Day 2 – Western Skies

Well I’d rather be walking through the tall pine trees
High up above Lake Louise
And I’d rather be chasing after shooting stars than
Waiting for this dumb 503 TTC

I’d like to see the sun set behind Saddle Mountain
And listen to the wind whisper my name
Yeah this world and me don’t fit –
One of us is gonna have to quit
Oh how I miss those western skies

“Western Skies”, by Blue Rodeo, 1992

I’ve had the good fortune of seeing Blue Rodeo in concert something like ten times.  For those who aren’t familiar with them, Blue Rodeo is a Canadian roots-rock institution.  From album to album they mix in combinations of psychedelic, country, Stax soul, and adult alternative influences, but the basic blueprint is rootsy jangle-rock.  Imagine Dylan’s Blood On The Tracks cross-pollinated with Tom Petty’s Full Moon Fever and Wilco’s Being There and you’ll be in the right ballpark.

My first Blue Rodeo show was in Winnipeg in the early 1990s, on tour to promote their album Casino.  It was one of my first-ever live gigs and I was a concert newbie, but I remember being blown away by the dynamics of the melodies and the way that Jim Cuddy’s and Greg Keelor’s vocals fused together into a glorious roar.  Since then, the band has experienced numerous lineup changes, but the core of Cuddy, Keelor, and bassist Bazil Donovan remain intact to this day.

Over the years, I’ve seen Blue Rodeo play shows at ballparks, folk festivals, and soft-seat theatres.  They likely hold some sort of record for playing the Northern and Southern Jubilee Auditoriums more than any other touring rock act.  While they never quite broke through into the mainstream anywhere outside of Canada, you can always count on having a great time at a Blue Rodeo gig.  My favourite show was probably the one they put on in Banff in the early part of 2000, on the mid-winter tour for The Days In Between.  The band was tight, the audience was chillaxed after a long day of skiing (or, in my case, winter hiking), and midway through the gig they played “Western Skies” to rapturous applause.

Blue Rodeo have remained popular for a quarter century because of the strength of the Cuddy and Keelor songwriting team.  In some ways, they parallel the McCartney/Lennon writing tandem that propelled the Beatles.  McCartney and Lennon each went on to reasonably successful solo careers, but there was definitely an indescribable “greater than the sum of the parts” synergy when they worked together.  Blue Rodeo’s principal songwriters seem to work the same way – they push each other to be great.

Jim Cuddy tends to write two kinds of songs – bouncy upbeat radio-friendly numbers and slower mid-tempo ‘sad cowboy’ type songs.  Some of his songs are brilliant (including “After the Rain”, “Cinema Song”, “5 Days In May”, “What You Want”, “Sky”, “Trust Yourself”, “Try” and “Rain Down On Me”), but stylistic variety isn’t really his stock in trade.  Cuddy sticks to what he’s good at, which is fine.

For my money, the wildcard ruminations of Greg Keelor are what make Blue Rodeo a great band.  Keelor is much more apt to follow his muse down shadowy side streets, so you never quite know what you’re going to get.  Sometimes his experiments land on the floor with a thud, but his frequent moments of brilliance are well worth being patient.  Keelor has a gift for putting indignation (“God and Country”), manic energy (“Restless”), frustration (“What Am I Doing Here”), disillusionment (“Side of the Road”), and characters on the fringe of society (“Rage”) into words and music.  That’s without even listing his stone-cold Canadian classics, like “Hasn’t Hit Me Yet”, “Lost Together” and “Diamond Mine”.  And nobody, anywhere, quite captures romantic, late-night vignettes of isolation (“Dark Angel”, “Know Where You Go”, “Is It You”, “Stage Door”) the way he does.

Luminaries like Ron Sexsmith, Neil Young, and Leonard Cohen are venerated as Canada’s greatest songwriters, and deservedly so.  But I think when Greg Keelor is on his game, nobody can touch him.

And so it was with Blue Rodeo cued up to shuffle on the ol’ iPod that I set out on Friday morning for another day of hiking.  First up was a quick side trip to Moraine Lake.  The plains up above Moraine Lake are my favourite place on earth.  In September, after the first killing frost, the needles of the larch trees go yellow.  Imagine golden forests framed by ten stoic, rocky peaks and crystal blue skies – if there’s a more beautiful place on the planet, I haven’t found it.  Unfortunately, late July is buffalo berry season, so the grizzly bears are out and about.  During bear season, hikers need to move through the trails in Larch Valley in groups of four.  Since I was hiking solo on this trip, I had to console myself with sticking to the lakeshore.  The rock pile at the east end of Moraine Lake offers a spectacular view of the lake and the peaks.  Get there early enough in the morning and, not only will you avoid the crowds, but the light falls on the mountains and water in spectacular fashion.

Side trip completed, I slipped back down the valley for one of my favourite day hikes.  Like Greg Keelor before me, it was time to once again walk through the tall pine trees high up above Lake Louise.  The Plain of the Six Glaciers Teahouse trail starts by wrapping around the north shore of Lake Louise, then climbs the valleys and lateral moraines toward the Victoria Glacier and the peaks of the continental divide.  The bussed-in hordes of tourists quickly dissipate as you make your way down the lakeshore.  Along the way, you’re treated to scenes of red canoes slipping through the icy waters of Lake Louise, climbers scaling the cliffs at the west end of the lake, and magnificent views up and down the valley as you gradually climb the moraine.

The Plain of Six Glaciers Teahouse is situated 2100 metres above sea level.  The bulk of the supplies (flour, sugar, preserved goods) are brought into the teahouse by helicopter once per season, and the servers and cooks bring everything else up in their backpacks.  After ascending the six kilometre hike from the Lake Louise parking lot, with a total elevation change of 350 metres, you get to take a seat at the rustic teahouse and enjoy the views of Mounts Lefroy, Victoria, Aberdeen, and the Mitre.  A slice of hearth-baked apple pie and a cup of tea is a fine reward for the effort.

After my snack, I continued on the trail to the west of the teahouse.  It’s possible to pick out a trail along the top of the moraine for about two more kilometres, climbing higher and higher.  If you keep going beyond the ‘official’ end of the trail for another 800 metres or so, you get to a point where you can see what mountaineers call ‘The Death Trap’ beneath Abbot Pass.  This approach to the pass is prone to rock falls and requires traversing deeply crevassed glaciers, so it is almost always climbed from the Lake O’Hara side in B.C.

Right at the top of the 2,922 metre pass, perched on the Alberta – British Columbia border, is the Abbot Pass Hut.  The ‘hut’ is actually a 90-year-old stone structure with room for up to 24 alpinists to sleep, and is the second-highest habitable structure in Canada.

A room with a view if ever there was one!  After snapping this photo, I retraced my steps back down the valley and reveled in the adrenaline rush that comes from accomplishing a physical goal.  The trip down is always easier on the cardio than the ascent, but perhaps a little tougher on the knee joints.  When your heart isn’t pounding away, it’s easier to listen for the multitude of languages and regional accents being spoken on the trails.  On any given day it’s fun to pick out Swiss, German, Dutch, French, and the thirty-one flavours of the English language (Queen’s, Irish, Scottish, Welsh, Australian, and the many different American and Canadian regional dialects).  Originally confined to the lakeshore, you can even hear Japanese and Mandarin high up above Lake Louise these days.  Greg Keelor would envy them all.

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