Saturday, August 27, 2016

Alberta, Alberta - Where You Been So Long?

Because there’s a $700 surcharge to rent a car in Montana and return it in Canada, I come to you tonight from Calgary.

Let me explain. Originally, this trip had us flying into Kalispell, renting a car, making our way across Glacier, crossing into Canada to see Banff, and flying out of Calgary. The surcharge effectively ended that idea. Fortunately, I managed to pry enough brain cells away from the Rule Against Perpetuities to come up with a solution: Do half of Glacier, go to Banff, do the rest of Glacier, and return the car in the country from whence it came. In my eyes, an eminently reasonable solution. And one that no one wanted to do. I’m still not entirely sure why the opposition, but in my delicate pre-bar state, I had no patience for people being irrational. The only obstacle keeping us from visiting the Canadian parks was gone, so what was the problem?

In any event, if they wouldn’t do my solution, I’d split off from the group and do it myself. I figured it was a good idea anyway, in the event of a repeat of the Yosemite situation, to give us all a break if needed. It wasn’t really needed, but it did get me the opportunity to see another of the world’s most scenic landscapes. So here’s how that went.

Before I could get to my day and a half in Banff, I had to first manage to rent a car, come down from the mountains, get car and myself across the Canadian border, and traverse 200 miles of vast empty Alberta steppe. In so doing, I came to the rather unsurprising revelation that Canadian steppe and American plains look exactly the same.

After getting stuck in Friday rush hour traffic (with Canadian drivers who all apparently respond to indecision while driving by letting their car idly roll for 20 seconds – when enough of them do it at once, I can actually feel myself getting dumber), I turned west and took what I thought at the time was a scenic drive back up into the mountains. Turns out I had no idea how scenic the Canadian Rockies could become.

I had three goals at Banff – catch a good sunrise, drive to the top of the Icefields Parkway to see the crazy things there, and get a frameable picture of Moraine Lake. I managed at least two of those.

I got my sunrise this morning after waking up at 5 and driving the 80 minutes from Calgary into the park. Why stay so far away? I thought it would save me money. What I didn’t realize is that gas in Canada is at least three times as expensive as it is anywhere in the US. So that was sort of a wash. But I did get to know the Alberta stretch of the Trans-Canada Highway very well. Anyway, this morning it was already threatening to rain but the clouds broke at just the right moment and created one of those sunrises where you can turn in every direction and find multiple great views.

Also, as I was driving out, one of the park’s 65 bears ambled across the parking lot 15 feet in front of me. So there was that.

I was done there at 7, so I decided to drive around for a little while before heading up the Parkway. I ended up at Lake Louise, which I guess is one of the main attractions of the park? I assume so, because it was more developed and crowded than anything else I’ve seen this week. It’s also fairly pretentious, boasting a historic hotel with gates and signs reading “hotel guests only past this point.” National Parks: for the benefit and enjoyment of the people. The people who can afford to stay in the super swanky chalet. Oh, and the lake itself wasn’t exactly ugly.

Eventually, I made my way onto the Icefields Parkway – the main scenic road between Banff and Jasper National Parks. My first stop was Peyto Lake.

After that point, the road got really scenic. I’ve now driven the Blue Ridge Parkway, Pacific Coast Highway, Cabot Trail, Kankamagus Highway, and probably a few more, but after today I can say confidently that none of them hold a candle to the Icefields Parkway. The road starts with snowcapped peaks towering over you and the mountains proceed to get taller and closer until you turn a corner and you’re looking at the largest icefield in North America, and you’re face to face with a goddamn glacier.

After taking a few minutes to try to wrap my head around the immensity of the scene in front of me, I started out for the trail taking me to the toe of said glacier. Even though it was raining (pouring), and it was 47 degrees, and reaching the glacier required a steep 20 minute climb that started at 6,000 feet of elevation, and climate change has made it impossible to actually touch the glacier (it’s surrounded by a river and lake of meltwater now), this was hands down one of the most incredible things I’d ever seen.

With nary a tree as far as the eye could see, it almost felt like I had driven to the moon.

There was even a goddamn ice cave.

After driving a bit further north – far enough to cross into Jasper National Park – I reached my turnaround point: the relatively underwhelming (considering what it was trying to follow) Tangle Falls.

From there, I turned back south to do the entire Parkway in reverse in enough time to catch my Moraine Lake sunset.

One stop on the way back, though, is definitely worth mentioning. The Parker Ridge trail, on the border of Banff and Jasper, is billed as a 1.8 mile hike ascending 750 feet, climbing above the treeline and ending along a ridgeline that provides 360-degree views of both parks, and the Saskatchewan Glacier – headwaters of the river of the same name. This hike was spectacular. It was definitely a workout navigating the half dozen switchbacks, but the payoff was well worth the effort.

Despite polite Canadian signs requesting that hikers stay on the trail, at the top of the ridge, the trail just sort of fades away and I was free to explore the mountains. It was rugged enough that I couldn’t see over the next hill, but gentle enough that I wasn’t opposed to walking over that hill. I spent over a half hour at the top trying to decide which was my favorite view (and trying to take an epic real-camera selfie).

From there, it was on to Moraine Lake. Moraine Lake is, for my money, the most iconic landscape in the Canadian Rockies, and for good reason. Ten mountain peaks, dusted with snow all year round, are clustered around a turquoise lake ringed with evergreen forests. The best pictures there come at sunrise, so I gave myself two chances for a good one. First I drove straight to the lake on my way into the park last night. It was pretty obvious that there wouldn’t be a sunset, so I just explored the lake for a while and basked in its grandeur.

Night two held more promise. As I drove south, breaks in the clouds started developing and when I got to Moraine, there was blue sky above me. In the end, the clouds were dramatic, but there wasn’t much by way of color in the sky.

I guess that means I have a reason to come back here. Well, one more reason. I could probably spend at least a week here in a constant state of awe, as each vista tries to outdo the previous one. And there are three more Rocky Mountain national parks adjacent to Banff.

Tomorrow, the fellowship reunites and it’s back to Glacier. But after this, it’ll be a tough act to follow.

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