Normally in the northern rockies during the summer you get a few rainy days, enough that you get a rest after a few days of hard hikes. But so far the weather on our trip had been perfect. We even had taken a rest day in good weather when we drove up to Waterton. But now the weatherman was telling a different story. The forecast was for clouds in the morning with a chance of showers in the afternoon. That was ok. We had a half day of driving to Lake Louise anyway. Sure enough, the next morning there was solid overcast so we took our time getting up, packing and leaving.
That was when we started to learn about Canadian weather predictions. As soon as we drove out of the Waterton Lake basin, we emerged from the clouds into the sunshine. There were some clouds over some of the peaks but it was basically only Waterton Lake that was fogged in. It wasn't a big deal. We wouldn't have done anything differently anyway. The sunshine was pleasent and this way we had nice views of the mountains. But we would have more fun later in the trip trying to interpret the weather forecasts for the Canandian Rockies.
We were expecting about a five hour drive to Lake Louise, which is where we would be staying for the next week. No GPS for us. We were navigating the old fashioned way, with a $5 folding map I bought at the gas station in Waterton. There wasn't much detail of the Calgary area and we did not do a good job getting through. We could have completely bypassed it to the west. Instead we went out of our way to the east and got snarled in a huge construction area south of the city that was a horrible mess. Finally we got to the freeway and made excellent time going north. But when we got on TransCanada 1, the main east-west highway in the whole country, it turned out it went right through the middle of Calgary as a normal street. That took a while. At one point disaster almost struck. We were driving along in the right lane and stopped for a red light. Next to us, a schoolbus stopped in the left lane. About ten seconds later there was a loud crash and the bus surged about ten feet forward. Looking over a big pickup had slammed into the back of the bus - hard. No one was hurt but the truck certainly wasn't going anywhere for a while, if ever. Obviously some serious inattentive driving. It was 50/50. There were two lanes. It could have been us instead of the bus that was rear ended. Luckily we were able to drive off when the light changed while the other drivers were getting out of their vehicles to assess the damage.
By the time we got out of town and back on the freeway we had probably lost an hour. We had plenty of time though so it didn't matter. Hey, we're on vacation! We made it to Banff without any further excitement, where we decided to stopp to get lunch. It's a good sized town so we figured it would have more options than Lake Louise. Since we were driving by anyway we thought we would check it out. We found an Italian restaurant which was ok but not great. After checking out a few tshirt shops we continued on.
Banff is the worst example I know of the Canadian practice of having towns inside of national parks. With a population of 7500 people it is a sizeable town. Of course it is almost totally devoted to tourism. There are hotels, restaurants, souvenir shops, outfitters, ski resorts and even a golf course. To me it seems kind of tacky having that right in the middle of the park. The town of Canmore is about the same size but is just outside the park only fifteen miles away. It seems like there isn't really a need to have a large town inside of the park itself. But that's the way the Canadians do it. I still give them a lot of credit for setting aside such a large area as they have in the various national and provincial parks in the Canadian Rockies.
After checking in we took a short drive to Moraine Lake. It is a spectacularly beautiful spot and one of our favorites. Unfortunately there were restrictions on all of the trails in the area because of bear activity. It was too bad because we had several of them on our "To Do" list for this trip. It had been the same way the last time we had been here. So we weren't able to hike but even the view from the end of the road is fantastic. You just have to ignore the hundreds of other tourists at the viewpoint. They literally arrive by the busload. After that we stopped at Lake Louise. Same story there. Incredibly beautiful. Incredible number of people. But at least here the trails were open and we were able to do two hikes from Lake Louise over the next few days. Tonight we just snapped some pictures before heading back. Later that evening we went to a presentation on grizzly bears at our hotel. It was presented by a local hiking guide named Joel. It was kind of corny but at least the guy tried to be entertaining. We did learn quite a bit about what bears eat and where prime bear habitat is. The info was useful for our hiking for the rest of the trip as each day we had to assess our chances of encountering bears on our hike.
The forecast for the next day was an ambiguous "times of sun and clouds". When we got up it was overcast. I guess that was the "time of clouds" part. One of our guidebooks rates hikes as Premiere, Outstanding, Worthwhile and Don't Do. We figured that since it was unclear what the weather would be like we would pick a Worthwhile trail. We would save the Premiere's and Outstanding's for perfect weather days. We chose the Stanley Glacier Trail in Kootenay National Park. In the Canadian Rockies even average trails are spectacular. It was about a twenty minute drive to the trailhead. Once again, as soon as we started driving, it turned out that the clouds were only in our particular valley and we came out into clear blue sky. When we reached the trailhead we had a beautiful day. The Canadian weather forecasts were not proving too useful. But we had a nice day and were on the trail so we weren't going to complain. It could be worse - could be raining. (Sorry. I know that I have used that link before in a post on hiking but I couldn't resist.)
At the trailhead there were two large groups of people, both with professional guides. One started up the trail just as we were getting out of our car. The other was listening to a talk from their leader. As we walked by we recognized him. It was Joel, our grizzly bear presenter from the evening before. He recognized us too and waved and said hi as we passed. Not too surprising as most mountain guides I've known are very friendly. But not all of them, as we were to learn later.
I thought that it was unusual to have just two guided groups on the trail with no other hikers. Usually guided hiking groups are pretty rare. There was nothing special about the trail and it wasn't that hard but we were the only hikers on our own. I guess some people who are unfamiliar with the mountains need to start somehow.
