For the better part of a quarter century, I’ve been proud to call the Rocky Mountains of Canada home.
After so many years living here, I’ve found people tend to make assumptions on what it means to live in a mountain town.
One is that I must be a power hiker and be climbing the peaks and valleys of the mountains every weekend. While that wasn’t true when I first moved here, over time my relationship to the trails outside my back door has changed.
In the early 2010s, I finally noticed that I lived in the Rocky Mountains. It was a total accident.
I had already lived in the Eastern Slopes for about 14 years in the little town of Grande Cache but I really hadn’t ventured outside town limits. There was no particular reason, it just stayed that way until the day my 8-year-old son came home, announcing I was taking him hiking.
He had an inspiring and life-changing presentation in late May at his school by a retired teacher, Jack Deenik. Mr. Deenik had come in and talked about hiking a mountain and why everyone should hike at least one mountain in their lifetime.
Conveniently, he shared some information on how to do that. All the instructions were in a book from the Grande Cache tourism center called Passport to the Peaks.
Part of an incentive program to get folks out in the mountains, the book ranks 21 local peaks by difficulty: bronze, silver and gold. The top of each peak has a unique stamp to “collect” in your passport and completing all of the peaks qualifies you for a pin and kudos in the tourism center.
So with a little convincing from my son, we bought a book. Looking back it was the best $60 I ever spent!
Those early days of hiking started after school ended for the year. With the Passport, my kids, some friends, and lunch from a local submarine shop, we were ready, right? Not quite.
Little did I know how unprepared we were. As I look back on that trip, I can’t help but shake my head. What was I thinking? In plain and simple terms — I wasn’t.
Oh that first trip! Hiking up Ambler Mountain felt like we were going to conquer the world. We had looked it up in the book, it said it was 6,250 feet of altitude and would take 3 to 4 hours round trip. It was the shortest trip in the book so seemed like the most logical place to start. But thinking back to this, I probably should have done a little more research to prepare myself.
I packed the wrong food, we ran out of water, one of us got a severe heat stroke, but we made it to the top! Over the summer, my son and I completed five out of the six peaks classified as bronze. I’m going to tell you right now that for an 8-year-old that was incredible and still is. Even if we didn’t think so at the time.
The next year I talked to my son about hiking for summer, but he was done. He did it, that was last summer, this year was archery, he was moving on. But I wasn’t done. I enjoyed being outside, I enjoyed being unplugged and for once I felt like this was something I could do. Now I am not athletic, I’ve tried. But this was different. I could do this however I wanted, with whomever I wanted. Thus it began.
So with a few girlfriends, we started hiking the Passport to the Peaks. At that time I was running quite a bit so the mountains were a challenge but a very attainable one. We could get up early and give ‘er. Get to the top, take a picture, enjoy the view and grocery store before 6 p.m. closing time. That was the goal — everyone got supper.
As the years passed and I finished the bronze mountains and started venturing to the silver and gold peaks, that is when I really learned about hiking and why I was hiking.
It became a huge focus in my life. It gave me purpose and challenged me. I learned to navigate with a compass, started learning more about edible and medicinal plants, and retraced some of my younger days of being in the bush with my father.
The backcountry changed the way I felt and looked at myself. I felt competent and comfortable and found myself really promoting women to join me. As day trips became overnight trips, I purchased enough second hand gear and shared with my companions what I didn’t have and started overnighting. I went from “live in” the mountains to “living” in the mountains.
“The mountains have become a way for me to renew my spirit and celebrate my life.“
I have now been hiking the Eastern Slopes and Willmore Wilderness Park for about 13 years. I have hiked most of this community’s beautiful mountains and been so grateful to do so. There have been good days, bad days, sprained ankles, a broken back, wipe outs, bee stings, upset stomachs, some tears and of course a few good laughs.
As a woman, mother and wife, I have learned so much about myself. The mountains have become a way for me to renew my spirit and celebrate my life.
As I prepare for another hiking season, I still have mountains to conquer to finish my passport and I can’t wait to go. The mountains have changed from scenery to a huge part of my life and the priceless moments I have shared with many amazing family and friends while hiking in them.
I cherish this, because I am Renee in the Rockies!
Renee’s 10 tips for beginner hikers
- Make pre-trip preparations. Research, ask questions, know your route and always let someone know where you plan to go. If you have a GPS, bring it but know how to use it.
- Start small. You can learn a lot very quickly. A one-hour hike can answer a lot of questions that you didn’t know.
- Shoes and socks. Your feet are super important as they are your means to travel.
- Water. You can live without food but you can’t live without water! It’s really important to stay hydrated.
- Bring the right food. Think about what travels well and has the right nutrition.
- Don’t carry too much weight. This is unnecessary and gets old fast. Pack what you need.
- Be prepared. Bring bear spray and keep it handy. Having a Band-Aid or Advil can be a lifesaver when on the trail. Plan for the unexpected.
- Dress in layers. Mountain weather is unpredictable. Hot, cold, wind, rain and snow can happen easily in one day. Dress for it.
- Know your limits. Everyone wants to get to the top but know when you can’t. It’s okay to turn around and try another day. Always play it safe.
- Don’t go alone. Always bring a buddy — not only for good conversation, it’s also safer.
This article was written by Renee Fehr, one of Y2Y’s 2022 story gatherers. These four unique people are sharing personal stories, memories and places related to the special landscapes of Alberta’s Eastern Slopes, often perspectives that are underrepresented in mainstream media. Read other stories in this series.