In 1811, explorer David Thompson went in search of a new route across the high Canadian Rockies. Hostile Peigan natives blocked Howse Pass (which now connects Mistaya Canyon with Golden) and the North West Company, for which Thompson worked, desperately needed an alternate route to ship furs across the mountain range. In January of that year, braving -30 temperatures, five meter deep snow, and perilous river crossings, Thompson reached Athabasca Pass. This route, connecting the Athabasca River (which flows out to the Arctic Ocean) and the Columbia River (which reaches the Pacific), became the main artery for shipping furs across Canada until the 1850s.
Michael and I retrace the way of the old explorers and voyageurs. Unlike those who crossed the pass for their livelihood however, we never have to ford rivers so high and so strong that we are swept off our feet despite shouldering 90 lbs of provisions. Nor are we forced to cut up our leather trousers to make snowshoe lacing or to wake in the morning to see our campfires sunken 15 feet into the snow. Some 203 years after Thompson’s historic voyage we are treated to six straight days of beautiful September Indian summer weather.
The trail starts off with a long straight fireroad but then quickly enters the shady forest where berries and mushrooms flourish.
We spend our first night at Tie Camp. During the Depression, Jasper NP allowed limited logging within its boundaries. Here, at this camp along the Whirlpool River, loggers cut trees and floated them down the river. destined to become part of Canada’s growing rail lines.
You choose to go on a hike like this not so much for spectacular alpine scenery as for the rich history it holds. You stumble across old collapsed log cabins, now strewn about in a disarray of broken wood. Spokes protrude from an old wooden wagon wheel. A jagged crosscut saw. Rusty bent nails and tarnished jars.
Then there is the constant presence of the Whirlpool River. But of course, it wasn’t known as the Whirlpool River by fur traders of the 1800s. It wasn’t until 1859 (by which point the Hudson’s Bay Company had abandoned Athabasca Pass in favor of processing furs on the West Coast) that Sir James Hector gave this torrent of water its present name.
One of our favorite and most scenic spots on the entire trail is the Scott Campground. Views of Scott Glacier at sunrise and sunset are spectacular. You can walk across the flats to the glacier (and if you’re committing to the 100 km trek that brings you to the pass and back, what’s another few km?). The trick to finding it is this: walk along the river bank past Scott Camp until a rough trail climbs up above a raging gorge. Soon you’ll come to a bridge. Cross it. Carefully. The trail soon emerges onto gravel flats and from here you can cheerfully walk cross-country right to the tarn at the base of the glacier and even around the tarn to a huge waterfall cascading down a steep cliff.
Beyond Scott Camp the trail enters shady cool forest that becomes more and more lush with every step you take. The track becomes rooty and rocky. It disappears entirely in some spots only to re-emerge on the far side of a bog. As I walk with soaked feet, I’m reminded of the West Coast Trail.
We pass by a few small berry bushes scattered alongside the trail. I stop and pick a few. Suddenly, there are berries everywhere! They are big and plump and ripe. I have to push loaded branches away from the trail to avoid staining my clothes with berry juice. I pick so many that my tongue almost goes numb from the acids. Next morning’s oatmeal breakfast is the best I’ve ever had: a cup of cereal, 1 liter of huckleberries.
Finally, after many hours of dedicated berry-picking, we reach the pass! I feel the excitement that Thompson and his crew must have had. This is the continental divide: to the east all water flows to the Arctic Ocean. To the west, the Pacific. And that was the point of coming here, discovering this place. To connect the goods of eastern Canada with the furs of the west.
We camp on a small flat area in the middle of a boulder field overlooking the pass. Marmots converse with each other all around us.
At the pass we discover a register hidden in the crack of a boulder. Reading through the entries is fascinating. We’re only the 3rd party to come this way since 2012. Before the bicentennial of its discovery, practically no one ventured this far. Forgotten for 150 years.
One major theme jumps out at us from the register: this place is crawling with mosquitoes in July and August. Not a single one manages to bite us. If you want to hike the Athabasca Pass trail, do it in September.
We feel great, wandering around the three marshy little lakes of the pass, barefoot. Basking in the sun, post skinny-dip, we feel like we’ve accomplished a great journey. Then we come across this entry in the register: Lake Superior to Athabasca Pass in a birch bark canoe! Now, that’s an adventure!