Saturday, August 30, 2014

The Icefields Parkway, August 26-29

August 26
Checkout time for the hotel is 11:00. We leave at 10:58.  We've taken full advantage of this comfy place.  After running a couple of last-minute errands, we roll out of town feeling rested and excited to be biking.  Our road has a wide, paved shoulder that continues all day.  Just 9 km in, we stop for our first hike: Valley of the Five Lakes.  I look at the map and pick the longest loop possible, failing to look at the map's scale.  So our two mile hike turns into a five mile one.  But it's beautiful and I enjoy it.  First we hike through open spruce, pine, and aspen forest.  It's carpeted with thick, green, springy moss that makes you just want to lie down on it.  Then it's up and over some hills and we see the first of the lakes.  It's big, deep turquoise in the middle, and aqua-blue on the edges with a border of pristine, tan-colored sand. It looks like a giant gem sparkling in the sun.  The next three lakes are smaller and not as deep but also have a beautiful aqua hue.  Hiking by, we find two red chairs, adirondack style.  On the connected armrest is a plaque explaining that if you take a moment to be quiet, you'll be able to better experience the wildlife.  Apparently other quiet red chairs can be found throughout the park.  What a wonderful idea!  As we sit quietly, I hear a bird singing far off, and mostly the wind blowing through the trees, making them dance and creak.  The final lake is similar to the first and has two old rowboats moored at the shore.  Unfortunately they are both locked.  
After our hike, we hop back on our bikes and head down the road.  The wind that has been making the trees quake is a headwind for us, and since we're slowly gaining elevation, progress is very slow.  We stop for lunch at a lookout over Athabasca Pass, an important route for early fur traders.  We ride 17 more miles after eating, which drain us physically more than we expect.  Luckily the scenery is spectacular.  We've been following the Athabasca River, class I and II rapids, milky-blue in color.  All around are beautiful peaks, and as the sun gets lower, the rocky features are illuminated by the evening light.  

On the left are rocky ridges that remind me of castles.  On the right are even larger peaks with sheer cliffs, some still with patches of snow.  We camp at the Honeymoon Lake campground.
- Tam

Beauty Creek and Wilcox Pass, August 27
We began our day with an experiment: cold oatmeal.  Instant oatmeal hydrates quickly, and we have had it cold before, but it's just not that appealing.  The experiment was to try it with honey and lemon juice, an unbeatable combination, or so we have heard.  It was actually pretty good!  Not great, but edible.
Once on the road, it was tough going with a headwind.  But the scenery was spectacular: mountains and glaciers and waterfalls all around.  We reached our first destination, the unmarked and somewhat unpopular trailhead at Beauty Creek.  Only one car was parked there, a contrast to the teeming hordes we encountered yesterday at the Valley of the Five Lakes.  But this hike was recommended to us, and it was only a few miles, so we changed into hiking clothes and set off.  The trail brought us along the old road connecting Jasper and Banff, which was being quickly reclaimed by plants, and a few minutes later to Beauty Creek.  We ascended a short slope to find a deep slot canyon, dark and murky in its depths.  A waterfall churned the water into white and filled the air with a booming roar.  
We followed the trail upstream to get a better view of the falls only to find another cataract, bigger than the one before.  
Then we went to get a look at that one and discovered another waterfall!  And so on for awhile.  Each torrent was different than the last: some were wispy braids, tall and thin, while others spread a veil over the rocks.  Some crashed rock to rock, never free-falling more than a few inches, while others tumbled over the edge and, seconds later, joined the bright blue pools below.  Finally we reached the uppermost waterfall and turned back.  
All of this was no more than an easy 20-minute walk from the highway; why were all of these people zooming past?
After a quick lunch, we took to the bikes again with Sunwapta Pass in our sights.  This would be the most sustained steep climbing of this hilly road.  The roaring headwind didn't help, but once we got going, it wasn't so bad.  We spotted numerous waterfalls from the road: one, high up on the cliffs, disappeared periodically as the wind blew it around.  Again, no one driving by seemed to notice.  An hour or so and a couple of breaks got us to the top of the steep section (the actual pass was a few miles later and hardly a bump in the road).  Glaciated peaks were even closer than before, and waterfalls cascaded from countless alpine ridges.  
There is a fancy new walkway at the top of this steep section, and the people waiting there to go back to the parking area gave Tam an ovation as she crested the hill!  People can be great.
We then entered a valley and got our first views of the Columbia Icefield, one of the largest sub-arctic glacial masses.  The Athabasca and Andromeda Peaks, both heavily flanked with glaciers, dominated the scene.  The Athabasca glacier has an ice road on it: you can actually take a glacier tour out onto the ice!  There is also a trail that leads right up to its toe.  We biked by all of that and got to the Icefield Campground, the only one on the road that does not allow RVs.  We claimed a site in the walk-in area.  It will be nice tonight and in the morning to be away from vehicles and all their noise.  While registering for the site, I started talking with a guy who turned out to have worked with a friend of mine from college!  It is a small world indeed.
Tam and I quickly set up the tent then started to hike up to Wilcox Pass.  The unofficial trailhead began right behind our campsite!  The steep trail took us quickly up past treeline and onto expansive meadows neighboring the peaks and glaciers of the area.  A flock of about 20 Bighorn Sheep roamed nearby, and on the walk back, I glanced behind and saw one on a rock overlooking the trail, no more than 50 feet away.  As night fell, we headed back to our tent and had dinner, just entering the tent as rain began to fall.  What a day!
- Danny

