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Road Trip Chronicles: Screw It I'm Going In

By: Eric Murdock + Save to a List

Captains Log

September 12th 2017

Day 13

With 2,500 km covered, only another 900 km stood between us and our next stop of Jasper National Park. Due to the rain, we hurriedly packed up our hammocks and were back underway with a full moon and our headlights as our only ally for making our way down the road.

Upon arrival we managed to locate a first come first serve campground that surprisingly had a few vacant spots. We found a fantastic site directly adjacent to the Athabasca river. 

Even writing this over a year later, I can still remember exactly what my first thought was when I walked down to the river to enjoy our surroundings, "We've just found the Yosemite of Canada."

With the longest stretch of the trip behind us, we were finally able to take a deep breath and relax, knowing that we were finally going to be able to sleep a night without having to break camp the next day... or so we thought.

After stretching our legs, inhaling the cool mountain air, and listening to the rush of the river, we knew there was no time to waste. With camp set we squeezed ourselves back into the Soob and left for our first hike, Athabasca Falls. 

Before we even left the campground though we literally drove straight into our long lost companions in Subaru #2, whom we left over 3,000km ago back in Alaska. HOW?! They had no idea where we were, we had no idea where they were, and yet here we both were. It was a purely coincidental. Both Subaru's doors exploded outward, various signs of pure amazement and stoke being exhibited from us all as we ran out to exchanged hugs and high fives. 

After catching up they continued on to go get settled from a long day on the road, knowing that feeling we left them to it and continued on to Athabasca Falls.

I had been to the falls during my solo trip up to Alaska, so I knew what to expect... or at least I thought I did. I should know better than that by now.

It's a short .7 miles to the falls overlook, paved trails and easy steps all the way there. It's a grand sight, clearly worth seeing again since I was there acting as our guide of sorts. I had planned on this being an easy stroll to get our legs back and see a hint of what the park had to offer, I did not expect this to turn into a 10 mile round trip hike accompanied by cliff jumping and mud stomping... here we go

The paved path turns into a trail just past the falls, after so much time spent in the car our legs begged us to continue on, so we did. Not 100 yards onto the trail I noticed a social trail off to the side, it peaked my curiosity so I took the lead down it with the others following suite. 

After a couple hundred yards it came to an abrubt halt on top off a cliff face of approximately 35ft or so. It was clear that we had stumbled upon a swimming hole of sorts. The way down? JUMP

Keep in mind that we were edging toward the first grips of winter. In Canada this means the temperature is brisk, the sort that makes you spend an extra hour cocooned in your sleeping bag, and this also means that the water is a few "sweet grandmother spatulas" short of a "screw that I'm not going in." 

I'm probably more adventurous than is good for my health, but I still have a decent head on my shoulders, so before jumping I insisted that one of us needed to do a depth check. When the water is that cold, there's nothing worse than easing your way in, swimming 30 feet, and then doing several dives down as deep and as cold as you can go, all while methodically searching for obstacles.

After a quick discussion, it was pretty clear that no one else was willing to do it, so I said "screw it I'm going in."

A delicate climb down got me to the rivers edge. Stripping down to my underwear, I made way over to the landing zone. The swim was awful, the depth check was a million times worse. Water this cold makes it very difficult to take a deep breath. Managing as best I could, I went under, the temperature plunging along with me. The grip of that level of cold will rip the breath right out of your chest before you ever have a chance to use it. It also makes it near impossible to remain calm. My first attempt shot me down and then up again, like a yo-yo being yanked up before the string even gets a chance to spool out properly. Once the breath is ripped from you like that, it is very difficult to regain it. My 2nd attempt wasn't much better. In the end it took about 6 attempts before I was finally motivated more by hypothermia than I was by the pain of the cold. 

I deemed the jump safe, but my fellow comrades had front row seats to my less than convincing display, and thus decided they didn't really feel like subjecting themselves to the same punishment. I could hardly blame them. I wasn't about to back out now though, so I clambered back up the cliff, and without hesitation leaped off with a battle cry. 

The combination of the jump, the plunge down into the icy darkness, the resurface to life, and then finally the walk up onto the sunny shoreline, it was exhilirating. My initial depth check may have been pathetic and painful to watch, but this put a huge damn grin onto my face that couldn't betray how much fun that just was. Shouting "hahah-hoooly shit that was awesome!!!" was all it took to convince them to follow suite. 

Several jumps later, and we all found ourselves sitting on the shoreline in our skivvies soaking up the sun in a blissful contrast to the icy waters. 

This was all happening only a couple hundred yards downstream from the heavily trafficked waterfall outlook. Our shouts had been echoing up the steep canyon walls, and thus several curious onlookers were peering at us from high above, and a few even came down to join in on the fun. There's nothing like getting to meet new trail friends while wearing nothing but your underwear. 

Sun dried, we put our clothes back on and continued back up to the main trail. Our hike had really only just begun.

The trail was perfect for our intended use, no elevation loss or gain, taking us for miles with minimum effort and allowing us to lose ourselves to trail talk. However I soon began weary of Steve's hour long conversation with Bret about his astoundingly endless ambiguous music trivia, so I tuned them out with my own thoughts. 

5 miles later we came across one the highlights of the trip, Big Bend. Giving the name credit, Big Bend is the point in which the Athabasca river bends gently around a raised peninsula, the point of which boasts one of the best primitive backcountry campsites I've ever come across. Standing on the point looking out over the river, you are greeting with towering mountains in a full 180 degrees that come down to meet the river. The depth of field, the meeting of mountains and river, all coming to culmination with the peninsula at its centerpoint, it was a lot to take in. 

Clearly our turnaround point, we each took our own little stroll to take in the entirety of where we were. I eventually made my way over the the river bank, and in order cross a few smaller tributaries, I took my shoes off. I came into a bank of mud. Beautiful mud, if mud could ever be called that. It was fascinating in the strangest of ways. A super fine consistency, pure, perfectly viscous, and cool beneath the warm surface.

I know it sounds childish, but I found walking around in it to be incredibly satisfying. Each step would take you a humours foot or so deep, rooting you there through the power of suction, forcing you to lift and wriggle just so in order to take another step, which gave way to lots of laughing as you tried keep from being sucked uner. During all of this the mud is pushing up in between you're toes, providing a cooling natural foot massage of sorts. 

It didn't take long for the others to make this discovery either. Eventually you had 4 full grown men stomping around in the mud like kids in the middle of the Canadian wilderness. 

It was even better when we made over into standing water with a muddy bottom. Not only was the water warm from the rays of the sun and muddy bottom soothingly cool, but there was a layer of the incredibly fine silt on top that exploded into clouds every time you took a step. The patterns that the silt made were mesmerizing, swirling and drifting in the subtle push of air and water that each footfall created. But the property that truly made this worth describing is the reflection of the sun off the silt particles as they swirled about. The reason that the glacial lakes and rivers are so blue is due to the reflection of sunlight off of glacial silt particles, and this is exactly what was responsible for this captivatingly minute display of natural wonder.  

After a few hours went by and the sun began to dip in the horizon it was time to head back. However we were all so mesmerized by the experience that we knew we had to come back. Before we made it a mile down the trail we unanimously agreed that we needed to pack up camp first thing in the morning and spend the rest of our time in the park at Big Bend. 

*Article pictures coming

We want to acknowledge and thank the past, present, and future generations of all Native Nations and Indigenous Peoples whose ancestral lands we travel, explore, and play on. Always practice Leave No Trace ethics on your adventures and follow local regulations. Please explore responsibly!

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