In their Christmas letter twenty years ago, Fred and Sheila raved about a hiking holiday at Purcell Mountain Lodge. On our list of places-we-must-go it went.
The lodge, small and in stunning wilderness, attracts visitors from all over the world who reserve years in advance. At an elevation of 2,140 metres, it’s a helicopter-in-out destination with a hiking season brief as a dragonfly’s lifespan.
With fewer international travellers because of the coronavirus and its variants, Magellan suggested we try for a reservation. “When do you want to come?” Jackie Mah, the lodge’s manager, asked when he called at Eastertime.
A week before our four-day trip, mom was moved into a make-shift hospice in the chapel at her care home. Wildfires were blazing across BC. Would mom last beyond August 13? Would the air be too smoky for helicopters to fly into Purcell? Would it be clear enough for hiking?
“There is nothing like this lodge anywhere,” a former manager is often quoted as saying. “We call it the Island in the Sky.” It rests on the largest alpine meadow in southern Canada—some say the largest in North America.
Breath-taking scenery surrounds the meadow, the Bald mountains of the Purcells on one side surpassed by the striking, glaciated Selkirks to the west in Glacier National Park. The black granite spike of Mount Sir Donald (3,384 metres) pierces the air like the Matterhorn. “50 Switzerlands in One” was the tagline the CPR adopted for the area, marketing proposed by Edward Whymper (the first person to ascend the Matterhorn) when he visited Canada. This is big-view hiking, every step of the way.
In the 1970s mountain guide Paul Leeson and his business partner Russ Younger led telemarking and snow-shoeing trips here, camping in alpine yurts. In the 1980s they were granted a thirteen-acre tenure in this protected wilderness. (On many of our hikes we saw pegs indicating the boundaries of Glacier National Park.) Paul and Russ planned for the lodge to be prefabricated in Golden, the sections helicoptered up. But there were financing delays, so in July 1989 they began flying in materials, erecting the main building, in time to open that winter.
Besides the four of us, there were only six other guests at the lodge. (It can accommodate 22 guests and a second building has private chalets that can house another eight.) Ours was a keen group. David and Kathy, newly retired avid hikers from Calgary. Andreas, king of early-morning body-twisting yoga poses, and his daughter Sophia—also serous hikers. And Michael and Jackie, retired national park managers living in Revelstoke who in their younger days had hiked up to the lodge (16 km, 1,200 metre elevation gain).
Jason and Mark, seasoned mountaineering experts, were our thoughtful hosts. Every morning they outlined the day’s proposed hike (lodge guests must hike with the guides, unless exempted), drew maps and offered options. Starting out at 9:30, back to the lodge by 4 pm, they set a measured pace, described the flora and fauna, got to know each of us and shared their personal stories. And gave advice. You can tell the difference between heather and heath by their leaves: Heather, light as a feather; heath, leaves like teeth. I ditched my tinkling bear bells —as Jason said, they’re really “dinner bells.” The chef was Andrey, a new grad finding his way, serious about his profession. Marko and David, 18 and 22 years old, respectively, worked as luggage handlers, room cleaners, bartenders and chef’s assistants.
And four others: Cinch, the resident grizzly, and her cubs, the main reasons you hike with guides at Purcell. As Mark and Jason explained, the worst situation for Cinch and her cubs (and for us!) is to be caught between two groups of hikers. Better to see the grizzlies from the lodge when they come by for a protein shake of the most rotund ground squirrels we’ve ever seen.
Knee Grinder was our first hike, an easy gambol that touched on Poet’s Lookout and its panoramic view across the valley to Mount Sir Donald and the adjacent Illecillewaet Glacier, a farrago of weather: fog, haze, sunshine. Michael and Jackie, given their vast experience (not carrying bear spray but checking in by radio), chose to hike on their own and after lunch, Andreas and Sophie, fully equipped, ventured higher up the mountain while the rest of us continued with Jason and Mark.
Suddenly Magellan called out, “Up to the left, eleven o’clock!”
There she was—Cinch and her cubs!
Quietly we ambled up toward Andreas and Sophie, leaving Cinch and her trio an eastern route for berry-picking (each bear needs to eat 200,000 berries every day at this time of year Jason told us.)
It’s one thing to see a grizzly by the side of the road, a complete wonder to see four in the wild.
Half-a-day and already my inner gratification was hovering near maximum.
The lodge was designed for self-sufficiency and comfort. At the top of the metal stairs there’s a room to hang your backpacks and jackets in and drop your boots. A mini “boutique” (I bought a toque, having foolishly left mine at home) is at the far end. Upstairs feels like a Swiss chalet with warm, pinewood floors, a U-shaped oversized couch, rustic hand-hewn dining table for communal meals, a small bar, stone fireplace, large chef’s kitchen and wide verandah. On the third level are the bedrooms, assorted configurations for couples and families and friends, each with its own sink and vanity. Across the hall on the inside are three showers (it was the first back-country lodge in BC with hot showers) and three bathrooms. There’s another common room and wraparound deck. On both levels are libraries where you can leaf through regional mountain history, bestsellers or literary novels. Staff accommodation is on the first level.
