Watermelon Snow and The Dynamic Landscape of the Burstall Pass Hike

Burstall Pass is one of my favourite Kananaskis hikes partly because it gets you up into a stunning alpine meadow relatively easily, but mostly because it has a fun, dynamic delta crossing. The run-off meltwaters from the Robertson glacier cascade down through a great big gravel fan of a marshland, passing through the landscape in a ton of shallow little meltwater streams, and every year the trail through that area changes.

This makes for a fun game of hide ‘n seek as you try to spot the signposts that emerge through the gravel, marking your way diagonally across the watery delta to the forested slopes on the other side. You’d be wise to pack a pair of sandals for the crossing to keep your boots and socks dry… or at the very least carry an extra pair of socks and wear gaiters. (See this and more tips at the end of this post.)

With the heating up of the day, more melt occurs and more water flows through the delta as a result. Then the streams rise a bit, which changes things up yet again, making it more interesting on your return: the waters are deeper, the channels run faster and the whole landscape seems, well, more dynamic, more fluid. It’s simply loads of fun and super refreshing on a hot day!

Come along on this hike and see why it has so many of my favourite alpine elements, including blooming flowers and fascinating, extremophile algae blooms. You’ll soon understand why it’s a hike we return to time and again. [And… in case you were holding your breath, Keng & David DID decide to hike with us again, despite our aborted, snow-filled romp (with tumbles) at the Sparowhawk Tarns when they were last through this way on their exploration of our Canadian Rocky Mountains.]

This is soft adventure at its best.

Once the trail leaves the fire road behind, it looks like this, approaching the gravel-carpeted forest on the edge of the delta.
This is the only bridge available to cross on the delta. After this, you’re on your own to navigate your way through it and across to the low lying forest area to the left of centre in this photo.
As you head across, you are looking for sign post markers like this one below Mount Birdwood, and it IS actually hard to find them once you’re into the dense foliage of the bushes that are scattered throughout the watery landscape.
It’s a watery crossing, but not too bad in the morning.
There’s two ways to tackle it: #1 put on gaiters and plough through all the streams and rivulets like Bill, here, or…
… #2 try your best to leap and keep those feet dry (while those who have done it before chuckle at this folly)….
…until you give up… and opt for sandals! (Heh heh heh). Even then, you still try to find bits of land to hike on, because this is glacial meltwater, and it is C-O-L-D!
This is where the trail emerges on the other side of the delta. Then it’s into the forest once again.

After a short uphill hike through the forest, you emerge into the first meadow, a subalpine one thick with grasses and taller flowers. A wide open landscape it is filled with flowers.

Usually this is the best time to catch it in bloom, but things feel a good 3 weeks or more behind this year. Nevertheless, the trail had a thick carpet of flowers along its edges, making for such a beautiful crossing.

The flowers grow thickly along the edge of the trail.
At the far end of the subalpine meadow, we came across this avalanche slide path.
We always get such a thrill hiking across snow in shorts!
And we’re not the only ones! What four-legged hiker can resist a good roll in a patch of snow!?
This was a wide, open avalanche path, that’s for sure. Seen in the landscape you lose all perspective… but put some people in it (can you see them up ahead on the trail there?), and you can appreciate its sheer size. Look at the sheer number of broken tree bits and you get a sense of its incredible power!

Despite the warm temperatures, this snow’s density, caused by the way the edges of the crystals in the snow structure sheer off and pack down during a catastrophic avalanche event, make the snow of an avalanche path almost like cement. This means that it will take a long, long while to melt & disappear. It’s amazing to think of the power behind such a plummet. The way an avalanche transforms the snow it carries, and the effect it has on the landscape as a whole, bending and breaking trees off, scattering them in its wake like matchsticks… it’s crazy!

Soon we were heading up through another section of forest… one not felled by a white, landscape devouring monster.
There’s no doubt about it, gaiters and shorts make for some high alpine fashion… we were certainly having fun!
Being in a massive landscape where the trees are smaller and thinner is a neat experience. And that Birdwood Peak… it’s a mountain rising up as if drawn from the imagination of a child. A perfect triangle! (Bill and I kept looking back on it.  It’s such a beauty! Completing the Birdwood Traverse is still on our list… we’ve had one attempt so far.)
Leaving the trees behind, we started a climb up into the upper alpine meadow.
We’d come up that long valley in the background.
Our trail became a meltwater stream, the water running beneath and around our boots as we approached the headwall (that band of grey cliff up ahead between the snows).
IMG_5068 2.jpg
Even in this harsh, still snowy, alpine environment, the flowers were blooming.
It’s a huge place to explore up there, and off in the distance, just over that rise, is the French Glacier.
The cairn at Burstall Pass. We’d made it! Now to find a good spot for lunch.
On the other side of this snow, behind the mangled sign, is Banff National Park.

