Marmot Basin is a cirque on the lower slopes of Mount Allan and Mount Collembola in Kananaskis Country west of Calgary, Alberta, Canada.
The original plan considered hiking Marmot Basin the conventional way, east to west and back from the trail-head off Skogan Pass Trail above Nakiska Mountain Resort.
The hike begins on Hidden Trail from Ribbon Creek parking through the Nakiska Ski Area to the Skogan Pass Trail. The hike ascends past Skogan Pass Trail to the Mid-Mountain Day Lodge on Mount Allan with the intent of hiking the Marmot Basin Trail in reverse order. The Gem Trek map shows a potential connection that will allow this to happen.
Limited knowledge of the flood-damaged area includes knowledge about bridges at the west end of Marmot Basin being significantly damaged. Ignorance is bliss. Convoluted logic tells me backing out from the most damaged area will be better than recovering from deeper wilderness.
The unknown length of time this hike will consume in unknown flood damage conditions warrants carrying bear spray today. The Monday during Calgary Stampede means the trail will likely be quiet on this hike. Bear awareness skills will be practiced to inform wildlife of my presence and a card has been left in the window of the car at the Ribbon Creek parking area with destination and departure time in the unlikely event rescue or recovery is required. This is normal procedure for hiking solo.
Departure from the Nakiska Mid-Mountain Day Lodge hikes down the road to a primitive road, hosting a partial view of Mount Collembola, which heads north from the hairpin turn around a small meadow on the hillside. Along the roadside through forest, wildflowers are prolific. The road appears to end abruptly at a small meadow where there is a vertical pipe in the ground with a fluorescent red pole sticking out of it. At the edge of the meadow the sound of running water is clear and peering through the trees reveals a creek and an old primitive, log bridge. This is the west end of Marmot Basin Trail.
The primitive road curls to the left and immediately arrives at the badly damaged most westerly bridge requiring a short and easy scramble down the bank, over what little remains of the bridge and up onto the other side. Throughout the hike there is dead fall across the trail periodically. Some of it can be scaled and some requires surprisingly challenging off trail routing around the obstacle.
Within a short distance the primitive, wooden pole bridge is covered with moss and damaged but the ancient bridge has held firm and sustained limited damage and can be crossed easily. The wide path beyond these two bridges is getting rapidly overgrown and there is no evidence of human traffic. There are frequent signs of bear scat and plenty of deer poop. Every time deer poop is encountered there is an overwhelming urge to write a letter.
The trail is magnificent and lush. Horsetail is prolific and brilliant green in damp areas. After a longer and thoroughly enjoyable shallow descent through lush forest on spectacular, virtually unused trail, the next trail interruption reveals itself. This breach is larger and scant remains of the bridge are of limited use for crossing. Hanging on to the top of the bridge assista wading across the creek. Creek flow is manageable and it is straightforward to walk in ankle high leather hiking boots through the more shallow spots to a fairly obvious scramble up the other side.
Excellent, lush green hiking on wonderful trail in a shallow descent continues and mountains in the far distance, on the east side of Kananaskis Valley, begin to peek over the top of the surrounding forest canopy.
Many riverbank edges are undercut and continue to collapse. It is expedient to be careful, and aware of what is underneath where feet at landing next to watercourses everywhere in the park.
The next breach in the trail appears to have been a road crossing. Two of the metal culverts remain in place. They are full of rock and transporting very little water because the cascading creek has washed surrounding soil away. There is a beautiful catch basin containing, fresh, cold mountain water.
There appears to be two reasonable crossings on the cascading creek. Neither is ideal, but with care, and grabbing the ends of the isolated metal culverts allows me to lift myself through the water by wedging my boots into somewhat stable underwater crevices. The wet rocks are very slippery. There is a relatively flat area at the top of a cascade ledge to finish the crossing with a scramble up the bank to the continuation of road. One photo is taken looking back before continuing down the road.
This is the first place evidence of a few human footsteps are encountered. Some hikers have come in this far from the traditional trail-head. Bear poop is prolific so plenty of noise is appropriate. Bear bells may be useless. The human voice seems to be the most effective deterrent. Near running water, it is important to call loud and often. The sound of the running, cascading water masks the hearing of wildlife as much as it does our own hearing. Due diligence will reduce the possibility of surprise encounters which can never be completely predictable.
