Over The Hills And Far Away

Led Zeppelin spent a substantial amount of 1970 on the road, playing gig after gig after gig.  Their debut album did well enough in the charts to earn them attention, but it was the singles from Led Zeppelin II and the subsequent promotional tour that really broke America wide open for the band.  Understandably frazzled after a frantic year on the road, Robert Plant and Jimmy Page retreated to the cozy confines of Bron-Yr-Aur cottage to deprogram and write some new songs.  Some of what they wrote ended up on the folk-infused Led Zeppelin III; other songs, like “Over the Hills and Far Away” emerged later on Houses of the Holy and Physical Graffiti.

Bron-Yr-Aur is in the Snowdonia region of north Wales.  While the mountain peaks of Snowdonia don’t reach the dizzy heights of the Rocky Mountains, it is still a beautiful region.  Photos of this stunning little corner of Welsh countryside are a little bit reminiscent of the sub-alpine wildflower meadows in Banff National Park.  I’d love to visit there some day.  In the meantime, I’ll be content to hike over hills to far-away destinations a little closer to home.

The trail to Helen Lake winds through forests and high-country meadows and is known as one of the best day hikes between Lake Louise and Saskatchewan River Crossing.  The trailhead is right across the Icefields Parkway from the popular Crowfoot Glacier viewpoint.  Even though Helen Lake is situated to the north-east of the trailhead, the first 3 km of trail climbs steadily to the south through forests.  Don’t worry if you find yourself asking “when am I going to start walking over TOWARD my destination?”.  The trail eventually wraps around to the north and traverses an alpine meadow high up above Helen Creek.  The reason why the trail takes the indirect route to Helen Lake will become obvious by about Kilometre 4 or 5.

Thankfully, the scenery on the long loop is outstanding.  After no more than half an hour on trail, views open up to the west.  Once above the treetops, the ridge offers an inspiring perspective on Crowfoot Glacier and Bow Lake.

A few hundred metres further down the trail, you cross through a white-bark pine grove where a prescribed burn was made in the late 1990s.  In a little over a decade, a new generation of pine trees and other vegetation has started to emerge in the sunny meadows amidst the scorched snags.  Fire is a destructive natural process that used to be suppressed by park officials but, paradoxically, ensures the continued health of the forest by periodically hitting the ‘reset’ button.

Once you round the corner to the north, the grade flattens out a bit for the next 3 km.  Look to your left and you’ll see why the original trail breakers looped so far to the south – the steep back side of the ridge that now separates you from the Icefields Parkway is littered with moraines and avalanche slopes.  There is a creek crossing to make at Kilometre 5, but it looks like you should be able to jump from stone to stone and stay dry through most of the summer.  Finally, at the 6k mark and after a climb of around 500 vertical metres from the trailhead, you crest a hill and find yourself on the shores of pretty Helen Lake.

There are several good picnic areas along the south shore of the lake, but expect company.  Not only is the Helen Lake trail popular with day hikers, but a colony of hoary marmots also calls the area home.

Not ready to turn around just yet, I ascended the rocky pass east of Helen Lake and explored the ridge.  The 360-degree views from the ridge are fantastic.  Beneath you to the west is the glacier-carved Helen Creek valley, and the distinctive Matterhorn-like summit of Mount Assiniboine is visible far to the south.  Turn around to the east and you’ll have a breathtaking view of Lake Katherine at the foot of imposing 2,782m Dolomite Peak.

The trail from the ridge down to Lake Katherine is not particularly well-marked.  I followed a series of cairns down what looked like an old equestrian route, but there are probably several unofficial ways to get there.  The reward for temporarily giving back 125m of hard-earned elevation is a carefree walk along the secluded beach of Lake Katherine.  On this particular day, I had the beach all to myself (and wished I’d had the foresight to stash a beer in my backpack).

The trail continues past the lake to Dolomite Pass.  I will admit to being a little underwhelmed by Dolomite Pass – it’s really just a starkly-vegetated low saddle of land that climbs perhaps 30 metres above lake level.  That said, it was neat to see an unexpected glacier lurking in the shadows on the northeastern face of Dolomite Peak.

The route back up the ridge to Helen Lake is a little tedious, but I was entertained by the antics of the local marmots.  I saw three of the critters, wandering from den to den feasting on whatever succulent plants they could find.  The summer season is very short at this elevation (around 2400m above sea level).  Marmots don’t have a lot of time to fatten up before retreating underground to sleep off the snowbound eight-month winter.  Perhaps that’s why they aren’t particularly skittish around humans – they’re just too occupied with cramming in calories to notice any biped interlopers.

Retracing your steps from Dolomite Pass back to the trailhead, plus some time spent exploring the ridge, makes it a 20 km hike with around 700m of total elevation gain.  On my way back, I noticed that a few hardy souls had scrambled up above Helen Lake to 2,993m Cirque Peak.  I will put that on my list of possibilities for next summer.

Most of the hike back to the car was quiet and uneventful, but just before I reached the fire zone something extraordinary happened.  A silvery-beige animal about the size of a dog sprinted across the trail perhaps 40 metres in front of me.  But this was no poochie.  It took a couple of seconds for it to register, but the tufted ear tips and feline gait were a dead giveaway.  I had just seen my first lynx!  Almost twenty years of mountain hikes, and I finally had my first encounter with this beautiful, secretive creature in its natural habitat.

There was no time to dig out my camera – and I was too fascinated to do anything but watch it disappear into the woods.  In this modern world of digital cameras and PVRs, it’s disappointing that we can’t pause & rewind the images in our brain and screen-grab cool photos that way.  Nevertheless, my memories will never forget my close encounter with that mountain kitty-kat.


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