Early Fall in the Rockies

The view from Canmore

The view from Canmore

It was not a good morning for hiking. I ate a leisurely breakfast, read the Calgary Herald, and headed for the Vermillion Lakes as soon as the clouds began to break up. Aside from dawn or sunset, my favourite time to photograph the mountains is when there is a mix of blue sky and dramatic cloud.

I had to be patient, but there was beauty to capture at the lakes.

The gentle colours of September

The gentle colours of September


Sunlight on grass

Sunlight on grass


And then the summits began to reveal themselves.

Fresh snow at summer's end

Fresh snow 


Like ghost ships on a sea of clouds

Like ghost ships on a sea of clouds

And almost as soon as the clouds began to lift, they were gone, replaced by a clear blue sky. Mt Rundle suddenly thrust its summits out of a thick layer of cloud. By the time I got the camera from its case, the cloud had dwindled to a narrow strip.

Mt Rundle

Mt Rundle.

I left the lakes and drove to the osprey nest at Castle Junction. One lone juvenile was there, waiting perhaps for his parents to him bring some food, even though he was fully fledged and now capable of looking after himself.

Home sweet home, but not for much longer.

Home sweet home, but not for much longer. He was gone next morning.

Two hours of waiting brought nothing more exciting than a hop from one side of the nest to the other, and a few soft calls, so I headed for Lake Minnewanka in hopes of finding some sheep or elk. No luck. Aside from birds, the only wildlife I saw during my three days in the area consisted of small rodents.

It was too early for the aspens. Although a few had turned bright yellow, most of the groves were just beginning to change. September is a time of waiting and expectation.

End of summer

End of summer


One Month in Geologic Time – Part Five: Shadow Lake

I have found just about everything I sought in the mountains this month; amid the breathtaking panoramas, green vales, flowering meadows, quiet lakes and starlit nights I have nourished my soul with beauty and regained the perspective I lose in the city.  I don’t know much about geology (it doesn’t yield easily to amateur study), but the mountains, thrust up millions of years ago and worn down by erosion and glaciers, tell me how short my life really is.  The age of the rock making up the mountains is even more mind boggling.  Now I need reassurance, some connection to friendlier processes than geologic time.

Shadow Lake and Mt Ball

There are scenic ways to get to Shadow Lake, but they involve significant elevation gain and loss.  Then there is Red Earth Creek, an easy and utterly boring route that used to be a fire road.  Not wishing to spend ten hours on the trail at my pace, I opt for the road.  During five hours of hiking the most interesting thing I see is a spruce grouse, a bird so stupid you almost have to kick it to get it to move.

Spruce grouse on Red Earth Creek trail

Shadow Lake Lodge is a set of cabins beside a large meadow, about a kilometre from the lake.  It’s comfortable, modern, serves the excellent food one expects in a backcountry lodge and has the best beds I have ever slept in.

My cabin at Shadow Lake Lodge

Shadow Lake Lodge

Morning sun turns the mountains to burnished gold.


Gradually the meadow comes to life; it’s being taken over by orange hawkweed.

Meadow at the lodge

In the full light of day Mt Ball presides over all.

Mt Ball from the lodge meadow

I decide to spend the day at Gibbon Pass, a wonderland of larches and wildflowers which is reached by a steep ascent of 500 metres from the lodge.  Lyell’s larches, found only near the tree line, are my favourite trees.  They are deciduous conifers with silky green needles that turn a brilliant gold before they are shed in the fall.  Unlike firs and spruce, larches have soft, pliable branches; if you’re going to ski into a tree, make sure it’s a larch.

Gibbon Pass with larches and wildflowers

Near the summit cairn I find a delightful pond that has been invaded by cotton grass.  I could continue wandering; one can ascend Copper Mountain from the pass or visit one of  the Twin Lakes, but I really did not come to Shadow Lake for the scenery. I’m happy this day to lounge in the sun and reflect on all that I have seen and done in the preceding weeks.

Cotton grass rules!

