I had a stressful week at work. I didn’t realize how stressful until I began hiking toward the summit of Coliseum Mountain and felt the tension release that only nature and physical activity can provide me. Coliseum Mountain is just north of Nordegg, which is an hour’s drive west of Rocky Mountain House. The mountain was so named because the rocky amphitheatre at the summit resembles the coliseums of early Rome.
Driving up the access road to the trailhead, I realized that I had forgotten to purchase mosquito repellent. For the past two weeks, I kept reminding myself to buy some, but every time I entered a grocery store, my memory failed me. It’s been like this all summer, a summer, by the way, that has seen the worst crops of mosquitoes in thirteen years. Well this time I wasn’t to be denied. I turned the car around and drove back to the village of Nordegg, where I paid (gulp) twelve dollars for a tiny little bottle of Deep Woods Off.
It was the price I had to pay to ensure that I didn’t actually see a single mosquito on the trail. Much like with my sun block, which I slathered on my exposed skin in the parking lot under a burning sun, which promptly disappeared behind storm clouds the moment I stepped on the trail. It was a necessary expense.
The trail was covered in a thick layer of pine needles, making every step feel that I was walking on a sponge. The smell of pine permeated the air and remained so all the way to tree line. It was delightful hiking, made more so by the gentle gain in elevation, which helped keep the heart rate down and the lactic acid out of my legs. The loud cracks of nearby thunder, however, helped keep my blood pulsating. The elevation gain is a bit less than 700 meters, so it’s not the kind of grunt that would be felt on mountains beyond the foothills. But still, it was a good enough workout that I was reminded of it later with a few aching muscles.
When I was about two-thirds of the way to the summit, I met a family descending. They had turned around because of the thunder and didn’t want to be exposed on the ridge. I continued to climb to a rocky knoll, which gave me a good view of the summit and the south-east ridge. The skies were dark to the west and there was frequent thunder, although I didn’t see any lightning strikes. The sky directly above the summit and the ridge were mostly clear, so I stood and watched the storm to see if it was heading in my direction. One would think it would be easy to discern the direction of a storm, particularly if viewed from the top of a mountain. But the truth is, I couldn’t tell. I felt no breeze whatsoever and I couldn’t see if the clouds were even moving at all.
I hesitated to continue, remembering an experience when I climbed with a group through clouds to the summit of Big Sister near Canmore. While enjoying lunch at the top in the fog, there was a sudden flash of light followed by a deafening boom and the smell of ozone. You never saw people move so quickly to scramble down a mountain.
After a few minutes, I decided to carry on to the ridge. I guessed that the storm was moving down the valley and would most likely miss the summit, so I thought I would actually be more exposed to the storm if I tried climbing back down on the valley side than if I just kept going.
The trail was easy to follow and I met another couple of hikers, looked like father and son, heading back down the mountain. Along the ridge, I was followed by a Clark’s nutcracker for a hundred meters or so. His harsh, loud, “KRAW, KRAW” left no doubt that he wanted me to feed him. My first experience with a Clark’s nutcracker was years ago, on my very first visit to the Canadian Rockies. George was only three or four years old and we had just stopped at a picnic site for lunch. As George stepped out of the car holding a sandwich, a Clark’s nutcracker swooped down and snatched it from her hand, giving her a hard swat across the face with its wings in the process. A few years later, while stopping for lunch on Cascade Mountain, six of the birds ganged up on me, hopping along the ground toward me, screaming their abrasive tune, demanding my attention, all while a seventh bird was sneaking in behind me to grab my lunch from my pack. They were so relentless that I had to pack up my lunch and keep hiking. But on the Coliseum ridge, the Clark’s nutcracker lost interest in me once it determined I didn’t have any exposed food.
The final ascent to the summit was uneventful, but when I stepped onto the peak, I was hit by the wind coming from the northwest. My intuition had served me well; the storm was passing me by, straight down the valley.
The descent was utterly enjoyable. I came upon a hundred birds flitting back and forth across a clearing. I’m not sure what kind of birds they were, thrushes perhaps, but they stopped their business when I entered their space. So I stood motionless, and after 15 seconds or so, they started up their activities again. Further down the mountain, I came across a woodpecker. What kind of woodpecker? Again, I’m not sure; maybe a black-backed. I watched him for a few minutes. It was better than watching television.
I was in my happy place. I hummed some old songs and chomped away at some cucumbers and carrots I had picked up at the farmer’s market. And when I finally arrived back at the trailhead, rejuvenated and stress free, the sun popped back out from behind the clouds.