Helicopter Hiking: British Columbia’s Purcell Mountains

 Glaciers abound in the Selkirk Mountains, on the eastern edge of the meadow.
Glaciers abound in the Selkirk Mountains, on the eastern edge of the meadow.

A wall of hot, dry air whips my hair into octopus tentacles as I hunker down and dash toward the loudly clattering helicopter. I take the co-pilot’s seat and buckle up. The cacophonous beast rises into the air and gains altitude, heading into British Columbia’s Purcell Mountain Range. I turn sideways and grin excitedly, giving a thumbs-up to my husband and 12-year-old daughter, who have settled in behind me.

My grin gives way to a wide-eyed look of anxiety as the craft is buffeted by a thermal, dipping and diving mere feet from the top of a steep ridge. Then we zoom over the remaining ridgeline and the ground falls out from under us; a valley with a thin sliver of river appears thousands of feet below.

Eric and Kirsten emit “yahoos,” as though riding a bucking bronco; I cower briefly before summoning up my courage and enjoying the rest of the scenic ride.

Our destination: the luxurious Purcell Mountain Lodge, situated on the slopes of Bald Mountain in the middle of the Canadian Rockies, and surrounded by one of Canada’s largest alpine meadows (12 miles/20 km long and a half-mile/1 km wide), with rolling hills, clear lakes and wildflowers.

The rugged peaks of the Rocky Mountains and Glacier National Park surround the plush meadow like the pointy tips of a crown. The lodge is reachable only by helicopter — there are no roads in this mountainous wilderness.

I’m elated at the concept of getting to the 7,200-foot (2,200 m) lodge in a 15-minute helicopter ride — a far cry from the usual sweaty uphill slog of high-country hiking.

I watch as bare-topped mountain ranges come into view, then recede beneath the helicopter. Finally, I spy a building in a verdant basin next to a stream, and we begin our descent. Lodge staff is waiting near the helicopter pad, waving in welcome, as we approach.

We’re ushered into the lodge and are assigned our second-floor room, a cleverly compact space reminiscent of a stateroom on a boat, complete with built-in beds, luxurious down comforters and mounds of pillows in jewel tones. The room is trimmed in rich blonde wood accents, and a large window opens out to the fresh mountain air and inspiring alpine view.

Just off the hallway, a cozy library with well-stocked shelves of regional nature books; a telescope; and sliding doors that open to a deck; will become our favorite retreat spot.

For now, though, guests are gathering in the first-floor common room to prepare for an introductory hike. Harmony, a doe-eyed young woman with a voice like honey, leads our group, which includes long-legged John and Claire, young parents celebrating their anniversary; a 50ish British couple; and a French woman in her 60s.

I’ve never before done organized group hiking, but it’s necessary here, at least until we learn bear safety measures, as this is grizzly territory. A few years ago, a female grizzly raised her three cubs in the meadows here, entertaining guests.

Whistling Pacific ground squirrels seem to be the primary residents of these meadows this afternoon, though. Their piercing, electronic-sounding whistles echo throughout the meadow as they race from hole to hole along Lilliputian paths through the heather.

Kirsten squeals delightedly at their antics, and I smile. Harmony points out other animal signs. Bears are evident by the large holes where they burrowed into the soil in pursuit of squirrels. Scat found on the trail belongs to either elk or mountain goats, she says.

The views in every direction are incredible, with sloping, flower-filled meadows dotted with gray metamorphic outcroppings and massive white quartz boulders. Copses of subalpine firs add accents to the celadon green of the vast meadow, which stretches for miles to the east and west.

We approach the edge of the meadow and gaze thousands of feet down into a river valley, and across to the dusty-blue, glaciated Selkirk Mountains. The air is fresh but thin, and what would normally be a short ramble feels like harder work than at sea level. My stomach begins to rumble, and I’m happy to return to the lodge for dinner.

Our guides join us for a family-style salmon dinner, and tell us about the unique infrastructure that ensures that the lodge and its guests have minimal impact on the fragile meadow ecosystem. All building materials, including the massive beams, were flown into the site by helicopter.

An ingenious hydroelectric project harnesses the natural flow of a small nearby stream to furnish the electrical needs of the lodge, and waste water is collected and processed in an elaborate, ground-breaking treatment plant located beneath the lodge building, before being released as water.

Sunday morning, a mushroom-studded cheese soufflé, fruit salad and blueberry scones fortify us for a 4.5-mile (7 km) hike to two small, unnamed lakes. Our boots crunching on the hard-packed trail set a mesmerizing rhythm.

