Monday, June 28, 2010

An inspiring Rocky Mountains hiker, 80 years young

Hikers in the Tonquin Valley, Jasper National Park, July 1966.
“The race is not always to the swift, but to those who keep on running.” From a Nike poster in a Runners’ World store.

My daughter says that Nike’s message applies just as well to those who keep on walking. I am encouraged to think so because I might be the slowest power walker you’ll ever see.

The Nike poster and my more than 800 kilometres of walking so far this year have turned my thoughts to an 80-year-young man whom Joan and I met hiking with the Skyline Hikers of the Canadian Rockies in 1966.

At the time, I thought of him as an 80-year-old man. But that was 44 years ago. Now, in my 80th-year, I know better. Age, as the adage goes, is nothing more than mind over matter: if you don’t mind it, it doesn’t matter.

I want to tell you about the week we spent hiking with the Skyline Hikers in the Tonquin Valley of Jasper National Park, and how the 80-year-young man played leapfrog with other hikers. But first I should tell you something about the Skyline Hikers.

In the 1920s, Canadian Pacific Railway established the Skyline Trail Riders of the Canadian Rockies for its adventuresome guests at the Banff Springs Hotel, Chateau Lake Louise (still the gems of Rocky Mountain resorts) and other CPR hotels and lodges in the Rockies. Members were taken on guided horseback tours and camp outs in the four adjacent national parks in the Rockies: Banff, Jasper, Yoho, and Kootenay.

More pedestrian souls (who are actually more adventurous) wanted something similar for hiking. In 1933 the Skyline Trail Hikers, as it was then called, held its first outing. They had much to explore: some 2,000 miles of trails in the four mountain parks to choose from. Trails over some of the higher passes are still clogged until about the end of June, generally limiting hiking across these to July through October.

In 1961, the CPR terminated its sponsorship of the Hiking club, which continued as a volunteer, “non-profit organization that now offers five one-week camps each summer in various locations in the Rockies,” the Hikers’ web site states.

The fact that the Hikers outfit is still going strong after 77 years while the Riders’ organizations seems to have disappeared perhaps says something about the appeal of hiking and the endurance of hikers.

At first, the hikers stayed in teepees. In 1970, a switch was made to “prospector style tents,” accommodating up to four hikers each. In our 1966 outing, we had the pleasure of enjoying the teepees.

The Tonquin Valley lies a short distance west of the town of Jasper. With its towering Mount Edith Cavell, spectacular Rampart Mountains and sparkling Amethyst Lakes, it is one of the most breathtaking sites in the Rockies. Accessible only by foot or horseback, it is a popular destination for hikers.

There were about 40 of us assembled in various hotels and lodges in Jasper for the Tonquin Valley hike that early July week in 1966. In preparation, some of us limbered up with short walks or hikes from the town. We were bused to a lodge that marked the end of a side road and the trailhead for the hike up the Tonqiun Valley. It was an 11-mile hike to the base camp. Outfitters carried in our sleeping bags, teepees, food and other supplies and equipment on pack horses. We hikers had to tote only light packs for rain gear and lunches.

Our family did a lot of day hikes in the Rockies when we lived in Calgary. We also know the joys of carrying backpacks loaded with sleeping bag, pup tent, tiny stove, cooking utensils and food for a three- or four, or five-day hike. It’s so much easier letting someone else carry it all in on pack horses and do all the cooking. And the meals are haute cuisine compared with the lightweight dehydrated grub that is the staple of backpackers.

Breakfast at the base camp was early each morning. We then assembled in about three different groups, some heading out for short leisurely hikes, others for longer, more arduous hikes. Joan and I usually chose the longer hikes. So did the 80-year-young man.

In the evenings, we gathered around campfires for songs and tall tales. A park warden came joined us one evening to regale us with tales of his encounters with grizzly bears in the Tonquin Valley. Perhaps grizzlies saw us, but I didn’t see any of them during our week.

But I had started to tell you about the 80-year-young man who played leap frog with the other hikers in our group. He was not a fast walker, but he was not a stopper. Our group would get well ahead of him for about 90 minutes, until we all sat down on rocks or logs for a rest break. Invariably, he would catch up, and then get ahead of us. That’s how it went every day.

I mentioned to him one day that I supposed he must have been hiking in the mountains most of his life. No, he said, he hadn’t started until after he had retired.

I won’t be playing any leapfrog with the young runners and speed walkers on the 42 K marathon on September 26. They will all leave me out of sight, they won’t stop for rests, and I’ll never see them again. But like my 80-year-young friend, I’ll just “keep right on ‘till the end of the road.”

1: I photographed this couple in the Tonquin Valley on our 1966 hike with the Skyline Hikers of the Canadian Rockies.
2: With Mount Edith Cavell for a backdrop, this chalet stood at the end of a road and the start of the trail up the Tonquin Valley. Edith Cavell was a British First World War heroine and Red Cross nurse. Arrested by the Germans for helping some 200 Allied prisoners escape to neutral Holland, she declined to deny the charge and was executed.
3: On day one, hikers walked 11 miles to the base camp, with light packs to carry lunch and rain gear.
4: Outfitters hauled teepees, food and supplies to the base camp on pack horses.
5: A pair of teepees at the base camp.
6: By the time this rest break was over, the old timer had caught with and passed our group.
7: Lupines growing wild in the Tonquin Valley rival the beauty of cultivated flower gardens.
8: Amethyst Lake and the Rampart Mountains.
9: Joan must have taken this photo. That’s me in the yellow hat. Big Show Off, with his bare feet in a cold mountain stream, trying to help hikers cross a log bridge.

TAGS: Exercise endurance. Inspiration. Seniors. Skyline Hikers of the Canadian Rockies. Rocky Mountains. Walking. Hiking. Tonquin Valley. Amethyst Lake. Edith Cavell.

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