A veteran solo backpacker looks back to a decade of exploration on the remote trails of Banff, Jasper and the Willmore Wilderness and provides useful tips for today’s wilderness travellers.
Back before there were text-enabled GPS units, solar panels with power banks, pepper spray for bears and other predators, or Giardia in the streams and lakes (so far as we knew), there were backpackers who explored the most remote trails in the mountain parks. While a few travelled solo, only one that we knew devoted entire summers to exploring these trails alone.
Mike McReynolds was undoubtedly inspired by the first two editions of the Canadian Rockies Trail Guide. Those editions provided a description for the proposed Great Divide Trail and brief notes on the remote trails in the Front Ranges of Banff and Jasper National Parks and along Jasper’s remote North Boundary country leading to the Willmore Wilderness Park.
With few exceptions, these remote trails were ones the authors hadn’t yet travelled. They were primarily the domain of Park Wardens (remember them?) and commercial horse outfitters. But we published abbreviated descriptions for the handful of intrepid backpackers looking for multi-day adventures.
Mike is an old friend we’ve already highlighted in an earlier blog Mike from Frisco—Champion guidebook contributor (Jan 4, 2014). If there is anyone who explored as many remote trails in the mountain parks than Mike, I’d like to know who they are.
Summer after summer, for 10 years, Mike travelled these trails. It was undoubtedly an intimidating experience, setting out alone into what was largely unknown on multi-week trips with our sketchy descriptions and a packet of outdated Canadian Government 1:50,000 too maps.
Yes, people still backpack remote trails solo, but none experience the uncertainty and solitude that Mike faced in the late 70s and early 80s. Last October, he sent us a few thoughts about how to cope with those long days and nights on the trail.
As you plan for your own trips into the wilds, check out some of his memories and suggestions:
Memories and Tips from a Solo Backpacker
In the summer of 1974, being the rankest amateur and greenest backpacker/newbey possible in the world, I set out from my home in San Francisco on a multi-summer adventure to attempt a solo traverse of the entire Northern U.S. and Canadian Rocky Mountains.
The idea was to enter the Sawtooth Mountains at the southernmost point of the range at Idaho’s Snake River Plateau and, hopefully, by following pre-existing trails and forestry roads, and keeping as much as possible in the Wilderness Areas and National /Provincial-State Parks, see how far north I could hike and what it would be like doing it totally alone.
I had never done anything like this before in my life, and at the tender age of 36 (OK, I confess, I’m 82 now) I had no idea if I could complete the challenge I had set for myself. I only knew there was something inside of me that said I had to at least make the attempt. Way out-of-shape, bored with a dead end job, and smoking three packs of cigarettes a day. Maybe not much of a swift move!
I realized that I would probably have to do it in consecutive summers on a per-month to month-and-a- half basis basis, then returning and picking up where I left off the previous summer and continuing on.
All in all, I spent ten summers solo backpacking from the lava fields of southern Idaho to the Kakwa Lake area north of Alberta’s Willmore Wilderness area, with an additional August, 1983, side trip to Baffin Island and the Arctic Circle in Auyuittuq National Park. After finishing the third summer’s trip from Waterton to Robson (1976), I came to the realization that I could come back every summer and actually hike ALL (or pretty much all) the trails in the Canadian Rockies National Parks. My south to north goal was accomplished. Now I needed to fill-in the blanks.
During that time I picked up useful backpacking and survival techniques from my experiences, which old friend Brian Patton suggested I might pass on as tips in his blog to a younger group of today’s through-hikers who are either attempting it solo or with companions.
I’ve broken down some of these ideas and tips into general topics:
1 – Dogs…Dogs of any kind just flatly do not belong in the Wilderness. Deer will not frequent areas where dogs have been and peed and pooped. Since most city dogs have no experience in the wilderness, they have no idea of what potential problems they can cause and are happy to bring those problems back to their master at the campsite for him to deal with. Think porcupine quills, sow grizzlies with cubs, moose, wolverines, etc. You may be able to hike 15 to 20 miles a day, carrying a heavy pack, but the poor dog who is carrying his or her own food sack can be having a rough and exhausting time trying to keep up with his master on rough trails day after day after day.
2 – Bears & Mothballs and Wolverines…and things that go bump in the night…When I began the planning of my adventure back in 1973, I read everything I could lay my hands on concerning hiking and long-distance backpacking. The one thing that was of major concern was camping alone in the wilderness and the potential of bears raiding my camp. I ran across a proven idea from a guy living in Cook City, Montana, at the northeast entrance of Yellowstone Park, who was looking for a solution to the nightly raiding of bears at the city’s open garbage dump. After experimenting with the smelliest substances he could find, he hit upon mothballs as a potential solution. (Mothballs contain Naphtha which is a manmade substance that really screws up a bear’s sense of smell.)
To give it a test he spent a night camping in the middle of the dump with bags of mothballs surrounding his campsite. The bears stayed far, far away and wanted nothing to do with him and the rather choice, ripe garbage he had placed surrounding his tent. It was a “Eureka Moment”, which I used for the next ten years on the trail. I carried small, mesh ditty bags filled with mothballs on my pack and even slept with my food bag filled with freeze-dried food inside my tent next to my sleeping bag. I never once had a bear incident throughout my entire 10 year hiking career. I had bears approach my campsite, but scurried away when they got a whiff of the mothballs. Of course I had to get used to and live with the Naphtha reek that permeated my bag and tent.
