It all started when I first visited Banff to participate in an IEEE workshop. Having seen the dull and drab hills of California, and the rocky slopes of the Sierras, I wasn’t prepared for the colors that saturated my retinas. The black-forest-cake style layered mountains, the truly emerald lakes, and the exceedingly dense coniferous forests. The visit was short, and leaned towards computer networking rather than outdoor photography. The highlight of the trip was a guided tour to Lake Louise, and dinner on the top floor of the Fairmont Chateau Lake Louise. Thats it. Nothing else was explored or even remotely poked at. Nothing. Even so, I just couldn’t shake off the images of those lush green mountainsides off my mind.
After years of dilly-dallying, and fully aware that our travelling will be reduced drastically once our soon-expectant daughter is part of the family, we decided to to embark on that one final big trip before types of diapers took precedence over types of film.
Bow River along the Bow Valley Parkway, Banff National Park, Canada The plan was to fly into Calgary and drive down to Canmore, where we would spend the night in the Priceline-booked hotel. Over the next 2 days, we would explore parts of Banff and Yoho National Parks. On the third, we planned to drive all the way down to Jasper via the Icefields Parkway, stopping and exploring as little as time would allow. The fourth day would be spent exploring Jasper, and driving back to Banff. A little touristy shopping was reserved for the final and fifth day, when we would fly out.
As with pretty much all our recent trips, the weather was completely uncooperative, and it rained incessantly throughout the 5 day period, with the skies clearing out for just a couple of hours on the third day. Of course, it was forecast that it would be glorious and sunny starting the day that we fly out of Calgary.
With just 5 days of cumulative stay across Jasper and Banff, it was pretty much a been there done that (BTDT) trip for us. Believe me, if you would like to even get out of your car and view the roadside attractions across just the Icefields Parkway, you need a good week. If you would like to take the 1 mile or smaller trails to points of interest, you need at least 2 weeks. Needless to say, our goal was to pack in the Yosemite Valley kind of tour, and ignore even the trivial Tioga Pass kind of extensions.
So of course we started with the most visible landmark of the Parks – Lake Louise. The drive from Canmore to Banff is around 10-15 minutes, depending upon traffic, and Banff to Lake Louise is another 20-25 minutes. By the time we reached the Lake, everyone and their extended family was queuing up for a canoe ride, and the lake was dotted with red canoes and rippling waves. Coupled with the overcast sky, this was the worst possible situation for a good reflection shot. So we decided to take our BTDT picture of the day, and move on.
Our next stop was Lake Moraine. By the time we started driving through the breathtaking Valley of the Ten Peaks, it started pouring. We drove up to the parking lot and munched on our pre-packed lunch while observing people running through the slush to their cars to avoid getting drenched. We were prepared (ah the joys of Internet weather forecasts), and boldly headed out slinging our cameras and umbrellas. Moraine Lake, Banff National Park, Canada
Let me just get this comment out right up front. From now on in this article, you will not find me ooh-aah’ing the deep emerald colors of the lakes and rivers, or the lushness of the coniferous forests. There’s no point, as those of you who have seen the place are enlightened, and those who haven’t been to the Canadian Rockies will never have a clue of what you are missing out on. Suffice it to say, that the colors will simply knock you off your feet, and digital reproductions (like the ones on this page) will never do justice to the actual stimuli hitting your eyes.
At Moraine, we took some hurried travel shots of the Lake in the pouring rain, and then headed inside for souvenir shopping. After about 10 minutes of hard hitting downpour, the rain reduced to a drizzle. It was time to capture the beauty of still water, as there were no canoes (yet) ploughing through the calm. A few quick images, and then a quick rush up the pile of rock next to the parking lot, from where you could get a bigger and more expansive view of the lake. No reflections, as the sky was a drab gray, but it was eating me up inside to hypothesize what it would be like on a sunny evening.
Soaked but satisfied, we headed out of the Valley of the Ten Peaks, and decided to make a small detour to the Yoho National Park, on the Alberta – British Columbia border. I had heard good things about Emerald Lake, and my row-mate on the flight into Calgary had heavily recommended the Kicking Horse falls, where “the river has actually cut through the rock, and flows through it”. Sounded very interesting, so we headed out on the Trans-Canada highway towards Yoho.
Kicking Horse was admirable, but Emerald Lake proved to be scenic and idyllic. Maybe because it had rained most of the day, or maybe because of the failing light, the lake and the trails around it were deserted, and the entire detour seemed well worth the trip. Since the sun was peeking through the clouds, we wanted to stop by Lake Louise on our way back to Canmore just in case we got lucky with a spectacular sunset. No such luck, though I did get to capture the placid beauty of a lake without any canoes cutting through it. Emerald Lake Lodge, Yoho National Park, Canada
Day Two showed promise with spectacular blue skies and a certain crispness in the air. As soon as we saw the sunlight streaming through our windows, we were in top gear. Given that we were expecting cloudy skies, this was too exciting to digest. The previous plan was to explore the local lakes and canyons near Banff, but with the change in weather, we decided to drive all the way to the Athabasca Glacier at the border of Banff and Jasper. If our bookings would have been flexible, I would have driven all the way to Jasper. But sadly, we were stuck with a Bed and Breakfast in Banff.
