I’m dreaming about snow. I know what you’ll say; it’s only August, enjoy the heat while it lasts. Snow will be here soon enough. Well, whenever the temperature starts to drop from it’s summer peak, when the car steering wheel is too hot to touch without gloves, my thoughts turn more frequently than usual to the mountains in the west. I see them every day on my way to and from work, and often get out into them at the weekend, but I find myself thinking of them as I’ll see them in a couple of months. Covered in thick snow, with cloud drifting among the shattered pinnacles and buttresses like smoke. Get far enough out and you can experience a silence so profound that it has mass. Standing among the high peaks as large heavy flakes fall in the great empty spaces is one of my favourite things. If you’re lucky enough to find somewhere quiet enough, the only thing you can hear is the hiss of blood running through your ears.
This week has seen the start of Autumn, or the Fall, as they call it here in North America, in Calgary. At the moment, it’s fairly subtle, just patches of leaves changing to yellow and orange, with a few dropping from the trees on the way to work. Still, other visual cues tell me the earth is beginning her roll away from the sun, shorter days – driving home from Taekwondo there is now less light; daytime temperatures are finally, finally(!) starting to dip towards something more comfortable for a Scot from the West.
The local landscape changes greatly with the advent of snow. Tourist traffic drops off significantly, and it is possible to visit places and see absolutely nobody. There is something to be said for experiencing a place in every season. Much as I love to visit Lake Minnewanka in spring, summer or fall, I miss the sound of frozen trees cracking in the dark, as the stars wheel above Cascade Mountain, and the silent dance of the Aurora Borealis. Driving on roads that for six months will be hard packed snow and ice is a challenge, but fun, requiring careful thought about vectors and when to brake. More importantly, when not to brake. Avoiding snow-filled ditches is another good thing to try, particularly when the blizzard outside drops the temperature to around minus 35ºC. At least you won’t have to worry about that this year, May. Up along the Icefields Parkway, on the way to Jasper, the glaciers are visible year-round, but I prefer to see these colossal walls of ice when their mountains are swaddled in snow.
I love the clear light of winter, and cold, sharp air that chills as you breathe it. This season gives me more opportunities to drive and reflect in peace, as most normal people don’t like to head out into the back country when the conditions are less than ideal.
Mostly though, I think that winter improves the mountains. While they’re always impressive, vast sheets of snow and frozen waterfalls add character. The Weeping Wall is transformed from a large cliff into one of the best ice-climbing sites in North America. Driving down around Big Bend, near the Sunwapta Pass, the snow highlights the truly epic grandeur of the scene. Snow deeper than the Armco gives you the impression that if you don’t get your speed right, you will sail straight out into the valley, followed by a tumbling plummet to the pine-forested slopes below.
When you do meet people out there in the heart of winter, they tend to be good people. I’ve noticed that people almost always stop to check on stationary motorists. I’ve done it myself. Nine times out of ten, they’ve stopped for some mundane reason, but in the more remote places, breaking down runs the risk of freezing to death.
So, in reality, it’s probably about six weeks or so until we’ll see snow. In the meantime, I have to content myself with thinking about the conditions above. Western Canada is beautiful year-round, but when we sink into winter, that’s when I love it the most.
On the last day of June this year, I headed out west from Calgary to do a ridge walk with one of my friends and his children. The Nihahi Ridge lies at the far end of the Elbow Valley, close to a number of peaks named after either World War One Royal Navy battleships (Cornwall, Glasgow) or Roman Mythology (Romulus, Remus). We started from the car at about 10.30 AM, and were back down by 2.10 PM. This included a walk-in of about 1.5Km from the parking lot, and taking many small breaks due to my fitness level.
Today proved to be a lesson in mountain weather, and just how rapidly things can change for the worse. The start of our walk was in brilliant sunshine, though driving west, we had seen showers trailing beneath clouds in the distance. In such hot weather, heat-stroke is a risk, and adequate water should always be carried. Sun-block is essential too, and insect repellent.
Right from the start, the view in this walk are spectacular. The surrounding mountains beside the Elbow River rise to large peaks all around, and the view of Nihahi Ridge during the drive in is striking. At first you wonder how you will manage to get up there. As it turns out, the approach is straightforward, switching back and forth, gaining height rapidly until you find yourself in an alpine meadow (coming into bloom at this time of the year), with Gaillardia, daisies and other flowers all around. Excellent views are seen from here, of the peaks to the southwest, Mt Glasgow, Mt Cornwall and Banded Peak. These bad boys are all in the 8000-9000 ft height bracket, and offer walking / scrambling that is unlikely to crowded. No queueing for Sharp Edge here!
