Excursion to Job Lake and Bighorn Wildland, Alberta, Canada
21 - 29 July 2001
This is an account of a 9 day trip to the Bighorn Wildland area, just north-east of the White Goat Wilderness Area in Alberta, Canada. The trip took place during the period Saturday 21 to Sunday 29 July 2001. The route taken falls in Canadian 1:50,000 topographic maps 83C/1, 83C/2 and 83C/7. The trip was organised by Alistair and Gail Des Moulins, and I was the only other participant. I had flown out from England for this trip. The area seems to have many Old Testament names.
We had an early breakfast at Nordegg, and proceeded to the point where the Cline River flows into Abraham Lake. At that point, at an elevation of 1,340 m, we left Alistair's vehicle, shouldered our packs and proceeded on the trail on the north side of the river for about 2 kilometres to the point where Coral Creek flows in from the north west. Fairly early on we saw our only black bear of the trip. We also met a party of three who were the last people we were to see until the end of the excursion. We then proceeded up the trail on the north side of Coral Creek. This was easy pleasant going on a warm sunny day. We frequently had to cross the creek, as the trail switched to the other bank, but this was easy as we had wading shoes, and the water was low. There were interesting views of the mountain range which defined the valley on the north east side, but views were generally restricted as the valley is somewhat enclosed by mountains on all sides. As the afternoon proceeded clouds built up. In due course the sun disappeared completely, and we were presented with persistent and quite heavy showers. Having travelled a bit more than 15 kilometres we were looking for a place to camp, being mindful that the main river might be a source of giardia. We finally found a suitable place where a side-stream came straight down the hillside on the south side of the river. We waded the river to fill our water bottles. During the few minutes that we were thus engaged, there was a significant increase in the flow of the main river, and the water became almost as cloudy as that of a glacier stream. But it was still quite safe to wade back, and we returned to put up our tents on a rather grey and wet evening.
The rain had largely abated overnight, but it was grey and damp. We were still in the forest, the undergrowth was saturated, and the track had become sodden. Although we were not expecting many wades, I decided to wear my Tevas, and otherwise just had underwear on my lower half. We squelched our way up to a point 4 kilometres short of Job Pass, where an unnamed side-valley comes down from the south west. At this point we found a large permanent tent and facilities, left by outfitters, that was thought to be unlawful under the official designation of this section of country. The cloud was beginning to break up, and there were signs of brightness. After a brief stop for lunch we went south west for about 3 kilometres up the side valley to an elevation of about 2,200 m, at the top of the tree-line. There was a basic trail in places, but the country was becoming rougher. I was surprised how well the Tevas coped with this country, even though I was carrying a pack.
We found a place to camp. There was what appeared to be a rather better place a little higher up, but it was spoiled by the presence of small thistles that would have penetrated a light ground-sheet. By the time we erected the tents it had become nice and sunny, and there were good views across Coral Creek to the north east. In the evening Alistair climbed a 3,038 m mountain to the north west. As the lighting was getting better, I decided to stay in the area of the camp to establish the principle that my heavy weight of photographic equipment was not just being carried for the sake of physical exercise. As it turned out, this was easily the best evening of the trip, so my decision was a good one.
We rose to a fine morning. What we had in front of us was a harder day. Alistair had planned the trip in detail, and the route for the day involved slogging over two high passes, and going over some fairly rough country. The elevation gain of 800 m may not sound much, but our packs still had food for another 6 nights. This day went well, and Alistair set a sensible pace. He and Gail had been over this route on an earlier occasion, but in the opposite direction, and they were struck by how little snow there was this year. We reached our final pass at 2,850 m in good time. The original intention had been to proceed down to Samson Lake at 2,429 m, but there was considerable temptation to camp on the pass, as it provided excellent views and would provide a good base for a few mountain ascents. Looking to the west we saw a distant band of cloud that did not look too promising. We decided to prepare our evening meal there, and see how the weather developed. By the time we had finished our meal we concluded that we were at the right place but at the wrong time—the weather signs made it prudent to descend. We thus went down to Samson Lake, where our intended camping spot was at the north east end. We were hit by a heavy shower about five minutes before we put up the tents.
We were planning to spend two nights camping at Samson Lake, using the intervening day to climb a few mountains. But the weather prospects the following morning did not look good. It was persistently grey, the mountains were shrouded with cloud, and there were showers blowing over. We therefore had an easy day. After an early supper, the cloud seemed to break up so Alistair and I had an evening ascent of an uncairned 3,050 m peak south east of the camp. Going up the scree was hard work, but the scree was superb for descent. As we arrived back at the camp after 10:00 pm we were subjected to a low pass by a large bird. We were startled by the swooshing noise as this invisible animal passed low overhead in the dark.
The official plan was to spend the morning climbing another mountain, and then have an easy trek north past Job Lake at 2,049 m, with a camp a few kilometres beyond the lake. But the continuation of the previous day's weather discouraged any idea of ascents. We went down to Job Lake, which is just below the tree-line, and decided to camp there. We encountered a herd of elk, and their chestnut colour was vivid even in the grey light. There were plenty of bugs camping in the trees near the lake.
