Friday, September 12, 2014

Northern Convergence: Mt. Revelstoke, Where the Columbia Mountains Reach to the Sky (and right into the clouds)

Thanks for all the attention to the post on exfoliation in Twain Harte! 4,000 hits and counting, it's been my most read blogpost in five years (about 10 or 15 times normal traffic). Today we are getting back to our tour of British Columbia and Alberta, one of the most beautiful regions in the world. We last looked at Craigellachie, the site of the completion of the Trans-Canada Railroad. As we continued down the highway, the mountains around us were becoming dramatic.
We had been traversing the Intermontane Belt, a region of high plateaus and relatively modest mountain ridges, and were now entering the Omineca Belt, a series of increasingly rugged mountain ranges, including the Purcell and Selkirk ranges, subdivisions of the Columbia Mountains. Yes, the Columbia, as in Columbia River. That's the Columbia in the picture below (actually a reservoir on the Columbia), a long distance upstream from the thread of water between Oregon and Washington in the Cascades. It is a huge watershed!
Our main goal for the day was to explore Mt. Revelstoke National Park, and the best way to do it on a tight schedule is to drive to the 1,938 meter (6,360 feet) summit. A beautiful 26 kilometer paved highway switchbacks up the flank of the mountain and ends at a parking lot just below the peak. From there one can walk a short trail to the summit area, or catch a van to the upper parking area. A network of short trails explores the alpine environment.
Storms had been wreaking gentle havoc with our trip for three days. We certainly didn't get the worst of the weather: a day before we arrived in Kamloops there had been intense thunderstorms and some areas of town were unexpectedly flooded. Drumheller, a town we would visit in a few days, was hit with a storm of golf-ball sized hailstones. Mostly we were rained on, and clouds obscured some of the views we had hoped to see (most notably at Mt. Garibaldi in the northernmost Cascades). We woke to sunshine in Kamloops, but as we drove east into the higher mountain ranges, the clouds seemed to be gathering on the higher peaks.
We reached the summit of Mount Revelstoke and had a look around. In a "cup half empty or half full" moment, the cloud deck lay just above us, so we had extensive views into the valleys below while the rugged high peaks above us were obscured. Even if partially hidden, the view was spectacular.
Mt. Revelstoke was the eighth national park in Canada, having been established in 1914. The park preserves a swath of alpine scenery from the shores of Lake Revelstoke on the Columbia River (around 500 meters, or 1,640 feet) to the summits of Revelstoke (1,938 meter, 6,360 feet) and Mt. Coursier (2,646 meters, 8,681 feet). The park encompasses four vegetation zones, an interior rain forest, subalpine Hemlock and Engelmann Spruce forest, subalpine meadows, and alpine tundra on the highest peaks. The region receives prodigious amounts of snow, and skiing was an early form of recreation on the mountain. One of the first ski jumps ever constructed was used in the park for years.
The park is not really notable for extensive rock outcrops in the most visited areas. In the very humid environment, vegetation and soils are widespread. The underlying rock is part of the Shuswap Metamorphic Complex, a series of Proterozoic and Paleozoic rocks that were deposited in the Pacific offshore of the North American Continent. The rocks were crushed into the edge of the continent in Mesozoic time, intruded here and there by Mesozoic granitic rocks, and exposed during mountain uplift in the early Cenozoic era. 
The growing season on Mt. Revelstoke is exceedingly short, essentially from late June to early September, but the plants are well adapted to bloom fast and die. The park is famous for the August wildflower display, although we were a bit early to see the best of it. There were some beautiful Glacier Lilies (no good pictures, but wait for my post on Glacier National Park), and some colorful Indian Paintbrush.
As always seems the case, the clouds were starting to lift, but our time was slipping away. We enjoyed several high peaks to the north clothed in wispy clouds, but we had to start down the mountain. And of course, the sun emerged!

From midway down the mountain we had a fine view across the valley to the Monashee Mountains, home to some of the oldest rocks in British Columbia, at around 2.2 billion years. The town of Revelstoke could be seen on the narrow plain below.
Glaciers cling to the high peaks, a kind of a preview of the spectacular icefields that we would be seeing in a few days in the Canadian Rockies. We intended to visit parts of Canada's Glacier National Park, but active wildfires had closed off access to most parts of the park.
About an hour later we pulled into the small town of Golden and checked into our hotel. The storm continued to break up, giving us a beautiful sunset over the Purcell Mountains.
Tomorrow would be the beginning of the climax of our trip, an exploration of Yoho and Banff National Parks in the Canadian Rockies.

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