(At Bow Lake in Banff National Park, Canadian Rockies)
As I gaze with awe (undiminished by the fact that that they are mere celluloid reproductions on film-quality paper) at the many pictures we took on our trip to Canada, I relive the indescribable joys of having spent such a special time cosseted by the embracing arms of Nature. Having devoted a whole week to an exploration of the national parks in Alberta, Canada, and a second to a discovery of her Pacific coastal cities in British Columbia, Llew and I have returned home, renewed, refreshed and rejuvenated beyond belief.
Arrival in Banff via Calgary:
Our vacation began in the Canadian city of Calgary to which we flew from New York’s La Guardia airport. But setting aside the exploration of that city, famous for its August Stampede for a later date, we picked up our rental car from the airport and began the interesting drive towards the Rockies which, at that distance, were only faint outlines in the far background.
Within a half hour, we were closer to those mountains that would keep us company for the next couple of weeks. Another hour later, we had reached the entrance to Banff National Park where we purchased annual passes into Canada’s park system and passing the “hoodoos” or rocky limestone formations along the highway on our right, found ourselves, just a few minutes later, cruising into the toy-like township of Banff.
Without any further ado, we found and settled into our Bed and Breakfast accommodation, quite suitably named Squirrel’s Nest. A very modest homestead indeed, run by Calvin and Paul Shalotka and their four children (little Morgan was the friendliest), we were allotted the en suite bedroom that adjoined the dining room where all guests met in the mornings for breakfast.
Our first stroll around Banff introduced us to a town that’s almost Disney-like in its story-book charm. The Alpine ambience of the entire township struck me immediately, as seen in the chalet-like houses and the masses of flowers that poured out of every available hanging basket and window-box. Banff sits silently in the verdant Bow Valley in the immediate shadow of two towering heights, Mount Rundle and Cascade Mountain. While these natural bastions quietly guard the town, it is on Banff Avenue or “Strip” that life becomes most vibrant. Lined by well-stocked souvenir shops and eateries, ice-cream parlors, old-fashioned “fudgeries” and bakeries, dalliances along the Strip are regular evening activity and by 6 pm., about the time we were checking out a possible place for dinner, most tourists, weary from having hiked and biked, fished and kayaked their way around the parks all day, were ready for some substantial sustenance. And the restaurants do not disappoint. From pricey gourmet eateries to more modest bistros and delis, you can find exactly what your taste buds desire in this eclectic place. There is every possible kind of ethnic cuisine available and for the next few days, we experimented widely. Though we settled for steaming plates of pasta at The Old Spaghetti Factory (the lasagna was fabulous, saucy, cheesy, gooey) that first evening to quell our own appetites, made gigantic by the bracing mountain air, we were equally pleased to spy the local Safeway from which we intended to purchase fresh ingredients each day for the picnic meals we wished to enjoy by lake side or gushing river beds.
Musing in A Museum:
Morning breakfasts at Squirrel’s Nest were carb-heavy (think cereal, toast, bread and muffins, washed down by orange juice and coffee) but provided the requisite fuel for energetic holiday-makers, such as ourselves, who couldn’t wait to get out there and explore. Our guide book told us that if there was just one museum we would visit in the parks, we should make it the Whythe Museum of the Canadian Rockies—and that was where we headed first off. Based around the widely divergent but very fulfilling lives of Bostonian Catherine and Banffian Peter Whythe who adored the Rockies and spent a lifetime exploring and documenting them through their association with local Stoney Indians, the museum presented a lovely special exhibit on their own personal love story as well as their substantial collection of art work based mainly around the mountains. We learned a great deal about their lives and left with much admiration for this adventurous couple who braved harsh terrain and brutal winters so that they could live in the midst of so much unspoiled beauty.