Nihahi means “Rocky” in the local Stoney dialect, which is appropriate. Just as in Gaelic in Scotland, the local names tend to be descriptive. I much prefer them to some of those imposed by later settlers. Why name mountains after warships or politicians? The original names sound great, like “Yamnuska”.
As we approach the meadow, the views to the east, south and west open up. With the switchbacks, height is gained quite rapidly, but inside the pine forest, lack of external visual reference makes you feel as though you’re crawling along. At this point, as the pictures show, it was a bright, hot, sunny day. There weren’t even that many biting insects.
Looking out to the west, below, we start to get our first proper view of Mts Romulus and Remus, named after the mythical founders of Rome. These are serious mountains, though the very southern end of the Nihahi Ridge obscures the valley containing the Little Elbow River.
To the south, again, nice views as we gained height, with the Little Elbow River visible away down in the valley floor. Don’t know the name of the mountain in the far distance, but I like the shape of its profile.
Once up and across the meadow, a steep trail switches back and forth up the eastern side of the ridge. The post I’m holding in the photo below is part of a fence system protecting that section of the walk from a drop of perhaps one hundred and fifty feet. What isn’t clear from the shot is that the meadow in the background is actually quite high above the starting point, right down at the river. In the background, Elbow Valley runs east for miles, towards Elbow Falls and Bragg Creek. On a day like today, it is a fantastic drive, rarely seeing other drivers, let alone some of the aggressive yahoos commonly encountered on the TransCanada Highway. On another subject, I’m unashamed of the sweat covering my rugby shirt. Getting to this point was a real effort, and there’s nothing wrong with a good sweat in any case. Proves you’re putting the effort in!
As we gain height, Mount Glasgow and Mt Cornwall become a bit more visible. Even at this point, from the first real viewpoint on the ridge, the weather out to the west is perfect. At this elevation, there is little wind, and no real indication in the sky that anything is amiss. The walking is more of a scramble at this point, though still very easy. My main problem at this point is overall fitness. While I train three times a week in martial arts, this is more steady, prolonged effort, and suffering from asthma makes my chest ache and breathing is difficult for the first thirty minutes to an hour of any hike. Still, perserverance pays off, as here.
Just before the trees give out on the main ridge, the view to the east is still pretty spectacular. I think the hill over my left shoulder is Forgetmenot Mountain, though I need to check that. The meadow is now significantly lower, and what you can’t see immediately behind me is a much larger drop. To the east, the weather looks as it has done all day, lovely. Up here, there is quite a bit more wind, funnelling out of the valley to the west, where the sky is just starting to darken. Lunch was a good option at this point.
Now, the view west is starting to look a bit more ominous. In perhaps fifteen minutes, the sky behind Evan-Thomas E3 has darkened, and the clouds have closed in. At this point, I think I can hear distant thunder, but am not sure if I’m imagining it, with all of the ambient noise created by the wind from the west.
The effects of wind and rain are clear in the shot above, giving an idea of the time taken to erode these magnificent mountains to mineral grains. Literally a geological age.
To the north, the ridge loses it’s forest cover, and becomes essentially bare rock. Here we have a choice to make. The sky is darkening to the west rapidly, while to the east and south, everything is as it was. However, the main weather system is coming in from the west, and it doesn’t look good. The last thing we want to do is be stuck at altitude on a bare ridge with lightning bolts coming down. June and July is thunderstorm season here in Alberta, and the storms themselves tend to be significant, with lots of bolts and large, potentially damaging hail. Given the ascent time, we decided that discretion was the better part of valour, and turned around, unlike a small group of young people without much gear, who happily (and noisily) made their way upwards. Given their exit options, and the storm that was shortly to follow, I sincerely hope they got out OK.
Now we can definitely hear thunder, and the sky has a funny cast to it. The underside of some of the clouds starts to look bulbous, or domed, an indication of cumulonimbus, or thunderclouds. Mountaineers have reported their metal gear, such as ice axes, singing or humming in intense electrical fields before thunderstorms. I’ve never been this high up when such a storm has rolled in, and I admit to being very keen to lose some elevation before it arrives. Another hazard at this point is moving downhill rapidly. It isn’t as easy as you might think, and the chance of falling or turning an ankle is actually higher. As Baz said to his kids, if you fall uphill, you have less distance to fall. Now we can trip and sprawl downhill, potentially breaking wrists. The tree roots that helped us to climb the trail now become wet, and lying at an angle, represent sliding hazards. The first drops of rain fall, thick, fat and slow, but still not numerous. Thunder is now close and loud, with occasional flashes of lightning from close to the ridge.
