The call came over the walkie-talkie while I fought to adjust the mesh mosquito hood around my face. The insects were already swarming us, and we’d barely exited the car after a 90 km drive from Golden into the valley below British Columbia’s Purcell Mountain range.
“Base to Kevin, come in,” squawked the box. “Kevin here, over,” he replied.
An experienced mountain hiking guide, Kevin Blades was tasked with leading my husband and I on the 13 km, 4-6 hour trek from this narrow, forestry road to our destination – Purcell Mountain Lodge, a backcountry lodge accessible via helicopter from Golden, or via hiking and mountain biking from the valley below.
Apparently, staff at Purcell were calling in to report they’d just spotted Cinch, the Lodge’s resident grizzly bear. And she was not alone.
“Cinch is in the area, and she’s got three cubs with her!” reported Jason, another lodge guide, with excitement. This was the first sighting of Cinch that summer season, and it was mid-August.
“She’s headed down the Hydro Hill trail towards you, so heads up,” were the final words before Blades acknowledged the message and signed off.
This was a slightly ominous beginning to our hike. It was not the comforting way that I’d hoped to begin our trek uphill to Purcell. In addition to crossing glacial rivers and up forest paths, we’d be walking through fields of huckleberries. These fields were a favorite grazing spot for bears who loved to feast, for hours at a time, on the sweet alpine berries.
There was no choice, we literally had nowhere to go but up – and through – the huckleberry fields. So we laced up our hiking boots and started walking.
Purcell Mountain Lodge
Purcell Mountain Lodge is a luxury backcountry lodge in the alpine wilderness of eastern British Columbia, just west of the Canadian Rockies. There are over 30 backcountry lodges scattered throughout B.C., offering unique access to the pure wilderness of Canada’s most mountainous province.
Operating since 1990, Purcell is celebrating more than 30 years of great outdoor adventures in the mountains. The Lodge, perched on Bald Mountain on the edge of Glacier National Park, offers three seasons of outdoor pursuits for everyone to enjoy. Summer hiking season runs from June to September. In the winter, guests enjoy alpine ski touring, split boarding and snowshoeing in the winter from December to April.
This was our second visit to Purcell in as many years. The summer of 2019 saw us pass over the Selkirk and Purcell mountain ranges via helicopter with our son for a long weekend of hiking and eating gourmet food. It was an idyllic holiday and the perfect active adventure for our family of hiking enthusiasts.
During the pandemic summer of 2020, the opportunity to explore locally in our own province of British Columbia was irresistible. We jumped at the chance to travel from Vancouver to Golden once more to rediscover our beautiful home. But this time, instead of flying into Purcell from Golden via helicopter, as it guests usually do, we chose to return by hiking up to the lodge with our guide Kevin Blades; happy to return once more to marvel at the beauty of the mountains and enjoy the food and high-quality guiding at Purcell.
A Hiking We Will Go
On this occasion we planned to hike in with our own private hiking guide. This is a guest service that Purcell Lodge offers for those wanting the full in and out hiking experience.
Blades has worked at Purcell for 13 seasons. In addition to being a calm and affable hiking guide, he is a ski instructor and snowshoe touring guide based in Kimberley.
The pandemic hit both B.C.’s skiing and hiking industries particularly hard. International travel was severely curtailed, and the tourism market became limited to local travelers. Many backcountry lodges catering to international tourists or whose set up made it difficult to operate under the province’s health guidelines did not open at all during summer 2020.
However, on this sunny day in mid-August, Blades was cheerful; both to be hiking in the great outdoors and working in the industry he loves. As we walked steadily along the narrow trail, we were surrounded by fragrant pine forests and the sounds of small birds calling to one another. The weather was perfect for our trek.
Every few minutes, Blades would let out a loud ‘hey-o,’ which served notice of our presence to any large wildlife, giving them the chance to saunter away. The calls are much preferred to ‘bear bells,’ which Blades referred to as ‘dinner bells,’ owning to their feeble sound which would fail to scatter any ursus arctos horribilis in the vicinity.
At a certain point on the hike, it occurred to me that we were going off-piste. The trail had disappeared, and the forest was closing in on us – sweaters caught on tree branches and the trekking became more like bushwhacking through the thick undergrowth.
Whether by design or accident, we were lost.
