Day 27, Banff to Coleman leg.
Morning came with clear skies and a healthy layer of frost. At 1930m, this was the highest elevation we’d camped at in the entire trip. Suz-zero temperatures aside, we were especially thankful to not have any overnight grizzly adventures to add to the story.
As the morning dawned in spectacular fashion, we broke camp, saddled the horses and resumed our ever-so-slow grind through the old burn on these upper reaches of the middle fork of the White River. According to the GPS, we were never more than 50m off the trail, but never really seemed to actually be on it. Instead, we were continually solving a never-ending nightmare of deadfall navigational jigsaw puzzles.
For more than two hours we ground through this mess, then we spied a cut log… and another, and another! The trail! Cleared! I knew Eric and Guy had been through here in August, with pack horses and a chainsaw, spending considerable time and gas clearing trail. From here, the trail was much easier to follow. I don’t know if it was them that actually cut all those trees, but we gave them heartfelt credit for every single one of them. There may, or may not, have even been a reasonable working version of a campfire song about a nasty trail and a couple of guys with a chainsaw. Only the trail knows for sure…
Anyway, the trail got better, lots of cut logs, they got credit for every single one of them and we finally made it out of the old burn. We continued working our way down the middle fork of the White River until we hit the boundary for Height of the Rockies Provincial Park, and a forest service road. Ridiculously easy going now! We even did a couple trot sections.
At the Maiyuk Recreation Area, we made a hard turn east onto the Connor Lakes trail. Easy travel on road for the first 5km, or so, then it started to climb. My horse, Charlie, was showing signs of being tired, so I dismounted and walked. Peter and Tina kept stopping to wait for us, making sure everything was Ok. “Yeah, yeah, we’re fine. He’s just tired. I’m going to walk with him. You guys carry on. We’ll be fine.” So, they did.
That trail seemed to be a never-ending series of uphill grinds. Every time we got to a new uphill section Charlie would balk; I’d convince him to continue and on we’d go. He’d never, ever done that before in his life. We’ve been on so many trails and adventures together and I often commented about how I’ve never seen the bottom of him. He had so much depth, try and heart.
And then he stopped. Not one more step. He was done. We’d found bottom.
It is said you can make a horse go until he drops dead, but not a mule. I guess Charlie has some of that mule self-preservation instinct in him. I wasn’t going to push him any further. If he said he’s done, then I believe him. He was done.
In my months of preparations, conditioning him for this trip, he had become a lean, mean, trail eating machine. He could climb anything, travel all day and barely break a sweat. He was in the best shape of his life. Unfortunately, he didn’t have much left in terms of fat reserves. Rodeo and Ahi had it, Charlie didn’t. That was my mistake, and today we were paying the price. In hindsight, a little less fit and a bit more of a fat reserve would’ve served him better. Learning can really suck sometimes.
What now? Charlie won’t go on, but if I stay out here, Peter and Tina will worry. I decide I will spend the night out on the trail with Charlie and we’ll continue in the morning. But first, I’ve got to let Peter and Tina know what’s up. I tie Charlie to a tree and continue up the trail to Connor Lakes.
Man, I cursed that trail! The climb just never seemed to end. When it finally did, the descent to the lake was just as bad. I know it wasn’t as bad as it seemed, but under the circumstances I guess I was a little frayed. It was just shy of 3 km from where I tied Charlie, to the Connor Lakes cabin. Felt longer, a lot longer.
Peter and Tina had horses unsaddled and everything set up. There were two lady elk hunters there too. I told them about Charlie and that I was going to stay out on the trail with him so he could rest and we’d travel the rest of the way in the morning. Peter and Tina gave me food for dinner and an extra water bottle; the lady elk hunters gave me a bag of grain that they’d brought for their own horses, for Charlie.
In fading light, and with my armful of goodies, I headed back to Charlie. I wasn’t too worried about spending the night out on the trail; I had my ground sheet, pad and sleeping bag in my saddle bags. I also had food, water and there was no concern about rain. What did concern me though, was the amount of grizzly poop on the trail. I’d definitely be keeping my bear spray handy.
I made it back to Charlie. He let out a friendly nicker when he saw me come up the trail. We stood there together for about half an hour while I hand fed him grain. Between the grain and the rest while I walked to Connor Lakes and back, he seemed to perk up. Hmmm… I wonder. Let’s give it another try. Maybe, just maybe, I don’t have to sleep out on the trail with the grizzlies tonight, after all.
I untied him and asked him to follow. He refused. Shit!
C’mon Buddy, Try! Let’s go. Please! And he did. One step. Then another. Suddenly, we were walking up the trail. After a bit, I stopped and gave him a handful of grain. Thanks Pal.
In fading light, and eventually, darkness, we walked the final 3 km, stopping after every tough section to show him appreciation with a handful of grain. Eventually, we made it to Connor Lakes cabin, where I unsaddled him, fed some more grain and tucked him into the electric fence enclosure to graze with Rodeo and Ahi.
The cabin was dark; everyone had gone to bed, but weren’t asleep yet. Needless to say, they were thrilled that we’d make it back and I wouldn’t be sleeping out on the trail. I laid out my sleeping pad, bag and crawled in. Emotionally and physically exhausted as I was, sleep did not come easily. My stupid legs just wouldn’t stop hiking.
34 km travelled today, plus an extra 6 km for me.