My husband and I met through our mutual
interest in the outdoors. Now that our kids are getting older, having the chance
to do a longer trip together each of these past few summers has been wonderful.
Please don’t misunderstand me –I’ve taken great pleasure in the many hikes,
canoe trips and ski tours we’ve done with our kids. It’s just that, besides the
evident chance to reconnect as a couple, it’s a treat to think only about
organizing ourselves, and not to worry about logistics and gear for teenagers.
They have their own summer agendas these days, and are happy to take a break
from their parents!
We wanted to do a multi-day trip, and
were considering the Alexander Mackenzie Heritage Trail. The travel time
involved and the results of our inquiries had deterred us; the mosquitoes were
likely to be bad in July. We decided to try the Stein Traverse, having purchased
maps a few years earlier, and tucked them away “for future reference”. Our son,
16, might have joined us, but when he decided against this we quickly realized
that his newly-minted driver’s license would come in handy for ferrying parents
to the trailhead. Little did we know about the conditions of the Lizzie Lake
road! The most stressful moment of our trip was watching him depart to drive
solo back to Vancouver.
Day One: July 15th 2003
After a mid-morning departure from
Vancouver, and a leisurely lunch in Emerald Heights, it was afternoon by the
time we started up the Lizzie Lake road. My husband, Chris, eased our Subaru
through the gullies left where culverts had been removed when the logging road
was decommissioned. The car bottomed out often, and smoke began to pour from the
clutch. The only other vehicle we saw was a high-clearance SUV, with a lower
gear than we had. It made it to the lake, but only very slowly and with
difficulty. We decided to start our hike about 4 km below the lake, aware that
we had already done some damage to a fairly new car!
We watched our car recede, with our son
at the wheel.
This was a defining moment; we were off at last! As we trudged up
the road past the lake and entered the woods, we congratulated ourselves on
managing to keep our pack weights to about 20 kg each. Mine weighed about 1 kg
less than Chris’s.
No luxuries, but we had food for 10 or more days. We climbed
gently to a campsite just below the Lizzie Lake Cabin, and settled ourselves for
the night. Darkness came quickly, since we were in a narrow valley.
I slept poorly. Had our son returned
safely to Vancouver? Although we had used friends to set up a system of checks
and balances covering various eventualities, I would not know for certain
whether he was safe until we returned to Vancouver ourselves, over a week later.
We were well beyond cell phone range. What had we forgotten, and would the
omission turn out to be critical? And were two fifty-year-olds foolhardy to
undertake a trip like this?
A grey light filtered through the trees.
The day was overcast as we hiked the short distance to the cabin. We chatted to
the two women who were in residence, and noticed several tents pitched in the
clearing just beyond it. “Here’s your last chance!” I said to my husband on
spotting an A-frame outhouse with a view. He installed himself comfortably, and
I took an indiscreet photo. The family sense of humour prevailed, as I captured
“Dad’s morning routine.”
We shouldered our packs and began our
climb into the alpine. As the trees thinned, I started to forget the cares of
home, and to eagerly anticipate the adventure ahead. There was some trail
confusion as we left the cabin, and when we reached a lake which we recognized
as Long Lake, we realized that we were off route. We traversed across tundra
till we were ascending the correct drainage. Continuing, we passed Iceberg Lake,
skirted Cherry Pip Pass, and began to traverse below Tundra Peaks toward the
divide west of Tundra Lake. Although we were following the evident route as
marked by small cairns, our GPS was telling us that we were well away from the
route as marked on our map, so we realized that our map showed only the
approximate route position. We camped near one of the last clumps of trees, not
far below the Tundra divide.
The day dawned beautifully clear;
breakfast with a view! After airing our sleeping bags - I am a great fan of
airing- and scrambling to retrieve a spoon from a creek, we continued up to the
divide, and looked down on Tundra Lake. The lake is impressive, but I looked
with some dismay at the route around it which crossed snow, steep heather and a
jumble of boulders. “It’s going to take us four hours to the end of the lake,” I
observed somewhat glumly to Chris.
We moved carefully across a steep snow
patch and onto rocks, as we began this next section. We were glad to have our
new trekking poles -we each use a single one- which we shortened and held ready
in steeper places as we crossed the snow, in case we needed to self-arrest.
continued across boulders, heather, and patches of snow which bore our weight
only some of the time. Near the east end of the lake we enjoyed a glissade, then
climbed again to the low ridge near the lake’s outlet. My assessment had been
pretty accurate -it had taken us four hours to travel two challenging kilometres.
From here, our map showed both a high
and a low route to the ridge. We had hoped to take the low route as it showed
less elevation gain and loss, but after an hour of searching we still hadn’t
managed to find it. We started up a steep patch of snow on the high route,
which we could see clearly. After the scramble around the lake, my middle-aged
body was protesting, and we could see that there wasn’t much camping potential
between where we were and Stein Lake. Although it’s wasn’t yet late, we set up
our tent near an alpine tarn, and, with a good view back across the divide
toward Caltha Peak, we cradled hot drinks and rested our old bones. Examining
the route ahead, we could see the odd cairn leading across snow patches, but it
wasn’t clear exactly where or how we would finally scramble onto the ridge
itself. We were glad we didn’t have to tackle the next section till the morning.
