Peyto Lake – Banff National Park, Alberta
“There’s a race of men that don’t fit in,
A race that can’t sit still;
So they break the hearts of kith and kin, and they roam the world at will.
They range the field and rove the flood,
And they climb the mountain’s crest; theirs is the curse of the gypsy blood,
And they don’t know how to rest.”
During the waning days of June, five days after completing a 10-day trek around the Cordillera Huayhuash of Peru, I boarded a train bound for Jasper, Alberta with two of my closest friends. We piled into the narrow compartment of a sleeper car, pulled out two bottles of wine, unwrapped the prosciutto and cheese we had purchased at the Granville Island Public Market, and raised plastic cups filled with Cab Sauv in a toast to Canada.
Robert Service was on my mind in that moment, my cup held slightly aloft, my eyes gazing out the window as we began to move down the tracks away from Vancouver, and he would remain on my mind for much of the next three days as we sped through the Canadian Rockies. Known as “the Bard of the Yukon,” Service drifted through western North America before settling in the Yukon territory during the first years of the 20th century; his poetry conveys the restlessness of the Klondike gold rush era and depicts a race of hardened men chiseled by the timber they cut and the mines they worked. As a teenager, his poems called me to the wild; as an adult, they speak directly to the person I’ve become—someone with gypsy blood running through her veins.
I slept for most of the 20-hour passage between Vancouver and Jasper—widely recognized as one of the most beautiful train rides in the world—succumbing to a type of narcolepsy brought on by the sheer exhaustion of weeks of continuous movement. Those times when I was awake, however, did not disappoint: Mount Robson, the highest peak in the Canadian Rockies, stood resplendent in sunlight; dense stands of Douglas Fir hugged the hillsides; the world outside our Observation Club car window was aflood with blues and greens, and over the quiet murmur of hushed “oohs” and “aahs” I overheard a fellow passenger ask when we would see a grizzly bear.
We arrived in Jasper late in the afternoon, bid adieu to our train attendants who would spend the following four days heading east to Toronto, and promptly began a tour de force attempt to get a feel for Jasper while never leaving the immediate confines of our hotel. Normally that would be an impossible task, but in this case we were staying at the Fairmont Jasper Park Lodge whose location on Beauvert Lake within walking distance from Old Fort Point was ideal for our short 16-hour stay.
From the lodge, we quickly hiked to Old Fort Point with its magnificent panoramic views of the Athabasca Valley unfurling beneath us. The setting felt oddly reminiscent of any number of Colorado mountain towns—the air heavy with the smell of spruce and fir, the fading afternoon light refracted by clouds and dispersed into a kaleidoscope of rays which fell upon nearby peaks. But this was Canada. There were loons and lynx and grizzly bears, and there was the glacier-fed Athabasca River. I loved the Athabasca at first sight: loved its opaque gray color saturated with silt, loved the patterns that cascaded across its waters which were cast by the angular shadows of overhanging trees, loved the infinite appearance of its forward march towards the Arctic Ocean.
We followed the Athabasca toward its source the following morning, departing Jasper at 9am and moving past the crown jewels of the Canadian Rockies at breakneck speed, stopping at Athabasca Falls, the Columbia Icefield, Peyto Lake and Lake Louise in quick succession. We were traveling with SunDog Tours and our driver spoke at length as to why he believes the infestation of pine bark beetles in the Athabasca Valley—vehemently damned for killing trees and contributing to the spread of wildfires in the American West—is actually a good thing for ecological succession and forest renewal. The pair seated behind me, a retired couple from somewhere deep in the southern hinterland near the Gulf Coast, kept asking about grizzly bears.
Nature is not new to me; I’m a child of the outdoors who loves to sleep outside and finds long periods of time without bathing incredibly rejuvenating. But the Canadian Rockies were able to cast nature in a new light. While driving along Icefields Parkway, a 140-mile stretch of road that connects Jasper National Park with Banff National Park, I noticed, perhaps for the first time, the stark geometric beauty intrinsic in nature. Lines of parallel water runoff coursed across glaciers; the Athabasca tore a triangle-shaped swath of earth out of the valley floor as it sped away from its point of origin in the Columbia Icefield; impossibly blue Peyto Lake stretched out three fingers as if trying to grasp something in the trees that enclosed it.