August 28
It's pouring rain in the morning, so we sleep in, only emerging for breakfast.  It's early afternoon when the sun finally comes up and we decide to start biking.  Soon we reach Sunwapta Pass.  Here waters flow south to the Pacific and north to the Arctic.  It's also the boundary between Jasper and Banff.  We head into Banff!  
At the end of a nice descent, we reach Parker Ridge, the hike we want to do today.  Steep switchbacks lead to the top of the ridge, where we are rewarded with a fantastic view of the valley behind us.  Climbing up to a high point on the right, we can see the Saskatchewan Glacier, jagged peaks behind it, our road winding through the valley, and layer upon layer of sweeping mountains stretching into the distance.  
In every direction the view is breathtaking.  
We then hike along the ridge away from the glacier to get a better view.  From here we can observe the glacier, slowly pouring down from the grey cliffs, the milky blue lake below, and the braided river carving through the valley.  The surrounding cliffs are all topped with ice, and from one, two tremendous waterfalls thunder down, side by side, for thousands of feet.  We stop here and I do a painting, while Danny goes to explore and take pictures.  It's 6:30 or so by the time we're on our bikes again, and it's 7:45 when we reach our campsite about 19 miles away.  That tells you how much elevation we lost!  Leaving Parker Ridge, we take off on a steep, fast, super long downhill.  Suddenly everything is happening fast, and thoughts only have enough time to flash through my brain: valley ahead, car back, Danny rounding the next curve, avalanche sign, bumpy road, hands freezing, good- not too cold to use the brakes, jagged ridges, sun on snow, waterfall.  All of this beauty is in fast-forward.  It's exhilarating!  
At the bottom the road makes a big U-bend and we lose some speed.  Off to the right is a small path and footbridge, so we stop to take a look.  Here the blue glacial river along the road is literally swallowed by the earth.  We watch the calm river waterfall into a chasm hundreds of feet deep.  On the bridge we can look down into the dark depths and see the river rushing far below.  What an amazing geological feature!
The downhill is not over.  We continue to fly into the valley, stopping only when we reach another bridge, a big one.  To our left we discover an enormous waterfall.  White water is flying out and down hundreds of feet, bounding off protruding rocks, and finally pounding into a grey pool far below. What powerful beauty!  No one driving by stops to look (you can't see the waterfall if you just drive over the bridge).  Just past here we see the Weeping Wall, tall cliffs golden in the setting sun with small waterfalls emerging in various places to paint long wet streaks.  These cliffs continue, and Danny falls in love with them because they remind him of Yosemite.  
As we follow the river valley, the sun makes a smoky disappearance behind us among the clouds.  
The scenery is quite remarkable, but I'm happy to arrive at the campsite because it's cold and I'm very hungry.  Eating dinner at the pavilion, we meet a family traveling from New Zealand and two girls traveling from France, which makes for lovely conversation.
- Tam

