When I arrive at the trailhead in Kokanee Glacier Provincial Park, the mountain air is brisk and wafts with the fresh scent of pine. It’s the kind of morning that I live for: the sun’s out, the cerulean sky is clear of clouds, and I have my trekking poles in hand ready for a day of outdoor adventure. I peer at the trees—lanky pines that pierce the sky—and catch a glimpse of glacier-topped mountains just behind. Today, Friday, is supposed to be the grand finale after a week of hiking on trails surrounding Ainsworth, BC. The route will take us above the treeline and feature glaciers, lakes and meadows. I have high hopes. Our group starts heading up the trail and I fall into a rhythm as my trail shoes make contact with the pebbly surface.
Despite being Canadian and growing up with easy access to some of the world’s most stunning trails, I fell in love with hiking in the lush mountains of Colombia and Ecuador. I moved south around four years ago, and the allure of chasing waterfalls and testing my abilities up angular ridges was enough to keep me there. Still, I often mused about exploring trails at home—particularly in BC—so when an invite to Mountain Trek, a hiking retreat in the Kootenays, popped up in my inbox, I said yes.
By the time I make it to our route at Kokanee Glacier Provincial Park, I’ve already had a week’s worth of reconnection with my country. I’ve woken up just after sunrise every day this week. I’ve sat on Muskoka chairs on mornings so still that I could hear a bird’s wings flutter before catching its breakfast worm. I’ve seen bear scat on the trail (but not an actual bear) and yesterday, a deer bounding through the woods. On a hike along the Fry Creek Trail, I stood on a bridge and stared, mesmerized, into a canyon as turquoise-blue glacial water tumbled off rocky ledges down into Kootenay Lake. The water flowed so blue; it was hard to believe it was even real. When I looked at it, I felt a pang in my stomach. It was so pretty I didn’t want to leave.
This isn’t the first time I’ve hiked along British Columbia trails. In the late 1990s, my family rented gingerbread cottages in Radium Hot Springs a couple of summers in a row. Then, my seven-year-old self didn’t fully understand the raw Canadian beauty we got to experience, and hiking days were a tug-of-war between love and hate. I whined about wanting to go to the beach and dawdled on the trail. If I found a good hiking stick and a cave to explore, that seemed to improve my mood.
Once, I posed for a photo while sitting cross-legged on a tree stump. I believed then that I’d use that photo for an “about the author” section in my book one day. (I’m equal parts mortified and amused to remember this and recognize the full-circle moment of returning to the area on a writing assignment twenty-something years later.)
While my passion for writing might have been apparent to me since the late-1990s, my love for hiking wasn’t obvious until my mid-twenties. After carefully treading along the rocks of riverbeds to find one waterfall in Ecuador, it’s almost impossible not to plan a day to find another. At high altitudes in the Sierra, clouds gather in little nooks of the mountain below like seas of fluffy llama wool. When I’m hiking in Ecuador, I don’t care about my muddy feet, the unchecked notifications on my phone or what I look like. I move along uneven terrain up to high peaks and stand amazed at what I can see from this bird’s eye view—and that my body is capable of getting me there.
That’s how I feel while connecting with nature in the Kootenays, too. At some point on our Friday trek, I’m already mentally planning my return. The annoying thing about having insatiable wanderlust is that you can’t visit places like this provincial park or Fry Creek Trail or anywhere else near Ainsworth or Nelson without hatching a plan to return for longer—and maybe even to live. That’s when our guide, Kirk, says that this is some of the most beautiful hiking in the world. He says this while I’m trying to memorize the snow-capped mountains so that I can store them permanently in my memory. It’s as if he’s reading my mind, and I can’t argue. The proof is all around us.Sinead Mulhern
After a couple hours of trekking in Kokanee Glacier Provincial Park, the trail hugs the edges of Kokanee Lake before leading to a meadow. By this point in the afternoon, I start feeling warm. I’m busy eyeing flowers in the grass, white rocks scattered throughout this opening, and water trickling below a small wooden bridge. Off to my left, a mountain stands strong in the background, perfectly framing the scene in front of me. I snap a quick photo of an unmelted patch of snow. Snow in August. I could think of a few friends back home who would be impressed—if not shocked—by this reality. I spot a marmot watching our every move from his perch on a rock. It occurs to me that I could probably spend the entire day in this meadow just noticing and admiring all the small details of this place.
But it’s lunch time, and the only ones hungrier than me are the mosquitos who are hellbent on devouring my legs. We double back. The lake seems to be the best spot to park while we eat.
We make our way over rocky terrain, around a few small boulders and along Kokanee Lake, whose surface is so still it could be glass. As we approach our little picnic spot, someone mentions swimming. I’m in. I wade out to a rock, climb to the top and stare into the clear water. My heart skips a beat as I recall Kirk mentioning that the lake was covered with a thin layer of ice with snow at its edges just a mere two weeks ago. It’s going to be completely frigid; I know it. I stand next to a friend and wait for Kirk to count us down:
Three, two, one!
We jump. The split second that I’m in the air feels like slow motion as I brace for this icy swim. Then, my body plunges beneath the lake’s bitter surface. I feel a sharp tingle from head to toe. It’s absolutely, skin-numbingly, freezing. I surface and pull my arms through this clear-as-glass water moving my body towards the shore. It’s a post-hike swim to remember and it feels fitting that this glacial dip is the grand finale of my weeklong reconnection with Canadian nature. I know it then just as I know it on my flight home: it was the best moment of the summer.
Note: The author was hosted by Mountain Trek; this was not sponsored nor affiliated with explore magazine.