Down at the meadow, we’re aware of being out in the open, and decide to shelter. Not being the tallest object in the area is a good thing, so we take shelter in a thick stand of trees, but not touching any. As the thunderstorm moves over us, we pass through one of the belts of strong hail, which comes drumming down, with a downpour of almost biblical proportions. If this is a typical Alberta thunderstorm, it will be violent and move through quite quickly. As it turns out, it slackens off fairly quickly, allowing us a window of opportunity to head for lower elevation still, among trees that now smell beautifully of pine resin and clean air. All around are pools of new rainwater, and the sun finally starts to reappear, even while the thunder is still crackling around the highest reaches of the ridge.
In terms of wildlife, this area is rich, though we didn’t see a great deal, mainly some butterflies that I need to look up in my guide. One thing we did see, and quite close to the road, was bear scratching marks, below. As with any walk in western Alberta or British Columbia outside of Fall (or Autumn for my non-North American readers), bear spray should be carried, and you should be competent in its use, before going on your hike. You won’t be any use to anybody if you end up spraying yourself – it happens.
So, overall, a great walk, within about an hour of the western edge of Calgary. The Elbow Valley was full of people taking advantage of the approaching Canada Day long weekend, but it still didn’t feel cramped. Everyone we met was friendly, including a batch of people all wearing red Raytheon t-shirts. Some sort of fundraiser perhaps. Anyhow, lots of nice folks, and when I can bend my legs again, I’m sure I’ll look back on this walk with affection. It was well worth the effort, and it reminded me that there are so many excellent places to hike, close to the city, but away from the usual tourist draws like Banff and Lake Louise.
Christmas Day was beautiful this year in Alberta. Clear blue sky, cold, but the snow was glinting on the mountains on the western horizon, and I had itchy feet. It wasn’t the happiest of days for me, for a couple of reasons, and the prospect of a long drive looked likely to help blow the cobwebs away.
At this point, it wasn’t too cold, and the bright sun in the southern sky looked to be the biggest problem I’d have to handle. This is where Highway 40 runs south from the TransCanada, past a really ugly casino on Stoney First Nations land. While I think the First Nations art of the Pacific Northwest is fantastic, I really think they could teach the Russians a few things about ugly buildings. Possibly, aesthetics were not at the top of their list, rather than income.
To the north lay one of my favourite mountains, Yamnuska. I’ve seen this hill in just about every kind of weather, and different light. My normal route home runs right along the base, visible as a line just below the main slopes. Seeing this mountain in the early evening, as the sun sets in the Bow Valley, is one of the things that I really love.
Heading south, the road runs between towering masses of the front ranges. I was surprised by how many people I saw, this being Christmas Day. One consequence of being in a winding valley was that the wind made the temperature drop. Starting off at minus 17C, it dropped steadily towards the mid-twenties. Strangely enough, the air itself seemed to have a blue tint to it – an effect that I couldn’t explain until yesterday. Apparently even the colour of shadows can be affected by reflected light from the sky. In this case, light from the intensely blue sky. Apparently the shadows aren’t black, but can appear really deep blue. Who knew? Certainly not me.
Highway 40 is only open part-way to the south. When open, it allows you to make your way to Longview, for possibly the longest wait for a cup of coffee in the history of catering, but that’s another story. Fortunately for me, it was closed and barricaded off well before that became a possibility.
The run south takes you past one of the popular ski resorts of the area, and Kananaskis Village. I seem to identify better with trees and mountains than people – certainly I understand them far better, so this is a good drive just to get away from people. The views are superlative; it is almost impossible to take a bad photograph, though I would caution you as to where you stop to take said pictures. It is possible in more clement weather to be flattened by some yahoo in a pickup truck who hasn’t noticed you.
The forces of geology are on display here in a number of ways. First, the effect of the collision between continental and oceanic tectonic plates, creating the Rockies. I tend to bang on about that quite a bit, so won’t belabour the point here. Secondly, the effect of glaciers, carving the landscape over an entirely different timescale, leaving unmistakeable traces in the country around you. While they operate more quickly than your average continental collision, I wouldn’t use either plate tectonics or glaciation to set your watch by – even Lothian Buses run more quickly.
