“The trail is around here somewhere. It has to be, but let’s keep heading towards the highway.”

We weren’t lost, exactly. All we had to do was walk downhill and we’d eventually hit the highway, but we weren’t on a trail either. We were misplaced, a mere four kilometres or so from our pickup point, but between us and our ride home lay thick underbrush and a series of cold muddy creeks.

What better place to search for an elusive herd of 12 woodland caribou? The White Goat Wilderness Area is a nature preserve sandwiched between Banff and Jasper in the Albertan Rockies, and is part of the roaming grounds of the South Jasper Caribou Herd.

Our crew — five city-dwelling 15-17-year-olds, two Outward Bound guides, a wildlife expert from the Canadian Wildlife Federation (CWF) and, me, from Canadian Geographic — wanted to find them and capture the experience with GoPros and iPads.

The adventure begins

The adventure began on a Friday morning in front of Outward Bound’s storage locker, where we divvied food and group equipment — including a battery powered electric fence to keep bears away from food for when the high-altitude trees get too small and feeble to support traditional bear hangs. Our 25-kilogram packs bulged with all the accouterments necessary for surviving a rugged weekend of volatile, sub-zero mountain weather.

The clouds hung low and spat rain as we hiked to our first campsite on the shore of the Cline River. We only caught glimpses of the snow-dusted peaks around us, but it was enough to ignite imaginations.

“We’ll be up close to that snow tomorrow night,” said Outward Bound camping expert Dan Kilburn. “The caribou migrate up there this time of year to avoid predators.”

The teens worked together to set up their tents in the now pouring rain while the adults prepared a dinner of dehydrated chili. The rain forced us to eat standing or squatting under a tarp while the mud pooled around the circle of rocks that would’ve housed a pleasant fire. We went to bed tasked with reflecting on how the landscape we were in supports wildlife and what we can do to protect it.

High-altitude searching

On day two we gained 600 metres in altitude, leaving the lodgepole pines, larchs and aspens behind in exchange for mossy, fresh-scented coniferous forests. The sky was overcast but rain free. We’d found some scat near camp in the morning that seemed too big for deer but too small for moose, and it was exciting to think we had maybe found traces of the caribou. It was the only clue we found all day that we were following their hidden footsteps.

The next morning we awoke to ice-rimmed water bottles and what would be our longest hike of the trip, although we didn’t yet know that most of it would be bushwhacking.

We began with a two-kilometre hike along the shore of the lake before turning into the mountains. Our path wound its way up, zigzagging over glacial streams, passing the treeline and over lichen-covered rocks — veritable caribou salad bars, but unfortunately void of caribous. All around us were mountains covered in scree slopes the colour of a deep red sunset, and at the far end of the high alpine valley loomed the pass we would need to cross to meet our ride.

“My mom will never believe I did this,” Colton Chehowy, 16, said as he crested the edge of the plateau. Below us lay the North Saskatchewan River, and beyond, the Rockies of Banff National Park.

Returning home

When it was time to descend and reenter the trees, we couldn’t find the trail, and as we crisscrossed the widening valley it became clear we wouldn’t. Instead our guides led us through thick underbrush, across streams and through hauntingly bare forest fire scars, ever south and ever descending. Our feet grew raw with the pounding of walking downhill, and though some of us minced our way through difficult sections we never lost the wonder of what was around us.

Ben Goetze from Edmonton, who had joined me at the back of the group, said it best. “Yeah my feet are sore, but this is still amazing. We are so lucky.”

Finally, through the yellow flare of a stand of larch there was a silver gleam.

“I see a truck!” someone said.

Despite being unable to find the trail, our guides had led us exactly to the point we were aiming for. The nine pairs of once dragging feet bounded over the rough ground.

As the five students drove closer to civilization, it was clear something had changed for them. We didn’t find caribou, but we all knew that was a long shot. Instead they found an appreciation for the landscape that these animals need to survive.