Trail Cafe: Trip report - West side of Sawmil trails


Title: West side of Sawmil trails
Trip type: skiing
Summary: A small section of the Sawmill ski trails. These are non-track set trails, the portions we went through were narrow single track trails.
Author: M Tanton
Date of Trip: Mid January 2010
Country: Canada
Province: Alberta
County/City/national park/etc: Kananaskis
Location Route: Sawmill Ski Trails
Distance: 4-5 km
Weather Conditions:Minus -6, partially overcast to overcast with light snow
Directions to Set in or Trail head: From Hwy 1, South on Hw 40 for 50km, turn Right go for 3.8 km, turn Right on to Smith-Dorrien, Enterance is on the right after 12 km
Partners: Jordan K.
Group experience level: mixed: Low intermediate and novice
Author's Experience level: Low Intermediate
Authors Trip Rating: Very good
Trip's Good Points: Lots of snow, Nice 'tight' trails
Author's Email: myrlmungeattrailcafedotcom (remove 'munge', convert 'at' and 'dot' accordingly

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Trail Description:

The bits of trail that we went on today were among the easiest of the trail set according to the map. However as these trails are no longer groomed the hills offered more challenge than would be had at places like Pocatera. The tracks left by the snowshoers made a good surrogate for the missing track set trails. I'd think this is not a run that a true novice would enjoy, at least when there is lots of fresh snow. Both climbing and downhill are considerably harder, as the 'track' is a packed sunken track, but the snow outside of it is deep fluff, so it catches the skis when you climb, and makes it harder to snowplow. My (novice) partner for the trip certainly had several falls, as in 40 or so. He did however enjoy the day.

The Trip Report:

Jordan a fairly young co-worker indicated he had the Saturday off and suggested cross country skiing. Great! He could even drive (I'm sans car right now). We made loose plans to go cross country skiing. No one else of the normal crew were interested, or wer not able to come along, so it was just the two of us.

The weather has been warm, and in Calgary we have not had much snow the last few days. So I figure we want to hit one of the higher elevation places. The plan starts out to go to Pocatera, a groomed set of trails in Kananaskis. However Jordan takes a right on Spray lakes Hwy, saying he remembers a place were he stopped for a picnic once, and that it has trails. So with that, our plans instantly change.

Part of the view from the parking lot Part of the view from the parking lot
The picnic area turns out to be the Sawmill mountain biking/cross country skiing trail system. The parking lot is buried in snow, and the gate is closed. The Drive way is plowed, and a dozen or so cars are parked on the side of the Hwy, with a few in the drive way. It is at the parking lot and picnic area that you get the best views of mount Smith-Dorren to the West.

Mt Smith-Dorren and friends Mt Smith-Dorren and friends

Jordan showing off some fine form Jordan showing off some fine form
There are lots of tracks in the picnic area, but they are for the most part snowshoeing tracks. Most in a wide path leading up the middle of the picnic area. There is one set of cross country ski tracks that go off to the one side. I follow out on this, it is a track made by one person, going out 50m or so and turning back. I make a 90 degree turn and head through the fresh snow to the main bit of packed trail. This put me on a course that skied through the picnic tables, where the tops of them were only a few inches above the snow level. So much for the worry that there is not enough snow... There is lots of the stuff here. Skiing through two to three feet of powder snow in track skis is a bit of a slog, and not too much fun. A part of me is thinking we should hit the road to Pocatera.

However we decide to see if there are any x-country ski tracks further in. No there is not, however the main path of trampled snow, becomes several small paths as they split and spread out. These paths make fairly nice tracks for skis, as they tramp down a trail about 18 inches wide...just right. So at the first sign/map, which indicates we are at the 'Sawmill biking and cross country ski trails', we pick our route. An easy trail off to the South/East side of area, the easiest bit of trails according to the sign, easy to medium difficulty. This is a short loop looking to be a few km, a good starting point.

heading off down the trail heading off down the trail
The trails are not groomed, however the tracks left by the snowshoers are tamped down leaving a six inch depression in the snow that is just the right width to act as a track for the skis. This is not to be confused with track skiing. The snow is around 2-3 ft deep, and it is not packed outside the shoe tracks. This means pushing with the poles is trickier, especially when going up a hill. The front half of the skis need to be hauls up through the snow as you do the chicken walk, and to help prevent sliding backwards you need to plant the poles behind you. The trick is that you need to plant the poles in the 18" wide track, or the disappear into the deep snow. The other difficulty is going down hill, the snowshoers track make for a fast sliding surface. The problem comes about as you try to force a snow plow from inside the rut. I'm sure this is old news to most skiers, but it was new to me. Still having the snowshoe tracks there made the trail doable, and enjoyable in the track skis, it was just a fair bit different than skiing on a track set base.

