Friday, September 30, 2011

In the Land of the Mountain Kings

Moraine Lake - Banff National Park - Alberta, Canada
In the Land of the Mountain Kings
travel essay
by Greg Larson

     Those who know me understand my quest for the perfect bike ride or the quintessential hiking experience.  The goal is to find the right fit, the nirvana, which lasts a few minutes or possibly a few hours.  It’s a mountain road in Italy or a trail on the Welsh coastline . . . something unforgettable.  The body, the mind, the weather, and the surroundings are in sync with each other.  It’s a moment in time you wish you could bottle and cork like vintage wine, to open and taste at a later date.

     For Gretta and me, our hopes were high in early August when the adventure tour guides drove our group of ten to the trailhead at Moraine Lake in Banff National Park in Alberta, Canada.  The majestic peaks, enveloped with snow and forests, had a fairy-tale quality to them.  Mt. Fay sat before us with its shelf glacier perched a thousand feet above the lake.  The glacial melt cascaded down the cliffs and continued to seek a path to Moraine Lake. The water which has a suspended powder, or “rock flour,” creates a turquoise-blue lake reflecting the grandeur of the Ten Peaks range.

     I looked at the timeless panorama and became spellbound.  In the early morning, the men on the dock were readying the rental canoes for a busy day.  It could have been a scene from the ‘50s, or any decade of choice.

     Gretta was full of energy as we started up the path on the eight-mile round trip hike.  She had talked me into carrying both of our lunches in my pack, so I used that as my excuse for hiking more slowly.  Our guides, Marcy and Anne, told us we would be hiking up the mountains all morning, so we needed to pace ourselves.

     The first third of our hike was a series of switchbacks on a mountainside opposite Mt. Fay.  During the morning we hiked in the shadows of the Engelmann spruce and the subalpine fir trees.  Every now and then we’d get a glimpse of the lake below and the glacier above.  The waterfalls from the shelf glacier whispered to us from across the valley. We crossed small creeks rushing down the steep slope, and spied columbine flowers and other flora under the shaded canopy of the trees.

Mt. Fay shelf glacier
     There was a split in the trail where we gathered with our guides.  The switch back trail had brought us closer in elevation to the shelf glacier.  It seemed as if we could reach out and touch it across the valley.  Our guides told us that the second third of the hike would be much easier.  They directed us to the Larch Valley and told us that we would hike through it to our lunch destination.  

     The trail changed to a mild slope and we walked through a forest of larch trees (or tamaracks), which grow near the timberline.  They are conifers, but lose their needles each year.  The spindly branches look like pipe cleaners and grow in irregular patterns.  When the wind blows the branches begin to wave like the arms of a ballet dancer.

The Larch Valley and the Ten Peaks range
     The zone between subalpine forests and alpine meadows was magical.  Green meadows and a marshy creek filled the valley.  Alpine flowers dotted the spaces between the rocks.  The sun was shining and pleasant warmth filled my body.  Our group stopped at a plank bridge to take a break and snap some pictures.

     The Ten Peaks range was much closer now.  The jagged rock faces and patches of snow looked like pictures of the European Alps.  It was a perfect day in a perfect place.

     I almost expected to find a group of Lilliputian mountain kings celebrating the rites of summer, assuming that on a day when their world was in harmony, they would dance in a hall of spruce and fir.  I imagined a scene of mountain people, wearing alpine flower garlands, deerskin clothing and silk shirts, playing their harps and flutes to celebrate the rare summer perfection.  The animals would surround the hall to witness the festivities while the sun shone and the larch trees danced in all their glory.  Maybe the altitude was getting to me.

     Marcy pointed out the flowers and plants, which included valerian, a cluster of small pinkish-white flowers on a green stem.  She stated that a root extract is used as a sedative.  She led us to tiny patches of flowering moss, called moss campion.  The little fuchsia-colored flowers bloom once every ten years in each clump.  I was careful not to step on them.  We bent down and breathed in the mossy-woodsy aroma.

Greg & Gretta - time for lunch
photo courtesy Austin-Lehman Adventures
     We hiked on to our lunch site while listening to the high-pitched squeals of the squirrels communicating across the meadows.  The larch trees were sparse and shorter in height than the trees in the lower elevations.  Small evergreens and moss hugged the rocky slopes.  With massive peaks towering in every direction, I kept turning 360 degrees, snapping pictures at a feverish pace. During lunch, we snacked a bit, and then wandered a bit, taking in the magnificent views of snow, rocks and alpine flowers.  That's when I spied our final destination.                    
     Our tour literature listed the day’s destination as Sentinel Pass with scenic views in every direction.  I peeked around a larch tree and stared at a saddle ridge between two large peaks.  A switchback trail was visible on a vertical wall laced with snow fields. That’s when I heard an angel’s choir singing in the back of my head. I realized I was looking at our destination.  I gasped.  No way!  They can’t expect us to climb on those steep trails!  That’s insane!

