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.
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.
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.
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.
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.