Kananaskis Country’s abundant trails are too well trodden for three men eager to capture every visual opportunity in the wilderness.
For outdoor enthusiasts Doug Macaulay, 70, Lew Johnson, 88, and Mike Rossier, 59, an outing in Sheep River Provincial Park, Bluerock Wildland Provincial Park and Highwood Pass often consists of a fair bit of bushwhacking, stream-crossing and game trail exploring as they venture off the beaten path.
“There’s only so many trails that are within easy driving distance and if you do the same trails over and over you get totally bored with it,” said Macaulay. “If I’ve done a certain trail before I might decide to do it in reverse or do the first half of the trail, but then do some bushwhacking and inject some different elements into the hike.”
Before heading out, the Black Diamond resident inputs his intended hike into Google Earth to view it from different angles with hopes of discovering hidden treasures nearby like lookout points and panoramic views.
With a lifelong love of the outdoors, Macaulay joined the Sheep River Ramblers hiking group shortly after it was established through the Friends of the Sheep River Library in 2012. The hikes began in spring of 2013.
A year after joining, Macaulay became a facilitator for leading members on hikes several days a week.
“When I first started the Ramblers I didn’t feel confident enough to go out on my own and I didn’t know enough of the area to start going places,” he said. “It wasn’t until I joined the Ramblers and got going out with Lew (Johnson) that I realized I can do this.”
Those Macaulay led soon got used to his unique style of hiking.
“They rather enjoy walking along a trail and all of a sudden I’m going off in another direction,” he said. “They’re like, where is he taking us now? It’s fun for everybody, otherwise we might miss out on some creek crossing that’s pretty easy, or there could be a perfect view of the mountains to the east.”
Macaulay attributes this love of going off the beaten path to Johnson.
“One of the first facilitators was Lew Johnson and the first Ramblers hike I did happened to be with Lew,” he said. “He immediately started going through the bush. I thought, where is this man taking us? I didn’t see a trail or anything. He said, ‘We’re going this way’ and away we went through the bush.”
Macaulay liked Johnsons’ approach.
“He does some hiking on trails, but a lot of it is bushwhacking,” he said. “He also looks at maps and says, if we’re able to join this trail with this trail we will make a darn good hike out of that.”
Macaulay still goes hiking with Johnson on occasion.
“He’s been a real inspiration for a lot of us,” he said. “Some of us are getting up in years and Lew at 88 is still going strong. We keep each other going.
Johnson said he’s bounced around different places in the Rockies for years before settling in Black Diamond six years ago. No matter where he was, it wasn’t uncommon for Johnson to wander off, discovering old buildings and things of that sort.
“I’ve always enjoyed the walking, the exercise, looking at my surroundings, listening to the birds sing and the flowers in the season and the environment in the wintertime,” Johnson said. “The Sheep River and Highwood areas are probably about as simple of mountain country as you can hike in. The underbrush is limited. It’s easy to read if you’re used to just wandering around in the countryside.
Johnson uses a compass and his outdoors experience to guide him.
“There is always a horizon that you can locate and use that as a guide,” he said. “The trees are pretty easy to read. There’s jack pine and bald areas in the south, southwest areas of the hillside generally and spruce on the north side.
When he’s bushwhacking and gets a bit disoriented, it doesn’t take long for Johnson to get to a point where he can see out further.
This is knowledge Johnson has developed from years of hiking terrain around the world.
“I’ve never considered myself a technical hiker, but I’ve been in some pretty difficult places in life,” he said. “I’ve hiked some pretty high country in the western Arctic, as well as Baffin Island and Greenland.”
Now, Johnson sticks close to the Foothills, often walking daily and hiking the trails weekly to keep in shape.
“I’ve had cancer and the prognosis a year ago wasn’t good, but I never stopped hiking after my recovery work,” he said. “I swear by physical activity and pushing myself.”
While Johnson admits to venturing onto well-trodden trails from time to time, most people who’ve hiked with him during his years as a Sheep River Rambler facilitator often thought it was an accident if he led them on an obvious trail.
“In the spring and summer I’m crossing streams and going over barbed-wire fences,” he said. “They always figured that was part of the hike and I’d say ‘That’s what you do when you bushwhack and don’t know where you’re going sometimes.’ I knew where I was going.”
Hiking, for Johnson, is all about exploration.
“I don’t intentionally avoid trails, but I do like to go in areas where not a lot of people go,” he said. “I do find things once in a while in bushy areas that might be interesting. In this country there’s creeks that have canyons and some ridges with rock formations that you don’t always see. It makes it an exciting hike rather than just walking the trails.”
When Rossier hikes in the Kananaskis, he’s always looking to connect trails, which are often established by Parks employees, used by horses and cattle or old roads.
“I go off trail to connect known trails together so I can make a loop,” he said. “It’s exploring the area and connecting the dots and following game trails. The animals know what they’re doing. They’re efficient, especially in the winter when they’re not wasting any energy walking for nothing.”
For Rossier, it’s an adventure.
“I love traversing hills rather than going straight up,” he said. “I’m a mountain man.”
Rossier often takes a voice recorder along to keep track of new trails he’s formed or connections he’s made.
“You get tired of doing the same trail in and out,” he said. “If you have a connection between two trails you can do a loop. Hikers much prefer loops than going in and out, especially if you’ve done the hike more than once, rather than retracing their steps and seeing what they just saw a couple of hikes ago. You’re seeing something fresh for the entire duration of the hike.”
Rossier uses a GPS to link trails together.
“You can never get lost if you have a previous track on the GPS,” he said.
The avid hiker has been lacing his hiking boots since 1987. In 2015 he moved to High River from Manitoba to be closer to the mountains, and then later to Turner Valley to be even closer.
He hikes as many as five times a week.
“The Sheep River and the Highwood are remote areas,” he said.
“It’s very quiet, especially in the wintertime. The trails are not as manicured as they are in the federal parks.
"They’re a little bit more challenging. They develop your outdoors skills more, too.”
Rossier said he loves being in the outdoors, admiring the beauty of nature with his friends.
“The lure, to me, of hiking in Alberta is to get to see a series of hills and get this spectacular panoramic view of the mountains,”
he said. “I need to see mountains in the background. That’s what keeps me doing this day after day after day.”