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.
I’ve mentioned before that being in the Rockies awakened in me an interest in geology and earth history. As I travelled, I wanted to learn how the mountains, lakes and canyons were formed. Here’s a small bit of what I’ve gathered about Lake Louise and Johnston Canyon.
Near the end of our travels, I bought a book to help in my learning called How Old is that Mountain by Chris Yorath. From that book I’ve learned that Lake Louise may be a tarn. And for those of you who have never heard of a tarn, as I had not until a short while ago, it’s a lake that has formed at the base of a steeply walled recess—shaped like a deep bowl—on the side of a mountain. These deep recesses are called cirques and are formed by mountain glaciers eroding the mountain’s rock.
In the case of Lake Louise, it’s possible that when the glacier on Mt. Victoria was much larger it carved Lake Louise’s basin. This may have happened around 25,000 years ago.
Here, the huge lengths of time geology deals with need to be put in terms that our minds can comprehend. In geological terms, 25,000 years ago is very recent. For example, scientists estimate that the earth was formed around four and a half billion years ago and that our human ancestors arrived around 3 million years ago.
To help us, Chris Yorath includes the following analogy. If we imagine the entire history of the earth as a 24 hour clock, the creation of the planet would be at midnight—00:00. And the appearance of humans would not be until well past 23:00 hours, at one minute and a few seconds before the following midnight. This has certainly given me pause for reflection and helps me grasp that Lake Louise was formed in recent times.
Back to her now. I learned, from information in Banff National Park that the beautiful green blue of Lake Louise and other Rocky Mountain lakes arises in large part from rock flour. That is, from fine particles of sediment washing down from the mountains into the lake. This was visible to us at the end of the lake closest to the Plain of Six Glaciers hike.
In the case of Johnston Canyon, Yorath reports that according to Parks Canada the canyon was created around 8,000 years ago. At that time, a landslide that brought masses of rock down from a nearby mountain diverted Johnston Creek from its path. Then, over time, the canyon, which is 200 metres deep, was carved out.
I alternate between contemplating geological and human time scales. Either way, while I was in the presence of the mountains, lakes and canyons, I felt something very old, compared to my life, surrounding me. Being part of nature in that way, experiencing that sense of time and change, was life giving. Because of that, I hope to always draw on the memories of my time in the Rockies and to return to them again.
Being in nature has always evoked strong feelings in me. There’s the love I felt at Lake Louise and the plain of the six glaciers trail. But even that changed for me. It is easy to feel love, exhilaration in the bright sun or in the morning and early afternoon. As the sun gets closer to setting, more somber feelings take hold, as they did when we retraced our steps back toward Lake Louise in the dusk.
The beauty of being in nature is that I am faced with myself by virtue of experiencing the earth in a direct way. The land or ocean speaks, bringing forth emotions from love and awe, to unease and fear.
My times in natural settings at night have sometimes brought me fear of the dark, the unknown and the sounds of animals I could not identify. But I have also had profound feelings of peace. One such time was in Val Marie, Saskatchewan, a tiny town on the edge of Grasslands National Park. There, awakening in the night, I was in the midst of a quiet that I had never experienced. And there are the times I’ve looked at stars on dark, clear nights in the countryside that elicit a sense of awe common to many people who have shared this experience.
I’ve also experienced a change in feelings toward aspects of nature in my 40 plus years in Canada. When I first arrived, I had certainly been among conifers at some points in my life, but not to the degree that is offered when travelling north in Ontario. Though I could see their beauty when I was young, they felt austere and elicited loneliness in me. This has changed dramatically for me over the decades. It’s not something I willed to happen, it just has. Now I feel love for the same spruce, fir and pine that I felt such unease towards.
Beyond myself, it seems to me that our attitudes toward nature have greatly shaped our relationship with the natural world, too often in the destructive ways we are familiar with. I wonder if humans could learn to rest easier with our own feelings, whether we could view nature differently. Perhaps we could begin to view the natural world less as something to be dominated or feared, but as part of the life we all share on earth. Perhaps we could learn to know that we are part of nature and nature, part of us. In that sense, care for nature is care for ourselves.
When I travelled to the Canadian Rockies in September with my husband, we went to Lake Louise several times and twice hiked the trail to the Plain of Six Glaciers as far as the teahouse. I found the lake and the mountains deeply beautiful.
Our first glimpse of Lake Louise was on a sunny day the week following Labour Day. We had heard that the crowds thin out then, but there were still many of us tourists out to see Louise. I had seen photos of her since moving to Canada in the 1970s and expected the pathway we took to the left of the hotel, down from the upper parking lot, to lead us to a trail to her. However, we were surprised as we walked around a bend to find that spectacular scene right in front of us. Here we joined scores of other tourists strolling, gaping and taking photos with large and small cameras and cell phones.
However, we soon left the throngs and walked, with increasingly fewer people, along the lake and up to the trail. We decided to return earlier the next day to hike to the plain of the six glaciers when we had plenty of time. And that’s what we did, stopping often to take in the blessed beauty and to take photos. Other hikers were out walking and we let them pass us as we continued our slow climb, sometimes exchanging a word or two about the beauty surrounding us.
I owe something to Richard Louv who wrote The Nature Principle that I’ve written about. And that is, I am much more accepting of finding other humans on nature trails than I was in the past. That is because he spoke of the extreme importance of people being in nature to care about it enough to want to preserve it.
On the way up the trail we saw golden mantle ground squirrels, who likely saw us as bringers of food. One day I saw a pika which I identified later in a guide book as the small animal I’d seen with round ears–a member of the rabbit family. We saw grey jays and ravens. Earlier, at the base of the lake we’d seen another bird–clark’s nutcracker.
The mountains and glaciers surrounded us. We saw walls of nearly vertical rock and glacial streams of cascading water flowing into streams that led to the lake. At times we were accompanied by rumbling and witnessed a distant avalanche on what I believe was Mt. Victoria. At one point the trail took us on a narrow ledge by a cliff with steel ropes which were comforting to hang on to.
The path itself was generally not rough, but it was a steep climb at times for us, who are moderate day hikers well past our physical youth. By the end, we went very slowly, but made it to the plain and the teahouse there—a wooden building in the conifers with Tibetan prayer flags blowing in the breeze. There, at an altitude of over 6000 feet and after hours of walking, we rewarded ourselves with tea and sandwiches looking out through the deep green of the trees. We stood later, squinting into the sun at the glaciers, and I was able to see the tiny shapes of mountain goats that another visitor pointed out. A raven croaked energetically from the top of a dead tree and the sun was warm on us. I can feel the clear atmosphere now as I write in Toronto.
Then, it was down slowly in the late afternoon, retracing our steps and seeing the land, the heights from a new perspective. Lake Louise gradually came into sight and the rock wall that climbers had earlier been scaling. Greeting us were reflections in the opal water of the calm lake. Those days in the midst of the extreme beauty of earth on the plain of the six glaciers trail and at Lake Louise brought me great solace and a feeling of inner light. They remain with me still and give me strength.
Late last week I returned from a trip to the Canadian Rockies. I have only seen mountains with glaciers one other time in my life. That was for one day in the early 1970s when I was in Yosemite Park. So, to see the mountains in Banff, Yoho and Jasper National Parks in Alberta and British Columbia was a profound experience. I’ll be writing about that time over the next while. But for now, here’s a photo of famous Lake Louise with its jeweled reflections that I took one late afternoon. There’s a reason Lake Louise is famous!