Canadian Rockies

21-26 Aug 2014

random trip report

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My flight from SFO to Calgary is delayed but uneventful. Y meets me. We circle Calgary (a plains-filling eco-nightmare of oil-drenched sprawl) and get on the Trans-Canada highway.

The weather is overcast and drizzly. We gain altitude and soon are in the Canadian Rockies, with huge mountains looming on either side of the road. Unfortunately, the clouds obscure most of them, but I tell Y that I sense their auras.

We arrive at the Canmore Econolodge. We walk into town and explore the main drag, which is new, upscale, outdoors-oriented, and touristy. We have dinner at the Grizzly Paw Brew Pub. I have the kale/avocado/strawberry salad and an IPA.

On the way back, we discover a new trail along the river. I skip a rock or two. Y (who got up very early) falls asleep immediately.


We sniff at the motel breakfast, then get breakfast bagels and coffee at Rocky Mt. Bagel in town. We get some food at Safeway: pita bread, hummus, brie, cheddar cheese, and some pasta which we never use.

After a brief stop in Banff (like Canmore but a bit bigger and more touristy) we drive to the Mt. Bourgeau trail head for our first hike. The trail climbs gradually through forest for several miles, leading to a small lake in a cirque.

A light drizzle or mist falls. I have a new waterproof shell from North Face, which serves me quite well.

I feel good physically but am in a bad mood. "Jeanie with the Light Brown Hair" plays over and over in my head; I try to push it out with my new Schubert piece. I'm reminded that hiking confronts you with whatever is in your head; if it's bad stuff, you have a long day.

The trail continues up a slope to the right of the cirque, crossing a scree field, passing another small lake, then arriving at a pass from which, according to Y, there's a great view on a clear day.

I'm faintly visible in LL corner

Crossing scree field

From here the trail ascends steeply another 1,500' to the summit, but I'm feeling pretty beat by this point so we turn around. We have lunch of pita and brie, and some corn/sesame chips that Y has brought, which are a staple throughout the trip.

On the way down we encounter two teenage girls with shorts, gaiters, and stout thighs, who turn out to be hockey players.

Getting back to the car around 5 PM, we decide to backtrack and have dinner in Banff. Y experiences parking anxiety but we eventually find a place. We go to a Mexican place, sitting in the back where they have free peanuts and you throw the shells on the floor. Y has "El Gordo Burrito". The food is good, and they're showing rock-climbing videos on the big-screen TVs.

We walk around Banff, mocking the tourists. I'm tempted by a placard saying "In dog beers, I've only had one".

We drive to the Castle Mountain hostel and check in. The hostel keeper, Tony, runs a good hostel. I shower and make my bed in the male dorm.

The lounge area is comfy and has a wood-burning stove in the middle. I pick up a Reader's Digest with an article about Tantric sex. A young German couple in the corner is, for all practical purposes, engaged in this. Y moves us to a location where they're blocked by the stove.


I sleep well; the bunk room was quiet. I make oatmeal and coffee, and light the fire in the common room. On our way out, Tony demonstrates his crow calls, which are impressive.

We stop briefly at Lake Louise, which is postcard-beautiful but aswarm with tourists. Some of them have a new gadget that holds your phone or camera a few feet away while you take a group selfie. There's a grand hotel; Y goes up a beautiful staircase and uses the loo.

Lake Louise. It's that color because of glacial flour.

We turn north on 93, which is plausibly billed as "the most beautiful road in the world".

We drive to Bow Lake and get on the trail toward the Bow Hut. The trail skirts the lake, crosses a rocky wash, then heads up a valley at the head of which is a huge cascade flowing from a glacier above it.

The trail branches to the left and crosses over a huge boulder lodged at the top of a deep slot canyon with water raging far below. This involves an easy but attention-grabbing climbing move.

The huge boulder

Looking uphill from there

Then the trail goes through alternating mossy forest, boulder fields, and steep rocky slopes. Eventually it passes the treeline and comes out onto the broad left slope of a valley leading to another glacier. I'm wondering where the hell the hut is. I look around, and spot the hut, high atop a ridge on the right side of the valley. To get there, we'd have to go up to the head of the valley, cross the stream, and climb the long slope to the right.

Incredible geology. The Burgess Shale is not far from here

Beautiful rocks around here; I picked up several.

The Bow Hut is faintly visible at right

I hate to wimp out, but this is too much for me. We stop at some big rocks and have our lunch, which is mostly pita and brie. There are many beautiful rocks. I poke around and collect a few. Y is much taken by a kind of rock with stripes in two shades of gray.

