Heli-Hiking in the Canadian Rockies
5 MIN READ
Vancouverite Georgia explores remote wilderness trails in the Canadian Rockies.
The chopping thump of the departing helicopter faded far into the distance, leaving a deep silence that was astounding. Standing on our own on top of that flat, grassy mountain ridge, it was hard not to feel the immensity of the wilderness surrounding us – and the isolation of being so far from everyday human activity.
Flying to remote ridges
We had landed in a windswept area called Dancing Bear, surrounded by a massive glacier with deep, icy folds that seemed to be slowly cutting itself through the snow. On the opposite side, gigantic mountain ranges layered themselves towards the horizon, providing breathtaking views as far as Wells Gray Provincial Park.
I was hiking with my co-worker Anjuli, a long time travelling buddy. The two of us – and our friendly guide, Erika – were the only people here. But a roughly assembled cairn showed that we weren’t the only heli-hikers who had ever visited. Since our Cariboo Lodge hosts had only just restarted their summer heli-hiking program, though, we were the first to stand on this spot in over a decade.
As we posed for photos alongside the cairn, I noticed a small white plastic film canister nestled between the grass and shale stones. It looked a little chewed up. I picked it up and handed it to Erika, thinking it was simply garbage. But it wasn’t.
Erika popped open the canister, finding a damp piece of paper inside. Peeling it apart, a list of names was visible under the heading “Heli-hiking 1998.” This tiny relic of a long-forgotten trip had sat undisturbed here for 20 years. It was a great reminder that we were about to embark on an experience very few people ever have.
Ready to start our hike, our small group stepped lightly downhill through mossy and heather-covered terrain. Low-growing plants dotted with purple flowers carpeted the landscape, providing a springy little crunch underfoot.
Walking through the wilderness
The hiking wasn’t difficult, but we moved slowly so we could stop and breathe it all in: a downhill wildflower meadow scattered with boulders, falling away to an alpine lake that butted sharply against a deeply-cragged cliff. And beyond that? The ever-present mountain sentinels, marching far into the distance.
As we walked, we listened for the high-pitched whistles of pikas and marmots, hoping to glimpse a brown furry tail or cute, gopher-like face. But these particular locals – being so unfamiliar with humans – steered well clear. At this altitude, Erika informed us, there’s not much animal activity. But she also pointed out large areas of clawed earth where hungry bears had tried to dig rodents from their burrows.
We took advantage of every moment. I felt exhilarated, but I also felt calm and relaxed – with none of my usual fear of missing out on a great experience. I had the growing realization that there really was no better place I could be in the world.
And then we jumped into the lake. Spotting an emerald-hued, glacier-fed pool ahead of us, Erika dared us to jump right in. I had just been thinking this looked like the clearest, most refreshing pool ever. But I also didn’t want to be wet and uncomfortable for the rest of the day. Then – quite suddenly – I realized: this is it! How many chances do you get in your life to do this!
I immediately started removing my gear so I couldn’t overthink it, and the girls quickly caught up. On the count of three, we all jumped, stumbling in over the rocks and trying not to slip as the icy cold snapped against our bodies, triggering a round of insuppressible shrieks.
I plunged in as far as my shoulders and kicked once in the water before the ache in my limbs from the cold became too much and I had to get out! It’s hard to pull yourself out of a lake when your limbs are frozen and you can’t stop saying “oh my god, oh my god.” But I found my way to a rock in the sun and caught my breath.
Returning to our hike – after drying-off in the 26-degree sunshine and refuelling on power bars – we spent the next few hours walking. Luckily, a damp sports bra is the perfect way to stay cool! Every step seemed more beautiful than the last, but I had to keep reminding myself to step away from the camera to see it with my own eyes: the wind rustling the fluffy alpine flowers that resembled Dr. Seuss characters – or as Erika dubbed them, ‘Tina Turner flowers’ (official name: Alpine Anemone).
Our helicopter pick-up was on a ridge just above another beautiful pool. This one was long and narrow, running along a glacier-carved path between two crags with pine trees on top. The water was somehow an even deeper turquoise hue than the first lake. Erika barely had to say a word before we were all back in the water. Either it was warmer or we had lost all feeling in our limbs by this point, but we ended up swimming from end to end and floating around as if we were in a swimming pool.
“This is it! How many chances do you get in your life to do this!"
Back in our clothes and feeling refreshed, we scaled a small hill to eat lunch amongst the heather. For the record: sandwiches always taste best when you’re eating them on a mountaintop.
Glaciers for days
After lunch, we hopped in the helicopter and soared towards our afternoon hike. Flying over the gigantic North Canoe Glacier, we were close enough to see into its massive crevasses. Hints of blue, glasslike ice could be seen beneath the veins of darker sediment and matte snow covering its surface. A dark black rocky peak was just visible at the top edge. I felt like I was flying over another planet.
We landed at a small lake, ducking our heads as we jumped out. Here, the glacier felt really close. Which is when we heard a sound like rumbling thunder, as an avalanche of ice and snow peeled from its surface. But the glacier was so massive that these calving pieces looked like nothing more than sand running down a hill. It’s easy to feel small in such vast surroundings – and there are few more powerful impressions you can have than that.
Fresh Tracks Canada offers a popular Ultimate Canadian Rockies Heli-Hiking Adventure tour for hikers of all abilities.