Gavin Fitch is a lawyer in Calgary, the President of the Royal Canadian Geographical Society and a self-described “hardcore crazy backpacker”. As an active backpacker plying the remote valleys of the mountain parks over the past decade, he has experienced trails that are virtually disappearing beneath his feet.
Gavin’s concerns reached a tipping point last summer. He was inspired to compose the following plea on behalf of Parks Canada’s disappearing wilderness trails and the hardcore crazy backpackers who use them:
Losing the Trails
by Gavin Fitch
In 1923, a young American mountain climber from Philadelphia packed into Castleguard Meadows, one of the most remote and beautiful places in Banff National Park, to climb the mountains at the southern edge of the Columbia Icefield. His name was J. Monroe Thorington and he had first come to the Canadian Rockies in 1914. From the top of Mount Fairview, at Lake Louise, he had gazed north to the unknown (to him) peaks of the upper Bow River valley, the route today of the iconic Icefields Parkway. He dreamed of seeing and climbing as many of these peaks as possible. He did this in the years 1922-1924, which was when he hiked into the Castleguard. He published a book about his adventures in 1925, which has the lovely and archaic title The Glittering Mountains of Canada.
The reason I know this is because of this passage in his book: “We were not pioneers ourselves, but we journeyed over old trails that were new to us, and with hearts open. Who shall distinguish?”
This passage is quoted in Brian Patton and Bart Robinson’s Canadian Rockies Trail Guide, first published in 1971. Now in its 9th edition, the Trail Guide is universally known as “The Bible” among hikers in Canada’s Rocky Mountain National Parks (Banff, Jasper, Yoho, Kootenay and Waterton Lakes). Over the years, I have hiked (first with my mother, father and brothers and now with my son) many of the trails described in the Trail Guide including, a couple of years ago, the trail into the Castleguard.
Here is how Thorington described Castleguard Meadows: “Castleguard Camp fulfills one’s idea of Alpine Paradise. A meadow, acres of it, with a heather carpet and flowers beyond description; little cascading streams; a tiny canyon, where leaps an arching waterfall. Can you imagine it at evening? Smoke from the campfire rising through tall trees beside the tents; horse-bells tinkling in the distance, as they might on a foreign alpenland…. One despairs of the telling of it. It’s a place to which one will return.”
Today, it is a hardy soul (or foolhardy one) who ventures into the Castleguard, let alone returns to it. There is no signed trailhead—you have to follow the instructions in the Trail Guide to find it. After a few kilometres, you have to bushwhack around a large section of deadfall. At about 12 kilometres, the trail disappears into the Alexandra River. There was once a bridge across the river but it is long gone. Instead, you have to bushwhack along the north bank of the river for a period before descending onto the river flats, where there is no trail but the way is obvious.
At a creek crossing, you can pick up the trail again and follow it up the river—it is faint but again the way is fairly obvious. At about 20 km the trail leaves the Alexandra River valley and turns north up the Castleguard valley. Here, the forest becomes dense and close and the trail increasingly difficult to follow. We got lost several times, once bad enough that we seriously considered bailing. Fortunately, after thrashing through underbrush shedding huge quantities of water from a rainstorm the night before, we found the trail and followed it up to the meadows, which are every bit as gorgeous today as they were in 1923. There is an old Parks Canada campsite, with a badly faded sign and a still serviceable outhouse. It is a glorious place, but the trail is so atrocious that we returned to the highway following an alternate route, down the Saskatchewan Glacier.
The trail into Castleguard Meadows is just one example of several classic long-distance trails in Banff and Jasper that are slowly disappearing (or in danger of disappearing), due to lack of maintenance. There are the North Boundary and South Boundary trails in Jasper. There are the great old outfitter trails of the Front Ranges in Banff, an area described as offering “one of the last and best opportunities in southern Canada for exceptional multi-day wilderness adventures.” In the case of the South Boundary, once a 165-km trail through the remote southeastern part of the park, the first 56 km of the trail is now basically impassable. The only way to hike the South Boundary today is to start outside the park on provincial Crown lands. It’s a tragedy.
The slow but sure disappearance of iconic backpacking trails in Jasper and Banff would appear to be the result of lack of funding and, to a certain extent, management decisions made by Parks Canada. According to a 2016 article published in the Jasper newspaper, the Fitzhugh, Jasper was once considered the mecca of backcountry travel in Canada’s rocky mountain national parks, but two decades of neglect by Parks Canada and a “fundamental shift in the agency’s priorities has left the park’s backcountry trail system a shadow of its former self.”
Beginning in the early 1990s, budget cuts and a new focus on protecting the park’s ecological integrity “marked the beginning of the end for many of Jasper’s backcountry trails.” The article quotes Jim Suttill, a former trail crew boss in the park. Before the budget cuts began, Suttill’s budget was close to half a million dollars; by 2012, when Suttill retired, his budget was a fraction of that. Whereas in the 1980s he had a crew of 20, by 2012 he had two crews of four.
While the biggest problem is a lack of money, as the Fitzhugh article notes there was also a change in policy in the 1990s, towards making ecological protection the highest priority in the management of national parks. In 2000, a new Canada National Parks Act was passed. The new Act stated: “Maintenance or restoration of ecological integrity, through the protection of natural resources and natural processes, shall be the first priority of the Minister when considering all aspects of the management of parks.”
