Banff Trip Part 6: Surprise in the Valley of the Ten Peaks

17 08 2019

If I had a lump in my throat coming home yesterday, today’s lump was ten times bigger.  It was hard to believe that today was the last hike on our Road Scholar  hiking trip.  As it turned out, though, it was the best.  And that’s hard to imagine, as all of the hikes were spectacular. 

Starting at Moraine Lake, the hike took us up ten switchbacks to Larch Valley, through the Valley of the Ten Peaks, and on up to Sentinel Pass.  By day’s end I would have hiked 8.3 miles and gained 2,365 feet in elevation.  And would have gone again, given half a chance.

moraine lake

Once past the ten switchbacks, which we counted each in a number from a different language, we entered Larch Valley.  Like the bald cypress found in my part of the world, the larch tree is a deciduous conifer, its needles turning a brilliant golden yellow in the fall before dropping.  Although we were too early for fall color, we were able to caress their soft needles on their finger-like branches as we passed through.  On the way up, we passed lots of Colombian ground squirrels (and corresponding bear digs).  At the top, we were entertained by the piercing whistle of the American pika, and a Golden-mantled ground squirrel kept us chuckling as Kelsey photo-bombed it from the switchback below.

But by far, the most interesting animal we saw on the way up was the American two-legged rock-climber.  This intrepid beast was later seen scaling a rocky pinnacle, appropriately named Grand Sentinel, heading down toward Paradise Valley on the other side of Sentinel Pass.

As we continued onward, we found ourselves hiking through alpine meadows surrounded by breathtaking views of the Ten Peaks. 

In front of us lay the Minnestimma Lakes, small ponds tucked in at the base of a steep, scree covered slope that formed a saddle between Mount Temple and Pinnacle Peak.  Surely, we had reached our destination.

But no.  Kelsey, our guide, pointed to a barely visible, thin zigzag trail leading up to the top of the windswept pass.  Our group was to climb that slope, with the promise of lunch at the top.  It’s amazing what folks will do with a confident guide and the lure of food.

We headed up the incline, stomping through snow still on the ground in late July, well past the tree line, up the path so narrow there wasn’t much room to step aside for those coming down.

But the view from the top…oh my…stunning doesn’t begin to describe.  We fed our bodies while feasting our souls on the glorious beauty all around. 

we made it!
lunch at the top of our world

All too soon it was time to head back.  My heart was heavy as we retraced our steps through the alpine meadow and back through Larch Valley, thinking of the end of our hiking adventure and the long day of travel looming ahead. 

Partway down, we stopped to use the “facili-trees,” when something happened that made me re-evaluate my somber mood.  A group of hikers came up the path and started exchanging pleasantries with our group.  My ears perked up when I heard someone mention being from South Carolina, and I stepped forward to ask, “Where exactly in South Carolina?”  The couple was from Aiken. Aiken!  My hometown.  Here, on a trail high up in the Canadian Rockies, were folks from the pine-covered sandhills of my home across the continent.  Although not a hugger by nature, I opened my arms in a bear hug to this stranger-who-was-not-a-stranger.  Turns out that the man, Kurt, worked in the Savannah River Ecology Lab at the Savannah River Site, a facility that rubs elbows with the environmental education program that I work with at SRS.  In the enormity of the Canadian Rockies, with the towering majesty of the peaks all around me, I had discovered how small this world really is.  And somehow, my mood lifted.

fellow Aikenites

Back down at Moraine Lake, I had only a few moments left to take in the sights.  I climbed to the top of the Rockpile for the best view of the lake, closing my eyes as I tried to etch it all into my memory. 

the rockpile
moraine lake

After a catered buffet dinner at the hotel that evening, we gathered together one last time to share our reflections of the past week.  Bryce amazed us with his artful wordsmithing as he recited a poem he had written about larch trees.  George, one of our group from Kentucky, entertained us with his “hike-ku”, and kudos were given to Rob the bus driver, who parallel-parked his commercial bus as easily as slicing butter. 

I thought about our guide Joel’s personal motto:  “The only person I want to be better than is me, yesterday.”  I knew that this trip with this people and these guides to this place had made me a better person than I was before.  And the journey continues.

Our intrepid guides sitting: Cindy, Joel, Kelsey, and Bryce

Banff Trip Part 5: Yoho ho!

