Last fall, Heather and I had the privilege of taking a trip to the Canadian Rockies to photograph wildlife and landscapes. We had both been planning a trip to the region for years and I couldn’t wait to see the turquoise glacial lakes and the jagged mountains with my own two eyes. After months of anticipation and planning, everything had finally come to a head and we were boarding our first flight to Canada together! We couldn’t have been more excited. We are both meticulous planners and we had every day planned out to the hour. We were hoping to see all kinds of sights: grizzly bears, wolves, glacial lakes, mountain peaks capped in reddish sunlight, a lonely island 8 miles out in an isolated lake, and possibly even the northern lights! We could barely sleep for a few days before we set out on our journey, but once our feet on the ground, the fun started right away.
We boarded our flight in fabulous Newark, New Jersey and that would be the last time our feet would touch American soil for almost two weeks. We touched down five hours later in Calgary and after a brief wait in customs, we were off to collect our rental car and head for the mountains. The weather was colder than we were used to as it was late September and still autumn on the east coast. We would have to acclimatize a bit before we were ready for our more strenuous hikes that we had planned, so we tried our best to hit the ground running. Once we arrived in the Canmore/Banff area, I checked the weather and saw that there was no breeze near Moraine Lake. From a photographer’s standpoint, that was great because it meant that there would be a very strong mirror-like reflection on the surface of the lake and would be excellent to take pictures of. We went past the town of Canmore and headed north to get what would be our first set of snapshots on the trip. Now, I realize that Moraine Lake is one of the most overshot places in the entire world, but you have to remember that we had both been drooling over the idea of coming to this place for years. It was more of a personal experience than a professional one. I wasn’t planning on gaining anything by being here other than good memories and a few nice photos to gaze at on my own down the line. The photos I was most looking forward to taking from a professional perspective were to come later on. Regardless, the surface was smooth and we began snapping away as soon as we got there. The cold air burned in our lungs as we sprinted up the rock pile to get a good angle of the lake and we were both made aware of our lack of acclimatization to the altitude. No matter. We powered through!
The next day, it was time to get our legs burning. We spent the morning preparing ourselves for an intimidating hike: The East End of Rundle. It is a 5-mile round trip up a steady 45 degree incline of jagged rocks and a grove of pines complete with potential grizzly bear encounters and wild Canadian weather. Heather and I didn’t have much experience in bear country at that point, so we were both of course expecting one to pop out from behind every tree and rock. We did have our bear spray at the ready, and so did two of our friends who accompanied us for the trip up. Micah and Hazel are a nice couple that I know from Oahu and happened to be in the area at the same time. We decided it would be better to summit the mountain in a group of 4, so our plans were formed and we headed up.
The trailhead is unmarked so it wasn’t east to find. About 30 minutes west of the town of Canmore on a dirt road just before the border of BC, you start your trip upwards. At first, you’re in a dense pine forest and the path is well-defined once you find it. After a painful mile or so which also feels like a mile upward, you find yourself clearing the trees and you can take in the first glance of a view that only gets better as you continue. Ha Ling Peak and a turquoise lake at its base surrounded by pointy pines jut out into the sky across the valley from you. The air was cold but we were steaming up the mountain so our body heat kept us warm. We stopped every so often to take photos and catch our breath, but we didn’t want to take too long because we were so excited to get to the top! We continued on for what seemed like another hour until we got to the place we wanted to shoot from. We took a bit of a break and waited for the light to soften up a bit on the horizon, then we started playing with our cameras. The view across the valley was so beautiful that it was an easy shot. Hiking down was just as painful as the walk up and my knees were shaking by the time we made it back to the car. Five miles round trip and 2500 vertical feet later, we were done. And not a single grizzly bear in sight.
The next day, Heather and I were pretty sore so we decided to have a late morning. Once we came out of our coma, we headed back up highway to Banff to visit Lake Louise. Our agenda included taking a light walk near the Lake before going on horseback up the nearby mountain to a peak called the Little Beehive and also making a stop at the famed Lake Agnes Tea House. The walking portion of the morning was a lot of fun and we got to see the lake’s beautiful blue water together for the first time. After a little bit of a stroll, it was time to head over to the stable to get on our horses and gain more altitude. Heather had no issue getting on her horse, but my story has a few more ups and downs. In quick succession. My horse’s name was Chester, and Chester was not in the mood to carry me up the mountain that day. As soon as I mounted, he went totally wild and started bucking hard. It took me a few seconds to get loose of the stirrups and before I knew it, I was flying ten feet in the air in a horizontal fashion. Luckily, a giant mud puddle broke my fall as I landed flat on my back. It was a scary experience, but we had planned a trip up a mountain and I was going to get there. Period. Now, I was a bit shaken, but my adrenaline was still pumping enough for me to get back on another horse. Until that day, I had been seeing a chiropractor for back pain—but after the fall, I was totally fine. The stable owners exchanged my coat for another and my horse as well. Tom was a bit more laid back and we got along well as we made our way up the trail. The view from the top wasn’t all we had hoped for as the clouds and snow had moved in and the peaks were hidden, but the Larch trees were turning yellow and the combination of snow and autumn colors looked beautiful against the backdrop of perfect blue water below.
On the way back down, we made a stop at a small cafe that is only accessible on foot (or horseback) called the Lake Agnes Tea House. As the name suggests, it is a small house built next to a gorgeous mountain pond named Lake Agnes. They serve tea and small lunch items like sandwiches and scones. If you don’t mind potentially hazardous wildlife interactions with your food (we saw a chipmunk drinking out of one of the milk containers set aside on each table) or high prices, this is the place for you. Overall, we were not thrilled with what we saw but you have to manage your expectations. After all, they are miles from the nearest road and everything has the be hiked or carried up the mountain to them. It’s not meant to be a five-star experience.
