Finding Life + Adventure in Alberta, Canada
Alberta, Canada had been on my bucket list for a very long time. I remember seeing pictures of Lake Louise, her majestically blue waters paving the way to the backdrop of picturesque mountains that always seem to be covered in snow. When I got the chance to travel to Canada for a family reunion, I knew that staying a few days longer to make my way westward would be my ideal chance to check this beauty off of my list.
It had been a while since I traveled by myself. Arizona, Seattle, Iceland, Big Sur, Amsterdam, Barcelona, Ireland - they were all places that I explored with groups of amazing friends and family. But I yearned to go back into an adventure on my own. I missed the company of my own self, in an unknown place, left to my own devices to figure out my path forward. So when I got the chance to finally visit Alberta, I knew that it would be prime time for a solo expedition.
My plan was to fly into Calgary (the closest airport) and rent a car to drive the scenic byways toward Banff. I rented a condo unit in Canmore (the town closest to Banff), where I settled in and explored the town that I really knew nothing about. Canmore is about a 2-hour drive to Banff National Park. While you can stay at Banff, most famously in the Fairmont Chateau overlooking Lake Louise, many hikers choose to stay in Canmore. It's cheaper, more convenient, and has so many of its own offerings, that you'll never be bored. I decided to explore the town's many hiking trails, and get closer to the mountains that were all around. I feel like I craned my neck so hard at constantly looking up towards the peaks that were all around me.
Grassi Lakes were first on my list. They're a series of gorgeously-blue lakes that sit atop a fairly steep hike. The views of surrounding Canmore cannot be beat, and the beauty of the lakes and the woods that surround it are truly mesmerizing, and make this hike absolutely worth it. There is a quiet and peacefulness on these hikes that I haven't experienced anywhere else before.
Even going into the town of Canmore, you don't feel like you've left the wilderness. No. It's all around, all the time. It's a beautiful reminder that we're just visitors here, and that the trees, animals, and natural habitats that surround us are the true locals here, and should be respected, supported, and protected.
As I wrapped up my time exploring the Grassi Lakes and the town of Canmore, I kept pushing past the town limits into more hiking territory. I had found some hiking trails online that I wanted to explore before the weather turned and it got too dark, so I headed off in the direction of my maps. To my surprise and excitement, I ran into a herd of moose! Ironically, their giant stature loomed over a small walking labyrinth that was created with pebbles and stones not too far from where the moose grazed; so I naturally entered the labyrinth and walked super quietly, both in respect to my own adventure and to the moose who had allowed me to be near them. The rest of my hike that day continued in the beauty of mountains, mountains, and more mountains! If you know me, you know that this is what fills my heart with absolute joy. I feel the utmost safety and comfort when I'm in the midst of these gentle giants, and Canmore that day proved to be the perfect place in which to remind myself of that.
BANFF NATIONAL PARK
The next morning, it was time to head out to Banff. This was the whole reason why I had come to Alberta, and if Banff was going to be anything like Canmore, I was going to be in hiking heaven! I woke up at 5:30am, got my gear ready, and headed out, just in time to see the sunrise flood over the mountain peaks. I don't know how I didn't crash the car with constantly looking up and around to take in this beauty, but I couldn't imagine a better commute! The ride into Banff was easy and straightforward. You're essentially driving into the wilderness. Banff is not a park that is fenced in and enclosed within a certain parameter so that people can come visit. It's the entirety of Alberta, moving into British Columbia and onward, from where the park names change, but the beauty and sheer magnitude do not! It reminded me again how we, as humans and hikers and explorers and adventurers, have adapted to fit into the scale of natural life here, and not the other way around.
As I continued my drive toward Banff, it had started to snow. Mind you, I did not go to Alberta in high tourist season, which is summer. I went in the first weekend in May, which is technically spring, but truly - it's winter. Snow's coming down, the peaks are still covered, and many of the trails are still frozen or snowed in, and thereby, closed. Many of the trails I had wanted to hike were closed, so it limited me to what I could and could not do while in Banff. I didn't care. I kept pushing on, with fervent excitement. Another vastly important point to make is that Banff, and Alberta entirely, is bear country. Actually, it's "most wild animals" country, but the bears are the ones to be mindful of. These include black bears, brown bears, and the best kind of bears, as Leonardo DiCaprio would have it, grizzlies.
I did not have bear spray. I realize that this is a sin for any hiker in bear country, but as I am alive to write this post, I can say that I often have more luck than brains when it comes to adventures. Because I got to Banff so early in the morning, most stores were closed, thereby limiting me to just my voice as a bear deterrent. I have to admit that hiking almost alone (as no other hikers were around) in bear country without anything to protect myself with was probably the scariest part of this entire trip. But I wanted to become so aware of my surroundings and tune into my intuition, that I ventured out regardless.
I started at Lake Louise, and worked my way around to the back, where most hikes up towards the mountain tee houses begin. Most travelers flock to Lake Louise in the summer, where the water is that same Grassi Lake blue, and you can canoe out to the middle of it and stare into the beauty of it all. But those summer months are packed. Here, in the dead of spring-winter, with hardly anyone around, I saw Lake Louise in a different light. It's as if I caught her mid-transition, between the burrows of snow and small peaks of spring in the melting of her ice near the shore. It was a beautiful sight to see, and an even prettier sound to witness - the silence that penetrates deep into the core of Banff's wilderness.
