2009 - Storm in Jasper

3 September 2009

It was a bright, chilly day as Glenys and I set out to hike up to Geraldine Lakes near Jasper.  We were on holiday in Canada and had spent a week Kayaking in Vancouver before driving out to the Rockies for a couple of weeks' trail walking.  We drove 30 kilometres to Athabasca Falls, and then another six kilometres of rough forest track to the start of the Geraldine Lakes Trail.

Walking up the thickly wooded path to Geraldine Lakes

We set off at half past nine along the path through thick woods, mostly Lodgepole Pines, which are fairly thin (½ metre at the base) and very tall (up to 20 metres). It was very beautiful in the cool of the morning. An interesting path leads up to the first lake, which was very tranquil. We continued up the west shore of the lake through more trees, then into more open terrain through boulder fields and then up a steep path by the side of the cascade falls that feed the lake.

More boulder fields and wooded areas led past a small lake and impressive waterfall running off the second lake. The trail then goes up a very steep (and horrible) scree slope on the left of the waterfall which leads to the second lake through a nice path. We saw bear scat on this path, which increased Glenys’s “Bear Alert” nerves.

The second lake was stunning. We walked on the east shore, at times on a narrow path through small trees and at other times across boulder fields. Glenys was attacked by a small swarm of bees that must have been disturbed as I walked past. Only one sting fortunately.

We arrived at the campsite at the end of the second lake at half past twelve – it's very nice with a toilet, food hanging area by some picnic tables and some fabulous tent pitches right next to the lake shore. I wish that we’d brought a tent.

We had lunch sitting on boulders slightly back from the campsite, overlooking the lake and the campsite. The clouds had picked up during the day, but we had lunch in sunshine.

We slowly made our way back as the clouds gradually thickened. The descent of the horrible scree slope was suitably horrible, but we slithered our way down without any incidents.

By the time that we had reached the first lake, the wind was starting to gust and there was the oppressive feeling that you get when rain is imminent. We walked along the shore as the gusts got stronger – I wanted to watch the squall approach, but Glenys wanted to hurry on. Just as we approached the end of the lake, the rain started. We rushed into the forest pulling on our waterproof jackets.

Looking back down Geraldine Lakes, Canada

We started to worry about the trees. The gusts of wind were gale force and the trees were bending alarmingly – these are 30 metre high pine trees and, in these winds, the top 10 metres was being bent so much that the top was almost horizontal. The creaking and grinding of the trees was very loud. We continued into the forest getting more and more concerned by the ferocity of the storm.

As we hurried into the forest, the wind howled and branches started to fall to the ground. We started to move quicker. Then we started to hear the crack of trunks breaking and trees crashing to the ground. We walked even faster. We were inundated by the noise of the wind and the sounds of trees breaking very close to us, but we had no way of knowing which tree or where it was going to fall. Trees near to us were bending alarmingly - we started to run down the path.

The first of fifteen fallen trees across the forest track

Fallen trees blocked our path. We went over, around or under them. A tree crashed down off to our left. The wind howled, the trees to the right creaked and cracked, we stopped unsure where to go. We held hands ready to run in any direction. Branches crashed down, trees groaned. We ran down the path towards the car.

A flash of lightning lit up the forest. It must have been very close because the ripping thunder was almost instantaneous. I remember leaping over a tree like I was in a steeple chase race. After twenty stressful minutes, we ran into the parking area. The rain poured down and the wind howled, but it felt safer being next to the car, huddled under a little shelter with a galvanised tin roof.  We climbed wearily in to the car at quarter to four when the storm seemed to have passed.

We looked down the road and saw that a tree had fallen across the road. We walked down to have a look and it was a big tree. I tried to lift the lighter end – no chance of moving it. We briefly discussed using a climbing rope to try to drag the tree, but it didn’t look feasible (and would trash my rope) so we discounted it. I also thought that if there was one tree down then it was likely that there would be others.

We went back to the shelter and tried to ring the park wardens – no signal and then Glenys’ phone ran out of power. Despondent, we slumped in the back of the car and sat there in silence for 5 minutes. The wind had now abated and I suggested that we should walk down the forest road, because I thought that no one was going to come and get us for hours and maybe not until tomorrow.

Glenys eventually agreed, so at four o'clock, we donned waterproofs and started to walk the eight kilometres down. We climbed over the first tree and came across the next fallen tree just around the next bend. The remainder of the walk down was pleasant apart from having to climb over or around the other fourteen fallen trees. The rain stopped half way down and we arrived at the main road an hour later.

Park Ranger cutting up one of the smaller trees

Just as we walked out of the fire road, a park warden (Jen) pulled up and asked us if we were okay. We told her that we had just walked out, our car was still at the top and there were 15 fallen trees blocking the road. Jen said that she was here to make sure that everyone got out and she would clear the trees. She offered to give us a lift back up to the trailhead. She wasn’t supposed to give people a lift unless it was exceptional circumstances, but she reckoned this was exceptional. I asked how long it would take and she thought not long.

The first tree was a foot thick and totally straddled the road, suspended a foot off the ground at both ends by small earth banks. This put the tree trunk in “tension”. Jen walked around the tree and looked at the problem. She went and got a small chain saw out of her pickup. She started to cut from the top and, about half way through, the chain saw jammed in the wood as the tree flexed down. She then tried to hammer a plastic wedge into the cut which had no effect on the forces caused by the 20 metre span of the tree. I suggested that we could lever the tree up. I found a long piece of wood and, after piling up some rocks as a fulcrum, I levered the tree up while Jen kicked more rocks under the tree . This was enough to free the chainsaw and allow her to cut through it. She disposed of the tree in short order and we helped to clear the road of the debris.

The next few trees were smaller and Jen cleared them without a problem.  We arrived at the fifth one and it was in tension and thicker, on a slope. She radioed in to her station and said that there were 10 more trees and they said that they would send some one to assist. 

The backup arrived with a bigger chain saw and, with his help, we cleared the whole road - finally getting back to our car by half past seven. We drove down without any further rmishaps and drove back into Jasper into the supermarket to buy beer and something to eat, before returning to our B&B to collapse.