Maelys and I had seen Lightning Lakes a couple of times before, when hiking up Mount Frosty and Windy Joe, now it was time to trek across and get a different perspective…
In usual style, we arrived fashionably late, much later than we had hoped. It was around 3:30 and the Nordic skiers & snowshoers were making their way back to the car park. We had our head-torches though and the hike wasn’t going to be a long one, as the proposed campsite was only 7k away. It was around -8 during the day so we had wrapped up warm, and this was a perfect time to try out my new balaclava and gloves. We made our way straight across the frozen lakes which was great as this meant we could go in a straight, flat line, saving plenty of time. Maelys was steaming ahead of me leaving me slightly out of breath but this was OK, I was still “warming up”.
With no one else around, it was quite eerie. Our shadows were long on the white lake, and and our bodies were as 2 dots on a piece of paper. We were surrounded my dense forest, from the lake edge up towards the mountain tops. We felt a little exposed, literally (the wind was quite cutting) and figuratively. Someone or something could just as well be watch us from the lakes edge and we would have been none the wiser. My imagination was certainly working overtime, but this makes these kind of trips all the more exciting.
We left the lakes and moved to the summer trail once the sun was out of sight. We thought this a smart move as we didn’t want to find ourselves waist deep in some seriously cold water. With this move, the day got dark nearly instantaneously. It was OK as the trail was easy to follow but it was just a little creepy.
We got to the end of the second lake where the forest got thicker, surrounding the connecting creek. We came to some signs which confirmed that were were certainly where we thought we were, however there were some extra ones which didn’t really fill us with too much joy. One sign for a side trail said “Trail Closed – do not enter”. A second one that was pointing in the direction we were going suggested “Summer use only – Avalanche Risk”.
“Thanks for the heads-up Parks Canada” is what I thought. “Pricks”
The campsite was another 2k ahead, and as it was getting dark, wondering into avalanche areas wasn’t really a wise option for us. Seeing as there were no warnings as to “why” the second trail was closed, we opted to camp there instead.
We balanced over a snow-topped log bridge that crossed the creek and followed the trail for about 50 metres. We found a spot that had enough space to pitch a tent. It seemed strangely open part of the wood which prompted the question from Maelys “are you sure we’re not on top of a stream?”
“nah, I think we’re fine – look, we’re literally next to the path”. I checked my GPS and we looked suspiciously close to a creek. I kept quiet. We took off our gear and parked them on the ground. I looked around into the shadows of the trees, trying to see something, but there was nothing to see. Just snow and forest. My thoughts of being watched came back to me a little but I shook it off.
With this, we set the tent up. Maelys organised the inside once done as I went to fetch water from the creek. I crouched down to collect water and my searching eyes returned. It felt like an age for my pouch to fill.
As I turned back towards the tent, still crouched, my headlamp caught something in the snow. A shadow of a footprint. It was round and of a pretty fair size. There were no shoe prints around apart from our own. We were the first people here for a while. I came to the only conclusion anyone else would have; it couldn’t have been a dog, and the bears are hibernating. It must be a cougar or a lynx. With my imagination, I stuck with cougar. With this thought in my head, I swiftly made my way back to the tent. Again, I kept this to myself.
In the tent, wrapped up and warm we made way to cooking dinner and re-hydrating. Neither of us had drank much as my camel back had frozen shut. This was a relief as the temperature was dropping down to -18 and the temperature from the gas stove was very welcomed. We had done this over the last couple of trips. Knowingly dangerous, it felt like a necessity, especially in this cold. Fed and watered, Maelys checked the time, and it was only 7:30. We played a simple game in my notebook. We only played one. The first thing Noted was “this game is Boring, Boring, Chicken, Boring”. It was too cold for ink – I was writing in pencil.
With this, and the fact it was far too cold to be hanging out of a sleeping bad we both decided it was time to wrap up and try to sleep. In this quiet, we noises from outside. It was the trees. They were creaking, knocking and at the top, rustling in the wind. I made a comment that it was loud and I wasn’t a fan of it. Maelys’ response was “it’s OK, I’m used to it, from spending our summers in the Ardennes Forest – they were always noisy”. Logically, I knew that nothing was wrong, and that this is what trees do when they sway. But I couldn’t help but think about the cougar prints I saw along with the “people / animals” watching us from the lake side. We would never hear anyone… or anything with the noise that these creepy trees was making.
We huddled together all night. Cuddling wasn’t an option as we were tightly wrapped up in our own sleeping bags. This added some comfort to the night however I didn’t sleep too well. Maelys seemed to sleep much more than I but I was drifting in and out of sleep, moving to avoid the cold spots that I seemed to keep finding on the ground.
My spirits were lifted when I heard the first plane fly over. This served a reminder that although we felt far away from anything, ‘society’ was close (which I took comfort in on this occasion), and it also meant that morning would be soon approaching.
With first light, I was keen to get some breakfast on, although I wasn’t keen to unwrap myself in order to do it. Alas, I was keen to get going as soon as possible, cold or not cold. We got the food on and started to get ready in our very tight 2 man tent). Maelys had a problem. The contact lenses that she always puts in the side pocket of the tent, had frozen solid in their solution. There was no way that these were recoverable. So we decided to go ahead without them. We would just need to stick close, especially when going over the bridge. Without them, seeing was, well, difficult.
We rejoined the path and we went straight back onto the lakes to the car park. I felt something lift off me, to be walking out of that forest. For me, it was truly creepy. The shadows, the feeling of being watched and the footprints all added to the feeling. I told Maelys as we walked back about the cougar prints and how close we really were to the creek. She was gutted that she couldn’t see, to inspect the prints closer.
As we marched back we could help but smile (and squint in the cold wind). We had an uncomfortable evening sleeping in the woods and in the cold. Nothing else can make us feel more alive. The beauty that actually surrounds us and the luck that we are in this part of the world never gets old. We can’t help but appreciate what we have here. There was a sense of pride as we got closer to the car park and saw some day trippers and those Nordic skiers heading out for the day, as we returned from the woods with our packs on.
I did think that this would be the last winter camping trip of the season (it wasn’t) but I did vouch to get a better winter sleeping bag (yet to get) for at least a warmer night, and a bigger tent as … it’s just too small.
Finally, at the car, we could warm up and appreciate some of the modern things that makes being in this environment much more manageable. We head back to Vancouver, still cold but looking forward to a warm, cozy & quite night in.
Scott & Maelys
(Unfortunately I didn’t get many photos. It was cold so I didn’t want to stop too much and we were in a bit of a rush. Also the cold drained the batteries [including the unused spare] just as we got to camp)