Kootenay Plains is an Ecological Reserve of fragile grassland surrounded by meadow and mountain perimeters in Bighorn Backcountry, Alberta, Canada.
There is an immediate sense of majesty surrounding the transition from winding highway bordered by mountains, lakes and rivers to the sudden serenity of pristine prairie grassland.
Although this is a designated rest day and accommodation transition day, after yesterday's aggressive schedule of horseback riding at McKenzie's Trails West and hikes at Windy Point Ridge, Windy Ridge Pond, Hoodoo Creek and Whitegoat Falls, there seems no alternative to stopping at the gated entrance to absorb the magnificent vistas across Kootenay Plains. Surrounding skies are creating a brilliant sunny corridor over golden grassland as surrounding mountains host canopies of dark and ominous cloud.
This is the accommodation change day from David Thompson Resort in Bighorn Backcountry to first-time accommodation at The Crossing in Banff National Park, Alberta, Canada. The personal commitment to give legs a rest will be challenged, first by the magnificent scenery stretched out before my eyes, and second, by unforeseen circumstance.
Areas of dry fescue grasslands surrounded by towering mountains are rare. They may be created by specific topography combined with perpetually repetitive wind and weather patterns. These unique anomalies have attracted animals and humans to establish traditional gathering and hunting places for thousands of centuries. Kootenay Plains extends south from the David Thompson Highway into the Siffleur Wilderness Area. All areas are vigorously protected and part of this region is set apart as a Stoney First Nations Land Allotment.
The commitment to avoid hiking this day is not significantly compromised by the decision to take a stroll around the flat, level, Kootenay Plains Cavalcade Group Campground gravel road. The entire loop cannot be much more than an easy kilometer or two. About a hundred meters into the casual walk, a young woman accompanied by an older woman are walking towards me.
Pleasantries are exchanged and walking objectives are shared. The older woman is wearing impressive native jewelry and speaks in a quiet, calm, almost spiritual manner which hints she may be of Aboriginal or Métis origin. She suggests departure from original plan to include walking along the top of the flat ridge across the back of the grassland area. After thanking them, the stroll continues with the intent to stick to the original plan. After all, given yesterday's hiking extravaganza, this is a well earned rest and relaxation day.
Nearing the shallow ridge on the far north side of the plain, it becomes obvious surrounding vistas would be substantially enhanced from the top of the ridge. It is a short transition from the gravel road to trail stretching east along the bottom of the ridge. There are several opportunities to access the top of the ridge but they are steep, slippery scrambles. Continuing east, the sketchy bottom trail swings left and reaches a junction. Straight ahead continues to *Two O'clock Creek*.
The curl left continues around the end of the ridge to another junction. Straight ahead will continue north to the impressive stretch of rock-climbing walls in the distance. Turning left leads to the top of the shallow ridge overlooking Kootenay Plains and surrounding mountains. Ascent is gradual and elevation gain is modest. The top of the ridge offers far superior views of surrounding forest and mountains. Vistas are panoramic and a gentle breeze aids the effort and enhances the ambiance.
A memorial plaque along the way honors the long and appreciated life of Donald 'Al' Astle who discovered 'The Marshmallow Tree'.
When Donald 'Al' Astle passed on May 22, 2014 at the age of 90, he left a legacy carried on by his loving wife and best friend Audrey; 7 children; 23 grandchildren and 18 great-grandchildren; as well as brothers Warren (Bud) and Boyd; and sisters Pearl and Dianne.
Grandchild Amy shares, 'When we were growing up, we went camping at Kootenay Plains every May long weekend and Grandpa would disappear into the woods. When he returned, he had all the grandchildren follow him to the 'Marshmallow Tree'. He told us the 'Marshmallow Trees' only grew at the campground and bloomed only when we visited. That’s why the plaque says he is the discoverer of the 'Marshmallow Tree'. And every time, the 'Marshmallow Tree' hosted enough for everyone to enjoy'.
The isolation from surrounding heavy weather, and rapidly moving cloud formations over surrounding mountains, is mesmerizing. It is like being in the quiet, central eye of a massive, slow motion hurricane.
About mid-way along the ridge, the same women met earlier near the beginning of the stroll on the gravel road are approaching again from the opposite direction. Within courteous and polite conversation I am told the Sundance Ceremonial Site is nearby and within easy approach.
I immediately enquire if there are any occupants currently using the site. The answer is 'No'. I ask about the suitability of my investigation and photography at the ceremonial site. It is suggested the choice to visit the sacred land would not be a problem. This is a huge opportunity that cannot be ignored to explore restricted land. The commitment to observe a non-hiking day vanishes into the Kootenay Plains breeze. Once again, we depart in opposite directions. Fate.
The hike continues west along the shallow ridge top with new enthusiasm and a more aggressive pace. The ridge contains a short dip through forest before the search for a reasonable path into Sundance Lodges. There are many trail options with no indication which may be correct or expeditious. Adjacent forest eliminates the possibility of finding open areas in massive areas of surrounding forest. Finally I pick a trail and follow path and road with the occasional easy bushwhack until exiting forest in what is very obviously the sacred, ceremonial land of Sundance Lodges. This is the culmination of a personal ambition which has haunted me for many years.
There are no photographs of Sundance Lodges in this post. Hundreds were taken and a few will be featured in a subsequent post providing more information about the significance of the land. One choice is to share the experience, and another is to protect the site from disrespectful people.
After departure from Sundance Lodges, the walk skirts the fenced area along David Thompson Highway. The parking area for Siffleur Falls, on the other side of the highway, is crowded with many vehicles including a couple of school buses. I am still enjoying sunlight when surrounding skies are nothing short of violent.
Back at the car near midday, there is a sensible need for a biffy break before continuing the relatively short drive west from Bighorn Backcountry into Banff National Park. There is a perfectly acceptable group campground washroom within a short distance from the car. It is very near where I met the two very important women who took a moment to provide the opportunity to enrich my day and my life substantially. Perhaps they held back the heavy weather as well.
Inside the bathroom there is a 'bear awareness' metal sign with a set of instructions which is always worthy of review when there is time to read. Signage is provided by Alberta Parks.
My casual stroll became a much longer adventure far beyond expectations.
The excursion into Sundance Lodges may be covered in a separate post.
*Two O'Clock Creek*.
In the mountains there are hundreds of creeks, streams and rivers, with many pertinent names, which could justifiably bear the name Two O'Clock. They are the specific water courses which carry runoff from high altitude heavy snowpack or glaciers, potentially year round with emphasis on spring, summer and fall. During this time, warm air heated by sunlight will increase melt, and subsequently water flow, which will increase the depth and speed of runoff water. Sometimes this melt will contain hazardous chunks of ice. The water flow often peaks around two o'clock in the afternoon. Experienced backcountry people will include this characteristic in their trip plans to avoid the added risk of attempting to cross, violent, dangerous water around two o'clock in the afternoon. Cross before, or after, but never near Two O'Clock.
The first half of the day has been grand and the plan for the rest of the day includes completing the relatively short commute from Kootenay Plains in Bighorn Backcountry to new accommodation at 'The Crossing', just north of Saskatchewan Crossing where the Icefields Parkway crosses the North Saskatchewan River west of the east middle entrance to Banff National Park, Alberta, Canada.