In this journal:
- glacial lakes of unfathomable blue;
- wild flower of iridescent red;
- sky full of fluffy whites;
- bear, chipmunk, marmot, and an angry baby elk.
Forcing My Hand
We truly exist in the weirdest dimension. If you have been living under a rock with rather decent internet connections to read this blog, I have some sad news for you: the world as we know it is no more. A Chinese man slurped a flying rat and now I am stuck in my Canadian house dealing with the big sad.
I have been stuck at this North American home since the end of EuroHop19/20, in February! In fact, I have never been at one place for this long in my adult life! (HOLD ON A MINUTE: I ordered some groceries before my hastened departure and they are probably still sitting on my doorway in my Shanghai home! Oh no.) This is too much. Cabin fever would burn me down long before coronavirus overheats my tiny brain! This is why when my province, British Columbia, opened up for tourism after seeing less than a dozen cases for a few weeks, I decided to go with my mother on a classic roadtrip: the Canadian Rockies.
We took every precaution: driving our own car, bringing our own food, sanitizing the hotel rooms completely before settling in, and most importantly, going to places where few people would be. Indeed, this turned out to be a wise decision, as a local supermarket hop had more people than our 5-day roadtrip combined. And more fortunately, with foreigners now locked outside Canada and significantly fewer domestic visitors, the nature of our backyard turned out to be even more stunning than usual.
I hope you are prepared to embark on a different kind of trip, involving face masks and world-class sceneries. This is the new reality we live in, and this blog is dealing with it.
The roadtrip began with a drive down Trans-Canadian Highway from Vancouver. 4 hours later, upon leaving the city of Kamloops, I directed the wheels down the road along the gorgeous Shuswap Lake. Within an hour, we were standing in the charming little town of Salmon Arm. (Yes, my European viewers, 5 hours of morning drive is considered “meh” here in Canada)
Since the local claim to fame, Shuswap Pie Company, was only doing takeout after the advent of double-plus bad cough, I gladly ordered two yummy pies to eat at the lakefront. The blue lake rippled waves right by the famous wooden wharf, where flowers bloomed in the seemingly-scorching sunlight. In the tree-lined shadows, my mother and I gobbled down the crusted pastries like there was no tomorrow.
After admiring the local fauna, we smudged off the sauces from the shirt, and continued down the narrow two-lane highway, only to stop at a tiny pull-out by the road. It was unmarked and dangerously close to traffic, but hid the first roadside secret we would encounter during this roadtrip. Just steps off the noisy asphalt was Kay Falls, completely overflowing due to heavy downpours during previous days.
The outpour was so vehement that I could not approach at all, and my clothes were completely soaked by the end of our 5-minute excursion. Another hour down the road, we reached Yoho National Park, the first of the half-dozen or so in national park country. Normally, one would have to pay a fee in order to participate in any activity in the parks. However, since a fellow Chinese chef decided to “go wild” a few months ago, nobody was manning any of these remote booths by the nature walks. You would never see me complaining not having to pay, so I gladly dragged my concerned mom onto the Giant Cedars broadwalk, an easy 20-minute stroll in ancient rainforest unique to the Columbian Mountains.
Trees here grow especially tall due to the fact that most rains precipitate out on this range of mountains, instead of the Rockies behind them, so they got way more nutrients washed down the slopes than their counterparts a few dozen kilometers down the road. Next stop was not far, in Bear Creek. A steep walk took us all the way to the roaring stream, filled to the brim with broken branches, all washed down the slopes by the powerful waterfall.
After nearly 8 hours of driving, we eventually settled down in a small countryside inn, located in the middle of nowhere on the mountain. We were the only guest, and that was absolutely perfect for social distancing, and I gladly relaxed with the hammoks on the verdant slopes, situated right next to a slow-cracking bonfire.
There is nothing better for getting away than being in the Canadian wilderness. No mask is necessary, not because we believe it infringes on our god-given rights to breathe, but because it would take the lung capacity of a whale to cough onto someone else out here. It was practically difficult to spread any disease, unless you mean the travel bug: everyone here already has it!
