Tuesday, July 26, 2011

Canadian Rockies Part 5 - Plain of Six Glaciers Teahouse

In the lobby of the Chateau Lake Louise was the only place we could find a restroom, and what a fine one it was! On the walls hung black and white photos of the early days at the hotel. The original chateau was conceived by the Canadian Pacific Railway and built at the end of the 19th century. It was part of the chain from the Banff Springs Hotel and the Chateau Frontenac.The Painter Wing, built in 1913, is the oldest portion of the hotel still standing. It is a magnificent building. Refreshed, we walked around the turquoise lake and caught a glimpse of the huge hotel framed in the lake and the Rockies.
Also a glimpse of Rebecca's butt as she scooted up the trail ahead of me. Looking up the trail, the Plain of Six Glaciers emerged in the distance. Glacial "milk" or silt, from the grinding action of the glaciers above turns the lake into a milky turquoise color. It had been a late spring, and snow still covered the high country just a thousand feet above. But, we were wearing our running shoes and being Alaskans, didn't have much to worry about.
The stream coming down the valley didn't look too intimidating. In Alaska it would have been a raging torrent. The mountains and trail system, including bridges, looked so civilized to us. But then, since the late 1800's, princes and kings had visited this spot, walked these trails, and stayed at the Chateau.
UP, UP, UP!!!
The crags caught my attention at every turn. I was mesmerized by the constant beauty of the limestone peaks and cliffs, snowy couloirs, and green forests along the trail. We thought this should be an easy hike, since so many people were on the trail. We must have confused kilometers with miles, because it seemed endless. But I didn't care. I was in my world.
Huge coniferous rain forests reached up on both sides of the trail. Moss grew on every tree; the ground was a green sponge coating, and every flower seemed to be in bloom.
Looking up at the end of the lake, we saw my friends, the rock climbers. Even though it was a misty rainy day, the climbers were on the rocks, and I stopped to watch their progress.
As we rose above treeline, snow blocked the trail. It took a bit of care to cross some of the steeper patches, since a slip would have had severe consequences: a slide down a steep slope ending in a rock pile.
While at our feet, the green plants and flowers were everywhere, poking their little blossoms up at us. I photographed every species. However you can thank me for being selective in what I've posted here.
Looking up, waterfalls spilled down the cliff sides and caught my eye. This one seemed to have worn a grove down the striated limestone. If it hadn't been such a cold, dank day, it would have been tempting to take a shower.
As we reached the Plain of Six Glaciers, the peaks ringed the amphitheater. A glacier oozed out of the gap to the south, and a permanent glacial ice cap hung above the peaks to the south and west. We were walking on an enormous lateral glacial moraine, seen in this photo below.

At my feet, tiny flowers from the pea or vetch family caught my eye growing from the most rocks. At the other side, a vertical cliff dropped precipitously. Parks Canada had affixed a steel cable to the rocks to make sure folks didn't slip off the trail. Water rushed under foot, making the slick flat limestone very slippery.
I heard a huge rumble and looked across the valley to see a serac of ice crack off, pulverize and pour in an icefall down the cliff face. It lasted over a minute, time enough for me to snap a shot.
Finally, as the rains really started to unleash their fury on us, we spotted the Plain of Six Glaciers Teahouse, a beautiful log home sequestered in the forest and overlooking the glaciers and moraines below.
They served soup and bread...maybe even a sandwich. And tea! It was cold, rainy, and dark, but the staff was wonderful. We didn't have cash, but they said, "No problem, just pay the bell captain at the hotel. He will give us the cash later". That doesn't happen everywhere.
We ordered the soup and bread. Perfect for the weather. I heard a young man trying to start a chainsaw below. I wanted to go help and show him how to make it work, but Rebecca held me back. Fortunately the chainsaw never started.We descended into the rain, but then it began to let up; blue sky appeared among the darker clouds, and Lake Louise appeared below.
I couldn't help taking another picture of a flower. I must have a thousand of them, just from this summer alone.
I hated to walk down. It had been a fantastic week in the high mountains, with a hike to a different location every day. It seems we had just touched the surface of the thousand peaks and valleys in this one area. And there was so much more: Jasper National Park, Kananaskis Park, Yoho Park, Glacier Park... A world of my dreams.
Meanwhile at the lake, a horseback party of dudes crossed our path, a reminder that this is a tourist Mecca, par excellence!
The crowning glory of the day was this little pika, peeking out from under a boulder at the shore of the lake. Pikas are a member of the rabbit family, about the size of a large mouse. They spend the summer storing all kinds of grasses and sedges in their houses for the long winter hibernation. You want to reach out and pet one, but usually they are elusive. This was as close as you might get.
Back at the hotel, we strolled through, waddled back up to the parking lot to the car and rolled down the road to Canmore. Time for that final beer!

