Hiking the Tamarack

by | Jan 21, 2022 | Backpacking Trail Reports, Great Divide Trail

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Even since my first visit to Waterton Lakes National Park in the spring of 2020, I was intrigued with the area. My original plan for that summer had been to hike this trail, but closures due to the Kenow Fire and torrential downpours had kept this part of the park closed. For 2021 I was able to secure permits for the Tamarack Trail and was eager to explore this part of Southern Alberta. While many start this trail at the Rowe Lakes trailhead along the Akamina Parkway, spending 1 or 2 nights before coming out on the Red Rock Parkway, I decided to link this section with the Carthew-Alderson trail and started from the Waterton townsite, following the route of the Great Divide Trail.

Day 1 – Waterton Townsite to Alderson Lake

My first day was a short 7km hike from the townsite to the campground at Alderson Lake. The trail begins at the popular Cameron Falls trailhead and the first part is paved with nice views of the falls and canyon. On the other side, you parallel the Akamina Parkway for the first while. This section becomes a little steeper as you steadily climb up the Cameron Creek valley. Much of this area was burned in the aforementioned Kenow fire, which came precariously close to the town itself.  Before long the trail splits from the parkway and heads up Carthew Creek. By now you’re fairly high up the valley wall with the creek bottom slowly coming up to meet you as you approach Alderson Lake. For this day, the weather was ideal, high clouds kept the sun off me in the burned area. Since the fire, the foliage has come back in spades, with plenty of greenery. Although it was a little late in the season for wildflowers, I came quite a few bushes full of perfectly ripe raspberries along the trail. I’d grab one here and there, leaving plenty behind for other hikers and animals who need them for food. There’s nothing quite like a wild raspberry fresh from the bush. About 4km in, the burned area comes to an end, leaving you in a dense pine forest. Even in late August, there was plentiful water along this section of trail. The campground at Alderson Lake is a short hike from the main trail, and it’s small with 5 sites. Bear lockers and an outhouse are provided (no fires). The lake itself is beautiful, nestled in the shadow of Mount Alderson. I ate my corn chowder on the shore and turned in early as the next two days wouldn’t be quite as easy.

 

Day 2 – Carthew Summit

It was a beautiful clear morning as I made my way out from Alderson Lake. At first the trail follows a forested ridge with a few switchbacks to gain the first headwall. You get some nice views of the lake as you occasionally pop out from the trees. Above the treeline the alpine meadows open up and the scenery is spectacular. The waterfalls and creeks only add to the beauty. Another few switchbacks take you over a lip and the first Carthew Lake opens up in front of you. I couldn’t have asked for a nicer place to take a break and have a snack. The trail wraps around the lake to the back and follows another set of switchbacks which takes you up to the second Carthew Lake. Here the red rock the park is known for really starts to come out and the meadows make way for scree and the occasional hearty plant trying to hold on in this harsher environment. You can see the trail climbing up to a saddle across the lake, but don’t get your hopes up, that isn’t the summit. A steep climb takes you up to a ridgeline that looks into the next valley tilting down to the US border. Up the side of the saddle you continue to climb and finally see Carthew Summit another 100m above you. By now a few clouds had started to roll in and the wind began to pick up. Parks Canada has installed a number of wayfinders to help keep you on track as you make the final push. At the summit you can look back towards the Carthew Lakes glittering like diamonds on a necklace, in the distance you can just make out Alderson Lake. Looking to the southwest you can see Lake Wurdeman and Lake Nooney in Glacier National Park. It’s a great view, but the wind was gusting pretty hard (shades of Hurricane Pass in the Tetons), so I didn’t lollygag at the top for long. While you may be tempted to try and shortcut the switchbacks down, there are a few cliffs to navigate on the other side and would strongly recommend sticking to the trail.

On my way down, I started to bump into hikers coming from the other direction. First it was the ultra fit trail runners, but before long it was more tourist crowds and families. On this side you’re back into the burn zone so I was glad for the clouds keeping the sun at bay. Grabbing lunch at Summit Lake, I marveled at all the stonework someone had done to manage drainage around the shore. From here, the trail is fairly flat for a bit as you approach the valley around Cameron Lake. Popping over the top you see Cameron Lake laid out in all it’s glory, the small wharf at the end and a few folks out on canoes. I have tremendous respect and credit for the incredible work by the firefighters who managed to protect the facilities at the lake, literally an island of green trees in a sea of burned valley. Down the switchbacks I was soon at the parking lot where I grabbed a chocolate bar and a pop for the road. As there is no campground on the Waterton side here, I had about a km and a half of road walk to the Akamina Pass trailhead, and about a 2 km hike up over the pass and to the BC Parks campground at Akamina Creek. The previous campground was destroyed in 2017, but parks have done a great job rebuilding it, and while it will be a decade or two before the forest recovers, hundreds of new saplings were starting to push their way back into the sky. Famished, I re-hydrated some chili and read while the sun went down. An early morning lay ahead.

