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

 

Oh, Wilderness were paradise enow!

The beauty and majesty of the Canadian Rockies

The beauty and majesty of the Canadian Rockies

Somewhere north of the Arctic Circle

Somewhere north of the Arctic Circle on the Firth River

It has been a strange few days. Friday evening, I landed in Edmonton after a month of river rafting in northern Canada. Monday, I drove the TransCanada Highway through Banff and Yoho National Parks. The contrast could not have  been more sobering.

For twelve days, in July, fifteen other people and I rafted the Firth River, north of the Arctic Circle in Ivvivik National Park. This park, which receives fewer than 100 visitors a year, hugs the Yukon/Alaska border and ends at the Beaufort Sea. Apart from a few structures erected by Parks Canada and some laughable landing strips for planes that can set down virtually anywhere, there are no traces of modern humans, although the area does have a number of archaeological sites. In the 10,000 sq km of the park, we were alone.

No dispute: Ivvivik is wilderness in its purest form, almost unique on our planet.

Camp at Wolf Tors on the Firth River

Camp at Wolf Tors on the Firth River

For four hours on Monday, I drove through two of the most popular mountain parks in Alberta and B.C. My very conservative estimate of the number of vehicles I saw travelling toward me in that time is 7500. Assuming that a similar number were going in my direction, that’s 15,000 cars, RVs and trucks in one afternoon, all speeding along, their occupants perhaps enjoying the scenery, but just as likely thinking of other things.

Is this wilderness? Is this what we are preserving, supposedly in a natural state, for future generations to enjoy? What I saw in Banff and Yoho looked more like an invasion, like ants swarming over a prize food source. Isn’t bumper-to-bumper traffic too much love? And what of the trails that lead off the highway? When you have to move over to let faster hikers pass, you are not alone with Nature.

Camp in a meadow of wildflowers

Camp in a meadow of wildflowers on the Firth River. No sounds but the river, the wind and the cries of birds.

The argument, of course, is that if people don’t see the beauty of our parks, they will have little interest in preserving them. And the mountain parks are spectacularly beautiful, even if you never get out of your car. To see the Firth, you need good organization, expert river guides, enough money to transport you and all your gear by air, and a willingness to camp in whatever weather the Arctic chooses to throw at you.

I came home today saddened because I don’t know the answer. Wilderness doesn’t survive when people arrive in large numbers. Do we have the wisdom and dedication to preserve it even if we cannot visit? But if we never visit, how can we know what wilderness is? I’m afraid that for many of the people I passed in Banff and Yoho yesterday, wilderness is good scenery with a road through it. But am I not a hypocrite? I wish that everyone could visit Ivvivik and see it as I have, but I don’t want them to.

Osprey Family Matters

While I was in Banff National Park  this week, I stopped by an osprey nest along the Bow River. It is used every year and I always visit to see how the family is doing. On this day, the female was on the nest with only the top of her head visible. I walked down to the river and found the male sitting in a tree. Quite a handsome fellow!

Male osprey

Male osprey

The brown necklace on the breast is more frequently found on the female, but this bird was acting like a male, hanging around, not doing much of anything; I mean male ospreys, not all males! He spent a lot of  time meticulously grooming.

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After ninety minutes of waiting for something to happen, I headed back to the road, only to hear the female call. The bird flew to her, and of course, I missed a good shot. I walked below the nest and was able to see both birds. They were carrying on an animated conversation.

Female on nest, male on edge.

Female on nest, male on edge.

Nothing much happened for a few minutes, and then there was a great deal of flapping as one bird departed. The whole sequence lasted about three seconds, and I simply put the camera on burst. When I first looked at the photos on  the camera’s view screen, I thought that I had captured a mating. Only later, as I tried to sort out body parts, did I decide that in fact, the two birds were simply changing places. I hope that someone with more expertise in osprey matters will settle the issue.

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Female moves to side, male enters nest

 

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Female lifts off

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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.

Sunrise

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

Stonecrop

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.

The Joy of Short Trips

Sometimes I get so caught up in planning and taking epic journeys I forget how necessary and restorative short ventures into the mountains can be.  So I rolled into Canmore ready for two days of snowshoeing and photography.  Never mind that my snowshoes were still sitting in my living room in Edmonton, along with my liner gloves and cell phone (just a few additions to a life list of forgotten gear).  A local outdoor shop provided snowshoes and gloves, and I decided to drive very carefully with no phone.

Edmonton’s December is wet and brown, but Lake Louise has an abundance of snow.  I set out in solitude along the Great Divide trail, an old road that crosses the Great Divide and ends near the Lake Ohara trail.  It soon intersects a more interesting route through the forest.

Lower Telemark Trail, an offshoot of the Great Divide trail.

The trail is gently rolling and offers an excellent chance to read the night’s Gazette: who was doing what and where?  Tracks were plentiful.

A red squirrel had ventured out.

Snowshoe hares are the party animals. Their tracks are everywhere.

Where the hares go, the lynx is seldom far behind.

The pine martens are also on the prowl.

Winter yields a much greater array of recognizable tracks than summer, but the animals are shy in any season.  Only the cheeky squirrels and martens are happy  to come out and fuss at you, although I  saw neither this day.  After a pause for lunch I made my way up to the Great Divide road and headed back to the parking lot, content with a beautiful outing.

View from the Great Divide road.

I gave the rest of my visit over to photography, stopping twice at the iconic Vermillion Lakes.

Vermillion Lake and Mt Rundle

Professional photographers and point-and-shoot tourists take multiple images of this fortuitous marriage of lakes and mountains.  I keep hoping for that “shot of a lifetime”.  In truth, it’s almost as hard to take a bad photo here as it is to take a great one.

Lake and Mt Rundle

Early morning walk

Daybreak next morning didn’t produce the red clouds I was hoping for, but I enjoyed the sight of this man walking his dog along the ice.

Dawn at the lakes.

Every winter, no matter how cold, I see ducks in Banff and Canmore.

Ducks at Vermillion Lakes

I don’t know what these are, as I had no binoculars.  They are compact, dark, surface feeders with a little white on the side near the tail.

I drove and walked around for the rest of the day, at peace with the land.

In Canmore, only one more task remained – to photograph one of the infamous bunnies that are overrunning the town.  A careless release of a few bunnies in the 1990s produced a nuisance factor of a few thousand as the rabbits did what rabbits naturally do.  Still, they really are cute.

Canmore bunny