Down here, the road branches off west and north around the base of the mountain chain, and becomes the Smith-Dorrien Highway. This runs north past Mount Chester, Black Prince Cirque, a whole load of interesting mountains and the (presently frozen) Spray Lakes, reappearing at the east end of Rundle (EEOR) high above Canmore and the Grassi Lakes. The steep descent to Canmore on snow and ice is not one for the faint-hearted, but not overly difficult.
Mount Chester is a great day-hike, though possibly not while the trails are covered in a thick blanket of snow. There are lots of promising mountains here to wander, though bear spray is essential in non-winter seasons. I never did get to the bottom of why so many Canadian peaks in this part of the Rockies are named after British World War One naval vessels (Chester, Galatea, Black Prince, Nestor, Hector, Indefatigable and so on). Many of them exhibited an unsettling habit of exploding and sinking, which makes them even more improbably candidates for immortality. I would imagine that Canadians have a variety of other names for them that are more suitable, and think it would be more appropriate to go back to using them.
From here, I started to encounter idiots on the road again, after a refreshingly long time. Some people fail to understand (or don’t care) that their brakes won’t prevent them from crashing into the rear of cars ahead when driving on ice. While it is comforting to know that their insurance will repair my car, I don’t much fancy the prospect of being forced off the road into a steep slope of conifers with massive boulders in it.
At least once through the township of Canmore, it was possible to head back home along one of my favourite roads, Highway 1A in the fading sunlight. All in all, possibly the best Christmas Day I could have had, and proof that sometimes, the best company is your own.
Here in Western Canada, winter normally means crazy freeze/thaw cycles (the Chinook, where moist, less cold air from the Pacific Ocean rolls over the Rockies, raising the temperature by up to 10C) and vast numbers of people for whom a steering wheel is an unfamiliar and unsettling object. The bonus is frequent days like today, with clear skies and bright sunlight. While cold, it is a great opportunity to get outdoors and enjoy the mountains. Last weekend, I took a trip up Highway 93, otherwise known as the Icefields Parkway. This Highway connects the TransCanada to Jasper, running through some of the most spectacular scenery in the world. The geology is varied, the landscape titanic, and the driving conditions quite interesting, in a don’t-lose-concentration-or-you’re-off-the-road sort of way. Early in the winter, the driving surface tends to be powdery snow, which then packs down and is polished, to an icy base layer. The actual route isn’t too bad to drive, as long as you think carefully about bends, and changing your speed without braking much. I didn’t realise just how slippery the road was until I stepped out of the car to take some pictures.
Being several hundred kilometres long, the weather along the Parkway can be quite varied. On this occasion, it was fairly cloudy, with snow falling through the lower reaches of the route. Where Highway 93 branches off from the road to Vancouver, infrequent traffic meant it was necessary to estimate where the lanes were. I love this turnoff though, as it always gives me a sense of going somewhere special, off the beaten track, as it were. The Smith-Dorrien highway out of Canmore to the Spray Lakes also does it, and Highway 68, down Jumping Pound way. On this occasion though, the drifting snow made finding the appropriate lane something of a challenge.
The drive follows a path between ranges in the Rockies, with lakes frequently to the side of the road. In summer, these are a vivid turquoise colour through the presence of ground up suspended minerals, termed “rock-flour”. Today, everything lay under a layer of ice and snow, though not everything had frozen. It was possible to see patches of unfrozen lake, though they were being swallowed up rapidly.
One of the things I really love about being up here in the winter time is the silence. Stepping from the car, often the only audible sound was the murmur of the wind through the endless pine trees. Occasionally, you might hear the gurgle of a creek that had yet to freeze solid. Proper silence, without any of the things that we normally tune out.
When you drive east to west (or vice versa) anywhere in the Rockies, you are weaving your way through successive waves of a geological car crash, literally waves frozen in stone. To the south, on Highway 40, Mt Kidd is a graphic reminder of this, with the waves plain for anyone with eyes to see. You don’t need to be a geologist to see how and where the forces that shaped that mountain range were applied. If it bakes your brain, don’t be concerned; we are no more capable of being blase about the forces and timescales involved. After many years, the specialist term that I apply for such situations is “Oh wow”. Works most times.
