The Dairy Queen Blizzard was sitting like stale porridge in my stomach when the Canadian Helicopters employee announced that it was time for “weigh in.” Apparently the 25 pound luggage limit was supplemented with a “no fat people” policy when it came to shuttling guests by chopper over the Purcell Mountains to reach our destination. The Purcell Lodge’s brochure calls it a “Rocky Mountain High,” and as we rose into the sky over the Columbia River Valley, we soon got a taste of just how high this might be.
Golden, British Columbia, the staging point for our adventure, is reachable via a spectacular drive from Calgary through Banff and Yoho National Parks on the Trans-Canada Highway. Once airborne in the chopper, the views immediately were nothing short of jaw-dropping. The milky blue Columbia River snaked away to the south, dividing the Rockies from the Purcell Range. The Purcells themselves rose abruptly west as the helicopter banked up the Holt Valley, bounded by carpets of green. As we climbed, sheer walls rose from lakes whose aquamarine color seemed to defy reality. This was the wild, untamed Canada that we denizens of the crowded land to the south had come to see.
Rising higher, the chopper crested a ridge and the jagged peaks of the Selkirks in Glacier National Park (no, not THAT Glacier) announced themselves. Soon after, the bright blue roof of the Purcell Lodge appeared, spectacularly situated on a high, rolling plateau dotted with the late-season seeds of wildflowers.
Touching down on an impossibly small gravel pad, we were greeted by Nathalie, the innkeeper. Upon entering the lodge, we found an airy dining area bounded by large windows, a fireplace, and the pleasing aroma of baking bread.
After a quick introductory tour, we were eager to stretch our legs and set off to explore the area along with 7 other guests and our two guides, Heidi and Joelle. The lodge’s remote location (it is accessible only by helicopter or a 14 km hike from the end of a logging road) protects its trails, which are built and maintained by co-owner Paul Sutton, from the hordes frequenting the standard stops along the Banff-Jasper tourist pipeline. Despite the sketchy weather, we were treated to stunning views across open meadows to the Selkirks across the 3,000 foot deep valley of the Beaver River. The jagged pyramid of Mount Sir Donald stood out from the row of peaks, and heavily crevassed glaciers tumbled down from the summits.
Ray, the lodge’s amiable cook, made us a decadent dinner worthy of a trendy, citified restaurant. It is worth noting that all guests eat breakfast and dinner together; due to the intimate size of the lodge (only 10 rooms), this system actually works rather well, encouraging social interaction among the predictably diverse and interesting guests, while leaving the days free for exploration. After dinner, we all repaired to the lounge for a raucous game of Pictionary, which dramatically put our artistic talents (or complete lack thereof) on display.
The following day seemed ill-suited to hiking given the dense fog and rain, but we resolved to make the best of it. Joelle gamely led us up the trail to the summit of Copperstain Mountain, which at close to 8,600 feet is the most accessible local peak. As we gained elevation, the wind picked up and the rain changed to sleet, but hey, this was the first day of September, right? Summer ends early in the Canadian Rockies. We reached the rocky summit in a virtual whiteout and could only imagine the views in every direction, hoping to return the following day if the weather improved. Still, despite the weather, there was a certain beauty to the green alpine valleys and the soaked-through landscape. Small streams cascaded down amidst Indian paintbrush flowers and the occasional bear scat—we knew we were in a truly wild place.
Returning to the lodge, we enjoyed a luxuriantly rustic sauna, complete with a wood stove and steam bucket. A hot shower later on proved equally indulgent. Part of the lodge’s charm lies in its self-sufficiency: all electricity is produced by harnessing the power of a nearby mountain stream. As dusk fell, snow obscured the view outside, ceasing just before darkness to reveal the slopes of the Purcells coated with a fresh dusting of the white stuff.
As we had hoped, the sun rose unobstructed the following morning, and I went outside for a quick trail run to experience the first sunlight on the Selkirks. Bushwhacking through thick pine trees, I emerged on a crumbly promontory overlooking the Beaver Valley. The morning sun glinted off the peaks, and far below, a carpet of fog wound its way up the valley. All alone, with not a soul in view, it was a sublime moment.
After a hearty breakfast (and I do mean hearty: spicy chicken sausage, blueberry pancakes, a breakfast egg casserole, fresh croissants, fruit salad, and granola), we set off again for the summit of Copperstain. This time the weather gods were on our side, and the views were of the pinch-yourself variety. Chains of mountains and valleys extended in virtually every direction. Climbing above the tree line, we reached the rocky “path” to the summit, now covered in fresh snow. The contrast of the crunchy snow underfoot with the still-verdant valleys below was an unforgettable experience as we continued on to the summit. From the top, the views were predictably gorgeous, yet somehow managed to surpass even our inflated expectations. From this vantage point, the Purcell Lodge appeared as a small blue speck in an alpine meadow against an endless sea of mountains.
We left knowing that we had indeed experienced a “Rocky Mountain High.”
The best season for wildflowers is late July to early August. The Purcell Lodge is also a fine backcountry ski lodge during the winter months, and can serve as an eminently comfortable base for exploring the region when the entire area becomes a (cold!) winter wonderland from late November through early April. More information is available on the lodge’s website at www.purcell.com.
It’s also worth taking some time to explore the great national parks of the Canadian Rockies (Banff, Jasper, Yoho) if you have the time, as well as Glacier and Mt. Revelstoke National Parks, which are further west along the Trans-Canada Highway.