Saturday, January 31, 2009

Banff and Calgary - Day 3 (Part 2)

After a short while of walking down the trail, we came across a sign. One of the arrows pointed in the direction we came from with the words "Taillhead: 2.0km." Another arrow pointed in the direction we are heading with the words "Plain of Six Glaciers Tea House: 3.6km." Seeing that we were nearly halfway to the teahouse, we decided to visit it since we didn't really have any other plans. We though a nice walk through the woods and sitting for a steaming cup of hot chocolate would be a great idea.

At first, the terrain was very pretty and calm, winding through the woods with a view of cliffs and glaciers ahead. Everything was covered in a carpet of pristine white fluffy snow. Below the trail was a small valley where a small icy stream was flowing toward the lake. Everything about it seemed to match the description of the stereotypical winter wonderland. It was very beautiful, calming, and inviting.

As we continued, the trail started to get steeper and steeper. At the same time, the snow was also getting deeper. As we hiked under the large, lenticular clouds enshrouding the mountaintops, large snowflakes started wafting lazily around us. We started hitting steep switchbacks in the trails, and the trees around us started shrinking in size and became more sparse. When we finally reach an area that is knee deep in snow where the trail seems to have devolved into nothing more than a few sets of footprints in the deep snow, we realize that we were getting more than we had bargained for. We kept pushing forward, intent on finding the teahouse.

The view at this point invokes the feeling of a harsh winter landscape of a frozen world in a video game or movie. Ahead, one can see the towering cliffs disappearing and reappearing under a shroud of clouds and the icy wall of the Upper Victoria Glacier pushing toward the edge of the rocky cliffs where it falls to becomes the Lower Victoria Glacier. The quality of the ice makes the glacier look smooth and blue, in contrast to the white, soft looking snow all around it. To the left, there is a grand view of a series of sharp pointed peaks and a field of snow and rock. Below lies a large surprisingly symmetric half-pipe shaped valley carved by previous glaciers. The trees scattered around the valley look tiny compared to the vast expanse of white snow and black rock. Looking back, one can see the valley descend down to the lake, where the valley walls are flanked by two dark, dense forests which become thinner the higher up you go in the valley, yielding to bushes and other small plants, which in the wintertime become clusters of twigs poking out of the deep snow. The most interesting feature in the area, however, is the view to the right. There, jutting up from the trail is a series of tiered rocky cliffs covered with giant icicles many times the height of a person.

The deeper we push into this exotic looking winter world, the more we start to doubt that the teahouse actually exists. At one point, we pass an Indian couple heading back to the lake. The woman is obviously not enjoying any part of the trek. They tell us that they were also looking for the teahouse, but that they were not able to find it. We think about heading back, but according to the signs, we are within one kilometre of the teahouse. As we were contemplating the situation, another couple passed us and told us that the teahouse is not far away, but is closed for the season. In addition it's still a steep climb to get to it. However, they told us that there was a hot chocolate machine. Seeing that we were so close, we decided to push on.

After another series of switchbacks, we emerged onto a flat area with trees and a good view of the Upper Victoria Glacier. Following the trail into a grove of trees, we spot the teahouse. The teahouse is a two storied wood cabin that is very well maintained. There are smaller cabins and sheds surrounding it on the forested slopes. As we got close, we found that the cabin was boarded up for the season, and didn't see any hot chocolate machines. Making the best of our situation, we climbed the external stairs onto the wood landing of the second floor. There, we rested on the benches and the floor, drank some ice cold water that has started to freeze in our water bottles, and shared some trail mix and a large cookies from this morning's breakfast.

When we had our fill of the view, we decided to head back the way we came even though there was another way back that would bring us through another lake. As the other route was longer and it was going to get dark soon, we decided to head back on the fastest route possible. At one point, somehow Kim and I became separated from Smitty and Darryl. We ended up struggling and roughhousing through knee deep snow where there were hardly any other tracks. Smitty and Darryl ended up crossing a ridge on the icicle covered cliff, where there was a chain for them to hold onto in case they slipped. After our separate adventures, we were united and hiked quickly back to the lake.