Back to the Icefields Parkway – here, we are travelling north-west, between successive waves of mountains. For me, the things of note change depending on the season. In spring and summer, the lakes dominate, with their beautiful turquoise caused by rock-flour. In winter, the mountains running alongside the road are dominant, brooding shattered crags, often rising into mist or low cloud. Then there are the glaciers. Frozen titanic masses of water, descending from immense ice sheets to the west, some hang down mountainsides, such as the Snowbird Glacier, while others extend to the east, such as the Bow or Athabasca Glaciers. The ice that makes them up has a vivid blue hue, due to the removal of ice bubbles that normally gives ice a whitish colour. This material has had all of the bubbles crushed out of it, and so looks almost synthetic in nature.
The primary rock type up here is limestone, and the weather has eroded it into the kind of vertical structures that I’ve seen in pictures of karst topography in the Far East. Below is a picture of the crags on Mt Murchison which illustrated the landform quite nicely.
It is a long drive, and the landscape changes as you head towards Saskatchewan River Crossing. Ahead is Mt Wilson, with its large syncline (v-shaped structure, caused by rock beds being folded) and inclined beds. Beyond lies the Weeping Wall and the Sunwapta Pass. The aptly named “Big Bend” rises to the pass, with Cirrus Mountain on the right, with the Palliser, Banff and Rundle Formations all laid out for inspection. For my part, my concentration is focused on staying on the sharply rising curving road, and not driving into the thin armco barrier that really doesn’t look as though it would prevent a plummeting descent into the valley below.
Past the Sunwapta Pass, the weather became quite a lot worse, with snow blowing in from the north, as well as off the icefields to the west. At the Icefields Visitor Centre, closed for the season, the snow lies in thick drifts. This is not a place to get into trouble, as I was shortly to find out first-hand. Here, on a clear day, the Athabasca Glacier descends from the Columbia Icefield, and several hanging glaciers push down from Mt Andromeda and Mt Athabasca. Vast quantites of lateral moraine (ground-up debris from the passage of the glacier) lie on both sides of the valley. In summer, special buses take tourists up and on to the glacier itself. Today, it would end badly. and to be honest, even if you could get out on to the glacier unharmed, the weather was severe enough to make you wish you hadn’t.
This was not a good time to drive your car into a snow-filled ditch, but I did. Two of us proved unequal to the task, and thankfully we managed to enlist the help of a number of people passing on the road. For an hour or so, it was fairly unpleasant, and a tow-rope moved to the top of the to-buy list.
Interestingly enough, one of the currently invisible peaks in this area, Snow Dome (3456m) is, according to Ben Gadd’s Handbook of the Canadian Rockies, the Hydrographic apex of North America. In short, water poured on the summit of this mountain flows into three oceans. To the south and east, water drains into the North Saskatchewan River, and by a meandering course, into Hudson Bay and the Atlantic Ocean. To the west, into Bush River, the Columbia River and ultimately the Pacific Ocean. To the north, water drains into the Athabasca River, Slave River, MacKenzie River and finally the Arctic Ocean.
So, all in all, a good drive. It’s worth remembering that it’s a long drive back to Calgary, and breaking the trip up somewhere like Banff or Canmore to have some food and decompress from concentrating on driving for a few minutes is a really good idea. This is one of my favourite drives, and certainly not one I’m likely to forget any time soon.
I found out about Chester Lake by walking with a local hiking group from Calgary, the Calgary Nature Lovers. You can reach their website here: http://www.meetup.com/Calgary-Nature-Lovers-Hiking-Meetup/ This was my second walk with them, and while not too strenuous for most people, I am still unfit enough that it made me sweat a bit. It can be found by driving west from Calgary on Highway 1 until you reach the intersection with Highway 40, running into Kananaskis country, beside the large and unattractive casino on Stoney land. Turning south, the drive is a good one, running past Barrier Lake (another good walk), and weaving between mountains on either side of the road. It is here, roughly opposite Mt Kidd, that I encountered a large female moose, standing still in a darkened roadcut. Thankfully car and moose went on their separate ways unharmed, driver forcibly educated about the kinds of wildlife to expect on rural roads. Rounding the base of Mt Kent, you take the Smith-Dorrien Spray Trail, twenty kilometers of gravel road. Along the way, you can see into glacial cirques such as the Black Prince, named for a World War 1 Royal Navy warship. Even in the last weekend of July, there was a sizeable snowfield in the cirque, that will probably last until the winter snows fall.