16 08 2019

“Yoho” is a Cree expression of awe and wonder, and our day in Yoho Valley did not disappoint.  On the bus ride there, we passed under several wildlife corridors, which have proven successful at allowing animals safe passage over the highways while reducing insurance claims for vehicle accidents.

check out this you tube more info on how these crossings work:

Our first stop was at the Yoho National Park Visitor Center, where we learned about the spiral railroad tunnels that allowed trains to traverse the treacherous Kicking Horse Pass.  There was also a display about the Burgess Shale fossil beds, a UNESCO World Heritage Site, containing some of the oldest and most complex fossils in the world.  Of course, we already knew all about this, as our guide Bryce had already given us a lecture on the bus complete with plastic fossil models!

Our Motivated hiking group then transferred to a shuttle bus which dropped us off at the trail head, across from which was Takakkaw Falls, the second highest falls in Canada. (Not to be outdone, Takakkaw means “wonderful” in Cree.)

Takakkaw Falls

Up to the Yoho Pass we went, huffing and puffing.  Wildflowers provided much needed breaks, as did views of the surrounding scenery.  By the end of the day, I would have hiked seven miles with an elevation gain of 1000 feet and loss of 1689 feet.  The downhill would prove more difficult than the up!

western anemone

Coming down a gravel-covered mountainside, two of us slipped and ended on our tailsides, although nothing was hurt but pride.  We crossed an alluvial fan created by glacial meltwater from Emerald Basin flowing into Emerald Lake, putting our waterproof hiking boots to the test as we tried to find the easiest way across. 

Once on the other side, we found ourselves at Emerald Lake whose color is caused by the light reflecting for the rock flour ground by glaciers.

Emerald lake
signs warned us that this beautiful meadow was actually
an avalanche site

The bus then took us to Lake Louise, which was beautiful but crowded, and then to dinner at Lake Louise Station. 

lake louise affects everyone differently

On the way back to the hotel, I felt a sinking feeling as I realized I had only one more hike left in this beautiful part of the world.

Banff Trip Part 4: Weather or Not

15 08 2019

Wednesday was to be an easy hiking day: a trip to Johnston Canyon (3.4 miles, 400 ft. elevation change), followed by lunch on the bus and an afternoon exploring the town of Banff.  Although the weeks previous to this had been rainy, so far we had been blessed with beautifully cool sunny weather.  Today that would change.

Johnston Creek in Banff National Park has gouged deep canyons through the limestone rock as it flows to the Bow River below.  Sheer walls, waterfalls, and tunnels make this a magnet for herds of tourists who take the easy hike on catwalks attached to the sheer canyon walls. 

one can duck through the tunnel for a close-up and misty view of the falls

How these catwalks were built continues to astound me: human ingenuity at work. Of course, everything changes in the winter, when folks hike right up the frozen creek and climb the frozen waterfalls!

Despite the crowds, Johnston Canyon was not to be missed. And then it started to mist, on again off again.  But no worries: we were prepared, feeling quite smart as we pulled on our ponchos and enjoyed the cool lushness of the area.  

Although this was an “at your own pace” hike, we walked part of the way with Cindy, one of our guides, who pointed out an American dipper, an aquatic songbird busily working the edges of the creek for insects and other stream-dwelling prey.   She also told us about conservation attempts for the Black Swift: Johnston Canyon is the only known nesting site in Alberta for these birds whose population is in decline.  Off-trail hiking to these sites is strongly discouraged with caution tape and enormous fines for those who can’t follow the rules.  Cindy also showed us fossilized coral in the canyon walls, evidence of the ocean that once covered this land.

before the falls, before the rain

Back on the bus, we ate our bag lunches and Rob the bus driver dropped us off at the Banff Springs Hotel.  Cindy gave us a guided tour of this “Castle of the Rockies,” a destination in and of itself, if only one has bagfuls of disposable income.  But it was nice to dream.

After the hotel, we took a walking path by the river to the downtown area, but it wasn’t long before the skies opened up to a deluge.  And it wasn’t much longer before we discovered that our oh-so-smart ponchos were not waterproof at all, with the tape over the seams having come apart. 

we would have stayed drier in the river!

There were several museums that I would have liked to have gone to, but our soggy selves were much more interested in just finding a dry overhang to shake off what we could.  Fortunately, the downpour didn’t last for long. 

the wednesday market, with Mt. Rundle in the background

I was able to walk through the Wednesday market and then we spent the rest of the time wandering through the numerous gift shops in a downtown that reminded me not pleasantly of Gatlinburg, Tn.  Although the scenery surrounding the town was spectacular, this afternoon’s exploration of the town of Banff was kind of like going to the doctor for a vaccination:  you know you need to do it, but you’d rather be somewhere else.  Like on the hike to the Yoho Pass, where we’d be tomorrow.

