Backcountry camping in BC's Goat Range
If there's one thing I can keep learning over and over again it's this: There are blank spots on even the most pored-over maps, sometimes even within throwing distance of your most favoured and frequented locations. There are blank spots that you don't even know are blank spots, vast tracks of pristine picturesque wilderness within your reach that you've never even thought to consider.
I had grown up just south of BC's Goat Range Provincial Park, had driven past the turn-off countless times, but with no signage and only the barest hints of its existence I didn't even know it was there. But then one hot summer day I was flipping through a mapbook and my imagination started humming. Spanning the mountainous gap between two well-populated large-laked West Kootenay valleys, there was this park. Set off from the highway, there seemed to be only two access points which by most accounts seemed to be variable, prone to washouts, irregularly maintained long rough FSR roads. There are no maintained trails into the park, no facilities. It is true BC backcountry. And it sounded pretty awesome.
BEFORE YOU GO
Plans were underway to head up into the Alps Alturas basin on the border of Goat Range when we got a text from our friends Mike and Ginni Seehagel saying they'd be coming through the Kootenays for the long weekend. We floated our trip idea past them and they sounded hesitant but interested. Trail descriptions reported the hike as moderate, but this would be Ginni's first overnight hike and you never know how accurate descriptions like these are, what the basis for comparison is. We met up with the Seehagels in nearby New Denver and after an ice cream and quick deliberation decided to go with it.
Recommended for park status in 1995 by famed local conservationists Wayne and Colleen McCrory, Goat Range is an important refuge for giant gerrard trout, woodland caribou, elk, mountain goats, and a distinct race of white grizzly bears. Groves of old growth cedar hemlock and dense fern forests line the valley bottoms, and the upper reaches open up to expansive alpine meadow and jagged shattered rock and scree. It's a really nice looking hike, an area of wild and rugged beauty, and a perfect destination for backcountry enthusiasts.
The Alps Alturas lies just to the south of the park, bumping up against the park boundary. This region saw a boom in the early 1900s as miners rushed in to make their fortune off silver. Old tumbled-down traces of mining operations are still found throughout the mountains, and some of these trails were first scouted out by prospectors.
As a day hike maybe the moderate classification would have been perfect. But with overnight backpacks nothing is moderate in the hot summer sun. The trail weaves its way up an overgrown cutblock and into a lush green meadow. Big grizzly diggings were everywhere, along with the last scraggly remains of summer's rush of wildflowers. You descend into a little bowl, then around a rocky outcrop, and you hit the last section of scratched-out trail over a steep scree slope.
It starts out well enough, firm, well-defined, sure-footed. But then come the washed-out sections, the cling-to-the-wall sections, the inch-your-way-on-loose-rolling-rock scree sections. With a steep scree drop you have to be pretty confident with a big backpack on. But we soldiered on, pausing when we needed to, using our hands when we needed to, and arrived in the basin in the warm twilight.
It's a rocky little hollow, jagged and barren, slow to shake its winter snowpack. At the centre is a wee ice-cold lake, emptying out in a tender cascade down into a lush green valley far below. We woke up early to the sound of rodents chewing on Mike's boots. We explored a bit in the fresh morning light, scrambling down to the glassy water over rocks, over snow, and northward to peer down into the steep-sloped Gerrard Creek valley and into the park proper. We sat there for a long minute, imagining tramping through the distant valleys, all the remote wilderness stretching out before us. And no white grizzlies in sight.
It was a hazy morning and the dawn seemed to last forever. Pale muted pinks turned to slow peachy yellow turned to weird grey. We hiked back up to camp for some breakfast and to start packing up. It was such a quick trip!
With one last look back at the lake, we filled our water bottles from the stream and descended back into the meadow.
About half an hour into the return hike we decided we desperately needed a nap. With the hot summer sun beating down, we found a little patch of shade among the rocks, slung off our backpacks and lay down for a rest. That's one of the best things about the lazy long-limbed days of summer: you never need to get anywhere fast. You can just lay down in the grass and feel the soft mountain wind over you, listening to faint buzz of insects and pika chirps.
But we had chips and gummy bears waiting in the car, so even the lure of a long midday nap couldn't hold us back for long.Before long we were back at the car beginning the long slow descent down to the lake, where another trip stretched out on the horizon.