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.

Getting High on Mount St. Piran

Someday you will find me
Caught beneath the landslide
In a champagne supernova in the sky
Slowly walking down the hall
Faster than a cannonball
Where were you while we were getting high?

– Oasis, “Champagne Supernova”, 1995

My favourite rock star, no question, is Noel Gallagher.  For about three years in the mid-1990s, he walked around with great songs falling out of his ass.  Around the time that Oasis released (What’s the Story) Morning Glory, even the b-sides tossed off by Gallagher the Elder were often better than anything his Britpop contemporaries could muster.  The songs don’t come quite so easily to him today, but he still has his moments of brilliance.

What makes Noel such a cool cat isn’t just that he’s a great songwriter.  What makes him awesome is that he is completely willing to admit that his lyrics, like the one above, are complete fucking nonsense.  Like Paul McCartney’s “Hey Jude”, they’re nothing more than words that sound good together.  But it turns out that if you wrap skillet-seared nonsense inside a warm tortilla of infectious melodies you may just score a hit.

It doesn’t hurt that Noel Gallagher is one of the most sardonically hilarious people on the planet.  He once described his perpetually petulant and angry little brother Liam as “like a man with a fork in a world of soup”.  Some day I’ll dedicate an entire blog entry to some of Noel’s best quips but, in reality, they could fill a book.

Like most Oasis lyrics in the stark light of day, “Champagne Supernova” reads like the ramblings of a fairly unimaginative seventh-grader.  But once you hear the words in an uplifting musical context, your pleasure centres fill with visions of the plasticity of time and space, of release from the drudgery of daily life, of reaching for great heights.  Whatever gets you high is usually cool with me – I’m certainly no prude.  If what you do on your own time doesn’t irritate or endanger the people around you, then have at it.  I personally choose to get my kicks ‘n’ giggles by hiking in the mountains – although a good bottle of merlot and listening to thought-provoking records certainly round out the Top 3.

With a burst of warm September weather in the forecast, your faithful correspondent set off for Banff National Park to do a couple more hikes.  You never quite know what you’re going to get in Lake Louise in early fall – it could be sunny and warm, but a few hours later it could be overcast and snowing.  The locals know to be prepared for anything, and to get outside and frolic while the skies are clear.

After zooming down to the campground and setting up the tent, I set off once again for the Lake Louise parking lot.  I managed to be on trail by shortly after 1 pm, which left me enough daylight hours to do the Mount St. Piran hike and still not have to cook dinner in the dark.  The trail to Mount St. Piran is classified somewhere between a tough hike and an easy scramble.  Over about six kilometres of trail, you gain 900 metres of altitude between the Lake Louise shoreline (1750m) and the Mount St. Piran summit (2650m).  In this photo from the lakeshore, Mount St. Piran is the barren second peak from the right, between the treed summit of Little Beehive and the rocky spires of Mount Niblock.

The first hour of the trail is fairly uneventful, as you steadily climb the well-graded trail to Mirror Lake.  Since this trail doubles as the main access to the Lake Agnes teahouse and the Big and Little Beehives, it can be fairly crowded.  In September, it’s not too overrun by the ‘Adidas and tank-tops’ crowd, but it’s still not a trail that solitude seekers would enjoy.  The shore of pretty little Mirror Lake is a nice place to stop for a snack and drink of water – just keep a wary eye on the local whiskeyjacks or else they might swoop down and commandeer your nuts.

The trail continues up around the right (east) side of Mirror Lake, constantly gaining altitude en route to the Little Beehive.  About a kilometre past Mirror Lake, the Mount St. Piran trail splits off to the left into the woods.  Someone has inexplicably tried to scratch the trail name off the Parks Canada signpost, but the turn-off is still pretty obvious.  If you miss it and end up at the Little Beehive viewpoint, just backtrack around 300 metres and watch for the branch.

From the signpost, the trail climbs through groves of Engelmann spruce and subalpine fir.  About 500m later, you rise above the treeline and views open up in every direction.  Most of the trail to the summit is a series of well-graded switchbacks through subalpine meadows.  With every step, the views back to Lake Louise and up and down the Bow Valley improve.  It’s only when you reach the eastern false summit of Mount St. Piran, roughly an hour after leaving the Little Beehive trail, that this hike becomes a bit of a scramble.  A series of rock cairns guide the hiker across the rough boulder-strewn path to the summit, but anyone with basic route-finding skills should have no problem finding the way.