After the first couple of miles, the Icefields Parkway turned out to be a stop-and-go freeway, where you would disembark every few miles, ooh and aah for a while, compose and shoot furiously for the next few minutes, and then drive on. Highlights included Waterfowl Lake, Bow Lake, and Peyto Lake, made famous to Indians (Desis) via the E.T. rip-off Koi Mil Gaya.
It was during this Icefield Parkway trip that I realized the mightiness of the organized tour. Almost fifty percent of the traffic flowing on the Icefields Parkway between the town of Banff and Peyto Lake were buses. Buses mostly filled with Asian tourists. Their sheer number was staggering. And a good chunk of these buses carried tourists from the US; I know, since a good friend of mine took this package just 2 weeks before I landed up.
Nowhere was this more evident than at Peyto Lake. When we reached the viewing deck (which, by the way, is easier to access via guided tour buses, but requires a short walk for personal cars), it was relatively empty, and as expected, the vista completely floored us. Within five minutes, a total of 6 buses arrived at the scene, completely flooding the deck to the point of suffocation. People were holding their cameras up in the air, and jostling for the prime guardrail real estate to take their BTDT shots.
Its amazing how little effort people expend in taking their pictures. Most individuals stand on the wooden platform, and take a straight out snapshot of the Lake. This is fine and dandy, but you get this ugly piece of brown real estate on the bottom left of your picture. A small wedge in the handrails, or, if you are tall enough, a quick jump over the handrails takes you to a large overlook without boundaries, from where your images are much less restricted.
It was near Peyto, that we spotted the dark clouds gathering on the horizon. Through the zoom, I could see the sky looking worse northwards, towards Jasper. We wanted to visit at least one glacier in bright sunlight, not realizing that the most beautiful sight we would ever witness would come in the form of the Angel Glacier appearing through thick fog.
Rushing northwards, we hit the tourist information center for the Athabasca Glacier at 4:00pm. Bus trips to the Glacier are organized by a private outfit and you can pay an arm and a leg for the ride, or waste the other arm and leg to walk up the slippery slope. Since Rachna was pregnant, we decided against either. For some reason, the entire outfit looked more like Las Vegas than a true National Park geological formation.. but being from close to the Valley, Yosemite Valley that is, who am I to complain about commercialism?
After watching the painfully unimpressive videos and using their facilities, it was time to head back to Banff. The road towards Jasper looked much more intriguing, and I cursed myself for not having booked a room in Jasper for that night. But, decisions had been made, and we sped back towards a darkening sky and ominous clouds to Banff. Once we were near the town, we still had a few moments of rain-filled fading light. We took a small and quick detour to the Vermilion Lakes. Bad light coupled with a nagging drizzle meant that nobody was around, and we decided to head back to our B&B also. It was going to be gloomy for the rest of the trip towards Jasper and back.
Jasper was doomed to be dull and gloomy even before we had begun the trip. But as with any weather pattern, there are some formations that simply look stunning when the light is just right. What did dampen our spirits though, was the nagging rain. It rained non-stop for the next 2 days, throughout our drive to Jasper and back, stopping only periodically, as if testing my will to get out and photograph.
Starting out from Banff, there was no hope. By the time we reached Bow lake, it was impossible to get out of the car – in stark contrast to the azure canvas just a day earlier. Renewed enthusiasm came in the form of a father and two daughters getting out of the car at Bow Lake, and capturing memories even in the slicing rain. Since I was prepared with shower caps for my cameras, I got out and had fun.
The drive till Athabasca glacier was very uneventful, since we didn’t stop at too many points along the way, having covered most of it the day earlier. It was after the Columbia Icefields that the landscape started getting very interesting.
The first stretch of the Icefields Parkway, from the Columbia Icefields to Sunwapta along the Sunwapta River, is incredibly barren and brought National Geographic images of Tibet and the high Himalayas to mind. There is a small gift shop, cabins and a restaurant at Sunwapta. Relieve yourself here, as there is nothing else for miles after Sunwapta, having found out the hard way ourselves. The bridge over the Sunwapta Crossing provides a spectacular view of the river crisscrossing the landscape.
From Sunwapta all the way till Athabasca Falls is the most lush green, untouched expanse of coniferous forest that I had ever come across. Jasper National Park, in this section of the Icefields Parkway, is the epitome of serenity. Along with the foggy weather, the entire experience was surrealistic. Not surprisingly, there were very few cars on this stretch of pavement, and absolutely no tourist buses. In places like Poboktan Creek, we were pretty much the only folks walking around and taking pictures.
