My last thought before falling asleep after a long, cold day on the trail was “heaven is a lasagna of sleeping bags.”
At least that’s what my last thought was supposed to be. Instead, as I zipped myself into three layers of down-lined, thermal quilts, supported by two air mattresses in a finally-warm tent, rather than the sweet relief of rest washing over me, I realized I forgot to take out my contacts.
Irritated, and exposing myself to the freezing air outside of my nest, I unpacked the saline solution I’d packed in a small vial for this very purpose. I found it frozen solid.
“Idiot!” I said aloud.
Fortunately, I had brought a thermos to sleep with. The container’s contents represented the fruit of my waning patience from earlier that evening as I waited for a poorly-performing Whisperlite stove to do its work. Melting the saline solution was easy enough; not spilling the hot water all over my seal skin mitt and down sleeping bag was apparently more difficult.
And so instead of warm, delicious thoughts about my sleeping quarters resembling a layered pasta dish, my last utterance that night was a woeful: “What have I signed myself up for?”
The answer was a nine-day winter camping journey into the upper Athabasca Valley.
The next morning, having skied 15 km the day before to Athabasca Crossing from Sunwapta Falls, Zak Dunn-Allen, Josh Dunn-Allen, Grant Sikkes and myself gathered around a small fire pit. The fire was too small to provide much warmth or inspire much conversation, and from one look at the frozen bottle of whiskey Grant had brought along, we knew we better get moving.
Our destination was Columbia Lake, the headwaters of the mighty Athabasca River and the beginning of a 1,231 km journey its waters take before draining into the Peace-Athabasca Delta near Lake Athabasca. From there, the AthaB joins the Peace River to form the Slave River before discharging through the Mackenzie River system into the Arctic Ocean.
Because of the Athabasca’s hydrological importance, the excitement of my first backcountry winter camping trip and the Dunn-Allens’ idea that there might be interesting ice to climb back there, my desire to take part had overridden the only trip guarantees: extreme cold, tough trail breaking and endless chores.
Movement was the only reprieve from the freezing weather but travel was not easy. I had to conjure up my inner endurance athlete to make it through hours of shuffling skis in deep sugar snow while hauling a sled full of gear and food. By day two, Grant had named his sled ‘the pig.” At that point I had my own cynical mantras to keep rhythm with my ski strides.
“Death march, death march, death march,” I chanted, as I looked down at the snow. When I looked up, however, the beauty of the place would overcome me—the curves of a mostly-frozen river running through an open valley, surrounded by majestic peaks. Many moments on the trip were like that: a contrast of utter drudgery and total gratitude. One moment I would resent having to expose my fingers to the cold to undo a zipper; the next I would be eternally thankful for having brought along my “she-wee.” Seemingly small tasks such as dressing blisters, chipping ice out of ski bindings and perpetually thawing things became monumental chores. Everything seemed hard and the cold simply had no mercy. What kept me going forward was the river singing beside my tracks and the beckoning peaks that grew larger with every stride.
At the end of day three, after plowing through endless snow and performing awkward acrobatic maneuvers for several creek crossings, we reached base camp. Everyone launched into the litany of daily duties: stomping out a tent platform, digging out a fire pit, gathering wood, heating water. In the midst of the flurry of preparing for the night, I stopped. “Look up,” I said, and we paused for a moment to see the dusky alpine glow on Mount Columbia. At that moment, everyone knew we had arrived in a special place, a place visited by few. The spirit of big mountains saturated the atmosphere—the Twins Tower, Mount Columbia and Mount King Edward loomed above—and that evening the Dunn-Allen brothers launched into their familiar comedic banter and there was lots of laughter around the fire. I slept well, knowing that the next day I would not have to break camp and that I was only 10 kilometres away from the Athabasca headwaters.
On day five I woke up completely exhausted yet full of anticipation. Zak and I were going to Columbia Lake and leaving our heavy packs behind. The weather, compared to what we’d been experiencing thus far, was mild. Our exploration the day previous was marked by battling wicked winds, breaking through river ice and earning more blisters. Now we were going to where the Athabasca River waters are born. This is the beginning of a watershed which feeds an entire ecosystem of life, from the American dippers whizzing in and out of its mountain streams, to entire communities of plants along its winding course. Here begins the flow which ensures tens of thousands of people downstream can get fresh, clean water from their taps. On this last day of our pilgrimage, determination sped us along. Mount Columbia, the highest mountain in Alberta, was our guide, its impressive A-frame standing triumphant in the blue sky. A couple of kilometres from the lake the river flats began to crumple into unsorted glacial till until finally, on top of one of the moraines, there lay the frozen tarn. The lip of Columbia glacier hung high above. Zak and I stood there silent for some time, filled with reverence. I was also overcome by a feeling of guilt and dread, for although the Athabasca is the source of life for so many living things, I knew that these pure waters eventually end up polluted in oil sands tailing ponds. Living in a protected area, it’s easy take for granted how intact the ecosystem here is. With the downstream fate of these nascent water droplets, I almost wished that the Columbia glacier would stay frozen.
How much longer can we accept the sacrilege of the Athabasca River? When will Canadians take a stand for its waters? When will we, as a people, realize that water is a source of life, and not a resource? If more people could understand the fragility and the ferocity of the environment which surrounds the Athabasca headwaters, I think we could begin to appreciate the water we take for granted for the water which connects us all.