This hike is dedicated specifically to Lorelee and Melanie, and generally, to every family member, or friend, or acquaintance of every name on the monument, and to every participant in the Kananaskis Country search and rescue operation during June of 1986.
For new visitors to this heroic and tragic story, you will benefit from reading a previous Memorial Lakes post at Memorial Lakes – Kananaskis Country – Hiking Alberta. It will make this post much more meaningful.
This is my third attempt to complete this hike. The hike is difficult and the risk profile is too high for me to attempt solo. My close friend and long-time hiking partner, Ken, has agreed to share this mission with me. We have chosen the best time for good weather and long daylight hours. We approach the objective with absolute commitment and resolve. At least one of us will photograph the Memorial Lakes Cairn near the shoreline of the third and uppermost Memorial Lake. We depart from the Ribbon Creek trailhead in Kananaskis Country near Nakiska at 9:30 AM.
The Ribbon Creek trail is flat, wide and easy to navigate. For the first kilometre it tracks cascading, clear-water Ribbon Creek.
There are bridge crossings back and forth over Ribbon Creek. It is originally an old logging road.
Following a 3.4 KM (2.1 mile) hike on good road, the narrow trail we need is marked by a roadside cairn and branches right to follow North Ribbon Creek.
The trail is rustic, littered with roots and rock outcroppings. Occasional level sections are punctuated by a series of steep climbs. Trail conditions are diverse and variable.
There are several very beautiful stream crossings. It is a mecca of running water.
Ken and I arrive at a steep trail. Off to the left is a significant waterfall and we take the time to photograph the cascading tiers in challenging light along the maze of trails at the cliff edges. After taking photos of all the waterfall features, we return to the main trail.
The waterfalls, we have enjoyed so much, originate from the outlet of Memorial Lake # 1 and soon, we arrive there. The first lake is tiny. We are in tight quarters, which makes photography challenging, but we relax here for a while and enjoy some food and fluid.
We hike on wet trail through dense undergrowth to the other end of Memorial Lake # 1 and arrive at a T-junction at the base of pyramidal Ribbon Peak. The hiking guidebook we are using is a litany of confusing hyperbole, laced with non-permanent landmarks, and offers little more than indecipherable nonsense. A Gem Trek Map, astute observations and common sense are applied. We turn right. We know we need to climb up and around the other side of Ribbon Peak to pass Memorial Lake # 2 and achieve Memorial Lake # 3.
Route finding is not difficult but a variety of human, and/or game trails, provide many alternatives. Our best views of Memorial Lake # 1 are achieved on the climb above it. Ken is dutifully tying red flourescent trail-marking tape as we seek out the best approach. After a good climb we arrive at the stunningly beautiful Memorial Lake # 2 which is justifiably known as ‘The Emerald’.
Our arrival at Memorial Lake #2 provides a breathtaking view of emerald water, with a tiny island and a peninsula with trees, in a bowl surrounded by the sheer rock cliffs of majestic mountains. It is a vision. Fish are jumpin’ and the cotton is high. Your Daddy’s rich and your Momma’s good-lookin’… but I digress. As difficult as it is to leave this beautiful place, we press on to another climb through talus and scree. Again the best views of Memorial Lakes # 2 are achieved as we hike above it on our way to the scramble zone at the far side of Ribbon Peak.
The scramble to the next hiking level is intimidating. It is always easier to scramble up a route than it is to scramble down the same route. We analyze three routes and choose the one which appears to be the best. The route up is fairly straightforward. Getting back down the same route is possible but potentially ugly. On the way up, we are cautious to prevent knocking loose rock on each other. In hindsight, we should have been wearing rock helmets. We are hampered by the sun sitting directly on the horizon at the mountain peaks above us. Every time we reach for a handhold or make a route adjustment, the sun is blinding beyond the protection of dark glasses. There is no safe opportunity to take pictures until we arrive at the gorgeous meadow above us. It is a short scramble taking less than 15 minutes. I will get pictures of the down route when we return.
Ken and I hike through the meadow with the realization we will need to hike to the top of the scree slope ahead. At the top of the ridge it is still not clear where the lake is located. On the left is a forested area and above is another scree ridge beneath the summit of 3,144 m (10,315 ft) Mount Bogart. It is possible the lake is either left, past the forest, or higher in a bowl behind the scree slope. Ken heads left through the forest and I climb further to the top of the scree slope above us.
My higher position provides me with an outstanding view of Memorial Lake # 3 below me. Ken is out of the forest and hiking below me towards the shoreline. The Memorial Cairn is a dot on a scree rise above the far shore of the lake. Our objective is clearly in view. It is a good moment. Ken proceeds towards the monument and I work my way down the scree slope to follow behind in a counterclockwise direction along the dark talus shoreline of the lake which is about 1.5 m (5 feet) below completely full.
