#953 Gentle paths through the Rockies

Family Walks and Hikes in the Canadian Rockies, Volume 1: Bragg Creek, Kananaskis, Bow Valley, Banff National Park
by Andrew Nugara

Victoria: Rocky Mountain Books, 2019
$20.00 / 9781771602242

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Family Walks and Hikes in the Canadian Rockies, Volume 2: Bragg Creek, Kananaskis, Moraine Lake, Yoho, Icefields Parkway, Jasper
by Andrew Nugara

Victoria: Rocky Mountain Books, 2020
$20.00 / 9781771603058

Both books reviewed by Michael Watson

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With the publication of these two volumes of Family Walks and Hikes in the Canadian Rockies, Andrew Nugara has complemented his previous guides on scrambling and snowshoeing in the Canadian Rockies and added further advice and incentive to those getting out in the magnificent mountains that straddle the BC-Alberta border.

I am excited to have the opportunity to review these colourful new guidebooks. Family Walks and Hikes in the Canadian Rockies add to a growing collection of Rocky Mountain Books titles focused on family outings. Between them, Nugara describes 89 trails ranging from very short (<500m) up to 15km trails (when including optional extensions). As a father of two small children aged 1 and 4, I am clearly part of Nugara’s target audience. What separates me from some potential readers is that I had the rare privilege of growing up in Banff, in the heart of the Rockies, and thus have plenty of experience — and opinions! — of most of the trails that the region has to offer.

Ice rink on Lake Louise, Banff National Park

To start, one might reasonably ask whether we need more hiking guides to the Rockies. The region boasts many excellent trail guides; my own collection stands at 20 or so, many of which have been through multiple revisions or editions, and have stood the test of time. Some include upwards of 250 hikes; others are highly idiosyncratic with colourful warnings, for example, of which trails are a waste of your valuable time. However, few are aimed specifically at families with smaller children and, in my opinion, any book that aims to get families experiencing and exploring the outdoors is worth a close look.

A guidebook author faces many choices. Focus on a narrow or wide geography? Seek to appeal to a broad audience and more potential readers, or fill a niche? Try to include all the hikes one might possibly wish to explore, or curate your list? And if you curate, on what criteria do you base your recommendations? How much information do you include in your descriptions? Only the essentials, or more? Do you go text heavy, image heavy, or seek a balance of the two? Do you write a book to identify the perfect walk, and then leave the book in the car, or do you expect people to carry the book with them? Do you add optional extras to the trail descriptions? Writing a guidebook in 2020 also comes with heightened expectations: the advent of high-quality digital photography and accurate GPS has raised expectations of what a trail guide can, and should, offer.

In making his choices and writing these guides Nugara gets many things right. The books are bright, cleanly formatted, and visually appealing. Nugara’s writing is straightforward and his descriptions are clear and informative. Standardised information is given for each hike, including Location, Distance, Elevation Gain (including high point), Difficulty, Season, and Of Special Interest for Children, all of which provides enough information to decide, without being overwhelming, if a trail is the right one for the outing. The standardised format and layout make it quick and easy to evaluate and reference.

Andrew Nugara

Although no walks or hikes are particularly long or difficult, Nugara has included a good range of options, from very short and mostly flat to walks with enough distance and gain in elevation to give the fitter people in the group a little exercise. I appreciate that often he has chosen routes with options to extend the length of the trip, so that hikers can “play it by ear and change the objective,” based on the energy of the group or the weather. Nugara also provides useful information on the ideal seasons for each hike — although reference to months rather than seasons might make this a more useful feature, since the majority of walks and hikes fall into either “late spring, summer, and early fall” or “summer and early fall” categories.

While some might miss the inclusion of larger or more detailed maps, I find Nugara’s choices appropriate for the aims and trails he describes. Those with a particular interest can always bring along a detailed topographical map — but such maps are not essential considering, as Nugara points out, that virtually all trails covered in the book are well signposted. He includes simple but effective locational maps and straightforward trail numbering, making trails easy to find and the books easy to use.

Nugara’s “What to Wear” section is useful, likewise his tips on what to bring. His goal of helping families get outdoors is admirable. It’s a pity he didn’t include a few things that I have found useful outdoors to give children a sense of being botanists, explorers, zoologists, or geologists, starting with binoculars and magnifying glasses. Also, I have found that hiking poles can be fun for the kids — and useful for adults, especially if carrying a child in a backpack.

Family Walks and Hikes in the Canadian Rockies include a nice range of colour photographs, including some really excellent ones, and a balance of scenery and family shots. The photos are enticing without, for the most part, betraying all the best sights.

On Moraine Lake in Banff National Park

While I found much to commend in these books, I found other things puzzling and frustrating or simply missed opportunities. I was confused by the geographic coverage of the two volumes. I expected them to cover areas distinct enough for potential readers to decide which book was most appropriate for their needs, without necessarily having to purchase both. The two books do overlap: they both include Bragg Creek and Kananaskis. Volume 1 includes Banff National Park, while volume 2 includes Moraine Lake, which is in Banff National Park. This leads to the distinct impression that the two volumes were not conceived together, and that, rather, the second emerged from a realisation of what was missed from the first. More cynically, one might conclude that the author or publisher simply wanted to sell more books.

