A one-night trip can satisfy your need to go back to basics and nature. Just take an eight-hour hike to Johnston Creek in Banff National Park, with two days’ supply of food and water.
SINGAPORE (Apr 30): In summer, the sun sets at nine in the peaks of Canada’s Rocky Mountains. That sounds late, until I realise that after sunset I can no longer see past the trunk of the larch five metres in front of me. It is too dark to read or to brush my teeth.
The second thing I realise is that I do not really want to read, or even brush my teeth. It is enough that I have managed to bash tent pegs into the semi-frozen ground, cook a packet of mixed beans over a portable stove and string my breakfast 12ft above the ground so the bears cannot get to it. In case you are wondering, though, I did brush my teeth.
Last year, in pursuit of my inner Nick Adams, I went camping. The first words out of the mouths of every person who heard my story were: “Camping, or glamping?” They had never heard of Nick Adams, an Ernest Hemingway character who can catch his own fish for dinner. So, to illustrate my journey, I pull out pictures of my green tent and the wooden toilet shed built around a hole in the ground. Then, I tell them of an eight-hour uphill hike to Johnston Creek, with two days’ supply of food and water on my back.
Hiking through Banff National Park is like stepping through a desktop wallpaper. Everywhere I look, a green-and-gold tree line borders lakes and rivers in varying shades of blue. In the backdrop, snow-topped mountain ranges part the sky with a dusky hue.
On the edge of my campsite is the fast-flowing Johnston Creek. Skipping over the white rocks and scrambling through grey-brown scrub takes me to the quiet of Luellen Lake. I think about how beautiful it will look as the sun sets over the water, but dare not stay, as I am not sure whether I will make it back in the dark.
Camping has given me a unique appreciation of light. I have a lamp, purchased for $8.90 at Decathlon because I am not sure whether I will like camping enough to do it again. It casts a comforting glow in a metre-wide radius around me, but it cannot wrestle with the strong-armed darkness of the Canadian Rockies. I use the lamp to find the zippers of my tent flap and sleeping bag, then surrender to the mountain’s message: When the sun sleeps, you should too.
In the mountains, 1,940m above sea level, the sun is more important but less giving. Although it is the middle of summer, I wake up to a film of ice on the water that I purified the night before. I put on my hardshell and buff, but I know I will still be freezing after brushing my teeth. The thought crosses my mind that it is silly to have an irrepressible need to brush my teeth in the forest. After all, the last 24 hours have reduced my usual industriousness to actions of necessity only: one foot in front of the other up the mountain, build a shelter, purify water, eat.
Breakfast consists of three whole tinned sardines on a slice of bread. This is when I get my third epiphany: I should have spent more time researching food. Over the past month, I had researched trails, prepared for bear encounters and read up about camping etiquette. The three other people I have dragged on this mini adventure have been impressed by my thoroughness so far, but I now see misgivings in their eyes. Between us, we have four tic tac-sized boxes of raisins, a tin of chickpeas and a pack of kidney beans. And we are an eight-hour trek from a place where we can buy food.
In the forest, the only help for hunger is to keep walking. Fortunately, going downhill is not as arduous as going up. In 6½ hours, I descend 500m — fuelled by hunger and a desire to wash my hair. Waiting for me at the entrance to Johnston Canyon Lodge are an ice-cream vendor, flushing toilets and the heat of a glorious burning sun.
- The fastest way to get to Banff is to fly to Calgary International Airport, where you can rent a car. Johnston Canyon is a two-hour drive away;
- You have to book a campsite in advance (email [email protected]). The best ones are taken quickly in summer, so start your research now;
- Buy the best equipment you can afford. Light tents and warm sleeping bags will produce a better experience;
- Trails are marked with difficulty levels — beginner, moderate and difficult — but this grading system can be misleading. If you are attempting elevation of more than 300m or hiking more than 10km in a day, you should be reasonably fit; and
- Bring more carbs than proteins and opt for light, dry food: couscous, lentils, oats. Spam and baked beans may be typical camping foods on TV, but they are really for the glamping sort.
This article appeared in Issue 828 (Apr 30) of The Edge Singapore.