Beauty and bother in Banff National Park

After our arrival in Calgary early in July, 2017, and after sightseeing in that area with friends, described in my previous post, we continued on our journey westwards. I’d been looking forward to our entry into Banff National Park, last visited with our kids during a road trip in the mid-90s. It’s very popular with tourists, especially in summer, but it has some of the most spectacular scenery that I’ve ever seen and one is able to avoid most tourists as soon as you start walking anywhere. Most people appear to want to see everything through a car or restaurant window…

On the open road and into Banff NP

We’d stopped for some refreshments in the town of Banff but it is quite frankly a bit of a tourist trap and so we continued towards Lake Louise with the Bow Valley Parkway, the more scenic alternative to the Trans-Canada Highway 1. It’s a good thing we did, because we were treated to beautiful surroundings and a few black bears enjoying them. Almost oblivious to the many humans in cars who were taking pictures, even to the few idiots who got out of their cars to within 10 metres or so.

I can almost see it thinking: “What are they looking at? Never seen a Black Bear before?”

We drove past Lake Louise, continued northwestwards past Saskatchewan River Crossing (literally just a shop and a filling station), onto the Icefields Parkway, past Mount Athabasca up to the Columbia Icefield and the Athabasca Glacier, or at least what remains of it. The icefield, sitting astride the continental divide, dates back some 130,000 years and has seen periods of growth and decline. Since 1840, however, the Athabasca Glacier, one of the six “toes” flowing out of the Icefield, has been losing volume, currently about 5 metres of depth per year, with about half of its volume gone over the past 125. The scenery in this area itself is dramatic rather than beautiful, and somewhat depressing to see evidence of how the glaciers are retreating…

Driving back down the Icefields Parkway is an excellent way to see the grand views offered by the Rocky Mountains and the wide valleys carved by glaciers of the past. The magnificent topography that we see today results from the glacial erosion of much higher mountains that were formed between 80 and 55 million years ago by horizontal tectonics when the Kula Plate was pushed from the West into the continent in the East. I love the summary provided by Wikipedia: “For the Canadian Rockies, the mountain building is analogous to a rug being pushed on a hardwood floor: the rug bunches up and forms wrinkles (mountains). In Canada, the subduction of the Kula Plate and the terranes smashing into the continent are the feet pushing the rug, the ancestral rocks are the rug, and the Canadian Shield in the middle of the continent is the hardwood floor.

Looking down a valley carved by glaciers, the sedimentary layers in the rocks clearly visible in the upper reaches of these mountains
The Mistaya River carving its canyon ever deeper

Closer to Banff, we stopped and photographed a number of the beautiful lakes and walked along the Mistaya Canyon. I realise that I’m over-using words like beautiful, but I can’t help it. Here’s a YouTube video, not made or posted by me, but it gives a taste of what we experienced that day. The word “Mistaya” means “grizzly bear” in the Cree language, but we didn’t spot any of them there. That’s a very good thing, they are not as docile as the black bears seen earlier. When I see canyons like this (and we would see quite a few during this trip) then I’m always reminded of the relentless power of moving water, continuing to carve deeper and deeper into the rock. All you need is moving water, some sediment to do the scouring, and time, a lot of time.

One of the Waterfowl Lakes, one of a series of beautifully blue lakes situated along the highway

Although planning to spend some more time in this area, we had booked an Airbnb cottage to the West of these mountains, beyond Golden. We drove there during the afternoon. It was quite a struggle to find the place, descriptions on the Airbnb site were not very exact and we needed to phone the owners (who were not there themselves) a couple of times. We finally located the cottage and had to conclude that the qualities described online were not matched by reality. The wooden cabin was located near a larger house, with a scattering of farm vehicles, equipment and toys all around. Inside, the place would have been acceptable if it was clean. Which it was not. We are not too fussy, we can handle rustic accommodation, but we draw the line at going to sleep in beds that still have the hairs of other people in them!

The setting of this cottage, situated in the gloom created by the tall trees, and surrounded by random equipment and vehicles, somehow reminded us of something from a movie featuring a serial killer. We still chuckle about that today, always referring to the “serial killer cottage”. It was already late in the day, so we were committed to stay in this cottage (no other accommodation nearby) but we slept on top of the bed, in our clothes.