Continuing down the road it becomes obvious water flow has breached the creek banks and used the road as an alternative path. Navigation is more complex along the edges or center column of the deeply rutted road.
Bear scat - not recent.
Previous water flow down the road eventually finds it way back to the original creek path on the left of the trail and the road returns to normal easy hiking in a beautiful meadow. The worst appears to be over. That wasn't too bad.
Hiking east along the stony road, the creek on the left is gradually converging towards the road. Soon the creek has obviously once again shared the road to transport large volumes of water. Marmot Creek handles huge water volumes from the cirque through a narrow draw between two steep ridges.
Additionally, there are smaller drainages from both sides of Marmot Creek. At one drainage, a major collapse of forest has washed tons of rock and lumber debris into the creek. The waterway and the road have joined once again and the route is littered with seemingly impenetrable debris. Trees have tumbled from edges and moss canopies have been torn apart and devastated.
What began as a potentially challenging hike has become a hand-to- hand combat, praise the Lord and pass the ammunition, full-scale war. This is going to be fun. By hiking the trail in reverse direction it is too late to retreat and motivation is high to solve this puzzle and complete the mission.
Navigation includes simple route finding, scrambling over fallen and tangled timber, crawling on wet sand through dead branches prolific with Old Man's Beard. The environment hosts fungus, mold, mildew and pollen. Seldom does it ever get this good.
In the following photos, you may see great beauty in the devastation. One vision, towards the end of the following photo section, catches the attention. A tiny moss garden thrives atop a huge boulder swept completely bare except for the small, intricate patch on top where the moss held firm in the devastating flood water flow. Can there be a greater symbol of hope, perseverance and tenacity in the face of adversity? Today, it is quiet and tiny, delicate plants with small flowers bloom within the tiny patch of moss.
Of the hundreds of photos taken on this hike. the little patch of moss becomes the favorite and most inspiring to get busy and finish the journey.
The creek and the old road join or cross paths several times in the next kilometer. Water passage is achieved by simply wading across the creek. Once a boot takes a bit of water. No need to empty. The cool water is refreshing. This is real hiking now. Suck it up, buttercup!
One of the concerns was the ability to hike this trail before trail crews get in to fix it. There is likely no rush. The devastation here is humbling and palpable. A flood-created, small rock dam has helped to push the remaining breach of water back to its correct course along the creek. There is evidence of more civilized surface on the approach to the trail junction with the Skogan Pass Trail.
There is a trail sign at the junction of the Marmot Basin Trail with the Skogan Pass Trail. The hike proceeds a very short distance to investigate and confirm Marmot Creek at the Skogan Pass Trail crossing has been repaired.
The Katadyn bottle is filled and emptied a couple of times with the crystal-clear, cold water from Marmot Creek before the final stretch back to Ribbon Creek parking.
The road shortcut to Nakiska Main Lodge links with Hidden Trail to Ribbon Creek parking and expedites the completion of this fantastic hiking mission.
Along the rapid descent there are grand views across Kananaskis Valley to mountains on the other side of Kananaskis Valley and spring flowers on the downhill ski runs are prolific in the foreground.
Another hiker has not been seen all day. The reverse direction Marmot Basin hike has been an outstanding experience.
As far as the impulse decision to hike the trail in reverse, that was a gift. If the trail had been hiked normally, it is likely the mission would have been aborted at the first road breach past the long stretch of remarkable flood devastation. By doing the trail in reverse, too much distance had been achieved to consider retreat. The motivation is high to deal with the adversity and get the job done using a healthy portion of skill sets accumulated over a lifetime. For me, this is about as good as it gets.
The Marmot Basin hike may not be a season opener in either direction. Hikers with route finding and off trail bushwhacking experience will find the mission more comfortable and enjoyable. It is not an easy hike. Beginners will benefit from having a guide or experienced and understanding hiker with them.
This will undoubtedly become one of many outstanding and favorite memories. The hike illustrates the power of flood water. The weather enjoyed was as close to perfect as it can be. This opportunity was a great and enduring gift.
Photographs for this hike of Marmot Basin Trail were captured on the hike from Nakiska Mid-Mountain Lodge to Ribbon Creek parking in Kananaskis Country west of Calgary, Alberta, Canada on Monday, July 6, 2015.