Trekking and Hiking:
Though we did have a car at our disposal for the entire week, Llew and I did a great deal of walking and biking, having equipped ourselves with one of the trail guides that allow self-guided hikes. Each trail took us deep into the woods, far away from the seductions of the township and provided us with the possible opportunity for spying wildlife. Since we had both arrived in the mountains hoping to see animals and birds in their natural habitat, we kept our eyes peeled for any possible movement in the bushes and the trees overhead for our furred and feathered friends. That first morning, we enjoyed a trek along the Bow River banks towards the Fenland Trail where, deep in the heart of thick aspen forests, we felt completely isolated from the world, surrounded only by the murmuring of crickets and the occasional chirping of the birds. We saw large and beautiful magpies along the river banks and paused often to take their pictures just as we stopped on our woodland hikes to notice the numbers of evergreen trees that had fallen across the rivers—“deadfall” as rangers label them—several uprooted at the base. The Bow River, crystal-clear and reflecting the jagged ridges of the mountains, is present ubiquitously in this area all the way from Calgary up to Jasper, creating gentle waterfalls and deep canyons at frequent turns.
In Quest of (and Running Into) the Deadly Grizzly Bear:
It was on our way to Johnston Canyon by car along the gently meandering Bow Valley Parkway that we spied our first black bear, a cute cub with its forearms wrapped adorably around a tree. The bear attracted a great deal of attention and we learned, soon enough, that when a number of cars are parked on the motorway ahead, it is a sure indication that some interesting wildlife is lurking in the woods. And then imagine how overjoyed we were, when just a few yards ahead, we spotted a brown bear. Of course, on our first trek that morning, we had seen signs “warning” us that with the buffalo berries so ripe in the hedges, it was very likely that bears would be about as they love this treat and come down from the mountains into the valley to snack on them. But little did we realize that we would see them so early in our stay. Llew was not content with taking pictures of the brown bear from the car and, quite fearlessly and much to my anguish, he stepped out and headed towards the large and rotund animal, his camera poised high in the air, ready to click each time the beast raised its head and looked our way. We soon attracted a number of other drivers who also slowed their cars down, then got out of their vehicles for a closer look. The bear, quite nonchalant about all the attention, continued gobbling the berries and permitted us to take that occasional picture upon which Llew was so bent. A little later, its meal consumed, it ambled off rather peaceably into the woods, leaving us quite delighted at our sighting. Imagine our thrill, a few days later, when on talking to Gord Antonius, a park warden, at whose lodging we stayed in Jasper, we discovered that the “brown bear” was, in fact, a grizzly, and that we had been privileged to receive one of the rarest sightings in the park! Oh, our trip was made, and we were left on such a high! We were still talking excited about it at dinner that night at A Taste of Sri Lanka in the Cascades Mall Food Court where we elected to find a curry meal after we had stopped to take pictures at the marvelous monolith of Castle Mountain, so-called because its ridges are reminiscent of the turrets of a fairy-tale castle. It was on this drive back home that we spied our first elk, a large buck with a magnificent set of antlers that bounded joyously into the undergrowth.
More Woodland Creatures:
Reaching the waterfalls at Johnston Canyon proved to be quite a challenge that day as one had to climb quite steadily up a narrow path all along the banks of the Bow River before one finally got to the cascades that thundered down into the canyon below. We were rewarded along the way with sightings of rather friendly golden-mantled squirrels who were tame enough to eat out of the hands of passers-by who insisted on feeding them though repeatedly instructed not to do so. Llew then decided to follow a bird-watcher into the woods at a clearing where I chose to take a bit of a rest and returned to me about fifteen minutes later with the greatest excitement. He had just spotted a pileated woodpecker, a large and very attractive bird with a deep scarlet crest that made it stand out magnificently against the green of the trees. Another birdwatcher had kindly passed his binoculars to Llew and together they shared the deep excitement of having spotted another rare species in the Canadian woodland. That evening, we drove as far as the village of Lake Louise, but we decided to save exploration of the lake for the following day.
The Bow Falls and the Cascade Gardens:
That was when we followed yet another trail along another bank of the Bow and arrived at the Bow Falls.
Quite unimpressive really, the trek to these falls followed the serene banks of the turquoise river until we reached the rapids and we realized why they are called “white water” rapids. As the rivers churned ferociously over the little embankments on the bed, it created miniature falls that would be loads of fun if one were in a rubber dinghy.
This trek also afforded us our first glimpse of the famous Banff Springs Hotel (left) at which we had a reservation for lunch later that afternoon.