Now for Wolverines…Should you be so lucky to see a wolverine, either at a distance or even up close as I did at the campsite on Baker Lake in Banff one year, DO NOT MAKE ANY THREATENING MOVES!!! Sit down, smile and speak in a low friendly voice. Show the animal that you are not afraid, but not threatening. It will probably bounce up and down on its forepaws, shake its head and growl, but the more he (or she) does that the friendlier you should become. Don’t move and don’t approach. If it follows my experience, he’ll indicate that you are in his territory and you should be very careful.
Twice that night after I got into my sleeping bag, he came into camp prowling and snuffing around, but I had no fear and rolled over and went back to sleep. The next morning I met a warden on patrol who told me about two guys who had been camping illegally off-trail about a mile from Baker Lake when a wolverine paid them a visit. They did the absolute wrong thing…yelled, threw rocks, acted threateningly and tried to scare him off. Big Mistake!! The wolverine ripped up their tent, sprayed their food bag with a skunk-like stench, and attacked them. The warden remarked they were last seen staggering back to the Lake Louise trailhead.
Remember, you don’t mess around with a full grown wolverine…it’s the only animal an enraged sow grizzly with cubs will back away from. They are fearless!
By the way, the only time I (or my tent) was ever attacked was by a large jackrabbit late one night in the Willmore. Scared the hell out of me!
3 – Sponges…A small sponge will mop up the moisture collecting on the inside of the tent.
4 – Campfires…I never made one in order to prevent night blindness (when you can’t see who or what made that loud cracking noise out beyond the circle of light produced by the fire you’ve been staring at intently for the past hour and a half).
5 – Fording deep streams…Try to ford at the widest and most shallow point and not at a fast-flowing curve. (Obvious.) Also, face upstream against the current and move sideways, making sure you have three points secure before you move one of the three (both legs/feet and your hiking staff).
6 – Camp slippers…Oh, the comfort of taking off your boots and slopping around camp, but not after or during a rain. Pack your pack so you can access your ground cloth and tent, then your self-inflatable air mattress, then your sleeping bag. Do this before you start thinking about dinner. Always have someplace to retreat to if the weather suddenly turns nasty.
7 – Rain (and Rain and More Rain)…Now THIS will sound really weird: As you know (or surmise), it can rain and rain and rain in the Canadian Rockies, and that doesn’t sound like too much fun for hikers, particularly those with heavy packs labouring up and down extremely steep mountain passes. I found a simple solution, but rather strange solution to both the water coming down from the clouds and the water and heat building up from inside your Gortex or (supposedly) other “breathable” rain jackets.
Carry a small umbrella. No, I’m not joking. For years, and for many, many periods of non-stop rain, I’ve stayed cool and dry and hiking with my rain jacket unzipped almost to my waist.
Cover your pack with your rain cover. Now put your rain jacket on partially zipped. Next put your pack on as usual. Unfurl your umbrella and balance it on top of your pack so that the top is completely covered with the umbrella hanging over the back of the pack and the handle on your chest. Now take the umbrella handle and place it under the already tightened chest strap. Make adjustments as needed but keep the jacket unzipped and partially open to allow maximum breathing. Hike in the rain and stay cool and dry. The rainwater will drain off the umbrella and down the backside of the rain-covered pack. But you still have to deal with the laughter of oncoming hot and sweaty hikers, at least until they realize how cool and dry you are.
8 – Entertainment…Carry a couple large paperback books to keep you occupied for several days while you’re cooped up in your tent or some shelter until the weather clears. Hint, take your chosen books to a print shop with a heavy duty paper guillotine to trim the margins off. Depending on the thickness of the book, the weight-savings could be considerable: e.g. Lord of the Rings, anything by James Mitchner, or anything/or topic that interests you, but lengthy.
9 – Maps…Get Canadian Government topo maps of all areas you may be passing through. They’ll be far more accurate than the National Geographic maps, which show larger chunks of each National Park (but are great for a more overall planning view).
10 – Feet problems…Constant pressure on my feet from the weight of the pack and the pounding of the trail caused major, painful heel bone spurs, which made hiking at times almost impossible. An unbelievable stroke of luck happened one summer when I stumbled into the old Castle Mountain Hostel. There were a couple of guys in the common room/kitchen who noticed that I seemed to be in some pain as I limped in. I explained the situation, telling them I was planning on heading north and hiking the South Boundary Trail to Jasper. But due to a major bone spur on my right heel, I was afraid I was going to pretty much call the summer a bust.
One of the guys asked what seemed to be pertinent and knowledgable questions about my heel’s condition, then asked to see my heel and when I gave him a questioning look said…”Oh, I’m a Podiatrist!” My Guardian Angel seemed to be working overtime.
My new Doctor Friend’s advice was to stay at the hostel for a couple of days to allow the heel to calm down, take a bandanna and fold it many times into an ever smaller square, place it under the heel of the boot’s inner lining and, after waiting two days, set off for Jasper. I followed his advice and three weeks later was in Jasper with a useable heel and on my way to The Ramparts. I offer this as a tip by way of a stranger who crossed my path and solved a problem that could have ended my summer prematurely. His advice: “Elevate the heel.”
11 – Keep in shape by hiking throughout the year…Remember that when you start out your full pack will will be at its worst and will seem to weigh as much as you. I found that I lost roughly a pound a day on the trail. So tank up!
12- Figure out what gear works and what doesn’t and make changes… ”Cheap gear Inevitably fails!” Try to budget for the best gear you can afford and then a little bit over.
13 – Finally, take along a large notebook and record the events of the day…who you met, what you saw, the miles you hiked, the weather and how you felt. The FUTURE YOU will be glad you did. I know some 50 years or so onward when I read mine, I am.
Good Luck and Happy Trails