A cloudless day for a ridge walk!
Starting early, we crossed snow slopes, some of which offered a fair bit of
exposure. Nervous, I shortened my trekking pole and held it in both hands. I
faced the slope and kicked directly into it as I traversed. We could see the
last scramble onto the ridge: a short gully with a bit of loose rock, but
nothing serious. We reached the ridge by mid-morning, and felt exhilarated by
our accomplishment and by the views in all directions. I remember thinking we’d
broken the back of this hike. No turning back now!
The ridge walk was exhilarating. We
could see Stein Lake almost a thousand metres below us, and we stopped for lunch
at the highest point, with a view of tiny Poppet Lake. We descended the east
shoulder of the ridge carefully, through dry, open forest. You would have
thought the descent would be easy, but there was loose rock underfoot, and as we
got lower we had to scramble under and over blowdown. Our water supply was
running low, and I was thirsty, hot and tired when we reached the new cable
crossing a kilometre below the outlet of Stein Lake. We filled our bottles,
drenched our hats, and walked slowly to the campsite by the lake’s outlet,
looking forward to a good rest.
We set up our tent without the fly, and
domesticity prevailed as we washed ourselves and our clothes. This felt like
civilization; there was a metal bear cache and a plastic “throne” outhouse. It
was here that we noticed coins and small jewelry items which appeared to have
been deliberately lodged in tree crevices, though we didn’t as yet understand
their significance. We slept well.
We slept in and had a leisurely pancake
breakfast, spending the morning sitting in the sun on the log jam. We had
planned to rest for a full day at the lake, but the insects made this a less
relaxing option than we had imagined. By the afternoon we felt rested, so we
pressed on toward High View Camp. Progress was slower than we had expected, due
to blowdown across the trail. We crossed the Stein River again, one at a time,
using an old cable crossing which looked like a Boy Scout construction. Despite
appearing rickety at first glance, closer inspection revealed it to have been
As we approached High View, we entered a
recently burned area. Charring was still evident and, in addition to a profusion
of wildflowers, blueberry and huckleberry had grown up in profusion since the
fire. This was bear country, and the evidence was everywhere! We blew our
whistles as loudly as we could whenever we were about to enter a bushy section,
and I realized with some concern that I had dropped my bear banger somewhere on
the ridge, so we had only one left between us. I far preferred to make a foolish
racket than to surprise a bear at close quarters.
We reached High View, aptly named as it
sat above a canyon, and set up camp at dusk. Early during the night, there were
rustlings in our tent vestibule. I was very tired, so I elbowed Chris and asked
him to “deal with it.” He reminded me that our food was safely cached, made
small attempts to scare whatever it was by banging his hand on the tent wall,
and muttered, “Mice!” Then he went back to sleep.
A packrat had gnawed most of the padded
cuff of one of my boots! I remembered dealing with these gnawing, thieving
fellows in cabins in the Rockies, but I hadn’t been thinking about that the
previous night. At home, I consulted field guide to find that this “bushy-tailed
woodrat” (Neotoma cinerea) makes nests in cliffs. We were camped near a
rock face, so I can only assume our nocturnal marauder had a nest in a nearby
crevice. These creatures also like to carry off various items that they find,
taking them home to increase the size of their “middens”. I was relieved that
our visitor found my boot too large to carry.
We gathered local berries for our
granola, and hiked on. On the outcroppings near Lookout Camp, some exuberant
trail crew had entertained themselves by constructing a large collection of
cairns which stood like sentinels above the canyon. We continued to Log Jam
Camp. The midday heat had taken its toll, so we unrolled our thermarests for a
siesta before setting up camp. We stowed our boots in the bear cache along with
our food, but our trekking poles remained outside, as we could not imagine they
would be tempting to animals.
The webbing strap on the handle of
Chris’s pole had been chewed off and was nowhere to be found. The packrats had
carried it away, probably attracted by the sweat. Another lesson for us. We
were underway a little earlier than the previous day, in an attempt to do most
of our hiking before it got too hot. There was still quite a bit of bear sign as
we progressed, but we also began to notice recent signs of cougar, and found an
old deer kill. The visibility was good in this open forest, and we weren’t
We crossed Scudamore Canyon one after
the other using another old cable crossing, swooping high above the torrent, and
hiked on to Cottonwood Falls. At Cottonwood there was a new cable crossing. Once
across, Chris decided to hike up Cottonwood Canyon to a viewpoint above the
falls, while I opted for a rest and a leisurely wash.
The heat was oppressive as
we neared Lytton, and we rested again further along. Three young mergansers were
playing in the current, swimming upstream close under the bank below us, then
allowing themselves to be swept downstream …a game they repeated. We continued
to Ponderosa shelter, where we rested and prepared for an early night. We were
planning an even earlier start the next morning. We were still about 21 km from
the trailhead, but our progress was getting faster, because there was less blowdown than in the upper valley. In this heat, the prospect of ice cream in
Lytton was a strong incentive to finish our trip the next day.
