Over several roamings around Alberta, Canada, I’ve been thoroughly charmed by the spectacular scenery – especially by the lakes and rivers! And through visits in different seasons, I’ve gotten to enjoy them in a variety of states (well, provinces, technically). There’s so much geologic beauty there to take in and learn about! While in the midst of the “taking in” though, it was often difficult for me to get to the “learning.”
Because even though traveling is my favorite form of education, I also find that being in a state (or, you know, province) of ignorance – for a little while, at least – really can be bliss!
Much of my Alberta time has been spent in Banff National Park in the Canadian Rockies. The park is a diverse expanse of nature at its grandest and most dramatic, and I’ve been treated to two very different perspectives. I’ve made both winter and summer visits, staying each time in the city of Banff, surrounded by towering, jagged mountains and within sight of the alluring Bow River. I would later find that it was the Bow I’d also admired in Calgary about 80 miles away where I arrived by plane, and that the river eventually spills out onto the prairies. On a pleasant summer’s afternoon though, I didn’t feel an overwhelming need to have a good grasp of where these surging waters came from or were headed – I was content just to sit alongside and watch them roil past.
As a longtime resident of Southern California, I’m accustomed to changes of season that can easily be described as pret-ty pret-ty subtle. In fact, living and working around Hollywood, I really only mark the passage of two seasons: fall and summer re-runs. So it was a thrilling change of pace to observe the major contrasts between my Alberta trips, particularly within Johnston Canyon.
I enjoyed a summertime hike on a railing-ed path that clung to one of the canyon walls, and I was treated to lush greenery and the pleasing sound of water rushing by as it continued to carve its own pathway beneath me.
The wintertime experience was hugely different! (And, alas, not photographed as I must have wimpily worried my camera and/or fingers would freeze in the attempt…) I had to strap cleats onto my shoes to tackle that same path. And this time, I shared the canyon with climbers who scaled the opposite wall on solid curtains of ice.
A feature of Alberta’s glacially fed lakes that I completely fell in love with is their often electric green color! I got the scoop on my summertime visit that the cause is this silty stuff known as “rock flour” that’s carried down in the water from glaciers and creates some trick of light that affects the hue. Although I read up later on this effect, I think rather than botching an explanation here, I’ll just share the not-so-scientific fact that the results are absolutely gorgeous!
On a quest for the ideal view of this rock flour effect, I tried clambering out among the boulders around Moraine Lake. Moraines are collections of soil and rocks moved around by glaciers – or, in my case, things to slip off of while squinting through a camera lens instead of watching one’s step…
Lake Louise provided another glorious view – and its far end gave an inviting glimpse into the back country from which those green-looking waters descend. During my winter visit, I was able to get out onto the ice-covered lake and stroll/slide around. I missed that wondrous green color, but it was a nice consolation to settle inside nearby Chateau Lake Louise with a medicinally warming alcoholic beverage and gaze out at the magnificently wintry landscape. (I may also have consumed a non-medicinal but similarly spiked beverage in that same spot during my summer visit – but that’s neither here nor there.)
I’ve also gotten to explore the geologic splendor of other Alberta parks like Yoho National Park where I found more beautiful green lakes like Emerald Lake. Another fascinating feature there among the nearby peaks (although you cant get up to see it on your own) is a fossil bed of incredible age and scope called the Burgess Shale. (I was so intrigued that I bought a book about it and, although I haven’t actually read it yet, I think some measure of credit for having had the impulse is due nevertheless.)
Finally, it was actually in the summertime that I had my most up-close-and-personal encounter with water in an icy state (or icy prov…oh never mind) by venturing out onto the Athabasca Glacier. En route from Banff to Jasper on a trip with the folks, we paused to take a tour of this “toe” of the Columbia Icefield. Our giant Tonka Truck of a bus (well, they called it a “snow coach”) drove up to and straight out on the glacier – certainly a first for me!
Although a steady trend of melting has been cataloged for well more than a century, I wondered what affect climate change might be having on the glacier’s condition today. I’m afraid it was of greater concern to me at the time though to hear that this mammoth chunk of ice was actually moving! Only a few centimeters a day as it turns out, so probably not enough to cause a tumble – but I did like to be ready with an excuse for my general ineptitude just in case.
It’s been several years since my last Alberta visit – and that just seems too long. I feel such a pull to keep exploring there! And I’m also reminded of the pull I do occasionally feel in my travels between learning about a place and simply enjoying it – in this case, between studying those lovely waters and just drinking them in. (Metaphorically speaking, of course – although Dad did mention he figured that dense glacial ice would be ideal for use in mixed drinks. Just sayin’.)
In his autobiographical book Life on the Mississippi, Mark Twain describes how in his youth he mastered the riverboat pilot’s trade so thoroughly that he knew what was around every Mississippi River bend and could accurately interpret every play of light on the water, and every nuanced ripple or swirl on its surface. But Twain also laments that this expertise destroyed his ability just to appreciate “the romance and the beauty” of his beloved river.
Even though I’ve been rather successful at steering clear of anything approaching expertise in any profession, I do get what Twain means. I’ve said over and over how lucky I am to have gotten to take such great advantage of the educational opportunities travel affords. But I’ve learned too that it can be special to experience something for its own sake with no analysis and no expectations.
Like one more moment I had in Alberta while staying at the opulent and breathtakingly situated Banff Springs Hotel. As the name suggests, there are indeed natural hot springs in the area that were revered by the locals long before the railway began shuttling in royals and dignitaries to the hotel from all over to partake of the region’s gifts. (Thankfully, they now also accept untitled rabble like myself.)
Was I thinking about those springs on a bracing January night while I capped off some indulgent spa time with a dip in the outdoor jacuzzi? I’m gonna say no. I opted instead to float there in the hot bubbles as snowflakes drifted delicately down from the heavens, and simply to savor the rare and wonderful moment of grace.
It’s important to live and learn.
But every once in a while, it’s important just to live.