Moun­tain Do

With Its Icy Rivers and Peak Views, the Cana­dian Rock­ies Will Give You Chills

The Washington Post Sunday - - Arts - By Cindy Loose

About 100 rivers be­gin in the Cana­dian Rock­ies. Clear, icy flows from melt­ing glaciers trickle down the moun­tains, cre­at­ing head­wa­ters to rivers that feed into three oceans: the At­lantic, the Pa­cific and the Arc­tic. The thou­sands of lakes here take on ev­ery color in the blue-green spec­trum. The unique shades are cre­ated as sun­light hits the wa­ter and re­flects off sus­pended par­ti­cles of rock that has been ground into dust by the move­ment of glaciers. The color of any par­tic­u­lar body of wa­ter is de­ter­mined by the dif­fer­ent sizes and min­eral con­tents of those “rock flour” par­ti­cles. The shades are so un­usual that on my re­turn from a trip to the Cana­dian Rock­ies last sum­mer, I con­sulted paint charts for help in nam­ing them. Some of the best matches: jar­gon jade, ca­lypso, rap­ture blue, emer­ald, Aegean.

Sum­mer days are long, with up to 17 hours of sun­shine, yet tem­per­a­tures tend to hover in the 70s. Not con­vinced yet that the place is worth the long trip? Con­sider the wa­ter­falls that thun­der into deep green pools and ex­plode against pro­trud­ing rocks. Tiny sprays of wa­ter droplets col­lide with beams of sun­light, cre­at­ing con­stant flick­ers of rain­bows.

Or the snow­capped moun­tains that in a cer­tain light are mir­rored in still lakes, mak­ing it ap­pear as if earth, wa­ter and sky have be­come one.

Hol­ly­wood dis­cov­ered the Cana­dian Rock­ies be­fore the mov­ing pic­tures had sound. Many times, th­ese moun­tains have been stand-ins for the Swiss Alps. In fact, much of what Amer­i­cans imag­ine as the wild Amer­i­can West has been taken from TV and movies, and many of those pic­tures

float­ing around our minds are ac­tu­ally images of the Cana­dian Rock­ies.

The ques­tion is not whether to put this area on your travel wish list, but which part of the vast ter­ri­tory to tackle.

Four con­tigu­ous na­tional parks — Banff, Yoho, Jasper and Koote­nay, all UNESCO World Her­itage sites — lie within the prov­inces of Al­berta and Bri­tish Columbia, and are sur­rounded by mil­lions of acres of wilder­ness ar­eas, for­est re­serves and pro­vin­cial parks.

Af­ter much de­lib­er­a­tion, I chose Banff Na­tional Park. Af­ter fly­ing to Cal­gary, 80 miles south­east, I was able to hit many of the park’s high­lights in less than a week, plus a piece of Kananaskis Coun­try (a rural area west of Cal­gary) and a tiny slice of Jasper Na­tional Park.

While I can’t yet say which is the best piece of the Cana­dian Rock­ies, I can say that it’s hard to imag­ine the scenery and ac­tiv­i­ties could get any bet­ter than what I ex­pe­ri­enced. Fur­ther, I can rec­om­mend stops that should not — must not — be missed within the lit­tle por­tion of the huge swath of nat­u­ral won­der where I spent my sum­mer vacation.

Down to the River

Horses have never been known to com­mit sui­cide, have they? That’s what I’m think­ing as we ride just a few feet from a cliff that tow­ers at least 100 feet above the Bow River. None of the horses had shown any signs of de­pres­sion as we left the Kananaskis Guest Ranch, and now they’re walk­ing calmly. I soon for­get my ap­pre­hen­sions and lose my­self in the beauty of the land­scape. The river be­low, fa­mous for har­bor­ing tro­phy-size trout, is an al­lur­ing milky blue, sur­rounded by tall ever­greens.

