As we headed south the air around us was progressively getting smokier. This would be the experience of anyone on the west side of North America. At the time we were traveling through, British Columbia had over 600 significant forest fires burning. At one point we were headed to find our campsite and the smoke was so thick that we were traveling at less than half the speed limit. We decided that it was time to bite the bullet and get a hotel room for the sake of our lungs. I got online and booked us a room in Prince George. We were actually really excited for all of the amenities we were about to experience. Also, a bit disappointed that we would be checking in so late that we wouldn’t be able to maximize our time there. We arrived at our hotel and found that the booking wasn’t valid as the hotel was completely sold out. We found that this was the case with almost all of the hotels in town. Apparently, most were full of firefighters and evacuees. I found one hotel with a room but they wouldn’t rent it to us because they were saving space for the evacuees. Fair enough. Scott eventually found a hotel on the other side of town and we rented their very last room. We even finagled a late check out to offset our late check-in. At that point in our trip, we had spent 62 consecutive nights in one tent or another. It felt strange how natural it was for us to move indoors for a night. I guess 40+ years of conditioning to the indoors sticks with you. We used the heck out of the Wi-Fi. Charged everything, updated everything, and downloaded 5 movies off of the Netflix for later. And oh, my goodness a shower without a time limit! Woohoo! We drank a ton of their coffee, hit the breakfast bar hard, filled up all of our water bottles, and liberated them of the extra roll of toilet paper in the bathroom. We definitely made the most of that expense. The next morning Scott made friends with the fellow in the next room while he was packing up the truck. Our neighbor was a crew leader on his day off from working on the local fire. We chatted about travel and life. He was a surfer and had lots of recommendations for places to check out in Baja. Eventually, we tore ourselves away from our new friend, checked out of the hotel, and headed off to do some errands. As luck would have it we could accomplish nearly everything we needed to do from the same business complex that housed our hotel. There was a laundromat (with a book exchange!), gas station, propane station, natural food store, liquor store, and a ramen restaurant. We made another couple stops for cheap groceries and headed out of town. We spent less than 24 hours in Prince George but managed to spend almost 10 budget-days’ worth of money. Yikes!
The best thing to do when confronted by a spending spree is to go underground, so to speak. We hunkered down at a place called Lasalle Lake. We scored a private waterfront campsite complete with perfect hammock hanging trees and a clothesline.
We spent more time there than anywhere else for the whole trip. 5 nights. Completely free. The campsites had cement picnic tables and firepits (that were forbidden from use). We had a beaver and a mink for neighbors. The most impressive thing about that campsite was the toads. We happened to be there at the time that the tadpoles were branching out into toad-dom and trying to find their way into the forest. There were hundreds of thousands of tiny little western toads. You couldn’t walk anywhere without keeping a sharp eye out for tiny toadlets. They were on the road, in the grass, and most concentrated near the water. At times the ground was completely covered by little toads awkwardly hopping into each other. The most impressive spot was down by the dock where the tadpoles were congregating in the water and the toadlets were congregating at the shore. The sheer biomass of that interface was mind-blowing.
The air quality fluctuated quite a bit while we were there. Some days we hid out in the tent as ash fell from an apocalyptic orange sky. Other days we went running (careful of the toads!) under dusky blue skies. When the groundskeeper made her rounds (with her cute dog) for the second time that week we felt like maybe we should move on. Maybe. Maybe tomorrow… On what would become our last night at Lasalle Lake we met a fellow camper named Barry. He was a hiking aficionado with a ton of local knowledge. He showed us his favorite map apps on his phone and his trail map books for most of Canada. It was a ton of information to take in and we absorbed only the most relevant piece. It was that backpacking permits for the Berg Lake Trail in Mt Robson Provincial Park can be obtained at the visitor center even when the online reservations are full. I had looked into hiking this trail a few weeks back and given up on it when the reservations were booked. This was just the kind of inspiration we needed to be able to peel ourselves away from Lasalle Lake. We thanked Barry profusely for his company and information. He stood, recited a poem by Robert Service and slipped away into the night.
