Packrafting the Neve Traverse

As I lay on my wooden bunk, the last light of the day streaming in through dusty, cracked windows I looked up at a tattered map stapled to the wall above, duct taped together, curling up at the edges, fading from years in this place, I could trace my eyes across the route I had traveled to get here, but so much was missing. It didn't show the family of mountain goats we had spotted along the way, the apprehension about not being able to find our way down a series of cliff bands, the oppressive sun beating on us, both down from the sky and up off the reflective ice beneath our crampons. In the age of information ubiquity it can feel like we have access to everything from the phone in our pockets. As I lay on that bunk I realized that adventure and the unknown is still out there, between the gridlines of maps, underneath the dog eared corners and in the edges that fall off the sides, you just have to get out there and find it.

Two days prior I left the Elfin Lakes parking lot near Squamish, BC to hike into Garibaldi Provincial Park with my wife Spring. Our objective was to complete the Névé Traverse, a 3 day trip that is commonly completed in early spring on skis. The season for it ends when the 7km long Garibaldi Lake loses it's winter ice. With Pack Tour M paddles, packrafts and PFD's in tow we headed out to see if we could complete the route in summer without skiing equipment.

There was no information to be found about anyone else having attempted this before so it was a mystery to us if it could work. With the world fully mapped I believe the future of adventure is trips like this, figuring out new ways to interact with the world we already know. I'm new to packrafting but already I can see it's potential for completely changing how I view wild places. Difficult rivers or wide lakes are no longer an impassable barrier but become part of the narrative that makes up the obstacles to enjoy solving while traveling through the wild.

Our first day on this traverse was enjoyable. We hiked in for a few hours stopping at the fairly large and modern Elfin Lakes Hut for the night. While at those aforementioned lakes we unfurled our rafts and assembled our paddles to test them out in relative safety. The next time we'd need them to work we'd be casting off into the unknown of Garibaldi Lake, which is dangerously cold from the glaciers feeding it. After a night in that hut, complete with electricity and propane stoves we headed further into the park, leaving trails behind and climbing up onto the Névé icefield. That day was long and arduous as we navigated around crevasses and seracs before finally catching sight of Garibaldi Lake below. We both bellowed at the top of our lungs at the sight of it. While trying to descend off the ice on the other side we encountered a series of rocky cliffs that blocked our progress. To our right we heard rocks ricocheting down and as we looked in the direction of the noise caught sight of a herd of mountain goats. They had spotted us also and immediately dropped out of view, a few moments later we could see them below, where we needed to be.

We reasoned that if the goats knew a way down, then likely we could follow. Sure enough, by following their route we found a passage off the cliffs and down to the valley below. A while later we arrived at our second destination, the Sentinel Hut, a rustic glaciology shelter built more for function than form. It was a rusted nail or two away from being dilapidated but it was home and we appreciated it.

The following morning the crux of this adventure was ahead of us, crossing Garibaldi Lake via packraft. We knew the early morning winds coming down off the glaciers would be at our backs so we left early to take advantage of them. At the lake’s shores we were attacked mercilessly by mosquitos but it only served to motivate us to cast off sooner. As I finally pushed off onto the lake I laughed aloud. Here I was high up in the mountains, surrounded by walls of ice and rock paddling my own raft in a place I'd never imagined would be possible. Spring soon joined me and we began to move. We had worries about the wind changing direction and slowing our progress so we went as hard as we possibly could, only stopping once or twice for some water and something to eat. Within 90 minutes, to our surprise, we had reached the far end of the lake. Having full sized paddles and the breeze at our backs had really helped us. This part of the lake is known as the Battleship Islands and has Ranger cabins, campsites and most sunny days in summer can see over 100 people or more. Some came over to us, curious about where we had come from and I could their eyes light up when we made them aware of the world of packrafting, something most of them had never heard of.

After packing our bags we marched out the well worn, 6 mile, trail down to the parking lot below. Overall the trip went smoother than both of us could imagine yet we still found real adventure out there alone in the mountains. Almost as soon as we'd exploded our packs at home we began scouring our own maps for the next alpine lake or remote river to go explore, wondering what other secrets we could uncover where the map ends and the real world begins.