Do you notice the pink streaks in the snow of the photo above? That’s called watermelon snow and sometimes, blood snow. There are extremophile animals and plants the world over that can live in the most inhospitable of environments. In this case, the pink is actually an algae… one that is cryophilic. It absolutely thrives in and on frozen water! Believe it or not, it is not actually a pink algae….Chlamydomonas nivalis is green… with a good dose of red pigment in it.

Back in the early 1800s, early mountaineers in the Scottish highlands, and arctic explorers from Greenland through to those searching for the Northwest Passage in the Baffin Bay area first documented its occurrence, scientifically. They initially thought the red snow streaks were either mineral deposits from rocks and soils in the area, blown over the snow’s surface, or debris from meteors, scattered from above, and assumed the red colour came from iron. Robert Brown, a Scottish paleobotanist, is credited with tentatively recognizing it for what it was, an algae, on a voyage he undertook in 1818.

We were curious too, as it seemed to be everywhere up at the pass! The algae (a million cells in a teaspoon) lie dormant in the winter, in the surface layer, up to ten inches deep in the snow. Then, in the spring, when the increasing daylight, the warmer temps and the meltwater occur, they leap into action, germinating and blooming into life. So it was not just flowers that were blooming all around us up there!

We found a perfect spot for lunch, up on the edge of the headwall with boulders for seats.
All around us, the white mountain heather bloomed in little carpets between boulders and patches of red-streaked snow.
Lunch time needed a puffy coat for warmth. We were up high, it was a bit windy, and we’d worked up a sweat getting here, so you cool down quite quickly.
Our lunch spot views.
And this… this is mountain scenery that’s about as good as it gets!
Keng & David at lunch, full of fuel and ready to explore.
After lunch we explored around a bit, heading over toward the glacier.
There were lots of flowering alpine plants. We took in our fill of the beauty, and then headed back down the trail.
…. and by down, I mean DOWN!! We each had a slip of one sort or another, coming down through the soft snow on the trail. That’s the thing about mountain hiking… it’s always tougher on the descent.
Back across the avalanche track.
Down through the steep forest.
And into water that was deeper now.
Heading into the delta… I had sandals on but I knew that meltwater was cold so I didn;t plunge in right away! Mr. Dainty Paws followed me across on the log. He’s part cat. I know it.
And it really was frigid!
After a while you’re numb to its effects…
Heading out across my favourite part of the hike.

A few tips for the hike:

  • wear gaiters and bring extra socks for this hike OR
  • bring sandals (flip flops might not work as well in the current as the water levels rise),
  • build in extra time to explore up top… the flowering meadow of the pass and the area approaching French Glacier are HUGE and you can add on a hike around the backside of Birdwood Mountain that is definitely worth doing,
  • to cut short the boring part of the hike in and out on the old fire road, bring mountain bikes (it’s challenging to pedal in hiking boots with a backpack, but it maximizes your time on the fun part and is a super fun, downhill “out” at the end of the day when you’re tired),
  • bring a bike lock as there’s a bike rack to lock your bikes in at the end of the fire road, before you enter the delta.

Have fun and happy trails to you all!

[Peter Lougheed Provincial Park, Kananskis; Distance 15km; Elevation Gain 480m]

Click here for more terrific hikes in Kananaskis Country (Canmore Area). And check out more hikes from Canada and our adventures around the world here.


17 Comments on “Watermelon Snow and The Dynamic Landscape of the Burstall Pass Hike

  1. It really was a fun hike with a variety of adventures–steep forested trail, delta crossing, avalanche crossing, snow patch climbing (and butt-sliding down), alpine scenery, and those mountains. The best of all was a great company of you and Bill. Thanks for your hospitality and friendship. It made this a memorable trip.

    Liked by 1 person

  2. blood snow! wow. This was a great read and educational too. Till now i had never read the words paleobotanist or extremophile. Beautiful colours in your pics.

    Liked by 1 person

  3. Haha, that’s great. Thanks Monika! I’d love to do more exploring in Kananaskis but it’s hard to find our way out of Vancouver/Vancouver Island area in summer.


  4. Pingback: Spicy Tent Ridge – Trail to Peak: The Adventurous Path

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