The trail switchbacked through an old forest fire burn on a north facing slope. From the talk that Joel gave the night before we knew that was prime grizzly bear habitat. The slope was covered with buffalo berry bushes, the first vegetation to grow back after a fire. Most people don't care for the taste of buffalo berries but they are one of a bear's favorite foods. But it was still early in the season - there are a lot more berries on the bushes in fall. Plus I had my bear spray and we wore a bear bell. Another positive was that because it was an old burn the trail was clear and we could see quite a way ahead. We weren't too worried about turning a blind corner and surpring a bear at close range. Most of the time we weren't too far behind the guided group that had started ahead of us. There were eight or ten of them and they were making plenty of noise. We figured that they would be sufficient to clear out any bears that might be in the area.
After the initial climb the trail entered a hanging valley. Looking back there was a good view of Mt. Whymper far to the north, across the valley that the highway runs through. The west side of our hanging valley was bounded by two thousand foot cliffs on a shoulder of Mt. Stanley, with waterfalls and cascades falling down it. In winter these waterfalls freeze and provide some of the most famous ice climbing routes in the Canadian Rockies, such as Nemesis. At the head of the valley and much higher is the Stanley Glacier.
After three miles we reached a Parks Canada sign announcing the end of the maintained trail. But there were clear tracks through the scree on both sides of the valley that continued on for another mile and climbed 500 feet higher to a small meadow. It is the traditional destination/turn around point for hikes up the valley. The guided group that we had been following was stopped at the end of the official trail listening to a lecture on something. Since we couldn't follow them anymore we mentally flipped a coin and started up the track on the west (right) side of the valley.
It was very steep but reasonable going most of the way. Unfortunately we did manage to lose the tread at one point where it crossed a stream below a waterfall. That meant we had to traverse a steep, unstable scree slope for about two hundred yards to get back on the track. That was really, really a pain but we made it. (Did I say it was really a pain?) Sandy was muttering a lot under her breath. I couldn't make it out very clearly but most of what she said seemed to be something about my route finding ability.
Finally we were up to the meadow, perched above a steep rockband, with an impressive view up the valley to the Stanley Glacier and down the valley and out to peaks across the highway. It was an incredibly beautiful spot and worth every bit of the effort it had taken to reach it. We found comfortable rocks to sit on and had a snack while we enjoyed the view. Our struggles on the scree slopes below were forgotten.
We had noticed that the guided group, unlike us, went up the east side of the valley. Even though they started after us they made it to the meadow before we did. So we decided to go down that way. We didn't feel too badly about our routefinding choice when we saw other hikers who were coming after us all going up the west side as we did. Most of them lost the track and had to battle the scree at some point too. On the way down we found that the east side wasn't really any easier. It was quite steep and very loose. Even though we never lost the track we had to be very careful not to slip. It was hard work.
Once we were back on the maintained trail it was easy going. The weather was nice. We weren't that tired. It was enjoyable hiking. The only unpleasant moment came about two thirds of the way down. We had stepped off the trail so I could take some pictures. The big guided group came through and as they were passing the lady guide gave me a dirty look and said condescendingly "You know bear bells are totally ineffective and they are really annoying".
Well that seemed pretty rude.
I was tempted to respond "You mean even more annoying than large, noisy, commercial hiking groups?" Sandy had a shocked look on her face and after the group passed shook her fist at the guide's back.
We found that bear bells are an interesting issue in Canada. The number one thing to avoid when hiking in bear country is surprising a bear. You don't want to turn a corner on a trail and find a bear ten feet away who didn't hear you coming. On my first hiking trip to Canada way back in 1977 it was recommended that everyone wear a bear bell and most people did. The idea was that the bell makes noise as you walk and warns bears that you are coming. But as time went on some people began to claim that the sound of the bell didn't carry very well. Most commonly available sources today, like guidebooks, park brochures and websites recommend that hikers talk or sing or clap their hands to alert bears that they are approaching, either instead of or in addition to wearing a bear bell.
We tend to use anything that might help. We wear a bear bell. We carry bear spray. We talk and clap. I do draw the line at singing though. But somehow a lot of experienced hikers, especially the locals, have developed this funny attitude of really looking down on bear bells and sometimes (as with this guide) hassling people who use them. It's a strange thing because usually hikers are among the friendliest people you will ever encounter. But we have adjusted our use of a bear bell. If we are hiking with no one else around, especially in areas where there is poor visibility, we do wear a bear bell as well as talk and clap. It's just one more level of security. But on busy trails we tend not to use it anymore. It's too bad actually because they certainly don't do any harm and may do some good. I was definitely irritated by the comments that the guide made. We encountered similar attitudes from people other times during the trip, just none quite as rude as the hiking guide. I'll have more on that in the next post.
We had been getting bad vibes from this particular guide all day. As often happens, we were leapfrogging her group many times. One of us would stop, the other would pass, then later get passed in turn. Every time we went by she would glare at us, like we were intruding on her group. Maybe she thought that we were following her lead (not neccessary - the trail was easy to follow). Or she might have thought we were listening in on her commentary (we weren't and had no interest). Even so, it isn't her trail - it's in a national park. I think Sandy was even more upset by the guide's comment than I was. When we got back to the trailhead we noted the name of the outfit on their van. It was White Mountain Adventures. I would highly recommend that anyone thinking of hiking with a guide on a trip to Banff should avoid this company. Sandy went further than that. When we got back to the hotel she wrote a negative review of them on Trip Advisor. The internet is a great equalizer.
We didn't let that brief encounter spoil what had been a great first hike of our stay at Lake Louise.