I also noticed, at first warily then with increased appreciation, the ease with which we could access these iconic places. Eight glaciers converge to form the Columbia Icefield, with the immense Athabasca Glacier located within walking distance of the Icefields Parkway. Park your car, buy a ticket, and you can find yourself ambling across a glacier within a matter of minutes. The best view of Peyto Lake is from Bow Summit, also immediately off the parkway, where you can watch glacier rock flour stream into the turquoise waters. Stock photo standout Lake Louise with its boathouse and red-hulled canoes is the backdrop to an imposing hotel that would give the Grand Budapest a run for its money. To reach it, you simply need to exit the highway and drive up a paved, winding road for five minutes.
I have spent many years operating under the assumption that the most beautiful places on earth often require considerable effort—usually intense physical exertion—to reach. You need to struggle; it has to be hard. That Tom Hanks quote from A League of Their Own comes to mind: “It’s suppose to be hard. If it wasn’t hard, everyone would do it. The hard is what makes it great.” Driving the Icefields Parkway disproved that assumption over the course of an afternoon. Its accessibility ensures that people of all ages and from all corners of the globe can marvel at glaciers and precipitous peaks (and yes, grizzly bears) while receiving a succinct mental injection on the importance of wilderness preservation and environmental education. In this case, the easy is what makes it great.
“You guys are going to be in Canada on Canada Day, eh?” said every Canadian ever when they heard we would be in their country on July 1st. As its name indicates, Canada Day is the national day of Canada, frequently referred to as “Canada’s birthday.” And like the United States’ Fourth of July holiday, it became apparent in short order that Canada Day was a day for parades, barbeques, flags, and incredible feats of inebriation.
Our version of Canada Day began with a 3-hour tour of Banff and its surrounding environs with Discover Banff Tours. Led by an extremely friendly young woman who had been waiting for more than a month to schedule an appointment for her second ACL surgery (a knock on Canada’s free universal healthcare system, although she was not complaining), we gaped at the hoodoos off of Tunnel Mountain Road, watched kayaks float across the mirror waters of Two Jack Lake, and conjured up images of old moneyed tourists from the late 19th century who stayed at the Banff Springs Hotel when they rode the train west seeking convalescence at the nearby hot springs.
As the afternoon approached and people flooded the streets of downtown Banff in a sea of red and white apparel, we hopped on a shuttle bus to Lake Louise, located 45 minutes away right off of the Trans-Canada Highway. When we had visited the renowned lake on the previous day, wind and rain had prevented us from appreciating the view in all of its glory. So on this most auspicious of days—Canada Day—we decided to return and do all of those things we Americans assume Canadians love to do: paddle across glacier-fed waters, drink Bloody Caesars (the Canadian version of a Bloody Mary using clamato instead of tomato juice), and gorge ourselves on poutine.
When we arrived at Lake Louise, a group of young women draped in Canadian flags were plying its frigid waters on stand up paddleboards while tourists snapped selfies from the shore and balloon-wielding children tottered about the walkway. The once-clear skies promised afternoon rain showers, and we scampered aboard a canoe before Mother Nature could deny us the experience. It was a zoo on the water. Canoes moved erratically; people paddled in a haphazard fashion; the lake was deluged with little red boats and the intermixed sounds of laughter and shrieking and conversation.
As I marveled at the long line of people—a motley cross-section of young and old, fit and unfit, local and foreign—waiting to rent a canoe, the words of Robert Service once again came to mind:
“Have you seen God in His splendors,
heard the text that nature renders?
(You’ll never hear it in the family pew).
The simple things, the true things, the silent men who do things—
Then listen to the Wild—it’s calling you.”