We managed to get underway by 6:00 a.m.,
and we reveled in the cool temperature which had made our early rising
worthwhile. We had been on the trail for about half an hour, when I heard my
husband, who was just ahead, say, “Oh …hello!” in a calm, English voice. I
looked up, expecting to see another hiker –we hadn’t seen a soul since Lizzie
cabin- but instead I saw a brown bear on the trail about 10 metres ahead. It had
stopped in its tracks and was staring at us. Momentarily frozen, I watched Chris
fumble for something and assumed he was reaching for his bear banger –the only
one we had left. To my dismay, I realized that he was reaching for the camera!
This would NOT have been my first choice just then and, to my growing
consternation, he took a photo without suppressing the flash in the early light.
The bear reacted to the flash by snorting in surprise and tossing its head. I
began an artificially calm, one-sided conversation with the bear: “It’s OK Mr.
Bear. We’re just going to back up slowly onto these rocks and move well off the
trail so you can mosey along. We’re both backing up now, so you really don’t
need to get upset. We’ll put down our packs so you can stop to look at them if
you decide to come towards us.” I backed up awkwardly, moving off the trail and
removing my pack as I continued my chatter. I was emphasizing the “we” in my
monologue in an effort to encourage my husband to do as I was doing! Within
seconds, the bear had turned and bounded away up the slope. After a few
moments - during which I think I gave my husband a piece of my mind about his
priorities- we continued.
When the tense moment was over, I
realized there were advantages to having captured a picture of the bear. First,
it allowed us to do some later investigation at
http://www.fwp.state.mt.us/bearid/ , and to positively identify our subject
as a young grizzly –a first for us. Second, we can show it to you so you know
this isn’t a “fish story.”
We travelled along a flatter section of
the river beside slow-moving backwaters. In a marshy section, we saw lizards
scampering under and over logs. I understand that there is only one species of
lizard found in BC, and its range is limited to the warmest parts of the
province. We had definitely entered the hot, dry Interior, and the contrast with
the climate and vegetation at our starting point was striking. Maybe nearby
Snake Bluffs was named because other cold-blooded creatures were common here. I
watched my step.
The valley narrowed again, and the river
had gathered to boiling rapids as we crossed the new suspension bridge which had
recently replaced an old cable crossing. Just beyond the bridge, we began to
notice culturally modified trees from which cedar bark had been harvested
for basket-making by local First Nations People. The cuts were thickly
calloused, since bark hasn’t been gathered since the early 1900’s. We also found
many rock paintings along cliff bases, legacies of a rich First Nations
It was as we neared these that we began to meet hikers who had entered
the Stein from its eastern trailhead, either for the day or for a night or two.
The experience of speaking to other humans felt strangely new, after a week with
just us two. We must have looked trail-worn;
people we met looked at our packs
and inquired where we’d started from.
Nearing the trailhead, we chatted with a
large extended family group as we examined a last rock face with many paintings.
Here, too, there were coins and trinkets placed in crevices, and their role as
offerings became clear to us. The spiritual importance of the valley to the
people of the Lytton Band became apparent to us as we travelled this lower
portion. We chatted with the family group as we walked the last few hundred
metres together. At one point they asked if we wanted to pass them, but we were
in no hurry. Our journey had tested our bodies and renewed our spirits. Ice
cream still beckoned, yet somehow the end seemed to have come too quickly.
IF YOU GO:
This is trip for experienced
You will need good route-finding skills, and some
mountaineering experience would be an asset.
Consider the isolation factor
We did not see another human for a week,
and had no means of communicating with the outside world. In hindsight, a larger
group or a satellite phone would have given us a much better margin of safety.
Do as we say, not as we did. The traverse is over 75 km long
We used “Stein valley: Heritage Guide
and Map”, published by Voices of the Earth Foundation and purchased
at MEC circa 1996-1998. The guide consists of two maps: West and East,
which are plastic-coated and appear to be at a scale of about 1:75,000. They
contain all the topographic information of an NTS map, and also show the
approximate position of the trail/route. They have cultural/historical
information on the reverse side. I believe the map is out of print, and no
longer available at MEC. I see it can be located at the Vancouver Public
To reach Lizzie Lake you need a 4WD
vehicle with a low gear and high clearance. Inquire about road conditions (rock
slides are common) before you go. Some information about the road may be posted
in the “trail update” at the BC Provincial Parks website below.
We had assumed it would be relatively
easy to find a ride to Lytton When we arrived, there were only half a dozen cars
in the parking lot. The large family group (three vehicles) we were with at the
end kindly drove us to Lytton, though it took some rearranging of passengers. We
returned to Vancouver by Greyhound bus. Check the schedule:
BC Provincial Parks
Chris prepared a Powerpoint presentation
of our trip. The intended audience was his non-hiker colleagues in Europe, which
is why some of the information given may seem stupidly obvious to local hikers.
You can view the slides, or download the full presentation at:
Our son made it home safely, despite the
fact that he had forgotten his wallet. We gave him a bank card, because the
clutch was smoking and the car was almost out of gas. The clutch finally gave up
the ghost eight months later. I winced as I paid the repair bill, but all
Chris said was, "That hike was worth it."