River deep, mountain high

For more mountain photos head to these galleries:  SicamousSicamous to BanffBanff and Columbia Icefields tour

This will be a simile-laden post because it’s about The Rockies, and the only way to even attempt to convey their grandness is through comparison to something else.  Even the copious photos we have taken don’t fully convey the grandeur of the scenery.  You can’t stuff the feeling of being amongst those mountains into a little photo, even if it does paint a thousand words.

We last left you in the dry landscape around the Okanagan Lake heading north through Peachland.  Of course we had to try the local peaches which we can attest are plump and juicy with Canadian water.  As you head north through the Okanagan valley the land becomes greener and the ubiquitous trees thicken.  Pretty little farms and quiet villages line the lake with the occasional larger, more industrial town, including Kelowna where the Bacon brother was shot and killed.  We didn’t stop there.

We were looking for a place to stay for the night to break up the drive to Banff.  Revelstoke had been the plan but seemed a bit far now after lunch.  Salmon Arm had been suggested, a strangely named place a little off our chosen path.  So that’s how we found ourselves in a faux log cabin in the tiny town of Sicamous (pronounced by us like “I’m a sick a moose”, even though we hadn’t seen *any*).  There’s not too much to say about Sicamous.  It seemed like a perfectly pleasant place on the lake where highway 97A meets the trans-Canada number one highway.  The freight train rattles through pretty regularly as well, but for all that it’s not industrial and was filled with Canadians on holiday, fluttering about in the brief summer like fleeting butterflies.

The drive to Banff the next day was incredible.  There are mountains everywhere in British Columbia but they are taken to an entirely new level when you approach the Rockies.  Previously big mountains dwarf into hills in the face of these towering and craggy mountains permanently capped with snow.  They rise out of the ground like shark’s teeth going back in rows, waves of mountains cresting the horizon as far as you can see.  After a while the immensity of the scenery overloaded my brain’s visual cortex which began throbbing with the amount of scenery it was been asked to process, much like watching a 3D movie at IMAX.

We broke up the scenery a couple of times with walks into the wilderness.  Well really we just wandered off the highway on trails, but it’s amazing how quickly you can be enveloped in the forest, especially when there is a gorgeous little waterfall with crystal clear water surrounded by lichen-covered trees and moss underfoot.  The Canadian woods are so crisp and fresh that even the dull-witted mozzies that lethargically alighted on us couldn’t break the spell.

Banff itself is a cute little town completely dwarfed by the mountains around it.  The tourist laden and chain store riddled main strip is the only negative, but we weren’t there to go shopping.  I saw some classic tourist driving in the Tim Hortons parking lot.  A woman was standing behind a car to let the driver know how far till the curb.  She started waving her arms to signal “stop” but the driver stamped on the accelerator instead and mounted the curb.  Apparently there is a lot of damage done to buildings in Banff by the massive RVs that people drive around.  Backing one of those beasts into a parking alpine parking lot leads to a lot of unintended consequences which the corner of the hostel could attest to.  You don’t need a special licence to drive those things, even though they’re not much smaller than a semi-trailer.

In Banff all the casual workers look like snowboarders.  The guy at the greyhound station, the guy driving the recycling truck, they all look like they’re just killing time waiting for winter to start.

The hostel was in a beautiful spot next to the river with mountains in the background.  The view from the window of our private room was gob-smacking.  It was a fantastic place to lean over the window sill and do some stretching.

The next day we warmed up with a stroll to the top of Tunnel Mountain which is walking distance from the centre of town.  The real action came later in the day when we drove to Lake Louise, one of the most postcard-perfect places I’ve ever seen.  The startlingly blue water has a glorious glacier covered mountain as a backdrop.  The snow sitting on top of the mountain looks like thick icing on a cake that has been sliced off.  Obviously the word got out about this place because there were quite a few other people taking the same pictures as us.  We managed to escape the crowds with the cunning tactic of walking uphill which doesn’t occur to all that many tourists.  We walked a 7.4 km return track from Lake Louise called Saddleback which goes straight uphill the entire time with matching views.  This is grizzly bear country as several signs warned so I whistled badly and Sarah clapped her hands (the idea being that bears don’t like bad whistling all that much and clapping even less).

The next day Sarah went on to Calgary while I stayed on to do a tour of the Columbia Ice Field (which Sarah has already seen).  The Ice Field highway is reputed to be one of the top ten drives in the world.  I don’t know how they judge these things but it is impossible to imagine more stunning scenery than what rolled past the window that day.  Huge mountains and perched above impossibly blue lakes just kept on coming.  It is truly breath-taking.  The main objective of the tour was to take us to the Columbia Ice Field which is a 325 square kilometre patch of ice sitting above the mountains which feeds a number of huge glaciers in the area.  I *was* going to link to a more detailed explanation of what a glacier is but really, they are just large patches of ice and snow that don’t melt in the summer.  Some are a lot bigger than others and can have a big impact on the mountains.  The effect of ice the height of the Eiffel tower pressing down on the rock grinds it into a powder called rock flour which filters down into the lakes giving them that brilliant blue colour.

I took a tour up to the Columbia Icefield which stopped at one gorgeous spot after another.  A coach drives to the base of the Athabasca glacier where you then transfer to a specially made truck for driving on the ice.  As we got of the coach one woman was nervous about the cold complained to the coach driver about needing a jacket.  She exclaimed of her friends “They’re from Miami!”.  Without missing a beat the coach driver replied “A little bit of cold never hurt anyone”.  Not strictly speaking true but I liked his Canadian spirit.

You drive up towards the glacier past stunted pine trees which are 300-700 years old, even though they look the size of a Christmas tree.  Conditions are so harsh up here in winter that the trees don’t get much of a chance to grow.  The katabatic winds that blow off the glacier mean that some trees only have pine needles on one side.

The ice trucks are beasts.  Six wheel drive with massive, under-inflated tyres.  There are 23 in existence, 22 here and 1 in Antarctica.  They slowly grind there way up to the middle of the glacier.  The glacier is formed by ice spilling out from the Columbia Ice Field.  The ice squeezes down past the mountains.  Imagine the mountains are fingers and the glaciers are the ice squeezing between the fingers.  The glaciers move down the slopes at a minimal speed each year (about the thickness of a postcard).  Unfortunately the glaciers have been in retreat for decades now due to warmer winters and a lack of snow to replace them and are retreating metres each year.

Being in the middle of the glacier is like being in nature’s cathedral.  It inspires awe in a greater power, the power of nature.  There is something humbling about being confronted with the result of millenia of plate tectonics and glacial erosion.  There is something equally scary about seeing the rate of retreat of the glacier in such a short time caused by human activity.

While on the glacier you can fill up a bottle of water from the many channels of running water, which they estimate is 200 years old.  It tastes beautifully fresh.  About 70% of the water in this glacier runs underneath the surface.  From afar on a sunny day the ice looks like wet plastic.

When the summer season ends on the glacier they mark the road out with long metal poles.  During winter up to 8 metres of snow falls and if they don’t mark out their route they lose it completely.  At the start of the season they clear the snow and grade the road again, checking for crevices as they go.  Part of the drive up the glacier is on what appears to be a dirt road, but in fact it is just a covering of dirt on the ice.  The mountains nearby have land slides that cover the ice and cause it to melt more slowly, like being covered with a blanket.  The glacier is constantly changing.

Driving back to Banff you suddenly notice all the evidence of glaciers carving out the mountains, then you realise that the entire valley you’re driving through was probably once carved out by a massive glacier as well.  It’s truly epic scenery.

For more mountain photos head to these galleries:


Sicamous to Banff


Columbia Icefields tour

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