#RockiesRat Stories - Darcy Monchak



In the wilderness of British Columbia east of Mica Creek near the continental divide lies one of the most remote backcountry areas in the southern Canadian Rockies.   It is full of waterfalls, glaciers, grizzlies, and that most underrated commodity of our time - the unknown.

  • Waterfall, Clemenceau Creek area, near Hamber Prov. Park

  • Tusk Peak, Clemenceau area, between Cummins R and Hamber PP

  • Looking south from north end of Fortress Lake, Hamber Park

Around 1993, the BC Forest Service was involved with establishing a hiking trail linking Athabasca Pass to Fortress Lake. These were the days when the Forest Service actually did things - when they held sway over the forest industry to, when required, change their logging plans in order to balance environmental/social/economic interests and when they built and maintained hiking trails.

As the planning forester for the area at the time,  I was involved in lots of different projects, and happily was able to have a small role in this one. 

From what I remember, this was one of the most optimistic backcountry projects ever undertaken by the Recreation section in the Province.  As part of the project, the trail was cleared and marked up to Athabasca Pass, a suspension bridge was put in spanning the upper Wood River canyon, and a portion of a trail was started in an easterly direction spearheading it's way to Fortress Lake.  If completed, that trail would have made an incredible backpacking loop trip starting and ending in Jasper Park.

  • Hiker on Wood River suspension bridge, Cauldron Canyon, Near Fortress Lake, B.C.

  • Hiking Athabasca Pass

    A group hiking towards the Committee's Punchbowl at the crest of the continental divide at Athabasca Pass, Jasper Nat'l Park.

  • Trail sign, Athabasca Pass area, at border between Jasper NP and B.C.

In the ensuing decade, under the direction of Recreation Officer Ken Gibson, the heritage trail up to Athabasca Pass was recce'd, cleared and GPS'd.  However, that Athabasca-Fortress grand loop was never completed, with the trail overgrown and the suspension bridge a lonely reminder to what might of been.  This area waits for the next round of visionary recreationalists to find a way to make it happen. Things like this usually go in cycles, you know.

Here's a photo of the legendary suspension bridge taken in 1993.  In the photo at front is Dunc Cummings, the Golden Forest District Recreation Officer at the time.  Doug Robinson and Mr. Oseychuk, a couple of the trail builders,  are standing behind.

Forest Service Recreation Officer Dunc Cummings, on footbridge over the Wood River, B.C.

I was amazed a couple of years ago when I heard that Ben Brochu and Luke Schmidt, on a wild and "never doing that again" packraft trip actually found this suspension bridge and used it to cross the upper Wood River so that they could continue the hiking part of their loop trip up to Athabasca Pass. The bridge must of looked like something out of a lost world, giving them more questions than answers. It's amazing that the bridge was still there after all these years, a testament to the prowess of the trail builders like Golden residents Jim Oseychuck, Phil Hein, and others.

I'm going back, someday.  Who's coming?


It had been some time since I was up in the Bow Hut area.  Years (lets say decades) ago, when it felt like I could glide over the landscape, this area of Banff Park was a magnet.  It was all about exploring and seeing what was over the next rise.  I carried minimal camera equipment - a tripod, Nikon FE2 and two small lenses - and covered as much ground as I could to satisfy that inner craving to discover, that many of us have.  While I stayed away from glacier travel (and still do), there was still so much area to see.  Picture-taking was more documentary, less spray and pray, with equipment limiting the when and what.

There's been a huge change in photography since then, with digital offerings creating options that never existed in the past.  While it's still fun to explore new areas, I now often use those past years of exploring to visualize image possibilities that can be taken with the latest camera equipment.  It's fun, all over again!

I had remembered the view from the hut years ago when the morning sun busted out above Crowfoot Mountain.  The plan now was to get some landscape elements between me and all those light rays.  With the Wapta Icefield receding, I was hoping that there were ice caves with their opening pointing east, towards that morning sun.  My afternoon recce showed up two caves, one small and one medium, that offered a world of possibilities for morning images.  The weather for the next morning looked promising.

Morning broke and I scrambled up to the location of the caves.  The smaller ice cave had icicles at it's lip and Crowfoot mountain in it's sights - a no brainer of a choice.  The key was to enter the little cave while minimizing the footprints I would have to make in the snow to get inside, and not knocking down any of the perfect icicles at the cave lip.  

Leaving my photo back outside the cave, I  belly crawled in with a tripod mounted wide angle zoom, and set up for the sun to peek out above the mountain.  As that magic moment neared, I adusted the composition slightly to place the peeking sun right between those two twin icicles - knowing that it's attention to that kind of detail that can make or break an image.  Once the sun started to shine, I let the camera do the rest of the work, exposure bracketing 5 images at three different focus settings, all at f/16 to get that sunstar. 

For post-processing, I was surprised how little exposure blending I had to do - the new camera sensors are that good.  What I also did was to blend the near-focused icicle image with the far-focused sunstar image.  To note - without doing any of that blending (just using one of the images taken) the result looks  pretty good to my eye anyway. 

A few minor adjustments for contrast, shadows/highlights and vibrance, and the final image is done - one of my favourites from 2017.  It's time to start thinking of new image possibilities.

Thanks to all of you for following along!  Best wishes for 2018.



Morning sun peaks above Crowfoot Mountain, as seen from a glacial cave, Canadian Rockies


A FIRST LARGE SNOWFALL....the landscape is a fantastic white....EARLY MORNING OFFERS SOME WONDERFUL PEACEFUL LANDSCAPES....I have taken pics all morning, but having been burning the candle at both ends, now settle in for some lunch and an afternoon nap....BUT WAIT, THERE'S SOME PADDLEBOARDERS THAT LOOK TO BE HEADING OUT ONTO THE LAKE...I talk to them, they are so approachable and it's easy to be caught up in their excitement....I SEE IN THEIR EYES MY SOMETIMES FORGOTTEN WONDER OF BEING IN THIS INCREDIBLE AREA.... I ask about photographing their mini-adventure....I OFFER THEM SOME OF MY MAC AND CHEESE....they have already eaten (they are wise)....OFF WE GO ON THE SHORT TRAIL LEADING TO THE LAKE....it's harsh noon light, but there's a wonderful glow to the area....SOON THEY ARE PADDLING, EXPERIENCING THE LAKE LIKE FEW DO....when it's over we exchange contact info...I REHEAT MY MAC AND CHEESE....it tastes better that way anyway. 

So, Turn On Your Speakers to hear the wonderful accompanying instrumental from local artist www.leodowney.com, then go to full screen, & Play

A Fall Paddle On Bow lake

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