The trail starts off to the East it is a fairly narrow trail, and the snowshoe tracks are a single set. I enjoy having the trees in a little closer than I am used to. Occasionally there are glimpses to the West of Mt. Smith-Dorren and Spray Mtn. The trail is a general climb as you head East. After about half a km you come to a fork in the trail, this is the actual start of the loop. The right branch provides is with our first experience trying to go down hill in the snowshoe rut. I'm happy to report that both Jordan and I made it down with our egos in tact.

The trail then again generally is flat or has minor climbs as it runs out to the end of the loop. It is here that we are figuring how to climb. We are both having trouble sliding back even on gentle slopes, and we re-apply a different wax.

The trail does a fairly sharp 180 degree turn back the way it came, and follows somewhat parallel to the way in. The trail now begins a longer and steeper climb. Jordan is still having trouble gong up the hill. I think his skis are too long and have too much camber, for his weight. I jokingly tell him there is no shame in walking them up. A few seconds later I fall at the steepest bit of the hill and jam my knee on the edge of my twisted ski. I decide maybe I was not joking and take me skis off and walk up a couple of dozen feet, then finish skiing to the crest of the hill. Looking back I see Jordan struggling and eventually do the same.

IMG_0293.JPG IMG_0293.JPG
At the top of the hill we stop for lunch. Stepping off the track we sink past our knees, as we go sit on a convenient log to eat. After lunch we put more wax on Jordan's skis spreading it well outside the normal center area. He tells me later that this really helps, I wonder why the rental folks never asked how much he weighed.

There is a bit more up and down, but we were in fact more or less at the top of the hill. We have to duck under a fallen tree just as, of all things, we meet another skier coming the other way. We chit chat a bit, he comments that he has just come up a hill, and he mentions that with the provincial budget cuts they are no longer track setting this set of trails. He also comments on how well the snowshoe tracks work in place of the groomed trails, which I obviously agree with.

Dodging Trees Dodging Trees
There is a hazard on the decent that when travelling in this direction, that comes in the form of couple of fallen trees across the trail. Adding the extra difficulty in stopping and the could be a risk to a novice skier. The first on could take your knees out, and the second one could knock you out, it is lower than it looks from up hill side.

After the fallen trees the trail comes to another junction, the right heading up to higher ground, the strait path offers a fairly long (100m or so) down hill. The posted map tells us that the down hill route is the easier route. There is a couple of snowshoers coming up the hill, about half way up as we set off. Jordan goes first as his skies are faster... The snowshoers wisely step aside as he swishes down the hill. He makes it down and around the corner. Now it's my turn, pretty exciting stuff, being able to slide down in an almost controlled manner. A quick "thanks for moving over", is offered to the snowshoers as I slide past..

Shortly after this long hill the trail rejoins at the point where we forked off on the loop. And soon we are at the main entry point to the trail system. We both want to ski more, and decide to follow the Westward ski trail until we get to th creek shown.

We end up miss reading the map, and follow a snowshoe trail not on the map but marked with markers on the trees. The snowshoe trail twists and turns through the trees. There is no underbrush and it makes for a very interesting leg out to the west and back. We go about a km and decide we have had enough. Once in the picnic area we follow on actual ski tracks running along the North side of the clearing. I thought these would turn south and lead back to the car, but was wrong, and we finished the trip like we started, cutting fresh tracks in 2-3 ft of fresh snow for 75m or so to get back to the car.

Mt Smith-Dorren again, but with more overcast Mt Smith-Dorren again, but with more overcast


Part of the view from the parking lot

Jordan showing off some fine form

heading off down the trail

Heading off to the sunset... not quite

Looking South?


Dodging Trees


Mt Smith-Dorren and friends

Mt Smith-Dorren again, but with more overcast

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Content Copyright M Tanton 2010

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