Summit of Gibbon Pass

On my second day I head for the lake but spend most of my time on the trail.  There is no better place to observe the endless cycle of life and death than on the forest floor.  Plants take root, grow, die, decay and give life to insects, birds, animals and other plants all in a confined space and in a way that doesn’t offend the senses.  The same cycle plays out when a hawk kills a pica to feed its young, but the process is messy, hard to observe, and I tend to sympathize with the pica.  I don’t have that problem with a dead tree.

There are wonderful colours, shapes and life forms colonizing the forest floor.  I don’t know the names of most of them, but they are old friends.  Here are a few of my favourites:

I call it “Peeling Paint Lichen”

Some kind of cup lichen

An old piece of wood becomes a garden

Perfect habitat for a fungus

Finally, a fallen tree becomes a nurse log, where baby sub-alpine fir trees and dwarf dogwood take root, and lichens, mosses, fungi and countless insects thrive.

Nurse log

Here on the forest floor I see how lifeforms co-opt their atoms, organizing them into a living system for a while, only to give them back to nourish new life.  It’s a cycle that requires only years or centuries to complete, rather than geologic ages.  I know that I am part of a similar process and I am at peace with that.  I’m ready to return to the city.

Evening at Shadow Lake means wine, good food and warm light.

Evening at Shadow Lake Lodge

Time to relax

The forecast for tomorrow is snow and a cold, wet hike back to the trailhead.  But tonight there is only the moon and memories of a perfect month.

Night at Shadow Lake

One Month in Geologic Time – Part Four: Skoki

There’s no getting around it: I’ll have to work to reach my next lodge.  Unless you are British royalty (Will and Kate flew in by chopper) or want to hire a horse, the only access to Skoki Lodge is on foot.  Fortunately it is one of the most beautiful hikes in the Rockies.  From the Lake Louise ski area the trail winds 11 km through forest and meadows, over two passes and beside a large alpine lake.

The first part of the trail is gently rolling, affording fine views of Mt Temple, the highest peak in the region.  An easy climb through an impressive boulder field brings one to Boulder Pass.

Boulder Pass and Mt Temple, with a Lake Louise ski trail in right background.

Instead of descending on the other side of the pass, you find yourself at Ptarmigan Lake.

Ptarmigan Lake

This is not the landscape of the Purcells (see previous posts).  The Canadian Rockies are not painted in large swaths; they don’t overwhelm even though they are higher than the ranges to the west.  Rather they invite you to embrace them, to relax, to become one with them.

Ptarmigan Lake with Baker Lake in background

The trail skirts the lake, passing larch trees and stands of ragwort, valerian, arnica and anemone seed heads.  I’ve seen many ptarmigan here, but today I encounter only this hoary marmot, grazing peacefully, not at all alarmed by my presence.

Hoary marmot by Ptarmigan Lake

The next section requires some effort as the trail climbs steeply 134 m to Deception Pass.  When approached from Ptarmigan Lake there’s no deception in Deception Pass, but from the other side you keep thinking you have reached the top only to find another rise ahead.  If the wind is not too violent, this is a good place to pause and enjoy the view.

Redoubt Peak and Ptarmigan Lake from Deception Pass

The pass seems barren, yet somehow a few flowers thrive.  I have seldom seen such beautiful scorpion weed.

Scorpion weed

As I turn to start down toward Skoki, I hear the crunch of hooves on the path behind and step aside to let the horses pass.  In winter the lodge is supplied by snowmobile, in summer by horses and in early season when snow still clogs the high country, by helicopter.

Supply train bound for Skoki

The alpine terrain of the pass soon yields to a sub-alpine wonderland, very different from the landscape I have just left.  Trees, paternoster lakes and lush growth await.

The Skoki Lakes, each one feeding the one below.

After a steady descent I arrive at the lodge, nestled among conifers, deep in the valley.

Skoki Lodge

In terms of comfort, Skoki is about as far as you can get from the luxury of Canadian Mountain Holidays.  With no running water, almost no electricity, tiny rooms with small windows that let in very little light and an upstairs corridor that loudly proclaims the exit of every person seeking the outhouse during the night, Skoki is not about amenities (the only accommodations lower on the amenities scale are Alpine Club of Canada huts and backpacking tents).  Skoki is about history and location.  Built in the 1930s as a destination for skiers disembarking at the Lake Louise train station, it is part of the very fabric of Banff National Park.  Its logs were hewn in the valley and its walls have heard every tale that mountain men and women could tell of storms, avalanches, wildlife, tragedy and heroic deeds. Because it is a national historic monument, permission for upgrades is given rarely and grudgingly.