That morning, we also visited Canada Place, a rather nice stone building at the end of Banff Avenue.
Though we only visited the interior briefly, we spent a great deal of time in the lovely Cascade Gardens (left) outside that we were privileged to see in their full summer glory. Indeed August is the best time to visit gardens in Western Canada and since both of us are such lovers of gardening, we had a marvelous time strolling among the raised beds that were planted thickly (50,000 plants each year!) with an abundance of annuals—petunias, impatiens, snapdragons, dahlias, geraniums, begonias and poppies in the most amazing shapes and colors, even early asters, created a riot of color in that lovely space. Woven between a rippling brook and lilting fountains, these beds made of natural stone from the neighboring mountains, were punctuated by arches, bridges and curving walkways. Overall, discovering the Cascade Gardens was an unexpected treat and one we enjoyed immensely.
Lunch at and Tour of the Banff Springs Hotel:
But soon it was time to return to our lodging to change into more formal clothes. Our treks had worked up quite an appetite for our lunch appointment at the grand Banff Springs Hotel which we reached by a winding drive along a mountain road. At the Bow River Grill that overlooked the mountains and the Bow Valley below, we found ourselves overwhelmed by the choices available at the buffet table. Determined to try out the local game, we tasted elk burgers, medallions of Canadian buffalo, venison steaks in a Bordelaise sauce and roasted wild boar. Every single meat was so succulently cooked that it seemed to melt in our mouths and each one tasted completely different, the accompanying sauces simmered long and slowly to extract every last bit of flavor. Though we started with Coconut Coated Tiger Shrimp, freshly-harvested mussels gently steamed in white wine and served in a raspberry cream sauce and Buffalo chicken wings, we made sure that we savored each course slowly and left room for dessert. Indeed, the selection of sweets was quite astounding and as we relished the Tri-Chocolate Terrine, the Mango Mousse, the Mocha Cheesecake and something called Hello Dollies (a delicious combination of cookie crumbs, roasted nuts, chocolate chips and caramel sauce), we felt so stuffed we could barely stand, leave alone follow a guide for what was a guided tour of the “Castle” as the hotel is called.
The Banff Springs Hotel is one of the great Rocky “mountain lodges” and Canadians are fiercely proud of these posh heritage buildings that sprouted after the hot sulphur springs were discovered in the Rockies at the end of the nineteenth century. Perched on the mountainside and completely enveloped by stately conifers, the hotel cuts an imposing figure with its stone siding and its gabled roofs in shades of verdigris. As hordes of people poured into the West Country to “take the waters”, urged on by the creation of the Canadian Pacific Railway that finally reached the west coast, Canadian entrepreneurs and hoteliers such as Van Horne, originally from the highlands of Scotland, saw a new way to tempt them into the wilds by creating super-luxurious accommodations that would provide every possible creature comfort. The thistle, Scotland’s national flower was the recurrent motif throughout the castle seen woven into the carpets, on mosaic tiled floors, on wrought-iron doors, etc. As we explored the massive environs of the hotel, gasped at the huge size of the rooms designed in Medieval, Tudor and Al-Hambra styles, their fittings and accoutrements, the Victorian conservatory with its pretty trellis overlooking the golf links, not to mention the stunning views from every curtained casement, we realized why the Rockies developed as rapidly as they did into the playground of the rich and famous. Today, many visitors arrive in Banff and Jasper on the Rocky Mountaineer, a deluxe train that provides its passengers with accommodations for a couple of nights in these fancy hotels and allows them to experience the grandeur of the mountains in the same comfortable way that their predecessors once did.