When we got back to the car, the sun had already set and were were completely soaked. The bottoms of our pants were also frozen solid. Making a quick stop at a convenience store in the small village area of Lake Louise, we got water and hot chocolate, a perfect end to a long and frosty adventure through a frozen world. We drove down the Bow Valley Parkway for half of the trip back as we took a wrong turn trying to get onto the Trans-Canada Highway. The road was narrow and snowy, but it was very beautiful as we were travelling through the forests at the base of the tall cliffs soaring above. When it became dark outside, we took the first opportunity to switch to an actual highway, and drove back to the hostel without incidence.

When we arrived back at the hostel, we took a nice warm shower, got a change of clothes, and met up for a hot dinner, through which Darryl was entertaining himself by snorting black pepper. After dinner, we had some rye and cokes and played cards by the fireplace with some Aussie girls and some new people I met in my room from Germany. When it was late enough, we headed over to the hostel bar.

Before entering the bar, I had to settle one thing. The night before, I received an e-mail from the Couchsurfer who had previously said that he should be able to host told me. He told me that his house mates were all sick so couldn't host me anymore. As the hostels in Calgary were all full by then, I posted an emergency couch request on the Calgary board, hoping to find a place to stay. Luckily, that night, I received some replies to my post. I was told to drop by a Couchsurfing PJ sleepover party where I can stay the night or find Couchsurfers who were willing to take me in.

Having that settled, we headed to the bar. Kim and the Kiwis decided to leave on the same bus as the one I was going to take the next day. Seeing that it would be our last day in Banff, we drank a lot and partied hard. It was karaoke night at the hostel bar, and of course we got on stage and sang, or I should say, yelled at the top of our lungs. We sabotaged the karaoke screen for the resident Briton, danced on top of pool tables, made a new pile of broken straws, and took turns buying each other rye and cokes. I met the two from Québec who took our photo at Lake Louise. As I was drunk, I was telling them emotionally how I loved Québec and wanted them to stay in Canada. I probably made a fool of myself, but the two I was talking to seemed to agree with me. Before the night was out, one of the Québecoise offered me a cigarette and hash.

As the night went on, it became very warm in the bar so I ended up spending a good time outside behind the bar where I can see the stars clearly. It was also quieter there, and I had a few good talks back there, including one with Mark about the Haka. He told me stories of how everyone he met had asked him to do the Haka when they found out he was from New Zealand. He also told me that he was the lead Haka dancer for his military group which means that he has to perform the Haka for every foreign official that visits his unit, and he was very annoyed at that. However, as he was drunk that night, we managed to convinced him to jump on the stage and do the Haka for everyone to celebrate the end of his long stay in Canada when the bar was closing.

Afterwards, as we were wrestling around some sofas in the lobby, we were told to "F--- Off Outside!!!," which led us to joining a large group of people from the bar standing outside after being kicked out as the bar closed. They decided to stay around and order pizza and poutine, but seeing that it was already very, very late, I decided to head to bed as we had to catch a bus tomorrow just after noon. Knowing that we would part ways tomorrow after a bus ride, I went around to say goodnight and goodbye. Kim and Smitty were nowhere to be found as they have developed quite an intense liking toward each other. I gave a quick goodbye hug to Darryl and had a hug with Mark which was just slightly too long for comfort. Walking back in the cold, I set my alarm and mentally prepared myself for another possible hangover tomorrow morning.

Sunday, January 11, 2009

Banff and Calgary - Day 3

I woke up just after 10am to an upset stomach, which I evacuated in the washroom. I didn't quite remember what time we were supposed to meet, so I just assumed it was 10:30. As I was going back to lie down for a few more minutes after brushing my teeth as part of my wakeup routine, there was a knock on the door. As I opened the door, I was greeted by the beaming faces of Kim, Cameron (who everyone called Smitty), and Darryl, all dressed and ready to go. I was shocked! How was it possible that they got up on time? I got dressed quickly and put together a day pack, and was out the door by 10:30. They seemed just as surprised as I was that we were all here. Well, that is everyone except Mark, the other Kiwi, who apparently just pulled his sheets over his head and said "Oh, f*** Lake Louise..." and then refused to come out from under from his sheets when they tried to wake him.