Y liked this class of rock

We descend. Y takes a brief swim in the frigid lake; I soak my feet in it.

On a tip from my friend Tara, we stop at Mistaya Canyon, where a turbid stream has eroded a deep, swirly canyon in rock, maybe 50' deep. The water rages violently at the bottom, spraying mist in the air and creating a fern/moss ecosystem alond the ledges. Y and I belly up to the edge of a cliff and look down at the roiling waters. I imagine I can feel the trembling of the rock under me, though Y scoffs at this.

In Canada, a great deal of effort goes into making everything both English and French. On the plus side, this makes it easy to pick up various words in French, like "sortie" and "champs". Y informs me that in some cases French is more precise than English; for example, "fleuve" means "river that empties into the sea", while "rivière" describes those that empty into une rivière, or un fleuve.

We check in at the Rampart Creek hostel, which is rustic but nice. There are two coed bunkhouses, a common area, some non-smelly pit toilets, and a sauna. Y recognizes a young woman from Red Deer. I chat with Rita, a tall doctor from Brazil, who was at last night's hostel as well.

The hostel is close to a 50' cliff with a couple of bolted climbing routes; just beyond that is a fast-moving stream, and to the left is steep path up a 100' hill.

We make gnocchi and marinara sauce, with trail mix for dessert, and drink two cans of mass-market beer that Y has brought in a cooler. A red-headed woman from Vancouver and a guy from Alberta get into a mild argument about oil pipelines.

A group of three returns from an 11-hour hiking epic. One of them, a Chinese guy, is so tired that he can't remember the name of the city where he lives (Edmonton).


I sleep poorly; in fact I don't recall sleeping at all, except that Y says I snored. We finish the oatmeal, then drive to the Icefields Parkway Visitor Center, a big tourist hell-hole. We give a ride to Arvid, a pleasant young German who paid $100 for a glacier tour and is late. He's pissed off at a French group who said they'd give him a ride at 9:00 but were just starting breakfast at 9:30.

We park at the Athabasca glacier. Arvid's group is still gearing up, so he's OK. Y and I hop the barrier, walk across some rocks to the glacier, and clamber around a little. A couple with crampons and rope is starting up, saying they'll climb to the top of the glacier in 3 hours. Walking tour groups use a fancy plank bridge to cross a stream that one can easily step across.

Athabasca glacier; it's receded > 100m in last decade

A procession of tour buses crawl up a road on the left side of the glacier, then cross the glacier to a flat part in the middle. Yuck. The glacier has retreated hundreds of yards in just a decade thanks to activities like this.

We drive 1 Km back down the road to the Wilcox Pass trailhead. It's sunny and warm. We head up the trail. Y sets a fast pace. We pass a pair of bright red Adirondack chairs and sit briefly.

We leave the trees and emerge onto a large plateau that resembles the Scottish moor. The weather abruptly turns cold and windy, and it starts to hail slightly.

We take a left turn and climb to the Wilcox Lookout (or at least a nearby hill). A group of 10 or so mountain sheep sit serenely on a nearby slope. We stop and have lunch: brown bread, cheddar, trail mix, and the ever-present corn chips. In front of us is a spectacular view of Mt. Andromeda, Mt. Kitchener, Snow Dome, and various and sundry glaciers descending from the giant snow field behind the line of peaks.

We descend. In the parking lot there are two vans full of geology students from the University of Victoria. Their professor wears a bizarre plaid tie. I ask a pleasant young man a series of questions about the geology of the Rockies, and we briefly discuss granitic plutons.

We make a bathroom stop at the visitor center. Y reports that the toilets are among the most disgusting anywhere: men (mostly Canadian, one would assume) urinate randomly on the floors and toilet seats. I avoid the bathrooms and check out a row of wooden signs pointing to mountain peaks and showing info about first and recent ascents.

We drive past the Endless Chain (a long high ridge) to the town of Jasper, which is similar to Banff but a shade less tony. We check in to the Tonquin Inn: expensive but plain. After a tiff about whether to walk or drive, we walk to the downtown area and eat at Downstream, which is recommended on Yelp. I have the bison ribs and an IPA, Y has salmon. There are more climbing videos on the big-screen TVs.

A sign outside a bar says "jokes about German sausages are the wurst", and on the other side "Save our planet - it's the only one with beer".

We walk around looking for ice cream. Various places sell Nestle's, which we eschew in favor of Chapman's, a Canadian product from Ontario.


