I’ve recently read a wonderfully written book of contemporary Canadian nature writing called Northern Wild. The editor, David R. Boyd, an environmental lawyer, chose essays from twenty authors for the collection. The writers all share a love and knowledge of land, water, sky and wildlife. Because we are in a time of intense destruction of nature, their stories are both ones of beauty and of loss. Many are poetic, others are humourous.
One of the amazing things that stands out that I learned from this book was in the essay by Wade Davis. In it, he speaks of the Inuit and how they navigate on cloudy days in the arctic. They study the reflections of the ice on the undersides of low clouds. From these reflections, they can tell where open water appears, where sea ice is, where ground is covered, or not, by snow. Imagine such attunement to one’s surroundings. Now that I think of it, in one form or another, many of the essays speak to moments of such attunement, calling on us to be attentive to and nurture our connection to nature.
This book is out of print, but I borrowed it from my library and then found a copy online that I’ve since purchased. It’s the kind of book that asks to be reread.
I’ve been thinking again about my time in the Canadian Rockies this past September. One of our favourite trails was the Wilcox Pass Trail off the Icefields Parkway, just south of the Columbia Icefield. We only had time to walk the start of it—an hour and a half in total— because we had a long drive ahead of us. Someday we’d love to return and hike the entire trail.
The path climbs pretty quickly, through forest, to a ridge where you can look down over the Parkway on one side and up across meadows to mountains on the other. These are wonderful sweeping views of the land.
We saw several other people out enjoying the day. One we spoke to was a man from Homer, Alaska who told us that this past winter had brought extremely heavy snow to his home. What a contrast with Toronto which, last year, had only a dusting of snow and which, up to now, has had only a few melted inches.
On this, another day of grey skies in Toronto, I have returned to memories of the Rocky Mountains in September. One of my favourite places was 30 kms south of Jasper, Alberta, off the Icefields Parkway—Athabasca Falls. We went there twice, the second time on a day when we were not exhausted by beauty and could take leisurely time there.
Here’s a few photos of the rocks and the water that has shaped them over time. A wonderful and healing tonic!
We had heard that Peyto Lake was a beautiful spot, so we turned off the Icefields Parkway 40 kms after its southernmost end to see the lake. The trail was steep but not too long. We took our time, among other travelers, walking up to the Bow Summit, past many fir and spruce trees. Interpretive signs pointed out the differences between these two most prevalent conifers prompting us to attempt to identify which tree we were near at any one time. This became a playful exercise throughout our trip. I am very much in the dark about so much of what I see in nature and wanted to begin learning even the simplest of things to enlarge my horizons. I believe the photo I’m including of conifers on the trail shows a subalpine fir in the centre.
When we arrived at the lookout point, we joined our fellow hikers to look out on the mountains and distinctively shaped blue green lake. For someone like me who has not grown up in such land, the beauty was almost shocking. At the summit was an interpretive sign, this one about the Peyto glacier, which originally carved out the shape of the valley and the bowl of Peyto Lake. During the past century or so, the glacier that once filled the valley has receded about two kilometres. And before the glacier materialized, there stood a forest in its place. This was revealed through the discovery of 3000 year old wood fragments under the ice.
The Icefields Parkway in Alberta begins, at its southern end, a little north of Lake Louise. It extends 230 kilometres north to Jasper. We took the Parkway, route 93, twice this past September during our time in the Rockies. Both days were sunny a good bit of the time with the trip northbound being colder. The land that we drove through, stopped and walked in was intensely beautiful. So much so, that although we followed the advice of others and took our time, we were still emotionally exhausted by the time we arrived in Jasper.
Again, many of the photos I took are of mountains whose names I don’t know. However, the force of their beauty has remained with me. I’ll have separate posts on Peyto Lake, Athabasca Falls and Wilcox Pass trail. Among the photos I’ve included today is one of the Bow Lake area plus the sweeping vistas that we looked down upon after the Parkway had climbed and doubled back on itself. These last were some of my favourite views.