Banff Part 3: Hiking to Helen Back

14 08 2019

This being a Choose Your Pace Road Scholar trip, I started day two of hiking with my mind set about two things. First, I would go on the Motivated hike, most strenuous of the choices, listed as 7.4 miles and 1800 feet of elevation change.  I knew if I didn’t push myself to do this, I would regret it when I got home.  And secondly, I would lighten my pack.  Out went one of the two quarts of water that the guides recommended, the change of clothing, and the winter hat and gloves.  The die was cast.

crowfoot glacier, with one of the “toes” melted off

After a scenic drive down the Icefields Parkway, the bus dropped our Motivated group off at the trailhead to Helen Lake.  Brian and his achy knees remained on the bus to hike with the Moderate group to Bow Glacier Falls.  Across the highway, we could see Crowfoot Glacier, Crowfoot Mountain and Bow Lake.  Meltwater from the glacier feeds into Bow Lake, and the rock flour from the glacier turns the lake a stunning shade of green, which depending on the position of the sun is sometimes emerald, sometimes jade, and sometimes sea foam green.  

bow lake below crowfoot glacier

Today we were led by Bryce, co-owner of the Company of Adventurers and a very knowledgeable outdoorsman and naturalist.  As I hiked up the steep slopes, gasping for breath, Bryce always seemed to know just how much to push us and when to stop. We stopped at a recent avalanche site, where he told us about the interconnected life of the Clark’s Nutcracker and the Whitebark pine:  this intelligent bird stashes thousands of pine seeds in strategically-placed holes in the ground for access during the winter, planting virtually all the Whitebark pines, which grow only when planted exactly the depth that matches the length of the Clark’s Nutcracker’s bill. 

We stopped to let a string of park rangers with pack horses pass by on their way to a distant bison ranch. 

At one rest break, we watched a hoary marmot collecting plants for his salad dinner. 

We stopped to dissect some fairly fresh grizzly bear scat. (“It starts with an s and it end with a t.  It comes out of you and it comes out of me.  I know what you’re thinking, but let’s not call it that.  Let’s be scientific and call it scat.”)  Bryce explained that at this time of year (mid-July), the scat is nearly identical to horse poop since the bears are eating lots of roots, tubers, and grasses.  By late summer, the scat contains lots of berry seeds.  Not all the folks in our hiking group were as taken by this discussion as I was.  Go figure.

fresh grizzly scat

Bryce taught us how to hike, well, at least he taught me.  Everyone else seemed to know all the tricks. 

1. Using a hiking pole.  Insert hand from bottom of strap so that the pressure of the strap rests on your wrist.  Height of pole should be such that your forearm and upper arm form a right angle, adjusted for uphill or downhill. 

2. The rest step.  When hiking up a hill, straighten out the rear leg and lock that knee to take the weight off your muscles and onto your skeletal frame.  

3. Ballerina step.  When hiking down a hill, take small steps and avoid stepping heel-toe.  Instead, concentrate on placing your foot down toe first as ballerinas do.

When we finally got to Helen Lake, we were ready for lunch.  Once again we ate with one of the most beautiful views in the world in front of us.

helen lake

Somehow, the trip back down the mountain took much less time.  I enjoyed the breeze that kicked up over the alpine meadow. I enjoyed the smell of Christmas as we passed through the spruce woods. 

But mostly, when we were reunited with the rest of the group, I enjoyed telling everyone that I had survived a trip to Helen back.

Banff Part 2: Sunshine on Our Shoulders

13 08 2019

Today was the first day of hiking on our Road Scholar adventure. Our backpacks were packed: change of clothing, winter gear, rain gear, lunch, and two quarts of water each.  And we had to carry these on a mountainous hike with a 1,000 feet elevation change. Gulp.

After a hearty buffet breakfast at the hotel, we boarded the bus for Sunshine Meadows in Banff National Park, a short drive down the Bow River Valley.  This became our morning routine: breakfast between 6:30-7:30 and depart by 8:00 for transport to a different area each day.  The bus ride itself was spectacular, with towering peaks on each side of the highway, waterfalls, and glimpses of wildlife on the roadsides.  Along the way, our guides instructed us on the geology, flora and fauna, and conservation efforts in the Canadian Rockies.

 Once at Sunshine Meadows, we grabbed a pair of hiking poles supplied by our guides, hoisted our loads on our backs, and took a gondola ride up the mountain to the ski village, where we started our hike.  Having come from Aiken, SC, where the elevation is about 500 feet above sea level, we were a little concerned about the altitude, which started at more than 7,000 feet, but we needn’t have worried.  Our guides had planned the trips to allow our bodies to get used to the altitude.  We were given three options for hikes: Mellow at 3.9 miles and 820 feet of elevation change, Moderate at 6.5 miles and an elevation change of 985 feet, and Motivated, which was 7.5 miles and 1148 feet up.  Brian and I, along with most of our group, decided to start with the Moderate choice for our first time.