After walking to town and asking around at three car rental places, we found a car from Budget for $120. This was much more than we expected, but we decided it was worth it. When the girl at the counter asked us which one of us is driving, Darryl amusingly said "Oh, we're from New Zealand," with a grin on his face, to which the girl glared back and and replied in a disgusted voice "What's that supposed to mean?" It turns out that she was from New Zealand as well, and somehow they didn't pick up on her accent. In fact, it feels like half of the people working in Banff are either Aussies or Kiwis. These kinds of amusingly dry, awkward situations seem to happen quite a lot around people from New Zealand!

With that, we started our drive toward Lake Louise. The scenery along the Trans-Canada Highway was beautiful. The highway followed the bottom of a lush jade green valley, covered under a dusting of snow. Beside the highway ran a perfectly clear aquamarine brook glistening in the sunlight flowing over smooth eroded rocks. The snow and crystal clear ice covering parts of the brook squeezed the water in interesting ways, and imbued the stream with a crisp and tranquil quality. Framing all of this, on both sides, where the tall, dramatic snow covered peaks of the Canadian Rockies rising up to form steep rocky cliff faces as if they were there to carefully contain all of the beauty and prevent it from spilling out. I also noted the carefully constructed and fenced overhead wildlife passes filled with grasses and trees to help the animals of the forest cross the highway safely. If I were an animal, this is where I would choose to live.

After a while, we turned onto a smaller road, winding around hills and brining us closer to the mountains. At the end of the road, we reached a parking lot beside Chateau Lake Louise. Although much more modern and less ornate than the Banff Springs Hotel, it was still very imposing. It stood alone at the end of Lake Louise in the middle of a forest like a warrior refusing to give up its ground long after its comrades had retreated. We walked around, took some photos, and had two guys from Québec take a photo of us together. I also observed some distinctive birds around. They looked very pudgy and were not afraid of people, and willingly landed in the palms of hotel guests lounging around and feeding the birds.

The view across the lake was very inspiring. The mountains around the lake formed a V-shaped valley on the other side, with glaciers high above a cliff, intermittently hidden by low lying clouds drifting across the peaks. The pine trees growing on the valley climbing up the hills formed dense areas of seemingly impenetrable forest on the shallower slopes, while other areas too rocky for any plant life was left barren, filled with snow and rocks. The lake itself was a pristine, glistening sliver of white, as the lake had frozen over and had accumulated a layer of snow.

Although there were "Danger! Thin Ice" signs all around, we decided to venture on to the ice to slide around for a while as we saw people working on the ice, spraying water on the areas close to shore to prepare a skating rink for hotel guests. Darryl commented that this must be one of the worst jobs you can get, as you have to stay out in the cold all day, and when others ask what you do, your response would be "Uhh... I get to water the lake." At first, we were very cautious on the ice, but eventually realize that the ice was pretty thick, and saw others walking and skating farther away from shore. From here, we began a long walk across the lake toward the other side, taking us right up the middle of the lake.

We walked for a long time. I must have not been used to seeing empty expanses this size as I felt like we were walking toward the other side but we weren't getting any closer. On the way, I noticed some very interesting patterns in the snow covering the frozen lake. It turns out that as the ice shifts, cracks form across the surface. Water seeps through these cracks, melting the snow cover on the ice before re-freezing. This leaves large ribbons across the lake, and you can tell how recently the crack was formed by the width and colour of the ribbon. Around the crack, there are ice crystals of various shapes and sizes depending on the weather conditions during which the crack formed. Although I know it was probably safe, it was still quite unsettling to be walking over cracks in the ice that ooze water under the pressure of your weight. As we got close to the other side of the lake, I noticed the ice was getting thinner due to the water from the stream emanating from the melting glaciers. We walked to shore and followed a trail along the edge of the lake to the shore opposite to Chateau Lake Louise. As we walked, we went off the trail once in a while to explore the surroundings, climbing up steep snowy hills to explore icicles and other sights.