A brighter prospect in the morning promised a better day. We went 6-7 kilometres down the valley on a reasonable track, to the point where it joined the valley coming down from Job Pass. It was turning into a fine warm day. We waded the river, and were disappointed to see another permanent large tent. We then trekked up the valley towards Job Pass for another 6 kilometres, and struck up a side valley in an easterly direction that took us above the tree-line where we camped in a nice open place at about 2,300 m. There was just enough cloud in the evening to spoil the lighting for photography. We entertained ourselves trying to find a suitable place for hanging the food from a small cliff at the river's edge. One attempt had to be rejected when we discovered that it was quite easy to climb down and reach the bag.
A thin layer of ice on a small pool revealed that there had been a light frost overnight. But the sun had gone, even though the tops were clear. We took the packs up past a small lake to an elevation of about 2,460 m. At that point Alistair and I wandered off to a somewhat improbable looking 3,160 m peak, whose summit we reached after ploughing through a bit of unpleasant loose stuff. We considered a descent by another route, but we thought better of it as it would have involved crossing a short section of icy snow at about 40°. We had one axe but no crampons. We were caught by a shower just before we reached Gail on our descent, but she had found a slight overhang that provided a bit of shelter.
We plodded on, with packs, up to a 2,780 m col, where Alistair and I again dumped our packs to climb a relatively easy 3,090 m peak. The weather was fairly bright at this stage, and this summit was an excellent viewpoint. Proceeding down the south side of the col we found a place to camp at about 2,600 m. As with the previous night, we found a cliff, this time a good one, for hanging the food overnight.
The weather took on a different character overnight. I had found that my Swedish tent, designed for windy conditions with fly-sheet down to the ground, tended to develop a lot of condensation on the frequent nights when there was very little wind. These calm conditions are not something that I experience very often. To reduce condensation, I had taken to leaving both the fly-sheet and inner tent doors fully open when insects and weather allowed. During the middle of the night, the calm was disturbed by sudden gusts that woke me up. In the few seconds that it took to close the tent door a significant amount of rain had blown on to the sleeping bag.
I arose early in the morning. There was clinging cloud on the mountains, and down in the Bighorn Valley there was a solid pool of cloud that looked a bit like a glacier. I retrieved the food and sorted things out. Some wild sheep were grazing quite close to the tents and they did not seem to be concerned by our presence. After breakfast one of the sheep came right up and licked both my rucksack and the tent. So much for the "wild" sheep.
We proceeded down to the Bighorn Valley, and as we did so the heavens opened. The absence of wind meant that the large drops were coming straight down. We had to negotiate some willow scrub that was delightfully wet. We joined a trail for a short distance, and then skirted round to the west to visit two corrie lakes at about 2,250 m. We then had to grind up over another col, this one at an elevation of 2,500 m. The rain obligingly abated during this uphill section. Then there was a tiresome circuitous route in the forest and another wade, all of this in the rain. The end of the day saw us steaming up one of the side valleys of the Bighorn River. We camped at about 2,150 m after a final exquisite section that took us through deep willow scrub that seemed well adapted to the wet conditions. Camping that evening it was cool and damp, with a bit of a breeze.
The worst of the rain was over, although it was still grey and damp. We managed to avoid the worst of the willow in finding a route to our first pass at 2,540 m. That took us to the headwaters of the Littlehorn Creek. Then we went over another 2,500 m pass where we met wild sheep and goats. Finally, it was a long descent to Abraham Lake following the trail down Whitegoat Creek.
This is supposed to be a dry area, in the rain-shadow of bigger mountains further west. We experienced conditions that were unusually damp for the area. There were certainly a number of drier days, but even those days had at least the passing shower. The penultimate day was quite wet, and we had reason to be glad that we were not in the bigger mountains where conditions must have been quite difficult. But modern equipment is forgiving, and we could operate without much discomfort even when it was wet. Although our feet were water-logged by the end, no-one had any blisters.
We used a liquid fuel stove on all nights but one, and our fuel supplies would probably have lasted for the full trip. The use of a stove gave us an advantage when the weather turned wet, but did of course add to our loads.
There were trails in all of the valleys that we visited. Most of the time we were above the timberline, where we encountered only the occasional sign of a route. There were places where animal tracks were useful, particularly when crossing rock-strewn slopes. The going above the timberline varied from easy alpine meadows to boulder fields. As remarked earlier, there was very little snow in 2001, and all of the rivers that we encountered were easy to cross. I estimate that our total elevation gain with packs was about 3,710 m. The three hills that Alistair and I climbed involved a further 1,630 m of ascent, and Alistair completed another 820 m of ascent with his additional peak on 22 July.
My main regret is that I was frustrated in my photographic ambitions. Previous summer trips in the Canadian Rockies have provided many evenings when there was excellent lighting for "pot-shots" from the camp. On this occasion I carried a considerable amount of photographic equipment with very little opportunity to use it. I am left with the feeling that the area would be photographically rewarding in the right conditions. In particular, Samson Lake and Job Lake seem to be little frequented but beautiful places, with striking and varied rock colours.
19 February 2002