I spied our destination - Sentinel Pass

     After lunch, we ascended a trail to a small lake at the basin below Sentinel Pass.  The wind became stronger and cooler at the higher elevations, and the clouds continued to darken.  Occasional patches of sunlight danced on the rocks around us.  Our group exchanged glances of consternation as we huddled around Marcy.  It was after one o’clock, and I was concerned that the weather could take a turn for the worse.  My experience in Colorado taught me that hiking above timberline in the afternoon was considered insane.  Too many times I’d been drenched in rain and guilt for having made the decision to continue hiking upwards after midday.  The mountain kings must be sitting by the fire and smoking their pipes by now.

Basin lake below Sentinel Pass
     Marcy gave us a pep-talk regarding the final third of our upward hike.  “The hike to Sentinel Pass is not as bad as it looks.  I’ve watched all of you this week and you are all capable of climbing to the pass.”

     We turned and looked at each other but no one seemed to be exuding a high level of confidence.  She continued, “It will take us about forty-five minutes to reach the pass.   We’ve got plenty of time.  If you want to chill out by the lake while we continue, that’s your option.”

      I pulled my jacket from the pack and put it on.  Chill. . . what an appropriate word.  But we won’t be here again. You only live once.  Let’s go for the gusto. 

     Gretta and I knew that we could turn around whenever we wanted, and that we’d stay warmer while hiking.  I had to give myself a pep talk to get the engine going and the legs moving again.  Just put one foot in front of the other. It’s no big deal, even if we’re still climbing. Nine out of ten decided to make the climb.

The climbing gets steeper
photo courtesy Austin-Lehman Adventures

Treacherous snowfield
photo courtesy Austin-Lehman Adventures
     The snow fields were treacherous.  The melting snow was slippery and the path narrow.  One slip and your ticket would be punched for a 500-foot slide to the rocks below.  The boys in our group were wearing running shoes and they had problems getting a grip.  It was a bit slow going forward, but once over the snow, we moved on to the switchbacks and up the steep trail.  Just before three o’clock we reached Sentinel Pass.

View from Sentinel Pass back towards Larch Valley
     It felt like we were on top of the world.  Unparalleled mountain vistas lay before us in every direction.  A whole new world of peaks and rocks were unveiled on the other side of the pass.  Behind us, I could see most of the trails we had hiked that day.  Many of the rocks, glaciers and peaks were below us!  The climb to the pass had been worth it and the rain never came.  Marcy and Anne handed us some special treats and opened a bottle of sparkling grape juice.  They poured it into glasses of plastique for us to toast and celebrate.

View on opposite side of Sentinel Pass
     After ten minutes of relaxation at the top, it was time to start down.  We had four miles of downhill climbing ahead of us.  The steep downhill trails were harder on the knees than the uphill climb.  But we had conquered the pass!

     Although we began to tire on the way down, we had a feeling of satisfaction.  Across the snowfield and back to the basin lake we went.  After we regrouped, our guides led us back into the Larch Valley.  No evidence of the mountain people.  They must live around here somewhere, strategically hidden from view.

     Finally, we took the switchbacks down to Moraine Lake.  In the late afternoon, the lake color was a deeper hue of turquoise-blue.  The last of the rental canoes were gliding into the dock as we returned to the trailhead.
Rental canoe on Moraine Lake
     When I returned home, I looked up some information about the valerian plant.  At weddings in medieval Sweden, the plant was placed in the groom’s clothing to ward off the “envy of the elves.”  Was this a reference to the mountain kings that I had sensed were near?  The information stated that when the valerian plant is taken in excessive doses it causes giddiness and disorientation.  Was this the reason the mountain kings were nowhere to be seen?  Would I have been able to see the mountain people if I had taken the extract? I’ll never know. 

     What I do know is that I’ve saved the day we climbed to Sentinel Pass in my memory “bottle.”  I’ve corked it tight.  It’s a rare vintage.
Moraine Lake in early evening

Friday, September 9, 2011

Frozen Secrets

Athabasca Glacier, Jasper National Park, Alberta, Canada
Frozen Secrets
travel essay
by Greg Larson

