Banff and Beyond: Outlandish Adventures in the Canadian Rockies by Jack Leggett III

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Dedicated to my mother: Mary Beth McGowan

Thanks for remembering and sharing this insanely majestic place with us. Sometimes it was hard to put these experiences into words, but on the following pages I do try.

Disclaimer: The following accounts should be considered as inspired by true events, but admittedly there are parts that stretch into the realm of fiction rather than objective truth.

 

Climbing in Canmore (Outskirts of the Canadian Rockies)

“I won’t go any higher, I’ll just traverse across the route,” I hollered down to my parents and friends who were all bunched up at the base of the immense rock wall I was clambering across. Traversing being a climbing term referring to moving horizontally across a route as opposed to vertically. “That way if I fall, I’ll likely just break a leg or two, instead of my neck.” Strangely, no one seemed relieved by this statement.

Despite the rain coming down at an increasingly alarming rate, I wasn’t the only climber in Banff National Park who was more than happy to brave the elements. I looked around and saw an adventurous couple less than halfway up the side of a massive cracked rock formation. It looked way sketchier than the blackened rock I was on and they sure as hell didn’t look like they planned on turning back. Then again, they were rocking a wide array of gear that would have made the even the most avid REI fanatics jealous. I looked down at my own setup. I was wearing worn running shoes, which were way too large to aptly toe hook the crevices pocketing the natural rock wall’s surface, jeans that suddenly felt far too tight to accommodate even a modest degree of flexibility, and most notably I had failed to bring any rock climbing chalk for better grip.

Despite these handicaps, I found myself enjoying the struggle, the high stakes, the misbehaving weather. Contrary to popular belief, it’s not just driving my loved ones crazy that attracts me to the act of climbing. Although, I imagine that does play a minor role. This situation reminded me why I love bouldering. I love the challenge. I love having to adapt to a route that I have never traversed before. Most of all, I love the pressure under which I must operate. It is similar to meditation, but a lot less relaxing. I felt this uneasy form of euphoria come over me as I moved across the wall, attempting to find a place to come down safely as I was far too high to drop down.

My hands weren’t quite bleeding, but they were growing rawer with each movement. I really missed chalk. I should have liberated some from the backpack of another climber far too high up to notice. It occurred to me that, while most of this rock wall was solid and unwavering, some of the crevices had accrued a significant degree of dirt. Careful that I had a secure hold with my left hand, I reached my right into one of these holes and rubbed my hand around until a thin layer of the powered dirt covered it. I repeated the action with my left hand and several more times before I made it to the bottom of the wall. My hold on the wall increased exponentially with the power of the powder. I could attempt maneuvers that would have been somewhat suicidal otherwise. When my feet finally landed on the flat dirt, I felt a brief sense of relief, but more so sadness, as I missed my time on the wall already.

“Get the hell out of the way!”

“Which one of them do you think he’ll maul first,” Donny asked. I could hear the growing irritation in his voice as we looked out the Jeep window at the quickly growing crowd of tourists blocking our view of the massive bear. It looked to be a grizzly, recently risen from hibernation, and well known for being the moodiest amongst its bear brethren. This bear was particularly unique in that it was sporting white streaks in its fur that led to us to reasonably conclude it had gone to the hair dresser and asked for frosted tips.

“Hey, get the hell out of the way!” Donny hollered at another tourist who thought it reasonable to stand directly in front of our open window. The guy leapt to the side. He was likely as startled by Donny’s voice as he was by the bear looking up from its current meal of berries and grass. It was as if the grizzly realized for the first time that it had a multitude of fine dining options just a quick lunge away. Donny, myself and the rest of my compatriots were utterly amazed, albeit not terribly surprised, at the level of stupidity on display. Every tourist in sight seemed to think that Jasper National Park was as safe and as regulated as Disneyland.

“Perhaps they think the bear is animatronic?” I offered. “Let’s stick around and see if someone tries to ride it.”

“I know you guys are amused, but this looks like it may go bad fast,” my mother said in a concerned, but even tone. She was a nurse practitioner and I could see that she was figuring she may have to patch someone up if this went south. She continued, “If someone tries to feed the bear, he may get conditioned to approach humans more readily.”

“You sound a bit more concerned about the bear than you do the idiots” my father observed.

“They made their choice” my mother replied.

This was the third bear grazing by the side of highway we had seen today, but the first instance in which a group of tourists was crowding the animal at a range of less than fifteen feet. We were used to the Parks Canada Rangers directing the cars through so that everyone got a brief peak of the untamed beast and was then coerced to move along. This was the only circumstance where no rangers were present, a fact that was clearly being exploited.