The view westward from the parking lot is seen below, showing Commonwealth Peak, Mt Birdwood, Snow Peak and Mt Burstall. Hidden behind Burstall is the evocatively named Whistling Rock Ridge. However, our trail today would take us to the north-east, climbing through forestry trails until we reached a plateau and a beautiful wild-plant and conifer meadow. From there, the trail wound easily along the flat, among streams and pools, to a green-blue lake, surrounded by large mountains on three sides.
The trail was well marked, and worked its way gradually up the side of Chester Creek, with tall trees providing some shade from the bright sun beating down. Thankfully, the walking group I was with had a good attitude towards pacing, and with lots of brief stops, we made our way to the plateau. As can be seen below, there was still a lot of snow higher up.
Once up on the plateau, we were surrounded by wild flowers. All of the usual Albertan suspects were here, and the smell of pine resin hung strongly in the air. It was truly a beautiful day to be outdoors. We had also been warned of the presence of a grizzly in the vicinity of the lake during the past two days. Bears are not stupid animals, and will tend to stay away from people, unless their young are threatened, or you do something stupid like leave food out where they can be drawn to it. When I was registering to buy my bear spray, a guy said to the people at MEC that he had been told he could spray it around his camp as some sort of barrier. NEVER do this. Bear spray is a strong extract of capsicum or pepper. If you spray it, bears will smell it from a long way away, and be drawn to investigate. You do not want this. Thankfully, on this day, no bears were to be seen anywhere.
Mt Chester, like the Black Prince, was another Royal Navy warship from the First World War. Why so many peaks in the Canadian Rockies are so named isn’t clear to me, but one of the mountains on the west side of Chester, Galatea, is another one. Most of these ships had a nasty tendency to blow up, as the crews stored cordite in open corridors. This allowed explosions to flash down the length of the vessel, generally causing a catastrophic detonation. Needless to say, the Royal Navy eventually learned from these lessons, and designed ships that were less dangerous to their crews than the enemy.
Approaching the lake, the mountains begin to rear up. In the photo above, Mt Chester is on the right, shedding vast scree slopes of limestone and mudstone, which contain fossils. The Fortress is almost in the centre, and Gusty Peak is the large one just left of centre. Galatea lies just out of shot the the left. These rocks give a real sense of age. Folding is visible, and the major beds all dip away to the south-east. Imagine the force needed, and the immense time needed to apply it, in order to make these gigantic bands of rock bend and twist.
The meadow really was idyllic. This is all hidden from the road, and has to be earned by tramping up the trail. Well worth it, by my reckoning. By now, the lake was pretty close, and we saw deer crossing one of the gullies on the side of Mt Chester, high up above us. The rocks making up Mt Chester are different colours, and where they change, the scree slopes change colour from cream to grey quite markedly. The photo below shows the grey slopes, at the base of which fossils can be seen. To be clear, it is not permitted to remove anything from here, and the only thing you can collect is photographs.
The lake itself is clear, not very deep, and extremely cold. Swimming here would be a challenging proposition! It was clear enough to allow us to see brook trout rising towards the surface and take flies, with gills and fins moving gently. It was almost as if you had an aquarium right at your feet. Stupendous.
As I mentioned, the scree slopes below Mt Chester contain fossils. In this case, not bivalves, as I had thought, but according to a friend of mine, Dr Stan Stancliffe, who studied the things, brachiopods, Rhynchonelliformea to be exact. The picture below is pretty low resolution, but I didn’t have a proper camera to hand. Better examples are seen if you Google the scientific name above.
After making our way back around the lake, crossing the scree slopes, we retraced our route back along the meadow and worked our way down through the trees to our starting point. All in all, a diverting few hours, and a really beautiful little lake. I’ll definitely do this walk again, and bring a better camera next time!
Apologies for the picture-heavy post, but hey, people like pictures, right?
As a geology student, and even before that, I used to look at illustrations of glaciers, and learned the names of the various structures, both on the glaciers themselves and the landscape formed by their passage. These words gained a special meaning for me, conjuring up images of far-flung and distant places. Moraine, lateral and terminal, bergschrunds, arretes and horns. Eskers and crevasses. None of this really helped me to get an idea of the scale of a real glacier. Standing on one did.