Exploring Lake Louise and Moraine Lake:
That afternoon, replete with a meal that had proven to be incredible value for money, we took the Trans-Canada Highway to Lake Louise. And what a sight awaited us at the end of that one hour drive! As Llew picturesquely put it, “Lake Louise is one of God’s masterpieces!” Indeed even if one were an atheist, one would have to accept that only a Higher Being could create so stunning a scene (left). The lake, aquamarine and mirror-clear, sits at the base of Victoria Glacier that soars behind it. Framing the lake on two sides are twin mountains. The stark white of the glacier, the aqua-blue of the lake and the emerald green of the pine-draped mountains combine to create a sight so breathtaking that it is no wonder that it is has become iconic in Canada and is used on most posters advertising Canadian tourism. Named after one of Queens Victoria’s daughters, the lakefront is like a magnet drawing visitors to capture futilely its indescribable beauty on celluloid. After we posed for pictures together with busloads of other visitors, we started to walk along Lake Louise’s famed shoreline, but alas, it began to drizzle big fat drops that caused expanding rings in the water. We weren’t able to complete our ambitious plans to reach the Teahouse at the end of the hike, but we did nip into the lovely and very luxurious Chateau Lake Louise, a beige building on the edge of the lake, another wonderful “Mountain Lodge” that is as famous as the one in Banff.
With evening swiftly descending upon us, we took the meandering mountainside detour towards Moraine Lake, a less visited but, in our opinion, no less startling lake. Indeed Moraine Lake is encircled by the peaks of the Ten Sisters, a chain of mountains that seem so close that you can be fooled into reaching out and touching them. The cobalt blue of the water at Lake Moraine has to be seen to be believed and though we spent a great amount of film trying to capture that dazzling shade, we simply don’t feel as if we were able to do justice to it at all. Choosing to see the lake from an interesting vantage point, we hiked up to an overview which also gave us an opportunity to see a pika, a small rodent-like creature with the cutest round ears and no tail!
Our strenuous treks that day led us straight to a trendy Western-style club called Wild Bill’s Legendary Saloon where we chilled to country and western music from a live group called Chronic from Edmonton over cold Canadian Molson beer.
Biking to Sundance Canyon and the Cave and Basin National Historic Site:
Early the next morning, we breakfasted heartily and headed for the rental bike store on Bear Road. There, outfitted with suitably-sized bikes, helmets and trouser straps, we headed on the Cave and Basin Trail towards Sundance Canyon. To say that these two hours spent pedaling into the wilds was exhilarating is to say the least. As we biked out of town, we circled the Cave and Basin National Historic Site (which we would stop to visit later) following the banks of the incredibly blue Bow River, past the dog-toothed peak of Mount Norquay (which we would climb later than day) and luxuriant coniferous forests towards Sundance Canyon way in the distance. Most of the trail went downhill, providing us with some fantastic speedy runs that brought the wind rushing into our faces. Llew and I enjoyed every single second of this thrilling bike ride and chose to take the Marsh Loop on our way back to town, passing vast wetlands full of bird life and a number of kayaks and canoes with enthusiastic rowers on the river who waved to us as we pedaled.
At the end of a two hour bike ride, just before we turned them in to the rental store, we visited the Cave and Basin National Historic Site, a most interesting place that is perched on the mountainside and conceals the original hot thermal sulphur springs that first brought visitors to the parks. Known only to the native Stoney Indians for centuries, the secret was shared with employees of the Canadian Pacific Railways who instantly thought of capitalizing on their find. By 1886, the Banff Hot Springs were perceived as therapeutic. The earliest visitors rowed along the Bow River, then climbed the strenuous reaches to get into the springs for repeated dips. Today, the springs, set at the base of a dark and circular rock cave, are only open as a museum exhibit. One can still see the waters steaming gently in the mountain air but no one is allowed to plunge in anymore. We had to save that experience for later in the day. But we also enjoyed the exhibit in the museum that quoted the words of early explorers in the Canadian Rockies who were enchanted by the landscape and waxed eloquent about it in their journals. A.P. Coleman, for instance, visiting in the 1880’s, wrote that being in such virgin country was “like catching Nature unawares in the act of Creation”.
Indeed, with our bikes returned, we hurried off to meet Llew’s friends from Karachi, Birchman and Vicki Pereira who drove up from Red Deer near Edmonton to spend some time with us at Banff together with their grand-kids Madeline and Brandon. They drove us up Mount Norquay for a bird-eye’s view of Banff Township that slept quietly in the watery sunshine.