Next morning, I woke up to a breakfast sandwich, only to be harrassed by the camp cat demanding a slice of my salami.
Oh, sorry, I mean, gently persuaded by the ever-so-loving eyes of the cat which totally does not have murderous intentions and a sniper on me as I type these words. My apologies.
Glacier National Park
Done sharing all my cured meats with the fluffy cloud of darkness, I piloted the car down the mountainous highway and entered the grandiose Glacier National Park. This is one of those classic places that one cannot miss on the journey through Rockies. Not only does it offer world-class alpine recreations, but it also is the place of the Bergess Shale. On the steep rocky slopes behind the tiny village of Field, buried millions of fossils created 508 million years ago. This is the first location discovered to ever preserve soft tissues in ancient animals, which made it the most valuable site for studies of the Cambian era. With these invaluable finds, the scientists were able to take a glimpse of exactly how these prehistoric predators and preys interacted before the idea of “spine” was a thing. Sadly, the geological tours were shut down due to a particular sickness, so we simply admired Mt. Stephen along the misty river before continuing. First stop, of course, was the unnaturally natural Emerald Lake.
This is one of those glacial melt lakes that have become common roadside attractions in these valleys, while being completely holy shall it befall onto other parts of the world. The glacial melt “rock powder” absorbs all light except blue, making the water a special milky blue color that is hard to capture with manmade devices.
Next stop is Natural Bridge, a large stone arch blocking Amiskwi River. Yet the ingenious Mother Nature crafted a way for the unstoppable water and the impregnable rock to coexist: millions of years of crashing waves drilled a gigantic hole for the water to pass right beneath the rock surface, forming a unique “bridge” of sorts way before the word came into existence. One used to be able to walk across the river with nothing but a bit of caution. For safety, the area was completely fenced off to preserve its beauty and visitors’ lives.
The other jewel of the park is Takakkaw Falls, a mindblowing drop of 370 meters from a glacial field into the valley below. In Cree, the word “Takakkaw” means “wonderful”, and their ancient wisdom cannot give a better description of this place.
In the beginning of July, the ice melt was near the maximum, and the sheer force of gravity made the water break apart upon hitting the rocky bottom, suspending most of the droplets in the air, so moist that it was practically a cold sauna. Just getting near it would mean a shower, and I was forcefully stopped near the base simply due to the fact that I could not open my eyes.
Banff National Park
Just another twenty minutes down the twisty highway, we crossed the border of Alberta, entering Banff National Park. The crown jewel of this Canadian posterchild is of course, Lake Louise, the majestic princess eager for every ounce of attention.
There were practically nobody during our stay here. Our hotel was down the street from the lakefront, in the highest chartered place in the entire Canada at 1750m. This place is so high that it technically experiences subarctic climates, getting as cold as -30°C on a regular basis in winter. Fortunately, in summer, we only had to deal with mosquitoes and a clear lake surrounded by ice-caps.
Yet true adventure lies beyond wooden walkways and information booths. A small track from the side of the lake extends upwards along the slopes, all the way towards the ridge. This leads to Lake Agnes, another lake sitting a few hundred meters above Lake Louise. Through the vantage point this route afforded, we managed to spot quite a few glimpses of the milky lake water down below.
About half an hour of climbing later, we were over the valley, and was able to take in all the snowy peaks that beseiged the landscape. This is truly magnificent, in very few other places can you see such forthcoming nature overwhelmingly abundant. Perhaps only Patagonia and New Zealand can potentially compete with this, and lucky me, this scenery is merely my backyard view.
On the other side, we saw the tiny Mirror Lake, perfectly reflecting the weirdly layered Beehive, a mountain the result of eons of geological effects, or perhaps a very skillful creperie chef. The lake was fed by a waterfall leaking from Lake Agnes, and just a few minutes down the trail, we encountered this alpine lake, adjacent to quite a few mountains still covered with snow.