The snow had quieted down as I made my way further away from the Lake, and the sun came out strong. I was alone, but I encountered a fellow hiker from time to time, passing me by on the trail. Every so often, I would stop and listen for any animal noises, but it was mostly birds and noisy squirrels rummaging about. I knew that I was in the heart of bear country, no longer a precaution but now a stately fact. I also knew that many of the bears were probably still hibernating, but this was the time that a few would venture out. With not a lot of hikers out, and me being the only one, I didn't want to be the first human a bear encounters on his waking journey back to hunting. Still, I kept going.
I arrived at the end of the Lake Louise trail, where the road splits into a steep hike up towards Plain of Six Glaciers, and around toward a trail I was not familiar with. I realized that no hikers were going up to Plain of Six Glaciers, and I really wanted to check out the tee house that sits atop there for some amazing views. I decided to venture out regardless, and should I feel sketchy on the trail, I would come back down. In that moment, a young man came up behind me and asked me if I was hiking alone. He offered to hike with me, as he also didn't want to be alone, and had no bear spray with him. Two hikers, no spray but a small pocket knife, going into the unknown in a few feet of dense snow. What could go wrong?
The hike itself was a couple of miles. I had done much more in my hiking travels, and did not think this would be a challenge. I was wrong. Hiking in snow is incredibly overwhelming. No matter where I put my foot, I would immediately fall through to my hip, almost. The trail quickly proved to be quite difficult, but we didn't want to turn around now. The sun had come out full force, but the weather was still quite cold and breezy, making our hike that much slower and strenuous. We chatted the entire way up, with labored breathing, remarking on the beauty of the place and how incredible it was to be out here with not a lot of other hikers around. I was glad to have met someone else who also enjoyed his own company, and we quickly fell into a step-fall-hike rhythm in the deep snow.
The trail was clearly marked - someone else had come through here, on snowshoes probably, and marked the trail. So we followed it, until we came to a giant, wall-sized pile of snow cutting the trail off completely. Avalanche. In Banff, if bears don't pose a threat, avalanches certainly do. In the season in which I was hiking, the snow had started to slowly slide off the giant mountain peaks and down into the valley. You could see the tabletops of snow hanging by a thread, waiting for any sound, shake, or movement to push them off. What towered before us were the remnants of an avalanche that had come down, probably recently. I couldn't tell. I had never been around an avalanche before, and while it was strikingly beautiful, it was also a scary reminder of where we were.
My young companion wanted to see if the trail continued on past the avalanche. He climbed over the crater-sized mounds of snow, only to confirm to my surprise, that the trail does, indeed, continue! So, we pressed on. Climbing steadily over the avalanche and seeing tree tops sticking out like toothpicks, I was hesitant, but didn't want to walk back by myself. Once we got back on the trail, we continued our winding way up toward the tee house. Legs battered from falling through the snow, and feet soaked to the bone, I was exhausted. The trail kept getting steeper and steeper, with no signs or tee houses in sight. Until we got to one...
The sign was flipped over, with the arrow now confusingly pointing to a direction that made no sense. We realized that the large avalanche had caused smaller ones that may have come through the area and wiped out any additional signage that would lead us to where we needed to go. Defeated and exhausted, with no idea where the trail was leading, we decided that it was best to turn around. When we did, we got the best views of the Lake and the surrounding mountains, with no one else around, in the spirit of pure silence and respect for this wild, unpredictable, gorgeous place.
On the way down, with knees buckling at the steep descent in forever deepening snow, I smelled something that stopped me in my frozen tracks. It was a musty smell that was so strong, as if someone sprayed it directly in my face. And just like that, it was gone. I knew that it was a bear, but because I didn't see him, I decided to pick up my pace and not spend any additional time in searching for the animal. As we continued, we noticed bear tracks, with claw marks digging into the snow print, likely for traction. Neither one of us said anything, but we both knew, and changed our pace accordingly. With the Lake in sight, we knew that we were close to civilization again, and our silent fear changed to excited arrival.
Banff, with its many off-shooting trails, cliffs, and overlooks, continues to amaze me. After I left the Lake and the park, I just drove around. With nowhere to be or go, I got into my rental car and drove the byways of Alberta, stopping every so often to just sit in the beauty of the mountains that, like grandparents, watched over us.
I drove into British Columbia and back; stopped to see lakes peering through the groves of trees; talked to locals who were out bird-watching and were kind enough to take my picture; and settled into meditations everywhere I went, because it's so simple here. To just be.
At the end of my journey, back in Canmore, preparing to leave my lodging and drive back to the airport, I relished in the fact that I had to get up really early again. I was going to see the sunrise one more time, flooding over the mountain peaks. But this time, before the sun arrived, the stars took the floor; and with so many lighting the dark sky, I had to pull over and just stare at them from the hood of my rental.
Back at the airport, in my true Aleks fashion, with a suitcase of memories and experiences, I wrote the following:
At the end of your life, it won't matter what your credit score was, or how many bills you juggled, or what you paid off. What will matter is time. What did you do with it? How did you spend it? With whom? And you get to decide what that looks like. You get to create that vision and bring it to life. And it won't always be easy, and you'll sacrifice a lot to spend that time in ways that you want, but it will be worth it. Whatever you do with your time, use it. Use it so much that when you do grow old and tired, and reflect on everything you've done, you'll smile. And you'll know that you lived.