Soaking in the Banff Upper Hot Springs:
Birchman and Vicki then suggested that we give ourselves up to the soothing delights of the Banff Upper Hot Springs, a large pool (left)that opened by the 1920s to accommodate the overflow of visitors that poured into the mountains for sulphur soaks. Driving up the mountain roads, we arrived at the lockers where we rented old-fashioned swimsuits (dating from the 1920’s) and joined a large number of visitors who enjoyed the steaming waters. This giant bath-tub reminded us very much of a similar soak we had taken last year at Budapest, Hungary, in the Scezeni Hot Springs, a Hungarian past-time that is enjoyed by young and old. This Canadian experience was made special by the fact that we were surrounded by lofty mountain peaks and the fresh scent of spruce trees. Then, having worked up an appetite for lunch, we settled down at East Express for large plates of Chinese foods that allowed us to catch up on our lives and reminisce about mutual friends.
Later that afternoon, we drove to Lake Minnewanka, a large artificial lake, created from glacial run-off, that provides the region with drinking water. Boat rides are available on the lake, but, once again, developing rain sent us scrambling back to town. Mercifully, the weather cleared up by the time we reached the Strip, allowing us to arm ourselves with ice-cream sundaes and browse together in the shops such as The Bear and Butterfly where a great amount of native Canadian Indian pottery, ammonite jewelery, jade figurines carved from local Rocky Mountain stone, etc. were quite enticing indeed.
Driving along the Tunnel Mountain Loop:
When our friends left, Llew and I spent the evening on another driving tour, this time heading out of town towards the Tunnel Mountain Loop. It was a long weekend in Canada and the parks were filling up fast that Friday evening with a caravan of RV trailers that climbed the mountain to find parking in the many campgrounds that dot the area far from pedestrian traffic. We stopped along the Hoodoo Trail to see the peculiar limestone formations up close, viewed Tunnel Mountain that loomed large ahead of us, spied the Banff Springs Hotel in the distance beyond the reach of the minor tributaries that laced the landscape picturesquely. Then, we continued our drive to Surprise Corner on the other side of the mountain where the Banff Springs Hotel sprang hugely into focus on the opposite bank of the Bow River while the rapids churned deafeningly below. Soon, we were returning to town and settling down to a slap-up dinner at the well-touted Maple Leaf Grille and Spirits where we ordered bison tenderloin stroganoff and apple crusted roast pork loin. Exhausted by our tireless activity of the day, we gratefully returned to the comfort of our lodge.
On the Icefields Parkway to Jasper:
We fully enjoyed our days in Banff and were sorry to leave the peaceful serenity of this unique settlement, but we also anticipated eagerly our arrival in Jasper National Park via the famous Icefields Parkway. Not for nothing is the Icefields Parkways known as one of the world’s most scenic
highways. North of Banff, the landscape gets progressively more awe-inspiring as even higher mountain chains come into view. Ice-encrusted for the most part, due to the slow accumulation of snow over centuries, these heights are breath-taking. The drive from Banff to Jasper would normally take about four hours; but if the visitor stops, as we did, at every natural wonder and scenic lookout point, it could take anywhere between 10 and 13 hours. We left Banff at 9.30 after breakfast and arrived in Jasper only at 6pm. Since we are great believers in the adage that one ought to enjoy the journey as much as the destination, we made every important stop, scaled every challenging precipice, descended into every extraordinary ravine, and, much to our profound joy, walked on glaciers.
Visiting Bow Lake, Crowfoot Glacier, Peyto Lake and the Mistaya Canyon:
The first few stops along the Icefields Parkway took us to spell-binding lakes and canyons. Take Bow Lake, for instance, where the waters were so still that the lake created perfect mirror images of the mountains and glaciers that ringed it. We also saw Crowfoot Glacier that is fast receding due to global warming. One of the crow’s toes has disappeared completely though it did exist until the 1960’s. To reach Peyto Lake, we had to hike up a steep incline past the tree line and into Alpine Tundra where we encountered meadows just chockfull of wild flowers such as Indian Paintbrush, a spikey flower whose color changes from red to pink to orange at different times during the season (hence its colorful name!). Though the trek was challenging in the extreme, we were rewarded by the sight of the most marvelous jade green lake sitting quietly in the silent valley below. Luckily, we were blessed by an amazingly temperate day that despite the long climbs and intense waking did not leave us spent.
