Tuesday, May 22, 2007

Rocky Mountain, Eh?

Mountains inspire, overwhelm, and center me. A train ride through the Canadian Rockies has long been on my "do before die" list. So when Shriram had to go to Banff (in the Canadian Rockies) for a conference, no question I was going along. Everyone I know who's been to Banff raves about its beauty, so I went with high expectations.

And a dose of trepidation. Banff trip planning is respite with wildlife warnings: what to do if you encounter a bear, what to do if you're attacked by a bear, what to not do if you're attacked by a bear, etc. Given my healthy respect (read "fear") of wildlife, I paid attention. The pamphlet we got on entry to the park included the obligatory section on bear survival (from which I finally learned why one should spread their legs when playing dead for a bear) and suggested that encountering a cougar would be worse (albeit rare).

For all the buildup, the wildlife scene was a bit disappointing. We did spot some wapiti (elk) wandering in Banff town the first day. There were lots of squirrels and birds. But I never did need all those bear warnings, and I was frankly quite glad of it, but the needless stress was still anti-climactic. Until our last day, when a bunch of cars pulled over along the highway alerted us to a family of grizzly bears on the other side of a high fence. Given that there are only 16 female grizzlies in the entire park, turns out this was quite an unusual event! We later saw (at longer distance, also beyond a fence) a mother and three small black bear cubs. No cougar, but that's just as well for me (though a moose sighting would have been cool).

May turns out to be an interesting time to visit Banff. The bears are recently out of hibernation and out at lower elevations looking for food. The streams are full of snow-melt runoff. The highways are clear, but snow still covers the mountains and most hiking trails and many lakes are still frozen over. This made my selection of bootcut jeans and crew socks a bit inappropriate for hiking. Just how inappropriate became clear when we found ourselves periodically sinking knee-deep in iced-over snow enroute to a glacier at the Columbia icefields. We did make it close enough to see the edge of the glacier though before deciding that the remaining snow field between us and it had the potential to be deeper than either of us city-slickers knew how to read.

Another glacier-bound hike near Lake Louise yielded similar snow sinkings, complete with helping a Chinese tourist recover his right shoe, which had stayed behind (and gotten buried) when he extracted his own foot from the snow. That hike ended when we encountered a clearing where an avalanche had clearly passed through (computer scientists are used to trees growing down, but even I know that an evergreen's roots don't really grow up into the air like that) and once again decided to respect our lack of outdoors saavy. The debris of trees, limbs, and needles strewn covered the snow like pattern on fabric. The size of the print evoked the tremendous force that caused it, in eerie contrast to the stillness of the resulting scene.

Spring is avalanche season in Banff, and while we never saw one happen, we heard several on the other sides of the peaks. It really is a crushing sound: snow bearing down on itself with a crunch equal in melody but richer in tone to our boots on the trails. I don't know that I ever really associated a sound with weight before that. If nature speaks to you though, spend some time sitting lakeside around spring mountains and listen to the avalanches through the stillness. Mountains always make me feel small, but that sound made me feel truly irrelevant.

Avalances feel powerful for the things that they bring down, but that process feels somewhat obvious in light of gravity. The idea of mountains arising from plates crushing together and jabbing towards the sky should feel more powerful, but I don't think I really got that until we stared at the Burgess Shale site in neighboring Yoho national park. The Burgess Shale is a large deposit of middle-Cambrian fossils that formed in the mud of the _ocean_ floor. It sits high up on a peak in the park, accessible only by guided hike in late summer. Staring up, realizing that the fossils up there once sank to sufficient depth to become fossils before rising up, there's a tremendous sense of the passage of time and history. It reminds me of how I felt standing on the Cardo (old Byzantine Road) in Jerusalem some years ago, looking down through a clear plate to unearthed ruins below then up at the ruins from a recently destroyed temple above. In those moments, feeling existence within geological time (or human history) is overpowering and intently, beautifully real.

Overall, as a personal experience, it was a tremendous trip. My feelings for mountains and trepidations for wildlife were reaffirmed, and I got duly put in place by geological grandeur. As a trip to the mountains, I'd be more inclined to return to the Lauterbrunen valley in Switzerland, where the mountains are much closer together and thus more enveloping. The train ride in the Canadian Rockies is lower on the life list now, but someday I would like to do the hike to the Burgess Shale. Luckily, I could get up there much faster than the the fossils, but they may have had the more interesting journey.

For vegetarians: many restaurants in Banff and Lake Louise have something basic on offer (like a veggie patty option or pasta dish). For interesting veggie food in Banff, check out Coyote deli and grill on Caribou St (couple of dishes, southwestern theme), Typhoon on Caribou St (ecletic asian), Nourish on Banff Ave (all veg), or Balkan on Banff Ave (greek). Wild Flour bakery on Bear St had good granola and breakfast goods. We really enjoyed Sunfood Cafe in Canmore (about 20k from Banff town, just outside the park gates), an all veg place with a swiss-inspired menu and a killer homemade veggie burger and french onion soup.

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