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 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?