risk activity, which makes for a great workout and requires only some warm clothes, a moderate level of fitness, no lessons, a pair of snowshoes and some snow!!
To find out the Top 5 beginner snowshoe trails in the Canadian Rockies click here….
Losing our Backcountry Virginity at Sundance Lodge, Banff
Having skied various hills in BC and Alberta for the past 5 years, we decided that for the 2015/16 winter season we were going to change up our mountain activities. Inspired by watching mountaineering movies at the Banff Mountain Film Festival, and armed with new packs and an unlimited supply of hand warmers we decided we were ready to explore the Canadian Rockies backcountry!
However, with limited avalanche training or experience of the true Canadian winter wilderness, we knew that our first tentative backcountry steps would need to be taken carefully into terrain where the relative risks were low. We did our research and found that the Sundance Lodge in Banff National Park would make for a great first trip given the limited avalanche dangers on the route in.
Getting to Sundance Lodge
There are two starting points to get to the Lodge – either from Banff Trail Riders Stables (16km one way) or from Healy Creek car park (10km). We chose Healy Creek as we had hiked the Sundance Canyon Trail along the banks of the River Bow in the Summer – nothing to do with it being shorter!
We chose snowshoes as the main means of transport for our trip; the tortoise of winter travel methods – slow, steady and safe for unknown routes! Other viable options include cross country skiing with tracks set for the classic technique. Given that the route is packed snow thanks to skidoos ferrying supplies to the Lodge daily, another popular approach is using fat bikes that can be hired from Soul in Banff.
We took about 3.5 hours on snowshoes going at a leisurely pace to reach the Lodge, while those on skis / fat bikes beat us to the best fireside seats at the lodge, taking somewhere been 1.5 and 2 hours.
Starting from Healy Creek Trailhead at the base of the Sunshine Village Access Road, the route starts with a 2.5km flat trek to the junction with Brewster Creek Trail. This initial part of the trail opens up in a couple of sections to provide some great views along the the Bow Valley.
The hard works starts at the junction of Healy Creek and Brewster Creek trails, with a 2km continuous elevation gain of around 175m through the trees. We stopped for a few “rest photos.”
The trail then flattens out, and the winter sunshine starts to hit the route. Anywhere along here is a great time to stop for lunch.
The trail then drops into Brewster Creek, which suffered a lot of damage during the 2013 floods creating a large washout area over which 2 bridges have been built.
With a final 20 minute push, you round the corner to the sight of a warm cozy lodge with smoke bellowing from the chimney against the magnificent backdrop of the Sundance Range.
Our friendly host Steve, greeted us at the door with the welcoming offer of freshly baked cookies and hot chocolate / ice cold beer.
Room selection was on a first come first serve basis. Luckily for us (last to arrive), the 10 rooms in the lodge were only occupied by 3 other groups so we had a good selection of inviting rooms to choose from.
With feet warmed by the fire, a bottle of red purchased and acquaintances made with other guests, we headed to the dinner table for a culinary treat. A creamy mushroom soup, was followed by braised beef finished off with a Lodge made lemon meringue pie. The food was delicious, which was not a surprise when we learned Steve, a gregarious local character, has spent many years working as an executive chief in Canada and the US, and this was now his retirement gig!
The combination of board games, a good book and conversation with the other guests made for an enjoyable evening around the fire, which heats the whole Lodge.
Although the bedrooms had no heating the super thick down duvets kept us very warm in our comfortable beds, while strategically placed lanterns provided assistance to find the washrooms on the bottom level.
For those feeling brave enough to venture out at sunset, the light offers some gorgeous photos of the forest. Given that the Lodge is 16km from the nearest town, the stars on a clear night are also a sight to behold. (nighttime photo credit: @travelswithjonny)
Breakfast was served around 9am – the pancakes, bacon, scrambled eggs and the best sausages we have tasted during our 5+ years in Canada, set us up well for the return journey!
- There is no phone signal at the Lodge (or wifi) – the only communication with the outside world is via CV radio (for emergencies only).