We drove for hours through the Rockies from Calgary, stopping for breakfast in Canmore. Normal Canadian Rockies scenery, that is to say, breathtaking in it’s expansiveness, surrounded us. For me, driving north of Lake Louise took me into new territory, as I had never been further from Calgary since I arrived. Aside from some unexpected tailgating from idiots with pickups, it was a ridiculously good drive north, with scenery that really did threaten to make you drive off the road. The mountains themselves started taking on a new character. The southern Rockies had all appeared grey, laminated, and well, if not smooth, then certainly less jagged than some of these. Reds and creams started to appear in the rocks, as well as the first icy intrusions of glaciers. As I said, I had never seen one up close and personal before. It was quite a sight.
Glaciers, for those who don’t know, are colossal “rivers” of ice, flowing down from an ice-field, carving a path through the surrounding rocks. They leave evidence of their passing everywhere, if you know what to look for. Typically, U-shaped valleys, and large piles of ground up rock tend to provide clues. Despite the enormous mass of ice in a typical glacier, it is in motion, albeit very slowly. We passed a number of glaciers on our drive north, the Crowfoot and Bow to name a couple. Vast hanging sheets of dirty ice, just to the west, above lakes of turquoise.
The Icefields Parkway is named after the Columbia Icefield, from which at least six glaciers extend (Athabasca, Castleguard, Columbia, Dome, Stutfield and Saskatchewan). The icefield is also surrounded by some of the largest mountains in the Canadian Rockies, including Mt Athabasca (3491m), Mt Andromeda (3450m), Mt Columbia (3747m) and Snow Dome (3456m). Snow Dome is apparently the hydrological apex of Canada. Pour a jug of water onto the peak, and the water will find it’s way into one of three oceans: Pacific, via the Columbia River, Arctic, via the Sunwapta and Athabasca Rivers, and the North Atlantic, via the N.Saskatchewan River and Hudson Bay. The North American counterpart is in Glacier National Park, Montana.
From the icefields visitor centre, it is possible to take a trip up onto the Athabasca Glacier. From the centre, the glacier is striking. GIven that the maximum recorded extent of glaciation was at the visitor centre in 1844, the glacier has lost about half of its mass. That said, it is still very impressive, with another couple of glaciers running down almost into contact with it. The centre was also chock full of noisy tourists, but that’s my problem. I don’t deal well with crowds. From this vantage point, it was possible to see tiny specks moving up on to the glacier. These would turn out to be large, six wheeled tour buses, specially geared to allow safe operation on the glacier. There are 23 in the world, with 22 based here. The one remaining bus is stationed at McMurdo Base in Antartica. Cool or what?
A regular tourist coach takes you from the visitor centre to a handoff point, located on the left side of the photo above. Here we decanted into specially designed buses. Ours, curiously enough, was brightly decorated and nicknamed the “RastaBus”. Here’s why:
Close up, the glacier is something of a surprise. Due to the immense weight of ice, all of the air bubbles are squeezed out, resulting in a material that has a vivid blue colour. As would be expected, it is also very slippery to walk about on. I would have been far happier with my crampons and a walking axe, but would have looked quite out of place among the tourists milling about! There are numerous streams running off the glacier, and unsurprisingly, they are a little chilly to drink from. Where they cut through the glacial ice, more of that beautiful blue colour is exposed.
While I remember, credit where due. I took very few of the pictures in this post. Most were taken by my friend, Di, and her far superior camera. Standing on the surface of the glacier, it is impossible to gain a sense of how deep the ice is. In this instance, it is approximately 300m deep, or about the same height as the Eiffel Tower. Food for thought. Looking up towards the icefield, you really do get a sense of it being a river of ice. One recent survey counted 30,000 crevasses in its surface. Looking to the sides, the Andromeda and an an unnamed glacier both extend down towards us. Between us is also a barrier of lateral moraine. This is rock that has been ground up and pushed to the side by the motion of the glacier. In this case, it has resulted in the formation of quite a large berm.
Another thing you don’t realise is how far away the end of the glacier used to be. It extended all the way down to the visitor centre, as mentioned above, and can be seen in this shot looking back down the valley.
So, not bad for a day’s trip out of Calgary. We headed back down to Banff and found meat products in the form of Eddie’s burger joint. Slow initial service, during which time we were at risk of eating our own hands, but the food, when it came at last, was excellent. All in all, the Icefields Parkway can be thoroughly recommended. To finish, another couple of photos, showing Bow Lake and the Crowfoot Glacier.