What made this hike special was the terminus: an isolated cafe sitting right by the waters, overhanging the cliffs. This is Lake Agnes Tea House, which boasts a rapsheet of available teas and snacks. Every year, in the beginning of the summer season, the tea leaves were flown in directly by helicopters, while all fresh ingredients were brought up by staff members every day. Wait, what about the heaviest ingredient, water? Don’t be silly: the water in the lake is purer than any overpriced bottled water you can find!
For dinner, we indulged ourselves in the hotel restaurant, a gigantic hall with just 5 tables thanks to newer distancing regulations. I got myself a juicy elk burger, which tasted nearly identical to a chargrilled beef patty, so much so that I would never be able to tell the difference if someone fed me this gourmet cheesy mess as a normal one.
Next morning, we hurried along the narrow road and reached Moraine Lake before the hypothetical crowds could get in. This is probably the most photogenic place in the entire Rockies. Its fame was so widespread that the 12km access road had capacity restrictions every day during summer seasons! Luckily, we arrived early enough to not suffer such a devastating fate, albeit partially thanks to the complete lockdown of Canada’s borders.
There is a large rubble pile near the exit of the lake, which provides spectacular panoramas over the azure lake as well as the snowy peaks. It is simply the most stunning scene one can feasibly behold with mortal eyes. And the above view was featured on the twenty-dollar bill a few decades ago, without me of course.
Many local chipmunks had been conditioned by the tourism crowd, completely unphased by the large primates passing by. While eating my breakfast as well as admiring the best view in the world, a little rodent decided to hop on my lap for a bit of scraps. After realizing I do not leave anything behind since it was a national park, but also because I never leave any food, period, the striped fluffball decided to seek food somewhere else.
Yet the highlight of Moraine Lake cannot be fathomed on its shores: it was rowing time. The boat rental was costly, but it was well worth the money: nowhere else does money buy you an experience to be adrift in pure wonder. After learning about emergency maneauvers and how to best enjoy the holy view, I piloted us towards the other side of this jewel, getting as close to the icy peaks as possible. The colors beaming under the morning sun was divine: this is the immaculate, unadulterated, unapologetic, Canadian beauty.
No, I cannot believe it. This is not water. This is the essence of life flowing beneath our squeaky canoe. This is the joy of a frolicking child in a waterpark on a hot summer afternoon; this is the tranquility of whales beconing each other across miles of ocean; this is the eternity of these rocky mountains as immobilizing as they are immovable. We might as well not be rowing towards the other side: we were rowing towards the next level of existence.
Honestly, 1 hour of this experience was enough for me to know: no amount of time will ever be enough. Imagine being able to see everything between the crystal clear sky and the crystal clear water, from the white puffy clouds to colorful pebbles on the lakebed, and you shall realize there is no better form of existence in this world other than being right here, right now.
We monopolized the lake by ourselves for the entire time, only to see another canoe leaving the dock as we hopped back onto shore. Luckily, the wind had picked up and the reflection casted upon the water was no more, which was the signal for us to depart. Rain quickly followed, as mountain weather can be as unpredictable as my mood on a Monday morning, so we left this drop-dead beauty, lady Moraine, behind, taking away only the best memories one can possibly hold onto.
We veered onto the world famous Icefield Parkway, a 230km stretch of spectacular scenery linking Banff and Jasper along the mighty rocky mountains. Definitely one of the top ten drives in the world, this road is known for its lakes, glaciers, and remote wilderness. Normally, during summer, so much tourist traffic plows this highway that no commercial traffic is allowed at all. Yet, its origin was a relief project commissioned by the federal government during the Great Depression (I also call it the Super Big Sad). In order to employ as many people as possible, this entire road was constructed by hand!
The first major stop on this ride was Bow Lake, another glacial lake that had become commonplace in this trip. Turquoise waters, white clouds, shining glaciers, I know, the same old. However, what if I put some wildflowers into the mix? Now the colors burst out of the seams, creating an image of unparalleled saturation.
Here you go, every color out there. Rockies is not just solemn barriers and freezing waters, but actually lively and vivid growth as well. I sat in the piles of flowers, marvelling at the majestic mountains wearing glaciers like evening gawns, completely stunned out of words. It was so mesmerizing that I dropped my food onto the lap, almost having my sandwich stolen by stalking ravens.
