My need to live in the mountains has been growing more and more as time progresses. It was never something I thought about when I was a kid growing up on the North Island of New Zealand. As long as I was by the sea I was happy, but that has shifted over the past few years.
I still hold a special spot for the sea in my heart. But now more than ever, it is the mountains that feel like home.
The feeling of being in the mountains is primal, old as time.
And my favourite mountains? The Canadian Rockies. Majestic, breathtaking, awe-inspiring. You could throw any superlative at them but none of them would truly hit the mark. It is damn near impossible to describe what being in the presence of the Rocky Mountains feels like for me. I’m sure I’m not the only one.
But I hadn’t planned on adding them to my itinerary this past summer. Looking back, I’m not exactly sure why now. It probably had a lot to do with forcing myself to visit new places in Canada’s West although I ended up returning to Vancouver, Victoria and Denman Island.
It was a mistake to not factor in the Rockies and with a little help from fate, that mistake corrected itself.
When my Alaska plans didn’t work out as expected and I suddenly had two months to play with, I started looking at Help Exchanges all over British Columbia. I found a few that sounded promising but none more so than the perfect placement I found in the small town of Field in the British Columbian Rockies.
Luckily my Skype interview went well and I was offered the placement. I decided to start in two weeks time and committed to almost six weeks. I was excited to return to Field. I had briefly passed through a couple of summers earlier and I had wanted to return ever since. I just didn’t think it would be so soon.
Field is a small historic town of 200 residents that is located in Yoho National Park, in the Canadian Rockies. Field started life as a railway town back in the late nineteenth century and it still has strong ties to the railroad with railroad bunkhouses being located there and trains passing through at all times of the day. Tourism now also plays a major part in the town’s economy, with almost every second house being a guesthouse.
My Help X placement was at the town’s only hostel, the small, boutique Fireweed Hostel. I was to work three eight hour days per week, mostly cleaning and checking people in with a bit of landscaping thrown in. In return I would receive a room in a staff house with internet and cable TV and the use of a vehicle, although I still needed to pay petrol money. It’s pretty standard for Help Exchanges at Hostels, Inns, Lodges etc to not include food so even though I would still need to buy my own, I was excited to work in another hostel after my great experience Help Exchanging at the Squilax HI Hostel in Shuswap Lake a couple of years ago.
I arrived on a sunny afternoon into Golden, the nearest large town to Field, located 60km to its west. My boss to be Craig picked me up and we ran a couple of errands around town then he showed me around a bit, taking me down to the Kicking Horse river and a marshy lake near town.
Then, within fifteen minutes of leaving Golden, we had entered Yoho National Park. I was back in the mountains and they were even more beautiful than I remembered. So was Field.
It looks like a movie set. Impossibly pretty with not a hair out of place. The streets are spotless, the houses are well kept and attractive with colourful flowerbeds and window boxes. It is located in a valley surrounded by mountains on both sides and the milky blue Kicking Horse river runs through it, cutting off the majority of the town from the highway and the Visitors Centre.
Downtown Field consists of a cafe called The Siding, a Pottery Studio, a Post Office, the Community Centre and a Restaurant/Bar called Truffle Pigs which is part of the Kicking Horse Lodge. And that’s it.
No Grocery Store, no retail shops, no movie theatre. If you wanted any of those things you needed to drive the almost 60km to Golden which I did a couple of times to stock up on groceries (and Tim Hortons donuts). Lake Louise town centre was half the distance but there wasn’t a lot there, and the groceries were significantly more expensive.
Field is very much a cat town. There are so many cats here and most of them are more than happy to let you give them a bit of affection. My favourites were Star and Apollo who would come and hang out with me at the hostel when I working. Star would barrel in when I opened the door and would lounge around on a chair watching me clean, rolling on her back when I passed for a belly rub, while Apollo would climb onto my lap on the porch, purring and chatting to his heart’s content. I miss those two.
It took me almost two weeks before I checked out Truffle Pigs. I think the crowds of people lining up out the door had put me off up until then. This place is popular, and not just because it is the only restaurant in town. The food is incredibly good, and so is the ambience.
After I popped my Truffle Pigs cherry I spent a lot of time there, usually propping up the bar and talking to the Bar Manager Flint and whoever else was sitting there that night, drinking the house-made ginger beer and stuffing my face with the Bulgogi pork belly nachos (so good!). I met a few of the locals there and I slowly started to feel like I was settling in.
Outside of Field at nearby Emerald Lake, I had a few meals and delicious honey beers at Cilantro with my friend Paulina (her husband Darren is the Manager). There’s no better place to be on a warm summer’s day than on the patio overlooking the gorgeous lake with a cold beer.
