Zephyr Creek hosts ancient pictographs in the Highwood area of Kananaskis Country, Alberta.
The Zephyr Creek hike is included in the 'Easy Hikes' category, however, there is an important proviso. The hike along Zephyr Creek, with a left turn through Painted Creek Valley is 4.5 KM (2¾ miles), one-way, with modest net and gross elevation gain near 150 m (492 ft).
Note: There is major flood damage in this area from June 2013 floods. Apparently, most of Sentinel Recreation Area was washed away.
To begin this hike, the proviso is the necessity to cross the 25 m (82 foot) wide Highwood River.
The Highwood River is a significant and important water course, fed by a large Rocky Mountain watershed and renowned for fly fishing and white water rafting. This hike is taking place in late fall when water levels are as low as they are likely to get before snowfall. At spring runoff, the mighty river will be less safe to cross. Upstream, 1,905 m (6,250 ft) Mount Mann majestically dominates the horizon with heavy weather looming overhead. Anything is possible. We are prepared for anything.
My hiking partner for this day is Seija (Say-ah). This will be her first major river crossing. The approach occurs in shorts and sandals.
Although it may be overkill for this easy crossing, standard river crossing protocol will be employed. Packs are shoulder hung with hip and sternum straps undone. In the unlikely event we fall, or are knocked down by the force of the water, we can quickly extricate the heavy pack to aid recovery and potential for survival. Hiking boots are hanging around our necks on laces. Electronics and cameras are secure in Ziploc bags within zippered pockets.
On this well-chosen day, water level and force are low. The water is crystal clear and the bottom is fully visible. The water appears deceivingly shallow but, at its deepest point, it is just above the knees. Seija and I are nearly the same height. We are using hiking poles for increased stability and placing feet and poles carefully, in the three points stable, one point moving pattern, as we cross over uneven, round and slippery rocks. The water is cold, brutally cold, stinging cold. The trick is to make the crossing as quickly as possible without compromising safety.
After drying off, footwear changes from sandals to hiking boots, and sandals are stashed for the return crossing. The reasonably obvious Zephyr Creek Trail initially gains a bit of elevation through forest, levels, then climbs a short rise into an open grassy plain.
The grass field is surrounded by magnificent hills and mountains, still clinging to the last vestiges of fall color. This field has obviously hosted a ti-jurabi-chubi and we shall explore with the care and respect this Stoney First Nation ceremonial site on sacred ground deserves.
The ti-jurabi-chubi is a spiritual lodge where time is set aside to gather, dance, and pay homage to creation, the elements, and the importance and joy of life within changing seasons.
The lodge was constructed from newly cut trees and shrubs, then embellished with colorful cloth hanging from its central pole. Following the ceremony, the lodge and ancillary structures remain a religious symbol left for nature to dismantle. We shall leave nothing beyond reverent thoughts.
It appears to be an older ceremonial site. The center pole of the sweat lodge has fallen and weathered timber lies in disarray. The large grassy area is also populated with isolated stands of aspen which are decorated with fresh and brightly colored cloth, so the sacred site remains in service to the aboriginal community.
There are two prominent valleys towards the west and south. We will hike towards the valley on the left, between groups of ceremonial banners onto clear trail which will alternate between sections of dense forest, containing the occasional stream crossing requiring a bit of rock hopping or off-trail routing around mud, and open grassy fields.
There are a lot of unmarked trails in this historical area. Route uncertainty is resolved when the trail begins to parallel the very beautiful and moss bordered Zephyr Creek.
One of the grass fields contains a single rusted barrel and an above average number of scattered boulders, but we can find no evidence of past milling or mining activity.
On the left is a prominent ridge as the hike proceeds through the broad valley with the North Ridge of Mount Burke to the right.
After 4 KM (2½ miles) of hiking we arrive at the trail intersection into Painted Creek Valley. There is a stone cairn about midway in the Y junction where Zephyr Creek Trail heads left and east across Zephyr Creek. From here, it is a ½ kilometer hike to the pictographs.
The tiny, but clear and well-traveled, trail into Painted Creek Valley crosses Painted Creek six times prior to arriving at the end of a rocky ridge.
Initially elusive, the three-century-old pictographs are near eye level and the red ochre figures become easily discernible on approach to the rock face. Decades of natural erosion have left only two ancient drawings. The first is a man and beast: the second is half of a bird. Natural deterioration of the rock face has destroyed prior pictographs. Seija and I rest here to enjoy lunch at this peaceful and reverent place in the presence of the remaining art work.
The hiking guide-book indicates new pictographs have been appearing over the past 300 years, each time higher on the ridge. There is a steep scree slope, to the right side of the pictographs, which may provide access to the high point above. An attempt is made at the scramble even though we are ill-equipped to navigate the sharp rock. After an energetic climb about ¾ of way to the top, it is exposure to powerful, gusting wind which decides this adventure should be left for another day.
As well as the advantage of great exercise, the robust and rapid gain in elevation delivers excellent views across Painted Creek Valley, as well as south to Zephyr/Bear Pass. The Painted Creek Valley Trail continues south to merge again with the Zephyr Creek Trail.
On the return, Seija and I repeat the six Painted Creek crossings to intersect with the Zephyr Creek Trail.
There is a choice to turn left and continue south for 3.5 KM (2¼ miles) with 370 m (1,214 ft) of elevation gain to grand views from Zephyr/Bear Pass and the beginning of the eastbound Bear Creek Trail.
We choose to turn north and return the same way hiked in. It is always interesting how the same trail often appears substantially different in the opposite direction.
Seija and I approach the Highwood River and the large grass field hosting the Ti-jurabi-chubi, a sacred site for the Stoney First Nations. There are outstanding views north to Gunnery Mountain, Grass Pass and the Bull Creek Hills.
Back at the Highwood River, footwear change precludes fording the stunningly cold, 25 m (82 ft) stretch of water.
There is benefit to return to the Sentinel Recreation Area another day for hiking the Lower Cataract Creek Trail which hosts the Lower, Middle and Upper Falls as well as the 'Weeping Wall'. But there is that brutally cold crossing of the Highwood River.