High in the Canadian Rockies of Alberta, a lovesick creature of the wild raised his head and gave voice to one of the most stirring sounds in nature. It was the call of a bull elk, and here in these rugged mountains his cry was further dramatized by massive sheets of glacial ice. The call of the wild is what had lured my wife, Janie, and me to Banff and Jasper for a month of RVing.
We began our tour of the area in Banff at Tunnel Mountain Campground – an appropriate place to start, as Banff was Canada’s first national park. From camp, we took a 30-minute bicycle ride to Cave and Basin National Historic Site, where we learned about the creation of Canada’s park system.
In 1883 Frank McCabe and William and Tom McCardell discovered a hole in the ground that spewed steam. That led them to a huge cave and an underground stream with warm, bubbling waters laden with sulfur. The men smelled riches and sought ownership. But the Canadian government envisioned a greater good and, in 1885, it created a public reserve. Two years later, the thermal springs became Banff National Park of Canada.
In 1902 the park was expanded to include Lake Louise and a number of major rivers with intriguing names such as Bow, Red Deer, Kananaskis and Spray. Concurrent with these additions and with the passage of Canada’s National Parks Act in 1930, the government created Jasper Forest Reserve, later to become a national park. Today, these two land masses are both UNESCO World Heritage Sites and are linked by the 120-mile-long Icefields Parkway, which has been dubbed “The Most Spectacular Journey in the World.”
As visitors began descending on Banff in droves, the park was challenged for ways to exhibit what it had created. Banff began by developing a gondola, offering rides that would whisk visitors to the top of Sulphur Mountain, elevation 7,500 feet. Since its opening in 1959, the gondola has provided a “lift” for more than 10 million riders.
To further help with mountaintop views, a boardwalk of several hundred yards opens panoramas of the Bow Valley Parkway and of hundreds of mountain peaks. Views also take in distant glaciers that backdrop Moraine Lake, one of the park’s turquoise-colored pendants.
From the town of Banff, we headed northwest 36 miles to Lake Louise Village. Even though the area often throbs with visitors, we found that the Lake Louise Trailer Campground had plenty of elbowroom. From here we could easily explore nearby Moraine Lake.
Because of the immense popularity of Moraine Lake, we knew that we would have to arrive early in the day if we wanted to beat the crowd. As the sun ascended the peaks and beamed its warm rays down on the lake’s frigid waters, we launched our kayaks and marveled at the reflections of the snowcapped spires mirrored in the beautiful water.
So picturesque is Moraine that it’s called “the Jewel of the Rockies,” and the Bank of Canada once depicted it on the back of a $20 bill. Moraine is not a huge lake, and we allowed our picture-taking to set the pace. In less than an hour we paddled to the head of the mile-long lake. Anticipating the area’s wilderness, we had prepared for a tiny adventure and had brought along a backpack stove to boil water for a spot of tea. There, as we sat in the shadow of Fay Glacier, a bull elk voiced his claim to the territory, pumping out his call.
Just as the wildlife engenders feelings of awe (and respect), so do the mountains. After kayaking the lake, we set off on a hike just a few miles from Moraine. We followed a three-mile trail to the overlook at Little Beehive Mountain, where we could peer over the Plain of Six Glaciers, the Fairmont Chateau Lake Louise and the Lake Agnes Teahouse.
Banff National Park was originally established to be a mountain climber’s paradise, which is the reason for constructing the Swiss-styled chateau located at the base of Lake Louise and the lovely English teahouse, which we’d passed a mile back down the trail.
You can spend weeks in Banff, but scenery of a different type lies just to the north, and most of it is visible from the Icefields Parkway, an incredible expanse of roadway that links Banff National Park with Jasper National Park. If pressured, you could cover the 120-mile-long drive north in several hours, even in a large motorhome, but you would have scurried by some of the world’s most unique and conspicuous mountain-forming features.
Specifically, this is a land of lateral moraines, terminal moraines, arêtes, cirques, tarns and polished rock, and because of this legacy, it is most appropriately designated “Glacier Country.” It’s a timeless landscape that some call “the reservoir of a continent,” and the Icefields Parkway soon reveals why this designation is appropriate.
About midway along the drive you come to the Columbia Icefield, a huge mass of glacial ice. Scientists believe remnants of the five glaciers forming the Columbia Icefield have existed in some form for 3 million years. Here, to celebrate this vast field of ice and snow, Parks Canada has constructed a large visitor center and elaborates on what you see just outside. Inside the center, there’s a replica of the Icefield and its five contiguous glaciers, to include the huge Saskatchewan and Athabasca glaciers, which at this lofty elevation spill over into the various drainages afforded by the nearby Continental Divide. From this consortium, melt waters ultimately flow to the Atlantic, Pacific and Arctic oceans.
Obviously, this mass of ice is huge. In fact, its surface area exceeds that of Rhode Island and in places it measures more than 1,000 feet deep.
In the shadow of such immensity, often visitors are oblivious to the dangers. Parks Canada, in an attempt to keep visitors safe, has posted numerous signs cautioning hikers to remain behind the barrier ropes paralleling the several trails. “People have lost their lives,” proclaim the billboards, explaining that melt water has undercut the ice in unpredictable spots. They’re not exaggerating, and from the comforts of our RV I read about a naturalist who had broken through the Athabasca Glacier and been swept away by these turgid waters. Miraculously, he was spit out at the toe, and though banged up and freezing, he lived to explore again.
That night we returned late to our home away from home. The main Columbia Icefield Campground was closed for the season so we overnighted in the visitor parking lot, as is permitted. A friendly raven had settled on a huge nearby boulder, and every now and then would let us know it was still around.
The next day, we continued our journey north, completing the short drive to Jasper Townsite, quickly settling into nearby Whistlers Campground. Attendants cautioned us, saying if we saw elk to give them a wide berth and use telephoto lenses for photography. The elk were not always around, so we did other things easily accessed by short drives. We soaked in Miette Hotsprings and then we drove to Cavell Glacier, located at the base of Mount Edith Cavell, highest in the Athabasca Valley.
Another day we drove to Medicine Lake. In the fall, this huge, several-mile-long body of water almost empties. Solving the mystery required almost a century, but geologists discovered that a series of underground fissures creates some powerful “medicine” and drains the lake. Of course, the water had to go somewhere and that somewhere includes Maligne Canyon, located several miles from its source.
One evening from a clearing near our campground there came the call of a bull elk. Its call began on a low note but was punctuated by two low guttural notes. A herd of elk had moved near the RVs, and the harem was presided over by a huge bull – plagued, however, by a persistent interloper on the meadow’s edge.
We watched as a ranger moved in to flag the elk back toward the forest. Nestled safe in our RV, we knew that if we returned the next evening, more than likely, so too would the elk. Which is why we were there – to hear the call of the wild, see the massive glacier-carved mountains and experience “The Most Spectacular Journey in the World.”
For More Information
Banff Lake Louise Tourism www.banfflakelouise.com.
Canadian Rockies www.gocanadianrockies.com.
Icefields Parkway www.icefieldsparkway.ca.
Jasper Tourism www.jaspercanadianrockies.com.
Parks Canada www.pc.gc.ca.