The black sand beach along the Athabaska River is a serene place to write and reflect upon our week-long escape. My faithful black-and-white companion sits at my feet. The water is fast and loud. Against the river’s edge, small waves kiss the sand. There are two peaks in the distance obscured by a veil of gray smoke. I’m unsure of where the forests are burning. Thinking about it makes my heart feel heavy. My eyes are stinging and my throat is dry.
Here in Alberta, the UNESCO World Heritage site of the Banff National Park and Lake Louise are places that feel like my backyard. Two Jack Lake is where we started our little odyssey. The heavily wooded campground is sheltered by massive rock walls. The commercialized town of Banff is a little more quiet than usual. We poke around the shops, purchase some boots, and settle in at a little roadside Tex-Mex restaurant for dinner.
Nestled within the mountains at 5,400 feet is majestic Lake Louise, Canada’s most elevated community. The lake is named after Princess Louise, Duchess of Argyll. The area was initially settled in 1884 as an outpost for the Canadian Pacific Railway. The immense chateau sits on the eastern shore of the lake. It was originally built in 1890 to attract deep-pocketed travelers to the allure of trains and the beautiful landscape of the West. While the attraction hasn’t changed, parking fees and lot attendants seem to tarnish the feel of country wilderness.
As many times as I’ve hiked and climbed here, I’ve never paddled the lake. It takes some commitment to shuttle our kayak and paddleboard along the trails to the water, but it’s well worth the sweat and effort. It was a beautiful experience to be here at a time when the lake was so quiet. The color of the water is unexplainable other than otherworldly blue. It might conjure scenes of the Caribbean, except that at 39 degrees Fahrenheit, the glacier waters are bone-chillingly frigid. The psychedelic turquoise comes from fine glacier dust created by the movement of the glacier to bedrock. The dust is suspended in the water and refracts blue and green wavelengths of light. Some scientists say that as glaciers melt, the color may change in years to come.
Sentinel Pass is on our agenda. We awaken at the crack of dawn as we know the parking lot to the trailhead will fill quickly. We gulp a cup of warm, creamy coffee, pack up the camper and drive away from the village of Lake Louise. We are so disappointed, as it’s just 7:30 a.m., to see a man waving people on with a flashing sign stating that the parking lot is full.
I shout at him from the window. “We want to hike Sentinel. Is there room?” He waves us in and yells that we, with our truck and camper, can take a normal spot. It pays to ask questions or pray. We toss our plan B and drive to the trailhead near Moraine Lake.
Moraine Lake is another turquoise jewel sitting beneath the towering peaks that seem to stand at attention and guard this precious gem. This is the start and finish point for hiking to Sentinel Pass.
We scour the camper for our lunch and snacks, putting careful attention into what we may need for mountain travel. Based upon challenging experiences, I make it a point to prepare for all seasons even if the day begins at 80 degrees. This means that in addition to sunscreen and a brimmed hat, I also pack an extra set of leggings, a rain shell, and a down coat or vest. One just never knows when hail shall rain down or mountain winds come out of nowhere … or “now here,” as we say in the world of yoga and wilderness travel.
En route to the pass, the trail is easy to follow and begins with a lung-busting series of switchbacks before it meanders through a valley of wildflowers. As we approach what looks to be a vertical impasse, out in the smoke-filled distance, if I squint a little harder, I can see the faint line of switchbacks dotting the landscape and leading to the saddle of Sentinel. This is a head-down, bum-up sort of ascent where both the legs and the lungs burn in overdrive. At least half a gallon of water is needed to quench my continued thirst.
As we travel along the path, there is a bit of exposure on the left side where a misstep could send a person sliding down a massive scree slope. Eyes on the trail and calculated steps keep us safe and moving forward. As the top of the saddle becomes closer, I shift gears into my second breath. The views are worth the agonized legs. Rock, spires, and giant chimneys greet us at the top. Out in the distance is a climber ascending a chimney that is standing alone. His white helmet and red shirt are stark against the smoky haze.
Lunch on a ledge is a sheer delight. We stay for a while and take in the beauty of this precious life before retracing our steps back to Moraine Lake.
To climb mountains is to suffer. There is nothing easy about getting to the top, but isn’t character about putting boots to the ground and start walking, knowing that it will bring a certain amount of discomfort?
How to Get There
Make sure to check for the latest travel requirements and restrictions.
From Calgary, drive approximately 1.5 hours west on the Trans Canada Highway to Banff and Lake Louise. Be sure to stop in Canmore along the way.
For more information, see BanffLakeLouise.com