North of the Border

 

Finding extraordinary beauty in the Canadian Rockies.

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The first thought I had upon my arrival at Moraine Lake was: Do I deserve to see this?

It was part self-deprecation, sure, but it was more than that. As I climbed the rocky steps to get a better look at the so-called Twenty Dollar View—named for its place on the backs of some Canadian bills—it occurred to me that I was wrapped in the arms of perfection. Between tall, skinny pines framed by a Bob Ross-style backdrop of glaciers and mountains, I saw aquatic heaven in the form of the most stunning blue lake imaginable.

My next thought, with mountain goats grazing on one side and valley after majestic valley on the other, was: This is the best place I have ever been.

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The Flying Longhorns arrived at the most photographed spot in Canada, Lake Louise. We gazed upon her from the ludicrously named Fairview Lookout, marveling at the rock flour-tinged emerald expanse, which changes in color as temperatures rise and the glaciers erode. The Texans among our group wondered aloud if a quick dip would be possible. Only if we were OK with hypothermia, we were told. The rock flour that gives Louise her magnificent hue is transported by meltwater from the glaciers above, and, of course, glacier water is cold. Below 40 degrees, to be exact. Needless to say, we stayed on dry land, save for a rafting trip down the Athabasca River and a boat cruise to Spirit Island.

On the way to Jasper National Park, we piled into an Ice Explorer—essentially a train car on monster truck wheels—that spit us out onto the Athabasca Glacier. I walked, slipping just once, across the white-gray expanse to a crest from which pure glacier water flowed from the Columbia Icefield. Dipping a plastic cup underneath, I was later asked if that was the best water I’ve ever tasted. I don’t have much of a refined palate when it comes to water, but I can attest that it was the coldest. And if you’re reading this, I didn’t fall into a crevasse, so the excursion was a win all around.

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We stayed in cabins across the Jasper Park Lodge property, a more rustic experience, and one in which the likes of Bing Crosby, Queen Elizabeth, and Marilyn Monroe have partaken. I watched the sun setting over Lac Beauvert, still in disbelief at my luck, until a loud couple sat down on the bench next to me, disrupting my moment of zen and instantly aging me into a grumbling grandpa.

I have nothing bad to say about Alberta or the Canadian Rockies. From a social standpoint—with its rodeos and friendly locals—the region isn’t so different from the American South. The terrain and climate are different stories. I do, however, have bad things to say about litterers, who fall just below people who don’t use their turn signals on humanity’s pecking order.

From the single McCafé cup, lidless and snugly fit inside the drink-holder built for four, carelessly tossed in the woods encircling Lake Louise, to the graveyard of plastic water bottles placed just over the railing near the Natural Bridge at Kicking Horse River, all I could think was: Maybe some people don’t deserve to see this. Luckily, the problem didn’t seem especially widespread, but just one Snickers wrapper carelessly strewn among the idyll is more than enough.

Oh well. Sitting shotgun in a helicopter that zipped along the Three Sisters Peaks and curled around the crevasses of Gloria Glacier cleansed my palate.

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As our bus circled Jasper and headed through British Columbia on the way toward the southern side of Banff, and our final destination at the castle-like, historic Fairmont Banff Springs, the soothing recorded voice of Canadian Rockies expert Ben Gadd piped through the speakers. Gadd instructed us, as he had thousands before, to turn away from the mountains, glaciers, and lakes all around us—and then to look back again. This place is always changing. Lake Louise and her seasonally transforming color, the constantly shifting glaciers, and the charred, collapsing pines of Snarl Peak—the victims of a recent wildfire—will be different every time you look. It’s truly beautiful, and hopefully that beauty will be preserved for many years to come.

You could take it from me-—the bewildered, amazed, and, by the end of my trip, deserving witness to Alberta’s beauty—but you’d be better served by another voice we heard on our bus. That was John Denver, through his loving tribute to the Canadian wonder: “Clear waters are laughing, they sing to the skies / the Rockies are living, they never will die.”

Photos by Bernie Grushkin.

 

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