Despite eating out at Cilantro and Truffle Pigs on numerous occasions, most of the time I would just cook. It felt like a novelty after two months of travel and I enjoy cooking. I baked fresh soda bread and made lentil soup from scratch. I had healthy vegetable stirfries and pierogies stuffed with potato and cheese and smothered in natural yoghurt and sweet chilli sauce. It was nice to have more control over what I was eating again.
I loved my house. I was sharing with a shy teenage boy from South Africa which wasn’t ideal but he was nice enough. He just didn’t really talk. The two bedroom house was clean and modern, with a grassy backyard with BBQ and fire pit. The kitchen was kitted out with every appliance and utensil you could need including an all-important french press. My room was spacious with a queen size bed and there were mountain views from nearly every window in the house. And to top it all off the house was blue, my favourite colour.
My house was located right in the middle of town and only a couple of minutes walk from the Guesthouse and the Hostel, both of which I would be cleaning. My bosses Kim and Craig lived with their three kids above the Guesthouse and it was at their place that I would start my shift, grabbing the radio, keys and the check in sheets, and finding out what needed to be cleaned that day.
It all seemed a bit daunting at first. Craig gave me a thick manual with everything I needed to know about cleaning the guesthouse and hostel and dealing with guests. I carried it with me for the first couple of weeks but I pretty much had it down after working my first three training shifts, the cleaning part anyway.
My first day was long and hard. Cleaning is physical work and cleaning for eight hours straight, especially so. But I enjoyed it. I love how you can listen to music and just get stuck into each task, one by one, seeing tangible evidence of your accomplishments as you go. And when you are working in such a beautiful space, it makes it even more enjoyable. I loved being in the hostel. It felt so much like a cosy Ski Lodge and whenever I stepped outside to take out the rubbish, or glanced out the window of the lounge as I was sweeping the floor, the mountains staring back at me never failed to put a smile on my face. Within a week I felt fitter and it didn’t feel difficult anymore.
As much as I enjoyed the cleaning, my favourite part of the job was checking in guests and answering any questions they had about Field and Yoho National Park. I met loads of friendly and interesting people during my time working at the hostel. The people who stayed at the hostel and the guesthouse came to Field to hike and to be surrounded by nature. That is why I came there too, so it felt like I was meeting kindred spirits.
I may not have been paid for my work but I did get a few generous tips (one of $20!) and I saved money by not eating out too much and buying food from the supermarket in bulk. I even got a locals discount at local businesses in Field and Lake Louise. Every little bit helps.
When I wasn’t working I was hiking as much as possible or just spending time in my perfect little mountain town. And Field was perfect, or near enough.
I spent a lot of time gazing out of the lounge window, watching hummingbirds feed from the bright flowers in the window box and at the snow sprinkled majesty of Mount Stephen and Mount Field behind town.
When I was short on time or if the weather wasn’t great and I was dying to get out of the house I would walk around town, walking the perimeter then across the bridge and around the pond that locals swim in in summer (it was too cold most of the time I was there), then back to my house. It only took about twenty minutes, that is how small the village is.
There were also a couple of short trails that start in the village including the one hour return on the Mount Burgess trail to Field Stone with a great view over town, the 6km return Tally Ho trail to Natural Bridge, the 2km return up to the town cemetery and the first section of the Mount Stephen trail towards the shale beds to the point where entry is restricted.
I did a lot of hiking in Yoho National Park as well as a few around Moraine Lake and Lake Louise in nearby Banff National Park.
Yoho National Park is stunning and I have no idea why it is not as popular as Banff. Emerald Lake is just as beautiful as Lake Louise and Takakkaw Falls, the second highest in Canada, is spectacular. That’s not even mentioning the Lake O’Hara Alpine area which a lot of people say is the most beautiful spot in the Rocky Mountains. Visitor numbers are strictly limited as you can only reach it by hiking in along the 11km gravel road, or by nabbing a spot on one of the shuttles which only operate during the summer months and usually sell out within a day.
A lot of the hikes in Yoho start at either Takakkaw Falls or Emerald Lake. I want to write in more detail at some stage about the many hikes I did but my favourite was the 18km Iceline trail that is the showpiece of the park and leads through peaceful forest, sub-alpine meadows and across an alpine plateau with spectacular views over Takakkaw Falls and the Yoho Valley below.
Yoho Pass from Takakkaw Falls to Emerald Lake was another favourite of mine in the park. It switchbacked up to the pass through dense forest and past beautiful Yoho Lake, then down past waterfalls to the Emerald Lake basin before following the lake shore for the last couple of kilometres. And of course the epic hike up to Abbott Pass, one of the most incredible and scary experiences I have ever had, which I will be writing about soon.
