Wednesday, July 8, 2009



"When you look at these mountains it makes our problems seem so small".
A passing traveler on the trail

The Canadian Rockies: Mount Temple, Chephren, Mount Edith Cavell, North Twin, Assiniboine...these are names that make my heart sing. Ever since I was a young boy my heart has been in the mountains. And the Canadian Rockies are the epitome of mountains. For years I've driven the Alcan highway from the West to Alaska, 4000 miles each way, a week's worth of driving. And every time, I detour at Calgary, head west to Canmore, Banff, and Jasper to drive through the national parks of Canada, and gaze up at the giants.

My friend Rebecca booked a week at a time-share condominium in Canmore, Alberta, Canada, and invited me along, knowing that I'd love to hike those mountains. She is a wonderful friend, full of life, a bundle of energy, and a fine companion.

But where to go first? When we got to Canmore we were pretty worn out from the flight and hungry. Crusing the main street in town, we picked “The Grizzly Paw” where the sign said, “Voted one of the 100 best pubs in the world”. How could we go wrong? After beer and burgers, I asked Jen, our waitress, what was her favorite hike. “Oh, you have to go to Lake Louise! I know there are like a zillion tourists there, but it’s so beautiful. And hike up to the teahouse at Agnes Lake!”

Rebecca and waitress at the Grizzly Paw

Hmmm? The name Agnes didn’t turn me on that much. I had a great Aunt Agnes. But, then I remembered that the mountains in the Lake Louise area are mostly named after British royalty.

Industrial tourism has changed the world; it has certainly changed Banff, the historic gem of the Canadian Rockies, where busloads of packaged tourists cruise the streets, shopping for Armani, Bulgari, and Ferragamo Salvatore in stores where the signs are in Japanese. But these cellophane-wrapped tourists are confined to the haunts of Banff and to Lake Louise. They are not to be seen beyond the imaginary boundaries of the Lake Louise Hotel grounds where they scuttle in Bali shoes over to the edge of the turquoise lake, Sony digital video camera in hand, Louis Vuitton purse dangling from the cashmere draped arm. I tell Rebecca, ‘You know there is a big magnetic gate just ahead. When one of these tourists passes through, a little trap door opens in the back of the head and the brains fall out.’ Rebecca laughs a big hearty mid-Western farm girl laugh. I smile, and we stroll along.

We waded through the slithering masses on the piazza, past the fences and walls of the compound, and headed up the well-traveled and highly-maintained trail towards the teahouse. ‘Agnes Lake Teahouse’, I mumble. ‘That has no soul, no ring, like a quartz watch…no ticking. What about Teahouse of the August Moon, but that’s already in use. How about Teahouse of the All-full Spoon, or Teahouse of the Absent Loon, or Teahouse of Awesome Poon?’ The silliness abated as we laid one foot in front of the other up the 2-mile hill through the ancient pine and fir forest.

We came upon a couple, chatted a bit and passed on. I’m a friendly soul, greeting everyone. Folks coming down the trail either looked cheery and answered when I said ‘Hello’, or their eyes were down in the dirt, not looking up to catch my gaze or answer my greeting. The Answerers I think must come from the mountains or the farms, happy to see a stranger. But the Avoiders I liken to Big City dwellers, bombarded daily by the seething mass of humanity, like a bucket of maggots who can’t get away from their kind and have been taught that eye contact with others is dangerous. Or maybe the friendly ones have been here longer, mellowed by the mountains, the clear clean air and the freedom of the place. The downcast are still in the thrall of their former environs.

We meet a group from Wales, enjoying their mid-British accents. I ask from what city, noting that my great ancestors were Welsh, Manx even! Suddenly we’re friends; a little connection made. If the travelers make it past the secret gate, most are so happy to be in the mountains that their personalities bubble out to passers-by.

Rebecca is cheery in spite of the fact that her orthopod has diagnosed her right knee with crunchy crappy crepitations. But she’s tough, and her doctor-son injected the knee with cortisone so she would be able to hike with me. I’m not sure he knew the type of hiking we had in mind. Miles and miles of hiking, several thousand feet of elevation gained and lost each day. She’s tough: born on a dairy farm in Pipestone, Minnesota, up at the crack of dawn to milk the cows. First marriage she raised two sons while running a turkey and hog farm:

75,0000 turkeys. I know she’s a hard worker and a hard body. So, a little hike with Ralph on a bum knee is no problem.

The turquoise lake below

The teahouse looms into view, and Agnes lake is a little jewel set in a high rock basin and spilling directly out of its mouth down a dizzying waterfall. The Canadians don’t seem to have the same concern that children will commit suicide without barriers, so we can scamper over to the rocks and look over the cliff at the foaming swirl below us. Directly above is the Beehive, a striated band of rock reminiscent of the name. Across Lake Louise below is the huge massif of Mount Temple, one of the crown jewels of the Canadian Rockies. And Lake Louise is as Jen described, perhaps the most beautiful place we could imagine…a place not to be missed.

Agnes Lake Teahouse

This first hike of our Banff National Park adventure was a contrast to the wilderness of Alaska that we were used to. But we had gone through a day-long filter from the comforts of a luxurious condominium, up a 4-lane highway, then onto a narrow road, past an iconic hotel filled with thousands of industrial tourists, and up a trail bordering on wilderness, but still with a teahouse, reminiscent of the British empire. But the view from the porch was magnificent, overlooking massive wilderness, snow crusted peaks luring me to their summits, and the promise of solitude and adventure.

1 comment:

Peter Pilafian said...

Ralph - I discovered that teahouse a couple of years ago and it is DELIGHTFUL! Made me think I was back in Nepal, only thing missing was the yaks and the Sherpanis! Thanks for bringing that lovely place back to life with your stellar prose.