We awoke the next morning with purpose. We packed away our home in record time. With our water jugs filled to the brim with delicious Lasalle Lake water (to be filtered), we headed straight to Mt Robson Provincial Park to see about scaring up a couple of backcountry permits. Well, we went straight to hike the Overlander Falls Trail and then to the visitor’s center. The manner in which we are traveling is called Overlanding so we felt compelled to visit Overlander Falls.
It turned out to be a very short trail and we were at the visitor’s center discussing backcountry campgrounds in no time flat. It turns out that there was a ton of availability and we could pick and choose wherever we wanted to stay. Well actually, we could pick out our campsites only after watching a short movie about how not to destroy the wilderness. We opted to hike up to Emperor Falls the first night and then spend two nights at Berg Lake followed by hiking all the way out on the fourth day. The cost was $10 per person per night. Not too bad. We were all set to start up on the trail the following morning. As proud owners of a freshly laminated backcountry pass, we left the visitor’s center, found a forest clearing on the side of the highway, and readied our backpacking gear for the big adventure.
The hardest part of going backpacking is leaving The Joan Wilder to fend for herself at the trailhead. This particular trailhead had a sign warning us that car thieves were on duty in that parking lot and we could put our valuables in a locker at the visitor’s center if need be. We didn’t figure there was a locker large enough for The Joan so we just crossed our fingers and hoped for the best. We were feeling optimistic as we set off because the air was the clearest we had seen in days. The trail at hand for the day was going to be an easy jaunt up to and around Kinney Lake followed by 2.5 miles of steep trail through a section called Valley of a Thousand Falls gaining about 680 ft of elevation per mile. At the top of the Valley, after a total of about 10 miles is Emperor Falls and our campsite. The trail to Kinney Lake was wide enough for a car and followed the Robson River. The Robson river is a pale milky blue and very swift. Once it leaves Kinney Lake it does not stop again until it reaches the Pacific Ocean. The glacial silt called rock flour that lends the river its icy blue color never has a chance to settle out in a lake so it is deposited through irrigation water on agricultural fields on its way to the Pacific. Kinney Lake is broad and placid with an eerie blue color surrounded by sharp mountains. The smoke obscured much of the surrounding mountains but created a mysterious feeling about the lake. As we left the lake, before heading uphill there was a bicycle rack. Bicycles are allowed on the trail around the lake but not further. We did not see anyone riding a bike but there were many parked at the rack.
Before entering the Valley of a Thousand Falls we refilled our water pouches as recommended. The Valley has plenty of water to be seen but none to be had. I don’t think they were exaggerating when they named it Valley of a Thousand Falls.
There was so much water pouring down the mountains and the rivers really took their time making it all the way to the valley floor. Some of the water traveled along the side of the valley like a natural aqueduct before finally making the plunge. Eventually, we arrived at an overlook to a giant waterfall. We were getting our first look at Emperor Falls. Shortly thereafter, we came upon a spur trail to the bottom of the falls. We were the only people at an obviously popular spot on the trail. You could actually stand under the falls if you were foolish enough; there was no barrier keeping you away. We had seen the path that this water was going to be taking and wanted no part of that crazy ride so we definitely kept our distance. Huge plumes of mist would blow by and coat us with a chill on the whim of the wind. We soaked up our fill of Emperor Falls and moseyed on to find our tent site for the night.
Because the Berg Lake Trail is so popular the campgrounds are very orderly. Each of the tent pads was delineated with boards, there is a designated washing station complete with a greywater pit, and pit toilets. All you need to supply is the paper. There are no campfires allowed ever on the trail, even in times of low fire danger. This keeps the forest intact. We settled into a cute site on the Robson River in the shadow of Mt. Robson, which happens to be the tallest mountain in the Canadian Rockies. A delicious dinner of leftover spaghetti found a home in our bellies along with a can each of tepid Old Milwaukee beer that Scott covertly packed in. It was very welcome! We crawled into the tent for what would be one of the coldest nights we have spent together. Our sleep was comprised of a series of many short naps while we rotated ourselves trying to stay warm. I felt like we were the penguins in Antarctica as we traded off being big spoon and little spoon soaking up the body heat trapped between us. The morning sun on the tent was much anticipated. It never came. Smoke had moved in during the night obscuring the sun as well as our views of Mt Robson.