When I booked this ride be­fore leav­ing home, I wor­ried that I was mak­ing a mis­take; maybe I should have gone all the way into Banff Na­tional Park to ride. Mil­lions of peo­ple from around the world head straight to Banff. This area, just 45 min­utes from Cal­gary, is pop­u­lar with lo­cals, but maybe they just don’t want to travel the ex­tra dis­tance to the park.

But now I’m con­grat­u­lat­ing my­self. We wind along the river, then trot up the side of a moun­tain into a broad grassy meadow. The trail leader an­nounces that “Broke­back Moun­tain” was filmed here. If you’ve seen the movie, you know how beau­ti­ful and peace­ful the land­scape is.

A short dis­tance away, I settle into the Rafter Six guest ranch, where I’ll spend the night. Af­ter tuck­ing into a huge lunch, I walk a few yards to the barn and vol­un­teer to groom horses. The place is a find. I soon meet owner Stan Crowley, who tells me the ranch was a re­mount cen­ter for the Cana­dian Moun­ties in the 1800s, and be­fore that, an out­fit­ters post.

The walls of a lounge area in the log lodge are cov­ered with au­to­graphed pic­tures of some of the lu­mi­nar­ies who have stayed here. So many Dis­ney films were shot here, be­gin­ning in the 1940s, that the for­mer own­ers built a cabin just for Walt.

Scenes from the Mar­i­lyn Mon­roe movie “River of No Re­turn” were also shot here. At the other end of the movie spec­trum: “How the West Was Fun,” star­ring MaryKate and Ash­ley Olsen. In be­tween, dozens of movies and TV shows have used the ranch as a back­drop. Other guests have in­cluded Paul New­man, Lee Marvin, Charles Bron­son and Kevin Cost­ner.

Next morn­ing I tug on a wet suit for what turns out to be the best raft­ing trip I’ve ever taken. Why? In part, the wild en­thu­si­asm of the young guides, in part the scenery, in part the rush of be­ing splashed by ice-cold wa­ter that, given the heat of the sun, felt great. But most of all, it was the free raft­ing. That’s a name I made up: It in­volves get­ting out of the raft and rid­ing the rapids on our backs, feet for­ward, with a prom­ise that we’d be helped out of the wa­ter when the rapids pooled.

In short, in your rush to Banff and the sites that draw tourists from around the world, don’t pass by Kananaskis Coun­try too quickly.

Into the Canyon

Since it sits in the midst of a na­tional park, I was ex­pect­ing the town of Banff to be some­what rus­tic. Sur­prise. In­stead I find a busy cen­ter of chic stores and restau­rants, and low-rise lodg­ings and mu­se­ums. The Whyte Mu­seum houses a huge col­lec­tion of art and ar­ti­facts re­lat­ing to the Cana­dian Rock­ies. There’s also a na­tional park mu­seum, re­stored in 1985 for the park’s 100th an­niver­sary, a mu­seum of nat­u­ral his­tory and a mu­seum of Plains In­di­ans.

I’m some­thing of a na­ture purist, but I en­joyed spend­ing a day strolling around this clean, moun­tain town, de­vel­oped with the tourist in mind but with­out be­ing tacky.

That evening, I drive out­side town to visit the hot springs. The place has a fas­ci­nat­ing his­tory, but I’m some­what dis­ap­pointed that the steam­ing wa­ter is held in a large but or­di­nary swim­ming pool, and the view is blocked on two sides by a bath­house that is akin to a YMCA. If I were in charge of de­vel­op­ing an­other at­trac­tion in the Cana­dian Rock­ies, I’d move the bath­house out of sight and build a nat­u­ral, Ja­panese-style out­door bath.

Next morn­ing, as I drive north along the Bow Val­ley Park­way in a rush to reach famed Lake Louise (about 30 miles from down­town Banff), I al­most de­cide to pass by John­ston Canyon. I’m glad I didn’t.