It wasn’t long before we learned the reason for the incredible color of these mountain waters. Fed by glaciers, these rivers and lakes carry with them a massive amount of eroded material or glacial silt that stays suspended just below the surface of the water. Called “rock flour”, it is these tiny particles that glimmer in the sunlight and give the rivers and lakes their jewel-like green-blue colors. Llew, as always, drove expertly along the curving hairpin bends of the mountain road, but I often felt sorry for him as he seemed to miss the glorious landscape from which I just could not take away my eyes.
A few miles later, we were at the Mistaya Canyon, a natural formation to which one descends down a steep mountain path. Needless to say, I did not relish the thought of climbing back up to the surface. However, once we were at the base, we were completely taken by the narrow but very deep canyon that the Mistaya River has cut into the limestone crags of rock. Surrounded by the gushing waters of the river, the rest of the world seemed to stand still for us as we listened to the constant roar of gallons of water tumbling over giant boulders. Since we paused to read the many signs that explained natural phenomena to us along these interpretative trails, the ascent to the top did not seem half as frightful as I had expected and it was with renewed energy that we set out in the invigorating air for the remainder of our journey to Jasper.
Visit to the Icefields Center and the Athabasca Glacier:
Soon we arrived at the Icefields Center, an oddity of sorts in the midst of that unspoiled mountain scenery. A squat building that was built as recently as 2000, the Icefields Center is the starting point for any kind of excursion to the Athabasca Glacier that sits right opposite it. Giant snowmobiles transport visitors to the surface of the glacier allowing them to walk upon it at leisure for the princely sum of $35 per head. We preferred the challenge, however, of climbing on to the glacier (for free) and we set out right after we had eaten our picnic lunch of ham and cheese sandwiches. We drove our car as far as the parking lot, then began the slow ascent up the glacier.
As we covered the extensive landmass, we saw signs telling us how far up the road the glacier had existed in the year 1880. Soon we were able to see where it had shrunk by 1900, where it had stood by 1920 and so forth, until we did finally reach the present freezing heights. This was a slow but steady climb and the temperature got progressively colder. Fortunately, we had known that we’d be walking on glaciers that day and we had taken precautions to dress really warmly.
In about an hour, we were standing on the frozen icy floor of the Athabasca Glacier (above left), a truly formidable experience. It was hard to believe that this body of frozen ice has existed for centuries. Even as we watched, we saw rivulets of icy water making their way into the streams at the base—a sure indication that global warming is affecting the thickness and density of these glacial deposits. Llew and I could not but remember that a few years ago, we were walking on solid lava that had been left behind by active volcanoes in Volcanoes National Park in Hawaii. Now here we stood walking on ice and the striking contrast was not lost on us. After we had taken pictures, trying in vain to capture the majesty of the glaciers and the frozen ice-covered mountains that surrounded us, we slowly made our way back to the car, filled with such a sense of awe that both of us were speechless.
The Sunwapta Falls and the Athabasca Falls:
Banff National Park is pockmarked with canyons and waterfalls, some not very impressive, others deeply stirring. The Sunwapta Falls and the Athabasca Falls, for instance, were really nothing to write home about but they made us aware of the many rivers that crisscross this territory—the Bow, the Miette, the Saskatchewan, the Mistaya, the Sunwapta and the Athabasca. Canada has carefully retained the original native Indian names of all these rivers and the park rangers try hard to instill in visitors the same respect for the environment that characterized the behavior of the earliest human settlers in this region, the Athabasca Indians.
Another few miles later, we found ourselves skirting around Jasper National Park. Mount Edith Cavell came into view and in the distance, we could see Mount Robson, the highest peak in the Rockies. But just before we entered Jasper Township, we spied herds of elk, all sunning themselves in the late evening light, quite oblivious to the presence of delighted visitors who stopped frequently to take pictures.
