Thursday, July 13, 2006

wild things: the part about making my heart sing

North of Banff, in the Yoho National Park I encounter three marmots playing. They scuffle and roll over each other and eventually scamper away.

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it's a lazy day...

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hey guys...

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three in a tumble

It is scenes like this that push you up those steep inclines. Because out there on the craggy slopes, you may be lucky enough to run into marmots.

Our second hike up into the mountains was a knock-out winner. Yes, sure, there were the marmots. And the ptarmigans.

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mama ptarmigan

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...her chick

And the meadow of Alpine wildflowers, possibly the highpoint of the entire Canadian venture. Picture this: you have been climbing endless hundreds of meters, you have downed endless bottles of stream water, your backpack feels like it has a whole family of marmots in it. No, worse, bears –a whole pack of bears loaded in there. And so you are tired as anything. You want to stop for lunch, but where? You round the corner and suddenly you are intoxicated not by the wine that Nina lugged to the campsite the night before, but by this:

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lunch spot

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stretch out

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...and inhale

This two day loop had other things going for it as well. The mosquito population is significantly lower up here north of Banff. And bear poop does not line every trail.

And since this is an upbeat post, let me give an A+ to the Canadian National Park System, because the trail maintenance up here is just superb. (Equally high marks for the people who hike and camp here. Not a drop of litter anywhere.)

We had been afraid that out here in the national parks (as opposed to the Provincial back country, where we had hiked the first days of our trip) we would encounter crowds. Not so. Yesterday, we saw not a single person on the trail. The campgrounds are empty during the week. The lakes, meadows and forests are all yours. A private viewing.

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camping spot: empty Yoho Lake

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these are everywhere: like having a bad hair day?

If you have the energy to get to the summits, you will get that feeling of being a tiny thing against the expanse of mountain, water and sky.

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glacier, falls, flowers

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little me (makes it to the summit!)

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Ed faces glacier

But what’s a post without a few complaints thrown in! Okay, so the bug population can recede some more. And the weather could be more consistent – none of this sunshine one day and chilling rains the next. Oh, and forget about filling up on MaryJane’s organic mac and cheese. That tiny serving is called a portion and a half? You have got to be kidding. Maybe for the two year old in your group. And I have to repeat my suggestion that you do not go camping with a companion who is twice your size in height and body muscle and share with him a tent that is designated for a person and a half. You especially should not do that if said camping companion fidgets at night.

A few dos: decanting a bottle of wine into a plastic little jug is a great idea. Packing organic hot chocolate is an even better one. Dried mango pieces rule! A water filter for your bottle turns every babbling brook into a great new water supply without any old nasty iodine tablets. My list of 100 helpful tips for a successful camping experience in the Canadian Rockies is a work in progress. I can’t decide whether I should distribute it at a charge or whether it would be my contribution to the well-being of others. Maybe it would increase the number of Americans coming up here. Just about all the hikers we have encountered have been Canadians and European types (with a few Japanese in the more popular resort areas). Don’t quite know why. Certainly not because the views from the mountaintops are not grand enough for a trek up here.

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I’m writing from Jasper now – a northern town of about 5000. Jasper is linked with Banff via “the most beautiful road in the world.” Truly, it is that. If you have this thing against highways (as I do) – if they put you to sleep, or worse, if they bring up feelings of revulsion at the whole SUV-gas prices-fast-road-food thing, then do yourself the favor of driving this lonely stretch of road for the 240 kilometers that it takes to get from Banff to Jasper.

Called the Icefields Highway, it passes through the largest glacier ice field south of the Arctic Circle. And yes, you can get up close and personal to it. You can even trample over the edges, though there are signs telling you about instant death if you move up much into this melting, receding mass of snow and packed ice.

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a few drive right up to the glacier...

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...and hike up to take a close look

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...and take a tentative step, just at the edge

But the ice fields are only part of the beauty of this road. The scenery changes constantly and each bend brings you to another spectacular mountain vista. And another. And another.

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Of course, there are animals in that Canadian pine and aspen thicket. This is the land of caribou, of mountain goats and wolves and cougar. And don’t forget about the bears.

So am I done with the bear topic? No. Hiking here is all about keeping an eye toward a possible bear encounter. I’ve seen it all – people with bear bells, hikers clapping madly every five steps, mace in everyone’s pack. The forest rangers make you listen to the bear spiel each time you book a spot to pitch your tent. Shout “hey bear!” each time you round the corner. Do not look the bear in the eye. Back away. Store your food up in the bear poles. Watch out, where there are berries, there will be bears!

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So you get a bit antsy out there in the woods. An odd shape ahead and you think – bear!

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So far though, none have come near us. I’m plenty bear-aware, believe me, but somehow I cannot get myself to shout out “hey bear!” around each bend. And the more common tracks on the trail look like this:

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Don’t know quite what they are. Mountain sheep? Wolf? I’ll let you know when I come face to face with whatever wild thing this may be.


  1. You are sailing in to the blogospheric stratosphere with this trip as far as I'm concerned. You're working on all kinds of levels here. Examined as a whole, you're blowing minds.

  2. What Chuck B. said. Holy shit, those are some pictures! I'm so glad you survived the previous adventure to take them (and to come back to Madison for debriefing, &c).

  3. Really, the photos are stunning. It is so hard to capture the awe-inspiring beauty of one's physical environment, but you have accomplished that with these images from Canada.

    Enjoy the rest of your trip.

    p.s. You are so right about Annie's mac 'n cheese.

  4. i think i can safely say that this is the ONLY time i'm glad you're not posting pics of the food you've found on your adventure :)

    animal pics = very good
    glacier pics = super good
    you, looking tired and happy = excellent!

    so glad you're doing this, i look forward to my own kind of this adventure in a year or so, you're making me brave!

  5. I've been sort of half considering the possibility of biking up in that area. You're pictures & stories make me want to do it even more....

  6. chuck b. and tom b.: such nice comments! It's damn pretty up here, that's for sure.

    tonya: I wanted to take Annie's but it would require dirtying the pot whereas with the camping packs you just pour water and chomp away. What's missing is the taste.

    sep: the high is so tremendous! The feeling of strength, the delight in what is around the corner. Do it!

    carly: the people who are letting us use a room in Jasper are an older Swiss couple who routinely take mountain bikes into the lower ends of the trails and then hike beyond that. Such a healthy life style! I am in awe of it.


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