I was still a bit tense from my “being thrown off an angry horse” episode, so the trip down the mountain was a little bit nerve-wracking. Once we dismounted and returned our horses to the stable, I collected my now spotless coat from the owners (tin cloth is easy to clean off and awesome in a lot of ways) and we got back into the car. As soon as we did, we turned to each other and laughed/cried hysterically. Did that really just happen? I guess I was pretty close to dying or being paralyzed. It wasn’t our first brush with death either. We decided that we would spend the night in a hotel instead of camping because it had been too exciting of a day already.
After a wild ride the day before, we decided it was time for an easy Friday. We would take our rental for a long drive up and down the Bow Valley Parkway and try to spot wildlife instead of going on any hikes or exposing ourselves to the elements. Our bodies were already pretty sore, maybe we would get lucky and see some bears! The weather was a bit dreary and the overcast sky gave us a moody backdrop to work with. Unfortunately, the animals were not in the mood for us and we didn’t see much. Later on, as we worked our way north, we were driving along a narrow backroad when we came across a clearing full of elk! It was the peak of their mating season, and the gigantic males were all battling it out for mating rights. We saw 4 of them fighting at once! At one point, an enormous figure with giant antlers emerged from the woods right next to our vehicle. We froze at the awesome sight that passed right in front of our eyes before joining the fight 100 yards away. Truly something special.
We spent a few more days exploring Banff before the next leg of our journey: driving north on the Icefields Parkway to Jasper National Park. We were keeping an eye on the weather because a big part of our plan was taking a canoe out to a place called Spirit Island. The island is a small piece of land that juts out into the water roughly 8 miles from the Maligne Lake Boathouse and can only be accessed by kayak or canoe. The trip is usually done in 2 days, with an overnight camping trip spot nearby. We had kayak experience already and were certain we could make the journey, the only variable being the rapidly approaching winter weather. From the accounts of others, we had learned on stormy days, the surface of the lake gets windy and can make the return trip take 2-3 times as long as you fight against the breeze while rowing. We had our fingers crossed for sun.
Unfortunately, our weather window slammed shut as weather windows usually do and of the two possible days we had to make the journey, we were hit with the ever-exciting “wintery mix.” One could barely see 100 yards down the road, let alone to the opposite shore of a massive lake. We decided to do more driving in search of wildlife and cut our losses. Not the end of the world!
On the second day in the Jasper area, we had a small amount of clear sky so we decided to drive to a spot called Athabasca Falls—a commonly photographed place on Instagram. While driving, I noticed a large, furry animal lumbering around on the side of the road digging through the bushes. “BEAR!” I yelled out as I hit the brakes and made a U-turn on the desolate mountain road. In the time it took for us circle back around, another vehicle had spotted him as well and had already stopped to start snapping photos. It was a beautiful, ~350 lb black bear, as evidenced not only by its fur but by its rounded ears and lack of a large shoulder hump. He didn’t seem to mind the small crowd gathering to watch him munch on berries and was probably somewhat used to human presence near him. What shocked us was the amount of people who got out of the their vehicles to take photos of the animal which was no more than 20 yards away. Despite the stupidity and entitlement of our fellow humans, we enjoyed the glimpse of our first wild bear together.
We did our best to enjoy our last day in Jasper by seeing as much of the park as we could. We took a tour boat out to spirit island instead of fight out our way there ourselves, and it certainly was a beautiful place. The photos that I hoped to take didn’t come out all that great because of the low cloud cover, but I was still happy to have finally been there after years of waiting. Sadly, the trees in the area are all being killed by an invasive species of beetle, so it may have been our last chance to ever lay eyes on it. We also stopped at a restaurant in the town of Jasper called the Fiddle River, and wow. We ordered seafood dishes and they brought us a mountain of shrimp and lobster. To this day, it was the best restaurant experience we’ve ever had.
The third act of our journey was to drive south on the Icefields Parkway and then make our way into BC to Yoho National Park. Our destination was the Emerald Lake Lodge, a small cabin complex nestled on a piece of land in the middle of the gorgeous Emerald Lake. Since we showed up off-season, we were upgraded to an huge lakeside cabin with a fireplace, living room, bedroom and two baths. The porch wrapped all the way around the cabin and had stunning views of the surrounding lake and mountains. I was shocked at the beauty of it all. We spent the night hanging out in our room and keeping the fire going, but the next morning, I snuck outside to catch the sunrise while Heather caught up on her sleep. It was a beautiful morning with a clear sky and a thick layer of low-hanging fog. The alpenglow on the peaks around us provided me with a beautiful backdrop to photograph and I was once again in my element. Despite the freezing cold, I snapped some of my favorite photos of the entire trip. At that point, I was happy enough with the results to go back inside and try to sleep a little more in our comparatively warm cabin. Although getting our luggage back to our vehicle was a bit of a pain, we left the lodge in a good mood and prepared to begin the last leg of our trip.
The drive to Calgary was bittersweet. We were definitely tired and ready to go home, but we did not want to say goodbye to the mountains that we were now thoroughly in love with. While we were busy checking out some tourist destinations in Calgary, we were both daydreaming of the blue water and snow-covered peaks that we had just gotten to know so well. Our final sendoff was a thick snowstorm that made our journey from the hotel just difficult enough to be remembered. The plane ride home wasn’t anything remarkable, but the memories of that place will last a lifetime. To this day, it remains one of our favorite trips we’ve ever taken and the both of us have traveled fairly extensively. We can’t wait to return one day.