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mount smuts

Between a Rock and a Soft Place

By Hillary Russet

While on a hunt for a view of fabled Mt. Smuts in Alberta's spectacular Kananaskis Country, a Canadian climber finds that the adage "Don't look down" means missing out on some of the region's beauty.

mount smuts

"Where's Smuts?" I asked friend and guide Andre Gareau from the trailhead. The mountains before us were shrouded in so much mist I wondered if I would ever spy the local dedication to that historic South African statesman.

I had come across a reference to Mt. Smuts while searching for a day hike on our topographic map of Kananaskis Country, a 4000 km2 parcel of unspoiled land in the heart of the Canadian Rocky Mountains. It seemed fitting that, after having spent so much time in the hospitality of South Africans during my visits to that great nation, I should pay homage by exploring a mountain named in Smuts's honour.

My hiking mates and I arrived at the trailhead after an hour drive from the town of Canmore, Alberta, a picturesque community just west of Canada's oil capital, Calgary. Our route, dubbed the Smith-Dorrien Highway, was a 60 km-long gravel snake that climbed swiftly from Canmore to meander through the pristine Spray River Valley. Gazing out the car window, I was astonished by the utter majesty of the landscape: pinnacled granite faces appeared through wraithlike wisps of cloud, and jade-coloured forests of pine carpeted the mountainsides.

Kananaskis, named in the mid-1900s by famed Irish explorer John Palliser after a First Nations who miraculously survived a head blow with a tomahawk, enjoys a reputation as being among the most mystical wilderness regions in Southern Alberta. Within the boundaries of K-Country's montage of provincial parks and recreation areas, as well as in adjacent Banff and Jasper National Parks, grizzlies roam the glaciers and benchlands, big horned sheep tread the rocky slopes, cougars hunt and moose, their palmate antlers as wide as banquet tables, graze the flowered alpine meadows and marshes. But it was Smuts I was really longing to see.

The first kilometre of our hike made me giddy at having escaped the hubbub of my life in the big city. Our route followed an old maintenance road whose flanks were garnished with stalks of purple-coloured fireweed and feathery Indian paintbrush. Wild strawberry vines slowed our progress as the members of our group stopped to nosh on their fruity nuggets.

mount smuts

"This way!" Andre announced knowledgably when we came to a fork in the trail. We stared at the well-trodden path that was not to be our track and began questioning our leader's sense of direction. Certainly Smuts towered more to the west. All self-effacing Canadians, however, we followed along dutifully as the trail left open ground and began ascending through deep woods.

Entering the forest was like stepping into a fairytale world. Giant swordtail ferns and tall firs draping with treebeard enveloped us. Spongy mounds of velvety moss covered the ground, making our footfall light, and decaying blow-down turned the trail into a backwoods obstacle course. The lush terrain was decorated with colonies of colourful mushrooms. Blossoms of ruby-fleshed emetic russula, orange-hued fly agaric, yellow trumpet-shaped chanterelles and honey-hooded king bolete gave the appearance of fireworks on land.

The climb grew steeper as the day wore on, and eventually the path fanned into a confusing web of narrow game trails. Having escaped the city, I was grateful for the cathedral-like stillness that surrounded me. However, others in our troop, weary and anxious at the hour, were pining for the grander views above treeline. Jean-Francois, a retired lawyer unused to the rigour of backcountry travel, plunked himself on a seat of furry moss and refused to budge further. "I'll just rest here until you come back," he offered in a defeated voice. The threat of his becoming a meal for a passing wolf pack or rambling bear, though, encouraged him to remain with the group.

The rest of our afternoon passed much the same: a constant lumber up a trail so enchanting that time—at least for some of us—seemed to stand still. It gave me pause to think about the generations of First Nations who had once called Kananaskis home. Before the arrival of Europeans in the mid-1800s, the region was frequented by the Stoney Nakoda, a branch of the Sioux Confederacy named for their innovative way of cooking with heated rocks. For centuries the Stoney roamed the plains and foothills of the

Canadian West, harvesting berries and roots, and hunting for food and materials with which to make clothing and teepees. However, news of K-Country's bounty—its wildlife, virgin forest and mineral deposits—attracted settlers by the wagon-full, and in 1887, the Stoney, along with the neighbouring Blackfoot, signed a treaty with the British Crown surrendering their territory.

mount smuts

Today, the Stoney enjoy self-government—negotiated with Ottawa in the late 1960s—and are engaged in reclaiming by purchase some of their former land. But the old ways are long lost: ranching, forestry and involvement with the province's oil industry have replaced more traditional means of earning a living.

As we edged higher up the mountainside, pockets of overcast sky appeared through breaks in the dense foliage. Hiking became easier as trees thinned and the trail leveled out. Almost as if stepping through a doorway, we entered a clearing that was in stark contrast to the dark woods through which we'd been traveling. Blow-down stretched into the distance, making the land appear victim to clear-cut. We gazed at the austere terrain before us and became disappointed that our day's labour had culminated in a mess of collapsed firs and cedars beneath a lingering mist that allowed no view of Smuts or any of the other surrounding peaks.

As we turned to descend back to the trailhead, I noticed spears of fireweed and clusters of tiny mushrooms sprouting among the wreckage. The forest, like the Stoney, I mused, was re-asserting itself. The journey back to civilization was as uneventful as our climb: there were no encounters with bears or other beasts and no great peaks to steal our breath away—just a winding path through one of the most soul-feeding areas on earth, a place, I'm sure, Jan Christiaan would have smiled to behold.