Stunning Alberta

After having flown half-way across the country to Toronto, I then turned around and flew most of the way back. It’s a long story and I wasn’t overly happy about this schedule, particularly since I was only going to fly even further back again afterwards, but that was the way events transpired.

I was to stay with a friend and fellow programmer I knew from my time in Vancouver but who worked remotely out of Canmore, a little town not too far from the famous Banff national park. The view of Calgary from the plane was overwhelmingly flat, and I even fell asleep not long after catching the bus. When I woke up… suddenly I was in mountains! Waiting for him to pick me up after the bus dropped me off, gazing at the scenery all around, it wasn’t hard to see why he chose to work remotely. When even the bus stop has vistas like that your town has something going for it, and the views only got better that week.

The other thing that stood out as the traffic dawdled by, and apparently the first thing I said when he arrived… “Does everyone here drive a truck??”. Yes, yes apparently they do. We’re in Alberta! Trucks, or if you’re a tourist, a big motor-home. That was pretty much all I saw on the roads for a week.

Not surprisingly, the view from their balcony was even better.

I was staying with them for a week, and we sketched out 4 days of hiking.

Ha Ling Peak and Spray Trail

I didn’t stray too far from home base on my first day. Firstly, in Canmore you simply don’t need to go far to find something amazing, and secondly… driving. They very kindly let me borrow their car (truck), but I have only ever driven on the left side of the road and even though I was carrying an international driver’s license1 I wanted some time to get my confidence up. With that in mind, we mapped out directions to Ha Ling Peak, visible from the balcony as a sheer rock face but more straightforwardly accessible from the rear.

Getting there involved a short trip through the town, which apart from turning my windscreen wipers on multiple times I survived without incident, then heading up through a saddle to the trailhead behind. The climb itself was nice; I overestimated my hiking fitness and blew out of the gate, through some nice forest, before having to concede defeat and slow down significantly as the route gave way to exposed rock, and my cardiovascular system humbled me.

The view from the top: out of this world.

After descending I kept driving for an hour or so along the Spray Trail, periodically exclaiming in amazement, until I realised it was useless to stop for photos every time.

By the time I turned back for home I was a little fatigued from the driving, and luckily was tailing another car as it suddenly slowed and pulled way out around a bend. I followed cautiously—only to have a moose on the road block out the full opposite side of the vehicle! Unfortunately I’d already put the camera away and by the time I’d wrestled the case from my backpack, and the camera from the case, I only got the one shot of its backside retreating back into the forest. Just the strangest combination of massive size (even for a small one), ungainly looking proportions, and majestic grace in its movement.

Lake Louise, and the Plain of 6 Glaciers

The next day, and time for my first entry into Banff itself. Lake Louise is a massive tourist draw, which this time does rather detract from the experience; both the huge crowds clustered around the shore, and the enormous ugly hotel right behind you. It is definitely pretty, just a little hard to appreciate in that atmosphere.

Fortunately as soon as you start walking even a little way around the shore you leave the vast majority behind, and while I never felt isolated as I headed up the valley it was much more pleasant.

First stop was the plain-of-6-glaciers tea-house where I had a snack and watched the extremely well-fed and cheeky ground-squirrels climb up onto the tables. I pushed up closer to the glacier (and having climbed off-track up a scree-slope, unfortunately missed witnessing an avalanche), then returned back down the same way, before looping around via Lake Agnes and Mirror Lake.

The other big tourist draw in the area was Moraine Lake, but unfortunately I didn’t have enough time left and had to head back.

Stanley Glacier

Stanley Glacier it turns out, is actually in British Columbia again. It was a fairly long drive to get there, followed by a moderate climb through a burned-out area (although not unpleasant views).

Suddenly, you emerge into a large basin, with Stanley Glacier in the corner and massive walls all around you—looking back it was actually quite hard to see where the trail even entered! Naturally I pulled out the camera to start snapping again… and found a completely dead battery. Never skip a recharge opportunity. The latter photos you see are all from my phone, unfortunately.

Moraine Lake. And Bears.

One final hiking opportunity left! Another big draw in the area is the ice fields, but we decided this was a bit much driving to be worth it and instead settled on a “compromise” of Helen Lake, including a pass on the edge of the fields. After the requisit stops for photos on the way there (no, apparently I’m not yet habituated to the scenery!) I finally found the trailhead… and a sign saying it was shut due to a bear + cubs in the area. Bugger.

The fallback plan I came up with was Moraine Lake, since I’d missed it a few days earlier, and I headed back up the highway and miraculously managed to find a park (unlike Lake Louise, it is rather light-on in that department). It is still a large tourist draw, but this time it detracted far less from the stunning view.

Once I’d taken enough snaps I headed around the lake to a short hike I was keen on… and another sign warning of bears in the area! This time the advice was not to hike in groups of less than 4, but after waiting a while no further candidates appeared and I gave up. Not an ideal way to wind up my visit, but I can hardly complain given the rest of the week!

I had some great times on this trip, but without detracting from the rest at all I don’t think anything quite topped Alberta.

  1. Obtaining this is a simple financial transaction. Absolutely no proof of competence required. 

Mark Hepburn 27 December 2013
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