January 20, 2007

Waterfall Walk

Expecting to do some cross-country skiing with a friend while I was in Fort Liard, I brought my skis with me. Those plans fell through, but I took a few hours off work to ski to the waterfalls near Fort Liard.

I've been to the waterfalls more times than I can remember now, and I enjoy them every time I go. One of the reasons is because every time, it's a different trail. The first time I went, when someone showed me where to find the falls, we slogged through the soggy spring-time snow, which was up to our waists. There was a significant amount of water under the snow and it poured into my boots every time I took a step. My poor guide had nothing on but running shoes. The walk, which can be done in a comfortable half-hour each way in good trail conditions, took over two hours each way.

Sometimes the trail is overgrown like a jungle. Sometimes it's infested with bugs. Sometimes it's as dry and hard as a bone and sometimes it's as wet and boggy with holes of mud that'll eat your leg up to the knee. As I said, it's a different trail every time.

The waterfalls don't have a name, as far as I've been able to discern. Not a lot of people know where they are and even fewer people have been there. Even a lot of the local people have never been there. Some have never even heard of them.

There are a few stories about the falls, though. I heard an interesting bit of information about them this morning from Billy L. He told me that, in the old days, there were lots of floaters in the falls. At first, I thought he was talking about dead people, but before I could ask why there were dead people floating in the water near the falls, he clarified by telling me that the police and traders used to go near the falls to collect coal. Sometimes, the coal would float on top of the water. There are a few coal seams in the area, including at least one local mountain that's just full of the stuff, so that could very well be the case, though the only thing I've seen floating at the base of the falls was a dead muskrat.

Lucky to have some company for the trip into the falls, I was joined by Arthur, the local fire chief and Billy's son, whom I set up with a borrowed pair of new-fangled modern snowshoes.

A few minutes into the trail, we both agreed that you just can't beat traditional snowshoes for effectiveness on powdery snow.

There were rabbit tracks galore as we followed the old cut line trail towards the falls. Now, I thought I was pretty decent at reading animal signs, but I saw a few today that just stumped me. Perhaps you'll have some better luck interpreting them...

Squirrel? Mink? Northern jumping bone?

Was this hole made by a wolf or a lynx, digging for something buried under the snow? A recent snowfall covered up any obvious wolf or lynx tracks, though there were several fresh rabbit tracks in the area.

These tracks were found along a rabbit trail. Did Thumper come along and do this?

We plodded on through the snow, breaking trail, and I looked at the "Culturally Modified Trees", trying to guess how long ago the bark was removed. Fort Liard is renowned for its porcupine-quilled birchbark baskets. Trees are tested for their bark and suitable bark is carefully removed. Traditionally, containers were made for storing berries, fat, meat, or anything else that needed to be stored. Dishes and cups were made of birch bark, as were a number of other useful items.

It's a myth that the removal of the bark kills the trees; to which these healthy trees can attest.

A natural clearing in a birch stand. Several years after a tree has been peeled, a rough bark forms.

Not all birch produce good bark for making birchbark baskets. Trees are tested for the quality of their bark before being peeled.

These young birch would produce excellent sugar water in the spring. The sugar water can be fermented for birch beer, or it can be boiled down into a rich syrup. If only this stand wasn't so far away from home!

Approaching the falls.

At last, we arrived at the waterfalls. While there isn't much water falling now, we could still hear a light trickle, feeding the wall of ice that has taken the place of the summertime rush of water. In the summer, the water free-falls from on high, down into a pool of churning water.

The frozen falls, looking much thicker than in the summer.

It's a long way down, and this picture still doesn't show the bottom. To my knowledge, the falls have never been successfully ascended (in the winter, I mean. If you're trying to ascend them in the summer, you're either a very strong swimmer or you need help).

Of course, we had to walk out on the ice to get behind the "falls". Unfortunately, I didn't get a picture of the precipitous drop down into the pool below. Using my ski poles, we took turns bracing ourselves as we walked across and up the ice to the level space behind the falls.

Arthur makes the icy traverse.

Behind the falls. Or should I say "Between a rock and a hard place"?

It's an odd feeling to stand somewhere that doesn't exist for most of the year.

Frosty-topped ice balls, about the size of a baseball.

Frosty-topped ice balls, all the way up!

More frosty-topped ice things.

Normally, after a visit to the falls, I would walk down to the Liard River. The sun was bright and I could have taken some fantastic pictures of the mountains, but my camera batteries were fading from the cold and Arthur and I had worked hard breaking trail into the falls - Arthur especially.

Satisfied enough, we turned back and trudged uphill, back to the car. When we got there, we were pooped, but just the right kind of pooped; not too tired, not too wired. It was a good way to start the day.

1 comment:

Meandering Michael said...

I was given a couple of possibilities about the tracks by someone more knowledgeable in the area.

It's possible that the first tracks were made by a weasel. Specifically, a weasel with a mouse in its mouth.

The hole may have been made by a marten. The marten takes a freshly killed rabbit and, over time, eats it bit by bit as it gets covered in snow - safe and warm in its little snowy den.

Bush chickens do something similar, though I'm pretty sure they don't eat rabbits.