The Rockies!

29 Jul

Waterfalls, Lakes and Mountains.

Friday again! This one finds us sitting at the Columbia Ice Field Centre, looking straight ahead I can see the huge expanse of the Athabasca Glacier and the snow buses creeping over the ice. Towering above the glacier are several mountains over 3500 meters mostly capped with snow, probably the most impressive is the Snow Dome. We are actually looking at the back edge of this mountain and a sheer giant wall of snow which sits on its crest.

How did we get here? We took the road from Valemount to McBride as intended however it did not capture our imagination as we had expected, initially the mountains were large but soon the valley widened and either side of the road was pasture land. McBride itself, a sleepy place, gave us the opportunity to pick up some more route information and top up the essentials. We retraced our tyre treds slightly to Beaver View Campground, owned and managed by a great English couple who while attending to their visitors were also trying to keep up with the cricket! They did however direct us to a local waterfall not a huge hike away for our afternoon leisure.

A fairly unused track, rough and steep in places led to the first cascade which we were just viewing when there was a commotion just above us on the trail and we spotted a guy slithering backwards down a small drop followed by his companion, they seemed to be OK but we thought we had better check they could get back on the path! It transpired the first guy had spotted a hornets nest in the tree above the path and stupidly thrown a stone at it, to his surprise (!) the hornets were not amused and came to tell him so, in attempting to get out of there way they had both lost there footing and slithered down the bank, lucky they stopped as they did, there was a further much deeper fall awaiting them about six feet further down the slope. We carried on and averted our eyes to the nest but the path became much rougher and steeper, a large cascade was just visible between the trees and Robert walked on, eventually finding a path which took him down to the base of the cascade, to take photos, while I waited on the easier part of the path. Walking back we could see storm clouds brewing and hoped for some rain to cool what had again been a very hot day.

Late afternoon brought a thunderstorm and rain, it had cleared by dusk but Sunday morning we awoke to one of those bleak, grey, after the storm, sort of mornings. We set off just before lunch for Mount Robson Provincial Park enjoying the cooler temperatures. The Meadows Campground was quite a surprise in that it was in the woods, we had expected a meadow, I wonder why?

Mount Robson is the highest point in the Canadian Rockies and makes an impressive backdrop to the campground and visitor centre, because of the cloud however we were unable to see the peak. A trail from the visitor centre took us through woodland along the side of the highway, we crossed over and another path quickly led us to the Overlander Falls on the Fraser River, the viewing point was placed on a bend in the river, so the water was actually coming straight towards you and the full force of the falls were very obvious, it wasn’t a long drop, but impressive all the same, as was the river the trail followed to take us back to the campground. Many white water rapids were visible along the way which culminated with another small cascade we viewed from a bridge on the Hargraves Road.

The clouds were lifting and we took a strole after tea out of the woods to see if the mountain peak was showing, the cloud tantalised us, we stood for maybe 20 minutes waiting for it to roll j-uuust a wee bit higher, but it wouldn’t and we didn’t get the photo we were hoping for. Monday morning however was a perfect blue sky morning so we were rewarded for our patience with some super clear views before we departed for Lucerne Campground just an hour away.

Lucerne Campground is adjacent to Yellowhead Lake and a pleasant but short walk through the woodland brings you to a small sandy beach where families were enjoying the warm sunny day. A good overnight stopping spot as it was fairly quiet and took an hour off our journey to Jasper, a good idea as we were crossing into Mountain Time when we passed from British Columbia into Alberta and loosing an hour (we are now 7hrs behind BST).

We arrived in Jasper just before lunch on Tuesday morning, parking in the designated RV lot we then walked to the main townsite. We had to wait at the railroad crossing while one of our favourite vehicles rumbled its way down the tracks, the sun was incredibly hot on our backs and as the afternoon wore on the temperature hit 30+ degrees. We discovered at the information centre this was to be the norm for the duration of our three night stay in Jasper, not particularly good weather for walking!