Monday, July 25, 2011

Canadian Rockies Part 4 - Eiffel Lake

Rebecca and I ticked off the best of the best hikes. Next on the list was Isis Lake, at the other side of Temple Mountain. As we drove up Highway 1 from Canmore, the sky turned horribly dark and the rain began to fall. We slowed down at a pit stop to mull over our options. Every day was precious, and this was one of the best hikes...maybe number 5 on our list. Back in Canmore the skies were blue. Here several hundred meters higher, we were in the thick of the weather. We owned fine parkas, had umbrellas and Alaska spirits so we continued on.

We drove up through the rain, past Lake Louise, turned onto the Morraine Lake road and headed uphill. A vintage green Mercedes coup drove up the 14 kilometers to Morraine lake ahead of us. I remarked at what a beautiful old car it was and how much I'd enjoy owning one. , By the time we arrived, the weather turned beautiful. The Canadian parks trail system is first class. Here is the sign for our trail up into the mountains above Morraine Lake to Eiffel Lake.

At the lake shore, crowds of tourist were disgorged from dieseling busses, that continued to belch fumes into the valley as the crowds wandered quickly to the lake edge, take a photo and hop back onto the bus. Behind the lake, the many peaks wound in a circle around the lake and up back around to Lake Louise to the west. Sentinel Pass rose to the right; a beautiful lodge was built on the lake and provided food and lodging for the guests.

There, sitting by the lake shore was the owner of the vintage Mercedes, a vintage Danish/Canadian. A fine gentleman who enjoyed our company and our appreciation for he treasure of a vehicle. We spoke for a while; I could have spent the rest of the day with him.
The trail gets right with the program. Seven cruel switchbacks brought finer and finer views as we ascended. We passed a lovely young family from Chicago. They were of Indian origin, but as American as we were. The girls, ages 10-13 were a delight and told us of their 15 mile hike the previous day.
At the trail junction we veered left; last time we'd gone straight up to Sentinel Pass. This time we were headed to Eiffel Lake, supposedly one of the most beautiful places in the Rockies. Soon we were on snow. The spring in the Rockies was late again this year. We should have learned from our adventures two years ago to bring boots instead of running shoes. Looking SE across the valley, every peak looked massive and forbidding.

We could see Morraine Lake far below; snow covered the peaks ahead and across from us.
The earliest spring plants were just beginning to flower.
Every step brought huge new peaks and cliffs into view.
We heard an avalanche across the valley, and I looked across just in time to snap a photo of the powder falling down the limestone cliffs.
The huge pines of the lower valley gave way to a larch forest, then to alpine tundra.
Looking ahead at Isis Lake, we could see that it was still frozen over. Huge snowfields barred the way, but undeterred we plowed on...in our running shoes. It was a little harum scarum over some of the steeper slopes, but we went methodically across.
The air cooled and we donned parkas; the sky threatened; the sun disappeared. We traded sweat for frost.
At the lake, the heavens opened. We sat under our umbrellas and ate the sandwich, apples, and granola bars. After a few minutes, the fun ended, and we packed up the remains and started the downward trek in the rain.
Not too far down the trail, I saw a hoary marmot...then three little one playing and fighting over some root and food in the ground. They looked and played like all kids! We must have spent fifteen minutes right next to them, taking photos and watching their antics. Momma seemed to be disinterested, but stayed within 10 feet or so.
My gazillion dollar Mammut parka was perfect. I stayed warm, dry and happy all day, taking photos, gabbing, boring Rebecca to tears with stories, and saving a bucket of memories for the next trip. Time for a beer!

Canadian Rockies Part 3 - Lake Annette

Mount Temple is the highpoint in the range, 11,624'. The hike into Lake Annette at the base of the North Face of the peak is one of the most beautiful in the Rocky Mountains. Lake Louise is next door; Moraine Lake on the south side; and fine hiking trails over Sentinal Pass connect them. We had done Sentinal Pass the previous trip, so today we could knit the whole mountain together. The only negative for the day was that a forest fire in northern Alberta filled the Bow valley with smoke. This first photo of the north face is hazy and gray--just like it looked to us; there is nothing wrong with my camera.
On the side of the trail, the flowers were flourishing in the late wet spring. Pink, soft as a down feather, these blossoms caught my eye as we entered the meadow near the creek.

