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ADVENTURING IN ATHABASCA PASS COUNTRY

Author: Lynn Martel

The Canadian Rockies are Lynn’s nirvana, for backcountry adventures, exquisite wilderness and intriguing stories. She’s published two books of adventure, hundreds of articles and nine biographies of dynamic mountain personalities. Lynn is constantly exploring by backpack, keyboard and camera.

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Well into our second day on the 49 km (30 mi) trail from the Moab Lake trailhead to Athabasca Pass, deep in the Jasper National Park backcountry, we stop at a glacial creek to temporarily trade our hiking boots for river sandals. Anticipating chilly water, we’re still grinning. Years of backpacking experience has prepared us for this bucket list adventure, and we couldn’t be happier.

So far, we have seen fresh wolf, grizzly and moose tracks, crossed braided river flats and passed remains of old trappers’ cabins nestled in moss-blanketed forests, giant peaks looming high above.

We began our adventure by driving 19 km (12 mi) south of Jasper on Highway 93A, then on the Moab Lake Road for 7 km (4.5 mi) to the parking lot. Hoisting our packs, we were well prepared. Summer days in the Canadian Rockies can be delightfully warm, but nights can bring fresh snow. A three-season tent, down sleeping bags good to -7 C (19 F) and multiple clothing layers, including a cap, gloves and rain gear, are necessities. So are bear spray, strong cord to hang your food, and topographical maps.   

Living History  

Half-way through your first day, you’ll pass Tie Camp Campground, so named because in the early 1900s timber harvested there was floated downstream on the smoky blue Whirlpool and Athabasca rivers toward Jasper townsite to be made into railway ties.

This story is but one of numerous living reminders of those who travelled through history on this often rough and unmaintained trail. 

The first European to follow this route over Athabasca Pass was the legendary fur trade explorer, David Thompson, led by Thomas the Iroquois, in 1811. They walked on snowshoes through frigid January cold with dogs pulling their supplies on sleds.

From the top of the pass, they descended through thick forest down Pacific Creek to the Wood River to where it meets the Columbia River. That route served as the major fur trade route linking Canada and the Oregon country until the mid-1850s. 

Rugged Route Promises Adventure

While hardy backpackers can retrace that journey, there is no road access at the west end. You can arrange for pick up by logging ferry, float plane, helicopter or private boat, but you’ll land a six-hour drive from Jasper. Like most, we opted to retrace our hike back to the Moab Lake trailhead.  

If you are enamoured with true wilderness, camping a few nights at Kane Meadows is an experience you’ll cherish for life. Named for 19th century artist Paul Kane, it’s a tranquil launch pad for exploring.

And you’ll be smitten by the Committee’s Punchbowl, a pair of jewel-toned lakes at the crest of Athabasca Pass nestled below massive glaciated peaks. It feels like discovering precious treasure. Marking the divide between the Pacific and Arctic watersheds, a National Historic Site of Canada plaque explains the reference to the London Committee of the Hudson’s Bay Company. There’s no better spot to cool off from summer heat!

Crawling into my sleeping bag on our last night, my ears perked. Far in the distance, a wolf howled. It was magic. I felt completely transported, not just into untamed wilderness, but through time itself.

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