When we did arrive in Jasper after a very strenuous day spent climbing up and down canyons and dampened by the spray of thundering waterfalls, we found our accommodation very easily and settled down with Gord Antonius, the park ranger who offered us several wildlife guides to the Rockies and welcome information on where to go out in search of dinner. We settled for a Greek meal of dolmas (rice stuffed grape leaves, my favorite), donner kebab and spankopita (spinach and feta cheese in phyllo pastry, Llew’s favorite) at Something Else, a restaurant that afforded us lovely views of Patricia Street, the main artery that runs through the township. Exhausted from our adventures of that day, we ate heartily and slept as soundly as hibernating bears!
Since our accommodation did not offer breakfast, we went out in search of it and at Gord’s recommendation, arrived at the Bear’s Paw, one of the world’s most-reputed bakeries, if you went by the long lines that reached well outside the doors! And we could see why. Inside was a mouth-watering array of breads and scones, bagels, muffins, sandwiches, Danish pastries and pies. It was next to impossible to make a choice from the enticing possibilities, but we stocked up on both breakfast and lunch items with the idea of picnicking at leisure for the rest of the day. With cups of steaming coffee and hot chocolate, we drove out to discover Jasper heading first for Patricia Lake and Pyramid Lake by whose placid shores we munched on muffins and sipped our warming drinks. Fuelled for the rest of our day, we walked across the short bridge that led to Pyramid Island, so-called because it sits in the massive shadow of Pyramid Mountain. Popular with wedding couples as the perfect spot for their pictures, this little island in the middle of the lake was a quiet haven. On the lake, we could hear the quiet swish-swish of paddles from the occasional canoe that was out on the water.
Napping at the bottom of Maligne Canyon:
Though it was hard to drag ourselves away from such tranquility, we were soon driving towards the famous Maligne (Maleen) Canyon where we had to undertake another long and challenging descent downhill. Steeply carved in the mountain face, this trail required the hiker to cross six bridges that connected one side of the canyon with the other at different intervals. All the time, one enjoyed the damp but cool environment created by rushing water and the virtual lack of sunshine, thanks to tall vegetation. In fact, moss grew everywhere and made a soothing green carpet as we negotiated our way up and down those craggy rocks. When we got to the base, I was so tired that I promptly curled up on the rocks by the waterside and took a short nap. Lulled by the rushing waters, the sharp rock face staring at me just ahead, the towering branches of aspen trees and the occasional cheep cheep of birds, I enjoyed one of the nicest naps I have ever taken as Llew went off in search of the sixth suspension bridge even further down in the valley. I have taken naps during my travels in rather unlikely places and I know that this is one I will not forget.
Medicine Lake and Maligne Lake:
Soon we were in our car again bending and curving around the many U-turns of the mountain roads on our way to Maligne Lake. But before we reached there, we passed by the almost dry beds of Medicine Lake, so-called by the Indians because it “disappeared” during some parts of the year and the Indians believed that this had to do with spells cast by their medicine men! It was here that we encountered a whole herd of long-horned mountain sheep right in the middle of the road. All traffic slowed down to allow the lazy animals to pass by, though several cars stopped to take pictures.
Joining the curious hordes, Llew was rewarded for his interest by a ram who came right up to him to smell his palm, nuzzling it affectionately, much to Llew’s astonishment and delight (left)!
When we had quite recovered from the joy of seeing so much wildlife seemingly so tame, we continued on our drive to Maligne Lake, a large expanse of water on which all kinds of water-sports are practiced such as kayaking, canoeing, water-skiing, etc. It was on the banks of this lake that we ate our picnic sandwiches and then decided to take short naps, as much to enjoy the calm serenity of the landscape as to rest from our exhausting treks of the morning. Little did we know that we had one more challenging hike ahead of us yet!
Riding the Jasper Tramway to Whistler Summit:
Yes, within a short while, we were re-tracing our steps and driving back to Jasper Township in search of the Jasper Tramway, a cable car that whisks visitors up to the mountain tops to experience the eerie stillness of altitudes that only mountain-climbers can dream of conquering. For the sum of $23 each, we bought tramway tickets and patiently waited our turn to board our “flight”. When we did start to rise high above sea level, the outline of the town of Jasper—a very clear J-shape–became evident. Even higher, we passed the tree line and began to ascend into tundra altitudes where the only vegetation capable of growing in the dry and icy air is lichen and moss. At this point, we had dramatic overviews of the mountainscape below, the occasional lakes that punctuate the landmass, and the Athabasca River that flows through the township. When we alighted from the tram car, we could have stayed right there and elected to return to the base whenever we pleased.
