Editor’s note: We’re thrilled to have writer Lisa Kadane – author of Romancing the Snow and Lavande, chocolat et vin. Mon dieu! – back on our pages. If this story doesn’t put Heiko’s Trail on the map, we don’t know what will. Thanks for going the extra distance for us, Ms. Kadane. We mean that quite literally!
Standing atop a grassy saddle between the imposing hulk of Mount Bisaro’s limestone face and a trio of rocky spires on the western edge of the Canadian Rockies, I see no trace of civilization.
No airplane contrails mar the hazy, powder-blue sky. No cell phone towers puncture the tops of these forbidding peaks.
Alone in the wilderness, I smell pine needles baking in the summer sun and hear the shrill chirp of pikas carrying over the rocky escarpments that dot the high alpine. Between the warning calls of these small rodents, there is nothing but the soothing vacuum of nature’s silence.
If Fernie, B.C. has a “back of beyond,” Heiko’s Trail is it. Also called the Mountain Lakes Trail, this 20-kilometre day hike is arguably the best, and one of the most gruelling, in the region.
Rick Emmerson, our lanky hiking guide from Island Lake Lodge (the backcountry resort we’re headed to) has led us past a spectacular waterfall cascading over mossy logs, into a gaping cave carved from the crumbling face of a mountain, and then over a steel bridge spanning a canyon whose bottom swirls with pools of icy-blue water that beckon like refreshing backcountry bathtubs.
We’ve just finished our ascent to Bisaro Pass—the first of three passes we’ll crest on our eight-hour day hike—after having travelled through alpine meadows thick with wildflowers.
Every few minutes photographer Mike McPhee stops to metaphorically “smell the roses” by capturing me and my husband striding past bright fuchsia Indian paintbrushes, purple and yellow asters and fuzzy white western anemones that look like miniature truffala trees plucked straight from the whimsical world of Dr. Seuss.
Seven kilometres in and at 7,500 feet elevation, I pause to take in the jagged sweep of the Lizard Range ahead and relish the reward of our physical toil: nature’s eye candy. It’s a sumptuous view, and equally impressive vistas await on the 13 kilometres left to go.
Longtime Fernie resident and entrepreneur Heiko Socher, 84, pioneered this trail in the summer of 2000.
After he sold local ski hill Fernie Alpine Resort in 1997, Socher needed a project and turned his attention to building hiking trails. That summer his son wanted to stay overnight near Three Sisters, a prominent trio of peaks that towers above the southeastern B.C. town. So the duo set out in that direction, breaking trail through thick vegetation up a valley, armed with map, compass and altimeter.
“You see old growth, you see fresh growth, you see avalanche debris. You see nature at work up there,” Socher told me when I met him for coffee to learn more about the hike before tackling it myself. (The namesake for Heiko’s Trail, it turns out, is a Fernie fixture. Judging from the number of people who stopped to say hello to my coffee companion, I got the feeling Socher is as close to famous as locals get.)
Subsequent explorations led Socher up the Hartley Lake Road, northwest of Fernie, and he established a trailhead there, some 13 kilometres into the backcountry. Along with an army of volunteers, Heiko’s Trail would take three summers to build.
When pressed about his dedication to the project, he replied matter-of-factly: “I just thought ‘There has to be a trail in there.’” Though Socher was the impetus behind the trail that bears his name, the volunteer-run Fernie Trail Alliance now maintains it.
The route ascends almost vertically uphill for the first two kilometres. But hikers are aided by Socher’s famed “chainsaw carpentry” that has cut a path through the trees – and by the hewn ladders, bridges and notched logs that make the climb possible.
Two steel bridges were helicoptered in so hikers can safely cross Bisaro Canyon. Along the way, hand-carved wooden signs mark sights, such as “Watergate,” where a waterfall pours out of a hole in the mountain, and “Shady Lane,” a relatively flat stretch of trail through an enchanting forest. These quirky touches demonstrate the love that went in to this project.
Emmerson, our guide, has trekked Heiko’s Trail dozens of times since it opened a decade ago, but he estimates that fewer than 100 people hike it each summer.
When we are there in early August, we see only 17 other hikers. The trail is long and strenuous, gains 4,500 feet of total elevation and requires each of us to carry at least four litres of water to last the day; perhaps that deters weekend warriors.
We also see evidence of bears everywhere—grizzly bear diggings, scat and even a black bear’s paw print preserved in a patch of dried mud. Between Bisaro Pass and Windy Pass we hike through five kilometres of open meadows swaying with false hellebore and western anemones that Emmerson calls “prime bear habitat.” But his persistent calls of “eyyy-ohhh!” surely frighten them off, much to my husband’s disappointment.
The landscape’s dramatic natural features give the trail a fantastical quality. At times I feel like Alice down the rabbit hole, a tiny human toiling upwards through a giant’s playroom of felled trees and boulders and streams, replaced higher up by snowfields and vast alpine meadows.
More wonders await on the final descent to Island Lake Lodge. We navigate a rock fall, pass through stands of larch trees and spill into a dark rainforest of Western red cedars. At hike’s end, we compare notes on the lodge’s patio and agree that cold beer never tasted so good.
Then we toast Heiko’s Trail, Socher’s labour of love, a destination that belongs in the pantheon of great Canadian day hikes.
IF YOU GO
Heiko’s Trail becomes accessible in July once the snowpack has melted, and can be hiked through Thanksgiving or until first snowfall. Wildflowers are at their peak the last week in July and the first two weeks of August. The trail can be hiked in either direction, but the preferred route begins from the lower-elevation trailhead off Hartley Lake Road and ends at Island Lake Lodge, which is open until September 28. The lodge offers guides certified by ACMG (Association of Canadian Mountain Guides), a shuttle service, and even, if it interests, a hearty bagged lunch for the hike.