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'Heli-Hiking' in Canada Mountains

July 07, 1991|LORI P. GREENE | Greene is a New York City free-lance writer.

SPILLIMACHEEN, Canada — Way out in the middle of a rolling pasture, everyone seemed filled with nervous anticipation almost as strong as the helicopter's whipping blade. Even the nonchalant cows ran for cover.

With a thunderous roar making it almost impossible to hear and a ferocious wind attempting to suck up all that was within its range, the first of our group of 10 broke out of a tightly knit formation and scurried aboard the copter. The anxious waiting seemed to stretch into eternity as the rest of us attempted to talk off our fright.

I had arrived at this scenic meadow after a friend told me about the weeklong trip, put together by Westport, Conn.-based Tauck Tours. The idea of leaving the sizzling sidewalks of an urban summer to hike amid cool, spectacular granite pinacles was quite appealing. Flying into Calgary to start the tour was simple, as was the motor-coach ride from Calgary to Spillimacheen, British Columbia. But journeying through the mountain skies in a small craft was an issue my stomach had to contend with.

Even with the summer sun blazing the day into brightness, clouds still napped on the rugged Purcell Mountains. In a place with the intimidating name of Spillimacheen, I was about to step into the world of "heli-hiking." My group was called to board. We hurriedly grabbed our bags and bolted onto the waiting helicopter.

As we hovered a few feet above the ground, our more terrestrial mode of transport, the 40-seat motor coach now sitting off to the side, looked like a blot on nature's canvas. Seeing the valley's crenelated contours and the lace patterns of brilliant turquoise rivers from our flying machine, I remembered why I decided to forgo the safety of wheels and try my luck beneath a revolving propeller.

We were now heading into the heart of the Purcells, an imposing chain of stony grandeur in the Canadian Rockies. Located in the province of British Columbia, about 185 miles west of Calgary--where we had flown into the day before--the Purcells seemed like a lonely outpost. This wilderness has not seen the tourist development or the hiking traffic of more famous national parks and resort regions in the area.

After about 10 minutes, we neared a man-made structure hidden neatly within the mountain's folds--Bobbie Burns Lodge, which would serve as our home base for the next five days--and made a perfect landing on a helicopter pad as big as a driveway. A guide opened the chopper door, ushered us into a room that looked like a shop for serious mountaineers and issued hiking boots, rain pants, parkas and a sky-blue Bobbie Burns-Tauck Tours backpack. We checked into comfortable rooms aptly named for the area's diverse geology.

"Such a land is good for an energetic man. It is also not so bad for the loafer," wrote Rudyard Kipling about the area in 1908. The people on our trip fell precisely within that range. We were separated into four small "heli-groups" of about 10 each.

An active hiking clan included me and my photographer husband, a dermatologist, a housewife, an investment banker, a young college professor and some lawyers. The easy hiking group had mostly participants over age 60, and the other two clusters fell somewhere in between. The guides formed the groups from questionnaires we had filled out on the bus ride from Calgary.

Each of the four groups was given a number since the helicopter could take only one group at a time. The rotation system is as efficient as a Swiss clock, with every group departing with a new guide at a different designated time each day. Once airborne, the helicopter's stops are called "drops"--not very reassuring. There are four such 1 1/2-hour stops daily, al within the Purcell Mountains. All groups cover the same areas, but at differing times and paces. The crucial lunch cargo is also transported via chopper.

"See you on top of Elk," our guide Jane Girvan said cheerily as she closed the craft's door and hopped into the front seat before our first drop. This time my trepidation was much less fierce.

At 8,000 feet, this mountain doesn't get much traffic. Jane's specialty was finding the sublime in what seemed ordinary. From her we learned that an undistinguished long, green stalk called mountain sorrel tastes exactly like a Granny Smith apple, and that the high-pitched squeal in the distance was a small squirrel-like animal called a pica--his way of saying, "I know you're coming."

At our next drop, we walked in silence. The sound of streams flowing over rocky hills made for serene background music. Occasionally, nature's concert would be interrupted by the sound of Jane's walkie-talkie, which is used to communicate with the helicopter pilot as well as the other three guides. As the terrain changed, so did the melody. The echo of breaking crystal hung in the air while we were hiking over fields of slate. The distant clicking of the engine became audible, and we all sensed it was nearing time to go.

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