- Bring spare camera batteries as there is no way to charge them, and you will take lots of photos!
- The winter hours are short, with the sun disappearing around 5pm during December, so make sure you give yourself enough to get to the Lodge before you are in need of a headlamp!
- Only carry what you need – food and water for the trek in, a toothbrush and some Lodge clothes! A tasty lunch is provided for the journey out!
- Remember to turn the lights off to conserve power as the Lodge is powered by solar power!
- You need a Parks Canada pass for your parked car
- Bring layers and hand/toe warmers as the journey in during winter can be a bit chilly!
Sundance Lodge was a fantastic location for our first backcountry foray combining a moderately challenging trek with the comforts of a comfy warm bed and tasty home cooked food!
A Hidden Gem – Johnson Lake, Banff
The best places are always the ones that only the locals know about. Those secret spots that allow you to connect with a location at your own pace without a crowded tour bus in sight!
Johnson Lake is one of those local’s spots that is just a 15 minute drive from Downtown Banff. Tucked away down a 3km paved access road, Johnson Lake is often overlooked by its more accessible neighbours – Two Jacks Lake and Lake Minnewanka.
Beyond its 360 degree mountain vistas, Johnson Lake is popular amongst the locals for the diversity of outdoor activities it supports in all seasons!
Winter Snowshoeing & Skating
When the snow settles, the 2.5km circular walk around the lake makes for some ideal snowshoeing.
With a relatively gentle gradient and minimal elevation gain the terrain is family friendly, while the views of Mt Cascade and Mt Rundle are spectacular!
If skating is more your thing, the frozen lake offers some excellent free ice skating! Just check out how thick the ice is first though!
When the snow melts the circular trial makes for an excellent and easy short hike. You can even bring your dog (must be kept on a lead). Note mountain biking is prohibited.
You can show your true local’s knowledge by hunting for the Hermit of Inglismaldieè’s Lodge. Billy Carver built the cabin in 1910, living as a recluse for 27 years! There are no signs so it is a true treasure hunt! Hint: it’s on the south side of the lake!
Of all the lakes in Banff National Park, Johnson is the warmest for swimming, and our favourite “sport” of floating. However, be warned that even the locals turn up in their hundreds on a warm summer’s day so best to arrive early or ride your bike!
The summer also makes for some epic sunsets!
The changing colors of the trees make Johnson Lake an idyllic time to visit with your kayak, canoe or paddleboard in Fall!
Whatever the season, join the locals and plan a trip to Johnson Lake to capture a taste of Banff National Park!
Snowshoeing at Louise Creek, Banff National Park
There are two ways to get from Lake Louise Village to Lake Louise itself in winter – the fast way in a car or the better way on snowshoes!
With 30cm of fresh snow on the ground we chose the scenic Louise Creek route (no 14) as that sounded way more fun!
Starting at the Lake Louise Village car park we headed under the railway bridge and across the Bow River Bridge.
The start of the 2.8 km trail (one way) is on your left immediately after the bridge. Within a few meters the road is left behind and a Winter Wonderland awaits!
After a few hundred meters you meet the first of many Louise Creek crossings.
The trail then starts its 200m elevation, which when breaking trail in 30cm of fresh powder is certainly a great workout! Remember snacks!!
However, there are always good spots to take a rest and just capture the magic of a snowy day in the Canadian Rockies!.
Eventually the trail flattens as you reach an intersection with the Tramline cross country skill trail (no 3).
Then it’s time to find a cosy lunch spot by the creek! On a cold day nothing is better than warm soup!!
The trail gradually makes its way up to Lake Louise, a crown jewel in the Canadian Rockies.
The fun part is heading back downhill on your newly-made trail finding new spots you missed on the way up!
Best to be quick though as the sun goes down earlier in winter!
Backcountry Snowshoeing at Joffre Lakes Provincial Park
What to do when it’s 3 degrees and raining in Whistler in the middle of Winter? Well firstly you don’t buy a lottery ticket as clearly it’s not your week. This type of weather is not the norm, but unfortunately the close proximity to the coast does mean the occasional frontal system comes through that is a little too warm to coat the Village in white.