We countered the morning chill with movement. Breaking down the tent, making coffee(!), cooking up delicious oatmeal (fortified with coconut flakes, raisins, and chocolate flavored plant protein powder with power greens) kept us from freezing. We only had three miles to cover before arriving at the Berg Lake Campground so we weren’t in much of a hurry. Our only time limitation was an 11:00 am checkout time for our tent pad. We slung our packs over our shoulders around 11:01 am and headed off with our bear bells jingling. We had probably only traveled about a mile before we were granted our first glimpses of the glaciers surrounding Berg Lake. We crossed a beautifully engineered trail over a scree field that dropped us down onto a gravely braided streambed.
The smoke hung low as we crossed a series of bridges leading us to the shore of Berg Lake. The first glacier we came to was Mist Glacier. It was slowly dropping into its very own little depositional pool.
As we walked further, Berg Glacier came into view. Both glaciers were born of the same ice field at the top of Mt. Robson but they are divided by a knob of rock sending them into different directions. Berg Glacier is continually calving off chunks of ice into the lake as it slowly slides down Mt. Robson giving both the glacier and the lake their names. We could make out the form of the mountain behind the glacier through the smoke. We found a lovely tent pad in the forest near a shelter that was provided for cooking and socializing. We set up camp and headed to the beach to bask in the glory of the mountains and ice.
We had a nice nap in the smoke filtered sun and made our way back to camp for some delicious Tasty Bite kung pao noodles. The night was young and we were beginning to feel chilled again so we decided to hike up to Toboggan Falls. It was just over a mile round trip and proved to be a perfect nightcap. Toboggan Falls was really a series of falls that were formed as a creek flowed over and eroded through diagonally bedded layers of limestone. It formed a series of punchbowl pools flowing into each other as it headed towards Berg Lake.
There was a bench at the top where we sat and listened to the thunderous sound of Berg Glacier dropping ice into the lake. We never did recognize a calving event as it happened but we heard the booms of glacial movement all day and night.
We had a slightly warmer sleeping experience that night thanks to a new layering technique we applied to our sleeping bags. We had plans to hike up Snowbird Pass the next day and put an eyeball on the Robson Glacier. When we woke we found that the smoke had increased in the night. No longer could we make out the peak of Mt. Robson and I had to walk almost to the lake edge to see the glacier. We were feeling pretty sluggish as we ate our delicious fortified oatmeal and drank our instant coffee. A rainstorm had been forecast for that day and we were hoping it would come and wash the smoke from the air. But the forecast also complicated our packing for the day hike up to Snowbird Pass. We didn’t want to be caught out in the rain without warmies and rain gear. We thought maybe we would be able to think more clearly with a cup of mate under our belts. Scott started tea water warming and I stared glumly at the smoky sky. Finally, I said, “We could just pack up and hike out today…” At that instant, the stove sputtered out. We were out of fuel. The dinner we had planned for that night was dehydrated black bean soup. That definitely required heat to cook. We had both kind of perked up with the idea of setting out early and with the stove’s crap out adding a second to the vote we started packing. We mixed the last of our instant coffee with cold water and sugar to fortify us for the day’s adventures. It was a good thing we took so much time to sightsee on the way up because the views were definitely subpar on our descent from Berg Lake.
When we finally set out to descend we were on a mission. We had our sights set on French fries and a brew at the trailhead café. We kept up a good pace, probably our strongest pace yet (it was all downhill…) for the entire way down.
We crossed the bridge at the bottom of the trail right at 6:00 pm. Not quite in time to hit the café but definitely with enough time to drive to Jasper for late night happy hour. We were happy to find The Joan Wilder resting peacefully as we left her, unmolested.