What the lodge lacks in facilities it more than makes up for with excellent, friendly staff, fine cooking and great hiking. Dining by candlelight and oil lamps one can almost forget that the modern world exists.

Dining by candlelight

Evening at Skoki

On previous backpacking trips to the valley I have done all of the longer hikes in the area.  This time I decide to take it easy and enjoy the flowers.  I want to seek out some that grow not in vast stands but individually, often hiding from their pushy neighbours.  Because there is a juvenile grizzly hanging about the lodge, too busy eating to pay attention to humans, I borrow a bear banger from the staff and exercise caution.

Yellow columbine with some western red in its DNA

Orange false dandelion

One flowered wintergreen – underside

One flowered wintergreen – top side

Fringed grass of Parnassus


Fireweed and the waterfall from the lower Skoki Lake

After two relaxing days I retrace my steps to Lake Louise.  It’s hard to believe that my month in the mountains is almost over, but there is still one more lodge to visit.

One Month in Geologic Time Part One: Mistaya Lodge

I had to get out of the city.  For the last six months almost everything I had seen, heard, smelled or touched was made by humans or altered or managed by us.   I needed to reconnect with the planet, to regain perspective on my existence.  What better way than to immerse myself in geologic time?  I headed for the nearest mountains, in this case the Canadian Rockies, Purcells and Bugaboos.

In a tiny high valley just west of the Continental Divide lies Mistaya Lodge.

Mistaya Lodge

Accessible mainly by helicopter, this little piece of paradise is one of my favourite places.

Arrival and departure by helicopter

I try to come here at least once a year, and as soon as I arrive I can feel the noise and stench of the city fade from memory.  It takes a little longer to let go of my defences and open my eyes to every sight, my ears to every sound, my nose to the scent of the conifers.  One can spend hours simply enjoying the view from the lodge or walking around the lake.

View from the lodge

Reflections in the lake

Juvenile gull that spent a few weeks on the lake

Of course, in summer I come for the hiking.  Being slow and having bad knees, I usually hike alone.  In solitude I can stop to marvel at the beauty of a single flower, pause to track a bird that keeps disappearing in the branches, sit and watch a ptarmigan fuss over her chicks, or wait for the ground squirrels to get over their alarm at my presence and return to stuffing their cheeks ridiculously full of grass to carry back to their burrows.

Trails lead through forests and meadows, sooner or later turning into more or less well-marked routes or free wandering.  In this circular valley one cannot get lost, but the easiest way to one’s destination is not always clear.  At one point during the week I was frustrated by impenetrable brush and resorted to following a series of grizzly bear diggings (I correctly assumed that bruin was a better route-finder than I was).

There are flowering meadows.

Return from Moon Dark meadows

Magnificent uplands

Rock and flowers

Occasional cairns to show the way

Guide and owner, Dave Birnie, builds a cairn

Karst holes

Karst hole

And alpine lakes.

Long Lake

Leprechaun Lake

After a day of hiking I return to savoury snacks and a cold beer at the lodge.  No, I haven’t given up backpacking, but the older I get, the more I appreciate the luxury of food that I don’t have to carry, cooked to perfection by someone else, and served in a comfortable lodge.  Weather, mosquitoes and horse flies permitting, we sit on the porch in the late afternoon, eating, drinking and watching a flock of rufous hummingbirds fight over who gets to use the feeders.

Snacks on the porch

End of a perfect day

Rufous hummingbird

After eight days in this glorious wilderness I feel refreshed, alive and full of anticipation for the next adventure.  Some of my best memories of this sojourn will be the flowers.

Glacier lilies in August?  Only in the Alpine!  And that little anemone should have gone to seed weeks ago.

Glacier lilies and western anemone

The mountain avens are also early bloomers, but the snows were deep this year and lingered long.  The moss campion, at least, is blooming on schedule.

White mountain avens

Moss campion


I always hate to leave Mistaya, but I will be back in March to enjoy a week of snowshoeing or skiing.