Day 4 – Take the Long Way Home

When lonely days turn to lonely nights
You take a trip to the city lights
And take the long way home

“Take the Long Way Home” by Supertramp, 1979

Ordinarily, the shortest distance between two points is a straight line.  However, there is no such thing as a straight line when it comes to mountain travel.  With roads confined to the bottoms of meandering river valleys and selected mountain passes, you can really only hope to move in the general direction of your destination.

When the sun rose on Sunday morning, it was time to begin the journey home.  Pulling up the stakes and folding up the tent and tarps is often a bittersweet event.  This time it wasn’t so bad, because (a) the sun was shining and (b) it’s only July, so there’s still time to make another camping trip this year.  At least the sun was out and the temperature was mild; nothing sucks more than rolling up a tarp in the pouring rain.

There are two main routes that connect my home to Lake Louise.  One leads through Calgary and involves four hours of ultra-boring highways, the other takes a more circuitous path through the mountain scenery of the Icefields Parkway and David Thompson country.  I literally had all day, so I took the long way home.

The Icefields Parkway is one of the world’s most scenic highways.  Running roughly parallel to the Continental Divide, the Parkway connects the mountain towns of Lake Louise and Jasper.  It was originally built during the Great Depression as a federal employment program, and has been significantly upgraded since then.  The gravel switchbacks have been replaced by two lanes of nice pavement with plenty of turnouts at the major attractions.  Tourists come from all around the world to drive this parkway; Albertans are blessed with having it in our back yard.

This year, there was a record amount of snowpack in the Rockies.  Consequently, it seems like the bears have been spending more time than usual in the lower valleys, scrounging for food.  Grizzlies normally like to spend their summers close to the treeline (an elevation of about 2300 metres), but this year their favourite berries were buried in snow until very recently.  This grizzly was keeping an eye on me and other potential two-legged snacks from a sunny perch just above the Parkway earlier in July.

The Parkway was designed to bring tourists close to the glaciated peaks of the Rockies.  Not far north of Lake Louise, near Bow Summit, is the Crowfoot Glacier.  This glacier clings precariously to the northeast face of Crowfoot Mountain and, like virtually all Rocky Mountain glaciers, has been slowly receding for decades.

A little further north, visitors are treated to awe-inspiring views of Peyto Lake.  Each day in summer, hordes of people are bussed into the official Peyto Lake viewpoint, a few hundred metres from the Parkway.  While the views from the fenced-in platform are nice, be prepared to share your personal space with several dozen other people.  It’s a little bit like being squeezed through a cattle chute to catch a fleeting glimpse of the Sistine Chapel.  Fortunately, you can easily reach a much more secluded and spectacular viewpoint simply by making a 15-minute trek into the woods.  Once you emerge onto a rocky slope, you can peacefully enjoy the turquoise splendor of Petyo Lake.

I had just enough time to sneak in a short half-day hike on my way home.  A couple of years ago, I hiked to Chephren Lake and enjoyed the views.  This time, I took the left-hand branch of the trail from Waterfowl Lakes campground and set off for Cirque Lake.  The trail to Chephren Lake is notorious for being a little swampy, and with this being a wet season I wanted to avoid the mud.  The trail to Cirque Lake, meanwhile, is notorious for being pretty rough, and now I know why.

The first 2 kilometres start off easy enough, with a gradual climb through the hills west of Waterfowl Lakes.  It’s shortly after the tee junction between Chephren and Cirque Lake that things start to go downhill fast – both literally and figuratively.  After gaining 100 metres of elevation in the first half hour, you give most of it back in the next 30 minutes on the Cirque Lake trail.  Then things get even worse, as the trail is heavily ridden with exposed tree roots and stones.  And just when you’re starting to get a little disheartened, the trail turns steeply back uphill and, in places, degrades into little more than mud and silt.  Fortunately, the scenery along the Cirque Lake outfall creek is attractive, inspiring you to find their headwaters.

Finally, after about five kilometres of trudging over boulders and fording shallow streams, you arrive at the shoreline of Cirque Lake.  The first thing you notice is the way that Aries Peak dominates the skyline.  Once you catch your breath, you start to see the glaciers decorating the face of Aries.  While I sat on the lakeshore enjoying my lunch and a bottle of water, I was treated to the unmistakable ‘bloop-bloop-bloop’ of a school of trout having their lunch.  Which was pretty cool.

Once again, order and balance was restored in my universe.  It was time to go home, and the 5 km hike out of Cirque Lake wasn’t any more fun than the hike in.  But all things considered, it was an excellent hiking trip.  I even got to see another bear (a black bear this time) mosey across the highway near Nordegg.

I’m hoping to go back again soon – and I will definitely take the road less travelled to get there.  Taking the long way is just how the Craven Hermit rolls.

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