Paul and Russ pioneered green tourism—Purcell is a true ecolodge and the exacting standards they set remain under the current ownership of Sunny Sun, an Edmonton MD turned entrepreneur.
Hydro power is harnessed from a micro hydro-generating plant (the first of its kind in Canada) at a nearby, year-round stream. It functions without batteries; propane is used, and spare power goes to baseboard heaters. An award-winning five-stage sewage treatment plant with aerobiotic breakdown produces water pure enough to safely return to the environment. There’s a strict composting policy. Garbage is limited and helicoptered out. And there are no laundry facilities to pollute the fragile ecology—sheets and towels are provided but you bring your own sleeping bag or duvet, though it’s not counted in your 25-pound luggage limit. It may be the quietest four nights of sleep I’ll ever have.
Tuesday, we hiked to No Ladies’ Lake and Two Ladies’ Lake (cut the namers some slack—these were the days of ABBA’s “Mamma Mia”), over what we named “Blueberry Hill” and on to Infinity Ponds, 15 km with 650 m of elevation walking on abraded paths and trail-blazing over hummocks of grass and heather. More than two steps on the same tump and the vegetation won’t survive Mark advised us, so don’t all step in the same footprints.
Legendary hikes are saved until the guides figure out everyone’s capability. Wednesday was Copperstain Mountain, 2,606 metres, the area’s dominant landmark. Mark and Jason explained the logistics, that we would reverse the route, down and up a sub-alpine forest of fir and Englemann Spruce, over three cruxes (none of them too long or too bad they assured us) to the peak, and back via Copperstain Pass, a flexuous path both forested and meadowed.
We were so proud of ourselves. Until Marco (or was it David, or both?) said they ran to Copperstain Pass and back (14 km, 122 m elevation) that morning after chores—in their Crocs. “Yeah, but we had them in full hiking mode,” Marko grinned, adorably.
The next day, undesirous of a similar peregrination (had to use that word) with even more elevation gain/loss than Copperstain (I kept calling it Copperstrain) and equipped with directions, bear spray, a two-way radio and our Garmin, our foursome had permission to hike to Bella Vista. Oasis gardens of wildflowers, especially where streams crisscrossed the meadow, the pace our own, relaxed with frequent stops for photos and heart slowdowns.
The air had cleared so on the last night we set the alarm for 1 am, bundled up and went outside, overwhelmed by the abundance of stars and counting twenty-seven Perseid meteors.
In places like Purcell, I’m humbly reminded of the debt to pleasure we owe our forebearers. Its namesake, Dr. Goodwin Purcell, a professor of medical jurisprudence at Queens University, Cork, who served on the committee that selected personnel for the 1859 Palliser Expedition. Swiss climbers who exclaimed the area’s beauty. Impassioned hikers and nature lovers like Pat Morrow and others who created Wildsight, an organization instrumental in the BC government creating the Purcell Wilderness Conservancy, a completely unique designation now protecting 2,027 square kilometres. Paul Leeson, who not only built Purcell Mountain Lodge but became a director of the BC Wilderness Tourism Association and fought against overdevelopment. And our parents who made this country our homes.
In this amplitude of space of wild enchantment where time is measured in geological age, perspective is regrounded. Yes, my mother was dying. As she had been wishing, given her blinded, sedated life. But grief is like the wind; you never know when a sudden gust will arise. Or what it will stir up.
In the words of Norwegian explorer and writer Erling Kagge
Walking is a combination of movement, humility, balance, curiosity, smell, sound, light, inner silence and—if you walk far enough—longing. A feeling which reaches for something, without finding it. The Portuguese, Cape Verdeans and Brazilians have an untranslatable word for this longing: saudade. It is a word that encompasses love, pain and happiness…Time stretches out, independent of minutes and hours. And this is precisely the secret held by all those who go by foot: life is prolonged when you walk. Walking expands time rather than collapses it.
As we step into the new year, into the uncertainty of whatever comes next, we wish you more presents of time, more discoveries of your own personal islands in the sky.
Craig, Paul and Mathews, Robert “Hydro Power High in the Canadian Rockies” 1993
Glück, Louise. Winter Recipes from the Collective. Toronto: McClelland & Stewart, 2021. Winner of the Nobel Prize in Literature, Louise Glück is an American poet and essayist. This verse from the same poem quoted above must be what mom often thought in her last months: “How heavy my mind is,/filled with the past,/Is there enough room/for the world to penetrate?”
Hume, Mark. “B.C. backcountry draws a crowd.” The Globe and Mail. December 18, 2004.
Kagge, Erling. Walking: One Step At a Time. New York: Vintage, 2019.
Purcell Mountain Lodge website.
Spaar, Ilona. “Swiss Guides Shaping Mountain Culture in Western Canada.” 2010.
Turner, Larry. Purcell Mountain Lodge, BC, Canada. High on Adventure. March, 2016.
Wildsight “works locally, regionally and globally to protect biodiversity and encourage sustainable communities in Canada’s Columbia and Rocky Mountain regions.” Here’s their section on the Purcells.