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Athabasca Crossing Icewatch: Skiing the Fortress Lake Trail

Easy Ski Tour
Round Trip Distance [km]: 
Net Elevation Gain [m]: 
Total Elevation Gain [m]: 
One Downed Tree
Monday, January 8, 2018

After a long chilly batch of arctic air had taken residence in Jasper it seemed a good time to go take a look at how the river ice along the Athabasca was doing.  A variety of trips could be possible after crossing the river, but after having forded it several times back in 2014 during the winter (knee deep and very chilly) knowing that the river ice is good to know ahead of time seemed a prudent step.  If anything, the Fortress Lake Trail to the old bridge at Athabasca Crossing is cross country ski terrain.  Having only touring skis those would have to do!

Leaving from the Sunwapta Falls trailhead the first thing to note on a river-ice scouting trip is the sketchyness of the shelf ice below Sunwapta Falls.  Despite being fairly thick there was a solid 6 foot drop from the bottom of the ice to the now (lower) water level.  Pretty spooky stuff breaking through that...  The first 6 km of the trail to the Big Bend campsite were quite well-traveled with a medley of boot tracks, cross country ski tracks, and beast tracks (of beasties tall and small) and gave just enough of a base to ski along nicely.


A very empty parking lot at Sunwapta Falls.


Quite the combination of all kind of tracks.


Looking up towards Dragon Creek from the Big Bend Campsite the soft blue glint of waterfall ice can be seen.  While it doesn't look like a very impressive flow the backside of Dragon Peak would be a pretty neat place to check out (and having some climbable ice could give a bit more spice to an exploratory trip up there sometime later this winter).  The stampede of tracks did not carry on south towards Athabasca Crossing instead only one faded set of cross country ski lead onwards (still with just enough snow cover to not feel bad skiing without skins on).  It is a little less than 16 km from the trailhead to Athabasca Crossing Campground, with another 500 m or so to where the old bridge used to stand.  

A bit gloomy but still impressive looking over to Dragon Peak and the Big Bend Campsite.


Zoomed in towards the flow of ice in upper Dragon Creek.


At the junction where the trail to the Chaba Warden Shelter splits off.


It is quite sad that the bridge over the Athabasca will probably not be replaced for quite some time.  Logistics for investing in a replacement bridge are complicated as from JNP's perspective the bridge "doesn't really lead anywhere", other than into the lovely Fortress Lake in Hamber Provincial Park BC.  Though on the other side of the coin, it would be strange for BC Parks to pay for a bridge in Jasper.  Hopefully at some point the two organizations can come to an understanding and split the costs, while the Chaba River can be fairly easily forded the Athabasca is a much more fearsome foe.

By the old bridge site, still some open water going through the middle of the channel.


A picture back from the summer of 2013 when the bridge was still around.


Zoomed in towards the frosty flowing water.


Getting in to camp things were actually feeling fairly warm and a couple hot chocolates later with a cozy tent to retire to it was shaping up to be a nice relaxing evening.  If winter camping is good for one thing it is catching up on sleep.  Skiing down to where the old bridge used to start there were still a few patches of open water right in the middle of the channel.  Still not fool-proof river ice conditions yet everywhere.  When the sun sets around 1700, curling up with a book and then passing out around 1900 seems pretty reasonable to me.  After sunset the wind started to pick up and the eerie creaking and moaning of moving trees was the musical background for the evening.
The next morning waking up without an alarm was a very refreshing change of pace.  Seeing daylight it had to have at least been 9ish, and it turned out to in actuality be closer to 1030.  A couple instant espresso/hot chocolate concoctions further refreshed me to a point where thinking about packing up and skiing back to the car would be a good idea.  Before leaving a quick scout further downstream from the old bridge showed a few places where the ice actually looked decent.  Another week or two and getting over to Fortress or the upper Chaba River would probably be pretty decent.

A bit further downstream things looked much better.


The ski back to the car was quite uneventful with one side trip to check out the Chaba warden cabin compound.  There was a plan floated in the paper back in the summer about Parks possibly opening some of the warden cabins including the Chaba to recreational use in the winter.  No sign of that materializing this year but hopefully next one!  The rest of the ski back to the trailhead became increasingly frosty as another parcel of arctic air was making its was into the park.  The overnight low in town was going to be -28!

Heading back along the trail, not a lot of snow but just enough for skiing.


The view from the bay where the Chaba Warden Shelter resides.


Not using skins is a bit of a workout on the few hills that are on the trail.


Stopping for a bit of hot chocolate at the Big Bend Campsite before skiing the rest of the way back.


All in all certainly not a very adventurous or difficult trek but good to get and out camp (it had been a distressingly long time since I had stayed in a tent!).  It will be good to come back in a few weeks and hopefully armed with a more gnarly mission.

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