A Solo Camp for the Books
The Magnificence of Ambition
By Ellysa Evans
My first entry in my journal on the Berg Lake trail was simple: “Wow.”
Sometimes, I believe that I am a little too ambitious for my own good. Often on trails, I have to stop and let others pass me, exclaiming “I’m okay, I just need to let my lungs catch up to my ambition.” Three years ago, I fell for the mountains on a trip up the Icefields Parkway in Alberta. In the shoulder season, I visited a very popular lake. My friend and I had it all to ourselves. I knew then, in that moment, having only recently been dumped out of the three most stressful years of my life, that the mountains were soul food, and I needed more.
I had gone thirteen years without camping and even the last time I had been, it was with a friend and her family. Her mom pulled the car up to a tent site where we pitched a tent the size of my living room, and we ate out of coolers that were stowed safely in the car trunk overnight. We floated the river, had hot showers, roasted marshmallows, and in the morning we made scrambled eggs and bacon on a large camp stove. I know my family spent time around lakes and in the mountains when I was real little, but being the baby of the family, I have very few and very vague memories of those moments. So when I set out on my first backcountry camping trip last June, on an unfamiliar trail for three nights, alone, even I thought I was crazy.
I made the arrangements the previous January – I did my research on the trail, planned my dates for June, and booked my three sequential campsites. I booked for two people. But you know how things go.
I booked for two people. But you know how things go.
June 17th: “Wow. The things that our bodies and minds are capable of, even if as nervous as I was today, are incredible. I am so grateful – it is definitely NOT below freezing or anywhere close, as was forecasted.
The trail is beautiful; I am definitely in British Columbia. The smell is absolutely delicious – earthy, woody, sweet and rich. My favorite colour is the color of a glacial river. The bugs are plentiful, the mountains ominous, and the river is so, so powerful. It’s glorious. Sometimes it’s hard to tell if it’s actually raining or not. The hemlock trees hold so much water in their fine needles, and even the most subtle movement – a breeze or bird – that knocks the branches, means you’re in for a shower if you’re below.”
I had never hiked with an overnight pack, and never with the intention of not returning back to my vehicle in the same day. My nerves were silly. I had spent literally months planning this trip, but I had never considered attempting it alone, until all of a sudden everyone was busy, unavailable or unprepared. Did I have enough daylight if I was faced with an obstacle bigger than my ambition? What if the weather turned? I couldn’t just camp anywhere; I only had two options: turning back, or pushing forward. But I knew that I was far enough away from my car, and that turning around came with far more effort and disappointment than picking myself up to push forward. That attitude of perseverance that you find solo-hiking on a trail is incredibly inspiring and motivating. Even solo hiking around the city or local mountains, you still find yourself on trails inundated by other day hikers. They’re accessible, and at the end of every day, you always end up back at your car, with its heated seats or air conditioning. Those first eleven kilometers on the Berg Lake Trail blew by in a flurry of terror, awe, worry and amazement – both at the environment, and at myself and my accomplishments.
June 18th: “Clean socks have never felt so good. What a day! Yesterday I looked up at those three tall waterfalls from the gravel valley near Kinney Lake, and there wasn’t a part of my body that ever could or would have believed that I could or would climb that high. I slept. And today, I climbed even higher. I gained 1,785 feet today. All day, the same thoughts have been running through my mind and I keep saying out loud to myself: ‘this is crazy’, ‘I am crazy’, ‘I can’t believe I am doing this’, ‘I can’t believe I am here’. It is surreal, and yet again and again I am reminded of how incredible it is to push the boundaries of what I believed my body and mind are capable of. Lunch today was incredibly well earned, and wildly delicious, even if dehydrated and from a foil package.”
Day two was the most grueling adventure I had ever set my sights on. The first four kilometers were the steepest, and a fresh water source was inaccessible. I passed three beautiful waterfalls before landing at the king: Emperor Falls. A small jaunt from the main trail, it was most worthwhile. I ran into one other person in the area, but he disappeared as quickly as I approached, and I had the crashing falls entirely to myself; watching each droplet thrown from rock through air, reflecting colors and vistas I was still struggling to comprehend. The deafening sound, the mist on my face – it was unbelievable.