August 29
We ate breakfast at the same pavilion as last night, but this time everyone else had gone.  The New Zealanders left their fire burning at their campsite, didn't even attempt to put it out, so we doused it.  It did rain last night, but the "fire danger extreme" doesn't go away from an inch of rain.  We continued our cold oatmeal experiment, this time adding copious amounts of honey, lemon juice, peanut butter, and chia seeds.  Nutritious and (somewhat) delicious!  We got on the road about 10, hoping the sun would come out.  It did for a little bit, but mostly it was cold and windy.  The scenery, as always on this road, was incredible.  Sheer cliffs on our left, streaked with waterfalls thousands of feet above, with the uppermost ridge a massive castle: crenellated battlements, ramparts and buttresses below, turrets and spires thrust every which way into the sky.  Our road followed the moat, aka the North Saskatchewan River, all the way until we crossed it and began to climb up out of the valley.  Our first stop was at an overlook of the mountains.  I counted 14 glaciers, but the view looked pretty much like it does all the time when the road climbs up a few hundred feet.  You know your life is pretty good when every day includes soaring peaks and so many glaciers it takes minutes to count them.
We stopped down the road a few minutes later at Mistaya Canyon, a short hike to a bridge across a deep gorge.  The river just upstream is winding along, a few rocks and rapids here and there, and suddenly the earth yawns and swallows it whole.  The whole churning mess drops deep down into a limestone canyon reminiscent of the one we found the night before.  We enjoyed the view for a few minutes but hurried back after a nice guy informed us that the pesky ravens in the parking lot were messing with our stuff.  Turns out everything was fine.  As we were getting ready to leave the parking area, a woman rolled down her window and asked how far the hike was.  We told her it was very short, no more than half a kilometer, and totally worth it for the view into the canyon.  She lamented that some of the hikes were just so long and she didn't have enough time!  I told her she could save a few more seconds by parking nearer to the trailhead.  She laughed, and I with her.  Or maybe at her.  I mean, who doesn't have an extra fifteen minutes to see an incredible natural phenomenon?  Why else would you be in Banff National Park?  I guess half a kilometer was too long, because she waited a minute then drove off.  
We biked on slowly uphill and into the wind, and eventually came to a spectacular aquamarine lake on our right.  This was Waterfowl Lake, the trailhead for our next hike.  
We asked a guy traveling by motorcycle to take our picture, and he kindly obliged then asked us a few questions about our trip.  He told us that later in life we would buy something motorized and look back and laugh at how crazy we were to ever ride bikes!  Had someone nearby not disturbed a hornet's nest and forced an end to the conversation, I might have told him of all the amazing places he had zoomed by since leaving Jasper that morning (we left Jasper three days ago and still feel we are going too fast).  But I wouldn't want to ruin his day.
We did talk to some nice people at the trailhead.  They had driven the road before and done many of the hikes.  We enjoyed hearing about the one we were about to do, and they said they would check out some of the spots we recommended.  We then hiked a few miles to Chephren Lake, discussing the morals of vegetarianism while strolling through the dense forest.  It was lightly raining when we arrived, but nothing, maybe save very thick fog, could dampen the splendor of this pastel blue lake set into the cirque below jagged, gray, Chephren Peak.  We ate lunch to the sound of the waterfalls roaring down from the glacier on the mountainside, a refreshing change from the constant sound of cars.  Then we hiked back, found a campsite, ate some dinner, and dove quickly into the tent under wet skies.

1 comment:

  1. Danny, you didn't meet Bill Buford, did you? I've been reading every one of your posts, and I am so so very happy for you to be taking such a magnificent adventure! My favorite part is how beautifully you are sharing it with the rest of the world. Keep up this daily blogging thing. It is incredible to be a small part of your trip :)