If you want to enjoy playing in fresh snow you really only have 1 option, and that is to get as high as possible (in altitude). However, this does not mean that you have to join the crowds hustling for a prime spot on the Peak, Symphony, Harmony or 7th Heaven chairs to enjoy some fresh powder. Another option is to consider snowshoeing at Joffre Lake Provincial Park, which has a starting elevation of 1200m. The trail is a popular summer hiking route, but also makes for an excellent marked snowshoe trail (follow orange markers) in colder months.
How to get to Joffre Lakes
The snowshoe trail is situated in Joffre Lake Provincial Park, about a 30km drive north of Pemberton on Highway 99. You will need a vehicle that is equipped to climb 600m up the Duffy Lake Road, which is often snow covered.
In Winter the main car park is not always ploughed so you may have to find a spot just outside. When we visited there was space for 6 well parked vehicles only.
The Snowshoe Trail Route
From the Winter parking area continue through the snow-buried parking lot, and at the far end, the parking lot turns right and you will see the trailhead sign.
The first Lower Joffre Lake is an easy and short 5 minute walk from the car park. Here you can see directly across the lake. It may be tempting to take a short cut across the ice following the path of others, but it does not save you much time, you might struggle to find the trail again, and you may end up in the lake!
Continuing along the trail you cross a small bridge and then slowly ascend from 1200m through a snow clad pine tree forest for around 1.5km. You may have to show some gymnastic skills if there are a few fallen trees blocking the path.
You will emerge out of the forest into a valley surrounded by massive pillows of snow, which is actually a boulder field. The views are amazing on a clear sunny day. This place also represents an avalanche chute so it is best not to hang around too much, especially if there has been recent heavy snowfall – be sure to check Avalanche.ca before you go.
After about 1km, the trail steepens significantly – take a deep breath and take your time as this section is challenging, especially given the rocks, roots and ice that may lay under foot. If you have walking poles, it is advisable to bring them along for this section.
The final few 100 metres is a nice flat stroll to the 2nd Middle Joffre Lake, which provide great views of the glacier.
Our total travel time on snowshoes from the car park to the 2nd Middle Joffre Lake was 1.5 hours for a 4km one way walk, which involved an energy sapping 400m altitude gain.
An additional 500m add on, is to push onto the 3rd Upper Joffre Lake but given the short daylight hours in Winter we decided to turn back rather than risk having to use our torches to guide us back!
Why Snowshoe at Joffre Lake?
- Unlike the lower altitude Lost Lake and Whistler Olympic Park snowshoe trails, there is no fee to snowshoe at Joffre Lake Provincial Park
- The snowshoe trail starts at 1200m (higher than Mid Station on Whistler Mountain), which is 600m above Whistler Village. This gives you a fighting chance to get out of the rain, and into the far more pleasant and fun snow line.
- Snowshoeing is great exercise – the 8km round trip to the 2nd Middle Lake which involves a 400m climb will certainly get your heart rate up – make sure you bring snacks!
- This trail is very quiet in winter (unlike Summer), and offers the opportunity to enjoy snow clad forest, glacier views, and 3 beautifully frozen lakes surrounded by the mountains.
Things to look out for
- The big danger of this trail is avalanches. You can clearly see avalanche chutes as you make your way along the path at the boulder field section. Make sure you carry appropriate equipment and check the Avalanche.ca website before you leave.
- You will have no phone signal in the park, and the are no emergency services available; you need to be properly equipped for self-rescue, and make sure you tell someone where you are going!
- Gravity is certainly on your side on the hike to the 2nd Middle Lake. However, this friend soon becomes your worst enemy on the return leg – take your time, use poles and if you need to, resort to the “bum slide” which can be quite fun if not very graceful!
- Near the Middle Lake are two narrow bridge crossings – make sure you have a well-placed snowshoe before proceeding as the fallen snow can create overhangs, and as one of our party discovered if you step on one of these it can result in a splash into the cold water below.