The short Sunwapta Falls trail takes you on a bridge over the roaring, really roaring, Sunwapta River cutting through walls of rock and foliage. Very impressive, but the bridge was a bit too high and shaky for my tastes, and I was out on solid ground in a jiffy.
Athabasca Falls was much more accessible, and marked the southernmost tip of Jasper from where we started seeing the tourist buses again. Needless to say, the trails around Athabasca Falls were as populated and chaotic as the Peyto Lake viewing deck. From Athabasca Falls to Jasper was a race against the failing light and the creeping cold. There was no time, and no energy, for detours to Edith Cavell or Maligne Lake canyon. We were starving, and the only goal was to hit the town as soon as possible.
Jasper is a surprisingly small town, spread mainly across 2 parallel streets. Our hotel, the Amethyst Lodge, was overflowing with guests by the time we arrived. We had to find parking in the neighboring streets. It was freezing When we entered our room. A full twist of the heating dial did nothing, so we called the lobby. Their response: “Its the middle of summer, we don’t turn on the heating facilities in the middle of summer.” Decisions were based on the day of the year, and not on temperature.
They sent us a broken portable heater after much haggling. We decided to go out for dinner and deal with the staff with a satisfied stomach. By the time we returned, enough people had complained and the in-room heater was working just fine. There aren’t many dining options in Jasper, and we tried our luck with . After some subsequent shopping, we decided to call it a day. It was too dull and depressing to do anything else. Plus, we had been running on the highest gear for the past 3 days.
The next morning wasn’t any different – dull and depressing was the forecast for the day. I had read about spectacular reflections in Pyramid and Patricia Lakes, so we headed west for an hour’s detour to these lakes, hoping that the sun would peek through and lift the blanketing fog. No such luck. So we decided to drop the immediate Jasper area, and try our luck at Mount Edith Cavell. Maybe, just maybe, we may clear the low fog and see sunlight at the base of this 3300 meter (11,000 feet) mountain.
Back at the Icefields Parkway, we took the fork towards 93A which leads to Cavell Road. The liquid feel of the Icefields Parkway disappeared quickly, and we were climbing a 10 mile, winding, and very uneven Cavell Road towards Mount Edith Cavell. At one point, the potholes became so large, that driving became impossible, especially given Rachna’s state. We hailed a returning driver and asked him what the conditions were near the mountain. “The mountain is completely fogged up, but you can view the emerald lake a few miles ahead”. Depressed, we decided to take a peek at Cavell Lake and then head back.
By the time we reached the lake, the road had become much better, and we were flying at a comfortable 30 mph. A quick change of plans, and we headed out to the Edith Cavell parking lot at the end of the 10 mile stretch.
A 1 mile trail leads the visitor to the base of the mountain, where the Angel Glacier slowly drains itself into a freezing pool of turquoise water and floating mini icebergs. One look at the steep trail, and Rachna was out of the equation. This doesn’t usually happen, but I was given permission to take the trail solo, while Rachna waited in the car.
The trail climbs slowly to a small hill, from where you can take a longer detour to Cavell Meadows, and possibly, a better view of the Angel Glacier. But the view I got from the top of this hill was unlike anything I had ever seen. Once at the bottom of the trail, it was just impossible to return without touching one of the smaller mini icebergs near the shore.
It was at that instant that I heard a loud thunder which echoed across from the mountain face. Initially I thought that the darkening clouds were gearing up to pour sleet. But there were a couple of mini rumblings, which indicated that a huge slab of compacted glacial ice had broken off the base of the mountain and had fallen off into the turquoise lake. The waters of the lake receded by about 15 feet, and within a minute, the water starting gushing up the shore towards us as the newly formed mini iceberg displaced its volume in water. Ghost Glacier, base of Mount Edith Cavell, Jasper National Park, Canada
All this excitement, and I hadn’t even seen the Glacier yet, as it was hidden inside a thick cover of fog. But this was enough to warrant a second slow trek along with Rachna, especially since I had spotted a slower, yet easier, trail skirting the mini hill, which would be prefect for her. So I hurried back, and enticed her by showing off the digital images that I had taken. Over the next 30 minutes, we slowly trudged along the longer trail and finally reached the shore.
This time, the view was even more impressive, as the fog had started to lift, and we could clearly make out the shape of a white angel-like glacial formation suspended over the mountain, as if descending from the heavens. If there is one sight that both of us will remember till eternity, it is the sight of the Angel Glacier appearing from behind the fog on Mount Edith Cavell.
We wished we could just sit at the shore of the lake forever, but we had to drive all the way back to Canmore, covering the entire stretch of the Icefields Parkway. So we reluctantly trudged back to the car, and drove non-stop till we reached Lake Louise. Quick dinner, and then more driving all the way to Canmore. The next day, it was time to wrap up, and visit the town of Banff for a little last minute souvenir shopping, and then out to Calgary for the flight back to the humdrum of San Jose.