Continuing north, gigantic mountains lined the way, each more precarious than the previous one. I did not have to worry about speed limits at all, as I would pull over the road at the next viewpoint before I could hit the gas properly! Just look at the view down below next to a few smaller lakes, and the spearhead-shaped Mount Chephren piercing straight through the heavens, what kind of place is this?
Then it was the lesser-known Mistaya Canyon, a short walk from the highway. The gushing Mistaya River is forced into a narrow, twisty rock canyon, thundering down a deep drop into the darkness below, with nothing but misty mystery to be seen. Faraway, the snowy Mount Sarbach looked onwards vigilantly, guarding this holy land with a solemn gaze. I kneeled by the cliffs, and sang the prayers of Mother Nature, busking in her full glory.
After scaring my mom pretending I was about to take a bath one last time, I led us down the road to the only “settlement” along the highway, Saskatchewan River Crossing. Here, all the water from the roof of the world flows east towards the prairies, and a lone highway accompanied it towards the horizons. A tiny gas station, a motel, and a gigantic buffet constituted this stop, which we gladly ignored. I stood on the mighty Howse Pass, and looked around. We were surrounded by giants of another kind, the kind that has been guarding this place for eons.
Passing the 2000-meter alpine highpoint, the car descended down the steep slopes, and entered another valley. Right by the highway, a careful eye may catch a dozen tiny waterfalls cascading from a giant bulwark of rocks. This is the Weeping Wall, hardly acknowledged by the casual roadtrippers, but definitely worth a look.
The road took us up and down a hill after another, passing one waterfall after another, eventually reaching what is probably the real “settlement” on Icefields Parkway: Columbia Icefield. From the roadside, Athabasca Glacier seemed so close that I could practically lick it. Here is the major touristy spot, where one can book a ticket to hop onto a specially-designed ice-bus that takes you all the way up to the field of ice. I had already done it before in my life, and the ticket price is prohibitively expensive, so I decided to give it a pass this time, and alarmingly, just a few days after my brief brush against fate, a bus rolled over on its steep climb towards the glacier, killing a few people on board, severing injuring a dozen.
Jasper National Park
Passing this bustling touristy hotspot, it was officially the territory of Jasper National Park. Same breathtaking scenery and fresh air, the only thing that changed was the name. A small waterfall lied to the side of the road, and I got a chance to taste the sweet glacial melt right from my car. So refreshing and delicious! I inhaled a few other sips before heading onward: this kind of water would cost a fortune in a fancy plastic bottle!
Another roadside surprise was the famous Goat Lick. From time to time, a bunch of mountain goats would congregate by the curb, licking the barren rocks exposed by human machineries when this highway was constructed. This was not because these hoofed friends were high on acid, but because the rocks contain vital elements to their diet normally hard to encounter in grasses, so they lick these minerals as a post-meal supplement. We were so lucky that a huge herd, which was in the process of switching from winter fur to summer coat, was passing by, vigorously scraping the boulders with their sandpaper-like tongues.
We passed by another waterfall called Sunwapta Falls, yet it was already becoming unimpressive to our picky taste. However, Athabasca Falls, a mere twenty minute drive later, blew us away. This dangerous drop on the indomitable Athabasca River trumped all others, with a high vertical rock face, a gorgeous mountain backdrop, and an iridescent rainbow as the cherry on top. My god, how is this even remotely feasible?
From here, I directed our car down a small hidden road. This would lead us to a surprise location. However, I was surprised by a blob of moving black by the road first. OH.
OH MY GOD.
Yes, a bear was casually chomping away right at the side of the road, completely disregarding my gasps. The chubby boy was busy eating his favorite meal, so nothing else could distract him! Believe it or not, this was actually my first close bear encounter after so many years wandering about, and it definitely came as a surprise.