The next morning, after complaining to the owners, cancelling the second night we’d planned to stay and arranging a refund, we drove back into the mountains and got accommodation in Field, a tiny village within the Yoho National Park. Located along the Kicking Horse River, the place has a very interesting history linked to the railway that passes through it. In the nearby Kicking Horse Pass, it is possible to see spiral tunnels that were driven into the mountains to reduce the gradient of the railway to something that the trains could handle. My photographs can’t do it justice, but it is possible to see the same (long) train entering a tunnel and emerging from the lower part of the spiral, passing underneath itself. Field is also a great base for exploring various facets of the Yoho and Banff National Parks, which we did, of course.

We were keen to visit the area around Lake Louise, so we drove there the next morning. Quite full of tourists, walking around the beautiful lake (that word again), sitting in a restaurant, or the lounge of the luxurious Fairmont Chateau Lake Louise, or shopping for souvenirs. We even had to find parking in some overflow area. In order to get away from the hordes, we hiked the trail up to Lake Agnes, a much smaller lake between impressive peaks, with a famous teahouse.

Stopped for some sustenance during the uphill hike to Lake Agnes. The yellow “table cloth”, decorated with embroidered African animals, was a gift from our friends in Calgary.

It might have been early July, hypothetically it was summer, but we hiked over snowy and icy terrain in the shaded areas and the peaks were still covered in snow. Paths covered in snow that has been remelted slightly and frozen again, are very slippery! The lake itself was still covered in ice over much of its surface.

Cold and slippery, and you need a stick. (Talking about the ground, of course!)
Lake Agnes is under the slushy ice

As I was taking a picture of this scene, we heard a shout from across the lake and I looked up to see a person cartwheeling into the water, followed by someone shouting “Help, help!”. I looked at Marina to get her attention, but she had already taken off towards the situation.

A large chunk of ice had broken off from a frozen waterfall, bounced once on a grassy slope and slammed an unlucky woman into the rocky shallows of the lake. When we got there, her husband had already dragged her out of the freezing water and she was lying stunned on the ground next to the path along the lake, bleeding from her head. We stayed with her for a couple of hours, keeping her neck immobilised and her body warm, until the rescue helicopter with medics arrived to airlift her away to hospital. I could fill a whole separate post with the events during those few hours, what Marina did, how a Swedish policeman helped, how a few young and inexperienced doctors on holiday did not really help, etc. Marina can still remember a sore butt from having to sit completely still for a few hours!

Fortunately all ended well. We coincidentally saw the same couple at a filling station the next day. The lady had a bandage around her head, courtesy of the hospital in Banff, and a black-and-blue face, courtesy of rocks in Lake Agnes. They were fortunately able to continue with their trip. Good to know that there is an impressive helicopter team, staffed with an experienced doctor, available when such help is needed in the mountains. And also… good to always have Marina along – I am convinced that she enjoys providing such first aid assistance during a holiday, more than the holiday itself!

Alternative way to get down from the mountain
Interested Chipmunk, watching the rescue operation

After an eventful day, we drove back to Field for another night in our comfortable room, in the Truffle Pigs Bistro and Lodge. Very comfortable, very friendly staff, very well located for sightseeing in the area, and not much more expensive than the grotty place that we stayed in earlier. When we plan trips like this, we obviously try to find affordable accommodation, and Airbnb is usually a good bet, you will read about much better places, later on in this series. But in this particular case, the hotel was a better option.

Waterfall decanting from the hanging valley occupied by Lake Agnes
Looking down onto the almost impossibly-turquoise water of Lake Louise

8 thoughts on “Beauty and bother in Banff National Park

  1. I have to agree, that Wikipedia explanation helps! Interesting fly put.
    Seems like this was a slightly more action packed Canada trip than with us in the 90’s… we had no black bears (just mosquitos), no serial killers and now mountains throwing ice blocks at us….

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  2. Thanks Ronnie and Marina. It brought back a lot of memories to us! But glad we did not have to see a rescue operation! Although we are sure Marina was glad to at the right place at the right moment… Keep us those great pictures!! Lene and Louis

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  3. Great scenery and photos Ron, you also seemed to enjoy the adventure thrown in and the geological experience. Unfortunately the conditions of accommodation setups can vary all over the Globe.

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