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Banff National Park

Friday, 17 September 2004
written by Teresa

Straddling the peaks of the Canadian Rockies and the border between British Columbia and Alberta is a cluster of National Parks comprising Kootenay, Yoho, Banff and Jasper. It is one of the largest protected areas in the world, its beauty highlighted at this time of year by snow dusted peaks and autumnal shades.

Low heavy cloud hid the higher mountains and swirled along the valleys as we drove into Banff, Canada’s first National Park. One of the unusual characteristics of the Park is the existence of town-sites within its boundary and curiosity took us towards Banff itself. We were expecting a small sleepy town where we could buy diesel and a few basic groceries. Instead we found a tourist hub of tacky souvenir shops, restaurants and the usual array of up-market stores aimed at the moneyed visitors. Even on a wet evening the pavements were heaving, large groups of holidaymakers strewn out in unruly crocodiles jostling umbrellas as they made their way down the main shopping street. It was a bit of a shock and the effect was not even mitigated by the surrounding mountains that remained hidden in the cloud. That this is a popular destination can be in no doubt, the Park providing over eleven hundred campsites spread over three campgrounds on the edge of town. Mosquito Creek Camp It all proved too much and after one night we moved north to the much smaller less developed Mosquito Creek with only thirty-two pitches.

Given its name it was perhaps a blessing that the temperatures dropped and the heavens opened for the next two days. Fortunately, each campground in the Parks has a shelter with picnic tables and an iron, wood-burning stove. For those without the comfort or refuge of an RV these are of particular interest but the one at Mosquito proved less than satisfactory in its performance. It first came to our notice when large amounts of smoke began billowing out not only from the chimney but also from the open fronted building and hastily opened windows along the other three sides. This continued for some considerable time and it was hard to believe that the people inside were not being slowly but surely asphyxiated. This fear proved unfounded as one of them climbed onto the slanted roof, stick in hand and proceeded to nonchalantly walk up the incline and begin prodding the chimney, presumably in the belief that it was blocked. Needless to say this did not prove particularly helpful, the smoke continued to pour forth and he eventually saw the error of his ways and retreated. Not to be deterred, or perhaps driven on by the ongoing rain, the determined folk continued in their efforts, sending varying amounts of smoke out of the shelter for the rest of the day and the following morning, until two Park employees showed up and within minutes had stopped the entertainment but improved the air quality being inhaled by those inside.

At Mosquito we got our first real glimpse of the mountains as the cloud eddies moved around the peaks surrounding the campground and on our third morning the rain stopped and we set off up the Molar Pass Trail. The path climbed gently up the lower slopes through a dense forest of spruce and fir. The floor was covered in a thick carpet of vibrant green mosses, a wide variety of fungi growing up through the rich covering. Molars The air temperature was still low as we emerged into the wide-open valley of Mosquito Creek with its multiple channels carrying the water as it rushed over the rocky bed and fanned out onto the slower silted courses wending their way through the many islands and banks. The evergreens gave way to shorter deciduous vegetation and the scree slopes on the south side tumbled down towards the floor. Off in the distance at the head of the valley, the distinctively shaped Molars gleamed, freshly brushed that morning with a new fall of snow. The forest again engulfed the path as we continued upwards over numerous stream crossings and into a long stretch of trail where the mud tried to suck the boots off our feet and made a challenge of remaining vertical. After a steeper rocky section we eventually emerged into an Alpine meadow surrounded on three sides by snow dusted peaks, the expanse and the views giving a feeling of exhilaration after the enclosing woods. The forest had given way to scattered stunted trees around the edges of the area with soft spongy ground-hugging plants providing the majority of cover, broken occasionally by a protruding rock. As we sat in the cold wind, huddled in all our layers, the cloud cleared and the sun shone bringing an added beauty and rewarding us for the three hours walk. North Molar Pass These mountains are the most dramatic we have seen anywhere in the Rockies. Their lower slopes are clothed in the dark greens of conifer, scored by the lighter shades of avalanche shoots and the greys of scree slopes sweeping across their flanks. The tree line seems surprisingly close, any suggestion of gentle lines being left behind as the barer reaches of the range stretch out above the forests. At higher altitude the shapes become sharp and angular, the rock eroded by extreme conditions producing arętes that define the skyline. Snow dusts the peaks, accentuating and defining their out-lines, glaciers hang on the edge of cirques defying gravity. They are truly magnificent and awe-inspiring.

Leaving Mosquito Creek and going out onto the Icefields Parkway was a surprise after three nights tucked away in a quieter part of the Park. The traffic was comparatively heavy and the overlooks full of tour buses and other vehicles. The Parkway runs from Lake Louise in Banff, north to the town of Jasper in the Park of the same name. While the road makes the area accessible, at the same time it passes through remote high altitude terrain; a couple of kilometers from the highway, nature reasserts itself, virtually all signs of humans left behind.

We wanted a gentler, shorter walk than the previous day and so headed out towards Bow Glacier Falls on a trail initially hugging the shores of Bow Lake. Bow Lake The water gave us our first real appreciation of the startling turquoise colours of these mountain lakes, the tones varying from a deep rich green shade under overcast skies, and lightening to an unnaturally bright blue when the sun shines. The absolute clarity of the water became obvious as we looked down into the depths, our eyes following the surface of a scree slope disappearing down into the lake. The Lake has its origins in its namesake glacier further up the valley and the trail left the waterside and travelled across the wide-open rocky-floored valley carrying the water from the ice. A short climb at the end took us up from the valley bottom and across a chaotic field of moraine debris, loose rocks and small streams underfoot, towards the waterfall of glacial melt water cascading down the steep back wall.

Cirque Lake After a night at Waterfowl Lakes campground we woke to our first clear sunny morning, immediately changed our plans and set off on our third walk in as many days. The Cirque Lake and Chephren Lake trails proved an unpleasant experience with few views along the way, as we laboured through the forest. The path was covered in a complex lattice of protruding roots and a liberal coating of mud, making the going slow, each step having to be carefully chosen. We soon tired of the experience. Fortunately the destinations were worth every kilometer. The colours at Cirque were intense, the lime greens and golds of the lake grasses highlighted next to the turquoise waters, the scene cupped by the dark rock of the back walls, their shadowed surfaces contrasting with the startling white of glaciers, their peaks dusted by the latest snow. Reality and reflection were hard to distinguish, the image a perfect replication in the absolute stillness of the mirror. Experiencing such beauty is deeply enriching; it expands the spirit, opens the heart, and brings a peacefulness to the body. It was a hard place to leave but we dragged ourselves away setting off for Chephren Lake, arriving in the mid-afternoon with the cloud beginning to gather and the wind whipping across the water surface. Chephren Lake Mount Chephren itself was named after the Egyptian Pharaoh who built the second of the great pyramids; its shape echoing the man made structures, its steep sides rising directly from the lakeshore. The scene presented almost in monochromes, a log providing a waterside seat with stunning views across to the glaciers hanging off the back wall; a perfect stop for an afternoon snack before battling our way home to the camper. By the next morning the rain had returned and we left Banff for the time being, driving on into Jasper National Park along the Icefields Parkway.

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