We hiked along a fairly level trail; when it started to rise gently I never noticed, however Rebecca did. After a while it dipped down for a mile, but I thought it was level the whole way.

Mount Temple rose up out of the forest in front of us. North faces have intrigued me since I was young: the Eiger Norwand, North Face of the Dru, North Face of the Grand Jorasses, North Face of the Grand Teton. Here in front of me is the massive North Face of Mount Temple. I looked for climbing routes, lines of access, but the whole face looked forbidding.
The bridges over the river were beautifully made. We stopped for a bite between peaks; both of us took out our cameras an dueled to snap photos of the other. Her I caught Rebecca with a smile!
After the third bridge, we started up the last mile of trail, a steeper rise through a moist forest and a switchback trail to Lake Annette. The last few yards wound through steep snow, then there it was. It was an explosive view, even with the smoke. A couple of Goldeneyes swam and dived in the lake. I took a dozen photos, trying to get the upper mountain in focus, but he best shots were of Rebecca.
Her shoes were pinching her toes. Wish I could have bought another pair right there for her, but we wrapped a bit of tape around one toe, and she was much relieved. New shoes were in her future.
We took a joint photo in front of the face, bid good bye to Mount Temple and headed back to the car. It was such a beautiful day that I hardly realized the time that passed.
Suddenly in front of us, a porcupine waddled across the trail. It was more scared of us, but splayed out the quills on its tail as we passed. Five minutes later, another crossed the trail. I followed it up into the thick of the forest where it crawled under a rotten log, so I turned on the flash and got a photo of the little guy.
Not ten minutes later, a third porcupine crossed the trail, flared its tail, then headed up a tree. It was the night of the porcupines!

I thought the route down would have been a constant grade to the car. I had forgotten the mile uphill grade; Rebecca remembered. Every rise I thought was the last one. How wrong I was. We talked and had a fine walk back to the car after one of the most beautiful hikes into the Rocky Mountains. Time for a beer!

Sunday, July 24, 2011

Canadian Rockies Part 2 - Grassi Lakes

Grassi Lakes, named after an early citizen in the area, are nestled in the narrow valley just above the town of Canmore. The trail up to the lakes starts from the south edge of town next to the Nordic Center, so hundreds of people every day hike the two or so miles up to the lakes. After a steep 8 miles on Friday, we opted for a shorter walk on Saturday, so although we expected crowds, we were happy for the close but beautiful trail. We passed and were passed by a lot of folks: families, hikers, Olympic athletes, tourists from Japan, locals on a Sunday walk. The first lake was stunning. It looked like one of the Yellowstone hot springs; its stunning colors were so inviting, but I didn't see anyone swimming, no garbage, no disturbance.

Moving up from the lakes we could see the peaks above us to the east and west, giant limestone crags. It would be great to climb there someday.

The water in the tiny creek looked great for drinking, but we had brought our own. It comes out of a large reservoir above, and to the SW, huge shining steel penstocks drop down the cliff face right into town. Electrical lines follow. Although this is virtual wilderness, it exists butting up against a large town with all the modern conveniences.

The lakes were stunning. I took too many photographs, but likely not nearly as many as the Japanese tourists, armed with the latest assortment of fine camera equipment, constantly snapping photos of everything.

Rock climbers have their way on the limestone cliffs on both sides of the canyon. I was intrigued and watched for a long time. Rebecca asked if I wanted to climb and why I didn't bring my shoes and chalk bag. This was a hiking trip, and I had climbed these cliffs a few years earlier with Jim Donini and Charlotte Fox when the American Alpine Club held it's annual meeting in Banff in conjunction with the Canadian Alpine Club.

We walked on up to the top where a powerful wind was blowing the dust and dirt horizontally into our eyes. Nothing to see there, just a dam, parking lot, and tough going, so we turned around and headed down.

There was an 'Easy Trail' and a 'Hard Trail'. We had come up the 'Easy Trail', so we opted to descend the 'Hard Trail', which was not hard, just hundreds of steps down a cliff side. It was worth the steps, because the views were excellent: huge waterfalls, steep mountains, vertical cliffs below our feet, and more tourists.

It was soon over; a shorter day, but this gave us time to go shopping in Canmore. Two years ago I'd spent a zillion dollars on a Mammut parka. Today I spent half a zillion on a Mammut hoody from the same store. Time for a beer!