Having taken a wrong turning we found ourselves at Lake Edith, close to town and just off the highway, we parked under some trees for a while and enjoyed a little breeze off the water in an attempt to cool down and enjoyed our lunch looking out over the lake before heading over to check in to Whistlers Campground. A line up awaited us and we sweltered while we waited for our turn. The campground has 781 sites set out in 48 loops in a treed landscape, we had 64T allocated to us and presently set ourselves up in a lovely corner spot with two friendly young squirrels chasing up and down the trees for entertainment.

The nearest hikes to the Campground were not suitable for the temperature we were going to attain, needing a good hike from the campground to get to the trailhead. Having studied the map and sights to be viewed we took the 93A towards Athabasca falls on Wednesday morning starting early to get ahead of the heat, other sightseers and hoping to spot some of the much talked about but, in our experience, not often spotted, wildlife. It was all hiding again, and we reached the falls to find the car park already busy with rental RV’s and tour coaches.

A short walk took us over a bridge crossing the Athabasca River and along to the much visited falls. Huge smooth rock faces at the rim of the falls, all nicely fenced with signs warning the danger of climbing on the rocks did not deter one Japanese visitor from jumping over to get the absolute shot for his album. The falls cascade into a canyon and thunder along its bottom, eventually calming as the canyon widens further downstream. An old watercourse is now a footpath which allows you to walk where water would have once flowed and observe how the rock has been scoured and shaped by the force of the water. Taking a trail from the main area we walked along the upstream section of the river before it reaches the falls, it is wide here and few visitors venture this far.The early spring and summer meltwater floods, now long gone, have left stones and rocks exposed with puddles in between, this allowed us to walk into the river and take some great photos of the mountains around us.
To return to Jasper we took Highway 93 and stopped off at Horeshoe Lake. A small car park at the side of the road gave access to the trail, first passing over the smaller almost dry section of the lake, climbing up the path led over rocky outcrops and eventually a lake of the deepest blue appeared below us. There was not one ripple on the water which was so clear you could see the rocks as they disappeared below it and follow there shape far under the water, the reflections mesmerising so that you were not able to judge where solid forms ended and reflection began. At the waters edge we spotted some small fishes, their larger relatives must have been around somewhere but we couldn’t see them.

We spent the afternoon at Lake Beauvert, again not far from Jasper town, but with very few people in the car park we were able to walk around part of the perimeter of the lake and only see three or four others. What we did spot were two small, furry, dark brown, creatures, first of all swimming in the water but as we watched they came up on to the bank under a tree and began playing with each other, totally unaware that we were within five feet of them. I thought they were young otter to begin with, we then decided their front paws were not correct for otters, they had small pink noses on the end of a pointy stoat like face but with a glossy deep rich brown fur coat, they were truly at home on dry ground and in the water and we were totally fascinated with their antics, a third playmate emerged from a hole in the bank and the three chased around for quite some time before we walked on. On returning they were still there and another two had joined them, we still could not decide what they were but again watched as they climbed around three feet high in the pine tree, ran in between the tree roots chasing and tussling with each other. One pair in particular were having a real scrap of a play fight and there sharp little teeth looked really vicious. Eventually we left them to carry on there games and drove haRVey back to the campground. I now think, but still not 100% sure they were possibly American mink, beautiful creatures and so cute.

Thursday took us to Maligne Lake and Canyon. The lake 48km from Jasper is 22km long, and one of the biggest in the park. This time we took Highway 16 from Jasper then the Maligne Road, which was a much better road than we had both thought it might be. 27km from Jasper is Medicine Lake, sitting in the bottom of what presently looks like a grey stony quarry, the lake rises and falls with the seasons, having a river running into it, it seems to have a dry river bed as its outfall, however the water actually runs away underground resurfacing further down the valley. Tucked away in a corner of the car park, we spotted a small camper van, with German number plates and noticed a map on the side of both North and South America, being us we had to stop and chat!

Barbara and Volker the vans owners, had set out from Germany three weeks ago to travel across from east to west of Canada, north to Alaska turning south to travel back through Canada into US down into South America and travel the west coast of the Southern part of the continent, all in one year, what a trip! We talked about routes and facilities, swapped stories and contact information and bade each other happy travels, promising to read each others accounts. We may find it a bit more difficult as our German is not so good as their English, maybe this will help us learn! Good Luck both of you if you are reading this!