In Banff National Park I loved the 14.6km hike above Lake Louise that linked the Lake Agnes and Plain of Six Glaciers Teahouses, and the stunning 11.6km Sentinel Pass and Larch Valley hike from Moraine Lake that I did with my brother to see the Yellow Larches.
On my first day off I did the Tally-Ho trail and I ended up getting so scared about bears that I ran through the forest singing the chorus of ‘Yellow Submarine’ on repeat at the top of my lungs. By the end of my time in Field I did the 18km Iceline trail by myself with no freak outs. I was proud of how far I had come. It also definitely helped having the bear spray that my downstairs neighbour Jill left me.
Although late summer this year saw a lot of rain, I am still happy that I chose this time of year to go because I got to bear witness to the changing of seasons from Summer to Autumn. From the beginning of September bright red leaves started appearing on the low foliage beside hiking trails and aspens and larches turned from a dark green to a golden yellow. Driving the road up to Takakkaw Falls was especially scenic in Autumn. We also started getting snow at higher elevations as early as late August. In my last week I was snowed on four times while hiking.
Autumn really is the most beautiful time to be in the mountains and I welcomed the creeping cold for all the beauty it was bringing.
It may have been slow starting with meeting people but looking back I did make more friends than I realised during my time in Field. My first friend was Paulina, a lovely Chilean who works and lives year round at nearby Emerald Lake with her Irish husband Darren. We did a few hikes together along with their dog Naya, as well as dinners and drinks at Truffle Pigs and a BBQ and bonfire at my place. I don’t know what I would have done if I hadn’t met Paulina, my time in Field would have been a lot lonelier.
There was my downstairs neighbour Jill who was working at the hostel over summer. We worked together a few times and planned to meet up out of work for a drink but it only happened just before she left. It’s a shame we didn’t get to hang out more because it was fun drinking Shafts (the local coffee cocktail) and hanging out at Truffle Pigs the one evening that we did meet up.
After a month the quiet South African moved out and a friendly Slovenian moved in. It was great living with Katja and we hung out a lot at home and at Truffle Pigs, I only wish she had been my flatmate the whole time.
I met a few of the locals during my evenings at Truffle Pigs including Ross who lived in Revy but stopped in Field a lot for work (he worked on the railroad), Steven from Edmonton who was working down the road at Cathedral Mountain Lodge for the summer, Tanya the Receptionist at the Kicking Horse Lodge who I swear must be a vampire because I don’t know how a beauty that looks as young as her could be mother to a 20 year old, and Flint, the gregarious bartender with the heart of gold.
I was also lucky enough to have a few friends visit me. My friends (and former couch surfing hosts from Toronto) Roger and Anna stayed for a couple of days and we did some rainy day hiking in Yoho, I met up with my friend Kathryn and a couple of her hostel buddies for a day of hiking around Moraine Lake, and my brother even came for a week, during which we hiked in Banff and Yoho National Parks and tackled the difficult two day hike up from Lake O’Hara to the second highest permanent structure in Canada: The Abbot Pass Hut.
There were bonfires and BBQs, lock ins at Truffle Pigs, hiking adventures, burgers at The Siding, road trips to Golden, lazy afternoon drinks by Emerald Lake, home-cooked meals and movies at my place. I loved it all.
But it wasn’t all good. In a lot of ways it was the hardest part of my trip. During my time in Field I started to feel increasingly disconnected from Trav after spending more than two months apart.
I struggled with loneliness a lot. It took me a while to make friends and I spent a lot of time by myself which I thought I would be OK with. Turns out that I wasn’t. I am not as introverted as I once thought and more than a couple of days away from people left me feeling very lonely and isolated.
I also got bored at times. It rained a lot during my time in the Rockies and there was also a very smoky week when the smoke from the wildfires raging in Washington State drifted over, blocking out the sun and leaving the acrid taste of smoke in my mouth when I went outside. I was housebound a lot. I ended up hiking in the freezing rain a couple of times just to get out of the house. It was actually kind of beautiful.
As I only worked three days a week, I quite often would have four or five days off in a row which was great when the weather was nice or I had people to hang out with but not so much when it was raining and I was by myself. I watched a lot of Netflix and read a lot of books and there is only so much of that you can do.
By the last couple of weeks I had met enough people and was settled enough that the feelings of loneliness had passed. I really started feeling like I was settling in and then it was time to leave. Isn’t that the way it always goes?
From wanting to leave early to not wanting to leave at all and crying on the bus ride to Vancouver because I already missed it, my relationship with Field was complicated. I loved it, I hated it at times, but mostly I feel like it was a home to me. And I think I needed that.
And I finally got to live in the mountains, if only for a short time.