Chapter 5. Meeting the Family
Day five of hiking week in the high foothills of the Elbow watershed dawns bright and clear and very early! We have planned to spend the next two days exploring two mountains east of the great ridges — Moose and Prairie. Standing 200 metres higher than its surrounding topographic features, Moose Mountain is a landmark in this part of the watershed, particularly to First Nations peoples. Prairie is shorter in stature and in girth, but has a common ancestry with Moose, both being composed of the same Lower Carboniferous Rundle limestone that is prevalent in the Front Ranges farther west, and seen at Elbow Falls to the south.
Today we tackle Prairie Mountain. Eight kilometres down the road past Elbow Falls, we park in the Beaver Lodge parking lot, and head across the highway to the Prairie Mountain trailhead. The hike to the ridge is a pleasantly challenging one — short (three kilometres) and steep (700 metres in elevation, with an average gradient of 20 degrees). The climb starts right away, and we file slowly up the bank from the highway into the trees on the reddusty, but often rooty and rocky, trail. After half a kilometre, the trail evens out a bit, feeling like a walk in the park for the next kilometre or so with views through the trees west into the Prairie Creek valley, and south to the main Elbow valley. Other hikers are already descending from the top, and we are passed once or twice by a very fit person jogging to the summit with only a bottle of water as gear.
The absence of mountain bikers and horses is gratefully noted; this unmaintained trail is far too steep for either. After another kilometre of relentless grinding uphill through ever-thinning tree cover, we gain the grassy summit ridge. Ahead in the ever-present wind spreads a long, gently-rising expanse of subalpine meadow leading north to the summit and its rocky cairn. To the west, the meadows slope moderately down toward Prairie Creek, and to the east, the grass ends abruptly in a dizzying drop to trees far below.
By the cairn at the north end of the summit ridge, we look across the Canyon Creek valley to tomorrow’s destination — Moose Mountain. Moose fully occupies the view to the north, and from here even the fire lookout on its summit about six kilometres away is visible. With its massive grey dome and multiple crests and valleys, no wonder Moose serves as a landmark among the surrounding forested and grassy ridges and hills.
As the summer afternoon cools off and the wind picks up, whistling through the few stunted spruce at the edges of the meadow, we head back off the ridge toward the shelter of the trees, and the short, steep descent to the valley below. As we reach the final precipitous section of the trail, a steady light rain begins, and we head back to camp to dry out. That evening we wander down the shrubby trail from the campground to Forgetmenot Pond. This popular picnic spot boasts a walking trail around a small, exquisitely turquoise pond, dammed beside the Elbow River and stocked with rainbow trout. A lone fly fisherman across the tranquil pond makes his last casts of the evening, as the pond’s waterfowl residents quieten and settle for the night.
The next morning, our sixth and last in the campground, we are up early to head northwest down the road to the Moose Mountain turnoff, near the Paddy’s Flat Campground. Our ultimate destination, the great bald pate of the 2,437 m Moose Mountain dome, can be identified from miles around. Its geological features and natural resources, the history of resource development on its slopes, its long-standing preeminence as a fire lookout site — all have contributed to the high level of local and regional interest in this mountain.
Mighty Moose and Peaceful Prairie: Mountains of Many Names
The Stoney people called Moose Mountain Iyarhe Wida, meaning “mountain by itself” or Island Mountain. Smaller Prairie Mountain to the south was the Younger Brother of Island Mountain. Indeed, the name fits. In 1858, still trying to find the best pass through the Rocky Mountains, members of the Palliser Expedition were headed south from Old Bow Fort on the Bow River to search for a southern route. On the second day of the trip, Captain Blakiston noted in his journal a “marked outlier” which he called The Family due to its peculiar form; this was likely today’s Moose Mountain. Further along, he noted a “sharp peak entirely covered with snow” and extremely beautiful; this he named The Pyramid, undoubtedly today’s Mount Glasgow. That night, his party camped by the forks of a creek they called Strong Current (the Elbow River), and dined sumptuously on trout from its waters – a fine change from their usual pemmican and tea diet. Thus were Elbow watershed physical features documented in early explorations.