But, of course, we were not content with doing that and next thing you knew, we were scaling the steep sides of Whistler Mountain to try to get up to the very summit, several hundred feet above us. This was a long, steep and very challenging climb indeed and we did it slowly. Though we’re both in great shape, thanks to all the workouts we do all year round, I found myself huffing and puffing with the effort and had to rest frequently on our journey to the summit. By this point, the crowds had thinned out as only a few people felt strong enough to encounter such heights. Not to be daunted, we continued along the way, struck by the sheer silence of those peaks. We had 360 degree views of the mountains, snow-sprinkled and dazzling in the dying rays of the sun. Twilight brought an almost magical quality to the mountains and combined with the silence, I felt as if I were in an other-worldly place. Heaven must feel like this, I thought to myself, as my eyes roamed over the most pristine landscape as rocks, mountains, rivers, and lakes combined to create an effect that was so phenomenal, it brought quiet tears to my eyes. When Llew left me to climb even higher, I sat back on a giant rock and listened to the awesome sound of silence and, believe me, I felt transported somewhere beyond our earth–almost to another planet.
This, for me at least (left) , was one of the most unexpectedly moving of experiences on this trip and I know that I will never be able to forget my feelings as I stood on the summit of Whistler Mountain with nothing but the companionship of friendly mountains enveloping me.
All to soon, with the light quickly fading, we made our way back to base camp, took the tramcar and arrived at Jasper in search of dinner as both of us were starving by that point. Though we had many choices, we elected to eat at L&W Family Restaurant, because the way it was written, it looked like LEW Family Restaurant. We could not have made a better choice. The Alberta Prime Rib that we ordered was so astonishingly good, it reminded us of the scenes in Brokeback Mountain where the main characters are cowboys keeping watch on herds of Alberta cattle! I understood that story then…I understood why the stark loneliness of the landscape would convert even the straightest of people into homosexuals—so great, I figured, would be the need for compatible companionship, if one were in the great outdoors for weeks on end with no other human being in sight. Indeed, the landscape can be more than a little frightening in its stark silence. There is a terrible beauty about the place which begs for a loved one to share it with and I was glad to have Llew with me, appreciating every crag, every corner, every curve.
Journey to Calgary:
The next day marked our return to reality. I had come close to having a supernatural experience on the mountain-tops. So, it was with a heavy heart that I packed my bag the next day to undertake our drive back to Banff and from there on to Calgary where we needed to return our rental car.
Perhaps it was the spirituality of our environs which made me react as uncharacteristically as I did, but when we spotted a hitch-hiker standing on the side of the road with a sign that said “Banff”, I urged Llew to stop and pick him up. Now we had never ever done anything of the kind on all our travels as we know better than to subject ourselves to the company of some smelly stranger or, worse yet, someone with a gun bent on robbing us. But Llew was persuaded and turn around we did to pick up Toby, who turned out to be a 29-year old German trainee fire-fighter who had arrived in the Rockies to do some serious mountain-climbing. Well, he was so grateful for the ride and for our Bear’s Paw goodies that we shared with him for breakfast. Well-educated and well-traveled around the globe, Toby regaled us with fascinating stories of his travels as our car ate up the miles. At times, I dozed off, lulled by the constant beauty of the passing landscape and the soft purring of the engine. Before we knew it, we were in Canmore, dropping Toby off at his request, then setting off on the last lap of our journey towards Calgary where we attempted to find our River Wynde Executive Bed and Breakfast where we had made arrangements to spend the night. Our hostess Diane checked us in, showed us into our “Earth Room”, where we stashed out stuff and went out in search of the city.
The next lap of our travels in Alberta showed us the city of Calgary. Please click on the link to join our exploration.