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Summer of living gratefully: The Alberta Rockies

Updated: Nov 26, 2020

The events of 2020 have been devastating in so many ways that nobody could have predicted. Those of us with travel in our blood were disheartened as our eagerly anticipated trips were suddenly cancelled. It goes without saying that such disappointments pale miserably in comparison to the suffering of those impacted directly by the Covid-19 virus. I'm fortunate that my loved ones have so far been spared, and I salute those working on the front lines to heal the sick and keep the rest of us safe. I will be forever grateful.

Still, travel restrictions serve as a poignant reminder of the human connection opportunities no longer available to us. Opportunities to expand our worldviews, marvel at the wonders of our planet and better understand our global neighbours. But what feels like a loss of freedom has also liberated us to forget about our international bucket lists for a while, in favour of exploring our own back yards. Those yards often hold wonders of their own -- whether undiscovered, forgotten, or relegated to the category of 'I can see that any time.' Well, this year was that time.

For me, that meant some short trips into the Alberta Rockies and surrounding foothills. In a province so rich in outdoor wonders and wide open spaces, it was easy to explore safely and responsibly. It was also a lesson in home turf appreciation.

The edge of K-Country

In June I was invited to join the local chapter of Travel Media Association of Canada (TMAC) on a hike in Kananaskis (K-country to Albertans). The trail, a local insider secret (so far), was on Crown land just east of Bluerock Wildland Provincial Park, near the handsome foothills town of Turner Valley.

The hike was a beauty -- a moderate uphill path through cool pine forest, emerging onto an alpine meadow packed with wildflowers.

At the top of the hill, we were rewarded with a 360 degree panoramic vista. To the west, distant rocky mountain peaks made a stunning backdrop for expanses of green foothills in the foreground.

We lingered to soak up the views before making our way back to the trail-head. (If you want the name of this trail, message me. We made a pact to keep this treasure under the radar -- no easy task for a bunch of writers!)

A new perspective on Banff

I've been spoiled with opportunities to visit Banff National Park (only an hour's drive from Calgary), but this past July was my first time seeing it from a canoe. It won't be my last.

My sister was visiting from Saskatchewan and wanted to paddle on a lake in the Rockies. To be honest, our first choices were Lake Louise and Moraine Lake, both popular places to glide a canoe over turquoise waters. But we were foiled by summer crowds, reduced pandemic capacity limits and a rush of local tourists doing exactly what we were doing. Even on a non-peak Tuesday morning at 9 am, we were turned away -- parking lots full.

Then I remembered the Banff Canoe Club, a local outfitter at the edge of Banff townsite. Perched on the banks of the Bow River, they rent canoes, kayaks and SUPs by the hour. We hightailed back to Banff and grabbed ourselves a boat.

At the suggestion of club staffers, we paddled into a narrow creek branching off from the Bow. The flow was gentle and clear, sun beaming down through the trees. The creek meandered and curved through the forest, sometimes forming a canopy above as the boughs from each side bent to meet each other overhead. Occasionally the channel widened, offering glimpses of the surrounding peaks.

And suddenly we emerged onto Vermillion Lakes. Shimmering water, surrounded on all sides by forest and mountains. Paradise!

Iconic drive: The Icefields Parkway

At the end of August, I ventured a bit farther west to Jasper National Park with Leanne. I hadn't traveled the famed Icefields Parkway between Lake Louise and Jasper in over 15 years, so it was high time. It's my pick for the most beautiful drive in Canada. Jaw-dropping landscapes line the entire route, with a flurry of beautiful stops along the way.

Our first stop was Bow Lake, a contemplative spot for a picnic lunch.

Next up was the breathtaking Glacier Skywalk where I took an exhilarating stroll along the glass-bottomed walkway for views well beyond 360 degrees. I couldn't convince Leanne (who opted for wildflowers and a waterfall instead), so braved it on my own. Well, not totally on my own -- I joined a half-busload of other brave souls.

That experience would be hard to top, but our final pit stop at Athabasca Falls came close. The thundering cascades are just hidden enough from the highway that the unaware would never know they were there, if not for the signage. But wow, are they ever there, with powerful torrents of glacier-fed water tumbling through a steep gorge.

Jasper gems

Jasper townsite was our base for three nights, where we checked into the charming Bear Hill Lodge. It was a great pandemic pick since we could access our cabin from a private entrance, limiting public space exposure. With the in-room fridge, kettle and coffee maker, we also made our own breakfasts to cut down on restaurant visits.

Speaking of restaurants, Jasper has plenty of good dining options. We had excellent dinners at Evil Dave's Grill, Olive Bistro and The Raven Bistro. We had a hearty post-hike canyon-side lunch at Maligne Wilderness Kitchen, and a refreshing flight of locally brewed beer on the patio at Jasper Brewing Co.

But of course, the real draw was the great outdoors was, and we took that all in as well.

There were more gorges and waterfalls at Maligne Canyon, where we followed easy trails with a series of bridges criss-crossing the plunging chasm.

We spent the better part of a day at Maligne Lake, where we had a close encounter with a moose. She decided to graze right beside the walking trail, unconcerned at the stir she was causing. Park staff ensured that all of us visitors gave her a wide berth. After all, it was her home we were invading!

We capped off the day with a cruise across the lake to see the postcard-pretty Spirit Island, accessible only by boat. It's sacred to local indigenous people, the Stony Nakoda, so we didn't actually set foot on the island proper.

As you can see, it's not always an island. It only becomes one for part of the year, when water levels in the lake are at their peak.

Sadly, the destructive mountain pine beetle has infected some of the island's few trees, leaving a red tinge to the needles. The affected trees will die within a few years. Locals hope the next few winters will be cold enough for long enough to kill off the beetles before they fully destroy the stand. Let's pray that's the case.

On our final day in Jasper we took in two more lakes: Patricia and Pyramid. These were lovely spots with few other visitors.

At last: Moraine Lake

On our way back to Calgary, we stopped at a place I was long overdue to see. Moraine Lake and the surrounding Valley of the 10 Peaks are rather famous, having adorned the Canadian 20-dollar bill in the 1970s and been much photographed and painted. Spectacular, isn't it?

This might be the most challenging year I've faced in my lifetime, but I'm more grateful than ever for being where I am as I navigate through it. Stay safe and well my friends. And, to borrow a tagline from our provincial tourism board, remember to breathe.

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