Halfway Hut via Brewster Creek

September 06, 2014, at 06:00 AMerika

A three-day backpacking trip along Brewster Creek with intern Kirsty, helping collect remote cameras for a grizzly research project in Banff National Park. Saturday, September 6 to Monday, September 8th, 2014.

It may have taken all summer, but I finally stumbled across a volunteer activity that could expose me to the inner workings of remote cameras within the nearby parks. The volunteer coordinator for Banff National Park pointed me in the direction of Sarah Elmeligi, a PhD student at Queensland University (yes, in Australia - its complicated, but her supervisor moved down there, and he's pretty good with bears and large wildlife apparently) exploring the use of human trails by bears. Her grizzly research needs volunteers to help with camera set up and take down, pouring over images for accurate tracking of critters (bears, people, horseback riders, and other such things), trailhead surveys for hiker-wildlife encounters, and collection of hiker gps data for overlay with collared bears. Fascinating, but lots of work required to cram it into our ever so short hiking season in Banff, Yoho, Kootenay and Jasper National Parks. Read more...

Since this is the basically the work motivating my own PhD research, I felt it imperative that I tag along for a camera set up or take down and find out more. Within 48 hours of finding out this research existed, I was signed up for a backpacking trip to collect 7 remote cameras that had been placed along the Brewster Creek trail towards the Halfway Hut. Kirsty - Sarah's summer intern - and I trekked the 40-odd kilometres over a 3 day period instead of 4 days, fortunately skipping a night in the snow storm that arrived just as we were on our way out.

Unaware of Kirsty's fitness level, and with a desire to skip a boring approach, I suggested we for the Healy Creek, accessing the trail from Sunshine Road. This cuts off roughly 6 kilometres each way of walking along the wide trail, however over a 500 m period, involved fording the calf-high Healy Creek, performing two quick creek hops, route-finding around a river-carved embankment and scrambling up and down 2m high embankments. In previous years, this would also be a boring wide approach, however the floods of 2013 obliterated the connecting bridges, and while Parks has been amazing at coordinating the return of bridges, the ruin understandably takes some time to resolve.

This first day was fairly straightforward. Yes, it is a horse trail, as per the Brewster history, and is used regularly by the Holiday on Horsebackers to access the Sundance Lodge and the (equally swank) Halfway Hut. There's certainly mud, but the worst puddle/mud hole sections usually have a nice hiker-made walk around through the trees. The boots remained unscathed. In addition to our initial creek fording, we also forded Brewster Creek two more times, at another flood-obliterated bend in the creek. Water sandals are a good idea.

Arriving at the BW10 backcountry campsite, there's was confirmation that the cook area was indeed washed away. Same with the bear hangs, and firepit. A large chunk of land must've been washed away as only the sign remained (forgot to take a photo). While the weather for Saturday and Sunday were 20oC, we were the only campers for the weekend. And - AND! - successfully managed to put up a bear hang after only 3 throw attempts. Thank goodness for Kirsty's knot-tying abilities! A makeshift firepit had been constructed on the rubble alongside the creekbed, however we were lazy and kept with simple boiled water for our meals. I'm such a wimp - called it a night early for both evenings, but I was happy to be well rested as a result. It was a glorious clear-sky night however, and while the forest was becoming darker, the mountains remained a warm yellow-orange colour late in to the evening with the setting sun.

We were lazy to rise on the Sunday - in part because I wanted to wait until I felt conscious enough to get up. There was some tossing and turning at night, especially when I started imaging large-carnivore noises, which turned out to be boring creek sounds. Oh imaginations are fun. :) While breakfasting along the creekside, we were joined by a suprised Park warden. He finds it rare to encounter campers along this horse trail, and was curious what we were up to. Of course I began to ask how things were, commenting on the bridges going in. Healy is indeed planned for late this fall, and hopefully Cascade will go in as well. *fingers crossed*

Kirsty was a tad concerned about the 24 km distance required for the Sunday, so I claimed the job of pack-horse, while she took on the role of technician. We decided to book it to the end and then pick up cameras along the way back. We'd spot out cameras if we saw them, but generally headed for the Halfway Hut where the furthest was positioned. The Halfway Hut is by no means a hut, with a couple of buildings, one of them two-storied, a corral, and some swank outhouses (which we took advantage of). There were roughly 2 (3?) creeks to cross along the way, and while we'd encountered a number of horse, or pack horse groups on the Saturday, we had no such company on the Sunday. We were met briefly by a woman we'd said hello to at Sundance lodge the day before. Here, she was lazily reading a book while her mighty stead plodded along towards the Halfway Hut. Clearly they know the route well.

Camera take down is apparently much easier than set up. You find it, unlock it, turn it off, tick it off in the book and pack it away. If you can't find the camera based on the descriptions in the book, you take advantage of the GPS which has the precise coordinate. At that point is a game of hot and cold, akin to the avalanche beacons for retrieval. The furthest was just beyond the Halfway Hut, one just before and one just after the Warden's cabin, the next between the campground and the Warden's cabin, and the final (for the day) at the campsite. It was a 9 hour journey all told, but we made it arriving before dark at 8pm. Headlamps were only nominally needed to clean up from our lazy dinners.

There were several rain showers, and in future I'll take the time to put in earplugs, even though it means I'll hear less of what's going on around the tent (I kinda like the idea of hearing wildlife activity if need be, but perhaps they aren't as adventurous at night time). While I must stop idea-generating situations, we were fortunate that there was no rain while we actually packed up the tent. Lightweight tarps may be a must for future backpacking trips that are at risk of rain.

We were able to successfully collect the second last camera which had been placed along Fatigue Creek. It's also seen some devestation from flooding, but surprisingly has some bypass trails already starting to form. More creek crossing, and more thanks given for water sandals and poles. :)

The hike back on the Monday was amusing to say the least. Because of the rain, the muddy horse trail was increasingly soggy. We more actively sought walk-arounds for the giant puddles that occassionally formed, and took advantage of poles to help skip around those we couldn't. About half way back, roughly 1pm, we started to get some light hail. Kirsty, an intern from Britain who's only been in Canada for a couple of months, was delighted by the hail, especially as it increased in size, and then added layers to the trails, trees, and brim of my crazy hat. Photos full of smiles were taken.

By the time we found the final camera - roughly 1 km beyond our short-cut turn off - it was definitely snowing. The camera itself was up the side of the trail embankment and required some hot-cold finding for a successful retrieval. At this point, the cold, weight of the pack and distances were starting to bug dear Kirsty, but she perservered. The snow continued to get deeper, and the ex-lifeguarding/swimming instructor in me was increasingly worried about how long it takes to get frostbite for our final creek crossing. I knew that the car was right there (10 metres) from the creek, but still. The temperatures were sub-zero, though likely not below -3oC or so. Fortunately our final messy 500 metres were less messy than expected. We were able to traverse the embankment hopping with some ease, go around the embankment-creek drop on the side trail which was barely snowed on due to wonderful tree branches, avoided taking off boots for the minor creek crossings by improved rock hopping, and it was Kirsty who was gung-ho about braving the final creek and just getting 'er done. We were pretty amazing. :) There must've been 2 inches of snow to brush off the car, but a quick throw down of the tarp, gear piled on top, and blasting the heat up had us quickly and warmly on our way.

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