- Leave yourself lots of daylight and be prepared with lights as the Winters bring very early sunsets (4pm in December), especially in the mountain forests.
- If you don’t have you own snowshoes, you can hire these from the Spud Valley Outdoor Goods shop in Pemberton
- On the return journey home, Mt Currie Coffee house offers well deserved hot drinks and snacks, or you can just enjoy a brew on the bench overlooking the Lower Joffre Lake.
Snoeshowing @ Mt Seymour
Snowshoeing is often referred to as the fastest growing winter sport in North America! While we have no proof to support this (we don’t really like to spend our weekends counting snowshoers) it kind of makes logical sense. Snowshoeing is an inexpensive activity, which requires only some warm clothes, a moderate level of fitness, no lessons, a pair of snowshoes and some snow!!
Why give Snowshoeing a go at Mt Seymour?
For the powder junkies amongst you the thought of giving up the opportunity to be tearing down a mountain at high speed scaring the life out of beginners doing pizza wedge turns in order to go walking on the snow might sound ludicrous! However, have an open mind for a few moments and consider the following as to why you might want to make the 30 minute drive from Downtown Vancouver to Mt Seymour Snowshoe Centre….
– The trail passes for snowshoeing are relatively inexpensive at around $9 per day at Mt Seymour when compared to the cost of a full day lift ticket!
– You only need snowshoes and some warm clothing to participate, no need for fancy “go-pros” or carbon fibre skis made from recycled NASA rocket ships. We managed to pick up a beginner pair of glorified tennis rackets at Sportchek for around $70 in the January sales. If you don’t have your own you can always rent from Mt Seymour at a price of $27 per day which includes your trail pass.
– While your average downhill skier or rider would suggest their day is tiring, they clearly have not tried snowshoeing where gravity is not your friend! A 5 minute trudge uphill is a serious workout which certainly strengthens your legs and core!! Mt Seymour has around 10km of well-marked trails ranging from green, through blue to black.
– There are no barriers to entry such as needing expensive lessons to know what to do – if you can walk in a straight line you can go snowshoeing!
– There is low injury risk when compared to other winter activities such as downhill ski racing, ski jumping and the Skeleton Bob!! The trails at Mt Seymour are groomed and well-marked so you should not be able to get lost, even if the weather is inclement! Saying that you should remember you’re in a winter environment so you need you to carry water, snacks and a spare layer or two in case you happen to have an accident with a tree well!
– The groomed trails offer a great way to enjoy the mountains, beautiful forests and frozen lakes in a safe environment. The more hardcore of you can progress to showshoeing in the Back Country. Out of Mt Seymour car park there is the well-trodden Dog Mountain trail which is not maintained by Mt Seymour but has the added bonus of being completely free!
– It’s a great social activity where you don’t have to learn a new language to participate. There are no rails to grind, no biffs to incur, liplayers to avoid or jampiece shredders to applaud. It’s a great activity to enjoy the mountains and catch up with friends and family while getting fit!
– Mt Seymour also offers Twilight, and Chocolate Fondue Snowshoe guided tours if you fancy something a bit different!
– Bring snacks as there is nothing to eat on the trails except some forest floor fodder (but only if you are Survivorman or Bear Grylls) . However, at the end of the day the Mt Seymour Day Lodge serves up a choice of burgers, fries, chilli, coke, coffee, cookies…..basically everything you need to restore your sapped energy levels!
– Be warned that the last trail back to the car park is just under a km uphill so keep something in the tank to get back or you could look a little silly trying to jump on the magic carpet ride with the kids just to avoid the hill (the thought did cross our minds!!)
– When you get your trail pass stick it to a metal clip on your coat, not on your back as you will look like an amateur who has no idea what they are doing!
– And finally when going downhill don’t lean back….as you will soon find yourself moving rapidly downhill on your backside cleaning out any fellow snowshoers in your path!
So all in all, a cheap and fun way to enjoy the mountain, and a great way to get fit too!