I have no photos of a few wonderful minutes on our trip south when many bighorn sheep stopped cars in both directions. The animals crossed the road and leapt over the guardrail proceeding down the side of a steep incline. One, in particular, looked through the car window as I returned his or her gaze. Seeing them was a reminder that we are the migrants in their habitat.
When we were in Field, B.C. this summer, I first heard about the Burgess Shale fossils in Yoho National Park. The Burgess Shale quarries have been designated a World Heritage Site by UNESCO. Indeed, the entire park is part of a World Heritage Site. Because of the force of the land’s beauty, I bought a small book, A Geoscience Guide to The Burgess Shale by Murray Coppold and Wayne Powell to begin learning about the fossils. I’m using that book and How Old is That Mountain? by Chris Yorath as references in this post.
The name Burgess Shale refers to a segment of layered rocks, called a formation. It’s within this particular formation that the fossils of well preserved soft bodied creatures were found. This is a big deal because it’s much more common to find only the skeletons of animals without their soft tissues being preserved.
The Burgess Shale fossils were first found in 1909 on a ridge between Wapta Mountain and Mt. Field. And on nearby Mt. Stephen, many trilobite fossils have been found. I’ve compared my photos of mountains in the area to several online photos. From this comparison, I’ve included two photos I took that I believe show the area close to the the Burgess Shale fossil quarries as well as Mt. Stephen.
While I gather that there’s no one exact indication of the age of the fossils, the two books I’ve mentioned indicate they are between 530 and 505 million years old. In A Geoscience Guide to The Burgess Shale the authors compress the earth’s history into a single year to help us fathom the enormous sweep of time of the planet’s history. If the birth of the earth is imagined to be on January 1, then the animals of the Burgess Shale appear on November 20th. As a comparison, dinosaurs who seem incredibly old to us are more recent than the fossils, appearing between December 21st and 27th. And humanity’s ancestors appear at 9:07 p.m. on December 31st. Homo sapiens, our exact species, only appear on December 31st at a quarter to midnight! We are the newcomers on earth.
Because of my new interest, I indulged in the common tourist activity of buying a t-shirt memento of this part of our travels. The shirt has a rendition of some of the amazing looking fossilized creatures of the Burgess Shale. I look forward to wearing it around Toronto next spring and summer. I will certainly receive puzzled looks from people who are not paleontology buffs, wondering what on earth it’s about. What on earth, indeed!
While in Yoho National Park in British Columbia this past September, we hiked around Emerald Lake. Emerald Lake, like Lake Louise, is a tarn formed in a basin surrounded by mountains into which melting glaciers have poured their water. And, like Lake Louise, it owes its green blue hue to rock flour. Rock flour is made of very fine particles that have been ground down by glaciers moving against bedrock and washed into the lakes.
The hike around the shore of Emerald Lake was level for the most part and not a strenuous trail, with some climbing near the end. We hiked here twice on our travels. The first time we went on a cloudy and cold day, while our second hike was in mixed cloud and sun.
This trail took us through varied landscapes. On one side of the lake is an open expanse of meadows and streams. I believe I am right in saying that this side is a moraine, that is, an area of gravel and sand washed down from the mountains by their glaciers over time. Here, the trail is paved and is wheel chair accessible. Having never been in the Rocky Mountains until this trip, I was very taken by the beauty of the streams and rivers at the base of mountains and stopped to look at these for a long time at Emerald Lake.
We continued on the trail which led around the other side of the lake through a lush forest reminiscent of west coast rainforests and unusual in this area. I loved this part of the trail, filled with the deep atmosphere of the woods through which we could see mountains on the far side of the lake. Living in Ontario, I am familiar with woods, but not with catching glimpses of enormous mountains beyond the trees. These sights always evoked in me a sense of mystery and awe.
Again, I took many photos and in late afternoon was drawn to the reflections of the mountains in the lake. I did not keep track of which mountain had which name—two of them being Wapta Mountain and Mt. Burgess—but they seem to have accepted my ignorance with good grace.
