Outdoor column by Matt Dickerson: Glacier blues and maple reds
I first visited Banff National Park in 1985. I was 22, traveling with my parents, an older brother and his wife and two-year-old daughter, and one younger brother. We were working our way down the Rockies from a family reunion in British Columbia to the wedding in Boulder, Colo., of our other brother.
Over 50 years of my life, I’ve had opportunities to spend time in the Rockies: hiking and fishing with family and friends in Montana, Wyoming, Colorado, New Mexico and Arizona. But I have never been any place more breathtaking than Banff. It isn’t just one majestic peak, a sheer cliff or two, or a stunning glacier emptying into an aqua blue mountain lake. It is hour after hour of all of these. Plus big rivers and small streams, thundering waterfalls, towering cascades, and peak after peak of sharply angular bare rock, carved millennia ago by a glacier thousands of feet thick.
The problem was, on that first trip, my parents had allotted only one day and two nights in Banff National Park. My brother’s wedding was not going to wait, they said, and we had a long way to drive to get there. The park covers some 2,500 square miles of the Canadian Rockies in western Alberta on the border of British Columbia. That’s 1,600,000 acres, or roughly four times the area of the Green Mountain National Forest. And that doesn’t count the adjacent Yoho National Park (bordering Banff on the west) or Jasper National Park (bordering on the north). And we had one day — barely time to study a map of the place!
We took a long hike up over a pass into a pair of remote mountain lakes. The second was nestled against a cliff face and fed by a waterfall pouring over a sheer cliff from somewhere high on a mountain above that still sheltered remnants of the glaciers that once covered all of the park. Needless to say, it was a beautiful scene. And I was awestruck. Almost before our car was heading out of the park, I was plotting to get back.
It took two years before I could arrange a five-day backpacking trip with a friend. We hauled our gear, food and an inflatable raft eight miles into the same area I had visited before and spent four nights camping and fishing remote lakes and small rivers flowing through alpine meadows for wild cutthroat trout, brookies and rainbows. During the moments when I could pull my eyes off of the peaks towering over me, I caught a fair number of trout. We saw only two other humans the entire time.
Those mountains have stayed in my imagination for the past two and a half decades. This past weekend I had a chance to visit again. A speaking engagement brought me to the nearby city of Alberta, and my host invited me to spend the following weekend hiking with him in the park. He did not have to ask twice.
Established nearly 130 years ago, Banff is the oldest national park in Canada and second oldest in North America (behind Yellowstone). But while it has always been a famous destination, it was only in the 1990s that tourism really took off, with the number of annual visitors topping 5 million. It is now one of the worlds most visited parks.
And so it was with a mix of delight and perhaps a little disappointment last weekend that I started up out of Moraine Lake into the Valley of Ten Peaks under the shadow of the glacier-covered 11,627-foot peak of Mount Temple. Delight because the views were as stunning as I remembered. Perhaps even more so. Of all the valleys in Banff, this might have been the most breathtaking. The lake was glass and a deep blue I have seen nowhere else in the world. Larch trees lined the higher valleys in full bright yellow of their fall colors.
But a little disappointment because I was walking the trail amidst a line of hikers stretching out of sight in both directions. There had to have been at least a thousand folks on the trail that day. There were more within a stone’s throw of me than I had seen in six whole days of hiking on my previous trips.
I was still glad I went. And if given the chance, I will return. The crowds did not take away from spectacular beauty of the place, nor from my ability to enjoy that beauty. But there is no doubt I felt a twinge of sadness I did not complete identify until I sat down to write this column. It was a loss of the sense of wildness. What it gave me in return, though, was a deeper appreciation for our own Green Mountains. The views around me are not as spectacular, I admit. But maybe that’s good. For they are every bit as beautiful in their own way. Especially in October. And yes, I might complain of the million or so leaf-peepers that clog our roads this month. But it’s quite refreshing to step out onto the trails of our own forest to do my own leaf peeping without having to wait in line.
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