Although we were cracking jokes, it was more a byproduct of nervous apprehension that a truly twisted sense of humor. We fell into a kind of uneasy awkward silence, in part because we were so taken with the bear as it lumbered around the clearing, and in part because of how appalled we were by a tourist in a bright red windbreaker jacket who was trekking loudly through the low bushes towards the startled bear.

“Get the cameras ready” Donny said as he threw his arms up in the air,” and be ready to peel out of here when the time comes. Just run these tourists over.”

“That’s a terrible thing to even joke about,” chastised my mother, as she slowly raised her camera.

 

The Neon Lake

We rounded the corner and were immediately confronted by a graveyard of trees. Beyond the emaciated logs, a neon turquoise glow emanated from a magnificent glacial lake.

“If I was told this lake was radioactive, I would probably still venture in.” I reckoned.

“I’d ask what super powers I should expect out of it” said my father.

The color of Moraine Lake seems almost unnatural. Not in a disturbing way, in a pleasantly unnerving way. More in line with the imagined supernatural landscapes one expects to see pictures of when mankind starts settling other Earth-like planets. A Parks Canada ranger situated at a portable kiosk helped shed some light on the mystic nature of the outlandish glow. The lake’s gorgeous hue is the byproduct of the melting and freezing of nearby glaciers, which crushes the trapped rock beneath into a fine powder ingeniously dubbed “rock flour.” Glacial melts deposit this “rock flour” in lakes such as this one and the manner in which the sunlight refracts through this substance renders the lake a distinctly fluorescent blue in appearance.

“What superpowers can we expect if we jump in” I asked. The ranger gave me an incredulous look. “My dad is dying to know” I added quickly.

“Well if you consider hypothermia a superpower…” the ranger chided.

We decided to enjoy the lake from the dry vantage of a boardwalk path that had been erected parallel to it. No superpowers to speak of. The lake was nestled into a basin, with jagged snow speckled mountainous peaks on three sides, and a large forest jostling for space parallel with roughly half the lake’s circumference. We made our way past a cluster of battered summer cottages, many of which were boarded up for the winter, now in the process of being revived. It seems Canadian winters are rather unforgiving. Fresh coats of paint and numerous repairs were in the works. The cottages ended at the edge of a large, vaguely foreboding evergreen forest. It was immediately reminiscent of the Forbidden Forest featured in the Harry Potter series.

“Reminds me of the Forbidden Forest in the Harry Potter series” said a random hiker as they walked out of the forest and passed us by.

I fumed silently, but intensely. How had he beaten me to the punch on that brilliant observation? I felt wounded. But in keeping with my frequent attempts at rational behavior, I buried the pain deep down. Because that’s healthy.

My father called out from the lakefront. He had gone to investigate the source of a strange noise that was akin to the soft clinking of wine glasses. It appeared that a good portion of the lake was still frozen, winter not yet a distant memory. But the sun was now blazing through the mountain pass and part of the ice was melting into what resembled thin shards of perfect crystal. I kneeled near the edge of the lake and watched the natural glass noisily fall apart in slivers and dissipate into the impossibly blue water. Looking up and around at where I was, I felt more at peace than I had in a long time.

 

On the Ice

The massive Ice Explorer lurched forward, courageously barreling onwards toward the oncoming blizzard and the partially obscured Athabasca Glacier ice field. This beast of a vehicle carrying us resembled what I would imagine a school bus on steroids would look like. With massive treaded tires, it stood high off the ground, as if it wanted to be a makeshift monster truck.

“This would probably seem more dangerous and exciting if this oversized snowmobile moved faster than a herd of stoned turtles” my mother mumbled.

I shot her a slight glare. My father let out a short chuckle.

“Don’t ruin this for the rest of us” I gently cautioned.

“I can’t help it if a giant lump of ice and snow just feels like the winters of my Michigan childhood” my mother argued, “why would I go out of my way to relive that frozen hell?”

I opened my mouth, a snarky reply at the ready, but quickly closed it. I figured, I hoped, she would change her mind after we departed the cramped vehicle. I turned to look at the window, quickly noticing the increased frequency of the falling snow. I took a hearty swig of the Canadian Whiskey I had filled my reusable water bottle with, then offered it to my father.

“What’s in it?” he asked.

“Coffee” I said, my mouth twitching into a brief smile.

“Oh yeah?” he said, raising his eyebrows. He took a drink, grimacing slightly. “A bit strong for me, but I bet your mother could use some” he said, returning the smile.