Once on top of Mount St. Piran, your effort is rewarded with a unique perspective on the Lake Louise area.  The glaciated face of Mount Victoria is mostly hidden behind Mount Whyte and the Devil’s Thumb.  However, you get to look across horizontally at virtually every other landmark.  The stark face of Mount Niblock stares back at you from the west, while Fairview Mountain and Mount Haddo to the south form a dramatic backdrop for turquoise Lake Louise.  Further to the west stand the glaciated slopes of Mount Lefroy and The Mitre.  Sneak over to the southwestern edge of the summit, and you can stare down at Lake Agnes and the Big Beehive several hundred metres below your feet.  Whichever way you look, the view is dramatic.

Some people choose to descend to the avalanche slope at the west end of Lake Agnes via the col between Mounts St. Piran and Niblock.  I had a look and saw a reasonable route down, but since it was late in the day I returned to Lake Louise by the conventional trail.   I didn’t particularly feel like being stranded in the dark above treeline if I made a wrong turn on the way down.  Perhaps on another day, when there’s a different champagne supernova in the sky, I’ll try the alternative route to the summit of Mount St. Piran

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.

Day 3 – King of the Mountain

Mountain in the shadow of light
Rain in the valley below
Well you can say you’re Peter, say you’re Paul
Don’t put me up on your bedroom wall
Call me King of the Mountain

“King of the Mountain” by Midnight Oil, 1990

Despite being a world-wide force in mainstream rock music from the mid-1980s to the mid-1990s, I only got to see Midnight Oil in concert once.  I saw them play second-last on a stacked bill for the inaugural Another Roadside Attraction festival in Winnipeg in the summer of 1993.  I don’t remember much about the show, other than lead singer Peter Garrett getting very pissed off when kids kept throwing shoes at the stage.  His stage banter was something akin to “Hey, your parents paid a lot of money for these shoes!  And some twelve year old in a factory in Guangzhou worked her fingers to the bone to make them.  So stop throwing shoes at us!”  Like a lot of humorous moments, it would have been blackly funny if it wasn’t so true.  On the same bill, I remember the Hothouse Flowers being surprisingly good, while headliners The Tragically Hip were pretty ‘meh’.

Years later, I had a chance to see the Oils on a tour in support of their Capricornia album.  I skipped the gig because it was at a terrible venue and none of my friends wanted to go with me.  The band went on indefinite hiatus shortly after, when Garrett’s political aspirations finally took him away from the band.  It turns out that was Midnight Oil’s last tour of Western Canada, and I regret my decision to this day.  You should always go see your favourite musicians when they play a gig in your hometown – even if the gig is at a glorified bowling alley on a weeknight.

On the third day of my grand hiking adventure, it was time to take things to the next level (literally and figuratively).  It was time to attempt a hike that would challenge my body and inner character.  On this day, I would scramble to the summit of Mount Fairview.

The day began quietly enough.  I awoke from my fitful slumbers at 7:00 am and whipped up a batch of pancakes & sausages on the trusty camp stove.  Then, loaded with carbohydrates and proteins and the best of intentions, I set off once again for the Lake Louise parking lot.

The Mount Fairview trail begins with a 90-minute hike from Lake Louise up to the Saddleback.  The grade is relatively steep but consistent, gaining 600 metres of altitude in the first 3.5 kilometres of trail.  While on trail, hikers are treated to occasional views across the forested floor of the Bow Valley.  The construction of the railway in the late 19th century united the lands that would eventually become the nation of Canada, and it brought the original tourists to the sulphurous hot springs of Banff National Park.  Even in 2012 you can still see evidence of the importance of the C.P.R. as a trade corridor, snaking its way along side the recently twinned Trans-Canada Highway.

If you drive the TCH from Banff to Lake Louise, you can easily spot the Saddleback on the west side of the highway.  It’s a high U-shaped pass between the true summit of Mount Fairview (2,744 metres) and one of Fairview’s appendages, the 2,437 metre Saddle Peak.  It makes a fine destination for a half-day, out & back hike from the lakeshore, with a grand view of the village of Lake Louise and its world-famous ski resort across the way.

Many day hikers use the Saddleback as an intermediate destination.  Descend the back side of the pass and you will find yourself face to face with the imposing black cliffs of Sheol Mountain.  The Sheol valley is a fine way to access the trails in Paradise Valley, and a group of ladies from Canmore that I met on the trail offered to let me tag along with them, but on this particular day I had my sights set a little higher.

After enjoying a light lunch while seated on a Saddleback stone, I took out my trekking poles and began the ascent of Fairview’s southeast face.  The trail quickly rises above the tree line, opening up views in most directions.  Calling this a ‘trail’ is a bit generous – in places it’s little more than a twisted mountain goat path scratched into the rock and shale.  You have to keep your wits about you to maintain your footing and to not get sidetracked.  It’s also difficult to stay focused when your heart is beating 140 times a minute, your legs are burning, and your lungs are complaining like a Grand Caravan full of kids on a twelve-hour road trip.  It pays to stop for 30 seconds here and there, take a look back at the inspiring snow-capped peak of 3,543 metre Mount Temple, and drink in the view while you sip from your water bottle.