True purists may ob­ject to the paved paths that make the hik­ing seem a bit tame, but the wa­ter­falls and “ink pots” — min­eral springs that are a bril­liant aqua color — make up for the pave­ment.

Wa­ter has been erod­ing the canyon for 8,000 years. A plaque notes that “when the pyra­mids were be­ing built, the canyon was only half as deep as to­day.” The wa­ter­falls are small but beau­ti­ful. Most peo- ple stop af­ter the first fall, about half a mile from the park­ing lot. But you find so­lace if you go an­other mile to a sec­ond wa­ter­fall, then on to the ink pots.

My only re­gret is that I ar­rive at John­ston Canyon early in the day, so I am not able to have lunch at a charm­ing lit­tle restau­rant whose deck re­minds me of a rural Ger­man beer gar­den. But I’m mol­li­fied with a pic­nic later along the shores of Lake Louise. The fa­mous lake is smaller than I’d imag­ined — just 11⁄ miles long and 1,600 feet wide.

2 But what it lacks in size it makes up for in sheer beauty.

At one end is the tow­er­ing face of the 11,350-foot-tall Mount Vic­to­ria, which strad­dles the Con­ti­nen­tal Di­vide. The el­e­gant Fair­mont Chateau Lake Louise sits at the other end, its man­i­cured gar­dens a draw for both tourists and moose. The other two sides of the lake are lined with trees and hik­ing trails, one of which leads to a tea­house.

The first white man to see this lake: Thomas Wil­son, a horse packer for the Cana­dian Pa­cific Rail­way. In 1882 he heard the roar of an avalanche in the dis­tance. A Stoney In­dian told Wil­son the sound came from “the snow moun­tain above the lake of lit­tle fishes,” and led him there. Later, rail­road men built the tow­er­ing ho­tel that is a cross be­tween a French chateau and a Scot­tish cas­tle.

Even if you can’t af­ford to stay the night, splurge on a meal or tea in one of the restau­rants that over­look the lake, and check out the shops. At a gems store, which is more like a mu­seum, I covet an amaz­ing art­work of na­ture: a slab of rock with in­den­ta­tions from a fos­silized palm tree and sev­eral fish, ar­ranged as if by the hand of a ge­nius artist. See­ing as how it’s a pre­his­toric, one-of-akind piece, I’m sur­prised that it only costs $25,000 U.S. A bar­gain! Still, I settle for some­thing more in my price range: a $12 turquoise ring.

I also splurge on a $30-an­hour ca­noe rental. (All prices quoted here are in U.S. dol­lars.) Learn­ing that the lake is up to 295 feet deep and never gets warmer than 39 de­grees, I’m glad it’s rather small. With the ho­tel at your back you can imag­ine your­self a Cana­dian trap­per pad­dling this gor­geous, un­spoiled stretch of wa­ter to parts un­known. At the same time you know you’re within scream­ing dis­tance of hu­man­ity should you cap­size.

I fur­ther en­joy the beauty of the lake on the out­door pa­tio of one of the ho­tel’s two cheap­est restau­rants, the Glacier Sa­loon. Given the views, it’s a bar­gain, even though the food is or­di­nary, with en­trees rang­ing from about $12 to $24.

There are still a cou­ple hours of day­light left, and I won­der if I should drive about 16 miles farther, to Moraine Lake. I’m spend­ing the night here at Lake Louise, which is by far the most vis­ited and most fa­mous lake in the Cana­dian Rock­ies, so why not re­lax here?

But I head off any­way, and on ar-

ri­val thank my­self for be­ing du­ti­ful. The deep blue wa­ters of Moraine Lake are shel­tered by moun­tains, and the lake is ac­cen­tu­ated by an is­land cov­ered with tall, green trees. I am the only per­son sit­ting along the shore await­ing a sun­set that makes the land and wa­ter glow.