My dismount from the vehicle was met with a resounding splash. I looked down at the colder than hell puddle I had just landed in.

“Be careful not to step in the…” the tour guide gave me a sheepish grin.

“Maybe that coffee wasn’t the best idea” my father said with a grin as he side-stepped around me and the puddle.

I nodded and laughed. Then something cold and wet hit me square in the face. After a momentary bout of arm flinging panic, I realized it was just snowfall, rushing down at an increasingly torrential pace. I glanced around, hoping no one had witnessed my second embarrassing act in less than a minute of being on the glacier.

“Snow, not as pleasant as it looks eh?” said my mother, wearing a devilish grin. I opened my mouth to say something clever and choked on another batch of snow.

I wandered away from the group, putting on my sunglasses and hiking up my jacket to counteract the elements. I quickly started to enjoy the intensity, the sheer raw power, the “not giving a shit” attitude inherent to this desolate landscape. Everywhere I looked there was a haze of snow. Every couple of feet there were small blue veins, little rivers of ice water running over the glacier’s surface. Gazing up, I could see that the entire stretch of ice I found myself standing on looked like the overflow of an even more impressive ice field tucked behind two dubious looking mountain peaks. From my vantage, this glacier looked like a massive tongue, with the mountains on either side resembling giant, badly moisturized cheeks.

I caught sight of my mother meandering far out of bounds of the low rope fence the tour guides had erected. Out of bounds meant the possibility of unstable ice. This glacier’s depth fluctuated around 1,000 feet. We had been forewarned that bits of snow could cover up large cracks. Large cracks in a thousand feet of ice can cut a vacation short real fast.

“What they hell are you doing” I shouted.

“Just looking for a little excitement” she hollered back. I rolled my eyes and helped myself to another sip from my water bottle.

 

Give My Regards to Mr. Bryson

At this point my mind is all over the place. I am recalling the pages of a book I had read before arriving here. I mull over the narrative and compare it to my time in Canada up until now.

“We’ve been all over this beautiful country, but I can’t imagine highway turnoffs alone are doing it justice” I suddenly declare. I am sitting at a long wood table in a Greek restaurant, surrounded by family, surrounded by strangers. My outburst interrupts my sister complimenting the Australian waitress on how well she’s wearing her dyed bluish/grey hair.

“Feeling a bit dramatic this afternoon?” my father asks.

“I think…” I take a moment to gather my thoughts. “I think I need to go for a walk in the woods.”

My mother chuckles. A Walk in the Woods is a favorite book of ours, written by the perpetually hilarious Bill Bryson. In which, he hikes a good portion of the roughly 2,181 mile Appalachian Trail. The endeavor always struck me as the embodiment of gritty adventure; get lost, but make a solid effort not to die. Learn something about the lands and people you pass on the way.

“I’m rather surprised that we haven’t hiked a decent length trail yet” I explain, “Bryson is not to be let down.”

“I know just the place, just the path” my mother says, nodding.

A short while later we are standing in a parking lot overlooking Lake Louise. The blissful setting might be more so if it weren’t for the hiss of aerosol cans spraying sunblock. My mother checks and rechecks to make sure we are all doused.

We get moving. As we make our way around the lake, the path into the mountains fades into view, framed by seemingly impenetrable trees. Our goal is to make it to one of the few remaining tea houses nestled cozily into the heart of the Canadian Rockies.

“Did you know that the Lake Agnes Tea House, the one we’re heading too, was built in 1901 by the Canadian Pacific Railway?” my mother asks as she reads from her Lonely Planet tour book. She goes on, talking about her first trip here 35 years prior with her sister, talking about how excited she is to bring us here now.

We hike steadily upwards, from time to time coming across an opening in the forest, bringing into view an abundance of mountain ranges separated by valleys and rivers. Our trajectory is rarely a straight line. Scrambling over rocks, attempting (and often failing) to circumnavigate large patches of ice and snow, all becomes routine. Hours go by. A zen-like clarity takes hold. The physicality, the clean air, the diversity of fellow hikers passing by and telling us we are far closer to the finish line than we are.

We make our way up a staircase next to a waterfall. We’ve arrived. A few moments later we are sitting on the wooden benches of the tea house, overlooking a nearly frozen lake, all with a cup of steaming tea in hand. Pure white sheaths of ice and snow sit precariously on the lake’s edge, as if they are too nervous to jump in the water.

“This is exactly what I needed” I say.

“The hike or the tea?” my mother asks.

“Both, but it is amazing how good powdered milk and Chai tea extract tastes when you know someone had to either hike these delicacies up a mountain or drop them off via helicopter.”

 

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