Trent Ernst, Editor
Last month, Avalanche Canada installed a remote weather station in Kakwa Provincial Park. Ryan Buhler, Avalanche Forecaster for Avalanche Canada was joined by a group from the Swan City Snowmobile Club to install the remote
As he was getting ready to leave, says Buhler, one of the other forecasters told him that snowmobiling in the Kakwa was a special experience, like snowmobiling in a national park. “Steep, windswept Rocky Mountain peaks dot the landscape and are separated by large open meadows, sparse trees, and frozen rivers,” says Buhler. “It is exactly what I imagine it would be like to ride a snowmobile through the heart of Banff National Park.”
Buhler says the conditions were near perfect, with between 30 and 50 cm of fresh dry powder sitting on top of a well-settled snowpack. This means, he says, almost no avalanche problems in the area. “I felt like a hero following the gang from the Swan City Snowmobile Club as they gave me a tour of their backyard. Endless powder turns through untouched rolling meadows, countless kilometers riding up a frozen river through a winding canyon, and breaking in a series of trails for the season through the thinly spaced trees.”
Snowmobiling in the Kakwas is a way of life, says Buhler. “Part of what makes the Kakwa Provincial Park so unique is the very remote nature of the area, and sleds provide access. I asked the guys if they ever see people ski-touring in the area and the collectively only remembered one pair of skiers a few years back who based day trips out of the provincial cabin.”
Kakwa Provincial Park is located in British Columbia but the primary access is through the Kakwa Wilderness Reserve in Alberta. The Swan City Snowmobile Club out of Grande Prairie, Alberta, maintains over 50km of groomed trails which lead to the Kakwa Lake cabin. The cabin is the central meeting place in a maintained snowmobile area that is in the neighbourhood of 400 square kilometers.
Because the area straddles the boundary between Alberta and BC, it has developed quite a reputation for snowmobiling. The Alberta governments issues permits for snowmobilers to establish winter camps, which allows riders easy access into the big riding terrain in BC.
This year, says Bulher, there are around 100 camps set up at the end of a very long plowed logging road. From there, a 25 km snowmobile ride takes you to the Border Camp which houses a couple dozen more camps. The permit allows the camps to be set up after November 15 and requires them to be removed by April 15.
Camps include motorhomes, converted school buses, portable industrial trailers, and even wall tents. “It is this backcountry neighbourhood that makes the Kakwa such a cool spot,” says Buhler. “As I met more and more people, it became apparent that there is a very strong sense of community in this area. Everyone is connected, and I mean that literally. These guys all have InReach devices synced to their phones and satellite text messaging is completely commonplace.”
Buhler says he kept expecting something to go wrong with the weather station installation. “I completely built and tested the station in Revelstoke without any real problems but for some reason I continued to expect the worst. I had three extra days for contingency and brought every tool I could possibly need. I had three very eager and very mechanically inclined helpers from the snowmobile club with me. What is the worst that could go wrong?”
It turns out nothing did go wrong. Buhler and crew had the station up and running in just over an hour. “These guys built the station faster than I could have possibility imagined with only very limited input from me. I called home base the following morning and we had a steady stream of data with all the sensors working properly. This meant more time for area familiarization and conditions assessment, which of course meant snowmobiling.”
And the snowmobiling was good, says Buhler. Really good. Really, really good. “Non-stop face shots and a strong enough base that made it difficult to get the machines stuck. I’ve been snowmobiling around Revelstoke most of my life and this was one of the best days I have ever had in the mountains.”
Buhler says that the weather station is another source of information for the information sparse Northern Rockies. “One thing is very clear from the few days I spent in the area: people want information. I was asked at least ten times over the weekend where the weather station data can be found.”
Data from the new station can be found at www.avalanche.ca/kakwa. While the information in provides is very localized, it is one of the best sources of information for the Northern Rockies. Another source of information is the Mountain Information Network (MIN).
The Mountain Information Network brings crowdsourcing to forecasting. The real time tool allows users to submit weather, snowpack and avalanche observations. This data can then be viewed on the main map on Avalanche Canada’s website, or through a dedicated mobile app.
“The MIN is fully integrated with our website at avalanche.ca,” explains Karl Klassen, Manager of Avalanche Canada’s Public Avalanche Warning Service. “Submissions to the network are geo-tagged, so others can easily see where the observations were made. The MIN gives all backcountry users access to real-time information and observations, which provides valuable decision-making support for travelling in avalanche terrain.”
Submitting to the MIN is easily done through a smartphone or on a home computer. A menu of items is provided to guide the observations and there is also the capability to send photos and add comments. These submissions then appear as small blue icons on the map in the app and at avalanche.ca, which other users can click to view.
“We are very excited about the potential for the MIN,” says Klassen. “The data flow from some of our forecasting regions is sometimes irregular, especially early and late in the season, and a few regions suffer from a scarcity of data. Receiving more observations from the field will be tremendously valuable to our forecasting process.”
This is the second year for the MIN, and an update scheduled to be pushed out soon will give new tools to users, like an incident reporting function. You can find more information at www.avalanche.ca/mountain-information-network, or download the app for your smartphone.