I HAD come to the Icefields Parkway, in Alberta, western Canada chasing a fading vision. Some 15 years ago, a friend had given me an old photograph of Peyto Lake, taken from beside the Icefields Parkway. That’s when I fell in love with Canada. And yet, despite having travelled around the world, I had always managed to avoid Canada, the Icefields Parkway and Peyto Lake as if unwilling to corrupt the image that existed in my mind.
That is, until now.
And so it is that on a high, clear day, I veer off the Icefields Parkway and pull into a deserted carpark near Peyto Lake. After 15 years this may be as close as I get because the path to the Lake is buried under deep virgin snow. The situation seems hopeless. I am alone and it is desperately silent. Then, under glaring sunlight, I decide to strike out into the snow like an explorer of old. The historic trail guide, Ebenezer Peyto, after whom the lake is named, would be proud.
Some time later I find myself standing at Bow Summit, the highest point on the Icefields Parkway, above the tree-line looking down on Peyto Lake. It is the most sublime vista I have ever seen. A vast and faultless glacial lake surrounded by the tallest pines, set deep within the snow-covered Waputik mountain range.
Canada has more lakes than any other country on Earth, and this must surely be the most magnificent. There is an incredible hush and stillness, without a breath of wind, as if the earth is waiting to breathe.
Before reaching the Icefields Parkway and Peyto Lake I had spent two bitterly cold weeks in eastern Canada visiting Montreal, Quebec and Prince Edward Island. Almost in desperation, I fly over 3,000km west to Calgary, at the foot of the Rocky Mountains, hoping that spring may have blossomed.
History On Ice
Canada is such a vast country, in fact the second largest on the planet, that distinct climates can exist in different parts of the country at the same time. But instead of a temperate spring, it is -16 °C and heavy snow-filled clouds close in and greet me with an unceremonious blizzard. Barely functional, I labour into my rented Pontiac and head south on Highway 2 into classic prairie country.
Two hours later I arrive at the poignant Head Smashed In Buffalo Jump World Heritage Site which had been used by Blackfoot natives for thousands of years to hunt and kill bison. Drumheller, two hours east of Calgary, is another extraordinary site, with millions of years of geological history and vast numbers of complete dinosaur skeletons exposed 120m below the surrounding prairie.
West from Calgary, I race along Highway 1, which is the 8,000km Trans-Canada Highway that spans the entire country. I hardly see another vehicle. With an area of almost 1,000,000sq km and a population of 33 million, Canada is one of the least densely populated places in the world. Quickly after leaving Calgary, the Rocky Mountains come startlingly into view.
There is something magical about seeing these famed, jagged peaks for the first time. There’s a rugged strength about them, one that inspires deference and admiration. The Rockies were formed more than 70 million years ago during a time known as the Cretaceous period and they form a mountainous spine along the western side of North America for almost 5,000km; at times, they run 560km wide. Composed mainly of granite and gneiss, which give them a dark, formidable and bold appearance, they are aptly named. The effect is made stronger by the mist which often shrouds the lofty summits, casting foreboding shadows on all below. It has been several years since I have been in the world of high mountains. Too long, I think, as I rush westwards to Banff with a distinct sense of homecoming.
Documentary Come To Life
I like Banff immediately. This is the pristine Canada of wildlife documentaries and postcards and I realise that I have spent too much time in the east of the country.
Banff is 128km west of Calgary and the principal town of the Rocky Mountains. It has a festive, resort atmosphere and while it can get crowded, especially in summer, it retains a small-town ambience. Its setting is majestic, encircled as it is by soaring mountains with sharp white angled faces.
The gondola ride up Sulphur Mountain to 2,285m is perhaps the best way to appreciate Banff. Nearby you can soak in the luxurious Upper Hot Springs at an elevation of 1,600m, visit Bow Falls at the southern end of town and hike to Tunnel Mountain to the east. From there it’s only a few kilometres to the unusual Hoodoo formations that have been brutalised by severe climatic conditions along the Milk River. And seven twisting hair-pin kilometres north of Banff takes you past Mule Deer, high into the sky to Mt. Norquay.
Leaving Banff, I head 57km north-west on the Trans-Canada Highway to Lake Louise. It is here that the Icefields Parkway begins. The Icefields Parkway, or Highway 93, was opened in 1940 and runs north-north-west to Jasper.
Every exhilarating bit of the 230km Parkway is in the province of Alberta and within the massive Banff and Jasper National Parks — a crease in the earth with hundreds of mountain peaks, 40 of which soar over 3,000m. With such elevation it’s hardly surprising that you keep coming across ever more breathtaking scenery.
