"Adrenaline Week" in the Canadian Rockies
by Valerie Tamis
Have you got the bear spray?" headguide Andrew MacKenzie asked fellow guide Craig Outhet as we started up the near-vertical slope of Mount Luscar in Alberta, Canada. Two miles later we arrived at the entrance to Cadomin Cave. The thought of going mano-a-mano with a grizzly, plus our brisk pace hiking to 6,600 feet, had me gasping.
I plopped down to catch my breath and told Andrew that, although I walk three miles daily, I'm 54 and was currently feeling every one of those years. "You're doing great," he said, handing me blue coveralls, white gloves and a hard hat with a halogen light attached to the visor. After slipping them on, I entered the 20-foot-high opening and switched on my light.
Through cramped, low-ceilinged crevices and over chunky limestone boulders, I slid, crept and duck-walked deeper into the darkness, hearing only the squish of my hiking boots on the muddy floor. Despite the 55?F temperature, my turtleneck was soaked and sweat trickled down my cheeks.
Twenty minutes later and nearly 250 feet inside the mountain, we reached a vaulted cavern called the Mess Hall. "Turn off your light," Andrew said. It was completely dark, a lightless alien world.
"Welcome to 'Adrenaline Week'," he whispered.
This unusual introduction to Jasper National Park, where most visitors come to climb up or ski down mountains, not trek inside them, confirmed the program's challenge. Over seven days, our group of six would backpack 17 miles into the wilderness, canoe 35 miles along the Athabasca River, rappel and climb 100-foot-high limestone cliffs above the Athabasca, and mountain-bike the 10-mile Overlander Trail. "This allows people to sample and learn the fundamentals of sports they're interested in," Andrew said of his popular Ultimate Adventures program.
The first day, however, I questioned my ability even to acclimate to Mother Nature. Emerging from the cave, I noticed that my pristine white gloves were coated with mud and that brown muck smeared the inside of my coveralls. "How did you get so dirty?" Andrew asked. I wanted to know when I could take a shower. "Look around, Val, we're miles from any plumbing," he said. Uh oh.
We camped late that afternoon in a clearing beside Whitehorse Creek on the outskirts of Jasper National Park. While Andrew and Craig unloaded food and equipment from the two vans which transported us to each adventure site, I daintily dipped a washcloth in the frigid creek and dabbed my mud-spattered face.
The sun had set behind Mt. Luscar and the September air was nippy, so I settled into a canvas chair, clapping my mittened hands to warm them. "Tent-time!" Craig announced, handing a mesh bag to me and my tent mate Nikki, a 27-year-old personal trainer and hairdresser from Vancouver.
Nikki's right ankle bore a tattoo of a red and blue dragon, her hair was blueberry-hued ("a special rinse," she later confided), and she wore baggy army pants with the Union Jack painted on each knee and on the seat. She also announced she was a vegetarian and drank only Diet Coke ("it's my coffee") and had crammed her backpack with several six-packs. I wondered how we'd get along sleeping in a space no bigger than a VW Beetle.
Fumbling with the collapsible tent rods, I admitted, "I'm sort of a novice at this," and when she giggled and said, "Me too," I suspected we'd be happy campers (and were). The other participants, a 40-something couple from Chicago ("DINKS," Andrew informed, explaining "double income--no kids"), and obviously honed campers, had their tent up in seconds.
After a tasty dinner of stir-fry chicken washed down with Alberta's Big Rock Beer, then story-telling around the campfire, I slipped into the tent and fell sound asleep . . . for an hour. The half-inch pad beneath my sleeping bag softened none of the gnarled roots and sharp rocks below, and this princess felt every pea. At dawn, I unzipped the tent door and wearily stepped outside. Thick frost coated the ground and fresh snow dusted the nearby peaks. "It must be all of 20 degrees," Andrew said cheerily as he chopped wood for the fire. Only five more nights to go, I thought.
But as the sun rose, so did the temperature, and I boarded my canoe comfortably clad in a turtleneck and jeans. The jade-colored Athabasca River shimmered as we dipped our paddles and navigated to an island 25 miles downstream. Black spruce lined the rocky shore, an eagle soared in the azure sky, and I spotted an osprey nest high in a pine tree near a man fishing for salmon.
Our island campsite thankfully featured soft sandy soil and I knew sleep was possible. But there were no visible outhouses, and I wondered how to "answer" nature's call. "Walk down that path and you'll find the Green Monster," Andrew said. The Green Monster was a plastic throne-like chair, set privately in a copse of poplars which opened to a panoramic vista of the Athabasca. "Great view, huh?" Andrew asked when I returned.
As the days passed, personal vanities like clean hair and daily showers yielded to the reality of camping in the Alberta woodlands. After a few sessions of changing clothes behind a drafty pine tree and squeezing out of my long johns inside the tiny tent, I decided that brushed teeth and a few dabs of Victoria's Secret Vanilla Body Lotion would suffice for "cleanliness." But other little, and most welcome, luxuries eased the journey, like eggs Benedict for breakfast, a nip of Bailey's in my after-dinner coffee, and a hot-tub outing in Jasper late in the week.
I was constantly aware that animals outnumbered people on this turf. My backpack had bells attached to the straps because "bells frighten bears," Andrew said. (During the 17-mile hike, I noticed claw marks on several aspens lining the trail and deliberately agitated my "jingle" for the next mile.) Herds of elk roamed freely through the campgrounds. Since it was the September "rutting season," when male elk can be a tad cantankerous, I gave them a wide berth, other than snapping a few pictures from a safe distance.
Early in the week Andrew had promised that each of us would "encounter a major challenge or personal fear and conquer it." I thought that with my dread of the dark, creeping through a cave was "major." I felt that backpacking with a festering blister and not complaining was a "conquest." Then we arrived at the Morro Slab, a 100-foot-high limestone wall rising straight up from the roaring Athabasca River.
"Ready to rappel?" Andrew asked. Wearing a harness-type contraption of leather straps and ropes ("your lifeline," he said), I approached the top of the cliff. "Don't look down!" Andrew quickly advised. I turned around so I'd be facing the wall and, with Andrew close by my side, gingerly stepped backwards, convinced I'd be free-falling in seconds. Amazingly, I wasn't. I set no world speed record rappelling down the Morro Slab, and I was in constant touch with the Almighty (Dear God, get me OUT of here!), but I made it safely to the bottom.
Ultimate Adventure's motto is "Leave only footprints, take only photos." I took far more from that week in the rugged Canadian Rockies. I savor the memory of hearing the plaintive honk of Canada geese flying overhead as I lay in my tent, knowing I could survive, indeed thrive, without all the comfortable trappings I deem necessary at home. I appreciated the serenity of that vast unspoiled corner of North America. Best of all were Andrew's words at week's end: "Well done, Val." Amen to that.
Ultimate Adventure's seven-day/six-night "Adrenaline Week" in Jasper National Park costs $725 per person and includes airport pickup in Grand Prairie, transportation to and from each adventure site, guides, meals, equipment (for caving, canoeing, climbing, and biking--plus all camping gear except backpacks and sleeping bags, which are available to rent), post-trip hot-tub outing, farewell dinner in a local restaurant, and souvenir T-shirt. Pre- and post-trip accommodations can be arranged. For more information, call Ultimate Adventures at (800) 581-2769 or (403) 413-0160; or Fax: (403) 413-0165. You can also write Ultimate Adventures at 11215 Jasper Avenue, Suite 183, Edmonton, Alberta, Canada T5K 0L5.
For information about additional programs and tour operators, see the Geographical Index under "Canada--Alberta."