Ancient water unlocked
(photo courtesy of
     A cool breeze blew across my face while I looked at the dusty, rocky surface under my feet.  I could have been standing on another planet.  The rising slope in front of me was dirty ice, with streams of icy water scattered about the surface, flowing in earnest on a sunny August day.  The melting ice fed a rushing creek at the edge, or toe of the Athabasca Glacier in Jasper National Park, Alberta, Canada.  The glacier flows from the Columbia Ice Field down a long curved valley between mountain peaks which are covered with snow and other glacier remnants.
Toe of Athabasca Glacier with Mt. Andromeda above
     The Columbia Ice Field straddles the continental divide in Alberta and British Columbia.  It is one of the largest ice fields below the Arctic Circle, covering over 130 square miles with a thickness that varies from 300 to 1200 feet.  Seven glaciers flow from edges of the Columbia Ice Field.  They create the headwaters of rivers that flow to three oceans:  the Pacific, the Arctic, and the North Atlantic.
     The Athabasca glacier is the most accessible of the seven glaciers, and is closest to the Columbia Ice Field Visitor Center and the highway.
     My wife, Gretta, and I walked towards our guide, Ron, and introduced ourselves.  He was to lead our tour group of ten people on a three hour tour across the surface of the glacier.  Yes, just a “three hour tour.”  His veiled reference to Gilligan’s Island made me realize that we were probably about the same age.
     We told him we were from Kansas.
     “Kansas!” exclaimed Ron.  “My relatives are from Kansas.”
     “What part of Kansas?”  I asked.
     “Oh, that’s the area where my great grandfather came from a long time ago,” answered Ron.  “It was after the Civil War, and there were carpetbaggers and lawlessness and such.  He roamed around Missouri, Kansas and Oklahoma as a member of the Jesse James gang.”
     Ron’s story about his great grandfather intrigued me.  From what I could remember, there were somewhere between fifty and a hundred James Gang members, and most of them ended up face down in a ditch or at the end of a rope.  What other stories were tucked inside Ron’s past?
     “Wow!” I responded.  “How did your family end up in Canada?”
     “Well, once Jesse met his fate, my great grandfather didn’t stay long in those parts.  He high-tailed it up here to Canada to start a new life.  And here we are.”
     While we waited for the rest of the tour group to gather, I remembered the line from a song I once heard, “the dirty little coward shot the man named Howard [aka James] and put poor Jesse in his grave.”
     One of the tour members heard the trailing end of our discussion about Ron’s ancestors, and then asked the question, “Ron, what’s your background?  How did you become a tour guide on a glacier?”
     The sun reflected off Ron’s sunglasses as he looked up towards the frosty face of Mt. Andromeda.  His pause was uncomfortably long.  I wondered if he had heard the question. 
Our guide, Ron, gazing at Mt. Andromeda
     Finally, he took a deep breath and the words came forth. “I got a couple of degrees.  Then I lived in a cabin in the bush for many years.  I was into mountain climbing for a while.”  He pointed to Mt. Athabasca and Mt. Andromeda, “In fact, I’ve climbed most of the peaks around here when there was a lot more ice on them than there is now.  I was a ski instructor, and then I was a guide on some heli-skiing tours.  But now I’m older. I’m sixty.  There were a lot of young guys who wanted my job. They were young bucks . . . smart and strong.  So I decided to take things a bit easier and now I lead these glacier tours in the summer.  It’s a nice way to spend time outdoors in the summer and then take it easy in the winter.”
     His hesitation and response made me realize that we all have stories in our past that are frozen, untouched, not usually shared.
     With all the tour members gathered around him, Ron was ready to begin the glacier trek.
     “The most important instruction I’ll give you today is that you need to follow me in single file.  The glacier surface and its features change from day to day, and I’ll make sure we have a safe path.  I will take you to the most interesting features so that you can see them first hand.  The water in the gullies is one degree above freezing, so you don’t want to fall in.  You don’t even want your boot to slip into the water.  There are deep crevasses and waterfalls, and some of the edges have frost and snow that won’t support you.  If you fall into a crevasse or a big hole, it will be an experience of a lifetime.  In fact it will be your last experience of a lifetime.”
     “Any questions?”  There was no response.  “Then follow me.”  Ron turned and led us along a rushing creek at the toe of the glacier.  Eventually we crossed a bridge to the glacier surface.  It consisted of a narrow plank about 12 ft. long, situated about six feet above the rushing icy water.  Ron yelled before we crossed.  “Don’t look down at the water.  Focus on your feet and keep your balance as you cross.”
Walking the plank
(photo courtesy Austin-Lehman Adventures)
     At last, our boots were on the icy surface.  The breeze was remarkably cooler.  Ron told us that the sun had been shining for the last four days.  The melting on the surface created tiny pockets that allowed us to grip the ice with our hiking boots.  We were lucky that we didn’t have to wear crampons.  They are required during cooler times when the surface is slippery.  According to Ron, when it rains, the glacier is like a sloped skating rink.
     The hike was slow and mentally taxing.  It was important to follow the person in front, but difficult, due to the slopes and streams we were constantly crossing.  Ron stopped every 200 yards to let us catch our breath.  He used the opportunity to share his knowledge about the glaciers and the ice field.