The non-mammal surprise lying at the end of the road is a short hike to Mount Edith Cavell, a stunning mountain layered like a chocolate cake with frosting. At near-2000 meter elevation, the hike was not particularly challenging, but a workout nonetheless, yet at the end, one can come face to face to Angel Glacier, spreading its wings like a heavenly bequeath coming down from above.
Yet, if you are baffled to see it as an angel, you are not mistaken. This glacier has been retreating faster than I can eat calzones, and currently it is projected to completely disappear within a few decades, so the name given during 19th century is hardly an accurate description of its shape. If you are reading this a few years down the line, do compare it with the current view to see how much ice has disappeared.
Just a few years ago, one could descend down to the glacial lake at the bottom of the massif, yet a huge chunk of ice carved from above, creating a localized tsunami, a wall of frozen water, rolling down the valley. You can still see its path of distruction in the above photo to the right me of my body. It luckily did not take any life, but prompted the authorities to shut down anything close to the lake, thus ending close encounters with the ice cap.
Done reminiscing about the things that are about to pass, we could hear our tummies tumbling louder than the glaciers breaking apart. It was time to call it a day. We dragged our exhausted bodies into the town of Jasper, and found ourselves a little Korean restaurant to recharge our hungry Asian batteries. Upon seeing the giant warm hot pot, my mothers’ eyes lit up with murderous intentions.
Next day began with a quick drive to the nearby Maligne Lookout for a great view over the surrounding area, and continue down the road for the famous Maligne Canyon. Similar to Mistaya Canyon encountered yesterday, this gorge is a deeply carved rocky crevice, narrow and violently beautiful. One of my favorite items is a rock being suspended above the trecherous gap, stuck between the two walls. So many years have passed, a tiny forest has already sprung up on top of it.
On the other side of the town is the perfectly reflective Pyramid Lake. It is one of the very few lakes on this trip not fed by glaciers, so its darker water makes a perfect mirror, especially so when a mountain as grand as Pyramid Mountain sits right across from it.
The reflection was only made better with the fact that a tiny island sits in the middle of the lake, with a small wooden bridge connecting it with the mainland. However, as I approached the bridge, a park warden came running, less as coming towards me but more like getting away from something, signaling us to move out of the way. I looked at the island and instantly knew why: a family of bull elks were charging behind one of the wardens at breakneck speed!
It turned out that a family of bull elks moved onto the island and gave birth to a baby calf. It was the perfect location: full protection, nice view, limitless grass, and a nice walkway, so why not? Yet the protective moms could be extremely dangerous, charging at people at speeds of 50km/h. The wardens were called to invite them off the island, and they employed the typical Canadian hockey stick method to grab the baby, and tried to use it to lure the adults off the walkway. The calf was having none of it, calling incessantly for the help of its mother, while everyone ran away panicking. Not long after we ran all the way back to the parking lot, the adults showed up, eager to pick a fight against anything that moves.
Yet sadly, a few rounds of actions did not lure all of them off the island, as the papa elk had staunchly decided the island was to be their home, so the wardens told me they would have to close down the road, and get out before things get messy. Sadly, I had to move on to our next attraction in town without walking on the famous Pyramid Island. However, our deer-induced disappointment was quickly swept away when we stood in front of our next lake: Lac Beauvert.
Is, is this a Carribean beach resort? I have only seen places as tropical and welcoming to me in perhaps Tulum or Seychelles. The clear water allowed the sunlight to illuminate all the rocks at the bottom, and perhaps creating a way warmer feeling than it actually was. And what is the deal about this conveniently placed tree? The angle, the roots, are just like a coconut tree! Well, given my record with coconuts around the world, I had to do the one thing I know in this highly specific circumstance.
After frolicking by the water for longer than an eternity, I decided it was time to bid Jasper farewell and start heading back. The long Yellowhead highway took us all the way west, and crossed the provincial boundary back into British Columbia.
The road followed the train tracks all the way down the rockies, and eventually brought us to Mount Robson Provincial Park. A small building sat in front of a field of wildflowers, with the forboding massif standing right behind it. This is the most prominent mountain of the entire North American Rockies, protruding a solid 2829 meters from its base, piercing clouds from as high as 4000 meters!