A golden eagle soars on thermals overhead, a trio of thrushes darts out of nearby bushes, and squirrels whistle a warning before our approach. We pause for a break at an overlook of Mount Sir Donald, and pass around binoculars to observe threadlike waterfalls falling from cliff faces.

A glacier’s cornice hangs heavily, held up by only a needle-thin pinnacle. “I’m waiting for that ice field to fall,” Eric says. “Yeah, we’ve been waiting for that to happen for at least a couple of years, now,” says Harmony, laughing.

Where the trail peters out, we fan out to spread out any damage. Monkey flowers, blue gentian, buttercups and pink fireweed grow alongside a marshy rivulet we step over, the ground wet as a sponge. The heather here is filled with the overblown seed heads of Western anemone, fluffy bobbleheads on tall stems. Kirsten pulls the fluff off and scatters the seeds as we walk.

In this rarified environment I see my pre-teen in a new light, noticing how she not only keeps up, but takes pride in pushing herself, taking the lead. We climb over Roller Coaster and Bus Stop hills before arriving at The Burn, a hillside where knee-high flame-red huckleberry bushes are loaded with ebony berries.

We eagerly pick and eat handfuls of the tangy, sweet treats. Grazing further, we come across mountain blueberries larger than the ones we grow in our garden. The rich-flavored berries hang in copious amounts on branches bent low. I grab handfuls, stuffing them into my mouth as I walk.

“We’ll meet you at the top!” Harmony calls, with a laugh, to John and Claire as they continue hiking.

We finally tear ourselves away and climb the hill to a precipice with a view of two alpine lakes, the shallow one on the left a vivid emerald green. We settle onto rocks atop the crest and pull out sack lunches. Before I can even bite into my sandwich, Eric announces, “I’m going to swim, first.”

He scrambles down a steep shale chute and picks his way across the boulder field at the bottom, then heads across a meadow toward the trees rimming the lake. We watch his progress with binoculars, then hear a splash and see ripples spreading on the calm water.

We hurriedly finish and scramble down, Kirsten in the lead. I dive in. The water feels tingly and refreshing, but surprisingly comfortable. After Kirsten and I emerge, dripping, Eric calls to me: “I have something to show you.”

He leads me 40 feet (12 m) along the shoreline from our swimming spot, and points to the ground. A massive set of grizzly tracks, still fresh-looking, are pressed into the soft mud.

We gather our things and hike back, filling plastic bags with berries on the way. Back at the lodge, we present them to Blue, the chef, who turns them into roast pork with a huckleberry glaze, broccoli with gruyere-huckleberry sauce and huckleberry/oatmeal coffee cake.

The next day dawns with a smoky haze; there are forest fires to the south, in Washington State. Everyone heads out in their own direction. John and Claire head downhill to follow the course of a river, others hike with Harmony to Bella Vista, a viewpoint. Eric and I head out to a tarn a couple of miles west that we spied on our way to Roller Coaster Hill.

On the way, we climb down a steep hillside where upthrusts of tilted shale glow in metallic colors in the sunlight. Piles of loose shale surround the formations. I pick through the silver, copper, rose and pale-blue flakes until I squeal with delight over a mirrorlike silvery oval.

At the tarn, a shale shelf forms a backrest for our picnic lunch. Eric dips his hands into the lake then, startled, shows me the cloud of red dots swimming in his cupped hands — tiny red shrimp. We watch the breeze skim the surface, then dive in. It’s glacier cold.

The helicopter transport provides guests with an exhilarating experience.
The helicopter transport provides guests with an exhilarating experience.

Quickly splashing out, we head to a swale filled with thick, fluffy mountain hairgrass and black alpine sedge, where we lie down to read as the sun sweeps across the sky. The wind shifts, setting the sedge heads quivering. A hawk flies in lazy circles.

In the evening, after another bountiful dinner, the place grows quiet, and Eric and I retreat to the wood-fired sauna. The fire crackles and hisses as the hut fills with dry heat, and I feel my muscles releasing their tension. After showers, we drift to sleep under a fluffy duvet next to a window filled with stars.

If You Go

Purcell Mountain Lodge opens for the summer season on July 7 this year; the fully catered season runs through September 22, 2007. Following this, the lodge is open through October 7 for group bookings. The lodge is equally well-known as a base for backcountry skiing during the winter.

www.purcellmountainlodge.com

Tourism Kootenay Rockies

www.kootenayrockies.com

Tourism British Columbia

www.hellobc.com

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