We discover that our motel includes breakfast at the Prime Rib place next door, which is very good, so we load up on calories. We stop at the Bear Claw bakery for coffee, cinnamon rolls and cookies for the road. I find an American dollar bill on the street next to the car - woo hoo! Y says it's just like a scene from "La grande séduction".

We retrace our route down hwy 93, stopping at Athabasca falls, which is yet another deep narrow canyon carved out over millenia by raging glacial waters. Yawn.

We turn left on hwy 11, the David Thompson hwy (he was an early explorer of the region). I take a turn driving. A truck carrying a load of giant rocks has left the road and overturned, creating a brief traffic holdup.

We drive by Abraham Lake, a huge aqua-blue reservoir which according to Y is an "angry lake" and not amenable to water sports or other recreation.

We pass by a huge area burned by a recent forest fire, which Y drove through on an earlier trip, with trees burning next to the road.

We make a brief hiking stop, crossing a bouncy metal suspension footbridge and going along a wooden walkway protecting the sandy meadow. We witness an aerial battle between a hawk and a crow.

As we continue driving, the land gradually flattens out and the air gets hot. The lack of AC in Y's Honda Fit becomes evident. We stop in the town of Rocky Mountain House (originally a fur-trading post). It's a horrible place of tank-like pickup trucks and oil wives. Y once considered taking a job here. We stop at a gift shop that also sells frozen yogurt w/ blended-in fruit; Y gets mixed berry and I get cranberry and mango; both are extremely good.

Oil jacks begin to dot the farmland. Most commerce is oil-related.

Approaching Red Deer, we pass by Sylvan Lake (the redneck Riviera). It's around 5 PM, and there's heavy traffic from people returning home from Red Deer to their McMansions.

Y's condo is a block off Gaetz Ave, a 4-lane road with miles of shopping malls and franchise stores. In Red Deer, motor vehicles outnumber pedestrians and bikes roughly 1000 to 1. Y is active in trying to get sidewalks built, which is in fact happening.

We drop off our stuff and walk to a Vietnamese place for dinner. There are lots of public green spaces (vast expanses of neatly-mowed grass sprinkled with spruce, elm, and larch trees). We see a hoppy rabbit. We walk partly along an odd green strip that Y calls "Dairy Queen Corridor" because you can get to a DQ that way.

At the restaurant, we send back the tepid tea. The toddler son of the owners steals a Bahn Mi sandwich from customer's plate while his dad is trying to serve food, then grabs it again and tries to eat it. Y is extremely amused.

We return home, share the cinnamon roll, and watch various YouTube videos, including a Blackadder sequel and the Mr. Bean Olympic segment.


Y makes chick-pea flour pancakes for breakfast. We take a long bike ride through various Red Deer urban parks, crossing the Red Deer River, stopping briefly at the Heritage Ranch (promising restaurant), and visiting Red Deer College, where I take a quick tour of a space-age library, looking for a particular librarian.

The Red Deer airport is the smallest I've ever seen. Ahead of us in line are two breeder oil wives with a vast array of bulging suitcases, strollers, and screaming toddlers; their fat-gut oil-field husbands are not in evidence. A serene young woman processes them, though it takes about 30 min. I'm a bit concerned about the plane's ability to leave the ground with all this weight.

Y and I sadly say goodbye, and I get on the tiny prop plane, where each seat is both aisle and window. We leave about 30 min late, which makes me a bit anxious. But when I arrive in Calgary I see that my next flight is delayed from 6:25 PM to 9:15 PM. I have a sandwich at Tim Horton's and work on my laptop. at 7 PM I check the flight status and see that it's been cancelled! No announcement or email.

I return to the security checkpoint, where I wait 20 min for a United agent to escort me back to the main terminal. There I wait in line for almost an hour, experience considerable anxiety and depression - I'm at the stage where I just want to be home. I chat with a pleasant African woman who's in the same boat as me. Ahead, I overhear agents talking about "full flights" and "not getting out until Thursday". Yikes! But the book me on an 8 AM flight via Denver the next day and give me a hotel voucher.

Eventually I arrive at the hotel, and have a beer and snack in the lounge. The African woman (Tina) is there too, and we say hi. Wednesday I get up at 6, enjoy the non-terrible breakfast buffet, and get to the airport. As I get to my gate I hear a page for a passenger on the (earlier, direct) SFO flight who's not at the gate. I high-tail it to the gate and manage to get the last seat. Tina arrives just after me, and she smiles graciously at me even though I know she wants to seat too.

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