Here in British Columbia, we have a tagline that one can often see on our license plates: Beautiful British Columbia. And you now see why. We are the only province that takes it all: the wide open ocean, dense rainforests, snow-capped peaks, milky blue lakes, roaring streams, and even a small desert! Half of the tallest Canadian peaks sit in this province, and our hydropower generation is so abundant that the province exports a large majority of its power output! There surely are few better places to live, and I am so proud of that.
From the visitor center, we began the walk towards a lake sitting right underneath Mount Robson, along a rushing creek. The walk was pleasant and relaxing. With constant replenishment of fresh water available, we did not even have to haul large bottles of water with us. At the end of the path, a small bridge gapped the overflowing lake full of rock powder, and the view is simply tranquil yet exciting at the same time.
The road continued. Passing a small junction, we winded south towards more familiar territory. Yellowhead highway passed the sleepy village of Valement, and entered the vast Monashee Mountains, meandering past one ridge after another, over one creek after another, for a solid 300km. Besides a seemingly abandoned roadside stop called Blue River, there was nothing but dense forests, the Thompson River, and wildlife. Deer munched their ways through roadside clearings without any preocupations, and ravens circled above our car looking out for potential roadkills. Not one single homestead in between, this is how the drive through northern BC looks like.
Finally, we settled for the night at the capital of the so-called “Waterfall Country”, Clearwater. This town no bigger than a few blocks is the gateway to Wells Grey Provincial Park, filled to the brink with more than 400 waterfalls all over its territory. Yes, this is a gigantic Provincial Park. Even though it is just one of the 600 provincial parks here, its size is larger than the country of Luxemburg! A 68-km road led us from the town deep into the wilderness, and the first waterfall we encountered was Spahats Creek Falls.
The very first waterfall already blew me away. The deep cuts made by the water already dug a hole in the bedrock, before the water is allowed to plunge from the sheer cliffs. Another 20 minutes down the road, we encountered the next waterfall, Moul Falls.
It was a difficult 1-hour walk from the parking lot to this raindrop generator. Though the trek was not particularly steep or muddy, the pestering mosquitoes were the prime suspect of annoyance here. This year, way more mosquitoes lingered into July than previous years, probably due to humid and mild weather. Moul Falls was supposed to be special because one could walk underneath its watery veil, but due to immense flow, I was soaked inside out from just approaching, so we sadly had to go back the same way.
The last waterfall we saw was also the posterchild of Wells Grey: Helmcken Falls, the fourth largest waterfall in Canada, standing 141 meters tall, thanks to this lava field made of rocks full of holes. (All three other waterfalls higher than Helmcken are also located in British Columbia.) Its impact is so great that an entire sphere of rocks were carved away from the mountain, leaving a pot like cave beneath it. Upon seeing the most impressive item of them all, we turned back south and sped home.
The Best of the Best
This concluded our 5-day roadtrip around the Rocky Mountains during the pandemic. I never thought about touring these lush mountains in recent years as I was busy shuttling myself back and forth on planes across different continents, and now, the silverlining of not being able to do that was a reflection on my ways of travel, and improvements that could be made. I have never taken things this casually before, just go with the flow and see where we end up in, and my mother certainly appreciated spending time with her son who might be in Zambia if a Chinese guy decided to eat chicken soup instead of rats with wings one fateful winter day.
Canadian Rockies is iconic. If you find a fish tank, its background photo probably comes from here; if you google “rocky mountains”, the Wikipedia article begins with a shot of Moraine Lake; if you say “Canada”, most would think about the mighty snow-capped mountains instead of Toronto, the Atlantic Coast, or god-forbid, the prairies. It is the kind of place that is hard to believe even if one had already been there a few times, and it is just so natural that it is supernatural. No way nature can forge things this spectacular: something mysterious must be at play. Yet, regardless, natural or supernatural, we can all agree, Canadian Rockies is the best of the best.
-=ForeverYoung|Canadian Rockies 2020=-