28-Jul-2001 -- "Any place else, that would be called a river," Mike said as we got our first look at the raging, 10-meter wide torrent that the map innocently called Arctomys Creek. Fording was out of the question, and our plans to visit 52 North and 117 West required rethinking.
The confluence in question is located high on a ridge in the northern part of Banff National Park. Although the confluence is only 9.6 km from the Icefields Parkway, one of the world’s most scenic drives, at that point the North Saskatchewan River and the Mount Amery massif stand between the observer and the confluence point.
The North Saskatchewan is difficult if not impossible to ford. There are two footbridges over that river in the vicinity, a northern one leading to the Castleguard Meadows trail, and a southern one to the Glacier Lake trail. The northern one is also north of the Alexandra River and the Mount Amery massif, which includes Mount Amery, 3329 meters elevation; Mount Hooge, 3216 meters elevation and nearest the confluence at
51 degrees, 59 minutes, 55 seconds North, 117 degrees, 0 minutes, 20 seconds West; Monchy Mountain, 3210 meters elevation; and Mount Willerval, 3180 meters elevation. The confluence is on the southern ridge of the massif.
Studying the map led to the conclusion that the southern bridge was a better route, requiring only the fording of Arctomys Creek, and a steep climb up a mountainside to the ridge, as well as a trip through virgin boreal forest without any man-made trails. No matter how we sliced it, Mike and I concluded in our e-mail consultations that there was no way this was a day trip.
We resolved to try to do it in a weekend, and found that July 28 and 29 was the only time that fit both our schedules before the end of the summer. Accordingly, we met July 28 at the Glacier Lake Trailhead, both of us arriving before the appointed time of 8 a. m. We considered the gray skies and intermittent rain, and decided to go anyway. Shouldering our backpacks, each with tents, sleeping bags, and cooking equipment, we headed down the trail at 7:50 a. m. Low clouds concealed the splendid peaks from our view.
Before long we were across the bridge and it was time to leave the trail. We had to bushwhack northwest along the southwest side of the North Saskatchewan River until we were past Survey Peak and Mount Erasmus, and then curve west into the Valley of Lakes, where we hoped to follow the north side of the valley after crossing Arctomys Creek. The rain continued in varying degrees of intensity as we made our way, sometimes on the top of the river bank, crashing through the trees, and sometimes along the edge of the river. When we were about to set a course to cut across a bend in the river, I noticed that my bear spray holster was empty; the capsicum spray canister had fallen out somewhere. When you’re not following a trail, backtracking is difficult, so I gave it up for lost, and we pushed on, getting wetter and wetter. Crossing a minor stream made sure that our boots also got soaked, and soon I could feel the water squishing between my toes.
As Mike led us through the forest, he introduced me to O’Toole’s Law: deadfall is always perpendicular to one’s intended route.
Hopping over and squeezing between sodden trees, eventually we reached Arctomys Creek, only to find it swollen with rain and glacial melt. We decided to take a look up the south bank to see if we might follow that route to the flatter part of the Valley of Lakes, where we might find a way across the valley to where we had to go at the foot of the ridge holding the confluence.
The rain continued. We found a major game trail that led up a ridgeline overlooking a deep canyon with Arctomys Creek at its bottom. Here I stopped to take my first photos of the trip, risking a little rain on my camera, but determined to make some kind of record. We pushed on across a high marsh and up another ridge, hoping to see a route up the valley. By the time we reached the top, it was noon, it was still raining, the sky to the west was low and gray, we were on the wrong side of a swollen stream from our destination, and we were only perhaps a third of the way to our intended high camp and 12.1 kilometers straight-line distance from the confluence.. I thought we should turn back, particularly since photographic opportunities promised to stay limited. Mike was willing to push on, but let me prevail.
On the way back, we decided to follow the North Saskatchewan rather than cutting across the bend. Mike’s post-trip track analysis showed we went further but took less time on the return. Shortly after Mike had remarked on the lack of any sign of human presence, he discovered a golf ball lodged under some driftwood on the riverbank. Later we came across some electrical cabling, a six-foot section of 3-foot culvert, and, most interesting of all, a message in a bottle. Mike carried out the ball, cable, and bottle; the culvert wouldn’t fit in my backpack.
The bottle was a plastic two-liter pop bottle, with the cap reinforced with black tape. Inside was a small note, a U. S. one-dollar bill, and 20 cents in Canadian coins (two nickels and 10 pennies, most of which were minted in 1999). The note, as best we could decipher, said the bottle had been launched from Rampart Creek, about six kilometers upriver from where we found it, and requested the finder to send a note saying where it was found. I intend to do so.
Shortly afterwards, I spotted my canister of bear spray a few feet away to my right. I’m still astonished that we came across it again.
By 4:15 p. m., we were back at the trailhead, sopping wet and a little weary.
I recommend that anyone interested in attempting this confluence be prepared to spend three days in the backcountry. It might be most practical to cross the North Saskatchewan by canoe, putting in at Rampart Creek, and landing before Arctomys Creek enters the river. The rest of the first day can be spent getting as far up the Valley of Lakes as possible, leaving the second day to find a route up to the ridgeline and along it to the confluence, and the third day to get back to the river and across. It may prove necessary to have mountaineering experience and equipment. Backcountry off-trail hiking and camping abilities are definitely needed.
I dedicate this confluence visit attempt to my friend who first told me about the Degree Confluence Project, Fred Hayward, who passed away August 2, 2001 from complications from a double-lung transplant. Fred lived for more than 50 years with cystic fibrosis, but he never lost his love of life, his interest in the natural world, and his desire to learn new things. I encourage everyone to make whatever arrangements are necessary to allow your organs to be used after your death to give new life to another. Fred's death is a loss to us all.