Day 3 – Lineham Ridge

This was my big day for this trip, with just over 23km and 1200m of total elevation. All in all, it was my longest day of backpacking so far (I’m envious of folks that can push out 30kms day after day). I set my alarm for 5am as I wanted an early start. There is a gap in this section of the Great Divide Trail where there are no campgrounds, and with random camping prohibited in Waterton, there is no option but to hike it in one day. I grabbed my oatmeal, took down my tent and packed my bag under the Moon and stars.  Another camper had arrived at some point overnight, so I kept it quiet. Temperatures had dropped to below freezing during the crystal clear night, and my fly was covered with a thick layer of frost. As I headed back over Akamina pass and back into Alberta, the eastern sky began to lighten. Before long I was back to the parkway for the 4km road walk to the Rowe Lake trailhead. Traffic was light as I watched the sun rise, and I passed a few other backpackers getting ready to hit the trail in the parking lot. This section of the park managed to escape the fire, so the shade was welcomed as the sun cleared the mountains and I climbed up the Rowe Creek Valley. The Raspberries were out again, and I found I wasn’t the only one having a snack. Passing into a clearing along an avalanche chute, I heard a snort and huff and turned to see a bear about 20m up the side of the valley. I unclipped my bear spray as he (or she) looked at me. Talking in low tones, I relaxed a bit when I recognized that it was a black bear and within a moment, he/she scampered up the valley and we parted ways without incident. Taking a break at Rowe meadows, I refilled my water bottle and grabbed a snack. It’s important to water up here as it is the last reliable source for about 9km. There used to be a campground here, and it would have made a nice place to stay, but not today. A horse guide and his clients trotted by as I looked up the long climb to the saddle between Mount Rowe and Mount Lineham, the real climb of the day was about to begin. Before long, I was above treeline and I watched the horses climb the trail well above me. Up, up, up, until I reached the first ridgeline and looked over the steep cliff onto the Lineham Lakes 400m below, but I wasn’t done yet. One last push up the summit block and both valleys were laid out beneath me, this is the second highest point on the GDT and the view was incredible. I ate lunch, said hi to a few hikers going the other way and started my way down. Here the trail sweeps around the end of Blackiston Valley making it’s way slowly down to the far side in a big ‘U’, it’s all back into the burn zone, so it can be hot (with water sources limited here). I managed to stretch my water out until I hit a tributary and spent some time drinking and refilling my bottles. It had been a 20km day so far and I was getting tired. It was definitely slow going and I climbed my way over the last saddle and caught site of Lone Lake in the distance below. Dropping down over 200m from the saddle I was happy to cross the drainage of Lone Lake and the campground. While the campground only has 5 spots, it’s only one of two set up for horse camping with a coral and feed storage. The eating and prep areas are large, and firepits are available (although prohibited when I was there). It had been a LONG day and I was glad for dinner and a night of rest.

Day 4 – Out along Blakeston Creek

It was another beautiful morning as I enjoyed the reflections in the mirror smooth waters of Lone Lake. Again the fire that burned so much of the park had spared this part around the lake and the campground. I chatted with a few other hikers who were headed the other way and started my way down along Lone Creek. While the first part is beautiful through forest and meadow, it’s not long before you re-enter the burn zone. Today the friendly clouds were scarce and it was quite a bit warmer than the previous three days. Before long you encounter a junciton to the unmaintained trail up to South Kootenay Pass 300m above you. Shortly past that is the junction between the trail to Twin Lakes and over Sage Pass (if you’re following the GDT), or the exit out to the Red Rock Parkway via the Blakiston Creek trail. For this trip, my path took me down the creek and a pick up waiting for me at the trailhead. After an initial drop, the trail follows the creek fairly closely as it drops over shallow shelves. As you get closer to civilization you come across the impressive Blakiston Falls. With the falls less than a km from the trailhead, it was considerably more crowded. Before long, I was at the parking lot and snoozing in the shade while I waited for my ride.

 

 

 

All in all it was a great 4 days on the trail. The day over Linham ridge pushed my limits, but it also showed me that I can do these longer (for me) day and opens the possibilities for summer 2022. I definitely want to come back and explore Twin Lakes and the section of the Great Divide Trail that lies beyond.

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