The end of the trail. A helicopter comes in for pick up and return to the lodge.
The end of the trail. A helicopter comes in for pick up and return to the lodge.

BY ALLAN SEIDEN – I lived in British Columbia (BC) for a while en route to Hawaii, strongly drawn to its wild, grand-scale beauty. So I needed no convincing when the opportunity arose to go heli-hiking in the Bugaboos, a wilderness portion of the Columbia Mountains with 10,000-foot summits, high altitude glaciers, and great granite spires that are the Bugaboos’ signature landmarks.

Canadian Mountain Holidays (CMH), under permit from the Canadian government, operates two wilderness lodges in the pristine lands of the Columbia Range. I was headed to the 35-room Bugaboo Lodge for a three-day stay, time for five half-day helicopter-hiking adventures, with the lodge a comfortably welcoming home base.

From the first helicopter ascent, departing a nearby helipad for the lodge, it’s evident that getting there is truly half the fun, farmland leading to harvested timberlands that border the Bugaboos wilderness. On the days that followed, each helicopter ascent brought the promise of things unexpected, making every day something to look forward to and every hike exhilarating.

A lunch break comes with magnificent wilderness views, with granite spites rising from a Bugaboo glacier.

The Bugaboos are only recently free of millennia of glacial ice, with fragmentary glaciation remaining. Only at the highest elevations, starting at about 9,000 feet above sea level, do glaciers still dominate the landscape, and even these are in retreat, leaving behind valleys scoured and shaped by the advancing and retreating ice. At lower elevations, where the glacial ice began its retreat, evergreen forest dominates. Higher up it’s dwarf trees, shrubs, and grasses take over, with broad, flower-filled meadows above the tree line and 360-degree panoramas from windswept ridgeline and peaks .

Canadian Mountain Holidays' Bugaboo Lodge from a helicopter vantage.

At an altitude of 5,000 feet, the lodge enjoys a spectacular setting, with air that is crisp and bracing until pleasantly warmed by midday, sunlight playing off the remnant glacier and the granite beauty of Houndstooth rising from the glacial ice. The scene is mirrored in the small pond adjacent to the lodge, where I enjoyed several bracing coldwater swims after a day on the trail, rippling water challenging the solidity of landscape and sky.

The sense of shared experience carries over into dinners served family-style in the dining room, where the wilderness comes with gourmet meals. After dinner, those not headed for a sauna or message, head to the lounge for conversation, and perhaps an adventure documentary or talk, the camaraderie of shared experience extending into evening hours beside the lounge fireplace.

The author toward the end of a morning hike, with a retreating glacier feeding a small lake.

That sense of isolation and access offered by CMH to places that would have otherwise been accessible to only true mountaineers made every day memorable. Indelible images quickly come to mind: the ridgeline hike on a clear-sky morning that revealed the Rockies, some 125 miles distant; the cliff top lunch on a granite ledge sheltered from the icy breath of a glacier hanging from the mountain’s 10,000-foot summit; the afternoon wandering flower-filled meadows beneath the thousand-foot rise of the Bugaboo Spires. And every day on the trail was followed by a deep-black night sky awash with stars, yet another reminder of nature’s humbling grandeur and the Bugaboos enduring beauty.

DETAILS FOR YOUR TRIP

Where the ice has retreated, lush meadows surround towering granite towers.

When to Go: Summers are short in the northland, with Bugaboo Lodge open for heli-hiking from July 6 – Sept. 10, when temperatures are still warm and the trails are mostly free of ice and snow. Heli-skiing and heli-boarding adventures are offered during winter months.

Getting There: Calgary (Alberta) is the closest airport, which makes heli-hiking a perfect tie-in with a visit to the Canadian Rockies. From Calgary head to Banff, where a CMH pickup is the start of a heli-hike package, with a scenic two-hour motorcoach ride west to the CMH helipad and the flight to Bugaboo Lodge.

The Hikes: There are a number of daily hike options ranging those suited for experienced mountain climbers to casual walks. Hike options are posted daily for sign-up.  A three-night stay includes up to five half-day hikes lasting two-four hours. Hiking teams of usually no larger than eight (the max is 11) are accompanied by a knowledgeable and friendly CMH guide. Safety matters in accessing the wilderness, and guides and helicopters are in walkie-talkie communication.

Roughing it with a gourmet flourish.

Meals: The service is communal, but the food is inventive and delicious, with long tables and lavish portions, be it breakfast, lunch or dinner. Great deli lunches are available after breakfast when picnic lunches are in the day’s itinerary. Other days you’re returned to the lodge for lunch, followed by an afternoon heli-hike departure.

Cost: Three- and four-night packages are available, with a six-night package that includes Bugaboo Lodge and Bobbie Burns, CMH’s second lodge. Three-night packages are priced in Canadian dollars (currently close to parity with the U.S. dollar) at $2490 (adult), $2190 (15-17), and $1870 (5-14). Rates include all guided tours, 10-12 helicopter trips, meals, and accommodations.

Reflection in the pool by the Bugaboo Lodge. The swim was coldly exhilarating.

What You’ll Need: Sunscreen (use liberally), lip balm, sunglasses, and a layered wardrobe to deal with changeable weather and the body heat generated by hours on the trail. Daytime temperatures range the 50s to the 80s, with nighttime temperatures typically in the 40s, but can go lower.The basics are available at the lodge shop. At check-in you’ll be provided with a day pack, rain gear,  a walking stick, and padded, waterproof hiking boots, so hiking shoes are not needed.

Signing On: canadianmountainholidays.com or 800-661-0252.

Caution: This is a high-altitude option at hikes between 5,000-8,000-foot elevations.

Next edition:  May 27th :  Luang Prabang, Royal Capital of Laos

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