One rocky traverse and another stretch of gravel flats later, I finally set sights on the unimaginably blue Berg Lake.
“The sound of calving glaciers is exactly how I remember it from Alaska. It’s less frequent and it’s quieter over the distance, but it’s amazing. Just like thunder. After hiking as far as I have, I feel close enough to touch Berg Glacier or kiss the summit of Robson. Obviously I can’t do that, but it sure looks a lot smaller from way up here. How did I even get here? Laying here, listening to the lake lap, robins sing and bunnies thump around camp, well… I don’t think I have the words for how grateful or right I feel.”
I spent that evening out on the shore of the lake, dancing off the shivers, my hands stuffed tight into my jacket pockets, tripod and camera set, ready for the rising full moon. But storm clouds beat out the light of the moon, and I eventually retired.
Day three was brief. I back-tracked to Emperor Lake Falls campground and spent the afternoon letting the sound of the river rush over the undying ache of my tired, grateful muscles. I scored the perfect tent pad, right on the edge of the river.
June 19th: “Tea tastes especially amazing in the mountains. This seems to be a pattern. It has been a long time since I have sat still this long, and this patiently. It might be a little lonely out here, traveling alone, but it seems a solid lesson and I’m appreciating it. I’ve learned a lot this weekend. About being in the back country for sure: I’ve learned how to pack, how to pace myself, the value of trekking poles when you are going uphill and carrying so much weight, how to make do with the things I have, that bug spray is a marvelous and much appreciated luxury, that even without the internet and meteorologists I really am excellent at estimating the weather and astral directions, and that people who commit to coming out here always seem to be all-around respectable, honest, simple, kind humans, and I would like to count myself as one of them.”
It’s true, I like to think that in the mountains, I can count myself as one of the others who enjoy the same treasures – genuine and sincere, curious but gentle, respectful, a go-getter. We have all put one foot in front of the other, to get to where we have. Female, male, old, young, experienced, fresh; we all made the decisions and the efforts. Solo hiking and backpacking has reinforced the strength and the abilities of my will, knowledge, and my drive to fuel responsible adventure.
The next night, back in Jasper, despite an exhausting 16 km exit hike, I decided I still hadn’t had enough adventure. I drove the hour or so out to Maligne Lake, and reflected on my time, sitting on a dock, watching the sun set.
June 20th: “I am so proud of myself for going after this, for putting the time into myself, and for believing in myself. Or, at least for giving myself the opportunity to surprise myself. I have held myself back from doing a lot of things in the last decade, or I have made a lot of excuses not to do things. At the beginning of 2016, I told myself: ‘this year, I’m beginning to see clearly that there’s more to gain by trying, than there is in the security of settling’.”
I spend a lot of my time moving at someone else’s pace, trying to accommodate, appease, and appeal. My personality is one that constantly needs to help, be supportive, be a quality team player, and to contribute as much as I can. It’s mostly satisfying, but if I get too absorbed in moving in others’ flow, I lose my own. I lose my sense of adventure entirely. I took that back the weekend I spent on the Berg Lake Trail. I moved to my own music, in sync with my roots. I listened to what I needed, and my heart led me where it wanted.
I spend a lot of my time moving at someone else’s pace, trying to accommodate, appease, and appeal.
On my way back to Calgary, I stopped at Sunwapta Falls; a place I’ve been longing to see for a couple of years. It’s a spot where, as a natural wonder, a coursing river splits in half. It rushes around a single, small island, covered in trees, before it convalesces and is forced together over rocks, and down into a tight valley. It was perfect timing, I think, to witness. At a time when things were rushing and hurrying past me, that weekend, I stood still and quiet in the middle of it all. By grace, maybe. Or spirit. Or ambition. Or pure stubbornness. Whatever reason, it was a weekend of overcoming and of surrender, and it was magnificent.
Ellysa is soft-hearted, ultra curious and wildly ambitious, but she is also an introvert and an empath. She craves connection and a natural quiet – being outdoors refuels her soul. Grace and gravity are the two most important forces in her life – together, they have taught her how to be humble, brave, compassionate and most importantly, how to play. Find her on Instagram.