Big­ger Than a Glacier

Na­ture calls at dawn on my last day in the Rock­ies, and in my groggy exit from bed I hap­pen to look out the win­dow. Sud­denly I’m wide awake, mes­mer­ized by the sight. The ris­ing sun has set the sky ablaze in shades of red, orange and gold. Both sky and snow­capped moun­tain re­flect off the emer­ald lake, mak­ing it hard to dis­cern where land be­gins and sky ends.

I watch un­til the sun has com­pleted its rise to the hori­zon, then in­ad­ver­tently fall back to sleep un­til noon.

It’s a 114-mile trip from Lake Louise to Cal­gary, where I need to be tonight for an early-morn­ing flight the next day. The big ques­tion: Should I add a visit to the Columbia Ice­field, 80 miles away and in the op­po­site di­rec­tion from Cal­gary?

I re­ally don’t even know what an ice field is, but I head there any­way, mak­ing stops along the way. One of those stops — Num-Ti-Jah Lodge — turns out to be in­spired.

The log lodge along the Caribbean-col­ored Bow Lake was built by Jimmy Simp­son, who left Eng­land in 1896 as a teen and set out for the Cana­dian Rock­ies. He be­came a fa­mous guide, and in the early 1900s be­gan build­ing the lodge, us­ing some logs that were 75 feet long.

An In­dian tribe nick­named Simp­son “Wolver­ine Go Quick.” I men­tion that merely as an ex­am­ple of the kind of his­tory and ro­mance you can still feel when en­ter­ing the lodge, which has three mas­sive stone fire­places, a restau­rant with fine food, a tea room, a bil­liards room and large but sim­ple rooms with no TVs or phones.

Af­ter a lunch of herb-crusted salmon, I walk around the lake and chat with a park ser­vice worker who hands me a sticker read­ing, “Save a Bear/Drive with Care/ Don’t Stop to Stare.” He tells me an ice field is more or less a glacier, only big­ger, and rec­om­mends that I hire a guide to hike it, rather than rid­ing a bus-like con­trap­tion.

Turns out that un­less you’re lucky, you have to re­serve a guide in ad­vance, so in­stead I board a ve­hi­cle that would be a lit­tle boy’s dream: a big lum­ber­ing thing de­vel­oped for arc­tic ex­plo­ration. Af­ter about 15 min­utes, it drops me at an area bounded by orange cones and tape, lest vis­i­tors wan­der off and fall into a deep crevasse.

I’ve al­ways wanted to walk on a glacier, but in a way it’s dis­ap­point­ing. Glaciers and ice fields are amaz­ing things. For ex­am­ple, I learn that it takes 80 feet of com­pacted snow to cre­ate one foot of glacial ice. But stand­ing atop a glacier or ice field doesn’t re­ally seem any dif­fer­ent than stand­ing on a foot of snow, un­less you use your imag­i­na­tion and get ex­cited that the ice is hun­dreds of feet deep and miles long and al­ways mov­ing, im­per­cep­ti­bly.

Then again, I’m able to fill my wa­ter bot­tle with pure glacial melt and glimpse some awe­some crevasses.

The ice field lies within both Banff and Jasper na­tional parks, and for a mo­ment I’m tempted to ven­ture a bit farther into Jasper than I’ve al­ready come. But I al­ready have more than 200 miles to go be­fore I sleep. I’m con­fi­dent I can go to bed feel­ing that while I might have missed some­thing, I’ve sam­pled at least some of the best.

TRAVEL AL­BERTA

Re­flect on this: Bow Lake in Banff Na­tional Park is sur­rounded by mil­lions of acres of wilder­ness ar­eas, for­est re­serves and pro­vin­cial parks.

BY GENE THORP — THE WASH­ING­TON POST

De­tail

TRAVEL AL­BERTA

The deep blue wa­ters of Moraine Lake, left. Down­town Banff, right, is a busy cen­ter of shops, restau­rants and mu­se­ums.

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