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.
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.
Lillies are one of my favourite flowers.
These flowers force their buds right up through the snow. They’re super hardy!
Thetrail winds its way across the subalpine meadow to toward the pass up ahead.
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.
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!
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!
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]
Trekking up a mountain’s shoulder, hiking through a flowering alpine meadow, snowshoeing through a dense pine forest, or taking in the 360 degree views from a ridge top vantage point make me feel alive. The experiences in these places give me a profound sense of space and place.
Travel does a similar thing, pushing me out of my comfort zone, exposing me to new experiences, new people and new ways of thinking; it also gives me that sense of space and place in this world.
I believe that life is lived in the contrasts: when you experience simplicity and complexity and life's ups and downs, whether they be physically in this world or mentally in your own personal inner landscape, you know that you are truly living.
The bigger they are, the more there is to explore!