Canada – Cataract Creek

22nd August 2012 We do a 5 day backpack along the ‘Great Divide Trail’

Click to see interactive map

Day 1 22nd August 2012 We drove north to the Athabasca Pass park centre and, after some discussion, managed to pick up permits for our trip. We were informed of a rogue grizzly that was in our intended area. The bear had a wounded hip after being hit by a slow moving freight train- awful! It did put us on alert though as we didn’t want to meet the potentially angry bear.

We left the Sunwapta Trailhead at 2pm with 6 days of food, and set off at a fair pace as we had 21km to do before reaching our booked camp at Jonas Cut Off. It was nice cool conditions this time but the walk was mostly along forested valleys with only occasional views to the surrounding mountains. We saw plenty of signs of bear- fairly fresh poo and paw prints- but luckily not the actual bear itself.

The horse flies from the previous few days had now been replaced by red flies and they didn’t bite – which was great!

Day 2 23rd August The campsite was set in a gully and stayed quite cold and moist so we were happy to leave and climb out onto open mountain slopes. An easy set of zig zags led to Jonas Shoulder- a high pass with great mountain views under a leaden cloudy sky.

Met two girls out hiking for 8 days here. We hiked south east along the long valley of Four Point Creek but with a wonderful wild feel under hanging cirques and snow patches. During a short sunny spell we managed to dry the tent and sleeping bags over lunch. By about 5pm we made it to Boulder Creek campground to get a fire going as the temperature dipped sharply and some snow started falling. A very pleasant day.

Day 3 24th August Wet snow cover this morning meant a cold damp start but after we got going the hiking was lovely up to Nigel Pass on a good trail. We then left that for the valley towards Cataract Pass on fainter trails and fantastically beautiful scenery. The tilted sedimentary rock on the mountains held the fresh snow and looked dramatic.

As we progressed up the valley we spotted a flock of bighorn sheep next to the river sandflats amidst Cottongrass. After a stop to dry out the tent and sleeping bags, we headed up into snow for the final push to Cataract Pass with marvelous views.

We dropped down steeply into the Cataract basin but lost any sign of trails and headed downstream until we reached the treeline on the Cataract river.  This involved rough bushwhacking for a while through dense scrub before finding an old trail with much tree downfall and slow going. After descending for a couple of hours we stopped to have dinner on a fallen log. Our thinking was that we would walk on for a while then pitch the tent and reduce the cooking smells at camp to keep bears away.

Heading down from Cataract Pass

At 7pm we took our shoes off to cross a tributary stream and managed to find somewhere to camp just after with mountain goats on the slopes above. We hang the food – no sign of bears at camp but we had seen footprints along the trail- plus lots of moose prints!

Cataract Creek camp

Day 4 25th August More heavy frost on the tent, the zips creaked as we opened the front porch. Passed a pictograph panel on a huge boulder on the way down the valley.

Further down we hit a junction with the Cline River trail and we set off on a very sketchy line through thick forest clambering over much deadwood. Lo and behold just when we thought we were lost we saw three other hikers coming towards us – Jellybean , Six and Spiff(?). They were hiking the whole Great Divide Trail northwards and had started at the US border. We had a enjoyable lengthy chat with them comparing notes on long distance hiking. That was fun! 

Next up we waded the Cataract River which was about knee deep and cold! A second river, the Huntington Creek was easier and about 10m wide.

We had a warm relaxing stop at the Pinto Lake outlet lazing around in the sun over lunch. A pleasant rough trail around the lake rim made for an easy start with the sound of jays overhead, before the long climb up to the high pass above Waterfall Creek. We found a small spring on a grassy shelf and, after sniffing the air and declaring the area somewhat optimistically bear free, we pitched the tent. It was an awesome spot.

Pinto Lake
Waterfall Basin camp

Day 5 26th August Awoke at 7am to watch the sun’s rays slowly hit the tent and start melting the thick layer of frost. We dropped into Waterfall basin before a steady climb up to the Michelle lakes col (the highest point on the Great Divide trail(?)). There was plenty of signs of previous bear activity around here. Had a rest just above upper Michelle lake in this ‘otherworldly’ place. It was again quite stunning scenery with the striated sedimentary rock layers.

Up to our final high col of the hike before the long drop down to the road near Saskatchewan Crossing. The first part was easy down open grass slopes with the sun warming us. Once we hit the tree line though the valley narrowed around Owen Creek and we had a much tougher time. The way was not obvious scrambling down hot, dusty, scrappy loose slopes on the east side of the river. This lasted for about two hours before the stream confluence with Mount Wilson where the trail improved. Still lots of scrapy willow bashing as the trail upped and downed along the river in dust and heat. We emerged out onto a wood burn area before the river gorge narrowed superbly to a maybe 40m deep chasm which was bridged by chockstones and fallen trees at one point.

Owen Creek

We were both glad to reach the road though at about 15:30 and lucked out by getting a lift straight away from a friendly park ranger to the Saskatchewan Crossing diner and garage. Another lift and we were back at our car. What a great backpack- recommended!!

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