The hike up the first hill left me winded and wondering if I was going to make it, but the walking soon leveled off and took us through alpine meadows, across the continental divide and the Alberta/British Columbia border. Although the temperature was in the low 70s, the warm sunshine had us shucking off our outer layers.  We stopped every so often to look at the wildflowers which were in stunning bloom, having only a two-month growing season.  Ground squirrels played hide and seek, and Kelsey, our guide, showed us grizzly digs where the bears had excavated the squirrels’ tunnels for a quick snack.

rock isle lake

After a brief stop at Rock Isle Lake, the highest lake in the Canadian Rockies, we found out that the path the Motivated group was supposed to take was closed due to a bear sighting.  Bears are taken seriously in this part of the world.  Our guides told us of the Rule of Four: that magical number of hikers that when seen together by a bear, would persuade said bear to retreat.  And just in case the bears didn’t know about that rule, our guides carried bear spray that supposedly is effective against charging bears.  (It was always interesting to me to pass hiking tourists who had first stopped at the gift shop to buy large jingle bells in the hopes of dissuading bears.  I wondered if the bears, like Pavlov’s dogs, would salivate at the sound of the bells, thinking “fresh meat.”)

the park ranger/guard, just in case folks can’t read

We headed up the slope to Standish Viewpoint and ate our lunches with one of the best views in the world.  Rumors of a pair of mating grizzlies visible off in the distance (at Grizzly Lake, appropriately) swirled around, although I never was able to see them. 

the view from standish viewpoint

Back at the bus around 3:00 and the hotel around 4:00, we had some free time to rest before 6:00 dinner at a nearby restaurant.  We had clocked 6.3 miles today and although we were tired, we felt a sense of accomplishment at having kept up with the group.  But those heavy packs had to go!

Banff Part 1: The Top of the Hill

12 08 2019

How to Tell the Top of the Hill

by John Ciardi

The top of a hill
Is not until
The bottom is below.
And you have to stop
When you reach the top
For there’s no more UP to go.

To make it plain
Let me explain:
The one most reason why
You have to stop
When you reach the top — is:
The next step up is sky.

from Sing a Song of Popcorn: Every Child’s Book of Poems selected by Beatrice Schenk de Regniers, Eva Moore, Mary Michaels White, Jan Carr, 1988, Scholastic

We climbed a lot of hills on this trip.  That was to be expected, however, as we were on a Road Scholar hiking trip to the Canadian Rockies.  There was a lot of huffing and puffing involved, but our reward was some of the most spectacular scenery on this continent.

At the base of Sentinel Pass, Banff National Park, Alberta, Canada

My husband Brian and I started this adventure by flying to Chicago, where we spent the night before flying on to Calgary, Alberta the next morning.  In the few hours we had, we toured the Field Museum in downtown Chicago: we flew through this world-class museum in two hours, although it would take a week or more to do it justice! 

the reason I take the photos

Walking back to the train station, we were caught in a violent wind and rainstorm but fortunately were able to take refuge in Aurelio’s Pizza.  Nothing like a good Chicago pizza to cheer up our soggy selves!

The next afternoon found us in the Calgary airport, where the Road Scholar group met to be taken by bus to Canmore, our base of operations just outside Banff National Park.

at the Calgary Airport, Alberta, Canada

That evening, after a buffet dinner at the Canmore Coast Hotel, our guides led an orientation for this week’s exploration.  This Road Scholar trip was run by the Company of Adventurers, and was officially titled “Choose Your Pace: Hike the Canadian Rockies, Banff & Lake Louise.”  Brian and I had selected this particular trip for several reasons: first, because it was in an area of the world much cooler than our South Carolina summers; second, because it offered three levels of hiking (a major concern for us since Brian’s knees don’t like ups and downs); and third, because it was in a beautiful area of the world that we had never been to before.  Additionally, the learning aspect of this tour interested us, having heard rave reviews of Road Scholar guides.  This trip did not disappoint in any of these areas!

the three sisters of Canmore

The orientation, however, left us feeling like fishes out of water.  As each of the 24 participants described their backgrounds, we started to sink deeper and deeper into our chairs.  Most of our group had traveled extensively, with one person having been previously on 14 Road Scholar trips, and most were experienced hikers, speaking of hiking the Appalachian Trail and regularly hiking 7-10 miles.  Our measly little two-mile dog walks seemed to pale in comparison.  What had we gotten ourselves into?