Parking in the designated RV area at Meligne Lake head we took the trail on the west bank of this beautiful lake which has huge mountains towering over it and seems to go on forever into the distance. The area was first made popular as a tourist location by Mary Schaefer in 1908, now one operator is allowed to take boat trips two-thirds of the way up the lake, beyond this point only canoes can paddle up into the wilderness area, to camp at the backcountry tent campgrounds there. Having enjoyed the walk on the lakeside trail we decided to treat ourselves and take the boat trip, Robert would have liked to take a canoe but ‘I don’t do small boats!’

Our Pilot, Scott and commentator Guy (French so pronounced Gee) steered us carefully up the lake and pointed out the various mountains and points of interest along the way. Our destination was Spirit Island where we were able to get off the boat for a few minutes to take photos of the more remote end of the lake and enjoy the view, for us to get a better view of the mountains and wilderness which was otherwise inaccessible was wonderful. There were quite a few canoe on the water, especially around the wilderness campground, I admire the spirit of those who take the trip and mange the three hour paddle to get there (Guy’s accent amused us when he explained how long it took to ‘piddle’ to the campground). We extended our treat with a cup of coffee and a delicious raspberry and blueberry scone when we got back to the lodge, sitting out on the decking gazing at the view!

We did not want to miss out Maligne Canyon on our journey back to Jasper. From the car park the full trail is 5 miles each way and there are six bridges that cross the canyon as the trail winds from one side to the other, but as it was around 5pm when we finally arrived there and still very hot, we decided to just walk a short way down the top part of the Canyon. It was humid and sticky at the top, but as we descended the narrow canyon waterside the temperature fell dramatically, by the time we arrived at Third Bridge (about a mile and a half) it was beautifully cool and we were happy to stand and view the water, taking lots of pictures, only problem was it felt even hotter going back up.

Our three nights in Jasper was plenty for us and we were happy to be on the road Friday morning, looking forward to this next part of the trip which would take us deep into the Rockies. We were not disappointed. Just over an hours drive from the campground we stopped at Sunwapta falls, this was the first of many stops along the road to view mountains, lakes, glaciers and waterfalls. It seemed that every few miles there was a pull in and another marvellous view, however on the final climb up to the Columbia Ice Centre we rounded a corner and the most fantastic view of the Columbia Icefield came into sight, its vastness is hard to describe.

We parked on the RV parking lot and walked to the Icefield Centre which is a hotel of 24 rooms, at this time of year costing $245 a night, an exhibition centre explaining about glaciers, a restaurant, shop and National Park Information Centre, where we enquired about overnight parking which we had been told was available. Sure enough for $10.80 we could park up, settle in and have a $245 view. We expected to be one of many taking advantage of the facility, the car park was very busy when we arrived, so we looked for a good spot to park up properly. After three moves Robert decided he was happy and we had some lunch, during which he decided he wanted to move again, but someone else parked in the spot he was hoping for before we could get there. We went back to the Centre and spent a good hour looked around the exhibition which we found very informative about how the Rocky Mountains formed (around 600million years ago), the effect of glaciers and how they shape the landscape, and the nature and wildlife surrounding them. Returning to haRVey for the rest of the afternoon to sit and look at the ever changing view in front of us as the sun moved across the mountains.

By 6pm when the Information Centre closed and the official Ice field tours stopped, there were only four RV left on the car park, within the hour there was only us, we were very surprised to be alone but it meant we had the pick of the place to park in and – we moved again! Later another Motorhome joined us along with two smaller RV’s, it must be about the largest area we have had to ourselves for a nights stop!

The evening wore on and we were mesmerised by our special view, as the sun went down in the west it gradually lit up various parts of the three large glaciers in front of us giving wonderful photo opportunities, we were going to have fun editing and deleting from the huge number of shots we had taken.