I’ve been on vacation for two weeks, and being prompted by the presence of a friend from Luxembourg, decided to get off my backside and do some hiking. My general fitness level can best be described in terms of a large walrus, i.e. heavy and not much good out of water. In fact, if I do enter the water, Greenpeace come and relocate me in the Pacific – their Vancouver HQ is not a million miles away.
With this in mind, we selected a hike that suggested lots of wildlife, good views, and a low chance of killing me. I recently bought an excellent trail book for Canmore and Kananaskis, and the hike from Pine Top day recreational area looked good. 5 kilometres it said, with some more strenuous uphill sections and an easy riverside walk. Turns out to be about 6 klicks, which is fine, and since the catastrophic floods, the river has diminished greatly, but the northern section that runs above Highway 68 is lovely.
Immediately after we got out of the car, we were greeted by screaming and shouting children’s voices, carried on the wind from a nearby camp. This didn’t initially bode well, as we didn’t know if the kids were in one location, or moving around the same trail as us. It turned out that they were penned into one location, and hey, they were just having a good time.
Crossing Highway 68, we headed up into meadows of spruce, aspen and birch. All around were abundant plants and flowers, most of which I can’t identify, but we took photos of. I say “we”; in truth, Di did. The weather was warm, with the sky largely clear, and dominated on one side by some rather large mountains.
Kananaskis is in the foothills of the Rockies, and if you like endless voews of trees, rising up to smaller hills then massive ones, then this place is for you. The hiking covers a wide range of grades, from what we were doing, through to some pretty strenuous but amazing hikes. All around you, life is running wild, and it is hard not to feel optimistic. Particularly on a day when the sky was free of rain (here at least. It thundered pretty spectacularly on the way back from Canmore later), the path was littered with large noisy crickets, and myriad butterflies fluttered about, doing their stuff. We were interlopers, but what a place to interlope in! Even the air smelled good. There’s nothing too strenuous about the meadows north of the highway, which make up about half of the walk. I was surprised to see later that the route had an ascent of about one thousand feet. It certainly didn’t feel like that. I’ve been on walks in Torridon and Knoydart which felt like torture, because you could see the route away above you, always moving on up. Mercifully for me, most of this route was hidden by a thick blanket of trees and vegetation. Also, there was so much to look at and enjoy that the general pace was pretty easy. Di’s patience made it easier still.
Another thing about walking here is that the views just get better and better. In keeping with many trips into the Rockies, we ran out of descriptive terms, and even gave up on saying “wow”. One thing I was surprised to see was lots of different species of fungi. OK, so I come from Scotland, where it is so damp that hundreds of species flourish, but there were many unfamiliar types here, or differing morphologies. I’ve never actually seen some of these particular physical forms before.
The south side of the trail, where it crosses the road and heads toward the river, is very different. Clearly this side of the trail doesn’t bask in sunshine like the meadows above, and the abundant flowers and grasses noted above are absent. Also, the trees here are mainly spruce and pine. Fungi abounded again though, and there was the smell of wild garlic. The river itself was low, though large piles of rocks in the stream bed indicated high energy material transport – presumably during the recent floods that devastated Canmore, Calgary and High River. Even without a lot of water, the riverside walk was pleasant. The guide book gave the impression of it being down beside the river, but it’s actually higher up above, only coming down close on two occasions.
So to recap, this is a really nice walk in summer, and would probably be fun to snowshoe in winter, if you could get the car in here.
There are toilet facilities on the south side of the road, at a small parking area. In keeping with many other places in Alberta, they are rudimentary, but far better than the backwoods alternative. We did encounter a small group of elderly Canadians, who treated us like most others I have met, in an open and friendly manner. It was a relief to be able to walk somewhere with scenery of staggering beauty, and hardly run into anyone at all. In fact, at some points, the silence really was deafening. From here, it is possible to drive west until you hit Highway 40, and then head north-ish to Canmore, which boasts a nice Dairy Queen, and the town can certainly do with some financial stimulus after the floods. One thing to watch for on the road is cattle. We encountered a herd of cows, which looked to be enjoying its new-found freedom, but did cause something of a slowdown! Another thing to be aware of is the fact that the weather can change with startling rapidity. When we reached Canmore, a thunderstorm rolled east over the mountains, following us along Highway 1A, all the way to Cochrane. Watching lightning bolts strike trees a few hundred metres away is exciting enough from inside an earthed motor vehicle, but unprotected outside, a completely different matter.