Lost, but not for long
Bales swears to this day that he didn’t take us madly off in another direction to avoid Cinch and her three cubs. I believe him. Though it would have been the prudent move if she had been heading in our direction. As much as I’d love to see bears, I have no desire to come face to face with a grizzly. Let alone a Mama with three cubs in tow.
After 45 minutes of serious work, we regained the trail, much to our collective delight. We stopped at Baird creek, sweating from our efforts, to enjoy our packed samosa lunches, energy bars, and water; laughing at how quickly our hike had become a hot mess.
I was never worried about our situation; never fearful that we wouldn’t regain the trail and continue on as planned. That’s the benefit of hiking with a professional guide who has the gear, knowledge and skill to get you from point A to B in safety and with a smile on your face upon arrival.
After our brief misadventure, we approached the flat valley of thick huckleberries that lay before our final ascent to the Lodge. I wondered. Had Cinch and cubs already passed through, or were they hidden somewhere in the six-foot tall, closely packed green bushes?
Any bear or cub feasting on the sweet alpine berries would be impossible to spot until it was too late. Blades upped the frequency of his callouts and I rapped my hiking poles together to make even more noise.
We were lucky. The lateness of the season meant that the huckleberries had already been devoured. The field no longer offered food for the bears, and we passed through the thick brush of the valley without incident.
We ascended the final leg of our journey to the Lodge along the Hydro Hill Trail, the one that Cinch and her brood had descended just hours earlier. The hike’s total elevation gain of 600 meters wasn’t overly strenuous, but our off-piste section had added some time and effort to our hiking adventure. After six hours hiking in the late-summer sun, I couldn’t wait for a hot shower and to enjoy a freshly made Gin and Tonic while enjoying the mountain views on the deck of my room.
A fine way to begin a backcountry hiking adventure, if there ever was.
Pandemic Protocols at Purcell Mountain Lodge
We stayed in a cosy room in the main lodge, as we’d done the previous summer. However, in keeping with provincial health guidelines, Purcell made several important changes to ensure guest safety during the pandemic summer of 2020. These remain in place for summer 2021.
The Lodge has limited its capacity to 50% of normal, so rooms could be properly sanitized and empty between guest visits. Reduced capacity also helps to ensure physical distancing during meal service. There are sanitizer stations everywhere, and masks are required when walking around the lodge. In the pre-trip checklist, we had to sign off on our good health status.
Guests have to bring their own sleeping bags to limit potential cross-contamination. (We’d sent our bags and suitcases in the helicopter and hiked in with a backpack of essentials.) Laundry services are at a premium in a backcountry lodge. Like everything else – food, alcohol, propane tanks and other supplies – linens come and go via helicopter. So doing our small part to be sustainable and ensure safety protocols was no big thing.
Will Hike for (Delicious) Food
One of the best aspects of B.C.’s backcountry lodges, almost equal to the magnificence of the surroundings, is the gourmet food that is prepared by professional chefs who rotate in to the lodges weekly.
In my humble opinion, the food at Purcell is as delicious as the mountain views. Breakfasts are hearty, including proteins, grains and fruit to provide energy for the day. Guests are given generous pack lunches to fuel 4-6 hour long hikes. Après hike (and ski in winter) appetizers are served every day as guests swap adventure stories or read books by the fireplace in the cozy communal living room. Guides and staff serve delicious multi-course dinners accompanied by a bar service that’s tallied at the end of the stay.
The Lodge Chef can accommodate dietary needs and restrictions with advanced notice. Chef Heidi had no problem catering to our vegan/vegetarian diets with truly scrumptious and healthy meals that were as tasty as they were beautifully presented.
Note: *Purcell’s hiking and skiing adventures are all-inclusive, except for alcohol and gratuities.
If spending a day hiking up to Purcell Lodge or through alpine meadows to the summit of Copperstain Mountain, watching the retreating glaciers of the impressive Selkirk Mountain Range, spotting a host of wild animals and birds, and enjoying gourmet food is up your adventure alley, planning trip to one of B.C.’s best backcountry lodges at Purcell Mountain Lodge will make for an unforgettable adventure holiday.
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Disclosure: The writer thanks Purcell Mountain Lodge for its hospitality in hosting her during this hiking adventure. As always, her opinions on hiking and gourmet food are honest and her own.
Photos: Claudia Laroye