The majesty of the place is unrelenting. Bend after bend reveals towering mountains, mosaics of rock and snow, lush rocket-like pines and glacial carved valleys.
Walking On Water
The road itself is smooth as silk, wide and open and perfectly cambered. And despite the constant signs warning of avalanches and other signs announcing that I have entered a ‘death zone’, the entire journey is nothing short of spell-binding as I drive beside colossal mountains and over ridges of dizzying heights.
Lake Louise is probably the best known of all Canada’s gorgeous lakes. I soon realise, however, that I am not going to see the classic emerald green colours and reflections of the tourist brochures. Everything is iced over and white, making the scene impossibly pure and fresh.
Being relatively alone helps. Everything is quiet and solemn but instead of gazing at the opaque, turquoise waters of Lake Louise I walk out onto crystals and ice. There’s something strange about walking on a lake, something foreign and incongruous.
Lake Louise is named after one of Queen Victoria’s daughters and the permanently snow-covered mountain at the rear of the lake is named after the Queen herself. Some 15km away, along the Valley of the Ten Peaks, is Moraine Lake with a backdrop of 3,000m peaks that are so awe-inspiring that the scene is depicted on the back of the Canadian $20 note.
Some 8km west of Lake Louise, along Highway 1A, I cross the Great Divide over Kicking Horse Pass. The Great Divide is said to be a triple continental divide — a watershed where rivers flow either east into the Atlantic Ocean, west into the Pacific Ocean or north into the Arctic Ocean.
The Divide separates Alberta from British Columbia and when I cross the pass I enter a different time zone and pick up an hour. From here it’s a fabulous couple of days driving to Vancouver through Glacier National Park. The park has over 420 glaciers on sheer mountain slopes that make it one of the most active and dangerous avalanche areas in the world. As appealing as this sounds, I decide however, to continue north on the Icefields Parkway to Jasper, then west to Vancouver via Highway 16.
The Frozen Zone
Halfway along the Parkway and astride the continental divide is the Athabasca Glacier, a tongue of the massive Columbia Icefield. The glacier runs almost down to the road and can be walked to easily from the visitor centre. It is a frozen landscape, completely white and empty, that offers no perspective whatsoever, and makes judging distances impossible.
I walk for miles and seem to get nowhere. The icefield itself covers some 325sqkm, contains around 30 glaciers and, in places, is hundreds of metres thick. The ice closest to the Parkway fell onto the icefield as snow some 180 years ago but sadly is now receding at an alarming two to three metres a year. Close by at Athabasca Falls the water is trapped in a bizarre and dazzling frozen waterfall. I’ve never seen anything like it. And while the air is cold enough to freeze running water, the sky is a flawless blue and I haven’t seen a single cloud while on the Icefields Parkway.
Less than 300km after leaving Banff I reach Jasper, which is more relaxed than Banff. The region feels more remote, like being on the edge of a vast wilderness. Bears, mountain lions, caribou, coyotes, deer and elk become more common and people less so. From here the Rockies extend northward to Alaska, becoming gradually lower and petering out as ice-covered hills in the Arctic Circle.
Just east of Jasper is Maligne Canyon with its deep limestone gorge and cool walking trails. A further 21km takes you to Medicine Lake but the jewel of the area is Maligne Lake, 48km south-east of Jasper. It is the world’s second largest glacier-fed lake and, with its pine-tree clad islands, is the quintessential alpine lake. Again, I am alone and sit to watch the setting sun cast playful shadows on the perfect, ivory snow.
The following morning I take the Jasper Tramway up Whistlers Mountain (2,285m) and remain there a long time trying to put off my departure.
I ponder other great drives such as Big Sur in California, Amalfi Coast in Italy and Australia’s Great Ocean Road. But they are all coastal drives. This is different. Better?
I look in every direction — down on Jasper, south to Lake Louise, east towards Edmonton and west to Rainbow Range and Mt Robson, the highest point in the Canadian Rockies at just under 4,000m. I descend the mountain, get into the car and commence westward to Vancouver on Highway 16. Then I stop. The Icefields Parkway tugs at me. A piece of tarmac this good deserves to be driven more than once. I turn the Pontiac around and drive south, once more, on the Icefields Parkway.
Dom Meli, a human resources specialist and adventurer, lives in Australia.
This article was first published in STORM in 2010.
Main Image: Moraine Lake, Rocky Mountains, Canada / Alberto Loyo / Shutterstock.com