Our guide leads us single file
(photo courtesy Austin-Lehman Adventures)
     He showed us the lateral moraines, which were piles of rock, gravel and ice pushed aside when the glacier flowed downhill.  These dirty ridges show the extent of the glacier in centuries past when the ice was much thicker.  The rock and gravel insulate the ice, thus it doesn’t melt as easily as the exposed glacier surface.
Lateral moraine with exposed ice
     Ron shared some historical photos of the glacier and explained that it was shrinking significantly each year.  We had also viewed plaques along the dirt road to the glacier which showed where the toe was located during different decades throughout the twentieth century and up to the present time.
     In 1844 the Athabasca Glacier and the Dome Glacier flowed to the opposite side of the valley and deposited piles of gravel past the current location of the highway and visitors center.  The amount of ice in the glacier is now a fraction of the volume that existed 170 years ago.  Ron said there are varying estimates on how long it will take before the Athabasca Glacier disappears.  Some studies estimate it will be gone in 70 to 100 years, other studies estimate longer time frames.  Natural global warming has continued for tens of thousands of years.  The question is: How much is man contributing to global warming, and has he quickened the pace of the melting process?  Ron didn’t have an answer but said, “It should be cause for concern and we should all have an interest in finding out the answer.”  He told us the Columbia Ice Field would remain indefinitely, due to its massive size and depth.
View up the glacier - it's two more miles to the edge of the Columbia Ice Field
     He directed us to a vertical pipe that had been installed to take core samples of the glacier.  Tape was wrapped on the pipe about two yards above the surface of the glacier.  It was where the surface existed at the beginning of spring.
     Ron then pointed to a long piece of pipe that lay horizontally on the surface.  “See the tape about six or seven yards from this end of the pipe? That pipe was vertical last year, and the tape marked the surface at the beginning of last year.  More ice is melting than is being replenished by snow and by the flow from the ice field.”
     There was always something interesting to show us, like the blue color of the solid, undisturbed ice that appeared when he scraped the white surface with his axe, or the clumps of ancient microbes that are considered a building block of life.  He also pointed out yellow patches of pollen that had been deposited centuries ago.
Our guide, Ron, shows us the microbes insulating a pile of ice
Ice cold drinks
(photo courtesy
     We stopped within fifty feet of an icy road plowed on the surface of the glacier.  It was created for people movers, which were large tourist busses with giant tractor tires.  Every few minutes a bus came by spewing out stinky diesel fumes.  The occupants waved to us as they leaned out the windows to take pictures of us hiking on the ice.  I felt like an animal at a zoo, but I was proud that we had walked an entire mile up the jagged surface to view the cracks and rivulets in intimate detail.
     The most unusual stop on our hike was at a feature called a moulin (French for millwheel).  It is a point on a glacial creek where the water finds a fissure or a break on the surface, and the water seeks the bottom of the ice instead of traveling on the surface.  The opening was about fifteen feet across, and the rushing creek fell into the bluish-white void.
     Ron yelled above the crashing noise, “This waterfall goes down 300 feet to the bottom of the glacier.  It continues to carve out the ice as it seeks a path to the bottom.”  He took his ice axe and chopped foot-holds at the edge, and then he said he would hold each of us if we wanted to take a photograph of the waterfall.
Water rushes towards the moulin
     I took my turn and leaned over the edge and snapped the picture while Ron held my other hand.  The waterfall gushed towards the hole and launched into the abyss.
Looking straight down into the moulin
     Then Ron shared, “One of my buddies climbed down a moulin that was near the toe of the glacier and he made it all the way to the bottom.  He said it was just like going down a giant, cold drain pipe.”
     He continued to share tidbits of what the glacier reveals, and pointed to his ice axe.  “I found this out here on the glacier one day.  Then one year, when the spring thaw was going pretty good, we found the better half of an army jeep sticking through the surface.  It was used during training in World War II, and must have rolled or was driven into a crevasse.  You never know what you might find out here.  Stuff just shows up.”
     Yeah, like bodies and stuff.  Surely people have fallen in out here.  Creepy.  How long does the glacier keep them, and what condition are they when they resurface?  I didn’t share my thoughts or ask Ron any questions about “stuff.”
     I came to the conclusion that people are like glaciers.  There are frozen secrets deep inside us.  On rare occasions they are revealed during a spring thaw to those who are intimate with what is on the ever-changing surface. 

     My focus returned to the mountains and glacier surrounding me.  It was a blue-sky summer day in a rare place, at one of the last remnants of the ice age . . . one of those days when you thank God for being alive, for the opportunity to experience a unique spot on the planet.  The receding glacier and the awareness of the centuries of melting ice gave me a broader perspective of nature’s time clock and man's relationship with it and each other.