I found the books somewhat slim in terms of the number of trails they describe. At 308 grams, volume 1 includes 42 trails; at a nearly identical weight, volume 2 includes 47 trails. I appreciate the size, weight, and feel of the books, and the presumed desire to keep things simple and readable, but with some relatively light editing and formatting changes they might have combined all of the trails into one volume without much additional size or weight, thus eliminating the overlapping geographic coverage noted above. By comparison, an early edition of Rocky Mountain Books’ Hikes Around Invermere (by Aaron Cameron and Matt Gunn) also weighs 308 grams yet packs in 79 hikes — nearly the combined total of the two. I got busy with my scales and found that another popular guidebook weighs 468 grams and includes 113 trails, and that one of the most-loved guides includes 233 trails in a 652-gram tome. I can appreciate that Nugara has curated the hikes specifically for families, thus keeping the total number lower than other guidebooks, but I don’t see why all his family walks and hikes were not combined into a single volume.

The trails are easily identified by location, but I wish they had also been cross referenced in a few simple and accessible ways, for example, suitable for a rainy day; best scenery; best water features; author’s favourites; kids’ top ratings. Of course this can be difficult to achieve with relatively few trails — which might have been another reason to have a single, more comprehensive volume.

Since Nugara warns the reader that certain areas (e.g. Lake Louise, Moraine Lake) can became uncomfortably busy at times, he might have recommended a very early (or much later) starting time to avoid the worst of the crowds, while acknowledging that early starts can be difficult with children! His statement that “all trips must be accessed by car” — which generally reflects the poor state of public transportation infrastructure in these areas — is not entirely true. A few of the trails can be reached with public transport, for instance in Banff.

Sulphur Mountain hike, overlooking Banff, Alberta

The photos, as noted, are generally excellent, but some choices stand out as odd. The author makes it clear that for the Sulphur Mountain hike, “winter ascents are possible but not recommended.” Having done this walk hundreds of times in all seasons, I would debate the claim of avalanche danger; and why, if not recommended in winter, are five of the six photographs of this hike taken in winter?

Speaking as a teacher, I wish Nugara had included additional pieces of trail description of historical or natural/ ecological interest that could be shared with children or adults. Such information is included in some descriptions, such as the year that a major fire disrupted a particular landscape on the Stanley Glacier hike, but not commonly or consistently. Much rich and interesting information could have been included without greatly increasing the length.

Andrew Nugara on the Stanley Glacier hike in Kootenay National Park, BC

To keep little ones engaged, Nugara offers some useful general tips and suggestions, along with an “Of Interest to Children” section for each entry. However, he might also have included a few pages dedicated to plants, animals, and ecology. Most children love scavenger hunts, for instance looking for and identifying the main flower, tree, bird, or poisonous spider species. I have found simple and brief “species identification guides” effective in other guidebooks. Learning common animal tracks can also be a thrilling and engaging part of an outdoor experience for younger walkers. Of course one can always bring separate guides or resources for the natural history, but incorporating something into these books would have been easy enough.

Finally, Nugara omits a related and effective way to motivate children: searching for “geo caches” — hidden objects located using precise GPS coordinates. The Parks Service embraced this trend a number of years ago, and although it is not for everyone, discovering a hidden cache in the mountains can be quite a thrill.

While I knew already the vast majority of the trails featured in Family Walks and Hikes in the Canadian Rockies, some I knew less well — Bragg Creek for instance — that I am now keen to visit. These volumes will appeal to one-time and occasional visitors to the mountains with younger children, or even those who, for the sake of time, fitness, or mobility, simply wish to embark on shorter walks and hikes. Despite the shortcomings noted above, these books will find a grateful audience. They are visually appealing, clearly written, and simple to use. Their locational maps, quality photographs, and clear, structured descriptions allow readers to decide which hike might be right for them. Andrew Nugara’s Family Walks and Hikes will certainly find a useful home on the bookshelves of many families.

Andrew Nugara at the summit of Mt Forbes, Canada’s 7th tallest, in Banff National Park. Photo courtesy Facebook

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Michael Watson

Michael Watson is a social scientist and educator with a passion for outdoor adventures and environmental justice. He grew up Banff, in the heart of Canada’s first national park. He has travelled extensively and lived on five continents but returns to Alberta and BC regularly, believing that there are few places as extraordinary as the wilderness of Western Canada. Michael trained in Geography and Economics and has worked in international cooperation and humanitarian relief, as well as outdoor and environmental education. He currently lives with his wife and two young sons in Freiburg im Breisgau in southern Germany, where he teaches at Robert Bosch United World College — a school with a peace-building and environmental sustainability mission, where students from over 90 countries live and learn together.

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