Two years ago I wasn’t aware of the existence of a Banff National Park in Alberta, Canada. It wasn’t until seeing the Banff Film Festival on tour in Pittsburgh, PA in the summer of 2009 that I learned of Canada‘s premier national park. The film festival, which focuses on adventure sports in beautiful locations around the world, has become a world wide sensation; drawing visitors from around the world to the tiny town of Banff in the Rocky Mountains to submit their films to be aired in the festival and following world tour. From the brief introduction from the tour, I knew this was one place I had to visit. So when I accumulated enough miles for a frequent flier plane ticket good in the USA and Canada, I posed a question to the blogsphere and twitter universe: Where should I go that is far away from Ohio and photogenic? A near unanimous response came back from the Canadian crowd: Banff National Park!
Due to the overwhelmingly large number of votes for Banff, I booked a plane ticket to Calgary and corresponding bus from Brewster Tours off to Banff, with 3 nights in the “village” of Lake Louise and 2 nights in the town of Banff as a brief mental break from thesis writing. My original intent was to hike around Lake Louise and Moraine Lake while in the Northern part of the park, and continue hiking around the town of Banff to the South. When I got to Lake Louise, something unexpected happened and turned out to be one big surprise – the lake was frozen over.
Yes, one of the most picturesque lakes in Canada is still frozen over by the middle of May. Even though the average daily high is around 18C (65F), somehow the giant body of water and ground are so cold, and night time temperatures so low, that snow and ice still exist. In fact, it is not uncommon for blizzards to occur well into the month of May, as happened a week prior to my visit. Suffice it to say, I was shocked. Most hiking trails are not recommended without the very least a group of travelers, snow boots, and nerves of steel. Moraine Lake, the countries most iconic lake that was featured on the $20CAD bill for many years, was still inaccessible due to poor road conditions. Of course, everyone at the hostel failed to mention the bit about the lakes being frozen, and no recordings on the internet appear to exist saying the lake thaws out in early June. Maybe it is common sense, maybe I didn’t look hard enough, but imagine the shock when the culmination of a 45 minute uphill hike to the lake on ice (because the one taxi in town was out of range to answer the phone) resulted in a view of a completely frozen body of water.
Frozen or not, Lake Louise and the surrounding mountains and tree lines are still one of the most beautiful sites in the world. A few trails, as I was told by fellow travelers, are quite hike-able with snow boots, although not recommended by the rangers. I opted for the more horizontal walk around the far side of the lake, with some amazing views along the way. The Fairmont Hotel, the only hotel on the lake proper was both exceedingly gorgeous and correspondingly expensive. But with views like that, people will pay whatever is asked and gladly appreciate being taken for in the process.
Luckily for the return trip, the lone taxi driver of Lake Louise picked me up and gave some rather interesting details about the National Park that absolutely must be shared for those thinking of visiting. Lake Louise has no permanent residents other than employees of the park or tourism and supporting industries. This number amounts to about 900 people, most of whom I suspect are employed by the Fairmont Chateau. During the course of a summer, the town sees upwards of 15,000 people per day and the city of Banff is even worse. This figure makes the few hundred of people walking around the town and lake seem like near zero.
After all that, the driver dropped the second biggest bombshell of the day: the road to Moraine Lake opened that morning. The reason for the shock? I had already booked a trip to the Columbia Icefields in Jasper National Park for the second day and final day in Lake Louise. Upon thinking about it, Moraine Lake would be frozen as well, so the trip down there seemed like a bit of a hassle. If we’re talking ice, nothing beats visiting a real live glacier and icefield! Luckily, the only shock that followed the amazing ride to Jasper National Park and glacier ice field was the site of a rather large black bear high upon a tree having a lunch on the return trip to end the series of weird occurrences in Lake Louise.
So, Lake Louise, your secret of being frozen over 80% of the year goes on no longer! But do not worry, I will be back to witness your true beauty, and Moraine Lake, very soon. I’ll even pony up the cash to stay at the Fairmont Resort, at least for one night if you promise to be thawed out and pristine for my return!