The Act also requires that every national park in Canada have a management plan. Banff has had a management plan since 1997. It was created in response to concerns about maintaining ecological integrity in the Bow Valley corridor in the face of increasing recreation and development.
On the one hand, Banff’s management plan is written in standard government bureaucratese. It has a vision statement and “guiding concepts”, “key strategies” and “area concepts”. On the other hand, the vision statement speaks of Canadians celebrating, among other things, “the traditions of wilderness adventure” that evolved in the park. There is also a vision statement for all the Canadian mountain parks which speaks of facilitating “authentic nature-based experience”.
Implicit in the plan is a tension between the highest priority of maintaining ecosystem integrity and “visitor experience”, between protecting the environment and encouraging people to get out and enjoy it. The plan breaks down visitor experience into five categories, ranging from never leaving home or getting out of the car (“virtual experience” and “drive through awareness”) to what it calls “Rocky Mountain wilderness adventure”. Those of us who undertake “lengthy, unguided backpacking trips” fall into that category.
Hiking is surely one of the classic visitor experiences that can be had in Banff. Yet maintaining or restoring or improving trails is not listed as a management priority in the plan. There is a “key strategy” of “renewing the park’s extensive and varied network of 1,500 kilometres of trails”, but the focus is on the “heavily used day-use trails in the Bow River corridor”.
For backpackers, the plan has a goal that the long and remote trails of the East Slopes (Front Ranges) area will be brought “to a standard consistent with wilderness travel”, which is defined as “single-track, low-maintenance trails that ford streams rather than cross on bridges”. Hmm.
Last summer, we hiked the Clearwater-Red Deer Circuit—seven days over 130 km in the Front Ranges. While the trails were not as bad as the Castleguard, there is woefully inadequate signage and one section where the trail (lower Peters Creek) was washed out by the 2013 flood. Although it has now been six years since the flood, trail restoration consists of orange flagging on trees on the banks of the creek. The flagging marks the points the trail crosses and re-crosses Peters Creek, a fairly major stream—easily more than 10 fords in a 2-3 km stretch of trail.
In fact, poor trail signage is endemic throughout the backcountry. Last year, on a seven-day trip through the Sawback Range, we missed one of our campsites because the junction from the main trail to the campsite was unsigned. We also missed a junction to Skoki Lodge behind Fossil Mountain—a heavily used area. This year, in the same area, our first night’s camp was at Red Deer Lakes. Near the end of the day, we came upon a trail sign that said the campsite was 500 metres, but someone had scratched “1 km” into the battered metal sign plate over top “500 metres”. Sure enough, a short while later, we came upon yet another sign which said the Red Deer Lakes campsite was (wait for it): 500 metres.
When we do these long backpack trips in the remote parts of Banff and Jasper we do not expect, nor do we want, broad, well-graded tracks, bridged crossings and fancy campsites. We know our boots will get wet crossing creeks and we’ll have to go over, around or even under fallen trees. That’s part of the fun. All we want are trails that you can follow without resorting to route-finding every day to not get lost.
By failing to maintain trails like the Castleguard, the North and South Boundary, and those in the Front Ranges, we lose more than the ability to have grand wilderness adventures and authentic nature-based experiences. We’re also losing our history. Thorington dedicated his book to his guides, Edward Feuz, Jr., Conrad Kain and James (Jimmy) Simpson. These are three of the great figures in the history of Banff. When you hike the North or South Boundary or the trails of the Front Ranges, you come upon old outfitter camps and idyllic warden cabins, some of which are National Historic sites in their own right. On the South Boundary, we saw remnants of log bridges built by trail crews from the 1940s.
There is a long history of human use of the Rocky Mountains, starting of course with Indigenous peoples, followed by the fur traders and the early outfitters and pioneering guides like Feuz, Kain and Simpson, not to mention generations of park wardens and staff. The routes that Thorington followed almost 100 years ago were, as he wrote then, old trails. They have existed for hundreds if not thousands of years because people use them. Not a lot of people, just hardcore crazies perhaps, and certainly not enough to threaten the ecological integrity of the mountain parks. And by people who have a great passion for the backcountry. The truth is the Canadian Rocky Mountains are not now and never have been a tabula rasa, untouched by humans. There’s not just beauty and solitude out there, but history too.
Last year, along the lower Red Deer River, we met the only other hiker we would see until our final day. She was from the French Alps and in the middle of a 9-day solo trip through some of the wildest valleys in this remote part of the park. When we asked her why she came all the way to Canada to hike when she lives in the Alps, she replied that the Front Ranges are “special”. Amen.
For many years now, visitors have been able to get a glimpse of that beauty from the train or the car, from highway vistas or viewpoints a short walk from the highway. But to truly experience what Banff and Jasper and the other mountain parks have to offer, you have to get out there. Long distance backpackers will tell you that there is a fundamental shift that happens when you leave your first campsite and get more than one day away from the highway. Objectively, the scenery may be not that different, but subjectively you experience the landscape in a different, more profound way.
The management plans for Canada’s national parks must be updated every 10 years. The Banff and Jasper plans are due for an update in 2020. Draft updated plans will be available this year on Parks Canada’s website for public review and comment. Please take the time to tell Parks Canada that maintaining our amazing system of backcountry trails must be a management priority during the next 10 years. We must not lose this precious heritage.