MOUNT ASSINIBOINE PROVINCIAL PARK: Staying in A Mountain Hut
After a long night, with five of us sleeping in a cramped cabin, one of my hutmates asked: “Seriously, dude, have you ever been tested for sleep apnea?” Snoring and snorting in my sleep is an issue: if not for me, then certainly for people I sleep near. Such is hut living for a few days; it takes a person out of their spacious home and tosses them in with other people for a terribly cozy experience. Yet I would certainly do it again.
Ten of us came to Mount Assiniboine Provincial Park, which is wedged between Banff and Kootenay National Parks, by helicopter. Yes, hikers do come in on foot, but it is a two day backpacking journey for many, which cuts down the time in the splendid high country. So our Mountaineers group chose a twelve minute helicopter ride to whisk us to the shore of Lake Magog, which sits in the mighty cirque of Mount Assiniboine and a ring of other magestic peaks. The helicopter whizzed past rock glaciers and old burns and several lakes, and zoomed close to an immense rock face, finally setting down in a meadow with a blade-driven blast of snow. From there we schlepped our gear to the Naiset Huts area, about a half mile away.
In this basin there are three lodging choices. For the affluent or those who want to be most comfortable, there is the Mount Assiniboine Lodge, which offers rooms in a small lodge, as well as pleasantly rustic cabins with stunning mountain backdrops (and real sheets!). The lodge serves good meals and provides guide services, though the only toilets are outhouses–pleasant outhouses, to be sure, but outhouses nonetheless. The cost of the lodge and
cabins is $260 to $420 per person per night for summer rates, as of 2010, and slightly lower during the winter ski season. While we were in the vicinity, a group of dentists were having a conference at the lodge, combined with hours of fly fishing. A small tour group of hardy Japanese tourists also stayed at the lodge. The dentists were busy on their iPhones and laptops during the conference, so there was at least some connection with the outside world. The lodge serves tea at 4:00 pm each day, so those of us who wanted the English/Canadian experience of high tea could at least take a rustic tea in the lodge’s log dining room.
The second lodging opportunity, much less expensive at $20 per night per person and where we stayed, is the Naiset Huts. These are a group of five approximately 13 x 15′ cabins, modeled after trapper cabins of long ago, each sleeping six people on padded bunks in hostel style. Each cabin has a wood stove for warmth, which occupants heat using Presto logs purchased from the lodge. These structures are dark and cramped, but keep hikers warm and dry when necessary. The surprise bonus at the huts is the central cookshelter, which is a beautiful new log cabin, built in
2006 by BC Parks. This spacious shelter provides propane lights and a propane stove, as well as a place to get out of the weather or to gather for games or reading in the evening. Again, outhouses are the bathroom choice, but one of them is a wonderful and sweet smelling composting toilet, constructed with aromatic cedar, with a piece of natural artwork on the wall and a glassless window showing the forest and Grizzly Bears outside. Which reminds me: it might be a good idea to carry bear spray on a midnight ramble to the outhouse, given that bears also ramble about at midnight. In early autumn, go easy on the Presto logs, we put one whole one in the stove and soon had the cabin temperature up to about 90 degrees F!
The Naiset Huts were used by a variety of people during our stay, including a German couple who had backpacked in with the idea of camping, but the early autumn snow and cold convinced them to stay inside. There was also a pair of hardy Canadians from Ontario, and our group of ten Americans, among others..
There is a third lodging option, and that is a BC Parks campground about a mile (two kilometers) from the lodge. I didn’t visit the campground, so I can’t comment on its comfort or aesthetics, but I did meet a man who moved from the campground to a hut, during our stay, because a Grizzly Bear paid a visit to his camp. Enough said! But if you only want to spend $10 per night, the campground is your ticket.
Our plan, as a photography group from the Seattle area Mountaineers, was to take day hikes radiating out from the huts. The big advantage of staying in a
hut, rather than backpacking, is that on a day hike I can carry just my camera pack rather than all the camping gear. This is important, because my camera pack grows heavier with each lens I bring. In addition, when I am tired from backpacking, I am less likely to have the gumption to work for still another photo.
