I have all the gear: hiking boots with high tech socks, waterproof Eddie Bauer parka shell and wool sweater for waterproofness and insulation, hiker daypack by The North Face with a mini first aid kit, lighter, bear spray, multi tool, Kleenex, even a toothbrush.
When I happened upon a turn to the Wapta Falls trailhead just off of the Canadian Transcontinental Highway, I couldn’t resist the thought of taking all this gear down the 2.4 km trail to Wapta Falls and back; except that a family of four was headed down the trail at that very moment, and I thought it would be safer to hike near a group. That’s what they tell you in all the visitor’s centers. So I left certain pieces behind that would have taken me too long to prepare: boots and parka for one thing.
I was wearing a really good pair of clogs from Brown’s shoe store in Lincoln…the same place I got my Hawaiian sandals that form to the shape of the bare foot (orthopedic, but they don’t look like it). I left the wool sweater behind, because I was wearing a microfiber zip-up I had bought in Lake Louise (complete with the logo).
None if those omissions was critical, since I didn’t get lost overnight, I didn’t get hurt, and it didn’t rain. The family turned back partway down the trail, and I just made sure my keys jingled with every step to announce my presence to any wild creatures.
Turns out, the fateful omission that day was socks.
With the socks, I think I could have made the clogs work. Barefoot, even within those well-made clandestinely orthopedic clogs, 4.8 km (the equivalent of about 1.5 miles roundtrip), the clogs were a disaster.
I could tell from the twinges on the inside edges of the balls of my feet that it would be a problem about halfway to the falls, but I was called forward by a forest wonderland that trumped what I had already seen and marveled at in the beginning of the trail. The path morphed from a gravel, wood-rail-sided wide, straight track to a wandering quiet, earthen, organic trail covered with soft pine needles and cool dampness, rising with the mountain to unknown wonders. Ask me how I know the surface of the trail was cool…
On the way to the falls, I was struck almost breathless by the absorbing richness of the forest. I’ve noticed there is a difference in the forest here from what I’ve seen in the Colorado and Wyoming Rocky Mountains. The timber stands are more verdant, the green is golder, and there is a primeval haze between the trunks that also seems to sit lightly on top of the scrubby brush just yards to either side of the trail.
I was almost happy that the family had turned around. There was a connection between me and this forest, and I found myself slowing down, not only because my feet stung. All of a sudden I noticed things. The contrast between the underbrush, much of it likely undisturbed for centuries, and the fresh cut of a prone tree at the edge if the path.
I noticed silver grey flakes of moss covering the undisturbed shrunken twigs and branches of long-dead cedars or pines (hard to tell without the needles). Without timber rails or gravel to maintain the edge of the trail here in the thick of the trees, there was a blurring of the line between wilderness and the one meandering sign of civilization.
I found three different types of red and orange berries; wispy tall wheat-like fronds that brushed my hands almost as a whispered welcome to this place; occasional gaps between the trees that extended into the forest for a mile, as if it was a secret trail only I could see.
Gradually, tree roots began to weave themselves in and out of the surface of the path, creating a feeling of structure and movement under my feet. I imagined each of these leading to and from a tree underground, peeking above for just a moment, playfully placing themselves in my way. This is nature, interacting with me, the explorer. The roots seemed happy to be discovered for the thousandth time by a visitor.
I met occasional hikers on their way back to the parking lot, and always asked them how far I had to go and whether it was worth the trek. They always said not far, and definitely. They didn’t know I was trekking with bare feet in clogs. I almost turned back five times, but I knew I would regret it. Even if I got blisters on my feet, I would not regret the blisters. So, I kept on…and I absolutely did not regret it.
After awhile, I realized it was the shoes causing the problem, not the hike itself, so I removed the shoes. That’s when I discovered the pleasant, earthy, cool feel of the soft path. I walked “like an Indian,” as my dad taught me when I was a kid: slightly bent knees, toe-first on every step, feeling the earth beneath me and hearing it talk to me, feeling the world around me and connecting to it through my feet. I know, it sounds corny. But if you had been there with me, feeling that feeling, you would know what I mean.
The coolness and softness of the trail soothed my soles, and I even dipped the sore balls of my feet into any “clean” pockets of mud I could find to further cool the sting. In this way, on a trail I now had all to myself with a promise of dusk coming, I found my way to the falls.
I stood and watched the falls, smiling a smile as wide as the river bed. Then I sat on a log bench provided there and ate a few oatmeal cookies, thinking about those who discovered this falls for the first time. There would have been no chain-link fence to keep them from killing themselves with an accidental tumble off of the VERY high river bank on this side. There would have been no soft path…they probably could not have gone barefoot.
Wapta Falls, on the downhill side of this mountain, comes off of a wide upper ledge of rock in the Kicking Horse River. The water ripples through a bed of boulders and rocks just under the surface of the water before free-falling to the lower level of the river. Along one stretch of the fall, the water shoots straight into the lower, wider river and stretches its legs around a corner that is almost shocking to see in a river. We think of rivers as being straight and true.
Along another stretch of the fall, the water pummels a thick, high ridge of rock before hitting bottom. The result is an upward spray of water and mist so heavy there are rivulets coming down the opposite rock face…a beautiful, churning dance of water I have no doubt could not be duplicated by man. Some of this water spills into a quiet pool created by a bowl of rock in the inside crook of the river’s turn. The water there was so still I wondered if it was fresh or a rancid kind of billabong (dead section of river).
All of a sudden I knew I’d had my fill of this beautiful place. I packed up my only-slightly used pack and headed back up the hill, putting on my clogs for the first stretch of the path, which was covered by rock. I met two people coming down, and thought it was almost as if I had sensed they were coming. It was their turn to admire the falls.
I vaguely thought it might be embarrassing to be seen walking barefoot, so I waited until they were out of sight before removing my shoes again. As the shadows grew at the base of the trees, I walked very slowly, soaking in more of the beauty I had seen on the way in, this time with a familiarity that allowed me to see even more secret, small treasures and views between the trees. I half hoped I would see a bear or a bighorn sheep. Something in me believed they would connect with me and welcome me as tenderly as the wispy fronds. But I know better…and that’s why I have the jingling keys and canister of bear spray!
My feet were sore, but no sorer than each minute before–as long as I was on the forest path. The couple passed me on their return trip, no doubt wondering if I was crazy to walk barefooted. The woman led, walking quickly with bear bells jingling, never once looking to the side or up, as far as I could tell. The man trailed behind. They had made their destination, and now wanted to get back to their car as quickly as possible.
I followed them, meandering first to one side of the path then to the other, thinking, taking pictures, and letting my feet rest. When the straight-edged gravel resumed, I had to put the clogs back on, and I slowed down even more. I began to calculate and wonder how far the parking lot was and guess how bad my feet would be when I finally reached home (the Jeep, Rocinante). I imagined having to stay out here for the night to let my feet rest. Not a good idea, since I had left the parka shell and wool sweater at the truck.
In a way, my so feet were a blessing. In the slowness of my pace, I saw more, felt more, imagined more. I realized this hike was a case of serendipity with a cost, but a cost that was very much worth it…so far.
Finally, I recognized the end of the path. It was not with relief, but with regret, I realized the adventure was almost over. At once, I felt stupid for setting out on a hike without the things I knew were important. I hadn’t even told anyone where I was. But I also felt a specific kind if joy I could never have otherwise felt. It’s a balance, I told myself. Try not to be too stupid next time I decide on the spur of the moment to explore a trail to a waterfall, but remember to slow down as if I had been.