Smoke on the Rockwall: Kootenay National Park

Even before the wildfires in Banff started, the locals knew they were coming. We had just taken a relaxing dip in Radium Hot Springs at the south end of Kootenay National Park, after which we bought some snacks in town and I gave in to my bad habits and bought my first pack of Canadian cigarettes. As I lit one on a bench located on the boulevard between the filling station and the road, a small gas station attendant came frantically toward me. “If you’re going to smoke there, be very careful” she pleaded. “We have a small ashtray on the pavement you could use instead. We are very worried. Storms are coming.” “I understand,” I told her. I relocated myself outside the station.

Then, on our drive back into Kootenay, we noticed the fire danger sign now read “EXTREME”. This was a strange sight indeed, as I’ve never seen a Minnesota fire danger sign exceed “Moderate”. Sure enough, that night, as cracks of thunder echoed over the blazer where we were camped in Kootenay National Park, a burst of lightning started a wildfire near Sunshine Village Ski Resort, not 30 miles from where we slept. Fortunately for us, we had only just finished our hike to Egypt Lake. All the trails we had explored for the past three days were hereafter closed due to wildfire.

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Most of my Rockwall Trail photos are shrouded in smoke

 

Though the fire didn’t stop us from completing our Kootenay hike on the iconic Rockwall Trail, we were certainly affected by the fire.  Smoke was seen each day, and visibility was not great.  Breathing in air polluted by wildfire smoke is not good for us.  Though wildfire is a huge inconvenience for humans, it does play an integral role in forest ecosystems. Like most things in nature, naturally occurring wildfires such as this one transpire by design. Wildfires help to spread nutrients by returning both dead and living nutrient-rich matter to the soil, through ash.  They also remove diseased and decaying plants and unwanted insects from the forest.  Furthermore, certain pine trees are designed to grow anew after being burned by fire: bringing life from the ashes.  Wildlife flourishes in the new life that comes from the aftermath of wildfire. Wildfires are a problem, however, because most of them are NOT naturally-occurring. Most wildfires are started by humans. For this reason, they are much more frequent than they need to be.

For months before starting our hike on the Rockwall Trail, I had been receiving email warnings from the park about potential dangers along the trail. Due to high water levels, multiple bridges had been swept out, making dangerous fords necessary.  As I continued to receive such emails up until our departure, we stopped in to chat with a ranger at Kootenay.  Though we were expecting to be told not to do the hike, we were pleased that she actually comforted our fears.  She told us about the challenges that awaited and ensured us that people were successfully completing the trail. She said they put the warnings out there mostly for those who are novice backpackers, and since we are experienced backpackers, we shouldn’t have a problem with the obstacles.  As it turned out, the warnings had deterred many hikers from attempting the trail, meaning that we were granted much solitude on this amazing hike.

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Paints Pots – Kootenay National Park

We started the hike at Paints Pots trailhead, on Ochre Creek trail. This was an exceptional hike, in which we saw the sacred site containing ochre and learned about how the Stoney and Blackfeet tribes had collected the ochre, baked it, and turned it into paint with which they painted rocks, their faces, and their bodies.  In the early 1900’s, white prospectors began mining ochre to use for pigment in paints.  Today, the site is protected.

 

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Mining Equipment – Paints Pots

We hiked 13K to Helmet Falls campsite this day, where a quaint ranger station was located. Though the camp was large, there were only two other parties staying there.  While playing cribbage at a picnic table, one guy approached us and asked, “Do you smell that?” “Smell what?” we asked. “The smoke. And you can see it in the mountains.” We all looked up at the surrounding peaks, and sure enough, they were masked by a faint white mist.  I hadn’t realized that this mist was in fact smoke coming from the wildfire at Banff, but now that he mentioned it, I could certainly smell it. We convinced ourselves that, if we were in danger, someone would surely evacuate us.

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Smoke behind Helmet Falls Ranger Station – Kootenay National Park

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The bridge to camp – Helmet Falls Campground

In the morning, we hiked a bit closer to the tremendous Helmet Falls, which fell with great complexity down the face of the mountain, drifting apart toward the middle in a wispy mist, then collecting together again in what must have been a pool toward the bottom. From here it all spurted out ferociously together. After the falls, the hike turned abruptly vertical for quite some time.

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Helmet Falls – Kootenay National Park

At the top, we were rewarded with our first view of the rock wall. This day turned out to be our favorite of the whole hike because we got to hike along the massive rock wall that gives this hike its name.

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First view of the rock wall – Kootenay National Park

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Oobee Traveling First-Class – Kootenay National Park

We spent the bulk of the day meandering gradually up and down along meadows beside the constant wall. Though the smoke veiled our views, nothing could take away from the impressiveness of the massive rock wall. When we neared the end of the rock wall, we began coming upon many snowdrifts. That night, we camped at Tumbling Creek.

 

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End of the rock wall – Kootenay National Park

The following day, we hiked along Tumbling Pass to Numa Falls. Here, we saw Tumbling Glacier up close.

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Tumbling Glacier – Kootenay National Park

On our lunch break atop a beautiful rock, passersby eased our troubled minds. They had just hiked in from Floe Lake the previous day, and they had news of the wildfire. Apparently, it had started near Sunshine Ski Village in Banff, and though it was very nearby, we were protected from the fire for multiple reasons. For one, there was a highway between us and the fire. Furthermore, the Floe Lake area where we would end our hike burned in recent years, meaning the wildfire would not have much to catch on if it managed to cross the highway.

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Lunch Break – Rockwall Trail

At the end of Tumbling Pass, we came to a ranger station amongst the mountains. On the last leg over the pass, I enjoyed the beautiful striped rocks that colored the moraine upon which we walked.

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Striped Rocks – Kootenay National Park

After a refreshing night of sleep at Numa Falls, we hiked Numa Pass to Floe Lake. Much of the day was spent hiking uphill. When we finally reached the high point, we were rewarded with a tremendous panoramic view of the surrounding peaks.

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Numa Pass – Kootenay National Park

The rest of the day was easy.  Soon, we came upon a view of the brilliant blue of Floe Lake down below us. The jaunt down to the lake went quickly. Floe Lake was our favorite campsite of the hike. We hung around the shore of the cold glacial lake, taking in the impressive views and relaxing.

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Floe Lake from Above – Kootenay National Park

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Floe Lake – Kootenay National Park

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Reflections on Floe Lake – Kootenay National Park

Our hike out the next day was the smokiest day yet.  As we walked through the Floe Lake burn area, the smoke from the nearby wildfire became more and more prevalent. The composition of the burn site with a smoky backdrop was an ominous and powerful image, illustrating the devastation and revival brought on by wildfire.

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Floe Lake Burn Area Blanketed in Smoke – Kootenay National Park

Though wildfire is essential to a healthy forest, it has been much too prevalent this year.  We have travelled from Alberta to BC, through Washington, Oregon, and now California, and we have seen smoke all along the way. Most of these wildfires are caused by humans, and it is these types of fires that are completely unnecessary. The wildfire currently devastating the Columbia River Gorge was started by a group of teens throwing firecrackers. The fire is breaking the hearts of locals as it burns a treasured place.  Though the forest is resilient and will rebound in time, this will take decades. Many people will never again see this area as they remember it. In the case of human-started wildfires, we are our own worst enemies. As population increases, the chance of human-caused wildfires is only increasing.  In the words of Smoky the Bear, “only YOU can prevent forest fires!”

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