About 30 years ago, Gary Kuiken set off with a group of friends to hike to Mount Assiniboine. Three-quarters of the way up the trail, they were enticed by Marvel Lake and decided to camp there instead. Kuiken always wondered what he had missed.
Two years ago, he finally made it back to Mount Assiniboine and discovered the raw beauty of the peak known as the Matterhorn of the Rockies. This fall he is planning his third visit in what has become an annual trip for the Red Deer man who is an avid hiker and photographer.
Mount Assiniboine is located on the continental divide, on the border between British Columbia and Alberta. At 3618 metres, it is the highest peak in the southern continental ranges of the Canadian Rockies and its pyramidal shape has earned it the unofficial title of “Matterhorn” of the Rockies.
Although First Nations people had hunted in the area for centuries and were well acquainted with the mountain, the first recorded European visit occurred in 1893 when Robert Barrett came with guides Tom Wilson and George Fear. By 1920, the beauty of the area led to an organized walking tour that started in Banff along the Spray River and led to the Assiniboine Valley area.
Backcountry huts and campgrounds were built and a lodge was constructed in 1928 by Canadian Pacific Rail near Magog Lake in what is now British Columbia’s Mount Assiniboine Provincial Park. Today Mount Assiniboine entices visitors who are hoping to experience the beauty of the backcountry of the Rocky Mountains.
Mount Assiniboine Provincial Park does not have any roads and visitors must either hike or use a helicopter service to reach the area. The most common route is via Bryant Creek. From Canmore, you follow the Smith-Dorien Road to the Mount Shark parking lot where you can access the helipad or continue down the road to the parking lot located at the trailhead.
The first time Kuiken visited the area he backpacked in, but on his recent visits he enjoyed the helicopter trip.
“I don’t think flying in is cheating,” Kuiken said. “I go there to enjoy the scenic walks and to take photographs and I found the ten-minute helicopter ride to be an enjoyable alternative to the 28-km uphill climb with a loaded pack. There are plenty of other hikers who use the service to transport their gear up the mountain. The hike in is a lot easier if you don’t have a heavy pack to contend with.”
Once in the provincial park, Kuiken typically camps or uses the backcountry huts. “The camping area is well set up,” he explained. “There are nice campsites with metal lockers to store food and there’s a brand new cooking shelter at Magog Lake Campground. I typically travel in the fall, and I use the backcountry huts when it snows. If you don’t like camping, there is also the Mount Assiniboine Lodge, a backcountry lodge that offers an all-inclusive experience that includes gourmet meals, a real bed, hot showers, and a sauna.”
On many mornings, Kuiken is up before the sun getting his camera gear set up and positioned to catch the view of the sun coming up over the mountains.
“It is such a beautiful place and every time I go there, I can’t help marvelling at the raw beauty of nature,” he said. “To be surrounded by these massive peaks with no roads and no other development is awe-inspiring. If you are lucky and the sun hits the mountains just right, you will see the alpine glow. It’s worth getting up for.”
Days at Mount Assiniboine Provincial Park are relaxed and casual. There are many wonderful trails in the area and fantastic photo ops to enjoy. Kuiken likes to keep his schedule open.
Some days he will head to the Assiniboine Lodge to enjoy afternoon tea. Visitors are welcome at the lodge for afternoon tea and cakes and it is a good chance to relax and to visit with other campers and lodge guests. “Afternoon tea is served in the lodge dining room at a nominal fee for hikers and campers,” he explained. “I usually meet interesting people and the tea and cakes are delicious.”
Part of the fun of visiting Mount Assiniboine comes in the form of the people you meet. Visitors to the area come from all walks of life and Kuiken has met some interesting people while camping in the park.
“You meet a lot of people from different walks of life,” he said. “The area attracts many artists, musicians, poets, and photographers who are interested in capturing some of its beauty. I’ve also met doctors and lawyers and students. On my first trip, I really enjoyed spending time with a couple of guys from Vancouver who reminded me of the movie Grumpy Old Men. One was a lawyer and one was an architect and they hike to a different place together every year.”
In the end, it is the raw beauty of Mount Assiniboine Provincial Park that has captured Gary Kuiken’s heart and keeps him coming back. The shimmering lakes, alpine meadows, and glistening mountain peaks of the unspoiled wilderness of the continental divide are a photographer’s definition of mountain splendour.
If you go:
• Banff National Park offers several campgrounds and a primitive sleeping shelter along Bryant Creek for backcountry visitors on their way to Mount Assiniboine via the Bryant Creek, Brewster Creek or Sunshine Meadows/Citadel Pass trails. Visitors staying in the Bryant Creek Shelter or camping in Banff National Park are required to have a backcountry permit and all other necessary permits before they start their trip. Visitors can reserve a backcountry permit and obtain up-to-date trail information for Banff National Park at (403) 762-1556. Trail reports and detailed backcountry trip planning information for Banff are also available on the Banff National Park website at www.pc.gc.ca/banff.
• Campsite reservations are not accepted at Mount Assiniboine Provincial Park. All campsites are on a first-come, first-served basis. Visitors can make reservations for the Naiset Huts and the Hind Hut through the Mount Assiniboine Lodge by phoning: (403) 678-2883. Reservations for the Naiset Cabins are recommended in the summer and are MANDATORY in the winter. The Naiset Cabins are $15 per night per person. There is a non-refundable reservation fee of $5.00 per night to a maximum of $15.00 for three nights or more per reservation.
• Helicopter reservations can be made through the Mount Assiniboine Lodge by phoning 403-678-2883. It will cost $150 per person per direction to reserve a helicopter transfer to the lodge. Each camper is allowed 18 kg of gear plus a pair of skis in the winter. Winter helicopter reservations are from February 8 – April 13. Summer reservations are from June 15 – October 12. To access the helipad, follow the Smith-Dorien Road from Canmore to the Mount Shark parking lot.
Debbie Olsen is a Lacombe-based freelance writer. If you have a travel story you would like to share or know someone with an interesting travel story that we might interview, please email: DOGO@telusplanet.net or write to: Debbie Olsen, c/o Red Deer Advocate, 2950 Bremner Ave., Red Deer, Alta., T4R 1M9.