It’s only 1.5 km from the Saddleback to the summit, but it’s 400 metres up as well, so the grade averages over 25%.  The switchbacks seem to go on forever.  At one point, my GPS told me that I had left the Saddleback just 45 minutes earlier, but lunch seemed like a distant memory.  But after rounding the umpteenth switchback, eventually you start to hear, then feel, the summit winds.  One last scramble over an outcropping of rocks and – voilà – you’re on the summit!

Step to the northern edge of the summit, and look down.  There lies Lake Louise in all its iridescent blue-green glory, a full vertical kilometre below your feet.

The panorama from Fairview summit is nothing short of spectacular.  On a clear day, you can see all the way to the mountains at Banff, plus you get an unobstructed view of Mount Temple and most of the summits around Moraine Lake and Lake Louise.  You can even see most of the way to the world-famous Columbia Icefields to the north.  The canoes on Lake Louise look like red ants scrambling around on a turquoise carpet.  On this particular day, with some inclement weather in the area, the view was more limited but just as satisfying.  I truly felt like the King of the Mountain.

I could have spent all afternoon on the summit, soaking in the scenery.  But in the Rocky Mountains, the weather can change with very little notice.  The barometric altimeter in my GPS was showing a sudden downward pressure trend, and sure enough some storm clouds started to slip over the Continental Divide behind Mount Victoria.  Not wanting to descend to the Saddleback in the pouring rain, I slipped on my backpack and got ready to leave.  I quickly but safely made my way back to the trailhead, just five kilometres but seemingly half a world away.

It’s hard to explain the exhilaration that comes from summiting a mountain in mere words.  Rest assured that it’s an intoxicating mixture of catharsis, physical exhaustion, and pure unadulterated joy.  Everything afterward is filtered through the rose-coloured glasses of accomplishment.  Back in Lake Louise townsite, I bought an aerial photograph of the Devil’s Thumb area (prominently featuring the peak that I had just conquered a few hours earlier) as I proudly recalled my feat to the store clerk.  I then slipped over to the liquor store to pick up some celebratory Granville Island pale ales.  Even a perfunctory stop at the local gas station for a couple of bags of ice and some peanut butter M&Ms seemed like the greatest thing ever, while my feet hovered six inches above the ground.  Back at the campground, I took a shower that surely rates within the Top 5 most satisfying showers of my life.  From there, it was back to site K3 for a nice thick grilled striploin steak, some wonderful side dishes, and a bottle of 2007 Mission Hill merlot that I had been saving for a special occasion.

And yet, somewhere in the darker recesses of my brain, I knew that the party wouldn’t last forever.  In the Craven Hermit’s pragmatic world, the highs are always balanced out by lows.  It’s a survival mechanism.  As I sat around the campfire that evening, nursing my sore feet while peeking through the treetops at the Fairview summit, my perspective shifted.  Every notable ‘king’ throughout history was only successful because he had a graceful and trustworthy ‘queen’ at his side.  An equal partner to share in the accomplishments of the day, whether they be summiting a mountain or just putting in an honest day’s work.  Someone to share a roaring campfire with, someone to hike with, someone to talk to or, better yet, someone to listen to.  Someone to fall asleep next to, someone to wake up next to.  Someone to meet him at the airport after a long journey, or someone to slump over and doze on while listening to records.  Someone with an endless list of inspired suggestions for what to do on a lazy Sunday afternoon.  Someone with that secret sparkle in her eyes, and a sense of mystery and imagination and intelligence in her choice of words.  Someone to share hopes and fears and desires.  Someone with vision and compassion and ambition and drive.  Someone to cheer you up with a small but thoughtful gesture in a moment of self-doubt.

I’ll pick some daisies from the flower bed
of the Galaxy Theatre while you clear your head
I thought some daisies might cheer you up

“Daisies of the Galaxy” by Eels, 2000

But none of those lovely qualities sat with me around the campfire that evening, only the muted ghosts and shadows and thoughts of what might have been.  Throughout this Hermit’s life, I have been fortunate to cross paths with a small handful of wonderful people that would have made absolutely brilliant co-conspirators, but for one reason or another they never ‘ascended to the throne’, as it were.  As much as I appreciate all that I have in this world, it seems like such a waste that I don’t have a regal consort to share in all life has to offer.  Like a song with a decent melody and catchy verses, but missing a beautiful chorus and a contrasting middle eight to really make it ‘click’.

And without a queen, even the King of the Mountain is just some doofus in a purple crushed-velvet jacket and a silly hat.

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.