Our group consisted of people who wanted to photograph the park, so we already had a lot in common. The different personalities and backgrounds made for a fun time. There was Barb, already our friend, who celebrated her 82nd birthday during the trip (and outhiked us on the uphill grades!). Her son, Rob, kept us constantly entertained with improvised comedy, such as his rock
radio and stone phone (see the pictures!). Then there was Elston, who spent his working life as a corporate man and then transformed himself in retirement into a big and burly guy with shoulder length blond hair who looks like a mountain man. I was the dullest one among us!
On the evening of Barb’s 82nd birthday, a grand cake was prepared, consisiting of ten Hostess Twinkies piled up log cabin style and topped with candles. As the special honoree, Barb enjoyed her Twinkie with 82 wild strawberries gathered during the day’s hike. It was a wonderful birthday!
Karen and I eat simply during these trips, with freeze-dried backpacker meals and instant coffee (ugh!). Our goal is to keep meals as simple as possible so that we can concentrate on photography. Others prepared more elaborate meals, including fried potatoes and meats that made the cookshelter smell
wonderful. In the evenings, some of us read while others played a simple dice game or chatted with the Germans and Canadians. It was pleasant to get out of the cold and into a warm and steamy place (steamy because we had to boil all of our water).
After dinner and reading for a while, we pulled on our boots and walked to the outhouse by headlamp light, then to the hut. We then lit half of a Presto log in the stove, which warmed up the cabin enough to get to sleep. Karen passed out earplugs to anyone who didn’t want to listen to me snore, then we would say our goodnights, as in:
“Good night, John-boy.”
“Good night, Mary Ellen.”
“I love you …”
Our hut had a couple of other inhabitants; we believe that at least two critters lived under the cabin floor in the crawl space. These rodents are also known to biologists as “Bushy-tailed Wood Rats,” but when I called them by that name, everyone seemed to focus on the “rats” part and got squeamish. So I started calling them by the more Disneyfied name of “Pack Rats,” which is more socially acceptable. Every night, the Pack Rats would venture out from the cabin to harvest wildflowers. In the morning, there would be little bouquets of purple asters neatly clipped to a length of about 6 inches, with the flower still attached, stashed on a stump and on bare earth in front of the cabin. We felt like they were leaving us gifts, though they might have simply left the piles hoping that the sun would dry the flowers for winter use. Karen and I celebrated our 38th wedding anniversary on this trip, and purple asters were the wildflowers we gave out at our 1972 “hippie wedding” in Ann Arbor’s arboretum, so the little “gifts” had sentimental value.
We had hippies on our mind during the trip; we learned a Canadian common name for the seed stalks of Western Anemone (commonly called “Towhead Baby” in the US) is “Hippie Sticks,” because the seed head looks like the hair of a 1970 flower child. Great name! Anyway, getting back to asters and Pack Rats, Karen decided to borrow a couple of purple aster flowers to use as eyes on a snowman she wanted to build.
But then we couldn’t find any snow, until our last night at Mount Assiniboine, when it began to snow steadily. After enough accumulation, Karen and Barb and Eileen made a snow lady that they christened “Hippie Chick,” who had the starry-eyed look of a young hippie woman, with her aster eyes. Purple haze, indeed! Meanwhile, Rob and I were out photographing the snow falling heavily about the lodge and cabins. It was magical.
By next morning, the overnight 4″ snowfall transformed the landscape beautifully and gave us the opportunity to photograph snowy mountains and trees while waiting for the helicopter, which eventually set down in a maelstrom of whirling snow.
This Seattle Mountaineers trip into the Canadian Rockies was ably led by Linda Moore, whose love of all things wild in Canada is clearly evident. Mount Assiniboine Provincial Park is a British Columbia park wedged between Banff and Kootenay National Parks in the Canadian Rockies. For more information about transportation to and facilities in Mount Assiniboine Provincial Park, go to the British Columbia Parks website.
For another story in my weblog about Mount Assiniboine Provincial Park, go to Grizzly Bears.
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