The Memorial Cairn lies majestically in honour of those who heroically gave their lives in June of 1986. These lakes were named, and this monument was erected for them, in September of 1986.
Ken and I spend quite a bit of time here. The Memorial Cairn is perched on a scree rise on the north side of Memorial Lake # 3 which is near the edge of a steep cliff face looking directly down on Memorial Lake # 1. The surroundings are nothing short of spectacular. The sun is warm. The air is calm. It is a beautiful and peaceful place.
Mount Allan is the rusty colored summit in the background of the picture above. Centennial Ridge leads up to it and we see evidence of the Rock Garden along the ridge. It is time to make our way back. I tuck a summit stone underneath the base of the Memorial Cairn. We continue counterclockwise around the shore of Memorial Lake # 3 as the sun begins to dip below the summit of Mount Bogart.
It is always easier to find a down route than it is to find an up-route on steep terrain. At the top of the scramble, we have an outstanding view of Memorial Lake # 2, now in shadow. We follow the trail in the meadow to find a better route down than the one we ascended. Like the scramble up, it is an easy scramble with brief moments requiring full attention. We carefully work our way down the steep slope to safer ground.
We make out way through scree and talus, past Memorial Lake # 2 on a higher and better route over scree, to the steep descent past the waterfall and multiple stream crossings until we are back to Memorial Lake # 1. Following a few minutes of rest and relaxation for weary legs, Ken and I carefully make our way down the rustic trail along North Ribbon Creek. Light is lower now and photographs of beautiful tributary streams are difficult to capture.
There are tricky sections of trail which require extra caution on very tired legs as we descend to the Ribbon Creek trail and the welcome 3.4 KM (2.1 mile) flat walk, along good road, back to the trailhead. As we approach the end of the hike, light is dwindling rapidly and the setting sun creeps its way up surrounding mountains.
At the parking lot, we have had enough, but our spirits are raised by a setting sun channelled through valley openings to illuminate one mountain directly in our field of vision as we arrive back at the Ribbon Creek parking area at 8:30 PM. Many different trails begin from the Ribbon Creek trailhead. There are a couple of cars remaining in the parking area. All day we have seen no other person. We owned the Memorial Lakes this day. It was special. We are privileged.
As I prepare this article, several days after the hike, I receive a post authored by DSD who writes a blog about the spiritual power of the wilderness. The content in this very thought-provoking post is called ‘Descending Thoughts’ and I recommend you take the time to read it. It is relevant to our descent from Memorial Lake # 3. Those who have spent a lot of time with nature, specifically on water or mountains, will relate closely to the power of the experience.
Well, if you have made it this far, congratulations! I admire your tenacity. You may have what it takes to hike Memorial Lakes. At more than 2,700 words, wrapped around an unprecedented 56 representative photographs chosen from hundreds, it breaks all the rules for the size of an individual post. This initiative was important to me. There is a powerful story here about a significant event in the history of Kananaskis Country. I believe this memorial cairn is a fine tribute, situated in an incredibly beautiful place amongst pristine, alpine lakes named specifically to honor lives lost.
I also have an issue with it. There were thirteen lives lost nearby in June of 1986. These heroic and tragic events affected the lives of families, friends and acquaintances. Additionally, there are hundreds of other people who participated in the search and rescue operations. In total, there are thousands of people who were affected and undoubtedly there is some significant percentage who would like to pay their respect. They may not be able to do so. The Memorial Cairn is very difficult to access and only possible for a short time each year. I do not know why this specific location was chosen. I am sure it was well thought out. It seems to me the memorial has been, certainly unintentionally, only partially completed. Perhaps I am being too critical. I would, however, make the following recommendations. First, leave the current Memorial Cairn at Memorial Lake # 3 exactly as it is. Trail marking, signage and ongoing maintenance is required to provide safe access and risk reduction for those who are able to hike into this historic location. Second, create two new, identical cairns. Place one at, or near, the Ribbon Creek parking area. Place the other at an easily accessible location near the base of Cox Hill. Accompany each of them with interpretive plaques, outlining the story. Certainly a lot was learned from this tragic series of events, albeit at unreasonable expense. To remember is a point of respect and a measure of preventing reoccurrence.
‘Hush now little baby, don’t you cry’.
Thank you, Ken. You remain a true friend and, once again, we have faced adversity and triumphed together. I could not have done it alone.
When you have a moment, please read the inspiring story of the family hike to honour Ken Wolff. The link is: