The Rockwall Trail Part 1: Paint Pots to Helmet Creek and Goodsir Pass

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Days one and two. I did this in July 2016 with Daphne, Helen G, Donna, Ron, Bill N, Jen and Rick. Rosemary and Paul were going to come but she injured her knee a few weeks beforehand hiking on Mont Blanc and had to cancel. They did the Alps, then later in the year Lake O’Hara, Scotland, Devon and Madagascar. Should we feel sorry for them?

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The Rockwall trail runs 55 km total between the Paint Pots and the Floe Lake trailhead, which are 13 km apart on Highway 93, aka the Banff-Windermere Highway in Kootenay National Park. Everybody knows about Banff, Jasper and Yoho but not many know about Kootenay. When we hear “Kootenay”, people think of places like Nelson, Kaslo and Creston, but that’s the Selkirk Mountains which are mostly igneous rock; this is definitely the Rockies and mostly sedimentary. Kootenay National Park does have the source of the Kootenay River, and has a wide variety of ecosystems from high alpine to the low and dry Columbia River valley – the claim is that it’s the only national park with both glaciers and cactus. The Rockwall is a 53 km long and 600 m high wall of, uh, rock. More specifically, it is a dolomite type of limestone known as the Ottertail Formation, from the Upper Cambrian period of about 500 million years ago.

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Castle Mountain photo by Ron

Six of us drove in two cars from Vancouver to Banff and overnighted at Castle Mountain Hostel, which has always been one of my favourites. Helen and Daphne and I drove into Banff to look for food, and found the town a bit of a madhouse. Many years ago when I spent a year in Banff it was busy but nothing like it is now – on the 2015 May long weekend I spent a couple of hours there for the first time in about 15 years and it was just as bad, but this was just a regular July Saturday evening. We found a place that was reasonably quick and not outrageously expensive, then headed back to the peace and quiet of the hostel. We saw a couple of black bears and mule deer on the drive back from Banff; what was probably the wildlife highlight of the entire trip was the grizzly bear we didn’t get to see, but which we’re told was hanging around the access road to the hostel that evening. Jen and Rick met us there the next morning, having overnighted in Canmore after spending several days at Mount Assiniboine.

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Trailhead photo by Ron. I have no idea what I’m looking at here.

We drove to the trailhead at the Paint Pots, dropped one car at the Floe Lake trailhead, and got our gear organised. More or less. I put my pack on and noticed that one end of the buckle on my hip belt was missing. I didn’t have a spare, but Helen knew she had one and, after digging through her car and then her pack, found it. I went to put it onto mine, to discover that the buckle on my belt had come loose and was attached to the other end. Okay, great start, and there will be more about equipment later. Anyway, this would be the longest day of the hike (15 km) but relatively the easiest for elevation gain. The trail begins by crossing the Vermilion River, which seems rather inaccurately named for its colour, until you see the Paint Pots.

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The Paint Pots are cold springs rising from a deposit of ochre mud of high iron oxide content. First Nations used the mud as pigment, and they were mined commercially early in the 20th century. Some old mining implements remain. The first kilometre of the trail runs through the Paint Pots before going into the woods and leaving about 99% of people behind.

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For half of the first day, the trail follows Ochre Creek to the Helmet-Ochre junction campsite where this log crosses Ochre Creek. This log didn’t look like much from the downtrail approach or in this photo (though Daphne doesn’t seem too sure here). But when we were sitting down having lunch we could see a definite crack on the bottom. I’ll have more to say about bridge and log crossings as this hike progresses. Observe also how both my pack and Daphne’s appear to be listing quite a bit to starboard. More will be said about that too.

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log crossing photo by Ron

While having lunch, I also noticed this wonderful patch of yellow saxifrage which was growing on the bank beneath the willows.

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Further along Helmet Creek was a small patch of arctic raspberry. It’s usually a plant of arctic or high alpine, so it was a bit surprising to find it at fairly low subalpine elevation. 

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The old bridge crossing Helmet Creek was washed out earlier in the season, and its replacement was completed four days before we hiked in. I’d been told that there was a log a bit further upstream that we could cross on, but we weren’t very keen on that and wading the creek didn’t look too appealing. We were relieved that this bridge was completed, though not all of us were happy to see a long and bouncy suspension bridge. And the approach at the far end wasn’t quite complete. Supposedly they completed it a month or so later.

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Helmet Falls warden station is just to the right here, and the campground is just across this log bridge. Yes, another one.

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This one is fairly wide, solid and stable, and it’s not far above a fairly harmless creek. But it’s rather long for a log bridge and offset from the banks which makes it look scarier than it should be. A handrail or at least a rope would really come in handy here.

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Helmet Falls was our home for the first two nights. It’s a very popular trail but it only seemed busy at the campsites.

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We never saw any porcupines on this hike but there are lots of stories. In the backcountry you make sure you take your boots and poles into your tent. They’re also notorious for chewing on sensitive rubber parts on vehicles, so if you park at a backroad trailhead in this region you wrap it in chicken wire. And then there are the outhouses. I read one blog about a hiker who discovered a porcupine in another outhouse on the trail, went to get a pole to try to evict it, and came back to find that the porcy had called in a friend for support. Luckily these campsites have more than one outhouse. The ones at Helmet Creek looked pretty new and were solidly built and completely enrobed in chicken wire. Chicken wire notwithstanding, they quality of the outhouses seemed to get worse as we went along.

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Late in the evening, I came back to the cooking area from my tent and found Daphne looking at something way up high over the mountain to the north. It looked like a light coloured tarp or balloon or something which slowly floated down from the sky before it disappeared into the trees. We watched for a while to see if it would reappear or if any more would appear, but nothing else happened. No, we don’t believe it was a UFO.

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With two nights at Helmet Creek, we took a day with lighter packs to wander up the side trail to Goodsir Pass. This trail leads to rougher routes further north into Yoho National Park to McArthur Pass and Lake O’Hara or down the Ottertail River. Goodsir Pass and back made a good day hike frpm the campground. Good view of Mount Goodsir, the highest peak in Yoho (below left).

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We found some very interesting rocks in Goodsir Pass, including this crashed Borg cube. The rocks here are a different formation, mainly late Cambrian shale and limestone of the McKay Group. Very sharp, known as “tearpants erosion”.

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Possibly including concretions or fossil clamshells (thanks to Jennifer G, and Ben Gadd’s Handbook of the Canadian Rockies, for geological knowledge)

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Maybe the weirdest thing was finding this growing out of the ground on the way back down from the pass. A really rare flower? It appeared to be fibre optic cable which was pretty firmly sunk into the ground; I pulled fairly hard and it didn’t move. There were the odd markers along the trail in the approaches to all the passes but no signage, and none of the signs would have been illuminated anyway. We’d like to think this was somehow connected with the UFO we didn’t see the night before but who knows.

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At the Helmet Creek warden cabin –  photo by Daphne

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Next part: over Rockwall Pass to Tumbling Creek, and more adventures.

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