We had expected a cold night but actually the temperature did not fall below 12 degrees, the cool wind from the ice field just chilling the air enough to make it comfortable. We wanted to be out early to drive to the lower car park from where you can walk to the toe of the glacier, and we hoped to be there before it got busy as the afternoon before we had watched an ant like procession of people make the trip. We managed to get there by 8.15am and with fleece to keep us warm and hats to stop the already bright sun burning us we started the accent. The trail is maybe around half a mile but as we were starting at nearly 2000m and ascending at almost 45 degrees in places, the steep walk became surprisingly difficult and regular stops to look at the view were required to catch breath.

Up close the ice is very dirty coloured, like snow that’s been around too long, apart that is from when you look deep into the cracks or crevice where an intense aqua blue is visible. The ice starts its journey at the top of the mountain where it has previously fallen as snow. It compacts into ice up to 285m thick, and starts its slow creep down the slope moving less than a foot each year. The ice we were looking at had fallen as snow in about 1868, before modern pioneers had explored the area. As the ice near the toe melts each summer a lake gathers under the toe and a river flows from an ice cave it making it virtually impossible to access the glacier from this point and very dangerous to walk on. Further along the edge an area of shale sits on the glacier where it fell from the valley side and will now travel with the moving ice. The viewing trail stops around 50yards from the ice itself, however being up this close was fascinating. The cold air streaming from the surface of the glacier created a fresh breeze making us glad we had put on our fleece.

Back on the road we headed for Lake Louise again making many stops to look at more glacier, mountain and lake views, and although we had seen many others, each had their own qualities which we did not want to miss, like the massive rock face with its ‘weeping wall’ of spilling water, towering over the roadside, the aqua blue Lake Hector and the North Saskatchewan River, starting its cross country journey as it falls from the Columbia Ice field. From this immediate area rivers flow north to the Artic Ocean, East to the Atlantic and West to the Pacific.

The small village of Lake Louise has two campgrounds one for RV and one, bear proofed with an electric fence for tents. We really are in bear country now and around 60 bears are known to live in the vicinity, hence the need to protect those in soft sided accommodation! We were lucky to get one of the last few places available and checked in for two nights. A riverside trail of around 3 miles return trip takes you from the campground to the small shopping centre where we did our usual visit to the information centre and viewed their exhibition of, in simple terms, why the mountains look like they do and how they got like that! We did call at the supermarket but refused to buy the overpriced goods on offer, both here and at Jasper we felt the captive tourist is exploited with exorbitant prices.

Having gathered trail information and noting from the weather forecast that Sunday was due to be cooler and maybe showery we planned to walk to Lake Louise (the lake is 5km from the village and 200m higher), it would be an almost full day hike for us which we were looking forward to, if it was cooler!

We packed a picnic lunch and waterproofs and set off around 10 am, a little later than we had hoped but due to our friends on the railroad hooting at regular intervals through the night we slept in. From the campground the trail crossed the river and then ran alongside it through woodland then past the tent campground, we carefully navigated the electric gate and fence there, eventually turning left and beginning a steeper trail again in the woods. At some point I can’t quite remember where what had been a pleasant but overcast morning, changed and it started to rain. Before long the waterproofs were on and we were getting quite wet. As we crossed the busy access road to the Lake, those in cars who had taken the 5km drive must have been pleased not to be soaking like us! We were able to dry off a little in the entrance to the lovely modern toilet block in the car park and were pleased to see the rain stopping.

Rounding a corner from the car park the first view of the blue green lake is stunning, even on a damp cloudy morning, it sits at the feet of several large mountains and is fed by the upper and lower Victoria glaciers. Facing this lovely picture card view is the Fairmont Lake Louise Château Hotel, it was built in 1923 adjacent to an earlier hotel which itself had replaced the original 1890’s cabin where tourist had first been accommodated. Unfortunately the ornate second building was destroyed in a fire but the hotel now standing houses small exclusive shops restaurant and a café all in very elegant surroundings which we enjoyed a wander around before a welcome coffee overlooking the colourful gardens.

The return hike was thankfully drier and the cool temperature allowed us to enjoy our first real long walk since we started out. We followed the old tramway trail again running alongside a fast flowing outfall from the lake above, we were pleased to find along the way a lookout point over the village and a view of the mountains beyond still a little covered in cloud from the earlier rain. Having completed ten miles we arrived back in haRVey a little foot weary but pleased to have escaped any more showers!

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