Back to the Rockies. When we hiked in Yoho National Park, we stayed in Field, B. C. Field is a tiny town of around 100 people on the eastern border of British Columbia with beautiful views of mountains. Our one sighting of a black bear was in Field. We were eating at the Truffle Pig Restaurant one evening (and greatly enjoying our meal) when another patron pointed to a small bear by the railroad tracks. Most of us got up to have a look. The next day, signs were posted that a young bear had been seen searching for food by the tracks, apparently separated from his or her mother. We were cautioned, for the bear’s safety and our own, not to approach the bear if we saw it again.
Field is on one side of railroad tracks. Directly on the other is the National Park Office which we went to several times to check on conditions before hiking. We heard about the Burgess Shale fossil finds for the first time at the Park Office. And this was, in part, responsible for my interest in the ancient history of the land. I’ll come back to this in a future post. In the National Park Office’s parking lot, we encountered many magpies walking about, likely also in search of food. Though magpies are common in the Rockies, we had never seen these birds before our trip and, to us, they were beautiful.
During our time in Field, the temperature fell to highs of 8 degrees Celsius with clouds and showers. But, after bundling up, we enjoyed our hikes to Wapta Falls and Emerald Lake which I’ll also tell you about in future posts.
On our September trip to the Rocky Mountains, we travelled from Banff National Park west to Yoho National Park in British Columbia along the border with Alberta. There we spent our first afternoon at Takakkaw Falls and a nearby trail. The day was cool and cloudy as we drove up the winding road to the falls. I loved the views on this road in the midst of steeply rising mountains. The driving, however, was sometimes hair raising with an extreme switchback where we stopped and watched an RV passenger in front of us out on the road, directing the driver as he or she backed up toward the edge of a cliff before being able to make the turn. It’s not surprising that this road is open only from late June to early October. I have no idea how the tour buses made it up there.
At the falls, although there were many of us tourists, it was easy to take in the beauty. In addition to the dramatic waterfall which cascades around 380 metres, we saw nearby mountains partially concealed in moving clouds.
Soon we set off for a walk on a trail heading towards Laughing Falls. It was getting late in the day and so we hiked out and back for an hour or so and didn’t set a goal of getting to the falls. This was an easy, level walk, very quiet, past now empty camp sites by Yoho River and woods.
On returning I enjoyed seeing Takakkaw Falls come into view from afar. Here I had a long view of the mountains and could see first a touch of spray, then gradually more and more of the cascading water as we walked further along.
We had a most enjoyable afternoon in this rugged landscape. Returning in the clear cool moist air, the woods, river and rock held us, opening onto distant deep blue mountains in white cloud, rock walls of burnt orange and blue, deep green narrow triangles of gathered conifers and cascading water.
We stayed in Canmore, Alberta when hiking in Banff National Park. Often we travelled west on the Trans Canada Highway to Banff and beyond. East of Banff, we’d come to what I believe to be Cascade Mountain. At one point, as you are driving west, the mountain is directly in front of you, powerfully beautiful. Finally, one day when I was in the passenger seat, I decided to photograph the mountain through the windshield of the car to have some image of what I so loved seeing.
I didn’t, however, photograph the most dramatic scene on that leg of our journey which we had encountered on an earlier day. We awoke that day to dense fog. Our bedroom window looked out onto mountains which were completely hidden that day. As the morning wore on and we drove toward Banff, the clouds began dissipating. Occasionally, they revealed pieces of mountains and glaciers high above a white blanket of cloud. What a haunting, wonderful sight that was. We had glimpses of Cascade Mountain in such a fashion–as though a piece of what we think is reality had been torn away to show life that we hadn’t known was there.
I think of our human blindness here. Perhaps you can relate to this yourself. I know I often go about my life in a fog, not knowing the huge presences that await beyond clouded veils that surround me. I am startled when they reveal themselves or bits of themselves, signs asking me to notice life more closely, signs that forces beyond my normal consciousness are at play and at work in my life and in that of all nature.