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?